What does the phrase
"One baptism for the forgiveness of sins" mean? in the Nicean Creed

December 6, 2015

Question from a CH101 Reader
In your article "Water Baptism in the Early Church" you say:
"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."

Response:
My first thought is that you need to read my paper on "Second Repentance."
"Second Repentance" in the Early Church: The Influence of The Shepherd of Hermas. Please read this paper, then come back to me with further questions. Give me some feedback once you read the paper with any thoughts you might have - this will help me better answer your questions.

Reader Reply:
I agree that you can be saved without being baptised. However a truly saved person would WANT to be baptised. If the above is true, I am still puzzled over this baptism for the remission of sins. Surely we would link the blood of Christ to the washing away of sins? Also, the Nicene creed does not touch upon how we are saved, ie by faith in Christ. Someone could believe in the Nicene creed and yet not be saved because he is trusting in his own works and the keeping of the law.
Regarding "The Shepherd of Hermas," I only briefly wizzed through it, but I think that the Christian life is one of continual repentance, so I am uncomfortable with "second repentance". As we grow in grace and receive more light we then repent (be grieved about) things that before we did not regard as sin.
Hebrews 10:26 is key. "If we deliberately keep on sinning..." If someone chooses to sin, and keeps on choosing to sin they are not saved, or at least loose their salvation. But surely all of us at times sin, yet the proof of our faith is that we are convicted and then repent. All sin can be forgiven, if someone truly repents and there is evidence for it, then we are obliged to welcome them as a Church. We can sin in thought, word and deed.

The Original Nicean Creed of 325 AD (popular version)

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
begotten of the Father
[the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father,
God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

By whom all things were made
[both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again
ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge
the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.

[But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable' - they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

Response:
I agree your comments above, but our conversation began with a question not about the NT text, but about the Nicean Creed, thus early Christian history. "Second Repentance," however was a serious issue in which early Christians were struggling with the concepts you have just concisely described. My point is that IF you want to understand baptism, repentance and forgiveness in the early church you must understand this issue.

Reader Reply:
I am not convinced with "second repentance" - it is not biblical, ie the term. We are promised that if we confess our sins God will forgive us our sins and cleanse us form all unrighteousness. No number is given to how many times we can be forgiven. Christ encouraged us to forgive one another 70 times 7.
We should receive Christians to the Lord's table if we see true repentance. We leave the rest to the Lord, no matter how many times they have sinned and then repented. (Clearly someone who sins willingly and continually is not saved).
Are you suggesting that Baptism was seen as a means of cleansing in the early Church, hence the presence of it in the Nicene Creed? But again you say in your article "NO church father argued that salvation was impossible without water baptism. It was simply assumed that a believer would be baptized." I would read it as saying that we are baptised/dipped into Christ's blood/death for the remission of sins.

Response:
Not being biblical is something of a non-sequitur. For early fathers in the first two centuries...many of their beliefs were not "biblical" -- they did not have an NT like us! "Trinity" was not a NT term. At Nicea there was disagreement with "homoousias" - the term did not appear in the NT documents and thus, many bishops did not want to use it.

While I do tend to agree with your "biblical" views of baptism and forgiveness, when you read/study the early fathers you have to understand the historical context within which they operated. The early view was that a person who committed a mortal sin AFTER having gone through catechesis (training required prior to receiving baptism and their first Eucharist, sometimes lasting two years) is not assured of forgiveness. The most significant writers (Tertullian being the main one) did not say a person could NOT be forgiven, but that a bishop could not assume their forgiveness. While I do not whole-heartedly agree with this position, I do understand how they came to this view.

To some degree it matters which question you are trying to answer. Are we talking about what does the NT say? Or what did the early church generally think? The two are not always the same. For me this is important because as a Christian I want to know what the early church thought BEFORE they had a complete NT and a completely thought out systematic theology. While I do not completely agree with the early fathers, I am also not a fan of such systematic and thorough attempts to cover every single theological point. It becomes dogmatic as if we completely understand the NT. We do not. I get attacked for making comments like this, but please allow me to explain how I have come to this point of view.

I do have a set of personal beliefs, but I also know that sincere, well-meaning Christians are going to interpret NT texts differently. That is why we have denominations. We have ALWAYS had sects, or groups, or schools of thought within the faith. I just finished answering another CH101 reader asking me about the Orthodox Church and their views on "Pascha" or "Easter." We have a Western Church and an Eastern Church because they had the same differences of opinion in the very early second century.

