Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Baptism in the Early Church

Didache, VII:
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
Justin, First Apology, LXI:
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; [...] Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. [...] And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; [...] And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.
Clinical baptism (by aspersion) was normally reserved to infirmed people, and some had doubts on its validity. But Cyprian defended it, and it is interesting to see the words he used (faith is more important than the means used to confer baptism, consistently with what the Didache had taught already):
In the sacrament of salvation the contagion of sins is not in such wise washed away, as the filth of the skin and of the body is washed away in the carnal and ordinary washing, as that there should be need of saltpetre and other appliances also, and a bath and a basin wherewith this vile body must be washed and purified. Otherwise is the breast of the believer washed; otherwise is the mind of man purified by the merit of faith. [...] The sprinkling also of water prevails equally with the washing of salvation; and that when this is done in the Church, where the faith both of receiver and giver is sound, all things hold and may be consummated and perfected by the majesty of the Lord and by the truth of faith. (Epistle LXXV)
Novatian, presbyter, had been baptized on a sickbed by aspersion. This is important because at the time of Novatian this was apparently not perceived as a big problem; but later (Council of Neo-Caesarea, after 314) we find a statement like this:
Whosoever has received clinical baptism cannot be promoted to the priesthood, because his [profession of] faith was not from free choice, but from necessity (lit: fear of death), unless he, excel afterwards in zeal and faith, or there is a deficiency of [able] men.
These words are interesting in the discussion about infant baptism.

For what regards the distinction between baptism by immersion and baptism by sprinkling or pouring, cf. Aquinas, III, Q66, A7, "Utrum immersio in aqua sit de necessitate baptismi": at Aquinas' time it seems that baptism by immersion was the most practiced type; but this "non est de necessitate baptismi", although he seems to recommend baptism "per modum aspersionis vel per modum effusionis praecipue propter necessitatem". Very realistic examples for when this type of baptism can be used are: "magna multitudo baptizandorum, propter paucitatem aquae, propter debilitatem ministri qui non potest sustentare baptizandum (!), propter debilitatem baptizandi cui posset imminere periculum mortis ex immersione."

The reason given by Aquinas to explain that immersion is not necessary resembles Cyprian's, i.e. the washing signifies the inward washing away of sins; and, more specifically, water is essential to the sacrament (cf. also Ambrose on this point), while the mode of washing is accidental (this is also the reason why Aquinas says that trine immersion is not essential, see III, Q66, A8). Aquinas reminds of Cyprian also when he explains that "principalis pars corporis, preacipue quantum ad exteriora mebra, est caput, in quo vigent omnes sensus et interiores et exteriores", and hence the head is the part that should be washed when immersion is not possible: "ideo [...] oportet caput perfundere, in quo manifestatur principium animalis vitae" (A7, ad 3). Cf. Cyprian, who says that the "mind of man is purified".

Tertullian mentions sponsors in the baptismal rite, specifically pointing to infant baptism, which he apparently opposed (although it is interesting to read that the main reason he is opposing it seems to be to "protect" the sponsores):
[...] cunctatio baptismi utilior est, praecipue tamen circa parvulos: quid enim necesse, si non tam necesse est, sponsores etiam periculo ingeri, qui et ipsi per mortalitatem destituere promissiones suas possunt et proventu malae indolis falli? (De Baptismo, XVIII)
Origen, on the other hand, assumes without problems that infant baptism is current practice:
Infants are baptized for the remission of sins. What sins? Whenever have they sinned? In fact, of course, never. And yet: 'No one is free from defilement.' (Job 14:4) But defilement is only put away by the mystery of baptism. That is the reason why infants too are baptized. (Homily on Luke, XIV)
Hippolytus too refers to infant baptism in his Apostolic Tradition:
When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water. (Ap. Trad. XXI)
For what regards the NT and infant baptism, nowhere it is mandated, but nowhere it is prohibited, either; and there are episodes where entire households were baptized (therefore most likely including infants, e.g. 1 Cor 1:16, Acts 16:15); also, Paul in Col. 2:11-12 makes a parallel between the spiritual practice of baptism and the jewish circumcision, to signify that baptism marks one's belonging to Christ:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
This is reaffirmed by Justin in his Dialog with Trypho the Jew:
[...] that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented. [...] For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone? Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy, and from hatred; and, lo! the body is pure. For this is the symbolic significance of unleavened bread, that you do not commit the old deeds of wicked leaven. But you have understood all things in a carnal sense, and you suppose it to be piety if you do such things, while your souls are filled with deceit, and, in short, with every wickedness. (Dialogue with Trypho, XIV)
And Cyprian says:
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man.
For which reason we think that no one is to be hindered from obtaining grace by that law which was already ordained, and that spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision, but that absolutely every man is to be admitted to the grace of Christ, since Peter also in the Acts of the Apostles speaks, and says, "The Lord hath said to me that I should call no man common or unclean." But if anything could hinder men from obtaining grace, their more heinous sins might rather hinder those who are mature and grown up and older. But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted-and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace-how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins-that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another. (Epistle LVIII, 2;5)
In general, it seems that the meaning/function of baptism in the early Church was of obtaining grace and purification from sins. For a first example, cf. Tertullian:
"De Sacramento aquae nostrae qua ablutis delictis pristinae caecitatis in vitam aeternam liberamur" or, according to the Editio Martini Mesnartii, "Felix sacramentum aquae nostrae quia ablutis delictis pristinae caecitatis in vitam aeternam liberamur". (De Baptismo, I)
This obviously immediately brings about the problem of how it is possible that people who have been baptized/purified still keep on sinning. A definitive clarification on this issue will have to wait for Augustine, with his theory of original sin (which in fact seems to have at least some similarity to what Origen says in his Homily on Luke about infant baptism, and in Cyprian, Epistle LVIII, see above) and specifically in the distinction he made between guilt and disease: the guilt of the original sin is cancelled by baptism, while the effects (the "disease") are not. See the article Babies, Baptism, and Original Sin for an account of Augustine's view in particular with regard to infant baptism. This theory of the original guilt that is canceled by baptism has clearly the consequence of asking for the necessity of baptism for salvation (the scriptural reference usually quoted here is John 3:5, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit").

