I grew up baptist, and that meant we were big on baptism and it also meant we did not baptize infants. Baptism was for those who consciously believed. The oddest thing about baptism for us was that baptism as an act did nothing to us or for us but was instead understood to be an act of obedience to the command of Jesus. Not so always with the Church. Chris Hall, in Worshiping With the Church Fathers
, examines in his first chp what the fathers believed and practiced and taught about baptism. Studying the history of baptism, and seeing how the Church has taught baptism, lengthens our memory.
This is a rich chp, loaded with original source quotations and sorted out in clean and crisp categories.
Hall begins with a fundamental observation: sacramental theology, which contrasts with what I grew up with and with most low-church evangelicals, is rooted in the Incarnation. That is, sacramental theology claims that God draws near to humans in matter. That is, the invisible in the visible. Why did they believe in sacramental ideas?
The Incarnation — and this shifted and shaped everything for the earliest Christian theologians. God became flesh and this sanctifies matter and shows that God redeems through matter. Thus, they are “concrete, grace-filled, earthy means God employs to communicate central themes of the gospel narrative and the overarching biblical story to the mind and body of a Christian” (25-26).
Hall quotes the famous passage from Justin Martyr that describes the early Christian worship services. But we need not sketch the service — baptism took place within the context of early Christian worship services.
Chris Hall describes how the fathers discussed “water” itself — as that into which the believer plunged for death and resurrection. (I’m not assuming here immersion etc.) Thus, baptism is connected to the cross and resurrection from the earliest days.
But baptism was not an act of magic: there was a fairly widespread conviction that repentance and faith were necessary for the saving benefits of baptism to occur. While there was some dispute on order, baptism was also clearly connected to reception of the Holy Spirit — upon invocation of the Spirit and the purging of the water. Thus, baptism is connected early to regeneration (Gregory of Nyssa).
Which raises the issue of infant baptism. Tertullian was against it, but the majority seem to have thought infants should be baptized and that such a baptism, while it would not save the child, was a purifying and sanctifying act (Gregory of Nazianzus). Augustine, strong as he was on original sin, was strong on the need to baptize infants but he did not equate baptism with conversion of the heart. Augustine also believed in something the Church has not embraced: unbaptized infants who die go to hell.