Now we have a "set" New Testament canon (there is disagreement about this as well - read the discussion on The Apocrypha) yet we still cannot all agree even on supposedly critical points. Get a Baptist or Presbyterian pastor, with an M.Div. to discuss Predestination with a Wesleyan or Methodist pastor with an M.Div. and you will see how two HIGHLY committed Christians, both knowing the NT texts very well can disagree on what individual texts mean. This would typically be the case with these two trained Protestants for many subjects/texts: water baptism, salvation security for the believer, church governance, qualifications for being a pastor, and many more.

Does this mean we can have NO clear beliefs? No, but it does mean that our personal beliefs might not be 100% "right" or "correct." We have to hold to beliefs and we should have good explanations for why/how we hold such beliefs, but we need to also have enough humility to realize that other equally committed Christians might disagree with us. Back to the specifics of our discussion.

The Revised Nicean Creed (381 AD, Constantiople)

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son
he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Amen.
Are you suggesting Baptism was seen as a means of cleansing in the early Church, hence including it in the Nicene Creed?
No, baptism is not in the original Nicean Creed. It was added in 381. Baptism is also not in the Apostle's Creed.

Notice in the creed that "one baptism" follows closely on the Holy Spirit article. Some earlier creeds, not from councils, spoke to "baptism of the Holy Spirit." Just an interesting note on the diversity of the creedal formulas. MOST creeds were recited by the Christian just prior to being baptized.
This is not something I have researched, but from my reading I think the point is "one" baptism again goes back to the Second Repentance issue. Many of the fathers did not want someone to get baptized again IF they had been baptized in an unorthodox sect like the Donatists, Montanists or Arians. The debate centered around baptism being powerful on it's own and not being dependent on WHO administers it, or on HOW they did it, or WHAT they actually said as they did it.

So baptism needs to be understood in the light of the Early Church - water baptism on confession of faith?

Response:
No, I am not exactly saying that we MUST understand baptism in light of the early church. Like you, I am not sure I agree 100% with the early church view of salvation or forgiveness. I was simply trying to answer your questions regarding the early church. Having said this, we want to avoid a kneejerk reaction against the early church because we have the "complete" NT canon and our "correct" way of viewing things. I do think as Protestants we tend to do this.

Much of what we disagree with tends to revolve around specific issues. When one reads Tertullian he is not so much presenting a different view of "forgiveness," but is discussing "penance," something most Protestants cannot relate to. What if we substituted "discipline" for "penance?" Here is a scenario that might help Protestants understand and have a more open mind:

Let's say you are pastoring a local church and you have a young man of around 25 years old who has attended the church for 2-3 years and all know him to be a stable Christian. Then it comes out that he has somehow become close to an 18 yr old girl in the Church and they have been having some kind of sexual relations. You challenge him and he decides not to respond. He leaves the church. A little over a year passes and the young man shows up at church. You approach him and he apologizes and asks for forgiveness; he wants to be back in fellowship. What should you do?

Most pastors are not going to simply throw the "welcome" mat down again. I would let him know that contact with any of the young women will not be tolerated. He might be told that sitting with or being alone with ANY woman in the church under a certain age is not allowed. I would probably either personally keep him accountable or have another solid man in the church do it. You might also have timeframes in mind: two years of towing these disciplines before things are loosened up on him. This, in my view, is fairly similar to the early church view of "penance."
Reader:
This all started when I wanted to dig out a good creed to teach my son and to historicize my own faith. What early creed would you suggest epitomises true Christian faith?


Response:
I love this idea of teaching your son a creed! This is what I did with my two daughters as I put them to bed when they were younger.

I personally like the Apostle's Creed because it has VERY early attestation, though not in complete form. (See the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch). Also it is easy to remember, yet covers the basic tenents of faith. My daughters were able to memorize it at 8-10 years old.

The original Nicene Creed is also good, but it was complicated by the whole Arius debate and the attempts to explain/defend the pre-existence of Christ.

The Apostle's Creed was probably hammered out in the fourth century. Our earliest thorough mention of the Apostle's Creed is Rufinus who gives a fairly extensive commentary on it around 403 AD. But this represents the absolute latest date, thus we are fairly sure it was intact much earlier and as I have shown in Ignatius of Antioch.

We have phrases used in the Apostle's Creed yet not in the Nicene Creed. Rufinus reflects my thoughts saying, "We shall attempt, therefore, to restore and emphasize the simplicity of the words of the Apostles." While we do not think the legend of the Apostles actually putting the creed together is historically true, we do see the longing for something simple and easy to memorize without references to the heated debate that led to Nicea. When Rufinus uses the term "to restore" I think this is his meaning. You can read Rufinus on the Nicean Creed.

Part of what bothers me about the councils and the creeds was the attempt to get so technical.
The beauty of John 1:1 says all we need to know. Now I like to think and ponder, but if I cannot love and get along with others...wow.