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Catechises and Baptismal Regeneration

This is the second in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  The first one was Is It Proper to Refer to Christians as Enlightened?

If there’s one thing that many Evangelicals agree on, it’s that there’s no baptismal regeneration. On the other hand, Roman Catholics and others live and die by it. The church is the community of the baptised; being baptised makes you a Christian. The latter have been so persistent in this that a serious goal of some atheists is to outlaw infant baptism, not realising that they’re playing right into the hands of the advocates of believers baptism!

There’s no doubt that Cyril of Jerusalem is an advocate of baptismal regeneration:

Let no one then suppose that Baptism is merely the grace of remission of sins, or further, that of adoption; as John’s was a baptism conferring only remission of sins: whereas we know full well, that as it purges our sins, and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of the sufferings of Christ. (XX, 6)

“Baptism for the remission of sins” are fighting words for many Christians in the “Anabaptist” tradition, and that not only includes the Baptists but most Pentecostals as well. If it’s for the remission of sins, they argue, why bother with a profession of faith? Cyril here not only assumes that baptism is for the remission of sins, he proceeds from there and states that it “…further(s) the fellowship also, by representation, of Christ’s true sufferings.” (XX, 6)

Earlier in the lectures, when he’s explaining to his pupils the meaning of baptism, he makes it clear that baptism itself imparts grace:

For you go down into the water, bearing your sins, but the invocation of grace , having sealed your soul, suffers you not afterwards to be swallowed up by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, you come up quickened in righteousness. For if you have been united with the likeness of the Saviour’s death (Romans 6:5), you shall also be deemed worthy of His Resurrection. For as Jesus took upon Him the sins of the world, and died, that by putting sin to death He might rise again in righteousness; so thou by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the rock, art raised again walking in newness of life. (Romans 6:4) (III, 12)

A little earlier he has already made this explanation, using the Scriptures:

For since man is of twofold nature, soul and body, the purification also is twofold, the one incorporeal for the incorporeal part, and the other bodily for the body: the water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul; that we may draw near unto God, having our heart sprinkled by the Spirit, and our body washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22) When going down, therefore, into the water, think not of the bare element, but look for salvation by the power of the Holy Ghost: for without both you can not possibly be made perfect. It is not I that say this, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power in this matter: for He says, Unless a man be born anew (and He adds the words) of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:3) (III, 4)

In the same breath, however, he makes this statement:

Neither does he that is baptised with water, but not found worthy of the Spirit, receive the grace in perfection; nor if a man be virtuous in his deeds, but receive not the seal by water, shall he enter into the kingdom of heaven. A bold saying, but not mine, for it is Jesus who has declared it: and here is the proof of the statement from Holy Scripture. Cornelius was a just man, who was honoured with a vision of Angels, and had set up his prayers and alms deeds as a good memorial before God in heaven. Peter came, and the Spirit was poured out upon them that believed, and they spoke with other tongues, and prophesied: and after the grace of the Spirit the Scripture says that Peter commanded them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:48); in order that, the soul having been born again by faith , the body also might by the water partake of the grace. (III, 4)

Cyril is persistent in two things: his belief that baptism is necessary for salvation (he does make the exception for the martyrs,) and that baptism is not meaningful without an inward transformation towards God through Jesus Christ, something that the church in his day backed up with many of the extensive preparations the catechumens went through before baptism.

So what gives? Why are we left with an “either/or” proposition when Cyril and his church considered it a “both/and” business? The answer isn’t necessarily in front of us, but it was in front of Cyril. His Catechetical Lectures weren’t given in the nursery, but to people who were “of riper years” (to use the 1662 BCP’s delightful expression) who could understand Cyril’s instruction and act on it.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the trout in the milk is, as usual, infant baptism.

To put this issue in perspective, let’s consider the following relating to that other great sacrament of the church, the Eucharist:

For I myself received from the Lord the account which I have in turn given to you-how the Lord Jesus, on the very night of his betrayal, took some bread, And, after saying the thanksgiving, broke it and said “This is my own body given on your behalf. Do this in memory of me.” And in the same way with the cup, after supper, saying “This cup is the new Covenant made by my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in memory of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death-till he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread, or drinks the Lord’s cup, in an irreverent spirit, will have to answer for an offence against the Lord’s body and blood. Let each man look into his own heart, and only then eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For the man who eats and drinks brings a judgement upon himself by his eating and drinking, when he does not discern the body. That is why so many among you are weak and ill, and why some are sleeping. But, if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. (1 Corinthians 11:23-31)

Here we have two things: the simple statement that the Eucharist is the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and b) that those who receive it unworthily and without preparation will suffer up to and including the death penalty. We are presented with both a sacramental infusion of grace and the necessity of internal preparation and a right relationship with God.

That’s what Cyril presents to his pupils—and us—regarding baptism, using the Scriptures to back him up. The key is having the baptised be in a position of being properly prepared so they can receive what God has for them in baptism.

The two groups that object to adult baptism (the usual term is “believers baptism,” but that isn’t quite what Cyril has in mind) are fans of Reformed theology and those of the churches of the apostolic succession who believe that infant baptism and an apostolic church simply go together.

With Reformed theology, the key is to wash away original sin, and that of course dominates Roman Catholic thinking as well (or at least used to.) Although infants certainly exhibit signs of their sinful nature (and some are more demonstrative of that than others,) it cannot be avoided that they are not yet in a position to take responsibility for it. In any case, since true adherents of Reformed theology also posit that humans are so depraved (even after baptism) that they are incapable of even making a decision for God and can only be saved if they are predestined, why they waste valuable church time on any baptism is hard to know.

For those in apostolic churches, to some extent infant baptism is an expression of their concept of church. It’s a concept that has enamoured them to (and to some extent has been moulded by their contact with) the state. You’re born into a nation, you are born into a church. But the church of Cyril’s day is the witness of a church that was fully apostolic in the succession of its bishops and yet made adult baptism the norm. It also avoids the trap of Affirming Catholicism, which states that if you’re baptised then you’re a Christian without any other further act of will or divine intent.

Cyril’s church—and baptismal procedure—is in many ways the best of both worlds, and Christian churches would do well to examine it carefully.


One Reply to “Catechises and Baptismal Regeneration”

  1. I think that Jeremias has demonstrated pretty clearly that the children of believers were routinely baptized as infants and children. This is in agreement with “the memory of the Church” on the matter which further specifies that these children were also chrismated/confirmed and communed from infancy.

    For Cyril, adult baptism is far more common because adults, raised pagan (or Jewish) were coming into the Church in large numbers. Given that, it must be said that both infant and adult initiation were the norm for Cyril.

    Personally, I think the West has erred gravely in separating infant baptism from confirmation/chrismation and communion, delaying the latter two until later childhood or early adolescence.


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