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How the Early Church Drove Me Toward Catholicism

As a “Bible Christian,” I would have said I loved the writings of the Fathers. Of course, what I would have meant is that I loved to read Luther and Calvin and the other “heroes” of the Reformation. What Christians believed in the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries of the Christian era didn’t matter too much to me.

And in the end, when it came to determining doctrine, I would have said that all that really counts is “What saith the Scriptures?”

Then I met Newman. 

John Henry Newman was an Oxford scholar and Anglican minister so renowned in his time that his sermons were published in the newspapers each week throughout England. He was one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers of the nineteenth century—certainly one of the most brilliant I’d encountered. At the age of 45, he left the Anglican Church to become Catholic.

I read the defense he wrote of his decision, his Apologia pro Vita Sua. I read his extraordinary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In particular, I read where he wrote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

I sat bolt upright as though my chair were on fire. What? To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant? But that was only the beginning of birth pangs. Newman went on to say it is “easy to show” that the Christianity of history was not Protestantism.

In fact, he insisted that if the kind of church I pastored at the time ever existed in the early centuries of the Christian history, there’s no record of it. “So much must the Protestant grant, that if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial.”

It was at this point that I decided to take up Newman’s challenge. I would read the Church Fathers straight through, in order and in context. I wanted to know if there was truth to what Newman was saying. And anyway, why not see what these men had to say? After all, these were Christianity’s first bishops, theologians, apologists, saints and martyrs. St Irenaeus, I learned, was the disciple of a man who himself had been a disciple of the apostles.

The meaning of baptism

As I began to read the Fathers, one of the first things that struck me was the way they consistently talked about baptism.

Catholicism teaches what is known as “baptismal regeneration”—the belief that in baptism the graces depicted by baptism are actually given. Sins are washed away. We are born anew and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. God, of course, can do these things when and as he wishes, but he has chosen to do them through baptism. 

If you want an image of the Catholic teaching, think of Naaman the Syrian being instructed to dip himself in the Jordan River seven times to be cleansed of his leprosy (2 Kings 5). Think of Jesus commanding the man blind from birth to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” in order to receive his sight (John 9:7). In both cases, faith was expressed in an act of obedience, and the men were healed. So it is with baptism. 

Among evangelical Protestants, this teaching is almost universally rejected. Baptism is held to be a purely symbolic action by which a believer in Christ makes public profession of his or her faith. It speaks of what God has done in the life of the believer. It doesn’t itself do anything. This is what I believed as a Baptist.

Baptism in the Fathers

And so I began to read the Fathers. 

I started with the Letter of Barnabas, one of the earliest Christian writings. I’m reading merrily along, the subject of baptism arises and I find the author describing baptism as “the washing which confers the remission of sins” and explaining, “We descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up bearing fruit in our heart.” 

Strange way to talk about baptism, I thought. But who knows what he meant? I tucked that away and kept on reading. 

I finished Barnabas and picked up The Shepherd of Hermas, another of the earliest post-apostolic writings. Again, I’m cruising along, and suddenly the author says,  

“I have heard, sir,” said I, “from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.” He said to me, “You have heard rightly, for so it is.”

Now I’m scratching my head. When we went down into the water and “obtained” the remission of our former sins? At this point I thought, Well, these two early authors certainly seem to have held some kind of quasi-magical view of what takes place in baptism. But maybe it’s just these two crackpots?

I continued reading and came to Justin Martyr, the first great apologist of Christian history. I’m reading his First Apology, written around A.D. 150, and I run into this: 

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 entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins that are past, while we pray and fast 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 Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

I went on to read Clement of Alexandria, writing around A.D. 191. Here’s what I found him saying:

When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. . . . This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation.

I’ve selected only a few of many such quotations here so as not to bore you. But it’s not as though I found other Church Fathers arguing against the ideas expressed in these quotations. In fact, this is the way all of the earliest Christian writers speak of baptism. This is how Christians continue to speak of baptism essentially all the way up to when early forms of Protestantism appeared. Whenever baptism is mentioned, these are the sorts of things that are being said. 

Apparently, this is what Christians believed for the first fifteen centuries of Christian history!

Baptism in early Church historian

Almost in a panic, I turned to the works of great historians of the early Church. For instance, J.N.D. Kelly, whose work Early Christian Doctrines has been used as a textbook in Christian colleges and seminaries around the world. I turned to his section on baptism:

From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission into the Church. . . . As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins. . . . [It is that washing with] the living water which alone can cleanse penitents and which, being a baptism with the Holy Spirit, is to be contrasted with Jewish washings. It is a spiritual rite replacing circumcision, the unique doorway to the remission of sins.

I read the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the two or three greatest historians of Christian doctrine alive at the time. He refers to Tertullian’s teaching on baptism as illustrating the view of early Church. From Tertullian’s treatise on the doctrine of baptism (the first ever written on the subject), Pelikan says we learn that four basic gifts are given in baptism: “the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.”

It became more and more apparent to me that no one in the early centuries of Christianity held the view of baptism that I held as a Baptist—the view that everyone I knew held, the view that virtually all evangelical Protestants hold.

Strange realization, followed by a question I couldn’t shake: How in the world could we be so cut off from history?

I remember around this time coming home and saying to my wife something along the lines of: “You know, I’ve been crawling around in the early Church for months. I’ve looked under every rock and behind every tree, and, for the life of me, there ain’t a Baptist in sight!”  

Theological time travel

I imagined I could somehow be parachuted back to the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian and Cyprian and Augustine. I imagined I was sitting in a room with these men discussing the doctrine of baptism. And I asked myself a question: Would I oppose them on the basis of my personal interpretation of Scripture? Would I insist that they were all wrong; that the Church had been wrong for centuries, and that I was right? Would I start my own Baptist Church and denomination?

As someone who still thought mainly in terms of sola scriptura, my answer at the time was that I might oppose the teaching of the universal Church on baptism and, yes, even start my own denomination (of course, making the unlikely assumption that I would have had the courage to do it)—but only if it was absolutely certain that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture. Otherwise, how could I even begin to justify abandoning leaving and setting up shop on the basis of my private interpretation of the New Testament?

In other words, a shift in my thinking was already taking place. Before this experience, it seemed natural to approach any doctrinal issue by simply going straight to the Bible and deciding what I thought it was teaching. After facing such unanimous historical testimony on the meaning of baptism, I now saw that the burden of proof on me was much greater than that.

In other words, it wouldn’t be good enough for me to simply read the New Testament, examine the relevant passages, and conclude, “I think it teaches that baptism is merely a symbolic act.” It now seemed to me that to overturn what amounted to the universal faith of the Catholic Church for the first 1,500 years of its existence, I would need to believe that the Church’s view was completely irreconcilable with Scripture.

Obviously, the next step would be carefully read again the New Testament in the light of what I’d seen in the writings of the Fathers. I immediately launched into this.

Stay tuned for part two.

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