IT is here proposed, in sequence to two Essays contributed to this Review some time since, on the Eucharist and on Absolution, to add another on Baptism. The subject is one which is full of antiquarian interest, and it also suggests many instructive reflections on Christian theology and practice. It is in ended to consider what was its original form in early times, and what is the inner meaning which has more or less survived all the changes through which it has passed, as well as the lessons suggested by those changes.

What, then, was Baptism in the Apostolic age?* It coincided with the greatest religious change which the world had yet witnessed. Multitudes of men and women were seized with one common impulse, and abandoned by the irresistible conviction of a day, an hour, a moment, their former habits, friends, associates, to be enrolled in a new society under the banner of a new faith. That new society was intended to be a society of "brothers; " bound by ties closer than any earthly brotherhood-filled with life and energy such as fall to the lot of none but the most ardent enthusiasts, yet tempered by a moderation, a wisdom, and a holiness such as enthusiasts have rarely possessed. It was moreover a society, swayed by the presence of men whose words even now cause the heart to burn, and by the recent recollections of One, whom "not seeing they loved with love unspeak able." Into this society they passed by an act as natural as it was expressive. The plunge into the bath of purification, long known among the Jewish nation as the symbol of a change of life, was still retained as the pledge of entrance into this new and universal communion-retained under the sanction of Him, into whose name they were by that solemn rite "baptised." In that early age the scene of the transaction was either some deep wayside spring or well, as for the Ethiopian, or some rushing river, as the Jordan, or some vast reservoir, as at Jericho or Jerusalem, whither, as in the Baths of Caracalla at Rome, the whole population resorted for swimming or washing. The water in those Eastern regions, so doubly significant of all that was pure and refreshing, closed over the heads of the converts, and they rose into the light of heaven, new and altered beings. It was natural that on such an act were lavished all the figures which

* The substance of some of the paragraphs here, and in page 693, is taken from an Essay on the Gorham Controversy, published in Essays on Church and State, &c.

99 66


language could furnish to express the mighty change: "Regeneration," "Illumination," Burial,' ""Resurrection," "A new creation," "For giveness of sins," "Salvation." Well might the Apostle say, Baptism doth not even now save us," even had he left his statement in its unrestricted strength to express what in that age no one could misunder stand. But no less well was he led to add, as if with a prescience of coming evils, "Not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but-the answer of a good conscience towards God."*

Such was the Apostolic Baptism. We are able in detail to track its history through the next three centuries. The rite was, indeed, still in great measure what in its origin it had been almost universally, the great change from darkness to light, from evil to good; the "second birth" of men from the corrupt society of the dying Roman Empire into the purifying and elevating influence of the living Christian *Church. Nay, in some respects the deep moral responsibility of the act must have been impressed upon the converts by the severe, sometimes the life-long, preparation for the final pledge, even more than by the sudden and almost instantaneous transition which characterized the Baptism of the Apostolic age. But gradually the consciousness of this answer of the good conscience towards God" was lost in the stress laid with greater and greater emphasis on the "putting away the filth of the flesh." Let us conceive ourselves present at those extraordinary scenes, to which no existing ritual of any European Church offers any likeness.

There was, as a general rule, but one baptistery in each city, and such baptisteries were apart from the churches. There was but one time of the year when the rite was administered-namely, between Easter and Pentecost. There was but one personage who could administer it—the presiding officer of the community, the Bishop. There was but one hour for the ceremony; it was midnight. The torches flared through the dark hall as the troops of converts flocked in. The baptistery § consisted of an inner and an outer chamber. In the outer chamber stood the candidates for baptism, stripped to their shirts; and, turning to the west as the region of sunset, they stretched forth their hands through the dimly lit church, as in a defiant attitude towards the Evil Spirit of Darkness, and, speaking to him by name, said: "I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy works, and

* 1 Pet. iii. 21.

