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The Bible or the Church: Chapter 8

By Robert Anderson

      HERE is an infant, born but yesterday, and yet so frail and sickly that its young life may flicker out at any moment. The question arises, If it should die, what is to be its future? If it dies in its present condition, we are told it must be lost, heaven it cannot enter. But, we plead, the poor creature does not know its right hand from its left ; it is absolutely innocent. Why should it be thus punished?

      Personally innocent, yes, we are answered; but by natural generation it belongs to the fallen race, and Adam's sin must banish it to hell, unless by regeneration it is brought within the family of God. But by the sacrament of baptism this change can be brought about without delay or difficulty, and thus the child's salvation can be secured if death should seize on it. Any one, perhaps, can perform the rite; but, as that is a disputed point, it may be well to make assurance still more sure, and call in the aid of one who is divinely appointed to administer the sacraments. But suppose the man we summon to our aid should be false to his profession, and prove to be of evil character and immoral life?

      That, we are assured, will in no way affect the validity of the sacrament, or the reality of the change which it will produce in the child. If the man be lawfully ordained, God will acknowledge him as His minister, notwithstanding.

      In a case of this kind nothing is gained by an appeal to passion. But will thoughtful and fair minds consider the matter, and honestly answer the question, whether even in the superstitions of Pagan races to whom we send out missionaries, there can be found a conception of God more unworthy, more revolting than this.

      What kind of God is this that is thus presented to us? A Being, unjust, unloving, and cruel, who devotes an innocent and helpless infant to destruction. A Being, unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious, who will change its eternal destiny if a few drops of water are sprinkled upon it, accompanied by the utterance of a few cabalistic words. An unholy, an immoral Being, for He employs and recognises agents no matter what their character and life may be.

      (I have therefore dismissed it to the Appendix. See App. I.)

      And yet this gross and profane misrepresentation of God is an essential part of the historic religion of Christendom. And not only does Western civilisation tolerate the system, but even in England, in these days of vaunted enlightenment, "men of light and leading" are turning back to it. And notwithstanding this proof of the power of religion to blind and deprave the human mind, men who pretend to be freethinkers sneer at the truth of Adam's fall, and refuse to believe in the spiritual apostasy of the fallen race! Although the figment of baptismal regeneration is but one link in a catena of errors, it is the first and most important; and if this can be pulverised and destroyed the rest will crumble and disappear. But how is the discussion to be conducted? Of course the vital question is, What does the Bible teach upon the subject? And yet the majority of those who will read these pages would refuse to follow such an inquiry. This indeed is the secret of the influence of priests. I will here content myself therefore with calling attention to three plain and salient facts, which any one with the help of a concordance can verify.

      The first fact is that in not a single passage of the New Testament where baptism is mentioned is it connected with regeneration or spiritual birth. The next fact is still more significant, namely, that in those passages where the doctrine of baptism is unfolded it is definitely and emphatically connected with death, which of course is the very antithesis of birth. The third fact shall be stated in borrowed words. In combating these errors the late Bishop Ryle of Liverpool writes:

      "It is most extraordinary that there is so little about baptism in the Epistles of the New Testament. In Romans it is only twice mentioned, and in 1 Corinthians seven times. In Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians Hebrews, and 1 Peter, we find it named once in each Epistle. In thirteen of the remaining Epistles it is neither named nor referred to. In the two pastoral Epistles to Timothy, where we might expect something about baptism, if anywhere, there is not a word about it! In the Epistle to Titus the only text that can possibly be applied to baptism is by no means clearly applicable (Titus iii. 5). Nor is this all. In the one Epistle which mentions baptism seven times, we find the writer saying that 'Christ sent me, not to baptize, but to preach the gospel'; and actually 'thanking God' that he had baptized none of the Corinthians save Crispus and Gaius."

      To recapitulate. Baptism is nowhere connected with regeneration in the New Testament; it symbolises death and not birth and it has a comparatively small and incidental place in the teaching of the New Testament. How then, it may well be asked, could it have come to assume a meaning so different, and to hold a place so engrossing, in the religion of Christendom? In this connection the fact claims notice that while the writers of the New Testament, and the teachers whose names the New Testament has made familiar to us, were, without exception, men whose minds had been formed by the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, there was scarcely one of the post-apostolic Fathers of whom this could be averred. What the Scriptures and the Jewish faith were to the writers and teachers of the New Testament, the writings of the Greek philosophers and the cults of classic Paganism were to the Fathers.

