« Prev The Doctrine of Baptism Next »

§ 71. The Doctrine of Baptism.

This ordinance was regarded in the ancient church as the sacrament of the new birth or regeneration, and as the solemn rite of initiation into the Christian Church, admitting to all her benefits and committing to all her obligations. It was supposed to be preceded, in the case of adults, by instruction on the part of the church, and by repentance and faith (i.e. conversion) on the part of the candidate, and to complete and seal the spiritual process of regeneration, the old man being buried, and the new man arising from the watery grave. Its effect consists in the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Holy Spirit. Justin calls baptism "the water-bath for the forgiveness of sins and regeneration," and "the bath of conversion and the knowledge of God." It is often called also illumination, spiritual circumcision, anointing, sealing, gift of grace, symbol of redemption, death of sins, &c.439439    The patristic terms for baptism expressive of doctrine are ἀναγέννησις, παλιγγενεσία(and λουτρὸν παλιγγενεσίας ,Tit. 3:5), θεογένεσιςregeneratio, secunda or spiritualis nativitas, renascentia; also φωτισμός , φώτισμα, illuminatio, σφραγίς,signaculum, seal, μύησις, μυσταγωγία, initiation into the mysteries (the sacraments). The sign was almost identified with the thing itself.39 Tertullian describes its effect thus: "When the soul comes to faith, and becomes transformed through regeneration by water and power from above, it discovers, after the veil of the old corruption is taken away, its whole light. It is received into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; and the soul, which unites itself to the Holy Spirit, is followed by the body." He already leans towards the notion of a magical operation of the baptismal water. Yet the subjective condition of repentance and faith was universally required. Baptism was not only an act of God, but at the same time the most solemn surrender of man to God, a vow for life and death, to live henceforth only to Christ and his people. The keeping of this vow was the condition of continuance in the church; the breaking of it must be followed either by repentance or excommunication.

From John 3:5 and Mark 16:16, Tertullian and other fathers argued the necessity of baptism to salvation. Clement of Alexandria supposed, with the Roman Hermas and others, that even the saints of the Old Testament were baptized in Hades by Christ or the apostles. But exception was made in favor of the bloody baptism of martyrdom as compensating the want of baptism with water; and this would lead to the evangelical principle, that not the omission, but only the contempt of the sacrament is damning.440440    "Non defectus (or privatio), sed contemtus sacramenti damnat." This leaves the door open for the salvation of Quakers, unbaptized children, and elect heathen who die with a desire for salvation.40

The effect of baptism, however, was thought to extend only to sins committed before receiving it. Hence the frequent postponement of the sacrament,441441    Procrastinatio baptismi.41 which Tertullian very earnestly recommends, though he censures it when accompanied with moral levity and presumption.442442    So the author of the Apost. Constit., VI. 15, disapproves those who say: ὅτιὅταν τελευτῶ, βαπτίζομαι, ἵνα μὴ ἁμαρτήσω καὶ ῥυπανῶ τὸ βάπτισμα.42 Many, like Constantine the Great, put it off to the bed of sickness and of death. They preferred the risk of dying unbaptized to that of forfeiting forever the baptismal grace. Death-bed baptisms were then what death-bed repentances are now.

But then the question arose, how the forgiveness of sins committed after baptism could be obtained? This is the starting point of the Roman doctrine of the sacrament of penance. Tertullian443443    De Paenitientia.43 and Cyprian444444    De Opere et Eleemosynis.44 were the first to suggest that satisfaction must be made for such sins by self-imposed penitential exercises and good works) such as prayers and almsgiving. Tertullian held seven gross sins, which he denoted mortal sins, to be unpardonable after baptism, and to be left to the uncovenanted mercies of God; but the Catholic church took a milder view, and even received back the adulterers and apostates on their public repentance.


In reviewing the patristic doctrine of baptism which was sanctioned by the Greek and Roman, and, with some important modifications, also by the Lutheran and Anglican churches, we should remember that during the first three centuries, and even in the age of Constantine, adult baptism was the rule, and that the actual conversion of the candidate was required as a condition before administering the sacrament (as is still the case on missionary ground). Hence in preceding catechetical instruction, the renunciation of the devil, and the profession of faith. But when the same high view is applied without qualification to infant baptism, we are confronted at once with the difficulty that infants cannot comply with this condition. They may be regenerated (this being an act of God), but they cannot be converted, i.e. they cannot repent and believe, nor do they need repentance, having not yet committed any actual transgression. Infant baptism is an act of consecration, and looks to subsequent instruction and personal conversion, as a condition to full membership of the church. Hence confirmation came in as a supplement to infant baptism.

The strict Roman Catholic dogma, first clearly enunciated by St. Augustin though with reluctant heart and in the mildest form, assigns all unbaptized infants to hell on the round of Adam’s sin and the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. A dogma horribile, but falsum. Christ, who is the truth, blessed unbaptized infants, and declared: "To such belongs again kingdom of heaven. The Augsburg Confession (Art. IX.) still teaches against the Anabaptists: quod baptismus sit necessarius ad salutem," but the leading Lutheran divines reduce the absolute necessity of baptism to a relative or ordinary necessity; and the Reformed churches, under the influence of Calvin’s teaching went further by making salvation depend upon divine election, not upon the sacrament, and now generally hold to the salvation of all infants dying in infancy. The Second Scotch Confession (a.d. 1580) was the first to declare its abhorrence of "the cruel [popish] judgment against infants departing without the sacrament," and the doctrine of "the absolute necessity of baptism."

« Prev The Doctrine of Baptism Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection