The Church Fathers, Medieval Theologians, and Protestant Leaders on Baptism

INTRODUCTION

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381), which unites all Christians in orthodoxy, has the believer affirm that,

“I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.”

How did the writers of this creed understand this statement? Was baptism referring to spirit or water? Were modes of baptism an issue? Were infants to be baptized?

Below is a collection of statements from major fathers and theologians of the Church that pertain to these questions. Most are from those leading up to the formulation of the Creed, but I also include some Medieval and Reformation theologians to show how the statement was understood following its issuance as well.

BAPTISM’S PURPOSE (Removal of Sin / Regeneration)

THEOPHILUS OF ANTIOCH (2nd Century)

“Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God. (181 AD)

IRENAEUS (2ND CENTURY)

“‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]).

TERTULLIAN (2ND-3rd CENTURY)

“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” (140-230 AD)

CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE (3RD CENTURY)

“For he who has been sanctified, his sins being put away in baptism, and has been spiritually re-formed into a new man, has become fitted for receiving the Holy Spirit; since the apostle says, As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’ (The Epistles of Cyprian)

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (4th Century)

“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors . . . holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).

AUGUSTINE (5th Century)

“It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s Body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture, too. . . . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants, passim – 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43 [A.D. 412]).

BAPTISM’S MODE (Water)

HERMAS [A.D. 80]

“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I [to the Shepherd], ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd, 4:3:1–2).

THE DIDACHE [A.D. 90’s]

“And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: 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 thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice 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 whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before.”

JUSTIN MARTYR [A.D. 151]

“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly . . . 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 Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:3]” (First Apology, 61).

THEOPHILUS OF ANTIOCH [A.D. 181]

“Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,–as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God.” (To Autolycus, 2:16).

IRENAEUS [A.D. 190]

“For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment, 34).

TERTULLIAN [A.D. 203]

“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and.asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” (On Baptism, I).

We enter, then, the font once: once are sins washed away, because they ought never to be repeated. But the Jewish Isreal bathes daily, because he is daily being defiled: and, for fear that defilement should be practised among us also, therefore was the definition touching the one bathing made. Happy water, which once washes away; which does not mock sinners (with vain hopes); which does not, by being infected with the repetition of impurities, again defile them whom it has washed! (On Baptism, XV)

HIPPOLYTUS [A.D. 217]

“[P]erhaps someone will ask, ‘What does it conduce unto piety to be baptized?’ In the first place, that you may do what has seemed good to God; in the next place, being born again by water unto God so that you change your first birth, which was from concupiscence, and are able to attain salvation, which would otherwise be impossible. For thus the [prophet] has sworn to us: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you are born again with living water, into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Therefore, fly to the water, for this alone can extinguish the fire. He who will not come to the water still carries around with him the spirit of insanity for the sake of which he will not come to the living water for his own salvation” (Homilies, 11:26).

ORIGEN [A.D. 248]

“The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit.” (Commentaries on Romans, 5:9).

CYPRIAN [A.D. 250]

“But as often as water is named alone in the Holy Scriptures, baptism is referred to, as we see intimated in Isaiah: “Remember not,” says he, “the former things, and consider not the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing, which shall now spring forth; and ye shall know it. I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the dry place, to give drink to my elected people, my people whom I have purchased, that they might show forth my praise.” There God foretold by the prophet, that among the nations, in places which previously had been dry, rivers should afterwards flow plenteously, and should provide water for the elected people of God, that is, for those who were made sons of God by the generation of baptism.” (The Epistles of Cyprian, LXII.8)

“For it has been delivered to us, that there is one God, and one Christ, and one hope, and one faith, and one Church, and one baptism ordained only in the one Church, from which unity whosoever will depart must needs be found with heretics; and while he upholds them against the Church, he impugns the sacrament of the divine tradition. The sacrament of which unity we see expressed also in the Canticles, in the person of Christ, who says, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a fountain sealed, a well of living water, a garden with the fruit of apples.” But if His Church is a garden enclosed, and a fountain sealed, how can he who is not in the Church enter into the same garden, or drink from its fountain? Moreover, Peter himself, showing and vindicating the unity, has commanded and warned us that we cannot be saved, except by the one only baptism of one Church. “In the ark,” says he, “of Noah, few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water, as also baptism shall in like manner save you.” In how short and spiritual a summary has he set forth the sacrament of unity! For as, in that baptism of the world in which its ancient iniquity was purged away, he who was not in the ark of Noah could not be saved by water, so neither can he appear to be saved by baptism who has not been baptized in the Church which is established in the unity of the Lord according to the sacrament of the one ark.” (The Epistles of Cyprian, LXIII.8)

It is required, then, that the water should first be cleansed and sanctified by the priest, that it may wash away by its baptism the sins of the man who is baptized.” (The Epistles of Cyprian, LXIX.8)

LACTANTIUS [A.D. 310]

“…when you are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so at length you shall be able to attain salvation; but otherwise it is impossible. For thus hath the true prophet testified to its with an oath: ‘Verily I say to you, That unless a man is born again of water, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore make haste; for there is in these waters a certain power of mercy which was borne upon them at the beginning, and acknowledges those who are baptized under the name of the threefold sacrament, and rescues them from future punishments, presenting as a gift to God the souls that are consecrated by baptism. Betake yourselves therefore to these waters, for they alone can quench the violence of the future fire; and he who delays to approach to them, it is evident that the idol of unbelief remains in him, and by it be is prevented from hastening to the waters which confer salvation. For whether you be righteous or unrighteous, baptism is necessary for you in every respect: for the righteous, that perfection may be accomplished in him, and he may be born again to God; for the unrighteous, that pardon may he vouchsafed him of the sins which he has committed in ignorance. Therefore all should hasten to be born again to God without delay, because the end of every one’s life is uncertain.” (Divine Institutes, 5:19)

EPHRAIM SYRUS (A.D. 373)

“The baptized when they come up are sanctified;–the sealed when they go down are pardoned.—They who come up have put on glory;–they who go down have cast off sin.” (Hymns for the Feast of the Epiphany, 6:9)

BASIL [A.D. 375]

“This then is what it is to be born again of water and of the Spirit, the being made dead being effected in the water, while our life is wrought in us through the Spirit. In three immersions, then, and with three invocations, the great mystery of baptism is performed, to the end that the type of death may be fully figured, and that by the tradition of the divine knowledge the baptized may have their souls enlightened. It follows that if there is any grace in the water, it is not of the nature of the water, but of the presence of the Spirit.” (On the Spirit, 15:35)

GREGORY OF NYSSA [A.D. 382]

“[T]he birth by water and the Spirit, Himself led the way in this birth, drawing down upon the water, by His own baptism, the Holy Spirit; so that in all things He became the first-born of those who are spiritually born again, and gave the name of brethren to those who partook in a birth like to His own by water and the Spirit.” (Against Eunomius, 2:8)

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM [A.D. 387]

“Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is the taking away of sins and a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul, and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood” (Panegyric on St. Lucian, 2).

AUGUSTINE [A.D. 419]

“Those who, though they have not received the washing of regeneration, die for the confession of Christ—it avails them just as much for the forgiveness of their sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism. For he that said, ‘If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5], made an exception for them in that other statement in which he says no less generally, ‘Whoever confesses me before men, I too will confess him before my Father, who is in heaven’ [Matt. 10:32]” (The City of God 13:7).

BAPTISM’S RECIPIENTS (Infants)

IRENAEUS [A.D. 189]

“He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4).

HIPPOLYTUS [A.D. 215]

“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16).

ORIGEN [A.D. 244 / 248]

“Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. . . . In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3).

“The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9).

CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE [A.D. 253]

“As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born . . . If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” ” (Letters 64:2-5).

GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS [A.D. 388]

“Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7).

“‘Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly [I respond], if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:28).

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM [A.D. 388]

“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21).

AUGUSTINE [A.D. 400 / 408 / 412]

“What the universal Church holds, not as instituted [invented] by councils but as something always held, is most correctly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them, it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4:24:31).

“The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39).

“Cyprian was not issuing a new decree but was keeping to the most solid belief of the Church in order to correct some who thought that infants ought not be baptized before the eighth day after their birth. . . . He agreed with certain of his fellow bishops that a child is able to be duly baptized as soon as he is born” (Letters 166:8:23).

“By this grace baptized infants too are ingrafted into his [Christ’s] body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive . . . gives also the most hidden grace of his Spirit to believers, grace which he secretly infuses even into infants. . . . It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s Body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture, too. . . . If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this. . . . The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:9:10; 1:24:34; 2:27:43).

