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
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?