Boy, that’s possibly the longest title I’ve given a blog post yet! But it’s true! This January I’ll be teaching “The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” for Davenant Hall (the Davenant Institute’s teaching wing). If you’re already excited enough, you can register for the course here. If you need more convincing, read on…
Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, perfect and entire in each, without getting it all mixed up and turning him into a divinised man or a man adopted by a god or a god who merely uses a human body like an avatar or something?
Do you kiss icons?
If you have an answer to any of these (yes, no, what?), then the outcomes of the Seven Ecumenical Councils should interest you! These seven councils met between 325 and 787. All were called by emperors. All dealt with church-rupturing theological issues. All also dealt with some canon law, except for 5 and 6, so a special council was called after number 6 that we call the Quinisext Council. It’s exciting already, isn’t it?!
These seven councils were admitted by the imperial church to provide the dogmatic boundaries for orthodox thought and worship. They come to be considered as having universal jurisdiction in doctrine and canon law. These seven, and only these seven, hold such a status in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These seven plus a bunch of later ones hold such a status in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of these, if I understand aright, are embraced by the Oriental Orthodox. And I’m not sure if the Church of the East formally embraces any of them, but they espouse the doctrine of the first two.
Protestants tend to explicitly endorse the first four, but I see no reason not to embrace five and six as well, whereas many Reformed Christians reject the seventh because of its acceptance and promotion of holy images (icons). I, personally, accept all seven. I’ve been told that I am what they call, “based”.
These seven councils are:
Nicaea (325): Jesus is of one substance with the Father
Constantinople (381): Reaffirms Nicaea and pushes towards the full divinity of the Holy Spirit
Ephesus (431): Jesus is only one person, fully human and fully divine
Chalcedon (451): Jesus exists in two natures, one human and one divine
Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus’ two natures come together in what we call the “hypostatic union”
Constantinople 3 (680/1): Jesus has two wills
Nicaea 2 (787): Images of Jesus and the saints are good
In my class, we are going to explore the events leading up to and the aftermath of each council. Some of them had some pretty crazy stuff going on at them (particularly Ephesus and second Constantinople), so we’ll look at how (or how not!) to run a church council. We’ll look at why these seven but not other ones (why not Serdica in 343? Why not the Lateran Council of 649? What about the council of 869?). And we’ll examine the writings of one major theologian associated with the teaching of each council.
It’s going to be a fun ride, and hopefully it will help you appreciate even more the glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ our Saviour and His work of redemption in becoming man.
In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.
This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:
Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)
Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.
The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.
Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.
Derived from notes for a sermon I preached at the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, November 14, 2021.
This Gospel reading is a familiar story. Jesus performs two miracles, and, in Mark and Luke, one of them is almost by accident! I think the Mark-Luke version of events is more what we are used to, sort of as told here in Tatian’s Diatessaron which is a combined version of all four Gospels that tells the events in order, put together in the 100s:
And a man named Jairus, the chief of the synagogue, fell before the feet of Jesus, and besought him much, and said unto him, I have an only daughter, and she is come nigh unto death; but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. And Jesus rose, and his disciples, and they followed him. And there joined him a great multitude, and they pressed him.
And a woman, which had a flow of blood for twelve years, had suffered much of many physicians, and spent all that she had, and was not benefited at all, but her trouble increased further. And when she heard of Jesus, she came in the thronging of the crowd behind him, and touched his garments; and she thought within herself, If I could reach to touch his garments, I should live. And immediately the fountain of her blood was dried; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her plague. And Jesus straightway knew within himself that power had gone out of him; and he turned to the crowd, and said, Who approached unto my garments? And on their denying, all of them, Simon Cephas and those with him said unto him, Our Master, the multitudes throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who approached unto me? And he said, Some one approached unto me; and I knew that power went forth from me. And that woman, when she saw that she was not hid from him, came fearing and agitated (for she knew what had happened to her), and fell down and worshipped him, and told, in the presence of all the people, for what reason she touched him, and how she was healed immediately. And Jesus said unto her, Be of good courage, daughter; thy faith hath made thee alive; depart in peace, and be whole from thy plague.
