In the early centuries of the church, there were several debates surrounding the baptism of heretics and its efficacy. A church council under Cyprian of Carthage on this topic stated in the 3rd century:

Primus of Misgirpa said: I decide, that every man who comes to us from heresy must be baptized. For in vain does he think that he has been baptized there, seeing that there is no baptism save the one and true baptism in the Church; because not only is God one, but the faith is one, and the Church is one, wherein stands the one baptism, and holiness, and the rest. For whatever is done without, has no effect of salvation.

Polycarp from Adrumetum said: They who approve the baptism of heretics make void our baptism.

On the Baptism of Heretics, The Seventh Council of Carthage Under Cyprian. Concerning the Baptism of Heretics. The Judgment of Eighty-Seven Bishops on the Baptism of Heretics.

The heretics in question here were called Novatianists which, whilst seemingly otherwise orthodox, refused to forgive other Christians who had apostatised under threat of persecution. Nor did they recognise the legitimacy of sacramental rites performed by clergy who had lapsed in the face of persecution nor that of clergy who did see them as legitimate. This necessarily resulted in two competing church structures divided by those who readmitted the lapsed, and those who denied them in the wake of the Decian persecution.

Implicit in the above comments is a strong belief in baptismal regeneration, that when one is baptised they are counted amongst the corporate body of the church, the elect, and that this church is an indivisibly one in every sense of the word. The idea of a church split over multiple visible bodies was alien to them. When the creed stated ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ this is what Polycarp from Adrumetum is getting at. That if they legitimise the baptism of a heretic they legitimise their faith, and if their faith is different to their own they can’t both be right so ergo theirs must be false.

Yet not all the Church agreed on this, whilst the Christians in other places agreed with Cyprian that the Novatinists were to be considered heretics they didn’t agree that they necessarily needed rebaptism. Cyprian fell-out with Pope Stephen of Rome over this, even though we don’t have Stephen’s letters we can see by Cyprian’s responses to him:

But as no heresy at all, and equally no schism, being without, can have the sanctification of saving baptism, why has the bitter obstinacy of our brother Stephen broken forth to such an extent, as to contend that sons are born to God from the baptism of Marcion; moreover, of Valentinus and Apelles, and of others who blaspheme against God the Father; and to say that remission of sins is granted in the name of Jesus Christ where blasphemy is uttered against the Father and against Christ the Lord God?

Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 73

The position of the camp of those like Stephen was to say that the invocation of the Trinity, once spoken over someone cannot be renounced. One attempt, however, to respond to the Cyprianite party was to argue that whilst the baptism cannot be revoked it is devoid of the Holy Spirit if done outside their tradition. There is a baptism but it is not saving and needs another to perfect it. One anonymous tract advocating this states:

Because outside the Church there is no Holy Spirit, sound faith moreover cannot exist, not alone among heretics, but even among those who are established in schism. And for that reason, they who repent and are amended by the doctrine of the truth, and by their own faith, which subsequently has been improved by the purification of their heart, ought to be aided only by spiritual baptism, that is, by the imposition of the bishop’s hands, and by the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the perfect seal of faith has been rightly accustomed to be given in this manner and on this principle in the Church. So that the invocation of the name of Jesus, which cannot be done away, may not seem to be held in disesteem by us; which assuredly is not fitting; although such an invocation, if none of those things of which we have spoken should follow it, may fail and be deprived of the effect of salvation.

On Rebaptism, Chapter 10

This tract actually originated from the area around Carthage, it’s anonymity likely being down to the fact that it clearly didn’t reflect the majority view of Cyprian’s party. Yet this Party, perhaps best represented by Pope Stephen, in response to the ‘Cyprianites’ argues that the baptism was valid but it was devoid of the holy spirit and thus requiring chrismation to show reconciliation and entry into the actual church. This isn’t to say it argued against ‘rebaptism’ but that a ‘spiritual baptism’ was needed to augment the speaking of the Trinity over someone. At the time this was the minority view but over time actually became the more prevalent one even down to today.

Yet to add the caveat of requiring chrismation, to me, can’t help but seem like a loophole being created in order to simultaneously affirm: 

a) The unequviocal legitimacy and power of a baptism done in the name of the Trinity regardless of who does it.

b) The simultaneous inability for those outside the church to baptise.

c) The church being a single monolithic institution.

d) Those therefore baptised outside the church need a spiritual baptism upon entering it.

