Thursday, September 05, 2002

The Fathers And John 3:5

Sean Gallagher and I have been having an interesting conversation with Glen Davis about the differences in the Catholic and pentecostal understandings of baptism and, in particular, John 3:5.

Recently, Sean added a reflection on John's use of "water" in his Gospel. I thought that I would add a post to our discussion on how some of the early church Fathers interpreted the reference to being "born of water and spirit" and what importance they put in water baptism. Unlike Sean, I'm not a historian, but I play one on TV.

Hermas-- who tradition tells us lived around 140 A.D. and was the brother of Pope St. Pius I -- speaks in The Shepherd of baptism as a regeneration of life and water plays a key role in that:

"'They had need,' [the shepherd] said, 'to come up through the water, so that they might be made alive; for they could not otherwise enter into the kingdom of God, except by putting away the mortality of their former life. These also, then, who had fallen asleep, received the seal of the Son of God, and entered into the kingdom of God. For,' he said, 'before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. But when he receives the seal, he puts mortality aside and again receives life. The seal, therefore, is the water. They go down into the water dead, and come out of it alive.'"
St. Cyril of Jerusalem -- who tradition tells us lived between 315-386 A.D. and wrote his Catechetical Lectures around 350 A.D. -- speaks at length to water and spirit being part of one baptism:
"Since man is of a twofold nature, composed of body and soul, the purification also is twofold: the corporeal for the corporeal and the incorporeal for the incorporeal. The water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul. Thus, having our heart sprinkled by the Spirit and our body washed with pure water, we may draw near to God. When you go down into the water, then, regard not simply the water, but look for salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit. For without both you cannot attain to perfection. It is not I who say this, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power in this matter. And He says, 'Unless a man be born again' -- and He adds the words 'of water and of the Spirit, -- he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' He that is baptized with water, but is not found worthy of the Spirit, does not receive the grace in perfection. Nor, if a man be virtuous in his deeds, but does not receive the seal by means of the water, shall he enter into the kingdom of heaven. A bold saying, but not mine; for it is Jesus who has declared it."
St. Basil the Great -- one of the great Eastern fathers who lived between 330-379 A.D. --, in his work The Holy Spirit around 375 A.D., directly connected the phrase "born again of water and spirit" with water baptism:
"This then is what it meas to be born again of water and Spirit: just as our dying is effected in the water, our living is wrought through the Spirit. In three immersions and in equal number of invocations the great mystery of baptism is completed in such a way that the type of death may be shown figuratively, and that by the handing on of divine knowledge the sould of the baptized may be illuminated. If, therefore, there is any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of water but from the Spirit's presence there."
Other Fathers give us additional background on the importance of water. Tertullian -- who tradition tells us wrote his treatise on Baptism around 200-206 A.D. -- paints a picture of water resting at the core of the battle of good versus evil:
"A treatise on our sacrament of water, by which the sins of our earlier blindness are washed away and we are released for eternal life will not be superfluous. Vipers and asps, as is true of serpents in general, are found in dry and waterless places. But we, little fishes, are born in water after the manner of our Jesus Christ; nor can we be otherwise saved, except by abiding permanently in the water."
Similarly, he draws on all of history and tells us:
"The Spirit who in the beginning hovered over the waters would continue to linger as an influence upon the waters. ... All waters, therefore, by reason of the original sign at their beginning, are suitable, after God has been invoked, for the sacrament of sanctification. The Spirit immediately comes from heaven upon the waters, and rests upon them, making them holy of Himself; and having been thus sanctified they absorb at the same time the power of sanctifying. Even so, there is a similitude well-adapted to the simple act: that since we are defiled by sins, as if by dirt, we are washed in water."
These quotations can be found in William Jurgens collection The Faith of the Early Fathers.


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