And while he was yet speaking, there came a man from the house of the chief of the synagogue, and said unto him, Thy daughter hath died; so trouble not the teacher. But Jesus heard, and said unto the father of the maid, Fear not: but believe only, and she shall live. And he suffered no man to go with him, except Simon Cephas, and James, and John the brother of James. And they reached the house of the chief of the synagogue; and he saw them agitated, weeping and wailing. And he entered, and said unto them, Why are ye agitated and weeping? the maid hath not died, but she is sleeping. And they laughed at him, for they knew that she had died. And he put every man forth without, and took the father of the maid, and her mother, and Simon, and James, and John, and entered into the place where the maid was laid. And he took hold of the hand of the maid, and said unto her, Maid, arise. And her spirit returned, and straightway she arose and walked: and she was about twelve years of age. And he commanded that there should be given to her something to eat. And her father wondered greatly: and he warned them that they should tell no man what had happened. And this report spread in all that land.
I wanted to read this story out loud in this version not only because it’s worth seeing how we all tend to think of these famous Bible stories, but also because it’s worth it just to hear the Scriptures over and over again, to allow them to penetrate our hearts, as in the meditative reading of Scripture from the medieval monasteries called Lectio Divina today.
I think there are some interesting questions to ask about why Matthew isn’t the same as the other two, but I’m not going to. What we see in any version, though, is the power of God at work in the lives of those around Jesus, and Jesus is the epicentre of that power.
What stands out to me first when I read it in the Matthew version is that the leader says, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Unlike the others and the Diatessaron, the girl is already dead. Recently dead, yes. But dead nonetheless. And yet this man comes to Jesus expecting that Jesus will be able to heal his daughter.
When the Son of Man returns, will he find such faith on earth?
How deep does our faith go?
Think on that.
Jesus goes to see this girl. He goes because He has come from heaven, the God Word himself, to make everything sad come untrue. He is life, as the Gospel of John says. This is God’s rescue plan, and death is the final enemy who, because of Jesus’ victory, will lose its sting through the cross and resurrection at Easter. Indeed, for us here now, death already has lost its sting.
Along the way, embedded in this other miracle narrative, another person seeks Jesus out. This woman has spent all of her money on doctors. Some preachers will tell you these men were basically quacks. I’m not one of those preachers. Some probably were. But others had real knowledge, even if the theory was not sound. But it doesn’t matter; they couldn’t heal her. And that was a problem in Jewish life, because a woman during her period was ritually unclean, and so there were all sorts of things she couldn’t do, including certain forms of normal human interaction and religious practice. The clean/unclean distinction is part of many ancient religions, and I know a Hindu whose mother had a completely separate room to sleep in during her period. That’s the kind of life this woman had been leading. All she wants is to be a bit normal. She wants healing deep in her soul, and she believes Jesus can give it to her.
What do you want from Jesus today?
In the other Gospels and the Diatessaron, Jesus feels the power go out of Himself. He queries, “Who touched me?” Here, Jesus knows. He knows who has touched him. So he turns, and there she is. He looks at her.
Jesus Christ is God come down to meet with us. The incomprehensible, almost inaccessible King of the Universe, the Logos, the Word, who makes and orders all things, came down as Jesus of Nazareth to liberate his beloved people from sin, death, and the devil. He became man because of his unutterably deep love for us. “Jesus turned,” the Gospel says, “and seeing her he said…”
This is a simple, straightforward historical truth about a specific moment in the earthly life of our Saviour. He saw her and spoke to her.
Let me tell you something else. This is a powerful, cosmic truth about every moment in our earthly life with our Saviour. He sees you. He sees me. And he speaks to us.
