The early church fathers on baptism

20th century icon of the fathers of the 
first ecumenical council in Nicaea (325 CE).
(courtesy: Orthodox Church in America)

The following quotes (snippets really) on baptism from the early church fathers are taken from the web site The Church Fathers. I quote them here as part of my research of baptism. My knowledge of the early church fathers falls somewhere between little and none. My fundamentalist training considered them not apostolic enough, and therefore too Catholic, so I never studied them. I am beginning to realize that is a mistake which I am trying to correct. These quotes are also out of context. Therefore they could use more exegesis than I can give here. However, I will use them to spark my thoughts and get a sense of what the early church thought about baptism. I also assume the church fathers have in mind traditional water baptism. After each quote I have included my thoughts, which are mostly questions. I welcome your notes/questions and insights as well. I am sure there is a lot more the early church fathers have to say on baptism.

The Letter of Barnabas
“Regarding [baptism], we have the evidence of Scripture that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead [Ps. 1:3–6]. Observe there how he describes both the water and the cross in the same figure. His meaning is, ‘Blessed are those who go down into the water with their hopes set on the cross.’ Here he is saying that after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” (Letter of Barnabas 11:1–10 [A.D. 74]).

My notes: The interpretation of Psalm 1:3-6 seems to me a stretch, if not outright goofy (though I am willing to be wrong, especially if the author is actually a witness of Christ). The cross, as a method of torture and death was used by the Romans, and maybe used earlier, but probably not as early as King David. To see every tree in the OT as a reference to the cross of Christ goes too far. Regardless, though the idea of a suffering messiah was not unknown in ancient Israel, it is not likely the psalmist had a suffering messiah in view here. And it is even less likely that these verses are evidence that Israel would “refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins.” It seems more proper to see these lines contrasting the righteous, or good Jew against the wicked Jew. Apart from the Psalm citation, the statement, “after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” makes some sense, but can also be interpreted different ways. Does baptism confer these things to the believer, or is it symbolic of an interior reality already present? Does baptism actually confer the remission of sins? What are the fruits? I would count the author of this letter, whoever he is, as a fellow believer, but I would probably disagree with his method of prooftexting, and question his understanding of baptism. I also wonder, am I seeing his words through my own reformed prism?

“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).

My notes: We know the baptism of John was for repentance. Was the baptism of Jesus for the remission of sins? Or was it for entering the community of believers in a similar way circumcision was an act required to be a member of the nation of Israel? Do we obtain the remission of sins via baptism? Is baptism and repentance essentially the same thing? It appears, at least, that in A.D. 80 it was common to see baptism and repentance as being linked, and probably inseparable. Is this how Jesus understood baptism? If baptism does remove sins, is it only for former sins? Does one get baptized in order to get a “clean slate” and start over? Can one repent and not be baptized and still be saved? Can one ignore baptism and still be saved? Can one consciously refuse baptism and still be saved? 

Ignatius of Antioch
“Let none of you turn deserter. Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply” (Letter to Polycarp 6 [A.D. 110]).

My notes: I imagine Ignatius is equating baptism with faith, which makes some sense. Still, I wonder how baptism can be all though things. If we see baptism as being a kind of key that allows one to enter into the community of faith, and that community is the support for one’s ow faith, then I can see the connection, somewhat. But can baptism be one’s faith, helmet, love… etc.? If one repents and is baptized can one turn deserter? What power, then, has baptism? Does it have any, at least in conferring something spiritual and lasting to the individual? Or is it a sign of repentance and fidelity to the truth of the gospel, but can still be either a false sign altogether, or merely a sign attributed to a sinner who, because he is a sinner, will betray that sign, even against his own will?

Second Clement
“For, if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; but if otherwise, then nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we should disobey his commandments. . . . [W]ith what confidence shall we, if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled, enter into the kingdom of God? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we be found having holy and righteous works?’ (Second Clement 6:7–9 [A.D. 150]).

My notes: If we understand baptism as one of Jesus’ commandments then to not get baptized is to not do the will of Christ. It would seem that we have two choices, baptism or righteous works. Since we cannot have righteous works then we need an advocate, who is Christ. Therefore we must obey Christ’s commandments and receive baptism. That makes sense to me, as long as our understanding of baptism is correct, and if Jesus commanded us to be baptized, which he did, but which might be understood in differing ways. What does it mean to keep our baptism pure and undefiled? If baptism removes all former sins, does this mean that one must not sin anymore after baptism? Will Christ only be an advocate to those who have been baptized and kept that baptism pure and undefiled? I like: “For, if we do the will of Christ, we shall fine rest.” However, does this mean baptism confers rest?

Justin Martyr
“Whoever are convinced and believe that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: ‘In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,’ they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’” (First Apology 61:14–17 [A.D. 151]).

My notes: This passage seems rather straight forward and biblical. I am not sure what I think about the beseeching “God in fasting for the remission of their former sins.” This process is a bit more than what a modern American evangelical would require, more than merely saying a little prayer and getting a hug from your camp counselor. On the other hand we are a culture that places no value on suffering. Note that it is not merely the individual convert who fasts, but the church fasts with him. I find that compelling, and telling in terms of the communal nature of faith. If the church fasts with you then it seems appropriate that baptism would also be required, for it is a kind of initiation rite. However, does fasting or baptism or any other action adequately take care of former sins? If so, how?

Theophilus of Antioch
“Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration—all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God” (To Autolycus 2:16 [A.D. 181]).

