“One baptism for the remission of sins”

Obviously none of this refers to Jesus the Christ

So I’ve recently come into contact with those who deny baptismal regeneration, initially through a discussion of the Nicene Creed and its statement on baptism:

ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

We confess one baptism for the remission of sins

The concern was raised that baptism is not “essential” to salvation. And during the discussion, I realised that I have definitely moved into a position of believing in baptismal regeneration. But I because it’s something I’ve just sort of … slid … into, I do not have any robust argumentation (unlike, say, predestination, which I only came around to through the gentle ministrations of St Augustine this past Spring).

There are two places to begin in a question like this. Either you ask, “What does Scripture say?” or you ask, “What is the Rule of Faith?” And, given that it was the Nicene Creed that gave rise to the debate, I think it only reasonable to ask, “What does the Rule of Faith mean?”

Once we know what the Nicene Creed is actually talking about, then we can more thoroughly inquire as to whether it is in accord on this point with Scripture as it is on its other points. This, then, is merely an initial foray. A second foray will inquire whether I am right about the Creed insofar as the ancient church is concerned. A third will consider Scriptures about baptism. And a fourth will ask about Scripture and “remission of sins”/”salvation”.

What is “remission of sins”, then? Actually, let us go one step back. What is “for”, εἰς? This is a preposition and can mean many things depending on context, of course. It seems uncontroversial that LSJ definition V.2, “of purpose or object” is correct — “one baptism with the object of ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν“.

ἄφεσις, “remission”, is the noun derived from ἀφίημι, a verb that means to let go, to release, even divorce depending on context. The verb is the one used in the Lord’s Prayer for “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” (BCP) or “forgive us our debts…” (KJV). The use of “debts” in the KJV reminds us of the semantic range of ἀφίημι. This is the normal word in the New Testament for forgiving sins, and ἁμαρτια (neuter plural) is a normal word for “sins”, those times when we literally “miss the mark” of God’s holiness.

Basically, our ἁμαρτια are not held against us. They are forgiven, remitted, let go, released.

So, one baptism for the purpose of releasing sins, I guess?

But what does that really mean? It sounds like it means baptism is necessary for us to be forgiven — that the simple act of being dunked thrice in water with the words, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” remits our sins. Ex opere operato — you’re baptised, you’re saved!

Of course, that last clause, “you’re saved” already dredges up some Protestant baggage and has presuppositions about what the “remission/release/forgiveness of sins” actually means.

Without consulting the Fathers on this point, I would lean into the teaching that forgiveness of sins is not simply a question of “Get out of Hell free,” or “Get into Heaven,” but a matter of relating to God here, now, immediately, and that the grace conferred at baptism somehow is involved in this forgiveness. What I have seen the Fathers say about “salvation”-type questions generally tends to be holistic.

We’ll have to see, considering Sts Cyril of Jerusalem and John of Damascus (if not others) next time.

4 thoughts on ““One baptism for the remission of sins”

  1. If baptism isn’t regenerative or necessary (and I think that the thief on the cross shows that it isn’t *necessary*), then why is it a specific command Christ gives the apostles? “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And surely I am with you always, until the end of time.” (Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.) I do think it’s possible that baptism is about obedience. What is it we Anglicans say about the Eucharist? It’s an outward sign of an inward grace. (Maybe that’s the Catholics. Either way, it’s a thing.) Perhaps that’s the nature of Sacraments, which would then indicate that it’s not the action of being baptized that brings regeneration, it’s regeneration that is signified by baptism.

    Interesting discussion.

  2. Some interesting thoughts by Janna.

    Liturgical churches classify baptism as a fundamental sacrament of the Church. It was St Augustine who linked baptism with his interpretation of original sin (apropos St Paul’s writings in Romans chapters 5&6). Dare I suggest that the great theologian Augustine may have got it wrong, particularly Romans 5:19 “Through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) many were made sinners”. From this Augustine advocated that all babies born to Christian parents should be baptized as soon as possible after birth, otherwise they would retain the assumed curse of inherited sin should they die. In the day, Pelagius countered this argument pointing out that in creation, and therefore in procreation too, what God has made is fundamentally good (Genesis 1:31), so the propensity to sin comes when the child starts to excercise its ego. The Augustinian interpretation found common acceptance through the centuries since circa 410 CE, and became Catholic dogma ratified at the Council of Trent.

    What is baptism? Where does it come from? Isn’t it obvious that it has its roots in Hebrew purification rites? The high priest (Kohen Gadol) in the temple period was ritually cleansed in natural flowing water before entering the sacred temple space. In New Testament times mikveh (ritual baths) were found in or close to the Synagogues. The key feature was: to be kosher, the mikveh bath had to be connected to natural flowing water. The River Jordan was a natural mikveh where John baptized those who repented, confessing their sins (Matthew 3:6). So it seems that Janna is correct that it is the regeneration that precedes the rite of water baptism; it’s the confession bit. That is why when baptizing infants in liturgical churches, a Godparent is introduced into the mix to act as proxy for the child to renounce its original sin, then the officiating priest declares absolution as representative of Christ..

    Jesus did not baptize anyone (John4:1-2), but he did pronounce forgiveness of sins much to the abhorrence of the religious leaders and Pharisees (Matthew 9:4-6). We should also note that throughout the remainder of the New Testament writings that a common pattern immerges: Believe – Repent – be Baptised – receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) This pattern often happened in quick succession, but sometimes delayed as through Philip’s ministry (Acts 8:12-13 & 8:14-16). Some of the very early church practices are revealed in the Didache, a document believed to be almost as old as the New Testament Chapter 7.
    7:1 But concerning baptism, thus shall you baptize.
    7:2 Having first taught all these things, baptize in the name of the
    Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water.
    7:3 But if you have not living water, then baptize in other water;
    7:4 and if you are not able in cold, then in warm.
    7:5 But if you have neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the
    name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
    7:6 But before the baptism let him who baptizes and him who is
    baptized fast, and any others also who can;
    7:7 and you shall order him who is baptized to fast a day or two
    before.

  3. Further to my previous comment. According to an article I have just stumbled across, ‘Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity’ from the March/April 2017 Biblical Archaeology Review of the Biblical Archaeological Society:

    In the year 166CE, what is called the Antonine Plague swept through the whole of the Roman Empire. It has been shown most likely to have been a pandemic of smallpox that decimated the Roman world. The suggestion is that this could have been the root cause for the early adoption of infant baptism within the Christian community. During this period, archaeological evidence shows that the building of sacred sites and ceremonial ways intensified in response to the plague. Infants of Christian parents were at risk of dying prematurely, so a sacramental proxy form of baptism for infants could have been introduced long before St Augustine’s time. An interesting theory.

    • Indeed. I’ve always assumed intent baptism predated Augustine because he assumes its existence as part of his anti-Pelagian arguments, although I hadn’t thought quite so early as that.

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