Catechises, the Preparation for Baptism and Discipleship

This is the third in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  The previous article in the series is Catechises and Baptismal Regeneration.

In the last piece, I discussed the whole issue of baptismal regeneration and how belief in same was not incompatible with a true transformation of the person through the power of Jesus Christ provided it wasn’t mixed with infant baptism. Now let’s turn the tables and look at this from the other angle: do those who practice believers’ baptism really accomplish what they say they do by restricting it to those who have, in someone’s opinion, made a profession for Christ?

Most churches which do not practice pedobaptism will tell you that they only baptise after a person is saved. But how do they know this? I think it’s fair to say that, in the US at least, most attempts to ascertain that a person has experienced the rebirth are perfunctory at best. Pentecostals love to parody the Baptist process: a person goes forward, shakes the preacher’s hand, joins the church and is baptised. And that’s it. If we accept the Baptists’ usual theology which combines an Arminian view of election with a Calvinistic view of predestination, that really suffices. Pentecostals and others in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition don’t, but their connection of a salvation experience and baptism is frequently casual, undermining the significance of the latter (and the latter cannot be made light of in view of the New Testament.)

Cyril’s view of the matter is entirely different.

To start with, in spite of all of the long term effects of Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity, in Cyril’s day becoming a Christian was still regarded as a serious business. Years of persecution—especially in the last half of the third century and the beginning of the fourth—made it necessary to make sure that those who wanted to profess and call themselves Christians were intent on doing so. Added to this was the simple fact that the Roman world was, from a personal morality standpoint, an open sewer. Those who became Christians were expected to renounce that kind of behaviour. The disputes between the orthodox churches and groups such as the Montanists and the Novatians were in part concerning the rigour of the renunciation, not its necessity.

Baptism at a minimum entailed three things: renunciation of the world, an infusion of grace and formally joining the church. Serious sin after baptism was seriously punished. That’s why even the Emperor Constantine waited until he was nearly gone to be baptised; he was afraid that he would transgress the laws of God in the course of his life and actions as Emperor. (And his life demonstrated that his fears were justified.)

All of this being the case, ministers of the Gospel such as Cyril took care in preparing the catechumens for baptism. The lectures that have come down to us are part of that care, and they were not only instructions in doctrine; they were part of the discipleship of the catechumens.

But, as is the case with any good programme of discipleship, it wasn’t just a series of lectures either, but included the following:

  • Repentance and Confession: “If any here is a slave of sin, let him promptly prepare himself through faith for the new birth into freedom and adoption; and having put off the miserable bondage of his sins, and taken on him the most blessed bondage of the Lord, so may he be counted worthy to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Put off, by confession , the old man, which waxes corrupt after the lusts of deceit, that you may put on the new man, which is renewed according to knowledge of Him that created him. Get you the earnest of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:22) through faith, that you may be able to be received into the everlasting habitations. Luke 16:9)” (I, 2) “The present is the season of confession: confess what you have done in word or in deed, by night or by day; confess in an acceptable time, and in the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)”. (I, 5)
  • Exorcism: “Let your feet hasten to the catechisings; receive with earnestness the exorcisms : whether thou be breathed upon or exorcised, the act is to you salvation. Suppose you have gold unwrought and alloyed, mixed with various substances, copper, and tin, and iron, and lead: we seek to have the gold alone; can gold be purified from the foreign substances without fire? Even so without exorcisms the soul cannot be purified; and these exorcisms are divine, having been collected out of the divine Scriptures.” (Procatechesis, 9) This may sound extreme, but virtually all of Cyril’s students were converts from paganism. As such, they had at one time or another been bonded to one or more gods, and ejecting these beings from their lives was a necessary prerequisite for becoming a Christian. Although the concept of exorcism has suffered from the “demon under every rock” theory beloved by many Charismatics, getting them out up front certainly saves the headache of having to deal with them later.
  • Renunciation of the Devil: This, done at baptism, is a follow-up to the exorcisms: “First ye entered into the vestibule of the Baptistery, and there facing towards the West ye listened to the command to stretch forth your hand, and as in the presence of Satan ye renounced him. Now ye must know that this figure is found in ancient history. For when Pharaoh, that most bitter and cruel tyrant, was oppressing the free and high-born people of the Hebrews, God sent Moses to bring them out of the evil bondage of the Egyptians. Then the door posts were anointed with the blood of a lamb, that the destroyer might flee from the houses which had the sign of the blood; and the Hebrew people was marvellously delivered. The enemy, however, after their rescue, pursued after them (Exodus 14:9, 23), and saw the sea wondrously parted for them; nevertheless he went on, following close in their footsteps, and was all at once overwhelmed and engulfed in the Red Sea.” (XIX, 2) This is enshrined in liturgies such as the 1662 BCP, but I’ve never been to a Pentecostal baptism where those about to be baptised were required to explicitly renounce Satan (and all of the works associated with him, as Cyril notes,) all of the talk of spiritual warfare notwithstanding.
  • Profession of Faith: “Then you were told to say, “I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance. ” Of which things we spoke to you at length in the former Lectures, as God’s grace allowed us.” (XIX, 9) These days sometimes one sees a profession of faith from the baptised, and sometimes one does not…

All of this shows one weakness of the concept of “believers baptism:” in currently fashionable concepts of salvation, the idea that one needs to be a believer first before baptism robs the whole process of baptism as a discipleship opportunity, irrespective of whether you believe in baptismal regeneration (which is a misleading phrase in many ways) or not.

One thought on “Catechises, the Preparation for Baptism and Discipleship”

  1. Good points. Non-infants should always be well-catechized prior to initiation. Beyond that, I don’t think the problem is with “baptismal regeneration” per se. The New Testament is nothing if not realistic when it comes to the sacraments/mysteries and speaks, not only of rebirth by water and spirit, but the washing of regeneration.

    No, the problem is the notion that regeneration is not only necessary, but sufficient for salvation. Two points: salvation is, by definition, a matter of “healing”. In baptism (infant or otherwise), we “die with Christ” and are “reborn”. In chrismation/confirmation, we are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are fed and are to be fed regularly with body and blood of Christ. We are to practice the disciplines of prayer (“without ceasing”), fasting, and almsgiving (See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew for guidelines). This is not “earning salvation”. This is us “becoming what we are.” See also Romans 8. If we fall into serious sin, we are to receive the mystery of reconciliation. If we endure to the end, we shall be saved. In other words, our journey to the fulness of salvation, described variously being conformed to the image of Christ, partaking of the Divine Nature, and in other ways, is a process that is not complete until the day of resurrection.

    However, this does not mean that God is watching for an opportunity to condemn us. Quite the opposite. The Most Blessed Trinity WANTS to be in full communion with each one of us! God WANTS to completely and totally save us, heal us, infinitely more than we can want to be saved. Yes, I can lose my salvation after baptism, but if I do, it will be because I have absolutely refused to continue the process. I will have yanked myself away from the Lord’s loving embrace, kicking and screaming. Reluctantly and sadly, he will allow me to go.

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