John’s Baptism as Prophecy

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

In my study of Baptism so far, I’ve taken for granted that the baptism of John the Baptist was somehow irrelevant to Christian Baptism, since all Christians agree that it was merely a foreshadowing of Christ’s. I now think my omission was a mistake. All combined, the accounts of John give us the most voluminous treatment of Baptism in the New Testament. All four Evangelists found John’s Baptism to be of central importance to their Gospel narratives, and necessary to understanding the person of Jesus and His work. That John is known to Christian tradition as “The Baptist” places a special emphasis on his role in connection with Baptism. To grasp a full understanding of what Baptism is and what it does, then, we should turn first to John.

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305), by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

“To give knowledge of salvation to His people”

The Evangelists understood John (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4), as John understood himself (John 1:23), to be the immediate forerunner of the Christ, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the LORD,’” in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). In what way was John supposed to prepare Christ’s way? John’s father Zechariah prophesied in his Benedictus:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God… (Luke 1:76–77)

So we see that John’s mission is to give knowledge of salvation to [the LORD’s] people in the forgiveness of their sins. John gave knowledge of salvation — an understanding of how people could be saved — in the forgiveness of their sins. What in John’s message would have given that understanding?

From John’s first appearance, he preached a simple message: a baptism of repentance. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11). It is implied, then, that if John’s message was to convey “knowledge of salvation,” that knowledge had an intrinsic connection to his baptism and to repentance.

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum)

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”

John is also plain in his message that his baptism was only a precursor of a greater Baptism that was to come: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16). Certainly the key aspect of this Baptism was to be “with the Holy Spirit” (cf. Mark 1:8), since Mark refers to only Christ’s Baptism “with the Holy Spirit,” while both Matthew and Luke refer to the same Baptism as being “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Now, I have heard some Protestants, particularly from my own Charismatic tradition, suppose that this refers to two different baptisms, “with the Holy Spirit” and “with fire.” But what is John actually saying here? It’s evident in the original texts that the two terms refer to the same object: although many English translations include “with” twice, there is only one preposition here in the Greek: ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί [en pneumati hagiō kai puri], with the Holy Spirit and fire. This is a literary device called hendiadys (Greek for “one by means of two”), by which two words connected by a conjunction are used to express a single idea, where an adjective and a substantive might otherwise be used. Christ’s “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” is one and the same: baptism with the fiery Holy Spirit. In the words of the great Jesuit commentator Cornelius à Lapide, far more eloquent than my own:

By the Holy Ghost and fire is meant the Holy, Fiery, and Inflaming Spirit, who is fire—that is, like fire—and, as fire, burns, and kindles. It is a hendiadys. The Holy Ghost, as it were fire, purges the faithful from their sins, kindles and illuminates them, raises them towards heaven and strengthens them, unites them closely to Himself, and, like fire, transforms them into Himself. (The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide, Volume 1: S. Matthew’s Gospel, trans. T.W. Mossman [London: John Hodges, 1887], 122)

Conclusion

So what is the upshot of all this? John declares plainly that his baptism is merely with water, a symbolic washing away of sins from repentant sinners. So Jesus’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is clearly something more. John himself associates Christ’s Baptism with the work of the Holy Spirit. So the logic seems to me:

  1. John baptized with water.
  2. John said the Christ would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” — not “with water,” leading to a possible symbolic interpretation.
  3. But Jesus also baptized with water (cf. John 4:1), and water baptism became a Christian sacrament.
  4. No other movement of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is referred to as “baptism.”
  5. It appears, then, that the Baptism John prophesied would be “with the Holy Spirit and fire” was the only Baptism Jesus is known to have administered, in water.

By the testimony of John, Christian Baptism was to be something much more than merely “with water.” Baptism itself was to be a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Biblical Testimony to St. Peter’s Ministry and Death in Rome

(This is a matter I’ve written about before, but not all in one place. And it’s come up in a conversation, so I thought I would put it all together here.)

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (Wikat least viiPaintings.org)

Anti-Catholics often claim that there is no evidence in Scripture that the Apostle Peter died in Rome or even ever went there. After all, wasn’t Peter the Apostle to the Jews, and Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles? What would Peter have been doing in Rome? Nevermind that early first century Rome had a Jewish population of over 7,000, perhaps many more; or that Peter was the first to preach to Gentiles, just as Paul ministered to Jews everywhere he went. And as a matter of fact, there is strong biblical evidence to place Peter in Rome by the close of the events of the New Testament.

She who is at Babylon

First, and most clearly: Peter tells us himself. In the closing of St. Peter’s first epistle, he writes:

By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you that are in Christ (1 Peter 5:12–14)

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings. Who is Peter talking about? Who is she? And how can someone who is in Babylon be sending greetings through Peter? Does that mean Peter is in Babylon? Let’s take this apart.

First of all, the Greek here — as well as an astute reading of the English — gives us a strong hint who she is. “She who is in Babylon, who is likewise chosen” is ἡ ἐν Βαβυλῶνι συνεκλεκτὴ [hē en Babylōni syneklektē]. What does he mean, likewise chosen? Who else is chosen? For the answer, we return to the opening of the letter:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those chosen sojourning of the Diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace, may it be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:1–2, my translation)

I gave my own translation, more literal than any published one (so literal as to sound a little awkward, probably), to preserve the order and emphasis of Peter’s words: Peter’s address is to those chosen. The Greek word here is ἐκλεκτόι [eklektoi] — and this mirrors the word from 5:13, συνεκλεκτόι [syneklektoi = syn + eklektoi], also chosen. This word, ἐκλεκτός [eklektos], from ἐκ + λέγω [ek + legō] — it most literally means to choose out. It is the root of our English words elect and eclectic.

Masaccio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucufixion of St. Peter (1426), by Masaccio (WikiPaintings).

We have here what is called an inclusio, a literary envelope by which the opening and closing of the letter bracket the contents. Peter wants to emphasize the fact of being chosen. The people to whom Peter is writing are those chosen by God, and she who is at Babylon is also chosen or elect. Elsewhere in the New Testament the “elect” refers to all Christians (cf. Luke 18:7, Romans 8:33, 2 Timothy 2:10). And in another place, we find a reference to an unnamed “elect lady”: John the Presbyter writes “to the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1) — and sends greetings from “the children of your elect sister” (2 John 13). Who are these elect ladies, if not the Church, sisters in different places?

But the elect lady at Babylon? If Peter is by her side, then he must be in Babylon, too, must he? Ah-ha! say the anti-Catholics. See! It says Peter was in Babylon, not Rome! But was he really in Babylon, the ancient city in Mesopotamia? Probably not. Alexander the Great conquered Babylonia, and the city of Babylon, in 333 B.C. (and died there). Following Alexander’s death, his vast conquests were divided between his leading generals. Seleucus took Babylonia, and founded the Seleucid Empire, with its capital at the newly-founded city of Seleucia. From that time on, the city of Babylon was in decline, until by the first century A.D. it was mere ruins. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 B.C.) attests:

But all these [temple treasures] were later carried off as spoil by the kings of the Persians, while as for the palaces and the other buildings, time has either entirely effaced them or left them in ruins; and in fact of Babylon itself but a small part is inhabited at this time, and most of the area within its walls is given over to agriculture. (The Library of History 2.9.9, ed. by C.H. Oldfather)

Peter would have no reason to be in the literal Babylon. Further, Peter writes as someone under the authority of the emperor (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17), and as one experiencing the thick of Christian persecution (cf. 1 Peter 4:12, “the fiery trial”), when the first major Christian persecutions began in the city of Rome under Nero — and Mesopotamia was not yet under Roman rule in the first century. But if not the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia, where else might “Babylon” be?

The Beast seated on seven mountains

The Revelation of John refers to Babylon:

And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly. But the angel said to me, “Why marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. … This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while (Revelation 17:3–5, 7, 9–10).

Map of ancient Rome, ca. A.D. 100

Map of Ancient Rome, showing the Seven Hills.

In this, John tells us quite clearly where, at least in his symbolism, Babylon is: A city arrayed in purple and scarlet, bedecked with gold and jewels, the mother of earth’s abominations, drunk the blood of the martyrs and saints of Jesus — and seated on seven mountains. One of the traditional marks of the city of Rome is that it was founded on Seven Hills (called in Latin montes, “mountains” — of which, for what it’s worth, the Vatican is not one; the Vatican was outside the walls of ancient Rome). And no other city in the time of the Apostles would have been such a visible image of decadence and extravagance, the capital of a great empire, the seat of fornication and abomination. As the Roman historian Tacitus remarked, it is in Rome “where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue” (referring, ironically, to Christianity). No other city in Peter’s day would have been more “drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints” — the author of the first great persecutions under the emperors Nero (which Tacitus wrote to describe).

But what of the “seven kings”? Can this also be understood to refer to Rome? Quite easily. It even supports an earlier dating of the Revelation than some have supposed, perhaps around the time of Peter’s martyrdom. First-century Rome was ruled by emperors, of whom the most aggressive enemy of Christians was Nero. This post is already too long, but I will allow the good Jimmy Akin to present for you compelling evidence identifying these seven kings and the Beast of Revelation: [Part 1] [Part 2]

It will suffice to say for now that there is very good reason for identifying the “Babylon” of Revelation with Rome — as even anti-Catholics do when they suppose that Catholic Church is the “whore.” If this was the attitude toward Rome in the first century, it would have been one with which Peter was well acquainted. Indeed, no other first-century city could have so aptly resembled the ancient Babylon: the capital of the civilized world, and of a great and mighty empire; the center of decadence and extravagance and idolatry. Peter has just informed us, without a doubt, that he is in Rome.

As does my son Mark

Guido Reni, Saint Mark (1621)

Saint Mark (1621), by Guido Reni WikiPaintings).

And so does my son Mark. In Peter’s closing, he also identifies for us two of his companions who are by his side in “Babylon.” Can this shed any light on Peter’s whereabouts?

Scripture mentions this Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, in a number of other places. When Peter was freed from the prison of Herod:

Peter came to himself, and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying (Acts 12:11–12).

So we see an association between Peter and Mark from the earliest days of the Church, attested to in Scripture.

Later in the same chapter, we find Mark accompanying Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s second missionary journey:

The word of God grew and multiplied. And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark (Acts 12:24–25).

But as they set out for their next journey, Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement over Mark:

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:36–40).

Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (c. 1433)

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (c. 1433) (WikiPaintings).

Now this is important: Barnabas and Mark leave the scene, and Paul takes on a new companion, Silas — also known as Silvanus (cf. Acts 17:15, 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1).

Paul and Mark later reconciled. We next find Mark as a companion of Paul at the time of his writing the epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon:

Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me (Colossians 4:10–11)

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23–24)

We find in these letters that Paul is a prisoner. This is his first captivity — in Rome (cf. Acts 28:16).

Scholars date Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, and the authorship of these letters, to the spring of A.D. 61 through the spring of A.D. 63 — which also happens to be the range of dates commonly ascribed to the authorship of the first epistle of Peter. So we have, direct from Paul in Scripture, testimony to the fact that Mark was in Rome. And if Mark was in Rome during that time, and was with Peter when he wrote his letter, then it is reasonable to conclude that Peter was also in Rome.

But what of Silvanus? Scripture makes no mention of him following Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18:5) — until we find him by Peter’s side in 1 Peter. But as Silvanus was a constant companion of Paul, it would be reasonable to assume that he at least visited Paul in Rome, if not moved the base of his apostolic operations there. The presence of Silvanus by Peter’s side, too, supports the conclusion that Peter was in Rome.

You will stretch our your hands

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600), by Caravaggio (Wikipedia).

We have one parting testimony to the end of Peter’s life — in the Gospel of John, widely held to have been one of the last-written books of the New Testament — certainly after the death of Peter:

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19)

You will stretch out your hands. In the ancient world — particularly in the Christian tradition — “to stretch out one’s hands” was an almost explicit reference to crucifixion. Indeed, to John the author, this language is meant to be clear to the reader: “This he said to show by what death [Peter] was the glorify God.” Certainly by the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, Peter’s martyrdom had already occurred — so if this were not a true description of Peter’s death (the details of which his readers would have known well), he would not have included it. Further, for Peter’s death to have been by crucifixion, he would have to have been living under Roman rule, since crucifixion was the Roman method of execution: this would not have been the case had he been living in Mesopotamia.

Indeed, the whole tradition of the Church affirms that this was the manner of Peter’s death:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the Apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the Apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. . . . Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority [of Apostles themselves]. How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John [the Baptist]’s [and] where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics 36, ca. A.D. 180-200)

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. (Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History II.25.5, ca. A.D. 290)

So we see that Scripture is plain in testifying to the ministry and death of Peter in Rome. Even those of a sola scriptura mindset should be satisfied. There is no sense in denying that Peter lived and died in Rome — to which the unanimous voice of the Church Fathers and other early writers of the Church testifies, dating to before the close of the first century, and which findings of archaeology confirm. If anyone would deny the truth of the Catholic Church, they must do so on other grounds than the historical.

Denying Original Sin (Baptism in Depth)

Hendrik Goltzius, The Fall of Man

The Fall of Man (1616) by Hendrik Goltzius (Google Art Project, via Wikimedia).

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

Growing up as an Evangelical Protestant, I didn’t have much of a theological foundation. But if there was any doctrine that I knew well and understood, it was Original Sin: Because Adam and Eve chose to reject God and sin, we have all inherited a fallen nature, such that we have no power in ourselves to resist temptation: we do the thing we do not want to do, and the thing we want to do, we do not do (Romans 7:15). I always thought this was an essential, universal Christian understanding — the reason why we need a Savior.

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

The first time I encountered someone rejecting the doctrine of Original Sin, I thought it was the bizarrest thing I’d ever heard, and presumed that it must be an isolated dissenter, an overzealous Bible student carried away with his own interpretation. That was some months ago. But since then I’ve encountered Evangelical after Evangelical — whole denominations, in fact — who deny this central tenet of the Christian faith. I remain stunned and puzzled.

Historically, the denial of Original Sin has been associated with the heresy of Pelagianism. This entails that we don’t have a fallen nature — that we, in our own ability, are entirely capable of resisting temptation and avoiding sin, and we can approach God and attain to salvation on our own without the aid of His grace. If we are to believe that Adam’s sin did not result in a fallen nature for all humanity, that men today have no greater a propensity to sin than Adam in his original state, that we can choose in our own free will alone not to sin — then ultimately we are left to wonder why Jesus needed to die for us at all. Couldn’t he simply have beckoned for us to come to Him, if there were no insuperable divide between God and Man to bridge? I do not think — I sincerely hope not — that those who deny Original Sin mean to argue this. My sense is that these people fundamentally misunderstand what Original Sin means — that they don’t understand what they are rejecting.

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

What they actually intend to reject, I suspect, is what they understand of the Catholic Sacrament of Baptism. The people I’ve talked to who have expressed a rejection of Original Sin have spoken of it as if it were something physical or biological that needed to be physically washed away, as one would wash away dirt or a stain. It is true that we, from the Church Fathers forward, often speak of Original Sin as a “stain” or “contagion” — but this in no wise entails one of a physical or biological sort. As it so often is with sacramental theology, non-Catholics are unable to make a distinction between something being physical and something being real. I have been around in circles so many times in discussions with non-Catholics, they not grasping that something can be both spiritual and real; both symbolic and actual; both through faith and through action.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome — of a small child, by effusion (pouring).

St. Peter tells us that “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21). In contrast to what I’ve often been told, Catholics do not ignore this Scripture, or any Scripture at all. We have never argued that Baptism works physically to remove physical sin from the body. Sin, both original and actual, is a spiritual affliction to the soul. St. Paul calls Baptism “the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) and “[a cleansing by] the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26). St. Luke tells us that Baptism “[washes] away our sins” (Acts 22:16). But none of these statements means to imply that we obtain remission from sins by means of a physical washing alone. Many Protestants argue, then, that these references are symbolic, or that they don’t refer to Baptism at all. But then, why are the multiple New Testament authors so insistent on this language of a washing? Why did the earliest extrascriptural Christian writers understand, to the exclusion of any purely symbolic interpretation, that Baptism itself somehow washed away our sins?

This all goes to the very heart of why I began this series: the rejection of infant Baptism by many of the same Christians who affirm the sacramentality of Baptism (i.e. that it actually washes away sins). The reason why they do is that they also reject Original Sin. If a Christian believes in both Original Sin and the sacramentality of Baptism, he cannot in good conscience deny that Sacrament to his children.

I had planned to dig a bit deeper into Scripture with Original Sin this time, but I got sidetracked by exegesis of 1 Peter 3:21 — which turns out to be a very meaty verse for this discussion, full of exegetical controversy. So I want to devote a whole post to that verse, either next time, or after I give an exposition of Original Sin in the writings of St. Paul. Stay tuned; I’m excited about this!

St. Augustine on How to Divide the Ten Commandments: Did Catholics “Change” the Ten Commandments?

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Saint Augustine in His Study (1480), by Botticelli (Wikipedia).

