In Search of Ancient Roots? Basil on Baptism.

I’m hoping to produce a more comprehensive overview of Basil’s On the Holy Spirit in a few days, but as a Baptist, I couldn’t help but dwell on some of his thoughts at greater length.

I’ve recently been reading Kenneth Stewart’s excellent book In Search of Ancient Roots (and have been wondering how it took me so long!). Stewart is concerned that contemporary evangelicals have no confidence that there is a history of Bible believing, evangelistic Christianity prior to the Reformation. We see what we believe to be the basis for our churches in Scripture, and then there seems to be this historical void until the sixteenth century. Stewart hopes to correct that view by pointing out that such genuine Christian faith not only has Biblical or Reformation roots, but ancient roots also.

As a Baptist, I hold a high view of the place of believer’s baptism in the life of the church. But does such a teaching have these ancient roots? Is this merely an over-reading or indeed misreading of Scripture, with no historical basis of the church supporting such treatment of this holy command? I believe it is not, and in this post I offer just one clear example of what I believe to be Biblical teaching on Baptism from the Early Church, from the writing of Basil of Caesarea.

As ever with a post like this I want to make it clear that Basil holds no authority or special revelation, such weighty truth is found in Scripture alone. Rather I merely hold up the example of Basil as one I believe to be faithfully teaching Scripture.

As such, I want to unpack two sections from his work On the Holy Spirit, one short, and one long, that treat baptism well, and, in a remarkably ‘Baptist’ manner.

Faith precedes Baptism. Baptism affirms Faith.

“First we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; then we are baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The profession of faith leads us to salvation, and then baptism follows, sealing our affirmation.”

Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit 12.28.

These simple statements come during Basil’s wider discussion on the Holy Spirit. As he writes against those who deny the divinity of the Spirt, or who seek to belittle Him, Basil turns briefly to baptism. Here he echoes Christ in the famous words of His Great Commission (Matt 28.18-20). Basil works logically through the steps that must be taken.

First, we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is, we put our trust in our wonderful, sovereign, triune God. Then, in obedience to Christ, we are baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Basil sees here a simple biblical pattern, dependant not on our own thinking or lives, but wholly upon our glorious God.

To make his point clearer, he then spells out what this means. First, we profess our saving faith – this faith in our triune God. Then “baptism follows” a clear teaching on believer’s baptism. And what does this following baptism achieve? Not salvation in and of itself, but a “sealing our affirmation”. Literally, this act shows we are now a child of faith. Thus, in this simple paragraph we see Basil’s view on baptism. First faith, in the one who saves. Then baptism, from a place of faith, to display that faith.

A lengthier treatment: Baptism the Turning Post

This short paragraph is by no means all Basil has to say on baptism, and he returns to the subject only a few chapters later.

Having made clear his position on when baptism ought to happen, Basil elaborates further on what baptism is. He begins this treatment with the Gospel. In 15.35, Basil sets out simple truths.

God sought to redeem mankind.

For man’s disobedience had set him apart from God.

So Christ took on flesh, lived, died and rose again, “so that man might be saved.”

We then must become imitators of Him (Basil cites Phil 3:10-11 here). To imitate Him we must live as He does, and we must die as He does too. We must die to our sin and shame, entering into a new life in Christ.

Thus we must put our faith in Christ, dying to self and sin, and rising again into a new life with him. So where does baptism fit in? It becomes an imitation of the descent into death, and the raising to a new life. As Basil so clearly states “baptism signifies the putting off of the works of the flesh, as the Apostle says [in Col 2:11-12].”

Basil makes this idea of baptism as a sign of our death and new life in Christ through the example of a runner in the Games. Ancient foot races were not run around a track like ours today, often they would be run on a straight course, with a turning post at the end of the stadium, and with the start line also acting as a finish line. As such, the runner would have to make a sharp turn at the far end of the stadium, and this would be the halfway mark in the race. Then they would run in the opposite direction, to cross the finish line.

Basil picks up this imagery to describe baptism to his readers. “When a runner has to run around the post at the end of the racetrack in order to return to the other side of the course, he has to stop and pause momentarily, in order to negotiate such a sharp turn.”

For Basil, baptism is like that momentary pause. It is a clear and obvious sign that you have broken with your previous direction and headed instead in a new direction. It is a sure and certain sign that you now aim for a new destination. You have quite literally turned around, turning from sin to new life in Christ, and baptism acts as our ‘turning post’ – a sign that this is what has happened.

Basil is clear that baptism is not the turn in and of itself, merely the outward indication of an inward change. “He [Christ] died for the world once, and rose from the dead once, and baptism is a figure of His death and resurrection. The Lord who gives us life also gave us the baptism covenant, which contains an image of both death and life.” In the next section Basil makes it clear that the Spirit changes our heart, the water only symbolises that change. (15.36) “We are able to distinguish between the grace that comes from the Spirit and mere baptism in water. John baptised in water for repentance, but our Lord Jesus Christ baptised in the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is the great sign of a life transformed by the Spirit. It is a public and vivid picture of the death and resurrection that the believer has spiritually undergone in Christ. Basil ends his treatment of baptism by cautioning the reader not to confuse “things which are distinct, and comparing things that admit of no comparison.” That is, the Spirit works in us for salvation, the water of baptism acts as a sign, a public affirmation of that work, not the saving work itself.

Conclusion: Ancient Roots

Kenneth Stewart’s book is concerned that many are abandoning the evangelical faith because they perceive it to have no historical basis. Many see no sense of continuity from the Early Church to modern evangelical churches. Though Basil is writing in the mid-3rd century, his comments on baptism show us that modern Baptists have a deeply historical faith, and that the doctrine of believer’s baptism has long been held by many followers of Christ throughout history.

This brief examination is but one example of the ancient roots of our Christian faith, and many more are explored on the pages of this blog.

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