Under the heading of salvation, it is important at this point to touch on baptism. Although it may seem inconsistent to digress into what may be considered an "ordinance" or "sacrament" of the church after indulging in the metaphysical realities of being "in Christ" and being revealed as a son of God, it is necessary since so many of the early church fathers equated our regeneration with the act of immersion. The actual issue of baptismal regeneration, however, we will only touch on at the end. Instead, we will first investigate the apostolic practice, including what was considered valid and the development of baptismal theology in the early church.
Baptism is perhaps the most universal of all Christian ordinances. It is considered the "portal" into the Christian church by many branches of Christianity. The early church fathers put a tremendous amount of emphasis on baptism, which sparked a significant amount of debate. Other than the controversies regarding the deity of Christ, the debates and controversies that raged over baptism and rebaptism stand out as the most intense theological debates of the third and fourth centuries. Some of the questions that are still asked today are
a) Did the early church baptize infants?
b) Does baptism wash away "original sin"?
c) Is an individual regenerated (ie. "born-again") at baptism?
In the beginning of all of the gospels, we find how baptism was the central facet of John the Baptistís ministry. In Judaism, ritual washing was already a practice, particularly with the Essenes and many ascetic groups, but Johnís baptism is distinguished as a "baptism unto repentance" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 19:4). In this respect John represents the personification of all of the prophets thus far. The highest moral teaching of Judaism can be seen in the prophets in their emphasis of the heart attitude that God seeks, rather than ritual observances (See Amos 5:21-23). Yet even during Johnís ministry, there was already a foreshadowing that the pattern of water baptism served as a type for the spiritual baptism that would be introduced by the Messiah. John says in Matthewís gospel that he baptized with water, but he that comes after me shall "baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit". For this reason, we should always keep before us the truth that the water has no "magical" properties about it, nor can it be considered an end itself.
It is a common practice among orthodox, Roman Catholic, as well as several Protestant bodies (ie. Lutheran, Covenant, etc.) to baptize individuals when they are infants. The practice is frequently justified on the grounds that, under the Mosaic economy of salvation, God's covenant was extended to even infants through circumcision, which was to be performed on the eighth day after birth. The covenant of circumcision is said to be a type or foreshadowing of baptism, which serves a similar function under the New Covenant. This reasoning appears in the church documents Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 4th Century)
"Do not delay to turn to the Lord, for thou knowest not what the day will bring forth." Do you also baptize your infants, and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. For He says "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not." (VII:457)
as well as Cyprian (V:353)
-For this reason we think that no one should be hindered from obtaining the grace under the law that was already ordained, and that spiritual circumcision ought not be hindered... and nobody is hindered from baptism and grace- how much more should we not hinder an infant, who being lately born, has not sinned, except in being born after the flesh in the nature of Adam.
Furthermore, the waters of baptism were thought by many to have a "medicinal" property, and that the water itself was effectual in affecting a rebirth of the spirit of an individual, and they would be regenerated in the act of baptism itself.
Are we then to expect that this was the apostolic practice, observed by the apostles and their successors in the apostolic churches? Although the previously mentioned texts demonstrate a belief in an objective and effectual power resident in the waters of baptism, there is even more evidence that would denote the contrary. It can be sufficiently shown that the earliest apostolic teaching on baptism did not make provisions for infants. The primary reason is because faith is an integral element of salvation. Whether one believes in baptismal regeneration or not, it is undeniable that personal faith is the active agent in applying the benefits of Calvary to our lives. Baptism is an ordinance that is entered into only when an individual has made the decision to fully believe in Jesus Christ. We see in the Bible when the apostle Philip was to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch whom he had converted, the eunuch asked
"What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Philip answered
"If you believe with your whole heart, it is permissible." (Acts 8:36,37)
It is interesting that the critical part of verse 37, which clearly implies that one must fully believe in Jesus before being baptized, is missing from many contemporary translations, even though it is found in the majority of original Greek manuscripts. The best evidence for the authenticity of the verse lies in the fact that it is quoted by Scripture by Irenaeus ( Against Heresies XI, 8), and Cyprian (Treatise IX, 2, 43), many, many years before the oldest manuscripts which do not include it were ever written. This fact establishes without question the principle that, according to scripture and church tradition, personal faith is a prerequisite to baptism.
Looking through the rest of the New Testament, there are no clear examples of infants being baptized. The inference is that they were not, since such stress in put on repentance, faith and confession of the Lordship of Christ as being intrinsic to the New Birth. Most baptismal texts found in the Patristic church likewise infer that those being baptized are at least old enough to enter into baptism of their own volition. Consider some of the texts from the early church regarding baptism.
Didache (ca. 100 A.D.):
But before the baptism, let the baptizer fast, and also the baptized, and what ever others can; but thou shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
Justin Martyr (First Apology; ca 155 A.D.)
As many are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to entreat God with fasting...then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were...For Christ also said :"'Unless you be born-again, you cannot see the kingdom of God".
Tertullian (On Baptism)
They who are about to enter baptism ought to pray with repeated prayer, fasts, and bendings of the knee, and vigils all the night through, and with the confession of all bygone sins, that they may express the meaning of the baptism of John.
Virtually every text from the first two hundred years of Christianity that deal with baptism mention the obligation on the part of those being baptized to be spiritually prepared, usually by repentance and faith, and extended periods of prayer and fasting. This would preclude any possibility of baptism being applicable to infants. Any reference to infants being baptized is conspicuously missing. The whole matter is decisively answered by one text from Tertullian.
"Unless a man be reborn of water and spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven" has tied to faith the necessity of baptism. Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers used to be baptized...and so according to the disposition, circumstances and even the age of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable, principally, in the case of little children....For the Lord does indeed say "Forbid them not to come to me". Let them come, then, while they are growing up. Let them come while they are learning; while they learn whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period in life hasten to the "remission of sins"? ..Let them know how to "ask" for salvation, that it may seem to have given "to him that asketh". .
If this is indeed the unanimous consent of the church, how did it happen that infant baptism became the norm? Although the answer may be somewhat speculative, we need to look to one of the baptismal texts from Irenaeus. Irenaeus, who held to the orthodox position regarding when one should be baptized, wrote a text which supported the common perception that we are born-again when we are baptized. He said in Against Heresies in 180 A.D.
We are lepers in sin, we are made clean by means of the sacred water and invocation of the Lord, from our old transgression; being spiritually regenerate as new born babes, even as the Lord has declared "except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Years later, we see some Christian writings taking Irenaeus' words and interpreting "spiritually regenerate, as newborn babes" as meaning that we are baptized as new-born babes! In the proper historical and textual context however, this is inconceivable. Thus, sometime in the mid 3rd century and in contradiction to the norm, the practice of baptizing infants started, built largely on a misinterpretation of Irenaeus.
Baptism and Original Sin
One of the most common arguments in favor of the necessity of infant baptism involves the question of original sin. The Roman church today, for example, views baptism as the means that an individual is cleansed from guilt incurred in the original sin of Adam and Eve. It is thought that the effectiveness of the baptism is in no way dependent upon the recipient of the sacrament. Therefore, it was considered expedient to baptize someone as soon as possible, namely, right after their birth.
This is quite different from the biblical teaching, which is that baptism is the symbolic ordinance that typifies our identification with the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a death to our old life, and the beginning of our new life in Christ. Rather than baptizing immediately after birth, it was actually more common to wait late until the twilight of one's years to be baptized. The rationale for this was that baptism was thought by many to be a one shot deal at forgiveness and pardon, so a late baptism would minimize the opportunity for an individual to accrue any damning sins. Even in the Fourth century this mindset was prevalent, witnessed by the fact that Constantine himself would not be baptized until he was on his deathbed. The earliest archeological evidence we have that a child was baptized comes from an epitaph on a young boys tomb in the Lateran. The quote is from the fourth century and it reads:
Florentius set up this inscription for his well deserving son
Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months and five days.
Since he was truly beloved by his grandmother, and she saw that
he was destined for death, she asked of the church that he might
depart a believer.
Many who have pointed to this as evidence for infant baptism have missed the point of the epitaph altogether. It does not support the idea that infants were baptized. On the contrary. The boy was almost two, not yet baptized, and when it was apparent that he was not going to survive to a mature age, the grandmother made a special request (presumably to baptize him) before his death. This epitaph actually supports the view that infants were not baptized as a normal procedure at that point in church history, and that putting off the practice until later in life was still the most common opinion.
If it is true that infants were not baptized, then what about the understanding of original sin? What did happen to a child or an infant that was not baptized? Were they damned because of Adamís guilt? Again, looking closer at the earliest documents, we find that the early church had a vastly different perception of Adam's sin and it's effects.
Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 150 A.D)
They are as infant children in whose hearts no evil originates; nor did they know what wickedness is, but always remain as children. Such accordingly without doubt, dwell in the kingdom of God, because they defiled in nothing the commandments of God. ...all infants are honorable before God, and are first in persons with Him.