My notes: Theophilus is in the middle of writing about the creation of the world. He is in day 5 of creation and describes creatures coming from the sea. Thus “those things” refer to living creatures proceeding from the waters. I do not see how this can be a sign of future repentance and remission of sins via baptism. Is there any other biblical evidence that makes this link? Also, what is the nature of this blessing from God?

Clement of Alexandria
“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we become immortal . . . ‘and sons of the Most High’ [Ps. 82:6]. This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:26:1 [A.D. 191]).

My notes: I find a lot of terms in this quote that need clarification. What does “enlightened” mean in this context? Is it that one’s eyes are now open to the truth? Does baptism effect such enlightenment, or is baptism done because of enlightenment? I cannot tell if Clement has a sequence in mind here or if he is just mashing together a bunch of elements that all come together at the time of conversion. I like that he says our sins are remitted by a “gift of grace.” We do the baptizing, but it is still ultimately a gift of grace by which we are saved.

“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and.asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).

“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” (ibid., 7:2).

My notes: Apparently there were Gnostics who preached against baptism, or at least downplayed its importance. This is the first quote here that calls baptism a sacrament. I’m not sure if that is meaningful. The imagery of snakes and fishes is interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s a good argument. Tertullian says baptism is a physical (corporal) act, but its effect is spiritual. Is that a causal relationship? Does the act of baptism truly produce a spiritual effect? Does baptism truly free us from our sin? Or is this an expression (human language) of a bigger picture in which baptism is a visible sign that stands for the work of the Holy Spirit and the heart of belief?

“And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them [the newly baptized], invoking and saying: ‘O Lord God, who did count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace [in confirmation], that they may serve you according to your will” (The Apostolic Tradition 22:1 [A.D. 215]).

My notes: This quote appears to be instructions for baptism. If I understand the sequence: a) individuals get baptized, b) their sins are therefore forgiven, c) they are now worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, d) which is conferred upon the individuals by the laying on of hands by the bishop. Is this not a mix of biblical teaching and non-biblical (or extra-biblical) traditions?

Cyprian of Carthage
“While I was lying in darkness . . . I thought it indeed difficult and hard to believe . . . that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. . . . But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man” (To Donatus 3–4 [A.D. 246]).

My notes: Cyprian seems to overstep both the power of baptism (if any) and the nature of salvation. When he says, “…anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water…” he implies that baptism itself does the saving. He goes on to imply that the individual can change himself in soul and mind by getting baptized. Repentance may be implied in these words, but it is not explicit. Then he says, “… a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart…” implying (or rather directly stating) that his heart is now pure. If he is speaking only in heavenly terms, in terms of some kind of economy of grace, then this might make sense logically (though it still might be wrong), but he seems to say, rather, that his heart is actually pure, free of sin. I believe this is an unbiblical position.

Aphraahat the Persian Sage
“From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him. The Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of rebirth, and then they receive the Holy Spirit. . . . [I]n the second birth, that through baptism, they receive the Holy Spirit” (Treatises 6:14:4 [A.D. 340]).

My notes: What interests me here is the idea of the priest invoking the Spirit. Is this possible? Is this biblical? It sounds more like magic. Also, it is clear in the passage that one does not (cannot?) receive the Spirit until after (or through) baptism.

Cyril of Jerusalem
“If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive baptism, for the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism [Mark 10:38]. . . . Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness” (Catechetical Lectures 3:10, 12 [A.D. 350]).

My notes: It is clear that Cyril sees baptism is an essential requirement for salvation. Does scripture make such a strict demand? Is one made alive in righteousness through baptism? If so, how does that align with our experience of continuing to sin after baptism?

Basil the Great
“For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption” (Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects 13:5 [A.D. 379]).

My notes: Here we have another list, as with Ignatius of Antioch, that equates baptism with a number of things: a chariot to heaven, and royal protector… etc. Is baptism all these things? If so, are we to understand baptism here as being the symbol of the who package of salvation and all that it delivers? Or are these strictly qualities of baptism?

Council of Constantinople I
“We believe . . . in one baptism for the remission of sins” (Nicene Creed [A.D. 381]).

My notes: This seems rather straightforward and I don’t have any questions. However, I do need to study the creeds.

Ambrose of Milan
“The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins” (Commentary on Luke 2:83 [A.D. 389]).

My notes: The idea of Christ cleansing the waters reminds me of Luther’s idea that “Christ puts salvation into baptism.” If Luther is right then I would say Ambrose is right.

“It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412]).

“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (ibid., 2:27:43).

“Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted” (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420]).

“This is the meaning of the great sacrament of baptism, which is celebrated among us: all who attain to this grace die thereby to sin—as he himself [Jesus] is said to have died to sin because he died in the flesh (that is, ‘in the likeness of sin’)—and they are thereby alive by being reborn in the baptismal font, just as he rose again from the sepulcher. This is the case no matter what the age of the body. For whether it be a newborn infant or a decrepit old man—since no one should be barred from baptism—just so, there is no one who does not die to sin in baptism. Infants die to original sin only; adults, to all those sins which they have added, through their evil living, to the burden they brought with them at birth” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 13[41] [A.D. 421]).

My notes: I am not ready to tackle Augustine. He deserves much more attention from me. Nonetheless, I am not sure I understand the idea of an infant dying to original sin. Does that baptized infant then require adult baptism later for evil living? If adult baptism takes care of the sins of evil living up to that point, does repeated baptism take care of repeated evil living? I would doubt Augustine would say so. I still have much to sort out regarding infant baptism, for I was trained in the “believer’s baptism” perspective and that’s the one that makes sense to me.

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