This post is my answer to a question sent via e-mail on "Water Baptism in the Early Church." [Unfortunately I have lost the first part of this discussion.]
I have a question about our church Fathers. I have read that some believed that baptism was needed for salvation and some believed that only faith in Christ saves. Do you know which one believed in faith alone for salvation?
Water baptism was a tricky issue in the early church. As usual, I will give my short, concise answer, then follow that with a bit more historical context which will illustrate why there is not an easy answer.
The short answer is that ALL the early fathers believed that part of the conversion experience was going under the water in baptism. At the same time NONE of the early fathers said faith without baptism was impossible - in other words, NO church father argued that salvation was impossible without water baptism. It was simply assumed that a believer would be baptized.
Now the longer answer:
Without knowing the historical context (especially of the second century) you could read the early fathers and come away thinking that most of them believed water baptism was essential in salvation. The danger with reading the early fathers is taking them literally without knowing the historical context.
1. The early church was not "monolithic." Though the church claimed to be "catholic" (universal), sects, or schools of thought always existed within the church that disagreed on many, many things. "Denominations," to use a contemporary term, have always existed. What does this mean in this discussion? Church fathers were rarely in 100% agreement on many things when it came to details, thus you find different slants and views when it comes to water baptism.
2. The record in the book of Acts seems to indicate that water baptism was done fairly quickly (even immediately) after conversion. Though universally seen as something the Christian must do upon conversion, by the second century baptism was typically not done immediately after conversion. This delay is probably due to the changing nature of the church, moving from a Jewish orientation to mainly a Gentile church. Jews practiced various forms of water baptism (see the paper at the end of this page on Essenic Baptism) - Gentile converts needed some explanation. What you find in the records of the second century and following is a training period for a new convert to follow before he/she is allowed to celebrate the Lord's Supper or be baptized in water.
[It is called catechesis, the Greek word that means "to sound" something. It carries the idea that "catechumens" (students) would be taught by "repeat after me," or "sound this out:" I believe in God the Father Almighty...]"
This training period might last a few months, but most records from the few first centuries indicate it to be more than a year of training and learning. This is evidence that these early Christians did NOT think baptism was "required" to be saved. In fact, there is mention in Origen (Contra Celsum) and in the Didascalia (both early third century) that should a catechumen meet a martyr's death prior to being baptized, he/she would be saved through a "baptism of blood." This mention is made in defense of the necessity of baptism, yet is given to show that there is an exception - kind of like thethief on the cross for those who insist that water baptism is a necessity for salvation.
3. Another difficulty in reading statements by early fathers regarding water baptism is contention with heretical groups. The Marcionites, Gnostics, Montanists, and many others - all practiced their own form of baptism and all considered themselves to be "Christian." There is a great amount of difference among church fathers as to whether "converts" from these unorthodox groups should be baptized again OR could their unorthodox baptism be considered sufficient. While some of these groups were certainly outside the boundaries (Gnostics and Marcionites for example), others should be seen more like a modern-day denomination (Montanists and Novatians for example) because their basic theology was not the problem. Whatever the case, dealing with unorthodox baptism confused the issue in the early church AND throws a wrench in trying to figure out the issue in this discussion.
4. Finally, due to other issues in the early church, many people would postpone their baptism until they were near death. It was commonly believed in the early church that a Christian could not commit a "mortal" sin after being baptized and have assurance of salvation. This became known as the "Second Repentance" issue [you can read my paper on the topic.]
It is never insisted that these people were not Christian because they had not been baptized - they were just never considered fully installed in the Church...which was considered the only vehicle for obtaining the grace of Christ. You can see that this statement is kind of fuzzy - so was the position of the early church on this matter. Many people were afraid that they MIGHT commit a "mortal" sin [apostasy, adultery, fornication, and murder were the main mortal sins] and they wanted the assurance that they could repent, be forgiven, and then get baptized. Even this was a murky issue with some bishops saying that you could receive a "second" forgiveness after baptism and others (like Tertullian) saying that only God would know if you could obtain forgiveness for a mortal sin after having been baptized.
So you see, there is just not an easy answer. But if you insist, my easy answer is that NO, the early fathers did not believe water baptism was a requirement for salvation - they just assumed you would be baptized and if you were not they questioned your salvation. ;)