The Shepherd of Hermas, previously noted, was considered canonical by several fathers of the church. According to him, there is no evil in the heart of an infant, and they dwell in the kingdom of God. Below we have a statement by Justin scolding the Roman dignitaries for allowing their pagan priests to sacrifice children from the womb for the purpose of divination.
Justin Martyr, First Apology XVIII, 155 A.D)
For you let even necromancy, and the divinations, whom you practice on immaculate children, and the invoking of departed human souls.
Notice that he calls the children "immaculate". Tertullian apparently held the same regard for infant children.
Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, 204 AD
those abodes; if you mean the good why should you judge to be unworthy of such a resting-place the souls of infants and of virgins, and those which, by reason of their condition in life were pure and innocent?
In the previously noted text from Tertullianís On Baptism, he likewise referred to unbaptized infants as "innocent". In addition to these, we have a frequently cited text from the Apocalypse of Peter from the 2nd century, that is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Theodotus and others, that states emphatically that aborted children are immediately ushered by a guardian angel into paradise, and share in a "better fate". It is understood by these fathers that Adamís guilt did not extend to one who had not sinned. If it did, then we would all need to concede that every aborted child, miscarriage, stillborn child, or otherwise unbaptized infant that died was in hell. Such an idea would be abhorrent to the early church.
The issue is understood biblically in Romans 5:12 which states that "sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men for all have sinned". Notice that the actual agent of death to each individual is that individualís personal sin. Likewise the next verse states that sin is not imputed where there is no law, that is, no understanding of right and wrong, which surely would be the case with an infant. It must be noted, however, that it would be equally wrong to propose that the descendants of Adam were unaffected by his actions. Man was qualitatively changed, now having the potential to know good and evil. Apparently his will was crippled and frustrated from being able to "do as he ought". (Romans 7:12-24) God, by his own sovereignty, has decreed that all man are bound over to disobedience (Romans 11:32; Galatians 3:22). The operation of sin in our lives, likened to a conception and gestational period in the book of James, "brings forth death ( James 1:14-15). To summarize the issue, then, we could fairly say that the early church taught that infants are guilt free, yet, the due to the fall we know that no natural mortal, upon being able to distinguish right from wrong, can stay guilt free, but instead is prone to sin.
When Cyprian of Carthage started promoting infant baptism as a cure from Adamís sin. He immediately had to defend it against the charge of novelty. As shown, it was not the churchís understanding that infants were in need of cleansing from sin. At the time, however, no major theological counter-thesis was offered. It was not until Pelegius started preaching in the early 5th century that the orthodox church was forced to define the doctrine of "Original Sin". Pelegius, who up to this point had been an orthodox bishop and writer, propounded that Adamís sin had absolutely no effect on his offspring, and that every individual had the potential to live a perfect and holy life. Pelegius asserted that man was by nature good, and could, by his own will and accord, live pleasingly before God. This extreme position, threatened the very necessity for the sacrifice and atonement of Christ. If justification was by the law, then Christ died in vain (Galatians 2:21). St. Augustine, through a number of polemical writings and Councils, refuted and condemned the teaching of Pelegius. Unfortunately, as is with many conflicts of ideas and words throughout history, the rhetoric and polemic overstated the orthodox position. In order to counter the inherent goodness of all, as taught by Pelegius, Augustine championed the inherent depravity of all, including infants. As a result, he held to the position that all infants are in a state of damnation before God, not because of their sin, but Adamís. According to Augustine, unbaptized infants go to suffer in hell. Some Roman Catholic theologians have attempted to soften this somewhat, hypothesizing a place called "limbo" which is more humane then hell, so as to deflect the obvious charge of injustice that would come with consigning newborn babies to eternal torment. This has never been officially defined by the Roman church, however. The Augustinian concept of Original Sin, then, must be rejected as a departure from the apostolic rule of faith.
Another viewpoint of infant baptism is one which equates the baptismal act with the sign and seal of the New Covenant, akin to circumcision of the Old Covenant. Some of the later texts which support infant baptism suggest that the baptism should be done on the eighth day, as was the circumcision of the Old Covenant. It must be kept in mind, however, that the New Testament frequently mentions circumcision, but never as a type for baptism. Instead, it says "neither circumcision nor uncircumscision means anything, but what counts is a new creation" (Galatians 6:15) which subordinates any "sign or seal" of a covenant to the spiritual reality of being born-again by trust in Christ. Likewise, Paul also points out that even Abraham was justified by believing God, before and independently of the sign of circumcision. (Romans 4:9-11). Consequently, since the New Testament minimizes the alleged typology of circumcision, it is not likely that we would find any apostolic teaching that would equate baptism with the same function of sealing an individual into Godís New Covenant. Instead, we find that both circumcision and baptism both serve as types for the spiritual reality of putting off our flesh and being washed of the impurities of the old nature. The spiritual reality, of course, is most applicable to an adult.
