One Measly Little Doctrine: How the Early Church Drove Me toward Catholicism, Part I

During the nearly twenty years I was a ‘Bible Christian,’ while I liked reading Luther and Calvin and the lives of others I respected, what Christians believed in the early centuries of the Church didn’t matter too much to me.

When it came to determining doctrine, all that counted, really, was ‘what saith the scriptures?’

Then I was introduced to John Henry Newman, one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers of the 19th century. At the age of 45, he left the Anglican Church to enter the Roman Catholic Church and one the main things that drove him was reading the early church fathers.

I picked up the defense Newman wrote of his decision to become Catholic, his Apologia pro Vita Sua, and read it. I also read his extraordinary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, where Newman makes his famous statement: “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

I remember thinking that this was quite the bold thing to say. Is he kidding? To be deep in history is to cease  to be Protestant?

But he went even further than this. He insisted that it’s “easy to show that the Christianity of history [was] not Protestantism.” In fact, he said that if any church like the church I was pastoring at the time ever existed in the early centuries of the Christian history, there’s no record of it.

This utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether…regarded in its early or in its later centuries…. So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial.

It was at this point that I decided I needed to read the church fathers. I wanted to know if there was truth to what Newman was saying.

And anyway, these were of the first great apologists, theologians, bishops, saints and martyrs of Christianity. St. Irenaeus was a disciple of a man who was himself a disciple of John. You can’t get any closer to the apostles. Why not see what these men had to say?

The Meaning of Baptism

As I began to read the fathers, one of the first things that struck me was the way they talked about baptism.

Catholicism teaches “baptismal regeneration” — that in baptism the graces depicted by baptism are actually given. Sins are washed away. We’re spiritually reborn and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

If you want an image of the Catholic teaching on baptism, think of Naaman the Syrian being instructed to dip himself in the Jordan River seven times in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. Think of Jesus commanding the man blind from birth to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” in order to receive his sight. In both cases, faith was expressed in an act of obedience through which  the blessing was given. So it is with baptism.

Among evangelical Protestants, this teaching is almost universally rejected. Baptism is held to be nothing more than a symbolic act by which a believer makes public profession of his or her faith. It speaks of what God has done in the life of the believer. It doesn’t itself do anything.

This is what I believed as a Baptist.

Baptism in the Fathers

With this background, I began to read the fathers.

I started with the Letter of Barnabas, one of the earliest Christian writings (some date it as early as 70 A.D.). I’m reading along, the subject of baptism arises and I find the author describing baptism as “the washing which confers the remission of sins” and explaining that “We descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up bearing fruit in our heart…”

“Hmm…  Could mean anything,” I thought.

I finished Barnabas and picked up The Shepherd of Hermas, another of the earliest post-apostolic writings. I’m merrily reading along and suddenly the author says,

“I have heard, sir,” said I, “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.”

At this point I thought, “Well, these two certainly seem to have had some kind of quasi-magical view of what takes place in baptism. But maybe it’s just these two.”

I continued reading and came to Justin Martyr, the first great apologist of Christian history. I’m reading his First Apology, written around 150 A.D. and I run into this:

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins that are past, while we pray and fast with them.  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 Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.  For Christ also said, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

I go on to read Clement of Alexandria, writing around A.D. 191, and find him saying:

When we are baptized, we are enlightened.  Being enlightened we are adopted as sons.  Adopted as sons, we are made perfect…. This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing.  It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation.

I read Tertullian, writing around 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… Baptism itself is a corporeal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from
our sins.

Now, I could go on and on with similar quotations from fathers and doctors of the early Church. Cyril of Jerusalem said of baptism, “You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness.”  St Augustine said, “Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins….This is the meaning of the great sacrament of baptism, which is celebrated among us.”  St. Gregory of Nazianzus said, “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift… We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth…”

I’ve selected only a handful of quotations here so as not to bore you to death. But it’s not as though I found other church fathers arguing against the ideas expressed in these quotations. In fact, this is the way all of the earliest Christian writers speak of baptism and how Christians continued to speak of baptism essentially until the late Middle Ages when early forms of Protestantism appeared. Whenever baptism is mentioned, these are the sorts of things that are being said.

This is what Christians believed for the first 15 centuries of Christian history.

In all my reading I did not run into even one passage in which the sacramental nature of baptism was denied. Not even one that taught the view I and every Christian I knew had of baptism.

Baptism in Early Church Historians

Almost in a panic, I turned to the works of great historians of the early church.

For instance, J.N.D. Kelly, whose work Early Christian Doctrines  has been used as a textbook in seminaries around the world. This is what he says in his section on baptism:

From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission into the Church… As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins…. [It is that washing with] the living water which alone can cleanse penitents and which, being a baptism with the Holy Spirit, is to be contrasted with Jewish washings. It is a spiritual rite replacing circumcision, the unique doorway to the remission of sins.

I read the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the two or three greatest historians of Christian doctrine alive at the time. He refers to Tertullian’s teaching on baptism as illustrating the view of early church. From Tertullian’s treatise on the doctrine of baptism (the first ever written on the subject) Pelikan says we learn that four basic gifts are given in baptism: “the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.”