      Then again, we must clear our minds from the views which ordinary Christians hold of these cults. They were not the brutal and brutalising systems so commonly supposed. They had many characteristics which made them not only practically useful, but congenial to human nature at its best. So much so, indeed, that vast numbers of nominal Christians turned back to them, not merely under pressure of persecution, but after the persecutions had ceased, and in spite of penal laws of drastic severity. And lastly - a matter of principal importance - those cults gave pre-eminence to baptism, and therefore it was easy to confound the Pagan with the Christian rite, and to associate with the latter the superstitions of the former.

      The religion of ancient Rome was marked by formalism and coldness. Every element of religious emotion and enthusiasm was due to the foreign cults which prevailed during the period of the Empire. Isis worship, which had its home in Egypt, and the Mithras worship of Persia, were widely popular. The former had its tonsured priesthood and its initiatory rite of baptism. And the latter had still more in common with the religion of Christendom. Its baptism of neophytes, its rite of confirmation, its oblation of the consecrated bread, its expiation from sin by washing in blood, its symbolic teaching of the resurrection, and its festival of the god on the 25th December, marked it out as a dangerous enemy of the so-called Christian religion. Thus it was regarded by the early Christhins; and Renan goes the length of surmising that, if Christianity had received same fatal check, it might have become the religion of the Western world.

      But great as was the influence of the cults of Isis and of Mithras, it was not from these chiefly that the Fathers derived the leaven which corrupted the doctrine and perverted the ordinances of the Christian faith. All that was noble and true in Greek philosophy these men attributed to the Hebrew prophets. Justin Martyr, himself a thorough Platonist, went so far as to declare, in referring to the Greek Sophists, that "they who lived agreeably to reason were really Christians." It was only natural therefore that they should look upon the Greek religion as a reasonable cult, worthy of the race and the age to which it belonged.

      (On this whole subject see Professor Dill's Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, pp. 66.-70. Apol. i. 6r. And see what he says in 57 and 76 about Plato's borrowing from the Bible. This is asserted still more plainly by Tertullian. "Who is there of the poets and sophists (he demands) who hath not drunk at the fountain of the prophets?" (Apol. xlvii.).

      But, like the religion of old Rome, the national religion of Greece had lost its hold on the popular conscience. It failed to deal with the subject which troubled the minds of men - sin, a future life, and punishment for guilt. "But the mysteries concerned themselves precisely with these very subjects; they provided a series of preliminary purifications of their votaries; they turned men's minds to the deeper problems of life and death, and gave them new ideas; they made some attempt to reach and touch the individual mind." The human mind is the same in every age; therefore it is, that religious movements in different ages have so much in common. Just as, in our own day, wherever mere Protestantism is made a cult, instead of being regarded as a bulwark behind which spiritual Christianity can develop and flourish, men turn away from it to a system which parodies the great realities for which they instinctively crave; so in ancient Greece the mysteries marked a popular revival of religion.

      The chief shrine, of world-wide fame, was at Eleusis, a city some fourteen miles from Athens. The great yearly celebration took place in the month Boedromion, which answered to the Jewish Tisri, in which fell the great day of expiation and the Feast of Tabernacles. All classes were admitted to the festival, but the immoral and the impure were warned off by a solemn initiatory proclamation. Notorious sinners were peremptorily excluded, while others were left to the judgment of their own conscience. They were asked to confess their sins before taking part in the rites. Confession was followed by a baptism. The candidates, having bathed in the sea, came from the bath new men: it was a layer of regeneration. This was followed by a sacrifice, which was known as "a sacrifice of salvation." Then, after an interval, took place a great procession of the candidates, bearing torches and singing the praises of the god. The sixth day of the festival was known by the name of Iacchus. To him, "the holy child," and "to his death and resurrection" the Homeric hymn in covert terms refers.

      The climax of the celebration was the mystic plays. Their torches were extinguished; they stood outside the temple in the silence and the darkness. Then the doors were opened, and in a blaze of light there was acted before them the great drama of the festival. "There was probably no dogmatic teaching - there were possibly no words spoken - it was all an acted parable. But it was all kept in silence. There was an awful individuality about it. They saw the sight in common, but they saw it each man for himself. It was his personal communion with the Divine life. The glamour and the glory of it were gone when it was published to all the world. The effect of it was conceived to be a change both of character and of relation to the gods. The initiated were by virtue of their initiation made partakers of a life to come. 'Thrice happy they who go to the world below having seen these mysteries: to them alone is life there, to all others is misery."

