*This post may set a record for length here on the Fish Tank!  This is due in part to combining posts from two authors together here (see the first post here), but also because the debate over the meaning of baptism is a significant one that deserves more than the simple, short stock answers often given.  It may be best to work through our exchange below over several days, but we welcome your comments below!


[UPDATE: Following the publication of this post, I realized that I may have not been as clear in my argument as I would have liked. I have sought to clarify my argument here.]

Our objective in this series is to determine what the Church’s understanding and practice of baptism should be. For me (and, I think, for Nick), this essentially means determining what the Church’s understanding and practice of baptism originally were. Our project, therefore, is a fundamentally historical one.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Nick and I disagree about the theology of baptism present in the New Testament. And, indeed, I will admit that there is (some) room for reasonable disagreement concerning the New Testament’s theology of baptism.

As far as I can tell, however, there is no room for disagreement regarding the early Church’s theology of baptism. I am no historian, and my word is far from final, but virtually everything I have ever read on the subject leads me to the following bold conclusion: Between the writing of the New Testament and the Reformation, all Orthodox Christians believed baptism to be for the forgiveness of sins, marking the point in time at which (under normal circumstances) a new believer passed over from death to life.
Baptism2-248x300(Under normal circumstances because the early Christians may have allowed for certain exceptions for, say, martyrs.)

Thus, the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 70-130) says , “[W]e indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit.” Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes , “As many are are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true … are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past… Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.” And Irenæus asserts (c. AD 180), “And when we come to refute [the heretics], we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole faith.”

What are we to do with this, the voices of men who lived mere decades after the apostles? There are, in my mind, two main recourses: We can either accept or reject the testimony of these Church Fathers as a faithful witness to apostolic doctrine. If we accept it, our historical picture is simple: The apostles taught that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and their earliest followers continued in what they had been taught. If, on the other hand, we reject their testimony, we must provide some explanation for how such a great discrepancy emerged so immediately between apostolic and patristic theology of baptism.

Unfortunately, I have never seen such a plausible explanation offered. Nor do I see how one could be offered – there would be too many factors running against it. I briefly consider three below:

1. Baptism is not a doctrine, but a practice. As such, the question of what baptism was could never have been far out of sight for the early Church. It is conceivable( to me, at least) that Paul may not have had a systematic doctrine of the Trinity; baptism, however, was an elementary teaching about which he and the rest of the apostles surely had a set opinion. Therefore, if the earliest Christians were incorrect in their theology of baptism, they were incorrect with respect to a matter that was elementary  (Hebrews 6.1-2), practical, and (by all accounts) central to Christian faith.

2. We see no indication of a gradual deviation from apostolic teaching regarding baptism, nor any evidence that there ever was a distinct “Regenerationist” sect (for example) known for its minority view on baptism. But, if we know anything about change in religious communities, we know that it tends not to be abrupt and universal. Thus, if a change in theology of baptism did occur between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, it was an aberrational one.

3. The amount of time between the composition of the New Testament and the composition of the patristic writings cited here is minimal; in fact, the Epistle of Barnabas may have been written before certain parts of the New Testament. (To put things in perspective, the Church Fathers in question lived centuries before the Nicene Creed.) Again, if we know anything about change in religious communities, we know that it takes time; thus, if a change in theology of baptism did occur between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, it was a remarkably rapid one.

Regarding baptism, then, it seems that the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of the one who would go against the earliest patristic tradition and say that baptism is merely symbolic or that salvation is by faith alone. For my part, I rejoice in being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12.1).


Two things interest me about Joseph’s opening salvo.  First, that he opens with (early) church history rather than with the canonical Scriptures.  Second, that he seems to admit that the NT evidence is potentially more open and conducive to a more nuanced interpretation of baptism than the subsequent extra-biblical writings of the apostolic fathers are.  On the one hand, I am insistent that this is not the epistemological order I would proceed from.  I am convinced that there is a qualitative, seminal difference between inspired holy Writ and all that is not (regardless of how early or late it may have appeared), and that Scripture permanently stands over and against subsequent Christian writings which by definition are reflecting imperfectly on the original faith that was handed down once for all to the apostles (Jude 3).  On the other hand, I think Joseph provides those of us who hold a more typically Protestant view of baptism a welcome service in drawing our attention to the fact that church history did not actually begin in the 1500’s in Germany, contrary to much popular belief.  This is always a salutary reminder for the sons and daughters of the Reformation, who are frequently guilty of C. S. Lewis’ dreaded chronological snobbery in their theological formulations.