Which results in the need for a baptism in the holy spirit after water baptism. Yet Cyprian’s party atleast seems to recognise the argument seems to border on “we had to destroy the village to save it” reasoning when it came to baptism. Cyprian’s camp instead respectively arguing:

a) The church being a single monolithic institution.

b) The inability for those outside the church to baptise.

c) Anyone entering the church (in every sense), regardless of background, does so via baptism.

This division in baptism into water and spirit respectively by Stephen’s party is slight but is the thin end of the edge for something that becomes progressively widened in the West. 

The Latin Church goes on to divorce chrismation from baptism due to requiring it to be done by the bishop, this never happens in the East. Divorce is perhaps a strong word as they still believed baptism conferred a saving grace but that it was the equivalent of a deposit that needed to be fulfilled by a later chrismation or confirmation. Yet this latter part didn’t always happen. One history of the rite states:

The practice of the Western church was thus, in the course of time sharply divided from the custom of the East and it can be said that with rare exceptions, by the time of Charlemagne in the West, baptism and confirmation were administered as two distinct rites often separated by a considerable period of time. Many practical problems followed upon this separation for bishops were increasingly preoccupied with affairs of state and most of them presided over huge dioceses with inadequate episcopal help. For this reason it became quite common for communion to be given to those who were baptized but had not been confirmed through no fault of their own. Clearly they could not be deprived indefinitely of the benefits of the eucharist, that is of a sacrament counted necessary to salvation, through the pastoral inefficiency of the hierarchy. It is still a common practice in the Roman church to give first Communion to children before they are confirmed; in some cases immediately before Confirmation, in others with a considerable interval between the two rites, in order to allow of further instruction.

Medieval English Synods favoured early Confirmations. A synod held at Exeter in 1287 ordered that children were to be confirmed before they were three years old and parents who neglected this rule were to fast every Friday on bread and water until their children were confirmed. Apparently children were to be brought to the bishop at the first opportunity given by his presence in the neighbourhood. This is the probable explanation of the rule that children were to be confirmed within three years since the bishop was expected to make a visitation of his diocese once in every three years. On the continent about the same time, a Synod of Cologne (1280) directed priests to admonish parents to bring any children yet unconfirmed to the bishop at the age of seven years and upwards. The manner of administration was often perfunctory and even scandalous, crowds surrounding the bishop who would sometimes confirm from horseback. The great emphasis on the Eucharist and the obstacles in the way of the regular administration of confirmation led to the obvious result of widespread neglect of the rite.

The Churchman. April-June 1945: The History of Confirmation in the Christian Church. By The Rev FJ Taylor, MA

It’s not hard to see how from here how later Reformers did away with the idea of baptismal regeneration altogether. John Wycliffe, as far as I can see, was one of the only Reformers who actually grasped the discontinuity and inconsistency here and argued his reforms accordingly when he came out against confirmation. Arguing that it is man attempting to administer what is the prerogative of God and this is evidenced by the fact that amongst those confirmed there are those who communicate by their lives their unregenerate nature.

Individuals like Cyprian were wrong when they made the argument that the baptism of heretics was ipso facto invalid, I’ll offer why shortly, but in many way they were more consistent than those who disagreed with them. Even in contemporary discourse, the comparison of groups like Baptists to ‘Donatists’ or ‘Novationists’ by more high minded men and women seems to ignore the fact that those who do affirm the baptism of other traditions but refuse it the Holy Spirit are essentially saying the same thing as the Donatists, Novationists, and their ancient critics. At root it is a distinction without a difference aside from their removing of the holy spirit from the invocation of the trinity at water baptism. The Donatists, Novationists, and Cyprianites didn’t see a distinction between baptism and chrismation and in this they are more consistent than their opponents. This is not to endorse their positions, only to point out a seeming double standard amongst their critics.

So what? For me this means we must either reject the baptism of other traditions outright like Cyprian or grant that those baptised in other traditions can be regenerate and that whether that has in fact occurred or not is ultimately the prerogative of God. To do otherwise seems to be a denial of ‘one lord, one faith, one baptism’ and perhaps would make more sense if it was rephrased as ‘one baptism, one lord, one faith’. I believe this perhaps better highlights the arguments deficiencies. God is the prime mover in the regeneration of an individual, not baptism. We can rightly presume they go together but it is not guaranteed. As Cyril of Jerusalem wrote:

Even Simon Magus once came to the Laver : he was baptized, but was not enlightened; and though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the Spirit: his body went down and came up, but his soul was not buried with Christ, nor raised with Him. Now I mention the statements of (men’s) falls, that you may not fall: for these things happened to them by way of example, and they are written for the admonition of those who to this day draw near. 