The belief in baptismal regeneration was apparently held by the majority of the early church fathers. Although one could debate writer by writer through the first few centuries as to whether this was indeed an apostolic teaching, in brief, the larger question would be as to whether an individual is saved (regenerated) by faith alone or by faith and baptism. The answer to that question is simply found by examining the scriptures to see whether salvation is imputed to those who believe and are baptized, or to those who merely believe. If the baptismal waters are indeed necessary for salvation, as even some writers proposed, then we should not find any cases in scripture where individuals are "saved" apart from baptism. There are, of course several glaring examples. The thief on the cross (Luke 23:40-43), as well as those in the household of Cornelius who believed and were filled with the Holy Spirit before they were baptized with water (Acts 10:43-48) are two clear examples. There are also numerous examples of Paulís missionary endeavors, where he preaches and many believe, yet there is no reference to water baptism. With this being the case, we must conclude that water baptism cannot be equally an agent to salvation, since there are cases of individuals being saved by faith apart from the waters of baptism. Neither can the act of baptism carry salvific power in and of itís self, since there are scriptural examples of individuals receiving baptism at the hand of the apostles, yet that individual still declared to be perishing because there heart was not right with God (cf. The Story of Simon Magus, Acts 8:9-24). Why then did so many early church fathers attribute regeneration at the point of water baptism? We could speculate that the hostile anti-Christian culture may have had a role to play. In the early church, baptism was the public profession before all that the individual was joining themselves to the Christian community. They were declaring that they were dead to their old life of idolatry and paganism. For many, it was the act that destined them to a martyrís fate. Culturally, there was also the de-emphasis of such rites with many of the Gnostics. Those Gnostics that did have a baptismal ritual (Sethians and Valentians) had it so "super-spiritualized" that it would be construed by many to be a polemic against the normal, orthodox baptismal practice. We would consequently expect an increased emphasis on the act of baptism itself, certainly far more than our culture would remit. It could also be that the significance of water baptism is not derived so much from the agency of the water, but from the agency of faith and public profession of the Lordship of Christ. "If you confess me before men, I will confess you before my heavenly Father" (Matthew 10:32). In any respect, I would deduce that the emphasis on the ritual of baptism with respect to regeneration by the fathers was more a product of these cultural forces than actual apostolic teaching.
In summary of the issue, we can see that the post-apostolic church may have had a deeper
awareness of the mechanics of salvation, without the burdens of some of today's debates. This is not to say that everyone in the first three centuries understood the magnitude and glorious liberty of salvation in Christ. On the contrary; salvation by faith was one of, if not, the first foundational tenet to fall prey to the apostasy. Very early in the third century, because of the necessity of bearing up under persecution, we can see references to good works (ie. public profession) being necessary for salvation. By the middle of the third century, the regeneration of the believer was ascribed most commonly to happen at baptism. Ultimately, as the Roman Empire broke apart in the fifth century, and the church assumed the role of maintaining order in that civilization, eternal salvation was joined to the reception of the sacraments. Later in western history, this would give the papacy exceptional control over the princes, barons and kings throughout Europe. If a certain ruler would not side with the demands of the Pope, the Pope could vow to withhold the sacraments from that ruler and his subjects. Although that might not have struck fear into the ruler, the prospect of eternal damnation for an entire duchy or kingdom would create a panic and terror among the masses, and the ruler's hand would be forced to reconcile with the Pope.
Today there is need to renew the original apostolic understanding of salvation. The gospel message, as typified by the Pauline revelation of grace, righteousness and adoption, is forever coupled to the truths borne by the act of baptism, that of self-abandonment and death to the old life, so as to fully serve God in the newness of life. So many have tried to reinterpret the gospels as merely a means to the end of raising oneís self-esteem, or instilling dignity and human worth. For others, it is a "feel good" message, brimming with warm snugglies of how much God loves us. All though there is truth in both views, we cheat ourselves of the fullness of our common salvation when we see it as less than a total redemption, of the total man, to be fully adopted into Godsí family as a true child of God. Likewise, we cheat God when we respond with anything less than laying down every aspect of our old life and being, in complete service to God, for His glory alone.