Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Ethical/On Baptism/X

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, Ethical, On Baptism by Tertullian, translated by Sydney Thelwall

Chapter X.—Of John’s Baptism.

We have spoken, so far as our moderate ability permitted, of the generals which form the groundwork of the sanctity[1] of baptism. I will now, equally to the best of my power, proceed to the rest of its character, touching certain minor questions.

The baptism announced by John formed the subject, even at that time, of a question, proposed by the Lord Himself indeed to the Pharisees, whether that baptism were heavenly, or truly earthly:[2] about which they were unable to give a consistent[3] answer, inasmuch as they understood not, because they believed not. But we, with but as poor a measure of understanding as of faith, are able to determine that that baptism was divine indeed, (yet in respect of the command, not in respect of efficacy[4] too, in that we read that John was sent by the Lord to perform this duty,)[5] but human in its nature: for it conveyed nothing celestial, but it fore-ministered to things celestial; being, to wit, appointed over repentance, which is in man’s power.[6] In fact, the doctors of the law and the Pharisees, who were unwilling to “believe,” did not “repent” either.[7] But if repentance is a thing human, its baptism must necessarily be of the same nature:  else, if it had been celestial, it would have given both the Holy Spirit and remission of sins. But none either pardons sins or freely grants the Spirit save God only.[8] Even the Lord Himself said that the Spirit would not descend on any other condition, but that He should first ascend to the Father.[9] What the Lord was not yet conferring, of course the servant could not furnish.  Accordingly, in the Acts of the Apostles, we find that men who had “John’s baptism” had not received the Holy Spirit, whom they knew not even by hearing.[10] That, then, was no celestial thing which furnished no celestial (endowments):  whereas the very thing which was celestial in John—the Spirit of prophecy—so completely failed, after the transfer of the whole Spirit to the Lord, that he presently sent to inquire whether He whom he had himself preached,[11] whom he had pointed out when coming to him, were “HE.”[12] And so “the baptism of repentance”[13] was dealt with[14] as if it were a candidate for the remission and sanctification shortly about to follow in Christ: for in that John used to preach “baptism for the remission of sins,”[15] the declaration was made with reference to future remission; if it be true, (as it is,) that repentance is antecedent, remission subsequent; and this is “preparing the way.”[16] But he who “prepares” does not himself “perfect,” but procures for another to perfect.  John himself professes that the celestial things are not his, but Christ’s, by saying, “He who is from the earth speaketh concerning the earth; He who comes from the realms above is above all;”[17] and again, by saying that he “baptized in repentance only, but that One would shortly come who would baptize in the Spirit and fire;”[18]—of course because true and stable faith is baptized with water, unto salvation; pretended and weak faith is baptized with fire, unto judgment.


  1. Religionem.
  2. Matt. xxi. 25; Mark xi. 30; Luke xx. 4.
  3. Constanter.
  4. Potestate.
  5. See John i. 33.
  6. It is difficult to see how this statement is to be reconciled with Acts v. 31. [i.e. under the universal illumination, John i. 9.]
  7. Matt. iii. 7–12; xxi. 23, 31, 32.
  8. Mark ii. 8; 1 Thess. iv. 8; 2 Cor. i. 21, 22; v. 5.
  9. John xvi. 6, 7.
  10. Acts xix. 1–7. [John vii. 39.]
  11. Matt. iii. 11, 12; John i. 6–36.
  12. Matt. xi. 2–6; Luke vii. 18–23. [He repeats this view.]
  13. Acts xix. 4.
  14. Agebatur.
  15. Mark i. 4.
  16. Luke i. 76.
  17. John iii. 30, 31, briefly quoted.
  18. Matt. iii. 11, not quite exactly given.