Cyril of Jerusalem, Protocatechises 2

Many traditions don’t demand rebaptism for those entering them these days, but a number would require confirmation or chrismation. Yet recognising the baptism of other traditions, whilst keeping the water and spirit conjoined, is the only means that can successfully reject the parallelisms to Donatism or Novatianism. 

Unequivocal recognition of trinitarian and nicene baptism is accordingly the most ‘catholic’ approach as it most comprehensively upholds the unity of all confessions concerned whilst respecting the prerogatives of God. That isn’t to say we do away with notions like church membership, far from it, but we should distance it from questions around the regenerate nature of an individual. Who we therefore treat as brothers or sisters in the faith is consequentially contingent upon their confession, not necessarily their tradition. If a believer maintains the rest of the creed, and lives accordingly, they maintain the faith. That is a platform on which to build towards visible unity with other traditions. One should be able to recognise the validity of a persons baptism, and all that entails, whilst simultaneously upholding the confessional identity of a particular tradition. These are the only candidates for rebaptism: those who were not baptised into nicene orthodoxy or have not been baptised into the name of the Trinity. This would include for example: Oneness Pentecostals, Mormons, JWs and the like. 

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Confirmation: One Lord, One Faith… One Baptism?

  1. A few thoughts:

    Reading some more recent (and probably the canonical) research on origin of church order and bishops, it seems that small bishoprics (meaning the leader of a house-church of 8-20 people) confederated into city-wide assemblies (‘elders of the city’), which then selected one among them (probably after passing of the Apostles) to be ‘first among equals’ and govern them successively. Hence, in Alexandria, presbyters had a lot more sway than country-bishops (not because, contra Jerome, they were primitive presbyterians), and did not simply serve as an extension of the patriarch. If such is true, then perhaps we’re either reading Cyprian wrong (assuming a much stronger episcopate, or that his use of the episcopate was normal, being as he was a patrician use to a conventional social hierarchy of betters and lessers) or that he represents later figures kicking down the ladder (or forgetting that such had happened). In other words, the develop of churches through patterns of federation is forgotten, or perhaps we’re reading the earlier statements too strongly/literally. Either way, if church is not taken as an institutional monolith, then some of these problems go away. Eastern Orthodoxy possesses this accidentally, because the network idea operated as Byzantium was falling a part (Meyendorff’s spiritual “Byzantine Commonwealth” in fellow Orthodox churches), but this approach still is hindered by the assumption of Rome (and hence the unchangingness of Orthodoxy is due, in part, because no Roman emperor exists; I think the same applies to Oriental Orthodox in Egypt).

    Considering that the NT has references to apostles baptizing “in the name of Jesus”, I think the Nicaean/trinitarian benchmark is somewhat arbitrary if treated as a given universal. However, that’s not to open the backdoor the mormons,JWs, etc. either. Churches need to decide to act like churches, meaning as confederated networks that can decide. Valid baptisms needs to be an open question, not obscured by disinterest in combined forces of liberal ecumenists and a-sacramental evangelicals. But since churches basically don’t operate, incapable of making decisions (for fear of schism, hence how archaic and bizarre the Vatican’s decision making process is), none of these real problems are solved from the expected sources. At least non-denominational churches, usually posting a “What we believe” page with a committee created creed, at least take up this task. A triadic baptism may be a good rule of thumb, I just don’t want to arbitrarily designate Nicaea as the only moment of orthodox definition, with little of substance coming later.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am always interested in reading of how our sacraments and the rituals surrounding them developed. I have not spent much time contemplating baptism or confirmation; I do; however, view them as a single rite. I see baptism as an essential rite and confirmation as its – well – as its confirmation. I would highly prefer that baptism be done shortly after birth, followed by confirmation near the attainment of the age of reason. That would be followed by first communion. I would approve of a valid baptism/rebaptism for those who did not have it, as well as confirmation or chrismation by a bishop for those who did not have it. I do recognize the baptism of other traditions if valid form is used, but confirmation must be done by a bishop with apostolic succession.


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