Faith of Our Fathers: Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching (pt. 4)

Irenaeus, church fathers, trinity

St. Irenaeus’ teachings laid the foundation for the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation

4.Completing the Trinity:  The Spirit and the Baptism of Regeneration

The third pillar of the Christian faith in Irenaeus’ baptism formula is the Holy Spirit, whom he describes as “the Wisdom of the Father of all,” (p. 46) and as an agent of regeneration and illumination:

The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, throughout the world, to God. (44)

We leave aside for now the question whether Irenaeus has an altogether too modalistic view of the Trinity, relegating the Holy Spirit to a mere mode of God’s self-expression or operation in the world.  According to Irenaeus, the Spirit is administered by the Son, according to the Father’s pleasure. The Spirit leads a person to the Son; and since the Son, as the incarnation of God himself, is (!) the knowledge of the Father, it is by encountering God in the Son that God confers “incorruptibility” to the believer.

It bears repeating that all this theology was contained in an early baptismal formula, and thus also taught and unpacked for the catechumen before baptism. This ensured that baptism was not merely an emotional experience but the beginning of a new life and an initiation into Trinitarian communion that remained tied to the historical tradition of the church as the continuation and completion of Israel’s story with God. In the still popular postmodern lingo of ‘story’, one could say that baptism was the conscious entrance into a new story, into a new reality, that did not eliminate one’s own self but reworked it into a new narrative. Narrative theology has its limits, however, because the catechumen would also have understood that this new reality is not a story, nor a worldview but first and foremost allegiance to Jesus. In short, the catechumen would have understood that Christianity is, in essence, discipleship. Christianity is following after and being shaped into the moral character of Jesus the Christ; and the culmination of this formation in humanity was to be crowned with the attainment of immortality–the undying communion with God and his people in a new creation.

All this may well appeal to a wide spectrum of Christianity, but one wonders how especially certain Protestant or evangelical denominations react to Irenaeus’s claim that baptism is a baptism of rebirth (παλιγενεσια). Lest we think that this genitive construction merely indicates that the baptism is a mere sign of regeneration, other passages by Irenaeus indicate clearly that he believes in the regenerative power of baptism. For him, baptism is “rebirth in God”: βαπτíσματος τñς εìς θεòν àναγεννńσεως (Irenaeus 1993, 277).

 Irenaeus’ view, however, is not at all out of the ordinary, but very much in line with early Christian theology. In his comprehensive study on baptism in the early church, the scholar Everett Ferguson concludes that “[t]he New Testament and early Christian literature are virtually unanimous in ascribing a saving significance to baptism”(Ferguson 2009, 859).

The New Testament, he explains, frequently mentions among the benefits of baptism the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  Baptism is understood to have the participatory dimension of sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ, and thus of being raised with him unto life (Rom. 6:3-4). This strong emphasis on the link between baptism and rebirth may well be one of the reasons why we have no recorded instance of infant baptism until the latter part of the second century. Ferguson surmises that this practice may have arisen from the practice of baptizing sick children who were expected to die soon (Ferguson, 856). Of course, whether the relatively late emergence of infant baptism is a valid argument against its practice depends on our view of doctrinal development within the tradition.

The real challenge of Irenaeus’s understanding of baptism, and that of the fathers in general, is not the introduction of infant baptism, but of the nature of baptism as such. As moderns, we are used to thinking of baptism as a personal, individual and conscious commitment to God. Many modern evangelicals reject infant baptism for two reasons. One, infant baptism is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible; and two, the idea does not correspond to the emphasis we place on personal, conscious choice and full awareness for the life choices we make. The second objection can be somewhat diffused by the fact that the Bible deals mostly with adult conversions, so that the question of infant baptism did not really come up until later. It remains true, however, that the argument for infant baptism from biblical texts has to be made largely from silence. The first objection to infant baptism, “that’s not in the Bible,”  is difficult to answer, in part because of underlying hermeneutical assumptions that often remain hidden. The statement, “It’s not in the Bible and therefore not true” has no room for development of doctrine or liturgical practices. We find no organs in the Bible. Is that an argument against their use in church? The early church used to walk in baptismal fonts, into which the participant often walked naked, and emerged to be robed in white, symbolizing new birth, renunciation of the world and forgiveness of sins for the beginning of a new life. Nothing of that is stated in the Bible – should they not have done this?  We have reduced the Eucharistic meal to plastic cups with grape juice and small pieces of white bread. That is not in the Bible, is it? The indications that “breaking of the bread” meant a full meal in the early church–does this really matter? Should we not rather try to comprehend both the full meal and our stylized modern versions as referring to the same reality?  When the apostle Paul condemns unworthy participation in the community meal and unfair exclusion of socially inferior Christian folk, he indicates that the “breaking of the bread,” is a sacrament of community, recalling the Passover meal at which Christ inaugurated the new humanity; it is the communion with God and one another that matters. Hence re-instituting a full meal instead of a symbolized meal, as some churches are currently want to do, misses the point, unless the meal is understood as a sacrament, as the participation in the real presence of God.

But biblical literalism is not the only problem; another is our modern mindset, misshapen by a narrow and self-centered view of truth.  When evangelicals reject infant baptism, they do so because it violates our emphasis on conscious awareness in our relation to God as precondition for baptism. Catholics may think that this rejection stems from the Reformation and Luther’s emphasis on conscience. That may even be partially true. However it does not work in the case of infant baptism, because Luther himself believed in it. I suspect the issue is that our modern attitude toward baptism is tainted by a culture for which only intense personal experiences are true. Such was not the case, however, for the fathers. For them, the reality and efficacy of baptism did not depend on personal faith in the sense that the validity of baptism depends on the conscious desire of the individual and his full comprehension of what baptism entails. For the fathers, neither such desire nor such comprehension was possible for a finite human being. For them, it was not our faith that really mattered but Christ’s faith, and the reality of the Church as Christ’s body into which the believer was baptized. For them, even the validity of an adult convert’s baptism did not depend solely on the person’s faith but on the reality into which he or she was baptized–into Christ and his body. From this point of view, the adult is in no better position than the infant. Baptism as entering the reality of Christ and his body, the church, is also the reason why infants of unbelievers were never baptized. Baptism extends only to those who are already within the community of faith, because the new life that baptism conveys is fulfilled only in the reality of the church. In short, to understand Irenaeus’s view of baptism, even aside from the question of infant baptism, requires a different ecclesiology and a less “me-centered” understanding of grace than our modern habits are willing to concede.

Continue reading with Part 5

Or go back and read Part 3

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