      The question before us is how the simple baptism of the New Testament, administered to those who professed belief in Christ, as an acknowledgment by them of submission to His lordship over them and their identification with Him in death, was supplanted in the cult of "the historic Church" by a mystic rite by which the sinner is cleansed from sin and, as Augustine has it, "born of the bowels of the Church." Here is the solution of the problem! This brief notice of the Eleusinian mysteries has been given almost entirely in borrowed words, lest any should suppose the facts are mis-stated for a purpose. In the sequel, for the same reason, the language of another shall be followed still more closely. My purpose is to show to what extent the influence of the mysteries, and analogous religious cults, modified and corrupted the Christian ordinance of baptism. "In the earliest time (i) baptism followed at once upon conversion; (2) the ritual was of the simplest kind; nor does it appear that it needed any special minister." Both these points are clearly established by the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles.

      "A later, though still very early stage, with significant modifications, is seen in the Teaching of the Apostles: (1) No special minister of baptism is specified, the vague 'he that baptizeth,' seeming to exclude a limitation of it to an officer; (2) the only element that is specified is water; (3) previous instruction is implied, but there is no period of catechumenate defined; (4) a fast is enjoined before baptism. These were the simple elements of early Christian baptism. When it emerges, after a period of obscurity- like a river which flows under the sand - the enormous changes of later times have already begun.

      "The first point is the change of name..

      (a) So early as the time of Justin Martyr we find a name given to baptism which comes straight from the Greek mysteries - the name 'enlightenment.' It came to be the constant technical term.

      (b) The name 'seal,' which also came from the mysteries and from some forms of foreign cult, was used partly of those who had passed the test and who were 'consignati,' as Tertullian calls them, partly of those who were actually sealed upon the forehead in sign of a new ownership.

      (c) The term musterion is applied to baptism, and with it comes a whole series of technical terms unknown to the Apostolic Church, but well known to the mysteries, and explicable only through ideas and usages peculiar to them." After enumerating a number of words expressive either of the rite or act of initiation itself, - or of the agent or minister, or descriptive of the mysteries - and the communication of it was an important preparatory rite. Sometimes the newly baptized received the communion at once, just as the newly initiated at Eleusis were permitted, after a day's fast, to drink of the mystic cup and to eat of the sacred cakes.

      "The baptized were sometimes crowned with a garland, as the initiated wore a mystic crown at Eleusis."

      Mention has been made of the blaze of light which marked the climax of the initiation festival at Eleusis; "so Chrysostom pictures Christian baptism in the blaze of Easter eve; and Cyril describes the white-robed band of the baptized approaching the doors of the church when the light turned darkness into day."

      Baptism was no longer administered, as in primitive days, at any place or time, but only in the great churches, and, as a rule, only once a year. "The primitive 'See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?' passed into a ritual which at every turn recalls the ritual of the mysteries."

      The following is the account given of the administration of the baptismal sacrament at Rome as late as the ninth century :-

      "Preparation went on through the greater part of Lent. The candidates were examined and tested; they fasted; they received the secret symbols, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. On Easter eve, as the day declined towards afternoon, they assembled in the Church of St. John Lateran. The rites of exorcism and renunciation were gone through in solemn form, and the rituals survive. The Pope and his priests come forth in their sacred vestments, with lights carried in front of them, which the Pope then blesses; there is a reading of lessons and a singing of psalms. And then, while they chant a litany, there is a procession to the great bath of baptism, and the water is blessed. The baptized come forth from the water, are signed with the cross, and are presented to the Pope one by one, who vests them in a white robe and signs their foreheads again with the cross. They are arranged in a great circle, and each of them carries a light. Then a vast array of lights is kindled; the blaze of them, says a Greek Father, makes night continuous with dawn. It is the beginning of a new life. The mass is celebrated - the mystic offering on the Cross is represented in figure; but for the newly baptized the chalice is filled, not with wine, but with milk and honey, that they may understand, says an old writer, that they have entered already upon the promised land. And there was one more symbolical rite in that early Easter sacrament, the mention of which is often suppressed - a lamb was offered on the altar, afterwards cakes in the shape of a lamb. It was simply the ritual which we have seen already in the mysteries. The purified crowd at Eleusis saw a blaze of light, and in the light were represented in symbol life and death and resurrection."

      Utter Paganism in a Christian dress. To us who recognise the essential distinction between spirit and matter the thought of washing the soul from sin by water baptism is sheer nonsense. But it was otherwise with those whose minds were steeped in Pagan philosophy. The Greeks knew no such distinction. With them the soul was matter, as well as the body-matter in a more subtle form. There was nothing incongruous, therefore, in the thought of washing it with water. And the practice of exorcising or blessing the water sprang from the Gnostic belief that evil attached to everything corporeal.

