Tertullian IV: Baptism and Original Sin

06 Jan

I had originally thought I’d have to wait a few days to post this but since about two-thirds of the State of Indiana is closed today, I have the oppotunity to get this out.

This post will be in two segments but Tertullian addresses these topics in such a way that I think they are related.


Baptism portrayed in a third century painting found in the catacombs of San Callisto.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

While a single Baptism for the remission of sins had been a part of Christianity from the beginning, Tertullian wrote a treatise, On Baptism(de Baptismo) which spelled out the reasons for it and some of its attributes. Many of these concepts eventually became part of Christian Doctrine. The number one concept is this; without a baptism for the remission of sins, there can be no salvation. In other areas Tertullian talks about the Church forgiving post-baptismal sin (I’ll get to that later in this post) however he is very clear that without baptism, man cannot be saved.

“Here, then, those miscreants provoke questions. And so they say, ‘Baptism is not necessary for them to whom faith is sufficient; for withal, Abraham pleased God by a sacrament of no water, but of faith.’ But in all cases it is the later things which have a conclusive force, and the subsequent which prevail over the antecedent. Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and is become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added to the sacrament, the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: ‘Go,’ He saith, ‘teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The comparison with this law of that definition, ‘Unless a man have been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens,’ has tied faith to the necessity of baptism.” On Baptism, XIII

Faith alone is not enough. Baptism is an essential component of divine forgiveness. Tertullian believes the Church – priests and bishops – could forgive some sins. Obviously, without baptism one was not within the Church and could not take advantage of this (I don’t recall him specifically stating this but it’s a pretty logical inference). An important qualification to this is that children should not be baptized as they are unable to know Christ. If they do not know how to ask for salvation, how can baptism help them? These children are in the innocent period of their life and baptism is not yet necessary:

“And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary — if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, ‘Forbid them not to come unto me.’ Let them ‘come,’ then, while they are growing up; let them ‘come’ while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the ‘remission of sins?’ More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ‘ask’ for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given ‘to him that asketh.'” On Baptism, XVIII

At some point (my understanding is that Augustine was a key influence on this) the Church began to advocate for infant baptism.

He has another interesting comment which I’ll offer:

“For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred — in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom — until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence.” On Baptism, XVIII

This will make no sense until you understand that Tertullian believed the Church could not forgive adultery and fornication, that God alone could forgive this sin. I’ll speak more on this later but Tertullian lists this, along with Adultery and Murder as his “big three” sins which the Church was unable to provide remission for. Here he’s arguing that when there’s a high chance of sexual incontinence, people should not be baptized but wait until they were either married, took vows of chastity as virgins, or entered the order of widows. I’ll be returning to this passage when I get to the section on adultery and fornication.

Original Sin

Another concept that existed from the beginning of Christianity is the idea that Christ came to Earth as a means by which man might be forgiven for his sins. Irenaeus is the earliest author I recall (I won’t swear someone else didn’t bring it up) who firmly linked this to Adam’s fall. 1 As with many other topics, Tertullian expands on this and focuses the theme. Man is sinful and carries the sin of Adam with him. It is part and parcel of us, as much a portion of our being as breathing. Through baptism, this heritage of sin is washed clean and absolved. (On Baptism, V) Tertullian returns to this theme frequently however this passage neatly sums up his thoughts:

“Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; moreover, it is unclean all the while that it remains without this regeneration; and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the flesh (by reason of their conjunction) with its own shame.” On the Soul (de anima, XL

He returns to this theme frequently:

“(This he[Paul] says) in order, on the one hand, to distinguish the two authors — Adam of death, Christ of resurrection; and, on the other hand, to make the resurrection operate on the same substance as the death, by comparing the authors themselves under the designation man. For if ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,’ their vivification in Christ must be in the flesh, since it is in the flesh that arises their death in Adam.” On the Resurrection of the Flesh (de resurrectione mortuorum), XLVIII.

This sin is present with man until Baptism, it is an undeniable part of us:

“Just as no soul is without sin, so neither is any soul without seeds of good. Therefore, when the soul embraces the faith, being renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above, then the veil of its former corruption being taken away, it beholds the light in all its brightness. It is also taken up (in its second birth) by the Holy Spirit, just as in its first birth it is embraced by the unholy spirit.” On the Soul, XLI.

This is an important evolution in the development of the Doctrine of Original Sin. I hesitate to say that Tertullian created it as the idea of Adam’s guilt had been around since the first days of Christianity, but he was much more explicit in stating that every person on Earth was stained with it. While the belief that infants must be baptized to be purified of this came later, Tertullian takes us a long way toward what came to be accepted as Orthodox belief.

1 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.XVI. It’s important to note that for Irenaeus, Adam’s sin was nothing more (or less) than disobedience.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.


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3 responses to “Tertullian IV: Baptism and Original Sin

  1. trueandreasonable

    January 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Its interesting that Tertullian does not draw the conclusion that infants should be baptized from the belief in original sin.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 6, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      It is. That was fairly standard for the period though. Most folks put off baptism as long as possible. Constantine was baptized on his deathbed. A soldier would almost certainly put it off until after he retired – hard to obey “thou shalt not kill” in the army. And children had no sin according to Tertullian who quotes specific Gospel passages where Christ says things such as the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to them or that to enter heaven people should become like children.

  2. trueandreasonable

    January 6, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    I was familiar with Constantine’s late baptism, and the reasoning for late baptism. I heard somewhat conflicting evidence of what was standard for the time though. But really I am not that interested in the issue so I never thoroughly researched it.

    Apparently Tertullian did not think original sin would keep children from heaven.


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