Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

27. Sources at the Turn to the Fourth Century

The Christian writers considered here, even though dying in the early fourth century, had their intellectual and spiritual formation in the late third century and so are considered in this unit; the same is true for the bishops assembled at Nicaea. I begin with a pagan testimony from the late third century.


Porphyry

The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry (234-c. 305) was a strong opponent of Christianity. There is preserved from his treatise Against the Christians this criticism:

We must feel amazed and concerned about our souls, if a man thus shamed and
polluted is to stand out clean after a single immersion, if a man whose life is
stained by so much debauchery …if such a creature, I say, is lightly set free from
it all, throwing off the whole guilt as a snake sheds its old scales, merely because he
has been baptized and has invoked the name of Christ. Who will not commit mis-
deeds…,if he learns that he can get quit of all these shameful offenses merely by
believing and getting baptized, and cherishing the hope that he will hereafter find
forgiveness with him who is to judge the living and the dead? …They raise it to
the rank of a first principle, that a man has no longer to shun godlessness at all —
if by the simple act of baptism he gets rid of a mass of innumerable sins.1

The attack is an unbalanced and prejudiced reading of Christian teaching, but here as elsewhere Porphyry was well informed about Christianity. The reference to a single immersion, if taken strictly, was incorrect for the usual practice (triple immer

1. Preserved in Macarius Magnes 4.10 — quotation taken from Adolf Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, trans. James Moffatt (London: Williams & Norgate, 1904), Vol. 1, pp. 484–485, n. 1, which translates the whole passage.

-444-

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