And when he speaks to the woman with the issue of blood, he says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Faith, at its root, is trust. Trust is a great English word, related to tree and truth and tryst. Sturdy, dependable. Trustworthy. Her pistis, her relying on Jesus, her trust in him, made her well. Jesus healed her instantly in response to her faith. This is the truth and beauty of divine compassion let loose upon the world in Jesus the Christ, the God Word enfleshed for our salvation. Trust him. He will heal you—of course, last week our main pastor already noted that our physical afflictions may not always be healed. But what endures, Jesus can and does heal that. Your deepest wounds, sins, scars, soul, eternal self. This is healed and prepared to be raised up at the last day to reign with Him.
So Jesus looks at her. At you. At me. And he speaks, and he says, “Take heart, child; your faith has made you well.”
He continues on his way. And he comes to the home of Jairus, where the girl is dead. Here the mourners, some of them possibly professionals, have gathered already to make the public display of the family’s grief. Jesus sends them away with the astonishing, laughable words, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.”
They laughed at Jesus. Ridiculed him. Once again: How do you respond to the God of the universe when He speaks? With faith, like the woman with the issue of blood, or with ridicule, like the professional mourners? Sometimes the things he says seem crazy.
Nonetheless, he came, took the girl by the hand, and she arose.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In him is life. He came so that we might have life, and life abundantly. Nothing can stop him. Not even death. And there’s something really cool about how Jesus performs these miracles that a friend of mine wrote about in a book. Here, and in all the miracles of Mark, Jesus just performs miracles. He doesn’t pray for God to intervene or use some other agent like Aaron’s staff, as the prophets in the OT had. He doesn’t say, “In the name of God…” like how the Apostles say, “In the name of Jesus Christ.” He just heals.
No one else in ancient history about whom miracle tales are told does this. They always defer to God if they’re Jewish or Christian, or maybe they use magic or a pagan deity or demon if they aren’t. But they don’t just go around performing miracles on their own power. The only person who does that is God. The weight of miracle upon miracle upon miracle in Matthew’s Gospel—the next story, just so you know, is Jesus performing a miracle—presses us to realise this beautiful, glorious truth, that sometimes we Christians take for granted. And this truth is:
God is Jesus.
Hence the power of the Jesus Prayer prayed by the monks of Mount Athos that gave them such grace:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
This takes us right back to the Colossians passage I read earlier in the service, showing us what the miracles teach us about Jesus as God. This is the cosmic dimension of the Gospel we are baptised into, the glorious reality we grasp when Jesus looks at us, speaks to us, and we have faith in him:
Colossians 1:9-23 NIV
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[c] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
A friend queried on Facebook yesterday, “Whose politics look more like God’s? Jesus’ or Constantine’s?” This is a friend I know well enough to know that he’s not being actually anti-Constantine or anything like that, but, rather, trying to provoke us to think about Jesus.
Now, this friend tends to use the Revised Common Lectionary, yet when I was preparing for Sunday using the BCP/Sarum/pre-Vatican II Roman/pre-1980s Lutheran lectionary (remind me why we needed a different one to be “common”?), this was the Gospel for Trinity 23, Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)
In other words, the most famous “political” passage in the Gospels.
I have to confess I’m not 100% sure what “Jesus’ politics” look like. Perhaps this is the effect of evangelicalism — I see the ethical teaching as personal and have trouble applying, “Turn the other cheek,” to this-worldly politics. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how Jesus-y Constantine’s politics were after his conversion c. 312.
For example, Constantine used alleged “persecution” of Christians by his imperial colleague Licinius as a cause for war in 324. And then he used imperial power to make bishops abide by the Council of Nicaea (a council with which he himself didn’t necessarily agree). He gave tax breaks to Christian clergy. In 335, he decided to go to war against the Persian Empire to protect the Christians there from persecution. He closed pagan temples (maybe). He also probably had his son and wife assassinated.
All in all, Constantine was a Roman Emperor. He did things that one would expect of a Roman emperor — self-aggrandizement, assassination, and war among them. But are his Rome-focussed politics the politics of God?
