Great Stuff — The surprising history of Romans 6 and baptism in the early Church

Another great post found over on Pr. Mark Surburg’s blog:

 

Ghent altarpieceThe doctrine of Holy Baptism believed by the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church existed before there were New Testament texts to describe it.  Baptism was being administered and the teaching of the apostles about baptism was part of the common life of the Church before the letters that we use as the textual basis in Holy Scripture for the doctrine were written.  Baptism and the catechesis about it provided shared presuppositions in the life of the Church.

Like the massive iceberg which only juts above the water into view in some places, so the teaching of baptism runs throughout the life of the early Church and only emerges into view in the New Testament at certain points.  This understanding must inform our interpretation of Paul’s statements concerning baptism.  Paul regularly seems to presuppose a baptismal understanding on the part of his readers.  As Ridderbos observes, “His pronouncements on baptism, therefore, frequently bear the character of an appeal to what the church knows, or ought to know, respecting it and a further explanation of what is to follow from baptism for the consciousness of its faith and conduct.”[1]

No text illustrates this better than Rom. 6:1-4.  After describing in 5:15-19 how God has acted in Christ to justify the sinner, Paul then goes on to add, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20-21).

The statement about grace abounding to meet sin causes Paul to ask the rhetorical question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1).  This prompts Paul’s standard response, “By no means!” and he goes on to add, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:2-5).

Paul asks them if they’ve forgotten that as many as have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death (6:3).[2]  His question is based on the assumption that this is something the Romans do know.  He presumes that they understand that in baptism “the Christian is not merely identified with the ‘dying Christ,’ who has won the victory over sin, but is introduced into the very act by which that victory is won.”[3]  Paul goes on to say in 6:4 that baptism is the means through which they have shared in Christ’s death – in fact they were buried with Christ into death.  The statement in 6:5 then adds that if they have shared in Christ’s death through baptism, they will certainly also share in his resurrection on the Last Day.

In answering the question of why Christians can’t simply sin as they wish, Paul draws upon two aspects of baptism that he knows the Romans believe. First, since in baptism they have died with Christ, they have also died to sin (6:6, 10-11).  Second, baptism joins a person with Christ who has died and risen from the dead and so guarantees the Christian’s resurrection.  Paul says that already now through baptism Christians have this resurrection power available for living in the newness of the second Adam (6:4, 8-11). Paul will develop this thought further in chapter 8 when he speaks about the role of the Spirit in Christ’s resurrection and in the Christian life (8:1-11).

Colossians 2:11-12 presents a striking parallel to Romans 6:1-5.  Once gain, Paul uses the baptismal statements as part of an argument about how they should live as Christians.  He encourages the Colossians to walk in Christ just as they received him (2:6).  They shouldn’t allow human philosophies to take them captive (2:8) because all the fullness of the deity dwells bodily in Christ, and in Christ they have been made full (2:9-10).

Paul then grounds this union with Christ in baptism.  He says, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:11-12).  The Colossians are “in Christ” because they have been baptized.[4]  In baptism they were buried with Christ (they have shared in his death) and the have also been raised up with him.

Just as in Rom 6:1-5, Paul does not attempt to justify what he is saying.  Paul assumes the Colossians agree with him and the baptismal statements serve to support another point Paul is making.  The first half of Col 2:12 uses the exact same language as Rom 6:4. Likewise both Rom 6 and Col 2 connect the Christian’s resurrection with baptism – in Rom 6:5 it is still a future event while in Col 2:12 it is an eschatological reality that Christians already enjoy.[5]

Statements about sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism are only found in Paul’s letters to Rome and Colossae.  Yet this fact has great implications because neither of them were Christian communities that Paul founded (Rom 1:8-15; 15:22-24; Col 1:3-8).  Paul did not teach them, and yet he can assume they share in this understanding about baptism.  Luke Timothy Johnson has insightfully observed:

Despite the relatively meager evidence, we must consider that Paul would not evoke this understanding of baptism from two communities (Colossians and Romans) that he himself had not founded, unless it had been part of their tradition.  We may confidently assume, then, that the understanding of baptism as entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus was wider than the Pauline circle and not an invention of Pauline theology.[6]

We find that this must have been a common understanding about baptism that was shared by the Church in the Mediterranean world.  It was not something that was invented by Paul or exclusive to churches associated with Paul.

The importance of Rom 6:3-4 for understanding baptism probably seems self-evident. Lutherans encounter 6:4 in the Small Catechism’s fourth question about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  The growing popularity of the Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday has reinforced this understanding: baptism gives Christians a share in the death and burial of Jesus Christ who was in the tomb on Holy Saturday. It also provides the guarantee of sharing in the resurrection of the One who has risen from the dead – of which the first celebration begins at the Vigil of Easter.  Those who know something of the early Church will recognize it as a central way of understanding baptism.

And yet as we turn to the documents that we have from the Church in the second century A.D., a great surprise awaits.  Killian McDonnell in his masterful book The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan notes:

What is a matter of surprise is that in the immediate post-biblical period, the second century, the Pauline paradigm of death and resurrection fell out of Christian consciousness so completely.  As was said, the Pauline paradigm seemingly had fallen through a hole in the memory of the early Church.  To be specific, in the second  century the Pauline baptismal paradigm of Romans 6:4 is found neither in theDidache, nor in the Epistle of Barnabas, nor in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, nor of Clement, nor in Pastor Hermas, nor in Justin or the other apologists, nor  in Irenaeus. ‘The Pauline baptismal themes are totally absent.’  No echo is heard of this major paradigm, though people like Justin and Irenaeus know Romans and cite it.[7]

The Romans 6 understanding of baptism reappears in the West at the beginning third century in the writings of Tertullian.  He writes in De Baptismo c.19, “The Passover provides the day of most solemnity for baptism, for then was accomplished our Lord’s passion, and into it we are baptized.”[8]  Johnson observes, “Here (even if only by allusion rather than direct citation) is clearly articulated the beginnings in the West of a Romans 6 theology of baptism as the candidate’s participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.”[9]  The available evidence indicates that in North Africa (probably also in Rome) this serves as the primary metaphor for understanding baptism in the pre-Nicene period.[10]  What is already present before Nicea becomes dominant in the west in the post-Nicene period.