Here’s a little something that I shouldn’t spend a lot of time on by way of introduction (I’m presently nearly at the honest-to-goodness final attack of my thesis) — but it is nonetheless an important apologetic topic: Did Catholics change the Ten Commandments? The presentation of the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) used by Catholics is in fact different from the one used by many Protestants. The “Catholic Ten Commandments” seems, very suspiciously, to omit the commandment that forbids the making of “graven images” — which, to the minds of anti-Catholics, seems to confirm their every accusation: “Catholics worship idols, and not only do they know it, but they changed the Ten Commandments so their gullible followers would never even know it was wrong!”

… No. The Catholic Church condemns idolatry explicitly, both the worship of images and the exaltation of any thing above God. Why, then, did Catholics “leave out” that commandment? Here are several things the critic should realize:

  1. The Ten Commandments are not numbered in Scripture. The original texts of the Bible did not even have verse numbers — the system of verse numbers we have today is a product of the Protestant printer Stephanus.

  2. The listings of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 do not even state that there are ten of them; it is only elsewhere (cf. Exodus 34:28) that they are called the Ten Commandments. Taken by themselves, there are actually about fourteen imperative commands given by the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai.

  3. Ten Commandments

    St. Augustine was really Moses? Or Charlton Heston was really St. Augustine?

  4. When the Church Fathers received this unnumbered, undivided lump of fourteen-ish commandments, it was up to them to formulate them into a list of “Ten,” grouping some commands with others to which they seemed to be related. And different Fathers arrived at different lists.

  5. The Catholic Church follows the tradition of numbering established by St. Augustine — and has been since long before anybody numbered the verses. The Lutheran churches follow the same tradition. The Reformed, I suspect just to be contrary and anti-Catholic, were the ones who “changed” the Ten Commandments, adopting the numbering established by Eastern Christianity.

  6. Rather than dividing “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself any graven image” into two separate commandments, as do the Reformed and Evangelicals, Augustine saw that “making for oneself an idol and bowing before it” (Exodus 20:4) was but an elaboration of having other gods before God, and grouped the two into one commandment. In Catholic catechetical formulae, the “graven images” part is often omitted — not because we are abridging Scripture, but because it is easier for kids to memorize that way, and the part about “graven images” is pretty much redundant. Augustine instead divided “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” into two commandments.

  7. Ten Commandments

  8. Evangelical Protestants (at least, speaking from my experience) tend to overlook any further grouping of the Ten, and take for granted that five would be placed on either tablet. But Augustine rightly saw an internal division: the first three commandments pertain to man’s obligations to God, and the last seven pertain to man’s obligations to his fellow man. The three pertaining to God, fittingly, form a Trinity.

  9. It is worth noting that the commandment against “making a graven image and bowing to it” is not a prohibition against making any image or statue ever. God directly commands the Israelites to fashion images or statues on at least several occasions: the cherubim on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17–22, 37:7–9) and woven into the fabric of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31, 36:8, 35), the bronze serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:4–9), and the elaborate carvings and adornments of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6–7). This commandment is specifically against idolatry, creating and worshipping images as gods. It is also worth noting that Catholics don’t worship statues.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

When I read in the Catechism about Augustine’s numbering of the Decalogue, I thought that would be a valuable text to have for refuting anti-Catholic arguments, and I set out to find it. I mostly found only other people similarly looking for it, but did find a reference: Question 71 in Augustine’s Questions in Exodus (Quaestio LXXI, Quaestiones in Exodum). At last I found the Latin text, with no English translation — and thought I would do everyone else a service and here give a translation. I am not an expert on this stuff, so if anyone out there is, please feel free to critique my work and help improve it.

Below is St. Augustine’s reasoning regarding why he chose to divide the Decalogue the way that he did, the way that the Catholic Church continues to observe. There was a bit more to the question following this about divisions between the other commandments, the ones regarding which everyone tends to agree — but this was the part relevant to the commandment against idolatry, and the common anti-Catholic charge.

(If anybody is interested in the rest of it, let me know and I can finish the translation. Also, I did this translation months ago! It is not distracting me from my thesis right now other than this introduction I’m giving — which, as usual, has proven more formidable than I intended.)

St. Augustine on How the Ten Commandments are to Be Divided

Quaestiones in Exodum, Question 71

It is asked, in what way the Ten Commandments of the Law are to be divided: whether there are four up to the commandment concerning the Sabbath, which pertain to God Himself, and six that remain, of which the first is, “Honor thy father and mother,”1 which pertain to man; or whether it is more fitting that the former be three, and the latter seven. Indeed those who say the former to be four, separate the commandment, “You shall have have no other gods before me,” that it might be a separate commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,”2 whereby the worshipping of images is prohibited. However those same wish to combine into one, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet your neighbor’s house,”3 and all the rest up to the end. Certainly those who say the first group to be three, and the second group seven, wish to combine into one whatever is commanded concerning worshipping God, that nothing before God is worshipped. These on the other hand divide the last one into two, that “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” might be a separate commandment. In neither case is there any doubt that there are Ten Commandments, since Scripture itself testifies to this.

Still it seems to me more fitting that the first group be accepted as three, and the other as seven, because those three which pertain to God seem to make known the Trinity to those diligently contemplating. And truly the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is itself explicated more completely by the prohibition of worshipping images that follows. Further on, coveting another’s wife, and coveting another’s house, differ as much in the sins as in the commandments themselves. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” might also be joined to other things Scripture says, “Nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything of your neighbor’s.”4 Moreover coveting the wife of another seems to be separate from coveting anything else of another, since both begin thus, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; You shall not covet your neighbor’s house”: both commandments begin with the statement “You shall not covet,” but it is only to the latter that it fastens the other things, saying nor his house, nor his field, nor his servant, and the rest. These all appear to have been joined together and seem to be contained by one commandment, and are separate from that commandment where the wife has been named. The commandment which says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears more devoted to the carrying out of those things which have been placed under it. To what indeed does this pertain, “You shall not make an idol, nor any likeness of anything which is in heaven on high, or anything on earth below, or anything in the sea beneath the earth; you shall not worship them or serve them,”5 unless to the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”?