Reserving my primary arguments from Scripture for next week, I offer the following points in response to Joseph’s contention that pre-Reformation attitudes towards baptism are a stumbling block to a symbolic understanding of water baptism:

First, if Joseph wins the day, I fear that we may all begin to do evangelism like this.  And that would be bad.

Second, I freely confess my lack of expertise in the patristics (even the modest time I have spent reading them has not been focused on the issue of baptism), and therefore I am willing to basically concede the point to Joseph that the dominant view of the early church after the apostles died off was that of baptismal regeneration.  However, I did work through On Baptism by Tertullian this past week, which is the earliest extant treatise in the early church (written between 200 and 206 AD) entirely devoted to the meaning and practice of baptism, and was surprised at what I found in several passages.  While Tertullian clearly believes that baptism is more than symbolic and ultimately necessary for salvation—and I will admit that, if clearly enunciated, I find such a view attractive—he says several things that would seem to tell against baptismal regeneration.  Consider the following:

“Now, whether they [i.e. the apostles] were baptized in any manner whatever, or whether they continued unbathed to the end— so that even that saying of the Lord touching the one bath does, under the person of Peter, merely regard us— still, to determine concerning the salvation of the apostles is audacious enough, because on them the prerogative even of first choice, and thereafter of undivided intimacy, might be able to confer the compendious grace of baptism, seeing they (I think) followed Him who was wont to promise salvation to every believer. Your faith, He would say, has saved you; and, Your sins shall be remitted you, on your believing, of course, albeit you be not yet baptized.” (Tertullian, On Baptism, Book 12)

“But they whose office it is, know that baptism is not rashly to be administered… And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary— if baptism itself is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfill their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood?…If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.” (Tertullian, On Baptism, Book 18)

In the first citation, Tertullian raises the problem of the apostles’ apparent lack of baptism, and argues that the priority of faith in salvation settles the issue.  This does not, of course, make water baptism optional or irrelevant—but it does put the onus where it should be, on faith (as the Gospels themselves, as Tertullian rightly recognizes, do; faith is the primary response that receives grace and salvation from Jesus).  He goes on to imply that faith brings salvation, before one is baptized.  In the second citation, Tertullian gives advice to those who administer baptism (as well as to sponsors of the baptized), and encourages delay and caution—rather than a rushed ceremony—in part because baptism is not necessary and in part because he recognizes that sound faith is secure of salvation.  Again, does this mean that Tertullian is downplaying baptism or relegating it to the realm of adiaphora (“things indifferent”)?  Of course not, and I have no doubt that if presented with a person who refused baptism Tertullian would gladly withhold the right hand of fellowship from such a one.  Yet he clearly prioritizes faith over baptism, and ascribes salvation essentially to the former.  (Interestingly, Tertullian is the only early church father I know of to explicitly renounce and argue against the practice of infant baptism.  I do not think this stance is unrelated to his recognition of the priority of faith in salvation.)

One more:

“And since we are double-made, I mean of body and soul, and the one part is visible, the other invisible, so the cleansing also is twofold, by water and the spirit; the one received visibly in the body, the other concurring with it invisibly and apart from the body; the one typical, the other real and cleansing the depths.” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 40.8)

Here Gregory seems to make the same kind of qualification as is found in I Peter 3:21—baptism saves, but not with respect to the act of going under the water itself.  Rather, insofar as it is an expression of faith, salvation happens concurrently (assuming the act of coming to faith and the act of baptism are simultaneous) at baptism apart from the body.  Indeed, water baptism itself is only typical (i.e. symbolic), while what truly cleanses our hearts is the work of the Spirit.  And this is conceptually distinct from our holy bath for Gregory.

