HB reader Mike asks whether this language requires Reformed believers to confess that baptism necessarily regenerates, i.e., is new life necessarily conferred at the moment of administration. It is widely claimed that “the ancient church taught baptismal regeneration.” In this context “regeneration” signifies the spiritual awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life, i.e., that, at the moment baptism is administered one is necessarily born again.
Let us address the latter question first. Was baptismal regeneration the universal teaching of the ancient church, as is often claimed? No, it was not. The first problem in this discussion is anachronism, i.e., the business of reading later views back into earlier contexts. Anachronism is the oxygen of the Romanist view of history and tradition. Anachronism, however valuable it be to Romanist apologetics, is poor history. Rome would also have you to believe that the 2nd century church taught a doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice. That is a gross anachronism. Indeed, the five false sacraments did not exist in the ancient church as sacraments. They were not recognized as sacraments ecclesiastically until the 13th century (where some ambiguity remains) and were not finalized as such until Trent in the 16th.
So it is with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. The word regeneration was used in the ancient, medieval, and Reformation period in at least two senses. We can only know the sense of a word in a given context. We may not simply assume that every use of the word regeneration refers to the conferring of new life. Baptism and regeneration are connected by the early fathers but sometimes it means no more than “to sanctify” or “to set apart.” The doctrine that baptism necessarily confers new life did not become widespread until the 4th century but even then there were tensions and ambiguities.
For one thing, the doctrine that baptism necessarily confers new life necessarily raises questions about election and perseverance, which Augustine and the North African church, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, would hash out against Pelagius and Coelestius. As Augustine battled the Pelagians (and later, those whom we now call semi-Pelagians) he asserted that only the elect come to faith and the elect are never lost. In that case, baptism does not necessarily confer new life since clearly some who are baptized fall away. The point is that each case must be decided in its own context, on its own terms. Does the writer intend to signify “setting apart” or “conferring new life”? The answer cannot be known a priori. In some cases it may be the latter but some authors use the word regenerate in both senses.
Another major problem with the anachronistic reading of to regenerate or regeneration is that the conceptual framework which made the ex opere (“from the working it is worked”) view plausible did not exist right away. Certainly, by the high medieval church, in the Latin church, the ex opere view of the sacraments was dominant. That view relied on certain assumptions, however, which did not exist in the church immediately. Principally, the ex opere view of baptism assumes a sort of realism, a certain identification with the word and the thing signified, that did not exist right away. In other words, the notion that a sacrament might have a figurative rather than a literal signification co-existed with the literal for a very long time. It is anachronistic to assume that every Patristic use of regeneration also assumes the literal and not figurative or symbolic relation.
This brings us to the question of how to interpret the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is the Nicene Creed as it was elaborated at the first Council of Constantinople, in 381 ,where the orthodox refuted those who wanted to do to the Holy Spirit what the Arians (and semi-Arians) had tried to do to the Son in 325, i.e., to make him like the Father but not consubstantial (of the same substance or essence) with the Father. So, the Creed was revised and elaborated to the form received today. The last major change, of course, was the addition of the filioque (“and the Son”) to affirm the double procession of the Holy Spirit at the (western) council of Toledo in 589. This revision, of course, was rejected by the Eastern churches.
In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), the ecumenical (universal) church says: “We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” The received Greek text says, “ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.” The verb traditionally translated in English, in the Nicene Creed as “acknowledge” is the New Testament verb “to confess” (ὁμολογέω). There is no question about how many times one may be baptized. In the nature of the case (like circumcision) it can be done but once. One has either been baptized in the name of the Triune God, and thus visibly entered into the Christian church or one has not.
This brings us to the clause, “unto” or “for the remission of sins.” The first thing we should note is that the Creed does not say, “unto” or “for regeneration” but “for the forgiveness (ἄφεσιν) of sins. This is the very language used of baptism administered by John the Baptist (Mark 1:4) “εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν” (“for the forgiveness of sins”) It is typically translated as “forgiveness” in modern English translations and in older versions as “remission.” The same language occurs in Acts 2:38: “be baptized…for the remission of your sins” (βαπτισθήτω …εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν). Did Mark and Luke (and did the Holy Spirit as the divine author of Scripture) intend in Mark 1 and Acts 2 to convey the idea that baptism necessarily confers the forgiveness of sins? Not at all. Luke 3:7–17 is fairly clear that at least some of those whom John denounced as a “brood of vipers” had not received new life in the administration of baptism. Neither did Peter intend to communicate to his hearers that every single person (ἕκαστος) who is baptized necessarily has, by virtue of baptism, what baptism signifies any more than did all those who had been circumcised—which included all the Jewish men who were standing before him, whom he charged with the sin of murdering Jesus, only some of whom were stricken by the Spirit and given new life and true faith and that not through baptism but by the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel—had all that circumcision signified. After all, Judas was circumcised and he was never regenerate. He was always, from all eternity, reprobate. Who knows whether John baptized Judas?
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan then, is quoting Scripture. To what end? Likely some of the pastors at Constantinople assumed or believed that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies but that is not what the Creed says. That is not what is imposed by the Council upon all Christians everywhere nor the way the Creed is received by the Reformed churches. We do not understand the Scriptures to teach that sacraments necessarily confer what they signify. Paul warned the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:219–30) that many of them had eaten and drunk judgment to themselves, had become sick and died. In those cases, the Supper did not confer what it signified: forgiveness of sins. In those (many) cases, it conferred the exact opposite: divine judgment. So it is with baptism. It is an outward identification with Christ. Whether the things signified by baptism are received by the baptized belongs to the God as he executes his mysterious decree.
The relation between baptism and the benefits of Christ is sacramental not literal. Baptism is a sign and a seal. It is not forgiveness itself. If it is new life and forgiveness then it is no longer a sacrament. As Ratramnus argued to Radbertus in the 9th century, what the sacraments signify they give through faith. If the sacrament is the thing signified (new life and forgiveness of sins) then the sacrament no longer requires faith and thus what is offered in them is no longer present. Ironically, he argued, in seeking to remove the mystery of the sacrament (by turning the sacrament into what it signifies) Radbertus (and Rome in the 13th century) destroyed what they were trying to fix. God’s sacraments do not need our help.
The language of the Creed is simultaneously brief and pregnant with significance but it is not the case that when we say the Nicene-Constantinopolitan that we are confessing either that every baptized person necessarily has new life nor are we saying that every baptized person necessarily has the forgiveness of sins. The “unto” or “for” (εἰς) of the creed has the same significance as it does in Holy Scripture: sacramental or figurative. Baptism is a figure or a symbolic representation of what is true of the baptized person who believes. The the Baptist was calling for repentance and faith. The Apostle Peter was calling for repentance and faith. What is the first word of the Creed? Πιστεύομεν (We believe). Rome marginalizes faith in favor of magic. It is a great temptation. The Pharisees did the same when they boasted that they were Abraham’s children. We know what our Lord Jesus thought of that argument (see John 8). The Pharisees were circumcised but they lacked faith in Jesus the Messiah because God had not yet given them new life. Nicodemus needed new life (John 3). The Spirit gives new life through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (Heidelberg Catechism 65) and confirms it through the use of the holy sacraments. As a holy sacrament, baptism is a wonderful thing. It God’s gift to the church but it has never worked ex opere (by the working). It works as a sign and seal and it becomes a seal when the Spirit grants new life and true faith. It works as a symbolic representation, as a sacred ritual but however many people in the 4th century and after who came to believe that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies, the Creed no more requires us to think that than does Scripture itself.