The Purified Water?

Called to Communion and White Horse Blog posted a while back on the subject of whether baptismal regeneration can be found in the church fathers’ earliest writings or not. I looked into this subject a while back for my dear father who finds it silly of me to seek baptism thinking that baptism does nothing and that it’s really not important for Christian life–you can just write down a facebook comment saying “I’m a Christian” instead. So I decided to look this question up and it seems that baptismal regeneration is not a doctrine you can “prove”, you need to experience it. Of course, which church baptises correctly, I do not know, there’s so many frivolous debates on this.

Regardless, Called to Communion and White Horse Blog both use as their starting point for the discussion a created fiction–namely that the earliest 2nd-3rd century church fathers can be taken unanimously. I’m honestly not too worried if one or two or three church fathers had a faulty baptismal theology in the early centuries because the church wasn’t really uniform in the 2nd-3rd centuries which is a mistake that, more than often, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians make! Origen was a universalist. Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Origen were heterodox at best on the Trinity. It isn’t until the 4th century that you start to get a greater sense of uniformity. Needless to say, I wanted to comment on some of White Horse Blog‘s assessments of the church fathers.

They say…

We respond that this is hardly evidence for Baptismal Regeneration, and it is a fine demonstration of just how selective Roman Catholics are in their use of the Fathers. In the previous chapter, Ignatius had written, “For this end did the Lord allow the ointment to be poured upon His head, that He might breathe immortality into His Church” (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians, XVII). If ever there was a statement from the earliest Church Fathers about “the reception of the Life of God within us,” it is Ignatius’ statement that immortality is breathed into the church by oil rather than water.

My response is that this is actually correct and perfectly compatible with the teaching of baptismal regeneration. One thing that complicates matters is that Protestant baptismal regenerationists assume that it is only the waters of baptism that regenerate a person and make them born again. At least in the Byzantine Rite, it is not so. In fact, The Orthodox Study Bible reads “the new birth consists of being joined to Christ in the water of baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit through anointing or ‘chrismation’” (1426) for their commentary on John 3:3, 5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of confirmation that “This seal of the Holy Spirit marks our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service for ever, as well as the promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial” (1296). It is baptism and confirmation that mark one as “born again” (Acts 8:14-25), not baptism “alone”. So St. Ignatius’s comments deal no significant damage to the historic teaching of baptismal regeneration. Baptism and confirmation being separated does not mean they are any more or less initiatory or regenerative than each other.

They say…

Leading up to this citation, Barnabas has cited Psalm 1:3-6, which says, “The man who does these things [i.e., meditates on the Law] shall be like a tree planted by the courses of waters…,” and makes note of the metaphors of wood (tree) and water. He explains that these metaphors refer to the Cross and Baptism, and in the process teaches that believers put their trust in the cross, and having been regenerated by the preaching of the Word then go down into the water:

I note that in that particular time-frame, they baptised a LOT of adults as the church was in a missionary role so naturally, they would have people who believed before receiving the sacrament. This in no way undermines baptismal regeneration.

The Shepherd of Hermas is controversially heterodox and I’m quite surprised that Called to Communion used it in their writings. White Horse Blog‘s comments on Justin Martyr are equally dismal seeing as Justin Martyr talks about illumination being accomplished through the name of Christ but for baptismal regenerationists one is initiated into Christ’s name through baptism “in the name of the Father, AND OF THE SON, and of the Holy Spirit”. This is no problem for baptismal regenerationists.

They say…

We also begin to notice that “the laver” in the Fathers does not always refer to a washing of water, but as often refers to Christ, His death, the Scriptures, the preaching ministry of the Church, and notably God’s work of regeneration apart from water. Last week, for example, Called to Communion cited Justin Martyr as saying:

But I don’t see why the laver can’t be both. For baptismal regenerationists, the laver is really the death of Christ, the Scriptures, the preaching ministry of the church, and God’s ultimate work of regeneration. White Horse Blog says of Irenaeus that…

Two principles of Irenaeus’ teaching must be brought forth at this point: 1) In Irenaeus, baptism at times includes the catechesis, i.e., the instruction in the Word, which is received prior to the application of water, and 2) regeneration is by the instruction, and not by the application of water. This is evident from his explicit teachings.