An Exposition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in John 6, and a Common Protestant Rejoinder

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

[The fruit of another discussion somewhere.]

The Real Presence of Christ does not appear in Scripture? You must be stretching really hard not to see it. 😉 As I said above, Jesus makes painfully clear his literal intentions in John 6:

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

“I am the bread of life. … This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” (John 6:48–50)

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

When the Jews hear this, naturally, they are alarmed and confused — is this man suggesting we become cannibals? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Obviously, they are misunderstanding Him, right? Surely He didn’t mean for them to take this literally, right? So you would think He would correct them.

But He doesn’t. He does just the opposite.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Consequently [Greek οὖν, so, therefore, consequently, accordingly] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:52–53)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

A lot rests on that οὖν: It connects Jesus’s repeated admonition that the people must eat His flesh and drink His blood as a direct response and consequence of the crowd’s supposed “misunderstanding”: Rather than saying, “No, you’ve got it wrong; I’m only being ‘spiritual,'” he tells them, “Yes, I’m bloody serious.”

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55) (The word here translated “true,” ἀληθής, can alternately be translated real, genuine, actual, not imaginary.)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56) (He even uses a different, much more visceral, if not vulgar, word for “eat” here: τρώγω, the word for animals feeding or munching.)

“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:57)

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Jesus says, not once, not twice, but some dozen times altogether, not only that “He is the bread of life,” but that “this bread is actually My flesh” and “this drink is actually My blood” and “you must eat Me and drink Me” to have eternal life. He uses explicit words that cannot be mistaken for “spiritual” terms, even using several different words in the discourse to make Himself clear. When the crowd questions, in disgust, whether He is serious, He makes no effort to correct them, but instead affirms using even stronger language that what He is saying is the literal truth. And in the end, as a direct result of this discourse, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66), muttering that “this is a hard saying” (John 6:60), because they did take His words literally. And yet Jesus made no attempt to clarify Himself if they were mistaken, but instead reaffirmed again and again his literal meaning. He could not have been more explicit if He tried — for in fact He did try.

And then, as if this weren’t enough — but he then gives His Apostles the actual occasion to eat His flesh and drink His blood:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matthew 26:26)

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22)

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24)

If any one of these four authors had meant to imply that this giving of His Body and Blood were meant to be mere symbols, one would think they would have used less explicit and more figurative language.

Not a Gate, or a Vine, or a Light?

vineyard

Regarding your rejoinder that Jesus also said He “is the Door,” “the Vine,” the “Way,” etc. [and that these cases are not to be taken literally, so why should we take John 6 literally?] — yes, this is the common Protestant response. But allow me to point out a couple of things:

1. When Jesus expresses these metaphors, they are directly related to the verbs he applies to them, which are to be taken literally:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

We are literally supposed to follow Jesus, enter into eternal life by Him, believe in Him, come to the Father by Him, and abide in Him. This rhetorical device applies in every case in which Jesus says I AM something.

2. But in John 6, Jesus says, using several different verbs:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)

Et cetera. So, for these times, following the other times Jesus said I AM something, are we not also supposed to literally eat and drink Him? In all these cases, though Jesus is speaking metaphorically, He is also speaking quite literally — and this case is no different.

What is more, your position supposes that every Christian from the Apostles to the sixteenth century — who certainly read Jesus’s discourse literally and believed Jesus was really and substantially present in the Eucharist — was mistaken in their interpretation and “silly.” Even John Calvin believed fully that Jesus was really present in the elements in a spiritual sense, and read John 6 literally.

Justified by Faith: Paul and Baptism (Baptism in Depth)

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

A few days ago, I had a startling realization about St. Paul.

I’ve always been frustrated by Paul’s lack of emphasis on Baptism. If Baptism is what saves us (1 Peter 3:21), why does Paul so seldom mention it in conjunction with salvation? Reformed Protestants are quick to point out that according to Paul, we are saved “by grace through faith … not because of works” (Ephesians 2:8–10) — and Baptism, according to them, is a “work”; and they stand on this to the exclusion of all other Scripture, even the words of Jesus Himself, demonstrating the necessity of Baptism (Mark 16:16, John 3:5). Many times I’ve had niggling doubts: What if the Protestants are right about Paul — about “salvation by faith alone” (sola fide)? What if the critics are right about Paul, that he teaches a different message than Jesus?

But then the other day, it hit me like a Roman chariot:

Paul takes for granted that all of his readers have already been baptized.

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour.

Of course! Just as Jesus exhorted us to believe and be baptized, believing and being baptized formed two inseparable halves of the same thought and action for the earliest Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Baptism immediately followed a believer coming to faith in Christ in every single case of conversion, as I showed yesterday. Believing and being baptized were so inextricably connected in the apostolic mind that one even came to imply the other. The idea that a believer could come to believe in Christ and not be baptized was unthinkable.

Each of Paul’s letters presume a Christian audience. They are not evangelistic in nature, but written rather to existing Christian communities to counsel, instruct, and correct. Therefore Paul assumes that all of his recipients are baptized Christians:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25–27)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

For St. Paul, just as for St. Luke in the Book of Acts, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected. Just as being baptized implied that one had come to believe, believing entailed that one had been baptized.

And so it is only with this crucial context that Paul’s declarations regarding salvation by faith can be properly understood:

We ourselves … who know a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Galatians 2:15–16)

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. … God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. (Romans 3:28–30)

The essential response to having faith in Christ is being baptized. Paul understood that his recipients had already come to faith in Christ and been baptized. The two are inextricably connected — and so a crucial component of being justified by faith, the operative component, is Baptism.

