I've mentioned the tremendous influence John Henry Newman had on me in my conversion to Catholicism. I want to go back now to Newman and the issue of history.
As a "Bible Christian", while I liked to read about Calvin and Luther, the history of the Reformation and of the Puritans, what Christians believed in the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries didn't matter too much to me. All that counted, really, was "what saith the scriptures?"
But over time the entire idea of "Bible-only" Christianity was coming under suspicion in my mind. I was discovering that "scripture alone" didn't seem to be the teaching of the New Testament. Rather, authority is described as residing in scripture, in the oral teaching of the apostles, and in the church, especially when it meets in council to settle disputes and define Christian teaching (cf. Acts 15).
Scripture alone certainly wasn't the belief and practice of the early church, where we find the apostolic fathers continually emphasizing the critical role of "tradition" in distinguishing true teaching from false.
And then there was Newman.
John Henry Newman was an Oxford scholar and Anglican minister so renown 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, he left the Anglican Church to enter the Roman Catholic Church.
I'm reading the defense he wrote of his decision, his Apologia pro Vita Sua. I'm reading his extraordinary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. And here he is telling me that "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant", that it's "easy to show" that the Christianity of history was not Protestantism, 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.
And anyway, the writings of the fathers -- these are the writings of the first great saints, bishops, theologians, apologists and martyrs of the Christian Church. St. Irenaeus was a disciple of a man who was himself a disciple of John. We can't get any closer to the apostles.
Why not see what these men had to say?
As I began to read the fathers, one of the first things that struck me was the way in which they consistently talked about baptism. Actually, as a Baptist, it more than struck me.
Catholicism teaches was is known as "baptismal regeneration" -- the belief that in baptism the graces depicted by baptism are actually given. In baptism, sins are washed away, we're 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 and promised to do them through baptism and so commands everyone to repent and be baptized.
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 obedience and the men were healed. So it is with baptism.
The Catholic Church teaches baptismal regeneration. So do the eastern churches. So does the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church and the Church of Christ denomination.
Among evangelical Protestants, this teaching is almost universally rejected. Baptism is held to be a symbolic action 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. It doesn't itself do anything.
This is what I believed as a Baptist.
OK, two distinctly different understandings of what baptism is all about, resulting (naturally) in two very different attitudes toward baptism. For instance, Catholics cross themselves with holy water every time they enter and leave the church -- a reminder of the graces received in their baptism.
Something like this would seem absurd to most Protestants, even those who take baptism seriously. In many evangelical Protestant churches, baptism has almost entirely faded away.
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."
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.
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 (The Instructor of Children)
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
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 continue 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.
There was this feeling of how in the world could we be so cut off from history?
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 (making the unlikely assumption that I would have had the courage to do it) was that I suppose I might oppose the teaching of the universal church on baptism and, yes, even start my own church and denomination -- but only if it was absolutely certain that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration contradicted the clear teaching of scripture. Otherwise, how could I even begin to justify abandoning the teaching of the church on the basis of my private interpretation of the New Testament?
In other words, a shift in my thinking was already taking place. Whereas before, it seemed normal to approach any doctrinal issue by simply going straight to the Bible, after facing such unanimous historical testimony on the meaning of baptism, I now saw that the burden of proof was actually on me.
It wouldn't be good enough for me to simply read the New Testament and conclude, "I think it teaches that baptism is a symbolic act and nothing more." No. To overturn what amounted to the universal faith of the church for the first fifteen hundred years of its existence, I would need to believe that the church's view was completely irreconcilable with scripture.
Obviously, the next step was to carefully read again the New Testament in the light of what I'd seen in the writings of the fathers. I immediately launched into this.
We'll pick up here next week.