As a “Bible Christian,” I would have said I loved the writings of the Fathers. Of course, what I would have meant is that I loved to read Luther and Calvin and the other heroes of the Reformation. What Christians believed in the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries of the Christian era didn’t matter too much to me.
And why should it? After all, when it came to determining Christian doctrine, all that really counted was “what saith the Scriptures?”
Then I met John Henry Newman. Newman was an Oxford scholar and Anglican minister so renowned in his time that his sermons were printed out in the newspapers each week and read throughout England. He was one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers of the 19th century — certainly one of the most brilliant I’d ever encountered. At the age of 45, however, he left the Church of England to become Catholic — unthinkable!
I picked up and read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the defense he wrote of his decision. I also began to read his extraordinary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in which a particular series of assertions caught my eye.
“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
What? I sat bolt upright as though my chair was on fire. To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant?
But this was only the beginning of birth pangs. Newman went on to insist that it is “easy to show” that the Christianity of history was not Protestantism. In fact, he insisted that if the kind of church I pastored at the time — and theological system I taught — had ever existed in the early centuries of the Christian history, there’s no record of it.
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.
Newman had thrown down the gauntlet and I was inspired to take it up. Was it possible that there was truth to what Newman was so bolding asserting?
I decided I would begin to read the early Church Fathers, straight through and, as much as it is possible to know, in order. Why not see what these men had to say? After all, these were Christianity’s first bishops, theologians, apologists, saints, and martyrs. A couple of them had been disciples of those who had been disciples of the Apostles. It seemed intuitively reasonable that those closest to the Apostles might have a better handle on what the Apostles thought and meant by the things they wrote than those living two thousand years later, or even fifteen hundred years later in the case of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Protestant Reformers.
The Meaning of Baptism
I understood that Catholics held a “sacramental” view of Baptism — the belief that in Baptism God acts to accomplish what is depicted. Sins are actually washed away. We are born anew and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. God of course can do these things when and as He wishes, but He has chosen to do them through Baptism.
If you want an image of the Catholic teaching, 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 to be expressed in an act of obedience. “Go and wash!” And when this was done, the men were healed — not because the water was made “magical” but because of God’s gracious action in response to their faith and obedience.
According to Catholic teaching, this is how it is with Baptism.
Now, as a Baptist, I looked at Baptism as a symbolic act by which a believer in Christ makes public profession of his or her faith. It speaks of what God has done in the life of the believer and as such is meaningful. But it doesn’t itself do anything.
Baptism and the Fathers
I began to read the Fathers and was struck right away by the language used to describe Baptism.
For instance, I read the Letter of Barnabas, one of the earliest Christian writings. The subject of Baptism arises and I found the author describing Baptism as “the washing which confers the remission of sins.” As he explains, “We descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up bearing fruit in our heart.”
What a strange way to talk about Baptism, I thought. Sounds Catholic. But then again, who knows what he meant?
I finished Barnabas and picked up The Shepherd of Hermas, another of the earliest post-apostolic writings. Again, I was reading merrily along when suddenly I ran into another passage about Baptism.
“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.”
I scratched my head. “When we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins”? I would never have thought to use such language to describe Baptism.
I continued reading and came to Justin Martyr, the first great apologist of Christian history, and a martyr for his faith. I read his First Apology, written around A.D. 150 and I ran 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.”
What? Justin believed that we are “regenerated” in Baptism? And that this is related to Jesus statement about our need to be “born again”? Did Justin believe that being “born of water and Spirit” is somehow connected to Baptism?
I went on to read Clement of Alexandria, writing around A.D. 191. Here’s what I found 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 then 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.
It’s hard for me to describe the effect that this reading was having on me. Baptism “confers” the remission of sins? In Baptism we “obtain” the remission of our former sins? In Baptism we are “regenerated” and “enlightened” and “cleansed of sins”? In Baptism we are “set free and admitted to eternal life”? What?
Now, I could go on and on with similar quotations. Cyril of Jerusalem said of Baptism, “You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness.”
St Augustine wrote, “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 wrote, “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift … We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth.”
And here’s what was most striking: it’s not as though I found some early Church Fathers speaking in these sorts of ways and others speaking like good Baptists. This is the way all of the earliest Christian writers speak of Baptism. Whenever Baptism is mentioned, language of the kind illustrated above is what you find.
Apparently, this is what Christians in the earliest centuries of ecclesiastical history believed about Baptism.
Baptism in Early Church Historians
Almost in a panic, I turned to the works of great historians of the early Church such as J.N.D. Kelly, whose work Early Christian Doctrines is a classic of historical theology.
I turned to 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. From Tertullian’s treatise on the doctrine of Baptism (the first ever written on the subject and illustrating well the view of early Church) 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 was becoming more and more apparent to me that if anyone existed in the early centuries of Christianity who held the “it’s a symbol only” view of Baptism that I held as a Baptist, the view that everyone I knew held, the view that virtually all evangelical Protestants hold, there is no record of it.
To quote Newman, that person, if he or she ever existed, has from the pages of history been “clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial.”
I remember coming home around this time and saying to my wife, Tina, “Listen: I’ve been crawling around in the early Church for months. 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
This was a strange realization, followed by questions I couldn’t shake: How in the world could I have been so cut off from history?
How could I have not known something so basic as the early Church’s view of Baptism? Was I so wedded to sola Scriptura that I was never even curious about the subject?
And then I imagined: what if I could somehow be parachuted back in time? What if I were discussing Baptism with Barnabas and Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and Tertullian and Cyprian and Augustine? Would I oppose them on the basis of my personal interpretation of Scripture? Would I insist that they were all wrong and that I was right? 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 and, yes, even start my own denomination — but only if it was absolutely certain that the Catholic Church’s sacramental view of Baptism contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture. Only if I was absolutely certain.
Otherwise, how could I begin to justify leaving and setting up shop on the basis of my private interpretation of the New Testament?
In other words, a shift in my thinking was already taking place. Before this experience, it seemed natural to approach any doctrinal issue by simply going straight to the Bible and deciding what I thought it was teaching. In this case, I could examine carefully the relevant passages of Scripture and conclude, “I think it teaches that Baptism is merely a symbolic act.”
But after facing such unanimous historical testimony on the meaning of Baptism, I now saw that more would be required.
It wouldn’t be good enough to simply say, “I disagree.” To overturn what amounted to the universal faith of the Catholic Church throughout the earliest centuries of its existence, I would need to believe that the Church’s view was completely and utterly irreconcilable with Scripture. Could I say that?
Clearly, the next step would be to carefully reexamine the teaching of the Old and New Testaments in the light of what I’d seen in the writings of the Fathers. What would I find that I had not seen before? I couldn’t imagine. But I immediately launched into the project.