Believe and Be Baptized (Baptism in Depth)

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth. Get ready, y’all! I have a burst of inspiration, and thoughts coming out my ears — both to finish my thesis and to share on Baptism.

The Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of St. Luke’s Gospel narrative recounting the earliest history of the Christian Church, is the clearest record we have of the faith and practice of the Apostles. With that in mind, we look to it as a clear window into the Apostles’ understanding of Baptism.

The most important observation we can make about the Apostolic Church and Baptism is that in every single case of Christian conversion in the Book of Acts, Baptism immediately followed the believer’s having faith in Christ — as if believing and being baptized were a part of the very same thought and action. In this we hear an echo of Jesus’s words: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). For the earliest Christians, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected.

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

We see, from the very first apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, that Baptism was connected both to believing in Christ and to repenting of one’s sins. To the people’s question of what they should do, St. Peter answers, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The purpose Peter names of being baptized, we should note, is for the forgiveness of your sins; and the outcome is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).

Numerous other cases connect faith and Baptism necessarily: In St. Philip the Deacon’s preaching to the Samaritans, we see that “when they believed … they were baptized” (Acts 8:12). When the Ethiopian eunuch believed, he exclaimed immediately, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). In St. Paul’s ministry in Corinth, we find that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

Paul and Silas and the Philippian Jailer

In fact, the act of Baptism was so closely connected to the act of believing that baptism implied belief: In a number of cases, Scripture does not specify explicitly that the converts believed, only that they were baptized. When Paul preached to Lydia, the text tells that “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And … she was baptized” (Acts 16:14–15). Likewise with the Philippian jailer, we read that “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and all that were in his house,” urging him to believe, and “he was baptized at once, with all his family” (Acts 16:32–33).

At the very least, we can say that Baptism was a necessary part of salvation in Acts: for no one became a Christian without having been baptized. Baptism was the next step to having faith, the necessary response, no doubt a central part to apostolic preaching, and the completion of the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” As I will show next, in a closer examination of Baptism in the thought of St. Paul, not only did Baptism imply having faith, but having faith came to imply Baptism.

A Scriptural Defense of the Saints in Heaven

All Saints

A little something I whipped up last week for somebody — in rejection of the idea that the saints are “dead,” that praying to the saints is “communication with the dead,” and that this is an “occult” practice (one of the more bizarre anti-Catholic claims I have heard). My interlocutor was not receptive, but I thought this might be helpful to someone else.

Man is Appointed Once to Die, Then Comes Judgment

You seem to be advocating a form of the doctrine of “soul sleep” or mortalism, the belief that the soul becomes dormant between earthly death and the Final Judgment, an error the Christian Church has condemned consistently since the earliest times. Scripture reveals to us that the dead in Christ receive a particular judgment at the moment of their deaths, rather than “dying” until the Final Judgment. Hebrews 10:27–28 tells us that “it is appointed once for men to die, and then comes judgment” and that at the end of the age, “Christ will appear a second time … to save those who are eagerly awaiting Him”; that will be the Final Judgment, for which both the just and the unjust will be resurrected in body and judged (Acts 24:15, John 5:28–29, Matthew 25:31, 32, 46). Scripture shows us in more than a few places that the dead have immediate destinations, rather than entering a “holding place.” Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:22) presents the living and conscious souls of both men in their respective dispositions, not dead or dormant or asleep. Jesus promised the good thief on the cross that he would be with Him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:43).

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

The Spirits of Just Men Made Perfect

We have every reason from Scripture to believe that there awaits a heavenly reward for righteous men and women who die in Christ. St. Paul presents that apart from his body, he might be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6–8) — not dormant or dead until a later judgment. Given the choice between life and death, his desire was to depart and be with Christ — for to live is Christ and to die is gain — but chose to remain and serve the people of God (Philippians 1:21–24). Hebrews 12:23 presents “the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and … the spirits of just men made perfect” — a very clear indication of the eternal life already received by worthy Christians who have passed on.

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

The Communion of Saints

And when these souls have passed from their earthly walk, what is their relation to the living Church? We know that in Baptism we all are joined to the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12–13, Galatians 3:27), and that in the Body of Christ we share an organic unity with all other believers (Romans 12:4–5, 1 Corinthians 10:17, 12:12–20, Ephesians 4:4). We know that in Christ we have eternal life, and we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again (Romans 6:9). Therefore we have no reason to believe that bodily death has cut those who have passed from this life off from Christ or off from us. Rather than dead or dormant, our dear departed are more alive now than they’ve ever been. As we have communion with Christ, we have communion with each other, with all other believers — all who are in Christ from all ages. Since the earliest times, the Church of Christ has affirmed this communion of saints, as declared in the ancient creeds.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Communicating with the Dead?

So, the idea than in praying to and with the saints — as they pray with and for us — we are “communicating with the dead,” is erroneous. The practice condemned by Isaiah (Isaiah 8:19) and the Torah (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27, Deuteronomy 18:11) is explicitly the communication with the dead through “mediums and wizards” — “consulting the dead on behalf of the living” for the sake of personal gain or advantage or divine or supernatural knowledge, expecting a supernatural dialogue from beyond the grave, as Saul sought to do with the spirit of the prophet Samuel through the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28). The “occult” — the etymology of which refers to “closed” or “hidden” or “dark” knowledge — includes specifically sorcery, witchcraft, wizardry, astrology, spiritism, and necromancy — which is not simply “communicating with the dead,” but communicating with the dead through these dark arts, by contacting spirits through rituals or spells or séances. Prayer — in and with and through the Holy Spirit — in no way resembles any of this. We pray in the light, in the open, with voices lifted to God, not through hidden or dark or arcane wisdom.

