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§ 74. Heretical Baptism.

On Heretical Baptism comp. Eusebius: H.E. VII. 3–5. Cyprian: Epist. LXX.-LXXVI. The Acts of the Councils of Carthage, a.d. 255 and 256, and the anonymous tract, De Rebaptismate, among Cyprian’s works, and in Routh’s Reliquiae Sacrae, vol. v. 283–328.

Hefele: Conciliengeschichte, I. 117–132 (second ed.).

G. E. Steitz: Ketzertaufe, in Herzog, rev. ed., VII. 652–661.

Heretical baptism was, in the third century, the subject of a violent controversy, important also for its bearing on the question of the authority of the Roman see.

Cyprian, whose Epistles afford the clearest information on this subject, followed Tertullian461461    De Bapt. c. 15. Comp. also Clement of Alex., Strom. I. 375.61 in rejecting baptism by heretics as an inoperative mock-baptism, and demanded that all heretics coming over to the Catholic church be baptized (he would not say re-baptized). His position here was due to his high-church exclusiveness and his horror of schism. As the one Catholic church is the sole repository of all grace, there can be no forgiveness of sins, no regeneration or communication of the Spirit, no salvation, and therefore no valid sacraments, out of her bosom. So far he had logical consistency on his side. But, on the other hand, he departed from the objective view of the church, as the Donatists afterwards did, in making the efficacy of the sacrament depend on the subjective holiness of the priest. "How can one consecrate water," he asks, "who is himself unholy, and has not the Holy Spirit?" He was followed by the North African church, which, in several councils at Carthage in the years 255–6, rejected heretical baptism; and by the church of Asia Minor, which had already acted on this view, and now, in the person of the Cappadocian bishop Firmilian, a disciple and admirer of the great Origen, vigorously defended it against Rome, using language which is entirely inconsistent with the claims of the papacy.462462    See p. 162. Some Roman divines (Molkenkuhr and Tizzani, as quoted by Hefele, p. 121) thought that such an irreverent Epistle as that of Firmilian (the 75th among Cyprian’s Epp.) cannot be historical, and that the whole story of the controversy between Pope Stephen and St. Cyprian must be a fabrication! Dogma versus facts62

The Roman bishop Stephen (253–257) appeared for the opposite doctrine, on the ground of the ancient practice of his church.463463    According to Hippolytus (Philosoph.), the rebaptism of heretics was unknown before Callistus, a.d. 218-223. Cyprian does not deny the antiquity of the Roman customs but pleads that truth is better than custom ("quasi consuetudo major sit veritate"). Hefele, 1. p. 121. The Epistles of Stephen are lost, and we must learn his position from his opponents.63 He offered no argument, but spoke with the consciousness of authority, and followed a catholic instinct. He laid chief stress on the objective nature of the sacrament, the virtue of which depended neither on the officiating priest, nor on the receiver, but solely on the institution of Christ. Hence he considered heretical baptism valid, provided only it was administered with intention to baptize and in the right form, to wit, in the name of the Trinity, or even of Christ alone; so that heretics coming into the church needed only confirmation or the ratification of baptism by the Holy Ghost. "Heresy," says he, "produces children and exposes them; and the church takes up the exposed children, and nourishes them as her own, though she herself has not brought them forth."

The doctrine of Cyprian was the more consistent from the hierarchical point of view; that of Stephen, from the sacramental. The former was more logical, the latter more practical and charitable. The one preserved the principle of the exclusiveness of the church; the other, that of the objective force of the sacrament, even to the borders of the opus operatum theory. Both were under the direction of the same churchly spirit, and the same hatred of heretics; but the Roman doctrine is after all a happy inconsistency of liberality, an inroad upon the principle of absolute exclusiveness, an involuntary concession, that baptism, and with it the remission of sin and regeneration, therefore salvation, are possible outside of Roman Catholicism.464464    Unless it be maintained that the baptismal grace, if received outside of the Catholic communion, is of no use, but rather increases the guilt (like the knowledge of the heathen), and become, ; available only by the subjective conversion and regular confirmation of the heretic. This was the view of Augustin; see Steitz, l. c., p. 655 sq.64

The controversy itself was conducted with great warmth. Stephen, though advocating the liberal view, showed the genuine papal arrogance and intolerance. He would not even admit to his presence the deputies of Cyprian, who brought him the decree of the African synod, and he called this bishop, who in every respect excelled Stephen, and whom the Roman church now venerates as one of her greatest saints, a false Christ and false apostle.465465    "Pseudochristum, pseudoapostolum, et dolosum operarium." Firmil. Ad Cyp. toward, ; the end (Ep. 75). Hefele (I. 120) calls this unchristian intolerance of Stephen very mildly "eine grosse Unfreundlichkeit."65 He broke off all intercourse with the African church, as he had already with the Asiatic. But Cyprian and Firmilian, nothing daunted, vindicated with great boldness, the latter also with bitter vehemence, their different view, and continued in it to their death. The Alexandrian bishop Dionysius endeavored to reconcile the two parties, but with little success. The Valerian persecution, which soon ensued, and the martyrdom of Stephen (257) and of Cyprian (258), suppressed this internal discord.

In the course of the fourth century, however, the Roman theory gradually gained on the other, received the sanction of the oecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, was adopted in North Africa during the Donatistic controversies, by a Synod of Carthage, 348, defended by the powerful dialectics of St. Augustin against the Donatists, and was afterwards confirmed by the Council of Trent with an anathema on the opposite view.


The Council of Trent declares (Sessio Sept., March 3, 1547, canon 4): "If any one says that the baptism, which is even given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the church doth, is not true baptism: let him be anathema." The Greek church likewise forbids the repetition of baptism which has been performed in the name of the Holy Trinity, but requires trine immersion. See the Orthodox Conf. Quaest. CII. (in Schaff’s Creeds II. 376), and the Russian Catch. (II. 493), which says: "Baptism, is spiritual birth: a man is born but once, therefore he is also baptized but once." But the same Catechism declares "trine immersion" to be "most essential in the administration of baptism"(II. 491).

The Roman church, following the teaching of St. Augustin, bases upon the validity of heretical and schismatical baptism even a certain legal claim on all baptized persons, as virtually belonging to her communion, and a right to the forcible conversion of heretics under favorable circumstances.466466    Augustin thus misinterpreted the "Coge intrare,"Luke 14:22, 23, as justifying persecution (Ep. ad Bonifac., c. 6). If the holy bishop of Hippo had foreseen the fearful consequences of his exegesis, be would have shrunk from it in horror.66 But as there may be some doubt about the orthodox form and intention of heretical baptism in the mind of the convert (e.g. if he be a Unitarian), the same church allows a conditional rebaptism with the formula: "If thou art not yet baptized, I baptize thee," etc.

Evangelical creeds put their recognition of Roman Catholic or any other Christian baptism not so much on the theory of the objective virtue of the sacrament, as on a more comprehensive and liberal conception of the church. Where Christ is, there is the church, and there are true ordinances. The Baptists alone, among Protestants, deny the validity of any other baptism but by immersion (in this respect resembling the Greek church), but are very far on that account from denying the Christian status of other denominations, since baptism with them is only a sign (not a means) of regeneration or conversion, which precedes the rite and is independent of it.

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