It’s astonishing to me how quickly Christian churches lost the meaning of believer’s baptism in the first centuries after Christ returned to heaven. The early church quickly adopted a baptismal regeneration view of the ordinance; a view that is completely at odds with the New Testament documents.
Perhaps the largest culprit for this misinterpretation is a wrong-headed understanding of Jesus’ words from John 3:5, in which Jesus explains the meaning of the new and spiritual birth to Nicodemus. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
For several reasons, this is best understood as a double-metaphor, with water and Spirit both referring to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in salvation (cf. Ezek 36; Mk 1:8). However, anyone who has spent time reading the early apostolic and post-apostolic literature knows very well how this passage (and others) were interpreted to teach a spiritual regeneration view of the ordinance of baptism.
Indeed, Christian literature from the mid-2nd century demonstrates that some believers thought there was no forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. Again, this isn’t a concept taught anywhere in the New Testament. By the mid-4th century, the process for adult baptism had become quite elaborate and superstitious.
I’ve started reading Augustine’s Confessions, which is one of those books every seminary graduate comes across, knows he should read, but usually doesn’t. Well, I decided I’d better.
Here are some remarks Augustine made about baptism. It gives us a representative glimpse into what Christians in North Africa thought about the ordinance in the mid-4th century. It also shows us how far they’d slipped from any semblance of a New Testament doctrine of baptism:
Even as a boy I had heard of eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God condescending to our pride, and I was signed with the sign of the cross, and was seasoned with His salt even from the womb of my mother, who greatly trusted in Thee.
Thou sawest, O Lord, how at one time, while yet a boy, being suddenly seized with pains in the stomach, and being at the point of death—Thou sawest, O my God, for even then Thou wast my keeper, with what emotion of mind and with what faith I solicited from the piety of my mother, and of Thy Church, the mother of us all, the baptism of Thy Christ, my Lord and my God.
On which, the mother of my flesh being much troubled,—since she, with a heart pure in Thy faith, travailed in birth more lovingly for my eternal salvation,—would, had I not quickly recovered, have without delay provided for my initiation and washing by Thy life-giving sacraments, confessing Thee, O Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins.
So my cleansing was deferred, as if I must needs, should I live, be further polluted; because, indeed, the guilt contracted by sin would, after baptism, be greater and more perilous.
A few remarks:
- Augustine was not a believer at this time
- He refers to the church (that is, Christ’s church in a corporate sense) as “the mother of us all.” I believe Cyprian coined this terminology during the Novatian controversy, about 100 years before.
- Augustine considers baptism to be “life-giving,” and in some way efficacious to wash away sins. Given the context of his time, he believed in baptismal regeneration. He refers to baptism as “my cleansing.”
- His mother deferred Augustine’s baptism, because she didn’t want him to contract sins after baptism if he ended up living after all. This ties back to the false ideas that (a) baptism actually removed sins, and (b) that it only removed sins prior to baptism, and not afterwards.
The New Testament knows nothing of any of this. It’s more important than ever for Christians to hold fast to the inspired word of God. Creeds, confessions, books and theologians are good and helpful guides; very helpful, actually. But, the only infallible source of faith and practice is the Bible.
Always be willing to conform your theological tradition to the Scriptures. We’re all prisoners of our own context and times, even if we don’t realize it. You’ve been molded and shaped by your own unique circumstances, culture and theological tradition. That’s a good thing. But, it can also be an echo-chamber.
Always go to the sources. Always go to the Bible.
1 See, for example, “Shepherd of Hermes 2.4.3,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; trans. F. Crombie (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:22.
2 For an excellent summary of the baptismal rites at the time of Augustine’s baptism from a series of contemporary sources, see David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:342-347.
3 This excerpt is from Augustine of Hippo, “The Confessions of St. Augustin” 1.1.17, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Pilkington (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 1:50.