To “pray,” in the most literal sense, means to ask, to petition, to plead, to beseech — and this is all it means to “pray” to the saints: to ask for the intercession of our Christian brothers and sisters who are in and with Christ in heaven, as we also intercede for all our brothers and sisters in Christ, as St. Paul urges us to “make intercession for all men” (1 Timothy 2:1–5). Paul himself continued to intercede for his departed friend (2 Timothy 1:16–18) — showing that he did not consider those who had fallen asleep in Christ to be beyond his reach or help.

El Greco, Virgin Mary

Virgin Mary (c. 1600), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Prayers of the Saints

And Scripture again reveals to us the reality of this heavenly intercession. The Revelation of John presents the twenty-four elders — widely interpreted as the Patriarchs and Apostles — offering up golden bowls of incense to God, “which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) — “saints” in this context referring to both the living and the dead in Christ (cf. Revelation 11:18, 16:6, 24) — demonstrating plainly that the prayers of Christians living on earth are heard by the holy souls in heaven, and that heavenly intercessors are involved in presenting these prayers to God. We likewise see the angels in heaven similarly offering up our prayers (Revelation 8:3). Thus, we see that though Jesus Christ is the one Mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5) — that it is only by Jesus that we can reach the Father (John 14:6) — this by no means abrogates our call to intercede for one another, or of others to intercede for us — least of all those who have passed to their glorious reward.

Types for Baptism in the Old Testament (Baptism In Depth)

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum).

Part of an ongoing series on Baptism In Depth.

An important context for understanding what Baptism is and how the New Testament Church viewed it can be found in the Old Testament types (Greek τύποι, ‘examples’, ‘figures’) which New Testament authors saw to foreshadow Baptism. The two most important types for Baptism which the Apostles themselves understood are the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea with Moses, which St. Paul explores in 1 Corinthians 10:1–6, and the miraculous salvation of Noah and his family from the Great Flood, to which St. Peter alludes in 1 Peter 3:18–22.

Paul presents the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as a type of Christ’s salvation in several respects:

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did.

Paul sees the manna, “bread from heaven,” and the water from the rock, as symbols of the Eucharist, the “supernatural food and drink” of Christ the Rock’s own Body and Blood (as Christ Himself illustrated in John 6:48–51). In the pillar of cloud which led the Israelites through the desert (Exodus 13:21–22) and the crossing of the Red Sea led by Moses (Exodus 14:15–31), he observes the basic elements of the Sacrament of Baptism — the Holy Spirit and water (cf. Titus 3:5). Paul sees that in their passage through the desert and through the sea, the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” — as in Christian Baptism, we are “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3). Just as in the exodus, the Israelites passed from bondage into the Old Covenant, and were bound to Moses and to the Law, so do we, through Baptism, pass from being dead in sin to new life in the New Covenant, and are incorporated into the Body of Christ. (Saint Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, The Navarre Bible [Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005], 83.) Baptism, therefore, is a passage, an entrance into the life of Christ. Paul similarly understands Baptism to be “the circumcision of Christ,” initiating us into the New Covenant of Christ as circumcision initiated the Jews into the Abrahamic covenant (Colossians 2:11–14).

Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891), by Ivan Aivazovsky

Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891), by Ivan Aivazovsky (WikiPaintings).

Peter similarly understands Baptism to be a passage:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18–22)

Noah's Ark (1966), by Marc Chagall

Noah’s Ark (1966), by Marc Chagall (WikiPaintings).

Just as the Flood represented death for the great mass of sinful humanity, and Noah’s Ark provided safe passage and salvation for Noah and his family — so Baptism in water represents death to sin and burial with Christ (Romans 6:3-5), and through water we are saved. Baptism now saves us, not as a washing of literal dirt from our bodies, but as a deeper, spiritual cleansing (cf. Ephesians 5:25–27), and an appeal — Greek ἐπερώτημα, a question, request, appeal — but containing the idea of a pledge or commitment (literally συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, an appeal to God of or from a clean conscience). These verses may reference and quote from an early baptismal liturgy. (The Catholic Letters, The Navarre Bible [Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005], 85.)

The imagery represented by both of these types is clear: that of salvation from bondage and death, and a passage into a new life. Next time we will examine how Baptism was practiced in the life of the Early Church — and how this reflects the Apostles’ theological understanding of the Sacrament.

Does Baptism Regenerate? A Look at the Times It Didn’t (Series on Baptism)

The Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890), by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890), by Viktor Vasnetsov (WikiPaintings).

(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1. Part 2.)

When we left off, we were examining the Baptist view of Baptism, that it is merely a symbol, a sign of a work of grace that has already taken place in the believer by faith, an ordinance of the Church, not necessary for grace or salvation, but ordained by Lord and done in obedience to Him.

This understanding seems to derive not so much from the interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture that would indicate Baptism was purely symbolic, but a general interpretation of all passages of Scripture pertaining to Baptism as symbolic. The whole argument that Baptism is not sacramental and does not in itself accomplish regeneration in a believer appears to rest on three cases in which believers were apparently regenerated prior to and apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48). But do these cases represent the ordinary working of the Holy Spirit, or were they exceptions? To answer this, let us delve into the Scriptures.

The Repentant Thief

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

The Crucifixion, by Vincenzo Foppa

The Crucifixion (1456), by Vincenzo Foppa (Wikimedia).

So the thief repented, which we know was a work of grace. And we know that the thief died, and that when he did, Jesus welcomed him into His kingdom. In this sense, he certainly received salvation without the necessity of Baptism in water. But does this case demonstrate definitively that the thief was regenerated, his sins washed away and his soul born again in Christ, the way Christian believers ordinarily are, prior to his death? Perhaps he was; perhaps he wasn’t; but this passage doesn’t indicate it.

