The baptized knew themselves to be assumed once and for all into the dying and rising of Christ, who had himself referred to his coming death as a 'baptism' (Mark 10: 38; Luke 12: 50). Having become God's adopted sons and daughters, they were initiated into the Church, 'a people claimed by God' (1 Pet. 2: 9—10). Their 'old self was crucified with him [Christ], so that the sinful self might be destroyed' and they 'might no longer be enslaved to sin' (Rom. 6: 6). Baptism, therefore, called on them to 'make no provision for the flesh' nor 'gratify its desires' (Rom. 13: 14). There was no room for half measures. Their rebirth through water and the Holy Spirit meant believing tenaciously in the 'good news', by which they were to be saved, provided they held fast to it (1 Cor. 15: 1-2). They were to live to the full the gift of baptism, and refrain from all behaviour that failed to witness to their new life.
Like birth itself and the coming resurrection from the dead, the rebirth and new life of baptism can be granted only once. From the outset, Christians acknowledged the once-and-for-all nature of baptism. Just as there is only 'one Lord', 'one Spirit', 'one God and Father of all', one Church, and 'one faith', so there is only 'one baptism' (Eph. 4: 4-6), which may never be repeated. Only once can we become adopted sons and daughters of God. In later times the Council of Trent was to insist that, after baptism is 'truly and rightly conferred', it cannot be repeated, even in the case of those who have denied their faith and then repented (DH 1624;
ND 1430). More than a century earlier the Council of Florence had explained why baptism, like confirmation and orders (and unlike the Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, and matrimony) can never be conferred a second time. Baptism, along with confirmation and orders, imprints an 'indelible character' on the soul of the recipient (DH 1313, 1609; ND 1308, 1319). This way of expressing the once-and-for-all nature of baptism differed from the NT, but the point was the same. In any case those who spoke of an indelible character imprinted on the soul aligned themselves with the NT language of the 'seal of the Spirit' received at baptism. St Augustine, recalling the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, wrote of 'the Lord's brand-mark' on his sheep, an enduring sign by which the baptized are to be 'recognized, not disallowed' (De Baptismo contra Donatistas, 6. 1).
The last NT text to be recalled here, one that provided the threefold structure for the post-NT creeds with their 'articles' dedicated to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is the mandate from the risen Christ at the end of Matthew's Gospel: 'Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28: 19). This baptismal formula in the name of the Trinity, rather than coming from the risen Jesus himself, reflects the practice of Matthew's community in the 70s who experienced the risen Lord present in their midst. At first Christians seem to have baptized converts in the name of Jesus Christ (e.g. Acts 2: 38). Even so, naming Christ inevitably brought in God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit, as 1 Corinthians 6: 11 illustrates. 'Washing in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ' led Paul to add at once: 'in the Spirit of our God [the Father]'. Baptismal initiation was always a radically new orientation 'in Christ', 'through the Spirit', and 'to the Father'.
When they wrote about Christian initiation, the second- and third-century Fathers highlighted two major consequences of baptism: the remission of sins and the new life in Christ through the Spirit. Thus Clement of Alexandria (d. c.215) understood baptism to be a 'washing' by which 'we are cleansed from our sins', 'adoption' as God's sons and daughters, 'enlightenment', and being 'made perfect' (Paedagogus, 1. 6). In Eastern Christianity 'enlightenment' or 'illumination' was to become a dominant motif for baptism.
Tertullian (d. c.225) was the first to write a treatise on baptism. He distinguished between (a) the 'simplicity of the divine works which are seen in the act' of baptism celebrated 'without pomp' (i.e. without the complexity and trappings of pagan rituals), and (b) 'the grandeur which is promised in the effect' (De Baptismo, 2). Through the primeval hovering of the Spirit over the waters (Gen. 1: 2), 'the nature of water' received 'the power of sanctifying'. Hence any 'waters' used in baptism, 'after the invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification' (ibid. 4).152 Quoting the Lord's mandate, 'Go.teach the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,' Tertullian concluded: 'The law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed' (ibid. 13). In the same section of De Baptismo Tertullian not only used the adjective 'sacramental' but also the noun 'sacrament'—in the sense of a ritual action through which a salvific deed (Christ's 'birth, passion, and resurrection') becomes present, so that those performing the rite share in the deed's saving power. Here the Latin 'sacramentum', which originally referred to oath-taking, consecration, or ritual obligation, acquired the meaning of some ritual action that let human beings participate in the saving grace provided by God through Christ's death and resurrection. In a wider sense the Latin term became a rough equivalent of the NT Greek word mysterion, the whole divine plan realized in Christ for reconciling all people and all things to God (e.g. Rom. 11: 25; Eph. 1: 9; 3: 2, 4, 9).
Tertullian clarified at least three points: the sacramental act or sign (in particular, baptism with water), the effect of that sign through the power of the Spirit (sanctification), and the official regulation (within and for the community's worship) of those signs (here the law of baptism and its formula).153 He also bequeathed to Western Christianity the noun 'sacrament' and the adjective 'sacramental', proving himself once again the creator of what was to become official terminology (see Ch. 1).154
Soon after the death of Tertullian, and unlike him, St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) strongly defended the practice of infant baptism and
152 Where Tertullian attributed 'sacramental power' to the baptismal waters 'after the invocation of God', St Ambrose of Milan (339—97) was to contrast the cleansing effect of the waters with that of the Spirit: 'The water is that in which the flesh is dipped, so that all carnal sin may be washed away'; yet 'it is not through the waters but through grace that a person is cleansed' (De Mysteriis ,3. 11. 17).
153 Many centuries later the Council of Trent sustained Tertullian's sense of the need to follow 'prescribed formulas', by insisting that 'accepted and approved rites' be used in the administration of all the sacraments (DH 1613; ND 1323).
154 Tertullian called both baptism and the Eucharist 'sacraments' (Adversus Marcionem , 4. 34).
offered some theological justification for it (Epistola 64). Cyprian also witnessed to the custom of baptized infants receiving the Eucharist at the conclusion of the baptismal rite (and so making what would later be called their 'First Communion'), a practice that continues today in the churches of the Christian East.155
But apropos of baptism administered by those outside the unity of the church (i.e. heretics or schismatics), Cyprian followed Tertullian (De Baptismo, 15) and denied the validity of such a rite. It was in that context that Cyprian delivered his dictum, 'no salvation outside the Church' (Epistola 73. 2), and emphasized the ecclesial setting of baptism: 'he can no longer have God for his father who does not have the Church for his mother' (De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate, 6). Other third-century Christians, such as St Hippolytus in the Apostolic Tradition, argued that, since the Holy Spirit is not be found 'outside the Church', heretics cannot have valid sacraments.
Cyprian drew practical conclusions from his view that valid baptism did not exist 'outside the Church': that is to say, among schismatics and heretics. If and when they sought reconciliation, they were not 'rebaptized' but simply baptized—validly and for the first time (Epistola 71. 1). Over this issue Cyprian profoundly disagreed with Pope Stephen I, who held that baptism administered in the name of the Trinity and with the intention of incorporating someone into the Church was always valid, even when the baptizers were separated by heresy or schism. Hence penitent heretics were not to be baptized but simply reconciled through 'an imposition of hands by way of penance' (DH 110; ND 1401). The teaching of Stephen, who suffered martyrdom in the same persecution as Cyprian, was to prevail. But the issue between Stephen and Cyprian returned with a vengeance in the Donatist controversy that confronted Augustine, and prompted him into clarifying what constitutes the valid administration of the sacraments, especially baptism, and their proper minister (see Ch. 1).
Was this article helpful?