Thursday, February 02, 2023

The Early Development Of Baptismal Beliefs And Practices

Advocates of baptismal justification and some other views of baptism (e.g., infant baptism) often speak of their views as if they were universally agreed upon in earlier centuries. Some of the groups involved even claim that they belong to an institution that's always held all apostolic teaching in unbroken succession throughout church history, that the institution is infallible, that all or a large percentage of the church fathers were part of their institution, and so forth. So, it's significant accordingly if we see early baptismal theology being more developmental and varied than claims like the ones I just mentioned would suggest. And for those who think there was an early departure from apostolic teaching on one or more baptismal issues, evidence of development and variation in early views of baptism can provide significant evidence for their position accordingly.

In a post last year, I provided some examples of the variety of views of baptism that existed in Tertullian's day, as reflected in his beliefs and practices and those of the people he was responding to in his treatise On Baptism. And that post doesn't address every example that could have been cited. For a discussion of ancient Christian soteriological views in general, including more examples of differing views of the relationship between baptism and justification, see my post here. For example, sections 17-27 in book 21 of Augustine's The City Of God discusses a wide variety of views of justification that existed in his day. In another context, Augustine mentions that some people were using the thief on the cross to argue for a different view of baptism than Augustine's:

"Accordingly, the thief, who was no follower of the Lord previous to the cross, but His confessor upon the cross, from whose case a presumption is sometimes taken, or attempted, against the sacrament of baptism, is reckoned by St. Cyprian among the martyrs who are baptized in their own blood, as happens to many unbaptized persons in times of hot persecution." (On The Soul And Its Origin, 1:11)

In principle, somebody could take any of several potential views of how baptism and justification relate. Maybe justification occurs entirely before baptism. Or entirely during it. Or entirely after it. Or both before it and during it. Or both during it and after it. Or before, during, and after it. Or only after it. And we don't just see one of those potential views in the early centuries of Christianity. Rather, we see a lot of variations. Go here for a discussion of some examples. It should be kept in mind that though a view in which justification starts before baptism and is continued or completed through baptism would contradict the view that we're entirely justified prior to baptism, such a view would also contradict other alternatives, such as the belief that we're initially justified at the time of baptism. A view that justification starts prior to baptism and is continued or completed through baptism offers partial corroboration of the view that we're justified entirely before baptism. Partial corroboration isn't as good as full agreement, but it's better than no agreement.

One of the major problems for any view involving baptismal justification is the discontinuity it creates between how people were justified during different periods of history. See my post on Tertullian last year for a discussion of the subject. Tertullian referred to people in his day who (rightly) thought that there's been a higher rather than lower degree of continuity throughout history, that Abraham was justified through faith alone, apart from baptism, and that we are as well. Tertullian disagreed and proposed, instead, that baptism became a requirement after Jesus' resurrection. He acknowledged that people were justified apart from baptism prior to that time:

"Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and has become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added to the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. For the law of baptizing has been imposed" (On Baptism, 13)

By contrast, Augustine claimed that baptism was added earlier than Tertullian alleged:

"Moreover, from the time when He said, 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven;' [John 3:5] and again, 'He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it;' [Matthew 10:39] no one becomes a member of Christ except it be either by baptism in Christ, or death for Christ." (On The Soul And Its Origin, 1:10)

So, there were at least a few different views of the subject during the patristic era, as there are today.

In a post about Ignatius last year, I cited the gospel of Mark and the letters of Ignatius as examples of early documents that circulated in multiple editions and had a substantially different view of baptism in their later versions. That's another line of evidence for the sort of development and variation I'm arguing for in this post.

