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Baptismal Regeneration

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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A writer in the Cyclopaedia Britannica (9th ed. s.v. "Baptism") has these striking remarks on the origin of this dogma:

"In studying the statements made by the early fathers upon baptism, we find not sot much a distinct and definite doctrine as gropings towards a doctrine, and it is not until we come to St. Augustine that we can find any strict and scientific theory of the nature and effects of the sacrament. The earlier theologians sometimes make statements which imply the most extreme view of the magical effects of the sacrament, and at other times explain its results in a purely ethical way. Thus, for example, Hermas says, Our life is sanctified by water;' while Tertullian expressly declares, Aunima non lavatione sed respoinsione slancitur.' It should never be forgotten that the abundant use of metaphorical language by the Greek fathers, and the want of a strictly theological terminology, prevent our finding anything like the precise doctrinal statements which became familiar in the Western Church: while the prevalence of curious Greek physical speculations, which taught the creative power of water, mingled with and distorted ideas about the effects of water in baptism. It was St. Augustine, the great theologian of the Western Church, who first gave expression to exact dogmatic sratements about the natulre aned meaning of baptism. The real difficulty to be explained was the connection between the outward rite and the inward spiritual change; or, to put it more precisely, the relation between the water used and the Holy Spirit, who alone can regenerate.

The Greek theologians had shirked rather than faced the difficulty, and used terms at one time exaggerating the magical value of the element, at another insisting on the purely ethical and spiritual nature of the rite; but they never attempted to show in what precise relation the external rite stood to the inward change of heart. It is true that one or two theologians had almost anticipated Augustine's view, but the anticipation was more apparent than real; for the theology of the Greek Church in this, as in most other doctrines, is greatly hampered by the mystical tendency to represent regeneration and kindred doctrines much more as a species of chemical change of nature than as a change in the relations of the Will. Augustine insisted strongly on the distinction between the sacrament itself and what he called the res acramtenti' between the inward and spiritual and the outward and material; and by doing so Auugustine became the founder of both the modern Roman Catholic and the modern Protestant views. Apart from certain modifying. influences, it would not be difficult for the orthodox Protestant to subscribe to most of Augustine's views upon baptism, for he insists strongly on the uselessness of the external signm without the inward blessing of the Spirit. But in this doctrine, as in most others, Augustine's doctrine of the Church so interfered as to make practically inoperative his more spiritual views of baptism. The Church, Augustine thought, was the body of Christ: and that in a peculiarly. external and physical way, and just as the soul of man cannot, so far as we know, exert any influence save upon and through the body, so the Spirit of Christ dispenses his gracious and regenerating influences only through the body of Christ, i.e. the Church. But the Church, Augustine thought, was no invisible spiritual communion.' It was the visible kingdom of God, the visible civitas Dei in peregrinatione per terras;' and so entrance into the Church, and the right and possibility of participating in the spiritual benefits which members of the Church can alone enjoy, was only possible by means .of a visible entrance into this visible kingdom. Thus, whifle Augustine in theory always laid greatest stress upon the work of the Hoily Spirit and upon the spiritual side of baptism, he practically gave the impulse tou that view of the sacrament which made the external rite of primary importance. It was the Holy Spirit who alone imparted spiritual gifts to the children of God. But the one way by which the benefits of this Spirit could be shared was in the first place through baptism.

Baptism was thought to be necessary to salvation, and all who were unbaptized were unsaved. In this way Augustine, while recognising the spiritual nature of the sacrament, held views about the importance of the rite which were as strong as those of any Greek theologian who had mingled confusedly in his mind Christian doctrines and the maxims of pagan philosophy about the creative power of the element of water. Of course such a doctrine of the impoortance of the baptism with water had to be modified to some extent. There were cases of Christian martyrs who had never been baptized, and yet had confessed Christ, and died to confess him; for their sakes the idea of a baptism of blood was brought forward; they were baptized not with wuatert, but in their own blood. And the same desire to widen the circle of the baptized led the way to the recognition of the baptism of heretics, laymen, and nurses. It was the Angustinian doctrine of baptism which was developed by the schoolmetn, and which now is the substance of modern Roman Cathoolic teaching. The schoolmen, whose whole theology was dominated by the Augustinian conception of the Church, simply took over, and made somewhat more mechanical and less spiritual, Augustine's doctrine. They were enabled to give the doctrine a more precise and definite shape by accommodating to it the terms of the Aristotelian philosophy.

They began by distinguishing between the matter and the form of baptism. Had Augustine had this distinction before him, he would probably have called the water the matter, and the action of the Holy Spirit the formn which verified and gave shape to the matter; but the whole idea of the schoomen was much more mechanical, the magical idea of the sacrament came much more into prominence, and the spiritual and ethical fell much more into the background; and with them, while water was the materia sacramenti, the formam sacramenti was the words of the rite I baptize thee,' etc., etc. Thus insensibly the distinction between the external rite and the work of the Holy Spirit, which Augustine had clearly before him in theory at least, was driven back into its original obscurity; and while it was always held theoretically that the grace conferred in baptism was conferred by the Holy Spirit, still the action of the Spirit was so inseparably connected with the performance of the rite that the external ceremony was held to be full warrant for the inward spiritual presence and power; and it was held thatt in baptism grace was conferred ex opere operato. The actual benefits Which were supposed to come in this way were freedom from original sin, and forgiveness of it and, all sins committed up to the time of baptism, and the implanting of a new spiritual life a life which could only be slain by a deadly sin. The scholastic doctrine of baptism is tihe doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and the restatements made by Mohler on the one hand, and Jesuit theologians on the other, do not do more than give a poetical coloring to the doctrine, or bring out more thoroughly the magical and mechanical nature of the rite."

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Baptismal Regeneration'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​b/baptismal-regeneration.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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