Tertullian on Baptismal Regeneration

Continuing our discussion on the Church Fathers and baptismal regeneration…

“This discussion of the sacred significance of that water of ours in which the sins of our original blindness are washed away and we are set at liberty unto life eternal, will not be without purpose if it provides equipment for those who are at present under instruction, as well as those others who, content to have believed in simplicity, have not examined the reasons for what has been conferred upon them, and because of inexperience are burdened with a faith which is open to temptation. And in fact a certain female viper from the Cainite sect, who recently spent some time here, carried off a good number with her exceptionally pestilential doctrine, making a particular point of demolishing baptism. Evidently in this according to nature: for vipers and asps as a rule, and even basilisks, frequent dry and waterless places. But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound. Thus it was that that portent of a woman, who had no right to teach even correctly,1 knew very well how to kill the little fishes by taking them out of the water.” On Baptism 1

“And so they say, “Baptism is not necessary for them to whom faith is sufficient; for withal, Abraham pleased God by a sacrament of no water, but of faith.” But in all cases it is the later things which have a conclusive force, and the subsequent which prevail over the antecedent. Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and is become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added with the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law.”  On Baptism 13

I have seen the highlighted portion used to point to an idea that someone the Church added baptismal regeneration as a developed doctrine – however, Tertullian is clearly saying that in the days of Abraham, baptism was not required, but now after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ baptism is a must.

Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

5 thoughts on “Tertullian on Baptismal Regeneration

  1. We also should note that with Tertullian, that along with baptism there was also continuing “instruction”. In the last paragraph he adds the truth that with baptism comes the historic and spiritual need of the “amplification” in the knowledge of the sacrament from Christ’s complete life, etc. Indeed baptism is a must for Reformed Christians, but not the vessel itself of regeneration; it is the “sign” and “seal” however.
    Fr. R.

  2. Fr. Robert, I am not sure of the gap between Calvin and the Fathers – both see it as a sign and a seal and a must.

    Further, Tertullian would see instruction as a major part of the Christian and I cannot disagree with him.

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