Continuing with our discussion of the early views of the sacrament of baptism, and calling attention to the significance of this sacrament during that early period of the Church in the New Dispensation, we noted that one might easily receive the impression from some expressions of the early Church Fathers that they attributed efficacy to the external rite of baptism, such as the power of regeneration, cleansing from sin, sanctification. And we concluded our previous article with a quotation from Justin Martyr, a famous apologete or defender of the Christian faith during that early period of the Church of God. The following quotation from the writings of Justin Martyr may also serve to confirm this early view of the sacrament of baptism: “By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God (“laver” means a font or basin of water) which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life.”

Clement of Alexandria expresses himself as follows; “The same also takes place in our case, whose exemplar Christ became. Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal…. This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing: washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace, by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted; and illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly…. Further release from evils is the beginning of salvation. We then alone, who first have touched the confines of life, are already perfect; and we already live who are separated from death. Salvation, accordingly, is the following of Christ: “For that which is in Him is life. Verily, verily I say unto you, He that heareth My words, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into condemnation, but hath passed from death to life.” …. As, then, those who have shaken off sleep forthwith become all awake within; or rather, as those who try to remove a film that is over the eyes, do not supply to them from without the light which they do not possess, but removing the obstacle from the eyes, leave the pupil free; thus also we who are baptized, having wiped off the sins which obscure the light of the divine Spirit, have the eye of the spirit free, unimpeded, and full of light, by which alone we contemplate the divine, the Holy Spirit, flowing down to us from above.”

Tertullian wrote a separate treatise on the sacrament of Baptism. Although he rejects the notion of a merely magical and mechanical blotting out of sins by baptism, and makes the efficacy of baptism dependent on repentance, yet he takes occasion, from the cosmical and physical significance of water, to adduce numerous analogies. Water is in his view the element in which Christians alone feel at home, as the small fishes which follow the great fish. Heretics, on the contrary, are the amphibious generation of vipers and snakes that cannot live in wholesome water. Water is of great importance for the whole universe. The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters—so upon the waters of baptism. As the Church is compared with the ark, so the water of baptism is contrasted with the deluge, and the dove of Noah is a type of the dove—the Spirit. As power is inherent in all water, it is indifferent what kind of water is used. The water of the Tiber possesses the same power as the water of the Jordan; still water produces the same effects as running water. He also compares the baptismal water with the pool of Bethesda; as the latter was troubled by an angel, so there is a special angel of baptism, who prepares the way for the Holy Spirit.

Cyprian spoke of the high importance of baptismal water from his own experience. He does not indeed maintain that water purifies as such, but his comparisons give the impression of a magic efficacy of water. The devil was cast out of Pharaoh, when he and all his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea (the sea is a symbol of baptism, according to I Cor. 10); for the power of the devil only reaches to the margin of the water. As scorpions and snakes are strong on dry land, but lose their strength, and must vomit their poison when thrown into water, so the unclean spirits. In short, whenever water is mentioned in the sacred Scriptures, the Punic (the language of the Carthaginians, akin to Phoenician and the Hebrew—H.V.) symbolism is at once applied to it; it is, therefore, not at all surprising that the rock in the wilderness, as well as the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and many others, are regarded as types of baptism.

We quote the following from the writings of Cyprian: “These were my frequent thoughts (Cyprian is writing of his calling out of darkness into the light—H.V.). For as I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe that I could by possibility be delivered, so I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices, and because I despaired of better things, I used to indulge my sins as if they were actually parts of me, and indigenous to me. But after that, by the help of the water of the new birth (the underscoring is of the undersigned), the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above serene and pure had been infused into my reconciled heart;—after that by the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven a second birth had restored me to a new man;….Moreover it is silly to say that although the second birth is spiritual by which we are born in Christ through the laver of regeneration one may be born spiritually among the heretics where they say that the Spirit is not. For water alone is not able to cleanse away sins and to sanctify a man unless he have also the Holy Spirit….But what a thing it is to assert and contend that they who are not born in the Church can be the sons of God! For the blessed apostle sets forth and proves that baptism is that wherein the old man dies, and the new man is born, saying, “He saved us by the washing of regeneration.” But if regeneration is in the washing, that is, in baptism, how can heresy, which is not the spouse of Christ, generate sons to God by Christ?….But, further, one is not born by the imposition of hands, when he receives the Holy Ghost, but in baptism, that so, being already born, he may receive the Holy Spirit, even as it happened in the first man Adam. For first God formed him, and then breathed into his nostrils, the breath of life. For the Spirit cannot be received, unless he who receives first have an existence. But as the birth of Christians is in baptism, while the generation and sanctification of baptism are with the spouse of Christ alone, who is able spiritually to conceive and to bear sons to God, where and of whom and to whom is he born, who is not a son of the Church, so as that he should have God as his Father, before he has had the Church for his mother?”

However, these allegorical expressions of the Church Fathers may easily be interpreted without attributing to them the view that the water of Baptism as such is effica­cious unto salvation. Speaking of Baptism as they do, the possibility remains that they may refer to the sacrament as far as its symbolic significance is concerned.

We will finally call attention to one more Church Father: Origin. This famous Church Father, one of the most brilliant leaders during the early centuries of the Church of God in the New Dispensation, although also attaching great significance to the sacrament of holy baptism, makes a clear distinction between the symbol of baptism and the thing obsignated by the symbol, although also considering this sacrament as actually conferring purification upon the recipient of it. Quoting from Reinhold Seeberg, we read the following: “The washing by water, being a symbol of the cleansing of a soul washed from every defilement (which comes) from evil, is no less and precisely to him who surrenders himself to the power of the names of the adorable Trinity, the beginning and fountain of divine gifts. baptism is not a “symbol” in the modern sense, but as Christ’s miracles of healing were symbols of the healing activity of the word. Yet, as these miracles nevertheless brought real healing to the individual in whose behalf they were performed, so baptism is for the recipient nothing less than the beginning and fountain of the divine blessings. It is a symbol of the purifying power of the word, but for the individual it is actual purification. Through its administration sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit be stowed…Above water baptism stands the fire baptism of martyrdom. This washes away sins, and the priestly intercessions of the martyrs are heard by God.” It is evident from this quotation that Origin, although speaking of baptism as a symbol and therefore distinguishing between the symbol and the things obsignated, also saw far more in it than a mere symbol. And, indeed, the sacrament of baptism is surely more than a mere symbol. It is definitely a means of grace.

However, although these expressions of the Church Fathers seem to indicate that they attributed efficacy to the external rite of holy baptism, it is also true that they freely made use of allegorical expressions, and these expressions can also be interpreted without attributing to them the view that the water of baptism as such is efficacious unto salvation. And one thing is sure: the Church Fathers certainly attributed tremendous significance to the sacrament of holy baptism.

H. Veldman