Tracts for the Times/Record XXII

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Tertullian on Baptism.

The tract, of which the following are extracts, was written in opposition to a sect of early heretics, of the Gnostic stock, called Caiani, or Cainites, from the honour they paid to Cain; or, rather, against one Quintilla, a female preacher, who had belonged to this sect, and had added to its impieties the special error of denying the use of baptism, on the pretence that faith was sufficient for salvation without it. Tertullian's treatise was written about A.D. 202.

Blessed is the Sacrament of Water, in which, when cleansed, we are released from the sins of our original blindness, unto eternal life! … How great is the power of stubbornness, to unsettle the Faith, or even to reject it altogether, when we find it impugns it, on account of the very articles it contains. Nothing so hardens men's minds, as that simplicity of divine works which is seen in the doing of them, contrasted with the greatness which is promised as the effect of them. For instance, in the case before us; since the candidate for baptism is plunged into water in so simple a way, without many ceremonies, without any novel ado, without cost, and is bathed with a few words said over him, and then rises not much or not at all cleaner to look at, therefore it is considered incredible that he can have gained thereby an eternal gift. … Wretched incredulity! to deny to God His own characteristics, simplicity and power. What, then? is it not wonderful that even a bath should wash away death? surely; but let us even be the more ready to believe, if its marvellousness, forsooth, is made a reason for unbelief. For what should be the character of divine works, but surpassing marvellousness? We, ourselves, marvel also, but because we do believe. Incredulity marvels without believing; at what is simple, as being contemptible; at what is great, as being impossible. Be it so: yet the divine announcement has gone before, and is sufficient to establish both what seems contemptible, and what seems impossible. "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world, to confound its wisdom; and what is of surpassing difficulty with men, is easy with Him." … Mindful of this announcement, as a principle to guide us, let us consider the so-called foolishness and impossibility of the doctrine, that we are new made by water.…

It is said, "in the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." My first reason, then, O man, for reverencing water, is its antiquity; next, the honour put upon it, inasmuch as it was the abode of the Divine Spirit, and thus had more of grace in it than the other elements then existing. For as yet the darkness was unrelieved by the embellishment of the stars; there was the dreary abyss, the unfashioned earth, the untempered heavens; only water, a substance ever perfect, bright, uncompounded, pure in itself, a worthy receptacle of the presence of God. Moreover, when the world was to be brought into form, it was by means of water, as the harmonizing principle, that God effected it. He suspended the firmament of the heavens, by dividing the waters; and the firm land by separating them; and next, when the world was duly-shaped, and inhabitants were to be given it, it was first commanded the waters, to bring forth living things, water was the first substance to give out the breath of life; no wonder, then, that, in baptism, it has the gift of quickening.…

The angel came in the midst, and moved the pool of Bethesda; those who felt their sickliness, waited for his coming… That figure of bodily healing intimated the healing of the soul, in the way in which visible things go first, as the symbol of things spiritual; so, when the grace of God was accorded to men, more came to them than mere water and an angel. Man receives that Spirit of God which he had once received from His breathing on him, but afterwards had lost by transgression. Not that we obtain the Holy Spirit in the water; but, by being cleansed in the water from sin and guilt, we are prepared by the angel for the Holy Spirit.… Next, on coming out of the water, we are anointed over with the consecrated ointment according to the ancient usage, by which oil was used as an introduction into the priesthood.… Afterwards hands are laid on us, invoking and calling down the Holy Spirit, by the form of benediction… And then that Holiest Spirit willingly descends from the Father upon the body thus cleansed and blessed: settles upon the baptismal waters, as acknowledging its ancient dwelling-place, as once He lighted on the Lord in the figure of a dove, to show His nature by its simplicity and innocence. For as, after the waters of the flood, which washed away the old iniquity, after the baptism (as I may say) of the world, the dove, sent out of the ark, and returning with the olive branch, became the herald of God's anger appeased, and has made the olive a sign of peace among the nations, according to a like appointment, the spiritual influence, the dove of the Holy Spirit, flies to the earth (that is, our flesh) when emerging from the waters after its old transgressions, bringing the reconciliation of God, sent from heaven, where the Church is, the antitype of the ark. But the earth sins yet again … and so is destined to the fire; as man also, who renews his sins after baptism; so that here, too, we may take the history as a warning…

John's baptism afforded our Lord the subject of a question proposed to the Pharisees, viz. whether it was from heaven or from earth? They could return no sound answer, as not understanding, because they did not believe.… John supplied no heavenly work, but ministered beforehand towards things heavenly, viz. as being the master of repentance, which is in man's power… If, then, repentance is a human work, the baptism of repentance is human; it had supplied the Holy Ghost and remission of sins, if it had been heavenly. God alone remits sins, and vouchsafes the Spirit… That was not heavenly which manifested nothing of a heavenly nature. Even the spirit of prophecy, which for a season had been a heavenly gift possessed by John, afterwards, when the fulness of the Spirit was transferred to the Lord, so utterly failed him, that he sent to ask whether He were really the Christ, whom He had before foretold, and singled out on His coming.…

These miserable men say, "Baptism is not necessary, because faith is sufficient for the Christian; for Abraham pleased God by faith, without any sacrament of water." But in all things, what comes last is the conclusive, and supersedes what went before. Though salvation came by mere faith, before the Lord's passion and resurrection, yet when faith is enlarged by the doctrines of the Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection, the covenant receives an enlargement also, viz. the seal of baptism, as though a sort of garment for faith, which before was naked, but now is sanctioned by its peculiar appointments. For the appointment of dipping is given, and a form of words prescribed…

We have but one Baptism, whether in Gospels or Epistles; there is one God, one Baptism, one Church in the heavens.… Once only we enter the sacred water, once we wash away our sins, because to repeat them is not a Christian's part. Israel, according to the law, uses daily washings, as being daily defiled. To hinder this practice in us, the doctrine of the one baptism has been set forth. Blessed is the water which cleanses once for all, which sinners cannot make light of, which receives no stain from the recurrence of defilement, so as to pollute those whom it washes.…

Easter is the most solemn time for baptism; when the passion of the Lord, into which we are baptized, was accomplished. We may suitably apply our Lord's words, when He sent His disciples to prepare for His last passover. "Ye shall find a man," he said, "bearing a pitcher of water." … Next, the season of Pentecost. Blessed are ye for whom the grace of God is waiting, what time ye ascend out of that holiest bath of your new birth, and first spread out your hands in your mother's presence with your brethren; ask of the Father, ask of the Lord who imparts His many gifts, and says, "ask and ye shall find." For ye have already sought, and ye have found; ye have knocked, and it has been opened to you. Only I pray, that when you ask, you would also remember me, Tertullian, a sinner.

The Feast of St. John the Baptist.

These Tracts are published Monthly, and sold at the price of 2d. for each sheet, or 7s. for 50 copies.



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