The Catholic Church believes that Baptism by blood — in which one suffers death for the sake of the faith — can bring the fruits of the Sacrament of Baptism. Whether this is what happened here or not — it is self-evident that if ever there were an exceptional case of salvation in the Gospels, it was that of the repentant thief, who was saved at the very divine fiat of Jesus.

Paul on the Road to Damascus

The Conversion of St. Paul, by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie

The Conversion of St. Paul (1767), by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie (Wikimedia).

Now as [Saul] journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” …
Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized. (Acts 9:3-6, 17-18)

In the case of Saul, we see that Jesus intervened directly and tangibly in his life, stopping him in his tracks and turning his life around. But it is not at all clear here that Saul was regenerated or received the Holy Spirit prior to his Baptism.

In fact, elsewhere we find reason to believe that he was not. In the second telling of Saul’s conversion, as Paul presents his defense before the Jews, different words are given to Ananias:

“And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:12–16)

We see, then, that Saul’s regeneration was not accomplished the moment he met Jesus in the road. He had to be baptized in order to wash away his sins and receive the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but it couldn’t wait — it was of the utmost urgency and necessity.

The Gentiles at the Home of Cornelius

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44–48)

Here these Gentiles do receive the Holy Spirit prior to their Baptism — hence the Jews’ amazement! They have been, indeed, regenerated apart from Baptism. But if Baptism were not essential, why is it the very first thing Peter thought of when he witnessed this miraculous manifestation? And is this situation the rule, or another exception? Do any other cases support its being an ordinary occurrence?

We don’t have to look very far, in fact, to find a counterexample:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all. (Acts 19:1–7)

Here we likewise see Gentile converts, who had not yet been baptized with Jesus’s Baptism, but only with “John’s Baptism.” They had “believed” and were apparently “disciples” of Christ — and yet had they really heard the full Gospel of Christ, if they had not even heard there was a Holy Spirit? We observe several things:

  1. These believers had not yet received the Holy Spirit — and the first thing Paul asked them was “Into what, then, were you baptized?” Paul’s implication is clear: if they had been baptized properly into the Baptism of Christ, they should have received the Holy Spirit.
  2. If they had been baptized into Christ, they also should have heard of the Holy Spirit — suggesting that despite St. Luke’s reference to being “baptized in the name of Jesus,” the Apostles did in fact baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), the traditional Trinitarian formula which the Church has always observed. [The Oneness Pentecostals, for example, seize on this verse and several others in the Acts of the Apostles to insist that they should baptize only “in the name of Jesus,” contrary to orthodox Christian practice.]
  3. These disciples received the Holy Spirit only after their Baptism, not before, when they profess to have “believed” (even if their understanding appears to have been incomplete). Clearly, then, mere “faith” or belief was not sufficient for their regeneration. This invalidates the above example from Acts 10.

The conversion of the Gentiles at the home of Cornelius, then, appears to have been an exceptional case, a demonstration of the power of God to save and regenerate even Gentiles, specifically to convince Peter of their inclusion into Christ. The manifestation coincided with Peter’s vision of Acts 10:9–16, a similarly direct intervention and revelation, and clearly itself an exception from the mode in which believers were generally saved. Once these Gentiles had believed, Peter urged them to Baptism as the essential next step, for their incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church.

Believers Baptized but not Regenerated?

Almost as a counterpart to the previous example, here’s one more, presenting an opposite problem: these believers had been baptized, but had apparently not received the Holy Spirit.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. (Acts 8:4–7)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14–17)

St. Philip the Deacon

St. Philip the Deacon (oca.org)

Now, this does appear to present a complication. Had these people really been baptized and not regenerated? This poses an equal problem to both the Baptist and Catholic views. To the Catholic, it would seem that Baptism had not regenerated them; to the Baptist, it would appear that believing in Christ had not regenerated them!

Again, we observe first of all that the expectation was that these believers would have received the Holy Spirit at their Baptism; because they had not, the Apostles Peter and John had to make a special trip. But there is even more going on here than first appears. Clearly, when Philip (this is Philip the Deacon, not Philip the Apostle) brought the Gospel to Samaria, the Holy Spirit worked through him miraculously, exorcising unclean spirits, healing the lame and paralyzed. That the Holy Spirit came upon these people with such wondrous manifestation as they believed and were baptized does indicate, in fact, that they were regenerated, born again in Christ — they did receive the Holy Spirit. So why did Luke say they had not?

In the interpretation of the Catholic Church, what we are witnessing here is an early example of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Because this was yet early in the development of the Church and of Christian doctrine, St. Luke didn’t know quite how to describe what was happening. But yes, the Samaritans had been baptized in Christ and had been regenerated, and had received the Holy Spirit in some measure. But they had not received the Holy Spirit in His fullness, in the full anointing of Pentecost. Because this was one of the first times a missionary who was not an Apostle had preached to people unto conversion, it was probably just as much a surprise to Philip and to the Apostles as it is to us, that these new believers did not receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. As the teaching of the Church developed, it was understood that the Sacrament of Confirmation could only be conferred by a bishop (a successor of the Apostles) or by a priest to whom the bishop specifically delegated it. In the previous example from Acts 19, when Paul “laid hands” on the newly-baptized believers, this too is understood as the completion of their baptismal grace in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Conclusion

In conclusion to what I realize is a really long post — but one which I hope has been revealing and helpful — I do not believe that these four examples, unusual and early cases of conversion and regeneration, support the Baptist position, that Baptism is purely symbolic and unnecessary for salvation. Even these examples, when examined closely, indicate strongly that Baptism was necessary and efficacious in accomplishing the grace of Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Next time, I will explore in depth some of the many other references to Baptism in Scripture, which likewise support a sacramental understanding.