Irenaeus also says…

I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. (Against Heresies, 2.22)

Instruction cannot necessarily be given to infants the same way it can for adults so either Irenaeus is referring to a different type of instruction that ties into becoming regenerated through baptism and confirmation or Irenaeus has a specific set of instructions for adult converts. Theophilus is apparently also a confirmation regenerationist which again is what the orthodox understanding of baptism and chrismation are. In part 3, I don’t really see how Clement of Alexandria denies baptismal regeneration and I don’t understand why either Called to Communion or White Horse Blog are trying to use Tertullian who was heterodox on the Trinity and on the perpetual virginity of Mary to establish a point. This goes back to what I previously said. Over to part 4.

They argue that Hippolytus wants things to be taken not literally but figuratively. But what parts does he want taken figuratively?

Nor is this the only thing that proves the dignity of the water. But there is also that which is more honourable than all— the fact that Christ, the Maker of all, came down as the rain, and was known as a spring, and diffused Himself as a river, and was baptized in the Jordan. For you have just heard how Jesus came to John, and was baptized by him in the Jordan. Oh things strange beyond compare! How should the boundless River that makes glad the city of God have been dipped in a little water! The illimitable Spring that bears life to all men, and has no end, was covered by poor and temporary waters! He who is present everywhere, and absent nowhere— who is incomprehensible to angels and invisible to men— comes to the baptism according to His own good pleasure. (The Discourse on Holy Theophany, 2)

Surely not the part about him being invisible to men or incomprehensible to the angels! Thus, Hippolytus doesn’t want all of that being taken figuratively! Rather, Hippolytus wants this taken figuratively…

When you hear these things, beloved, take them not as if spoken literally, but accept them as presented in a figure. Whence also the Lord was not unnoticed by the watery element in what He did in secret, in the kindness of His condescension to man. For the waters saw Him, and were afraid. They wellnigh broke from their place, and burst away from their boundary.

Thus, Hippolytus does not deny baptismal regeneration. As for Origen, he was also heterodox on certain things but I see no reason why something cannot be both symbolic and real. Protestants seem to have this thing with dichotomies left and right that if it’s x, it cannot also be y. In part 5, he mentions Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory Thaumaturgus and Pamphilus of Caesarea. Cyprian of Carthage is similar to Ignatius so we won’t go over that again but he attempts to assert that Cyprian understood it figuratively. I’m rather surprised as most scholars see him as the start of baptismal regeneration. Gregory Thaumaturgus is doubtful whether he even wrote the homilies at best so we need not discuss that. Their interpretation of Pamphilus indicates that for Paul and Cornelius, the Holy Spirit preceded baptism. This is somewhat true and perfectly reconcilable with baptismal regeneration. The Holy Spirit’s prevenient grace on the unbaptised certainly does precede their baptism but in order to genuinely receive it, baptism and chrismation are both needed.

In part 6, he attempts to give a clever symbolic interpretation to Methodius. I don’t buy it. So I conclude with Fr. Brown’s quote here…

The notion of new begetting which was at the heart of Jn 3 had baptismal significance for the early Church even without the mention of water. 1 Pt, which many scholars consider as a baptismal homily drawn from a primitive liturgy, says, ‘You have been born anew.’ Ti 3:5 speaks of the ‘washing of regeneration.’ Again, if in Jn 3 the begetting is accomplished through Spirit, we should note that elsewhere in Jn the Spirit is connected with water (and thus with baptism). For instance, in 7:38-39 we are told that the living water that is to flow from within Jesus is the Spirit. Once more, if in 3:14 begetting from above depends on the Son of Man’s being lifted up, we must remember that it was blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side when He was lifted up (19:34). Finally, the very context of chap. 3 points to a baptismal reference, for the Nicodemus episode is immediately followed by the reentrance of John the Baptist and the remark that Jesus was baptizing in Judea (3:22). With all of these indications, it is difficult not to believe that along with the principal nonsacramental meaning of the Nicodemus scene, the Evangelist intended a secondary sacramental meaning, much as in 6:35-50. (New Testament Essays, 134-135)

The evidence for baptismal regeneration seems overwhelming…but there are three initiatory sacraments that make one born again…confirmation, baptism, and eucharist.

About Emperor Thomas I

Catholic monarch of the New Roman Coalition. Consecrated to the Apostle Thomas, the Holy Martyr Sigismund, and the Holy Martyr Olaf II.
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2 Responses to The Purified Water?

  1. Outstanding work, particularly contrasting the mostly Protestant either/or hermeneutic with the traditionally Catholic both/and.

    I’m obliged to add, contra the folks you’re responding to here, that the Catholic Church doesn’t cherry-pick the Fathers. She considers their works–like all things–in context with each other, Sacred Scripture, and the Tradition.

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