This concept will then lead to the idea of limbo as the place in afterlife for those who died unbaptized and without having committed mortal sins. Cf. Dante, Inferno, Canto IV, 25-42:

Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,
non avea pianto mai che di sospiri

che l’aura etterna facevan tremare;
ciò avvenia di duol sanza martìri,
ch’avean le turbe, ch’eran molte e grandi,

d’infanti e di femmine e di viri.
Lo buon maestro a me: "Tu non dimandi
che spiriti son questi che tu vedi?

Or vo’ che sappi, innanzi che più andi,
ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi,
non basta, perché non ebber battesmo,

ch’è porta de la fede che tu credi;
e s’e’ furon dinanzi al cristianesmo,
non adorar debitamente a Dio:

e di questi cotai son io medesmo.
Per tai difetti, non per altro rio,
semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi

che sanza speme vivemo in disio".

But I digress. Back to the meaning of baptism, what is clear is that at this stage it is still too early to talk about a theology distinguishing between causative vs. declarative functions of the sacraments. Indeed, it seems that the consensus was of seeing sacraments as really efficient bestowals of grace. The examples for what regards baptism are not hard to find (beyond Tertullian's quote above and Justin's statement that "[we] may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed", also above):
But let us enquire whether the Lord took care to signify before hand concerning the water and the cross. Now concerning the water it is written in reference to Israel, how that they would not receive the baptism which bringeth remission of sins, but would build for themselves. (Barnabas 11:1)

"I have heard, Sir," say I, "from certain teachers, that there is no other repentance, save that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained remission of our former sins."
He saith to me; "Thou hast well heard; for so it is. For he that hath received remission of sins ought no longer to sin, but to dwell in purity. (Hermas, Mandate 4, 3[31]:1-2)
Ambrose wrote profusely on baptism and the Holy Spirit supporting the idea of efficient grace in baptism; McGrath says that Ambrose argued that in baptism, the Holy Spirit "coming upon the font or upon those who are to be baptized, effects the reality of regeneration" - this is a very clear statement, but I was not able to find the direct reference to this quote in Ambrose's writings.

As a further digression, see what Zwingli has to say with regard to this interpretation of the function of sacraments in Zwingli on Baptism and in the short Summary of Zwingli on Baptism; notable is the idea that baptism is a sign of belonging to a covenant community, analogous to circumcision (i.e. a "birth into a believing community"), and the hint that "If we deny that children should be baptized [because of lack of scriptural evidence], then we must deny that women should come to the table, because there is no positive evidence that they were communicated in NT".

Cf. the importance of the subjective element in the baptismal salvific process in Mark 16:16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.", which somewhat echoes Zwingli's position that "In this matter of baptism — if I may be pardoned for saying it — I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles. . . . All the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach." (Zwingli, On Baptism)

Hopefully, I'll have time to study this and other positions (e.g. B.H. Carroll's) more in depth later.

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