+ As a general rule, in the writings of the later Fathers, there is no doubt that the word which we transla'e, "Regeneration," is used exclusively for Baptism. But it is equally certain that in the earlier Fathers it is used for Repentance, or, as we should now say, Conversion. See Clem. Rom. i. 9. Justin. Dial. in Tryph. p. 231, B. D. Clemens Alex. (apud Eus. H. E. iii. 23), Strom. lib. ii. 8, 425, A.

At Rome there was more than one.

In the most beautiful baptistery in the world, at Pisa, baptisms even in the Middle Ages only took place on the two days of the Nativity and the Decollation of John the Baptist, and the nobles stood in the galleries to witness the ceremony. See Dr. Smith's Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, i. pp. 160, 161,

all thy pomp, and all thy service." Then they turned, like a regi ment, facing right round to the east, and repeated, in a form more or less long, the belief in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, which has grown up into the Apostles' Creed in the West, and the Nicene Creed in the East. They then advanced into the inner chamber. Before them yawned the deep pool or reservoir, and standing by the deacon, or deaconess, as the case might be, to arrange that all should be done with decency, the whole troop undressed completely as if for a bath, and stood up,* naked, before the Bishop, who put to each the questions, to which the answer was returned in a loud and distinct voice, as of those who knew what they had undertaken.

Both before and after the immersion their bare limbs were rubbed with oil from head to foot; they were then clothed in white gowns, and received, as token of the kindly feeling of their new brotherhood, the kiss of peace, and a taste of honey and milk; and they expressed their new faith by using for the first time the Lord's Prayer.

These are the outer forms of which, in the Western Churches, almost every particular is altered even in the most material points. Immersion has become the exception and not the rule. Adult baptism, as well as immersion, exists only amongst the Baptists. The dramatic action of the scene is lost. The anointing, like the bath, is reduced to a few drops of oil in the Roman Church, and in the Protestant churches has entirely disappeared. What once could only be administered by Bishops is now administered by every clergyman, and throughout the Roman Church by laymen and even by women. What is proposed then to be asked is, first, what is the residue of the meaning of Baptism which has survived, and what we may learn from it, and from the changes through which it has passed.

I. As the Lord's Supper was founded on the Paschal Feast, and on the parting social meal, so Baptism was founded on the Jewish-we may say the Oriental-custom, which, both in ancient and modern times, regards ablution, cleansing of the hands, the face, and the per son, at once as a means of health and as a sign of purity. Here as elsewhere the Founder of Christianity chose rather to sanctify and elevate what already existed than to create and invent a new form for Himself. Baptism is the oldest ceremonial ordinance that Christian ity possesses; it is the only one which is inherited from Judaism, It is thus interesting as the only ordinance of the Christian Church which equally belonged to the merciful Jesus and the austere John. Out of all the manifold religious practices of the ancient law-sacri fices, offerings, temple, tabernacle, scapegoat, sacred vestments, sacred trumpets-He chose this one alone; the most homely, the most uni versal, the most innocent of all. He might have chosen the peculiar

*Bingham, xi. ii. § 1, 2.

+ Ibid. xi. 9, § 3, 45; xii. 1, 4. Possibly after immersion the undressing and the anointing were partial.

Nazarite custom of the long tresses and the rigid abstinence by which Samson and Samuel and John had been dedicated to the service of the Lord. He did nothing of the sort. He might have continued the strange, painful, barbarous rite of circumcision. He, or at least His Apostles, rejected it altogether. He might have chosen some elaborate ceremonial like the initiation into the old Egyptian and Grecian mysteries. He chose instead what every one could understand. He took what, at least in Eastern and Southern countries, was the most delightful, the most ordinary, the most salutary, of social observ


[ocr errors]