Another form of development and variation that should be taken into account is the addition of one or more other works, not just baptism, as a means of something like regeneration or justification. In the past, I've cited an example from Ambrose. He taught that while personal sins are remitted through baptism, "hereditary sins" are remitted through foot washing:

"Peter was clean, but he must wash his feet, for he had sin by succession from the first man, when the serpent overthrew him and persuaded him to sin. His feet were therefore washed, that hereditary sins might be done away, for our own sins are remitted through baptism." (On The Mysteries, 6:32)

And we find other variations among the patristic sources. G.W.H. Lampe provided many examples in his book The Seal Of The Spirit (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004). Though the large majority of extant sources held some kind of high view of the efficaciousness of baptism, a large majority isn't equivalent to everybody, and there were disagreements among that majority about the manner in which baptism is efficacious. Lampe wrote:

it is in fact possible for patristic writers to ascribe to one sacrament [baptism or the eucharist] the effects generally attributed to the other, as, for example, when Firmicus Maternus speaks indifferently of regeneration, rebirth, and renewal as obtained through participation in the Eucharist and through the water of Baptism….

At times he [Hippolytus] suggests that water-baptism is itself the sacrament of the reception of the indwelling Spirit; at times he connects the Spirit's bestowal with the anointing….

The unfortunate fact appears to be that Tertullian's theory of the Holy Spirit in relation to Baptism can be defended only at the cost of his consistency; and we must hold his confused thought on Baptism and the laying on of hands responsible in no small measure for the difficulties and ambiguities which have continued from his days to our own to hamper the working out of a reasoned theology of the operation of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation….

So far as the idea of the 'seal' [of the Holy Spirit] is concerned, most writers of the third and the following centuries use the term in a variety of senses, and it does not always denote either the bestowal of the Spirit or the means by which that bestowal is believed to be effected….

It is, indeed, this insistence on the inward and ethical which at times leads Origen to employ some rather confused language when he is speaking of the bestowal of the Spirit.

Not infrequently Origen speaks of the gift of the Spirit being received in Baptism itself, although when he is expounding the Pauline teaching on the [pledge] of the Spirit he does not directly connect the gift of that 'earnest' of our final redemption with Baptism; it is to be obtained by making the response of faith to the preaching of the Gospel of salvation.

Normally, however, Origen appears to think that the reception of the Holy Spirit takes place in the actual rite of Baptism; the convert is 'baptized in Christ, in the water and the Holy Spirit'. Nevertheless he is prevented from maintaining this position unequivocally by his reading of the passages in Acts which suggested a post-baptismal gift of the Spirit, and at times he is induced, on the ground of these passages alone, to distinguish between a water-baptism and a Spirit-baptism….

His [Origen's] only remedy is to try to hold together the rites of Baptism, laying on of hands, and chrismation as essentially one and the same ceremony of initiation, and to use any one of them indiscriminately as equivalent to 'Baptism' for the purposes of his exegesis….

It is not easy for us to realize to how great an extent the Fathers were at the mercy of their 'fundamentalist' exegesis of Scripture, notwithstanding (or rather, at times, because of) their adoption of an allegorical or typological method. It is largely due to this factor that so many writers in the period from the third to the sixth century (and in many cases, especially in the East, until much later) are content to ascribe the gift of the Spirit in Christian initiation either to Baptism in water or to consignation, or to the laying on of hands, with scant regard for consistency, simply in order to suit their exegesis of the particular text which may happen at any moment to be engaging their attention….

To many of them the most fanciful interpretation of a text from Canticles was as valuable as a direct utterance of St. Paul or a saying from the Gospels….

In this period of confusion [in the third century], the gift of the Spirit is ascribed to water-baptism, pre- or post-baptismal anointing with chrism, and the laying on of hands, each of which is from time to time regarded as its sacramental medium….

The majority of the patristic authors, as we have seen, do not try to answer these questions; they are content to ascribe the gift of the Spirit indiscriminately to Baptism, consignation, the laying on of hands, and sometimes to anointing as such, in so far as it can be distinguished at all from the signing with the Cross in chrism. The inconsistency of these theories was not strikingly apparent so long as the initiation rite remained a complex whole, and the confusion of opinions at least had the merit that it helped to preserve the truth that the operation of the Spirit is free and manifold; it is not tied to any rite or rites. When, however, the unity of the baptismal procedure breaks up, and the subsidiary ceremonies which had been, so far as we can judge, attached to Baptism in the second century, became established as an independent rite, it became an increasingly urgent necessity to define the relation between it and Baptism and to find some solution to the problem of what constituted the sacramental medium of the gift of the Spirit and the 'seal' of the believer….