AQUINAS (13th Century)

“Now children contract original sin from the sin of Adam; which is made clear by the fact that they are under the ban of death, which ‘passed upon all’ on account of the sin of the first man, as the Apostle says in the same passage (Romans 5:12). Much more, therefore, can children receive grace through Christ, so as to reign in eternal life. But our Lord Himself said (John 3:5): ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ Consequently it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation through Adam so in a second birth they might obtain salvation through Christ. Moreover it was fitting that children should receive Baptism, in order that being reared from childhood in things pertaining to the Christian mode of life, they may the more easily persevere therein; according to Proverbs 22:5: ‘A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ This reason is also given by Dionysius (Eccl. Hier. iii).” (ST III.68.9)

“The spiritual regeneration effected by Baptism is somewhat like carnal birth, in this respect, that as the child while in the mother’s womb receives nourishment not independently, but through the nourishment of its mother, so also children before the use of reason, being as it were in the womb of their mother the Church, receive salvation not by their own act, but by the act of the Church. . . . little children believe through others, just as they contracted from others those sins which are remitted in Baptism.” (ST III.68.9)

LUTHER (16th Century)

“Why are babies to be baptized? A[nswer]. Babies are to baptized because they are included in the words ‘all nations’.” (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation)

“Here a question occurs by which the devil through his sects, confuses the world, namely, Of Infant Baptism, whether children also believe, and are justly baptized. Concerning this we say briefly: Let the simple dismiss this question from their minds, and refer it to the learned. But if you wish to answer then answer thus: –That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from His own work, namely, that God sanctifies many of them who have been thus baptized, and has given them the Holy Ghost” (Infant Baptism, XIII A)

“God confirms Baptism by the gifts of His Holy Ghost as is plainly perceptible in some of the church fathers, as St. Bernard, Gerson, John Hus, and others, who were baptized in infancy, and since the holy Christian Church cannot perish until the end of the world, they must acknowledge that such infant baptism is pleasing to God.” (Infant Baptism, XIII A)

“we are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid; but everything depends upon the Word and command of God” .” (Infant Baptism, XIII A)

“those who unworthily go to the Sacrament receive the true Sacrament even though they do not believe. Thus you see that the objection of the sectarians is vain. For (as we have said) even though infants did not believe, which however, is not the case, yet their baptism as now shown would be valid, and no one should rebaptize them” (Infant Baptism, XIII A)

MELANCHTHON (16th Century)

“Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace. They condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children.” (Article IX of The Confession of Faith: Which Was Submitted to His Imperial Majesty Charles V. at the Diet of Augsburg in the Year 1530)

CALVIN (16th Century)

“The argument by which pædobaptism is assailed is, no doubt, specious—viz. that it is not founded on the institution of God, but was introduced merely by human presumption and depraved curiosity, and afterwards, by a foolish facility, rashly received in practice; whereas a sacrament has not a thread to hang upon, if it rest not on the sure foundation of the word of God.” (Inst. 4.16)

“it [infant baptism] is a well-known doctrine, and one as to which all the pious are agreed” (Inst. 4.16)

“infants cannot be deprived of it [baptism] without open violation of the will of God” (Inst. 4.16)

“If reason is listened to, it will undoubtedly appear that baptism is properly administered to infants as a thing due to them [infants].” (Inst. 4.16)

“that circumcision was a sign of repentance is completely established by many passages of Scripture (Jer. 4:4). Thus Paul terms it a seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11). Let God, then, be demanded why he ordered circumcision to be performed on the bodies of infants? For baptism and circumcision being here in the same case, they cannot give anything to the latter without conceding it to the former. If they recur to their usual evasion, that, by the age of infancy, spiritual infants were then figured, we have already closed this means of escape against them. We say, then, that since God imparted circumcision, the sign of repentance and faith, to infants, it should not seem absurd that they are now made partakers of baptism, unless men choose to clamour against an institution of God. But as in all his acts, so here also, enough of wisdom and righteousness shines forth to repress the slanders of the ungodly. For although infants, at the moment when they were circumcised, did not comprehend what the sign meant, still they were truly circumcised” (Inst. 4.16)

ZWINGLI (16th Century)

“The children of Christians are no less sons of God than the parents, just as in the Old Testament. Hence, since they are sons of God, who will forbid this baptism? Circumcision among the ancients … was the same as baptism with us.” (Works of Zwingli)

“Children born of believing parents are children of God, like those who were born under the Old Testament, and consequently may receive baptism.” (Works of Zwingli)

“Baptism under the New Testament is what circumcision was under the Old; consequently, baptism ought now to be administered to children, as circumcision was formerly.” (Works of Zwingli)

Sources

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  1. Pingback: Why I Changed My Mind on Infant Baptism | Douglas Beaumont

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