Thursday, January 26, 2023

Baptism And Justification In Polycarp

It's often claimed that belief in justification through baptism was universal among the church fathers, that everybody between the time of the apostles and the Reformation held that view, or something similar. I've periodically responded to that claim over the years, such as here, and I added some other posts on the subject last year. I want to add a few more this year before collecting links to some of these posts in one place for future reference.

Polycarp's Letter To The Philippians occasionally discusses soteriological issues, but not in a lot of depth. For example:

"'In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;' into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that 'by grace ye are saved, not of works,' but by the will of God through Jesus Christ….If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, 'we shall also reign together with Him,' provided only we believe." (1, 5)

The focus is on faith, but he requires works in some sense as well, probably in the sense of works being the fruit of justifying faith. Just before what I quoted in section 1 of the letter, Polycarp refers to how "the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ". He had noted that justification is "not of works". He connects that comment in section 1 of the letter to 1 Peter 1:8, which refers to believing in Jesus. In that passage, Peter is addressing the present faith of people who are already Christians, so he doesn't have some sort of combination of faith and baptism in view. Polycarp refers, in section 1, to how people want to "enter" the joy referred to in 1 Peter 1:8, so his references to faith and the exclusion of works probably are focused on the beginning of the Christian life at that point. Near the end of Polycarp's letter, he refers again to those who "shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ" (12). There's no reference to being justified through baptism, being justified in the context of baptism, or anything like that anywhere in the letter. The most natural reading of the references to faith is that they're meant in an unqualified sense, not in the qualified sense of faith accompanied by baptism, faith at the time of baptism, or some such thing.

The letter isn't long, and there isn't much relevant material in it. But what's there leans against baptismal justification rather than in favor of it.

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