In the pre-Nicene East of Syria and Egypt the understanding of baptism draws upon John 3:5 and the model of Jesus’ own baptism.  Johnson concludes: “In early Syria and Egypt, the Jordan event of Jesus’ baptism by John is the central paradigm.  Together with the ‘new birth’ theology of John 3:5, Christian initiation was interpreted as the means by which the new converts became adopted as children of God and assimilated by the Holy Spirit to the life of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.”[11]

In the East, between the first century and the fourth century only one theologian mentions Romans 6 in relation to baptism: Origen. He writes about it in a number of places includingHomilies on Exodus 5:2 where he says that, “those who have been taken up into Christ by baptism have been taken up into his death and been buried with him, and will rise with him.”[12] The absence of Roman 6 in the East for nearly two hundred years is a mystery for which there is no answer that satisfies completely.  Johnson surveys a number explanations such as heretical use of Paul and the association in the first three centuries of the imagery about the death and resurrection with martyrdom.[13]  Whatever the reason, Origen may have had an important role in preserving a Roman 6 understanding in the East.  Johnson suggests, “given the influence of Origen on Greek patristic theology in general, it would not be unreasonable to conjecture that Origen’s occasional use of Romans 6 in reference to Christian baptism played some role in the fourth-century rediscovery of this orientation in initiation theology and practice throughout the Christian East.”[14]

It is not until the post-Nicene setting as Christianity became legal and then the religion favored by the Roman emperor, that Romans 6 again became an important way that baptism was understood in the East.  Summarizing this period for Jerusalem, Antioch and Cappadocia Bryan Spinks writes, “We also note in the fourth/fifth century explanations the increasing use of the Pauline ideas about baptism in Romans, particularly of dying and rising, and the font as a tomb.  The womb/new birth imagery is still present, but becomes less important.”[15]  Though the other images are not lost, Romans 6 becomes a key text for the practice and understanding of baptism.  Although Easter was not the only time for baptism (Pentecost has consistently been a secondary time for it), it did become the pre-eminent occasion.  The influence of baptismal practice in Jerusalem where the “discovery” of the cross was part of an impressive church building effort by Constantine should not be underestimated. A Holy Week pattern that the followed the Lord through Jerusalem and the surrounding area naturally reinforced a Roman 6 understanding of baptism at the Vigil of Easter.[16]  Romans 6 is a prominent feature in the baptismal homilies of Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia in the East and Ambrose in the West.[17]

The evidence indicates that the Council of Nicea and the changed situation of the Church reflected by the involvement of the Roman emperor Constantine helped produce this change.  We often think about the importance of the Council of Nicea for the confession of the full divinity of the Son of God.  However, it also dealt with the important practical topic of when the Pascha (Easter) should be celebrated.  As Johnson summarizes this:

It must be noted that it is only after the Council of Nicea (325) that we can see with certainty the existence of ‘Lent’ as a forty-day period of preparation for penitential and catechumenal preparation before Pascha (Easter). The implication of this may certainly be that part of the Nicean decision was the determination of the Pascha itself as the preferred baptismal day in the  East, with forty days of preparation for baptism, already, as we have seen, associated in Egypt with Jesus’own temptation, now universally imposed on the churches of the East and West as the period before Easter.  In other words, while Paschal baptism is probably quite early for Rome and North Africa (as least by the third century), the Council of Nicea makes it the baptismal day for the East as well.  Here, then, based on Nicene orthodoxy and the centrality of both the Incarnation of the Word and what is often called today the ‘Paschal Mystery’ of Christ’s death, resurrection, and gift of the Spirit, there is a dramatic shift taking place throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Now, after Nicea, the theology of Christian initiation will move increasingly toward a Paschal Mystery focus suggested by Romans 6.[18]

[1] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 397.

[2] Note the chiastic structure of 6:3: A Baptized; B into Christ; B’ into his death; A’ Baptized.

[3] Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 433.

[4] Paul uses baptism in a similar way in Gal 3:27 where it serves to establish that the Gentile Galatians are “in Christ” and therefore the entire argument of chapter 3 applies to them.

[5] Paul’s statements in Rom 6:4, 9-11; 8:1-11 about the resurrection power of the Spirit at work in the lives of Christians most likely explains what Paul is saying in Col 2:12.

[6] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Thelogical Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 95.

[7] Killian McDonnell, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Savlation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 183.  The quotation included by McDonnel is from A. Benoit, Le Bapteme Chretien au Second Siecle (Paris: University Press of France, 1953), 227.

[8] Text cited from: E.C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (rev. and ed. Maxwell E. Johnson; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 10.

[9] Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation(rev. and exp.; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 88.

[10] Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation, 112.

[11] Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation, 112.

[12] Text cited from Thomas A Finn, Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 9.

[13] Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation, 139.

[14] Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation, 73.

[15] Bryan D. Spinks, Early and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From the New Testament to the Council of Trent (Surrey: Ashgate, 2006), 47.

[16] See John Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels: Translated with supporting document and notes(3d ed.; Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1999).

[17] See Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A.(2d ed.; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 67-250.

[18] Johnson¸ Rites of Christian Initiation, 142 (for further details, see his excursus “Baptismal Preparation and the Origins of Lent,” 201-218).

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.

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