It’s not as though the history of the church from Constantine to the wild free-for-all after the Reformation just accepted that a good, Christian king acts like an Old Testament king such as David or Josiah, or models himself after Constantine, or what-have-you. There is, actually, a tension in Christendom between the Gospel call to die for your friends and the temporal call to protect your borders.
Thinking on this, my mind naturally and immediately went to the teaching given to Lancelot by his foster-mother, the fairy known as the Lady of the Lake:
… understand this, that knighthood was not created and set up light-heartedly, nor because some men were originally more noble or of higher lineage than the others, for all people are descended from one father and one mother. But when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome justice, at that time all men were still equal in lineage and nobility. And when the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong, they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the peaceful and to maintain their rights, and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing and outrageous behaviour.
To provide this protection, they established those who were most worthy in the opinion of the common people. These were the big and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body. However, knighthood was not given to them frivolously, or for nothing, but with it a great burden was placed on their shoulders. And do you know what that was? Originally, when the order of knighthood began, a man who wished to be a knight, and who was accorded that privilege by right of election, was told he should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compassionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to further wrong. A knight should not, for fear of death, do anything which can be seen as shameful: rather, he should be more afraid of shame than of suffering death.
The knight was established wholly to protect the Holy Church, for she should not avenge herself by arms, or give back evil for evil; and for that reason the knight was established to protect the Church, who turns the left cheek, when she is struck on the right.
Lancelot of the Lake, trans. Corin Corley. Oxford, 1989/2000, pp. 52-53.
The Lady of the Lake goes on to describe the knight’s arms and armour, giving each its symbolic, spiritual meaning, just as writers such as John Cassian do for the monastic habit. Interestingly, in a later stage of the same cycle of romances, the liturgical vestments of priests are referred to as “the armour of Holy Church” (or something like that).
What this shows us as we ponder the question of worldly politics and the kingdom of heaven is that Christians who can hold worldly power are profoundly aware of the ways in which imperial policy or knightly behaviour, or life at Court, or any number of circumstances are at odds with turning the other cheek.
St Martin of Tours chose to leave the Roman army in the 360s. Many other disciples of Jesus chose to remain soldiers.
Circling back to making these sorts of questions point us to Jesus, then. Real world politics is a messy business, and living in a representative democracy means I have rights and responsibilities other than just paying taxes and following the law. I can elect people, vote in referenda, and write letters to the powers that be.
When I exercise these rights and responsibilities, am I turning to the wisdom of Jesus, reflected even in the Lady of the Lake, seeking to serve the poor and outcast, or am I turning the wisdom of this world? That, I suppose, is the Jesus-y question for today, even if any actual vote cast may vary from Christian to Christian.
One of my favourite things to come out of Reformed Christianity (right up there with Scottish a cappella Psalm-singing) is the first question of the Shorter Westminster Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
For some reason, the Lutheran artist FLAME seems to think that this statement has something to do with affections, as in his song “Used to Think” on the album Extra Nos:
They say that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (That’s cool) You know what that sound like to me on a practical level is coming to together (Bridge) Serving your neighbor, enjoying creation To me Luther said it better (He did) Instead of focused on affections No diss to Jonathan Edwards If our faith justifies us And God saved and baptized us We set our gaze outside of us Extra nos, but
Now, my expertise is neither Lutheranism nor Reformed Christianity. I am an Anglican who spends a lot of time reading ancient and medieval stuff. And Malcolm Guite.
Nonetheless, this is, in fact, extra nos, outside of us, which is FLAME’s big thing in the album Extra Nos. As FLAME puts it, “If our faith justifies us / And God saved and baptized us / We set our gaze outside of us.” First, the Westminster divines did their seventeenth-century duty and piled up Bible verse upon Bible verse for both “glorify God” and “enjoy him forever”; whether you think they used Scripture wisely, I’ll leave up to you. You can read the whole catechism here.
Clearly, though, it’s the use of “enjoy him forever” that is troubling to FLAME.