Third, I would encourage anyone who is tempted to romanticize the early church fathers to actually read them.  I do not deny that many valuable insights and reflections are to be found in their writings.  Such exposure would do wonders for many modern Christians ignorant of their rich heritage.  Yet to open up their writings is to immediately take a huge step away from the world of the New Testament.  It is stunning how consistently shoddy their thinking and their arguments come across to anyone familiar with not only the teaching but the actual arguments underneath the teaching of the NT writers.  Let me mention two ways in which this seems to me to be true.

A.) The apostolic fathers often defend the right doctrine with the wrong logic, to put it mildly.  One has only to read the Didache’s rationale for Jesus’ teaching on private fasting in the Sermon on the Mount to see this.  Whereas Jesus recommends the practice to guard us against our own tendency to hypocrisy (we love to show off to others), the Didache suggests fasting on the fourth and last days of the week, simply because the Jews (the “hypocrites” here) fast on the second and fifth days!  The teaching of Jesus is upheld, yet in a way that utterly misses the point of why the command was given in the NT (not to mention being idiotic in and of itself!).  It would not be difficult to list a wild assortment of such exegetical foibles and inconsistencies in these writings.  Indeed, they are quite comical at times.  Such is a common characteristic of the apostolic fathers, defending plain biblical teaching yet on alien, even contradictory grounds to the NT authors themselves.  Even in the passage from the Epistle of Barnabas that Joseph cited, I am amazed at its apparent attribution of faith/trust as the fruit of water baptism.  This exactly reverses the order of the NT, where faith exists before one is baptized in water.  All of the preceding leads me to say this: I do not conceive it to be nearly as difficult as Joseph to imagine that these ancient writers could have missed the delicate thrust of certain passages on baptism in the NT, especially when we consider how nuanced this doctrine (i.e. the relationship of faith and baptism to salvation) is to begin with in Scripture, and particularly given their distortion of a crucial element in the practice of baptism (see my final point below).  They clearly did so with respect to many other issues.

B.) Since Joseph also points to the seeming universal consensus on baptism in the early church, I think it fair to point out that this, too, is not in and of itself a conclusive argument.  I would contend (with many contemporary biblical scholars in my corner) that the early church fathers went alarmingly astray on a number of other issues almost immediately.  Let me mention just a few: the Jewishness of the NT documents is consistently misunderstood (instead of appreciating the OT background and Hebrew orientation of many NT documents, they often turn to metaphysics or philosophy or allegorizing instead to expound their significance); bishops are seen to be a separate class of church leader from elders/pastors (clearly mistaken), which ultimately leads to the downplaying of each local church’s autonomy and the eventual rise of the Roman Catholic church’s hierarchical self-understanding; the book of Revelation is profoundly mishandled in virtually every early commentary on it; and others could be mentioned (for instance, in this book T. F. Torrance has argued that the early church fathers tended to gravitate away from Paul’s radical emphasis on grace).  My long-winded excursus here has a single point: even if Joseph is correct on an early church consensus on baptismal regeneration, that simply doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as he hopes it will.  The burden on both of us must be first and foremost the relevant NT passages on baptism.

Fourth, Joseph forgets that at the end of the day I am a good Protestant, which means that standing contra mundum runs deep in my veins.  I get the impression that Joseph supposes such a stance will bother me or singe my conscience, once I realize the magnitude of what I am rejecting.  But I cut my teeth on theologians like B. B. Warfield, who once famously noted that “the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.”  Clearly the Reformers understood the gravity of their rejection of baptismal regeneration, of papal authority and indulgences, and a host of other Catholic teachings. (Intriguingly, one of the few times Calvin ever explicitly plays off the authority of Scripture against the early church fathers is when discussing baptism; see the Institutes 4.15.7, 19).  For these men the essence of the Reformation was the insight that the logic of doctrines like baptismal regeneration or priestly absolution stood in profound tension with the teaching of the NT on grace and faith.  No one denies that the Reformation—whether right or wrong as a movement—was a radical break with what went before and a self-professed return to the teaching of the NT, over and against corruptions that had sprung in after the death of the apostles.  Yet Joseph asks us to make the monumental committment of ruling out a priori even the possibility that something like the Reformation could ever even be needed or desirable in the course of history.  I like this attitude better.

