Article 10—We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
In this article the early church first of all acknowledged one baptism.
This confession is based on Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
The context of these verses deals with the unity of the church. In Ephesians 4:3 the saints are exhorted to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. InEphesians 4:4-6 cited above we find the basis for this unity. The basis for the unity of the church is to be found in the fact that there is one God, one Lord, one Spirit Who works in the members of the church one faith and one hope.
To this is added the idea of one baptism. The baptism referred to here is not first of all the sacrament of baptism but the spiritual baptism symbolized in water baptism. This spiritual baptism consists of incorporation into the church and covenant of God through the washing away of sins in Christ’s blood. Of this profound spiritual reality the sacrament of baptism is a visible sign and seal. Consequently, it is through the sacrament of baptism that one is also incorporated into the church as institute. The point however is that there is only one baptism, not many. Also this suggests and establishes the unity of the church. By one baptism the elect of God are all incorporated into one church.
This idea of unity as expressed in Ephesians 4 is also incorporated into the whole of the Nicene Creed. In Article 1 the early church confessed her faith in “one God, the Father Almighty.” In Article 2 she confessed her faith in “one Lord Jesus Christ.” On that basis she also confessed her faith in Article 9 in “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” And now in this article the church acknowledged “one baptism.” By one baptism God’s people are all incorporated into the one holy catholic and apostolic church of God.
It would appear as though this truth of one baptism was incorporated into the Nicene Creed to reject the baptism of certain heretical groups that had either departed from the church or been cast out.
Already at this early date the church had debated whether it was proper to acknowledge the validity of baptism administered by various splinter groups and heretical sects.
There were those led by the church father Cyprian who maintained that the baptism of heretical groups was not valid. Those who had received heretical baptism and who sought entrance into the catholic church had to be baptized. Cyprian refused even to speak of rebaptism under these circumstances for fear of giving any validity at all to the baptism by heretics.
This position of Cyprian was totally consistent with the doctrine of the church that had developed already at this time. As we saw in our discussion of Article 9, the doctrine of the church at this time allowed for only one institution of the church. The body of Christ was limited to the one institution controlled by the bishops, who, it was claimed, were the personal successors of the apostles. The implication of this is clear. Since the sacraments are entrusted by Christ to the church institute, to be administered by her alone, it simply follows that the baptism administered by the one catholic church is alone valid. All other baptisms administered by those who have departed from this mother church are fraudulent. Those who come from these heretical groups must renounce their false baptism and receive proper baptism from the church.
Opposition to this view was found primarily in the western branch of the church. Led by the Roman bishop Stephen there were those who advocated a more pragmatic position. They were inclined to accept the baptism by heretics provided that baptism was administered with the intent to baptize and done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the great council of Constantinople (381), which added the article we are now discussing to the Nicene Creed, the church officially decided to accept the baptism of some heretical groups but reject the baptism of others.
Rejected as invalid were the baptism of the Eunomians, Sabellians, Montanists, and others.
The baptism of the Eunomians was rejected because their baptism was not administered according to the accepted practice that prevailed at that time in the catholic church. The catholic church practiced immersion at this time. By immersion is meant the dipping of the head of the candidate into the water in which he stood. In certain circumstances (scarcity of water, physical infirmity, etc.) baptism by pouring from a shell or vessel or from the hand on the head was considered equivalent to immersion. The important element in the administration of baptism however was that there be three immersions, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Eunomians was rejected and declared false by the council of Constantinople because they “baptize with only one immersion.”
The baptism of the Sabellians was rejected because of their teaching of the “Son-Fatherhood.” The Sabellians denied that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons in the Godhead. They taught rather that these three are only three manifestations of one person. The Father is God as He revealed Himself in the Old Testament as the Creator. The Son is the same person who later revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer. The Holy Spirit is the same person as the Father and Son only now revealed after Pentecost as the Sanctifier. Because of the nature of this heresy the baptism of the Sabellians was also declared by the church to be invalid.
Finally the baptism of the Montanists was rejected, evidently because they did not use the baptism formula found in Matthew 28:19—they did not baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
However, the council of Constantinople did accept and declare valid the baptism of other heretical groups. Surprisingly, the council accepted the baptism of the Arians, who taught that the Son of God did not possess the same being or essence as the Father and therefore is an inferior god to the Father. The council also accepted the baptism of the Sabbatians, who taught that those who had fallen away during times of persecution ought not to be allowed back into the church. Accepted was also the baptism of the Quartodecimanians, who differed with the catholic church on the date of the Jewish Passover and Jesus’ death. Finally, the baptism of the Apollinarians was accepted. The Apollinarians denied that Jesus possessed a complete human nature.
It would appear from this that the early church had decided on certain requirements that had to be met for her to accept the baptism of heretical groups as valid. These requirements were evidently two in number. First, it would appear as though baptisms must be administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, using the baptism formula found inMatthew 28:19. This however did not require that those administering the baptism believe the doctrine of the Trinity; for the council of Constantinople did accept the baptism of the Arians. The second requirement was that baptism be administered in such a way that the candidate be immersed three times in water. If these two requirements were met, baptism was considered valid regardless of who administered it.
According to the 9th Article of the Nicene Creed this is the one baptism acknowledged by the early church. She did not acknowledge several different baptisms. She did not acknowledge single immersion baptism. She did not acknowledge baptism administered in the name of the Son alone, as some were inclined. There was only one baptism that was valid—a threefold immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
With certain modifications the Reformed churches historically have taken a similar position. They have acknowledged one baptism. This one baptism has essentially two requirements. These are the two requirements laid down in the Scriptures. First, baptism must be administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by a church that acknowledges the truth of the Trinity. Secondly, baptism must involve the washing of water as a sign of the washing away of sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. All other considerations are immaterial as far as the validity of baptism is concerned. Whether baptism is administered by way of immersion or sprinkling, whether there is a threefold immersion or not are all immaterial. These elements do not belong to the essence of the sacrament. Nor does the validity of the sacrament depend on the personal faith of the person performing the baptism or the orthodoxy of the church administering the sacrament. This is because baptism is an institution of Christ. Its efficacy and power therefore belong exclusively to Christ and not to the church or minister who administers it as an agent of Christ.
All those who have received this one baptism have the sign and seal of a deeper, spiritual baptism—incorporation into the one church and covenant of God through the washing away of sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. Where there is faith the baptized person is also able to lay claim to this inner spiritual baptism. He is assured and guaranteed by the very sacrament of baptism that he has been incorporated into the one holy catholic and apostolic church by the blood of Jesus Christ. Having that confirmation through baptism it is his solemn duty to seek and promote the true unity of the church with all those who share with him in this one baptism. Doing this he can truly confess with the church, “I acknowledge one baptism.”