Not long after the apostolic era, Christian leaders began teaching that the ordinance of baptism regenerated sinners. The author of the Shepherd of Hermas, for example (ca. 100-154 A.D.),1 explained that “we went down into the water and received forgiveness of our previous sins” (31.1). He also believed a Christian could only sin once after being regenerated by baptism.2
In this excerpt Tertullian, the great 2nd century scholar from Carthage, explains his views on baptism. He clearly believed in baptismal regeneration. Here, he marvels at how people could scoff at such a simple vehicle as baptism for salvation:3
Well, but how great is the force of perversity for so shaking the faith or entirely preventing its reception, that it impugns it on the very principles of which the faith consists! There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible.
Tertullian then explains that water was a “vehicle” for God at the very beginning of creation. Why, then, should God not likewise use the waters of the ordinance of baptism to “create” a new believer?4
Mindful of this declaration as of a conclusive prescript, we nevertheless proceed to treat the question, “How foolish and impossible it is to be formed anew by water. In what respect, pray, has this material substance merited an office of so high dignity?”
The authority, I suppose, of the liquid element has to be examined. This however, is found in abundance, and that from the very beginning. For water is one of those things which, before all the furnishing of the world, were quiescent with God in a yet unshapen state.
“In the first beginning,” saith Scripture, “God made the heaven and the earth. But the earth was invisible, and unorganized, and darkness was over the abyss; and the Spirit of the Lord was hovering over the waters.”
The first thing, O man, which you have to venerate, is the age of the waters, in that their substance is ancient. The second; their dignity, in that they were the seat of the Divine Spirit, more pleasing to Him, no doubt, than all the other then existing elements. For the darkness was total thus far, shapeless, without the ornament of stars; and the abyss gloomy; and the earth unfurnished; and the heaven unwrought: water alone—always a perfect, gladsome, simple material substance, pure in itself—supplied a worthy vehicle to God.
What of the fact that waters were in some way the regulating powers by which the disposition of the world thenceforward was constituted by God? For the suspension of the celestial firmament in the midst He caused by “dividing the waters;” the suspension of “the dry land” He accomplished by “separating the waters.” After the world had been hereupon set in order through its elements, when inhabitants were given it, “the waters” were the first to receive the precept “to bring forth living creatures.”
Water was the first to produce that which had life, that it might be no wonder in baptism if waters know how to give life.For was not the work of fashioning man himself also achieved with the aid of waters? Suitable material is found in the earth, yet not apt for the purpose unless it be moist and juicy; which (earth) “the waters,” separated the fourth day before into their own place, temper with their remaining moisture to a clayey consistency.
If, from that time onward, I go forward in recounting universally, or at more length, the evidences of the “authority” of this element which I can adduce to show how great is its power or its grace; how many ingenious devices, how many functions, how useful an instrumentality, it affords the world, I fear I may seem to have collected rather the praises of water than the reasons of baptism; although I should thereby teach all the more fully, that it is not to be doubted that God has made the material substance which He has disposed throughout all His products and works, obey Him also in His own peculiar sacraments; that the material substance which governs terrestrial life acts as agent likewise in the celestial.
Therefore, Turtullian concludes, the waters of baptism are made a “channel of sanctification.”5
But it will suffice to have thus called at the outset those points in which withal is recognised that primary principle of baptism,—which was even then fore-noted by the very attitude assumed for a type of baptism,—that the Spirit of God, who hovered over (the waters) from the beginning, would continue to linger over the waters of the baptized.
But a holy thing, of course, hovered over a holy; or else, from that which hovered over that which was hovered over borrowed a holiness, since it is necessary that in every case an underlying material substance should catch the quality of that which overhangs it, most of all a corporeal of a spiritual, adapted (as the spiritual is) through the subtleness of its substance, both for penetrating and insinuating.
Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived withal the power of sanctifying. Let no one say, “Why then, are we, pray, baptized with the very waters which then existed in the first beginning?” Not with those waters, of course, except in so far as the genus indeed is one, but the species very many. But what is an attribute to the genus reappears likewise in the species.
And accordingly it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber, unless withal the eunuch whom Philip baptized in the midst of his journeys with chance water, derived (therefrom) more or less of salvation than others.
All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying.
Albeit the similitude may be admitted to be suitable to the simple act; that, since we are defiled by sins, as it were by dirt, we should be washed from those stains in waters. But as sins do not show themselves in our flesh (inasmuch as no one carries on his skin the spot of idolatry, or fornication, or fraud), so persons of that kind are foul in the spirit, which is the author of the sin; for the spirit is lord, the flesh servant. Yet they each mutually share the guilt: the spirit, on the ground of command; the flesh, of subservience.
Therefore, after the waters have been in a manner endued with medicinal virtue through the intervention of the angel, the spirit is corporeally washed in the waters, and the flesh is in the same spiritually cleansed.
1 Many scholars believe the Shepherd consists of two individual sections, composed at different times and later published together. I’ve provided Rick Brannan’s dating estimate for the relevant section which I’ll be quoting from (The Apostolic Fathers in English, translated by Rick Brannan [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012], Introduction). Another resource states, “The Shepherd of Hermas was likely written in or around Rome and quite possibly over a stretch of time ranging from the late first century AD to the middle of the second century AD,” (Charles Meeks, “Shepherd of Hermas,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016]).
2 Hermas 31.6 reads, “after the calling, that great and honorable one, if someone, being tempted by the devil, might sin, he has one repentance.”
3 Tertullian, “On Baptism,” chapter 2, in Ante-Nicene Father, 9 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 3:669.
4 Tertullian, “On Baptism,” chapter 3, ANF 3:370.
5 Tertullian, “On Baptism,” chapter 4, ANF 3:370-371.