Fifth, I would ask Joseph to give an account of the rapid, widespread rise of infant baptism in the early church, given his repudiation of this practice and his enormous respect for early church teaching on other matters.  Several things seem to me to be irrefutable about infant baptism: first, that it most likely began to be practiced in the 2nd century, but at the very latest by the early 3rd century.  This is roughly about 100 years after the last NT documents are produced.  Second, while infant baptism never became the universal teaching or practice of the church, it did nonetheless 1.) become the dominant practice quite quickly, and 2.) was never opposed or denounced as a heresy in the early church.  A few influential figures (such as Tertullian) offer faint resistance here and there, but overwhelmingly it is accepted or at least tolerated.  Why is this?  I would argue that the rise of infant baptism is actually intimately related to the growing influence of baptismal regeneration, combined with the increasing trend of temporally separating conversion and baptism (see below).  What is clear is that the motivation behind infant baptism in the first millennium of the church was not the supposed parallel with OT circumcision or the continuity of the people of God (as is often the case today with Presbyterians), but rather the simple desire to save infants who were mortally ill.  Everyone admits this.  It is all over the literature of the early church.

On the one hand, this scores a point for Joseph, in that the early church clearly saw baptism as salvific.  If my view had won the day, such a practice could never have been conceived, let alone condoned.  Yet on the other hand, it likewise shows that baptismal regeneration flourishes once the act of water baptism has been logically disconnected from faith.  If faith is given the role it is in the NT—namely, as the receptive means of salvation and the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 3:1-5, etc.)—then baptism is by definition not those things, since all acknowledge that baptism comes after faith and repentance.  The very people Joseph admires for their commitment to baptismal regeneration are the same ones who were helpless to prevent (or complicit in inventing) the rise of infant baptism for salvation apart from faith.  In my eyes, this was no historical accident.  It makes sense.   The one follows from the other.

Finally, I am becoming increasingly persuaded that much of the early church’s distortion of the relationship between faith, salvation and baptism is due to a frequently overlooked phenomenon of enormous significance in their baptismal practice.  In the NT, faith and baptism are as closely connected as possible—not only conceptually, but temporally.  As soon as someone responds to the gospel proclamation in faith in the NT, they are immediately baptized without any delay or hesitation.  I will argue in future posts that this accounts for why baptism is spoken of the way it is in the NT—namely, that it is functioning as a shorthand for the entire conversion experience, of which it is the experiential capstone.

Yet it seems to be an almost universal trend in the early church to distance faith and personal conversion from the actual act of undergoing water baptism.  “Catechumen” was the designation given to someone who had been persuaded of the truth of Christianity, but who had not yet been baptized into Christ.  It is manifestly not a biblical category.  It would be easy to document (and not controversial in the least) how the time frame postponing baptism after faith quickly went from weeks, to months, to three years (!) in the Apostolic Constitutions already in the 4th century.  It does not take much imagination what this would do to the thinking of those who were committed (rightly so) to taking seriously the NT’s explicit linking of baptism and salvation.  Instead of holding faith and baptism together, as the NT always does, faith was disconnected in the conversion experience from baptism, and the salvific overtones present in the NT began to be attached solely to the act of baptism that was now being withheld long after a person became a believer.  I think this aberrant practice accounts for a great deal of the misguided logic of baptismal regeneration in the early church, simply because once faith and baptism are separated, it follows that one must choose to attach conversion/regeneration to one or the other—not to both in different ways, as I contend the NT does.

“Paul does not sharply distinguish between water baptism and Spirit baptism, for the two were closely associated during the NT era and unbaptized Christians were unheard of.  The issue of baptismal regeneration arose in later church history when baptism was separated from faith…in the NT era it was unheard of to separate baptism from faith in Christ for such a long period.  Baptism occurred either immediately after or very soon after people believed.  The short interval between faith and baptism is evident from numerous examples in the book of Acts (Acts 2:41; 8:12-13; 8:38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5).  It follows, then, that when Paul connects death to sin with baptism, death to sin takes place at conversion, for baptism as an initiatory event occurs at the threshold of one’s new life.” (Thomas Schreiner, “Baptism in the Epistles,” in Believer’s Baptism, pp. 92-93)

Next week we move our debate to some of the most relevant passages on baptism in the New Testament…