the tremendous and mysterious ceremony of Baptism was at a relatively early date embellished with various other symbolical actions. (40, 146, 162, 164-65, 194, 196-97, 297-98, 308)

Lampe refers to Cyprian's views as "rather muddled" (170) and the "widespread" tendency of the Roman church of Cyprian's day "to connect the gift of the Spirit exclusively with 'Confirmation' rather than with Baptism" (170), how the Roman bishop Cornelius makes a "clear and unmistakable distinction" between "Baptism proper and the 'seal' as the external sign of baptism with the Holy Spirit…the Spirit is explicitly said to be bestowed, not in Baptism, but in a rite of 'sealing', which in certain cases, such as clinical Baptism, may be separated from Baptism by a considerable interval of time." (179) Lampe refers to an anonymous treatise on rebaptism written in the middle of the third century as "thoroughly confused", a document in which "Baptism has therefore become a mere ceremony of preparation for the subsequent 'washings' of the soul." (181) Lampe goes on to refer to how the treatise's views are "typical" of third-century "confusion" on such baptismal issues (184). He notes that we "often" find inconsistencies and confusion even within the writings of one source, not just when comparing one source to another (185). Though the Didascalia advocates a high view of the efficaciousness of baptism, Lampe says that it identifies a seal of the Spirit with "pre-Baptismal exorcisms and renunciation of the devil" (186). He refers to "the common Syrian idea that the bestowal of the Spirit is to be associated with a pre-baptismal unction" (188). Elsewhere, we read of "a striking contrast" between the baptismal views of the Roman bishop Cornelius in the third century and the later views of John Chrysostom (242). And so on. These are just several examples among many others addressed in Lampe's book.

One of the themes the book addresses is how differently baptism was defined from one source to another. It was common to include within the "baptism" terminology one or more activities other than what we commonly refer to as "baptism" today.

We're often told that there was universal agreement about how to interpret John 3:5 and Titus 3:5, in support of baptismal regeneration or baptismal justification, prior to the Reformation. I've provided counterexamples in other posts, like here, here, and here. Another factor to take into account is that even among those who thought that something like baptismal regeneration or baptismal justification is referred to in John 3:5 or Titus 3:5, there was disagreement about those verses on other grounds. Lampe refers to how Cyprian thought John 3:5 refers to two sacraments, baptism and the laying on of hands (175). Though Cyprian thought the two were closely related, they aren't the same, and he did distinguish between them (Letter 71:1). The anonymous third-century treatise on baptism that I cited earlier describes the author's own view of John 3:5 as involving two types of baptism, a view he refers to as if it's opposed by others in his day (pages 182-83 in Lampe's book). Lampe, who himself held a high view of the efficaciousness of baptism, accused the author of the treatise in question of "twisting" John 3:5 (186). In another context, Lampe refers to how Hilary of Poitiers seems to attribute two sacraments, not just one, to John 3:5 (216; see sections 2:6 and 4:27 in Hilary's Commentary On Matthew, D.H. Williams, trans. [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012], 53, 73). Elsewhere, Lampe accuses Origen of "an interpretation which does violence to Titus iii.5" (n. 3 on 166 in Lampe's book).

Earlier, I quoted Lampe's reference to "the truth that the operation of the Spirit is free and manifold; it is not tied to any rite or rites" (298). Though Lampe believed in baptismal regeneration, he acknowledged:

"St. Matthew omits all reference to remission of sins in connection with John's baptism; it cannot be bestowed until Christ's 'blood of the covenant' is 'shed for many'…The principal passages adduced from the Pauline Epistles do not, however, justify us in concluding anything more than that it may well have been the primitive belief that the Spirit's inspiration, under whose influence a man found himself able to cry 'Abba, Father', was independent of any external rite, and that in fact this inspiration may have been expected to come at a man's conversion and make it possible for him to offer himself for Baptism; it is also possible to argue that the primitive declaration of belief in Christ was made in the power of the Spirit before Baptism was administered. These texts may suggest, though the evidence is far from secure, that the bestowal of the Spirit in the primitive Church was not necessarily linked with Baptism, and that the Pauline doctrine of grace implied that an activity of the Spirit was operative upon the convert before his sacramental incorporation into Christ." (22, 90-91)

I've cited Tertullian's concession that "in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord", whereas now "the law of baptizing has been imposed" (On Baptism, 13). The response to such concessions by modern and ancient advocates of baptismal justification is that justification through faith alone, apart from baptism, isn't just a possible interpretation or a temporary situation, but how God has been justifying people "from the beginning" (Clement of Rome, First Clement, 32).

1 comment:

  1. In my view in the Apostolic era the common view was that a Christian could attain forgiveness of sins the same way as a non-Christian, namely by repentance and faith. But, as I assume, in the early second century, based on a false interpretation of John 3:5, the view that the means to attain forgiveness of sins is by repentance and faith was replaced by the view that repentance and faith were not sufficient to attain the forgiveness of sins, but that baptism was absolutely necessary in this respect. But as baptism can be administered only once, this doctrinal novelty posed the problem that there was no way to attain forgiveness of (grave) sins after baptism. As a consequence, in the early church there was no unanimity on how to deal with post-baptismal sin. In this respect, the following excerpt from a book on the sacrament of penance, written by the Catholic scholar Kenan B. Osborne, O. F. M., is very informative:

    “One must … keep in mind that in the history of this sacrament there has not been an organic development. One generation’s practice did not, at times, lead smoothly into the next generation’s practice. From the patristic period to the twentieth century, there have been several “official” positions of the church as regards the ritual of this sacrament. As we read and reread this history, we find many stages of “new beginnings” and “slow endings,” both in theory and in practice. In this regard, the history of the sacrament of penance differs considerably from the history of baptism and eucharist. In these latter two sacraments, the history has been far more organic and orthogenetic, whereas the history of the sacrament of penance is far more jagged and disconnected.”

    Kenan B. Osborne, O. F. M., Reconciliation and Justification: The Sacrament and Its Theology, Eugene, Oregon 2001, pp. 52-53.

    That the history of the sacrament of penance is characterized by rupture can be seen from The Shepherd of Hermas, Book II, Commandment 4, Chapter 3. There the author states that the orthodox view concerning forgiveness of one’s sins is that the only way to receive such forgiveness is by means of baptism. But then he presents the doctrinal novelty, based on a divine revelation, that there is a possibility to receive forgiveness of sins after baptism as well, but only once.

    Another problem that this doctrinal novelty posed was more of a theoretical nature. If baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, how could people who lived before the sacrament of baptism was established, in particular the Old Testament saints, be saved? Also with respect to a solution to this problem there was no unanimity in the early church. One solution was the assumption of a post-mortem baptism (The Shepherd of Hermas, Epistula Apostolorum), another the view that before the establishment of the sacrament of baptism there was no need to get baptized in order to be saved but that faith was sufficient in this respect (Tertullian). However, the latter view leads to the assumption of two ways of salvation, one for the members of the Old Covenant and the other for the members of the New Covenant. But according to Romans 4 and Galatians 3:6-29 for all people there is only one way of salvation, namely by faith. This view is confirmed by the first letter of Clement, probably the first extant post-Apostolic Christian writing, written in the mid-90s of the first century. In 1Clem 32:4 its author points out that the Christians are saved in the same way as the Old Testament saints were, namely by faith. Concerning salvation no reference is made to baptism, neither with respect to the Old Testament saints nor with respect to the Christians.

    Notice that for Clement being transferred from the state of sin to the state of grace happens when a person has faith and not when a person is baptized. He doesn’t mention baptism at all. Interestingly reference to Abraham and his faith with respect to justification was also made by those who against Tertullian held the view that baptism is not necessary for salvation (see De baptismo 13).