It became more and more apparent to me that no one  in the early centuries of Christianity held the view of baptism that I held as an evangelical, the view that everyone I knew held, the view that virtually all evangelical Protestants hold. Strange realization.

How in the world could we be so cut off from history? I wondered.

I remember around this time coming home and saying to Tina something along the lines of: You know, I’ve been crawling around in the early church for months, now. I’ve looked under every rock and behind every tree and for the life of me… there ain’t a Baptist in sight!

And it was true. There wasn’t.

Theological Time Travel

I imagined that I could somehow be parachuted back to the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian and Cyprian and Augustine. And I asked myself the question: Would I oppose them on the basis of my personal interpretation of scripture on this matter of baptism? Would I insist they were all wrong and that I was right on this issue? Would I start my own Baptist Church and denomination?

As someone who still thought mainly in terms of sola scriptura, my answer at the time was that I suppose I might  oppose the teaching of the universal church on baptism (making the unlikely assumption that I would have had the courage to do it) and, yes, even start my own church and denomination — but only if it was absolutely certain  that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration contradicted the teaching of scripture.

In other words, a shift in my thinking was already taking place. Whereas before, it seemed natural to approach any doctrinal issue by simply going straight to the Bible and asking myself, “What do I think it teaches?” after facing such unanimous historical testimony on the meaning of baptism, I now saw that the burden of proof was on me to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the Church was wrong.

It wouldn’t be good enough for me to simply read the New Testament and conclude, “I think it teaches that baptism is X, Y or Z.”

No. To overturn what amounted to the universal faith of the Church for the first fifteen hundred years of its existence (and still the faith of the majority of Christians), I would need to believe that the Church’s view was completely irreconcilable with scripture.

Obviously, the next step was to carefully read again what the New Testament had to say about baptism in the light of what I’d seen in the writings of the fathers. If their view cohered with what I saw there, how could I not join them in that view?


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  • Done M Espina says:


    I hope “original sin” will come up in the second part.

    Thanks. GOD bless you Ken.

  • Marcus Grodi has stated that he finally discovered/realized that when he checked his sola scriptura interpretation with the commentaries, that, in effect, he only checked with the commentators with whom he already agreed; thus, he was always agreeing with himself on what scripture taught. That is what all of us Protestants have been doing for five hundred years.

  • Mike McGinn says:

    Wow Ken. You’re not letting the moss grow under you. No sooner did I collate your “Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood Paul” for my evangelical friend, and now I’m gonna have to start the next compilation. This is great stuff!

  • This so parallels my journey! The more I read conversion stories, the more common I see this experience is. I don’t see how anyone could read the Fathers with an open mind (and heart), and not become Catholic.

  • Bill says:

    This is great stuff Ken. When did the Church determine that infant baptism could or should replace the baptism that Justin Martyr describes, where an individual to decides to live for Christ?…”As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins that are past, while we pray and fast with them. 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 Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.”

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Hi Bill. So sorry I read this when you first posted but walked away and forgot — apparently even to approve it! The issue of infant baptism is another issue and rather than trying to argue the case I would recommend you go to Catholic Answers website and search infant baptism. They probably have several great short articles making the case from scripture and the fathers. But in short , yes the passage above from Justin Martyr is obviously dealing with one who is converting and not to infants, and the Church didn’t determine that infant baptism should “replace” the baptism Justin describes. That baptism continues on to the present as describing what should happen to non-infant converts. But this doesn’t mean that the infant children of believing parents should not be baptized. It’s just that their baptism will not be exactly the same as that for adult converts. Again, for the “case” see Catholic Answers. I could write a post on it but don’t want to try in a comment to handle all the angles. God bless.

      • Bill says:

        Thanks Ken. I recently went to the baptism of a co-workers infant, and it was beautiful. I’ll check out Catholic Answers.

  • Joe says:

    Another excellent piece!

  • Jim says:

    So when it comes to adult baptism Catholics and Protestants agree. In fact Baptists would agree more with the Church Fathers you quote than Catholics do who have gone to infant baptism.

    • MIke says:

      Except for the sacramental regeneration part.
      As far I can find, Catholicism has never taught that infant baptism is the ONLY way one can be baptized, and certainly adults are baptized in the Catholic Church if they have not been previously and validly baptized. We have about 16 adults who will receive the sacrament of baptism in about two weeks during the Easter Vigil Mass.

  • Susan Demmons says:

    WOW, I am learning so much!!! I come from a Baptist background and again am seriously questioning what I have been taught all my life as I’ve been questioning now for years. I was taught that in order to be “saved” I had to ask Jesus to come into my heart and accept him as Saviour. I did that many times as a child because I thought I was still going to Hell. No one told me that Baptism is what saves me! I was taught it was just a symbol of my accepting Jesus into “my heart”. I love this…the more I read the more Catholicism makes sense to me.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Good to hear, Susan. I would encourage you to join the Coming Home Network. We have a small and private group of former Baptists and Baptists who are thinking about the Cathoic faith. It’s a great place to share ideas and thoughts, ask questions etc. Just Google the coming home network, register to join the network and then click on Community and look at the various groups. You can request membership in the Baptist Group. I’m there every day.

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