The sacraments (12): The durability and resistance of baptism

Acceptance, cleansing, total renewal: Scripture knows many interpretations of baptism. What the sacrament meant to people in concrete terms has changed in the course of history. Often it was a matter of politics and society.

The decisive turning-point was the Constantinian Shift, that is the period in the fourth century, when Christianity developed from a persecuted minority to the state religion of the Roman Empire. The preceding and following periods could not have been more disparate.

The change into an opposite world

Baptism used to mean leaving the previous environment and entering a persecuted parallel society. Thus baptism was interpreted as a radical life change, the dying of the old and the birth of the new. This also came to be reflected in the liturgy. The baptismal candidate not only confessed faith in Jesus Christ, but also explicitly renounced his or her previous life.

This is the origin of the baptismal confessions as they have been preserved in the New Apostolic confirmation vow: “I renounce Satan and all his work and ways …” It was during this period that baptism first came to be associated with the term sacramentum, the oath of allegiance of Roman soldiers and officials.

Baptism was only administered after a period of preparation, during which baptismal candidates acquired thorough knowledge of biblical matters and doctrine. This is how the order of catechumens developed, who were already part of the church even though they were not baptised.

Truly experiencing the new life

This world was turned upside down when Christianity was first tolerated and then raised to the status of an imperial church. Applicants then were no longer in such a hurry to make a radical change in their lives. Many were baptised only their deathbed. The best example: Emperor Constantine himself.

That is why theologians emphasised the mystical aspects, the fact of being baptised into Jesus and sharing His destiny. The effect of the sacrament had to be experienced before it could be understood. It was at this point that Greek biblical term mysterion was combined with the Roman term sacramentum to form the modern concept of the sacrament.

At the same time, baptismal candidates could only participate in congregational life gradually, depending on how far they had progressed in their formation: since then, only baptised persons have been allowed to participate in the Eucharist.

The sovereign decides

Baptism as a change of sovereignty into Jesus Christ’s realm of power: this interpretation dominated in the early Middle Ages—the epoch in which entire peoples were christianised because their rulers wanted them to be.

This led to excesses such as the forced conversion of the Saxons under Charlemagne. This often gave rise to their own Bible translations, for which a proper alphabet first had be invented sometimes—as with the Armenians, Goths, and the Slavs.

Old questions asked in a new way

The scholasticism of the late Middle Ages was marked by theological fine-tuning: scholars completed what the Church Fathers had begun. It started with the differentiation between the validity and efficacy of baptism arising from the heretical controversy of the early church and does not end with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In this epoch, the aspect of forgiveness of sins gained prominence in the definition of baptism. This also became apparent in the liturgy. The baptismal candidate was sprinkled with water rather than immersed in it. For washing away had become more important than drowning.

Does that settle everything? Far from it, because then the Reformation started, opening up a whole series of new debates—above all the question of infant baptism. This will be the topic in the next part of this series.

Photo: Ancient baptismal font in Stobi/Macedonia (Tomisti, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

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Andreas Rother
sacraments, Holy Baptism