This is too bad, because the dude has a Master’s in theology, and he seems pretty down on a whole lot of stuff. So I would have thought that St Augustine of Hippo’s De Doctrina Christiana would be under his belt. In St Augustine’s scheme of how the universe and the human heart operate, there are res (“things”, if you will) that we use (utor) and res that we enjoy (fruor). Ultimately, every res that is not God exists to be used, and the purpose of its use is for us to enjoy God.
God is the only res we are meant to enjoy in the Augustinian understanding of enjoyment.
The enjoyment of God and God alone, in fact, sets our gaze outside of ourselves automatically. It drives us from merely enjoying a sunrise to enjoying God through a sunrise. It drives us from merely enjoying ice cream to enjoying the God who gave us taste buds. We do not simply enjoy music, we enjoy God through the music. And St Augustine, from comments in Confessions, seems to have been a music fan who struggled with this.
The point of the Augustinian concept of enjoyment is not seeking some sort of emotional or affective experience. It is about seeking him of whom St Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” It is not about, “Am I enjoying God? What can I do to enjoy God more?” It is about realising that God is the only proper res for us to enjoy.
So that’s just one point.
Another point is FLAME’s highly significant choice of words here: “We set our gaze outside of us.” In the Christian-Platonist framework of Augustinian theology, the final end of man, the telos of the human race, is the beatific vision of God Himself. We gaze outside ourselves upon the glory of God (sometimes now in a foretaste, but most likely not until the eschaton).
According to ancient physics (Platonic, Epicurean, and others), when we gaze upon something, we actually make contact with it. This is why, as explained by Father Andrew Louth in an excellent article called “Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium,” so many late antique liturgical objects are silver — the shining light hits the eye in a particularly powerful way, drawing your gaze to the liturgy and thus to God. (I recommend St Maximus the Confessor if you’re interested in Byzantine conceptualisations of how we meet God in the liturgy.)
And so, when we set our gaze outside ourselves and on God, instead, this is driving towards the Beatific Vision, something we’ll never fully encounter this side of glory according to St Augustine. But this vision is not a static thing the way we think of vision today. It is immersive and an encounter. A crude analogy is that the vision of God is more like when I saw Dune on the weekend in an AVX cinema than it is like when I looked at a portrait of Henry VIII in Rome. I was drawn into Arrakis through sight, sound, and touch, as my chair itself rumbled with the story on-screen.
This gazing outside ourselves which itself is a means of entering into intimate communion of God is, I would argue, precisely what St Augustine means when he talks about us enjoying God. If you are truly, truly enjoying something, you are not thinking about the affective experience. The experience has swallowed you up.
Setting aside the question of proper and improper enjoyment, I know I have had moments of sitting at, say, a choral eucharist or other musical event where I was completely lost to myself. It was sublime in the truest sense of the word. That, only more so, is what Augustine means. And it can only be found extra nos. Outside ourselves.
I say this not as some sort of anti-FLAME or anti-Lutheran or pro-Reformed statement. I say it because most of us Latins, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, are hopelessly Augustinian. Deeply, deeply Augustinian. Indeed, I joke sometimes how remarkable it is that when Martin Luther rejected the tradition and went back to read the Scriptures for themselves, his interpretation was astonishingly like St Augustine of Hippo’s.
I say this because this statement from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, from my limited vantage point as an Anglican scholar of late antiquity, has a lot of St Augustine lurking behind it, and I think it’s precisely the sort of thing a Lutheran should support.
My latest YouTube video is a response to someone recently stating that the Later Roman Empire was a decaying civilization into which no one bought. I disagree. So I started a foray into Late Antique history which may last several videos (if not the rest of my life!). It’s not yet strictly ecclesiastical history/the history of Christianity, but the series of videos will get there.
If you find yourself interested in more Late Antiquity and simply cannot wait, I have written a series of posts under the heading “Discover Late Antiquity” over at my other blog.
Relevant to my last post, here’s some undigested Justin Martyr (c. 150):
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”1894 Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above;1895 he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”1896
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (First Apology, ch. 61)
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.