      What further proof is needed of the Pagan origin of the baptism of Christendom? The early corrupters of Christianity transferred to their new religion a rite with which their old religion had made them familiar, and this they described by the term which Holy Scripture provided. Nor was it confined to the Eleusinian mysteries. In Prescott's Conquest of Mexico a description is given of the rite in use in that country when the Spaniards landed on its shores. The priestess midwife sprinkled water on the head of the infant, and then, after exorcising the unclean spirit (as does the Roman priest), she used these words: "He now liveth anew and is born anew; now he is purified and cleansed."

      And in his work on Buddhism Sir Monier Williams describes' a similar rite practised in Tibet and Mongolia. The child is baptized on the third or tenth day after birth. "The priest consecrates the water, while candles and incense are burning. He then dips the child three times, blesses it, and gives it a name." It was not from Greece that these superstitious rites were derived. All had a common origin, and that origin is to be sought in the mysteries of ancient Babylon.

      (Footnote - The Gorham case decided that baptismal regeneration is not the doctrine of the Church of England. The then Bishop of Exeter refused to institute Mr. Gorham to a living in his diocese because he rejected this doctrine, and the Dean of Arches Court of Canterbury upheld the bishop's decision. But the judgment of the Court below was reversed on appeal by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (March 8). It is an interesting fact that, as the result of that judgment, one of Bishop Philpot's chaplains "verted" to Rome, and the other became a thorough evangelical. In those days men had a conscience and acted upon its dictates.)

      The corruption of the other "sacrament" proceeded on similar lines. First the doctrine of it became leavened by that of the mysteries, and at a later stage the ceremonial was altered to suit the corrupted ordinance. The Paschal Supper was a memorial of Israel's redemption from the house of bondage; the Lord's Supper was a memorial of the great antitype of that redemption. No mind formed upon the teaching of Scripture could miss its meaning as a celebration of the Lord's death until He returns. Pliny's famous letter to Trajan gives proof of the simplicity of the rite in those early days; and the Apology of Tertullian' bears testimony that, so far as the ceremonial of it was concerned, the rite was still uncorrupted a century after the close, of the apostolic age. Not so its doctrine. In the same passage in which Justin Martyr gives proof how entirely the Pagan view of baptism had obtained, he uses language about the Eucharist that may fairly be appealed to in support of "transubstantiation," the "mixed chalice," and "the reservation of the sacrament"

      The conception of the table as an altar came in later; and of the elements as "mysteries," later still. By a natural sequence of error the minister in due course became a priest. But it was not until the fifth century that the ordinance had been completely paganised. The following extracts describe the simple ritual of the middle of the second century and the beginning of the third. In the passage already referred to from his Apology, Justin describes the assembling of the Christians, and the order of service, and then proceeds :- "After which, there is brought to that one of the brethren who presides, bread and a cup of wine mixed with water. And he having received them gives praise and glory to the Father of all things through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and gives thanks in many words for that God hath vouchsafed these things. And when he hath finished his praises and thanksgiving, all the people who are present express their assent, saying, 'Amen,' which in the Hebrew tongue means, 'So be it.' The President having given thanks, and the people having expressed their assent, those whom we call deacons give to each of those who are present a portion of the bread which hath been blessed, and of the wine mixed with water; and carry some away for those who are absent." And Tertullian writes:- "Our supper sufficiently shows its meaning by its very name. It is called by a term which in Greek signifies love. . . . We do not sit down to eat until prayer to God be made. . . . Our conversation is that of men who are conscious that the Lord hears them.

      After water is brought for the hands, and lights, we are invited to sing to God, according as each one can propose a subject from the Holy Scriptures, or of his own composing. Prayer in like manner concludes the feast."

      The following is the description of what is ostensibly the same supper, as "celebrated" a few generations afterwards

      "Then the sacred hierarch initiates the sacred prayer and announces to all the holy peace; and after all have saluted each other, the mystic recital of the sacred lists is completed. The hierarch and the priests wash their hands in water; he stands in the midst of the Divine altar, and around him stand the priests and the chosen ministers. The hierarch sings the praises of the Divine working, and consecrates the most Divine mysteries, and by means of the symbols which are sacredly set forth he brings into open vision the things of which he sings the praises. And when he has shown the gifts of the Divine working, he himself comes into a sacred communion with them, and then invites the rest. And having both partaken and given to the others a share in the thearchic communion, he ends with a sacred thanksgiving; and while the people bend over what are Divine symbols only, he himself, always by the thearchic spirit, is led in a priestly manner, in purity of his Godlike frame of mind, through blessed and spiritual contemplation, to the holy realities of the mysteries."

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