1. By choosing water and the use of the bath, He indicated one chief characteristic of the Christian religion. Whatever else the Christian was to be, Baptism*-the use of water-showed that he was to be clean and pure, in body, soul, and spirit; clean even in body. Cleanliness is a duty which some of the monastic communities of Christendom have despised, and some have even treated as a crime. But such was not the mind of Him who chose the washing with water for the prime ordinance of His followers. Wash and be clean" was the prophet's admonition of old to the Syrian whom he sent to bathe in the river Jordan. It was the text of the only sermon by which a well-known geologist of this country was known to his generation. Cleanliness next to godliness" was the maxim of the great religious prophet of England in the last century, John Wesley. Every time that we see the drops of water poured over the face in Baptism, they are signs to us of the cleanly habits which our Master prized when He founded the rite of Baptism, and when, by His own Baptism in the sweet soft stream of the rapid Jordan, He blessed the element of water for use as the best and choicest of God's natural gifts to man in his thirsty, weary, way worn passage through the dust and heat of the world. But the cleanness of the body was in this ordinance meant to indicate yet more strongly the perfect cleanness, the unsullied purity of the soul; or, as the English Baptismal Service quaintly expresses it, the mystical washing away of sin-that is, the washing, cleansing process that effaces the dark spots of selfishness and passion in the human character, in which, by nature and by habit, they have been so deeply ingrained. "Associate the idea of sin with the idea of dirt" was a homely maxim of Keble. It indicates also that as the Christian heart must be bathed in an atmosphere of purity, so the Christian mind must be bathed in an atmosphere of truth, of love of truth, of perfect truthfulness, of transparent veracity and sincerity. What filthy, indecent talk or action is to the heart and affections, that

* This is the meaning of the frequent reference to "wate" in St. John's writings. As in John vi. 54, the p. rases" eating" and "drinking, "" flesh and blood," refer to the spiritual nourishment of which the Eucharist, never mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, was the outward expression, so in John iii. 5, the word "water" refers to the moral purity symbolized by Baptism, which in like manner (as a universal institution) is never mentioned in the Gospel..

a lie however white, a fraud however pious, is to the mind and conscience. Sir Isaac Newton is said by his friends to have had the whitest soul that they ever knew. That is the likeness of a truly Christian soul as indicated by the old baptismal washing: the whiteness of purity the clearness, and transparency of truth.*

There was one form of this idea which continued far down into the Middle Ages, long after it had been dissociated from Baptism, but which may be given as an illustration of the same idea represented by the same form. The order of knighthood in England, of which the banners hang in King Henry the Seventh's Chapel, in Westminster Abbey, and which is distingnished from all the other orders as the most honourable," is called the Order of the Bath. Why is this? It is because in the early days of chivalry the knights, those who were enlisted in defence of right against wrong, truth against falsehood, honour against dishonour, on the evening before they were admitted to the Order, were laid in a bath † and thoroughly washed, in order to show how bright and pure ought to be the lives of those who engage in noble enterprises. Sir Galahad, amongst King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, is the type at once of a true ancient Knight of the Bath and of a true Apostolic Christian.

[ocr errors]

My good blade carves the helms of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure;

My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my he rt is pure.

2. This leads us to the second characteristic of the act of Baptism. 'Baptism" was not only a bath but a plunge-an entire submersion in the deep water, a leap as into the rolling sea or the rushing river, where for the moment the waves close over the bather's head, and he emerges again as from a momentary grave; or it was the shock of a shower-bath-the rush of water passed over the whole person from capacious vessels, so as to wrap the recipient as within the veil of a splashing cataract. This was part of the ceremony on which the Apostle laid so much stress. It seemed to them like the burial of the old former self and the rising up again of the new self. So St. Paul compared it to the Israelites passing through the roaring waves of the Red Sea, and St. Peter to the passing through the deep waters of the flood. "We are buried," said St. Paul, Iwith Christ by baptism at his death; that, like as Christ was raised, thus we also should walk in the newness of life." Baptism, as the entrance into


It is this insistance on cleanness of mind as indicated by cleanness of body which forms one of the most obvious links between the Baptist and the Essenes.See Lectures on the Jewish Church, iii. 460.

+To "dub" a knight is said to be taken from "the dip," "doob" in the bath. Evelyn saw the Knights in their baths (Diary, April 19, 1661).

+ See Dr. Smith's History of Christian Antiquities, vol. i. p. 169.

Rom. vi. 4, 1 Cor. x. 2, 1 Fet. iii. 20, 21.

« VorigeDoorgaan »