Church Fathers about the Holy Spirit
The Church Fathers
The term church fathers refers to those witnesses to the truth of the gospel in the four centuries following the apostles, when the ecumenical creeds took form. Because the Eastern and Western churches were formally united in this period, the church fathers have a certain normative status throughout Christendom, though their testimony must always be subordinate to that of the apostles in the New Testament.
In the second century one can detect a growing tendency in the church to tie the impartation of the Spirit to ritual performance. Baptism itself came to be regarded as the seal of the Spirit. Confirmation was administered by the imposition of hands, often immediately following baptism, supposedly adding a special endowment of grace for the service of God. It was baptism, however, that conferred the eschatological seal of the Spirit for the day of redemption. Only in the Gnostic sects was the sealing administered with a rite of unction. Except among the Gnostics no distinction was drawn between a rite of water baptism and another of Spirit baptism. In the Shepherd of Hermas we find the conception of penance as a restoration of the seal of the Spirit, lost by post–baptismal sin. Penance later came to be regarded as a second baptism in which sins are forgiven and the Spirit is sealed anew in the hearts of those who believe.
Origen (d. 254) was familiar with the use of chrism (consecrated oil) in the rite of initiation into the Christian community. Yet he did not attach the bestowal of the Spirit to this rite. He regarded it as a ceremony that denotes either faith in the anointed or the inward unction of the Spirit conferred in baptism. He avoided, however, the suggestion that Christian initiation consists in two parts, a negative cleansing and a positive sealing. While associating the forgiveness of sins as closely as possible with visible baptism, he was adamant that visible baptism has meaning and efficacy only when related to spiritual baptism. Origen also referred to a baptism by blood (martyrdom), which washes away our sins and allows us to take our place under the heavenly altar.
Irenaeus (second century) regarded the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God: both are necessary for the realization of salvation in the lives of the people of God. He sometimes referred to the Holy Spirit as the ladder by which we ascend to God. Irenaeus was open to the spiritual gifts and believed that those who possess prophetic gifts and speak in other tongues truly declare the mysteries of God. Such persons who engage in a charismatic ministry have become truly spiritual. By contrast, those who disdain the spiritual gifts remain imperfect or carnal Christians. They possess the image of God but have not yet received the fullness of the Spirit.
Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225) was a strong believer in the sacrament of baptism, but he also saw the need for personal conversion and response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. “Not that in the waters we receive the Holy Spirit, but cleansed in water, and under the angel, we are prepared for the Spirit.” While he sometimes spoke of a postbaptismal anointing (chrismation), he seems not to have regarded this as a sacramental sign of the gift of the Spirit. He also advanced the view that the medium of the descent of the Spirit is not the “seal” given in baptism but the laying on of hands. Tertullian was not always consistent, but his refusal to tie the Spirit absolutely to any external rite and his reservations concerning infant baptism reveal his commitment to the biblical principle that baptism, repentance and faith belong together. Tertullian exhorted the newly baptized as they emerged from the font of baptism to pray for a “distribution of the charisms.”
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) appears to have held a similar view, for he regarded the baptized convert as not yet being in possession of “the perfect gift.” Yet he did not view baptism as deficient and in need of being fulfilled in a special rite of confirmation. The spiritual gifts are conveyed through baptism itself, not in a rite of unction or a laying on of hands after baptism. The “perfect gift” must signify the final state of perfection foreshadowed in baptism.
Cyprian (d. 258) was the first writer who directly associated the seal of the Spirit with the laying on of hands. Yet baptism was still regarded as fundamental for initiation into the family of God, though as a purely outward rite it cannot stand by itself. Those who are baptized must be presented to the bishops, by whose prayers and imposition of hands “they receive the Holy Ghost and are perfected with the seal of the Lord.” For “water alone is not able to cleanse away sins, and to sanctify a man, unless he also has the Holy Spirit.” Cyprian found infant baptism prefigured in Jewish circumcision.
For Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386) what saves is not the rite itself but baptism joined with repentance, faith and piety. “Upon you also, if you possess sincere piety, the Holy Spirit will descend.” The water may confer on the seeking person the blessing of the church but not the Spirit. Cyril acknowledged a “second kind of faith,” a “special gift” that enables us to do things beyond human power. He sometimes saw the rite of baptism climaxing in an anointing with chrism. In his view martyrs do not need baptism by water, since they experience a baptism of blood. Cyril added to the list of spiritual gifts chastity, virginity, readiness for martyrdom and voluntary poverty.
Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) likewise underscored the integral relation between baptism and personal faith. While faith receives its completion in baptism, baptism is founded in faith. “The profession of faith leads us to salvation, and then baptism follows, sealing our affirmation.” Even so, Basil sometimes gave the impression that salvation rests wholly on the rite of baptism: “How will you enter Paradise without having been sealed by Baptism? The flaming sword turns its back upon the faithful, but presents its edge to the unsealed.”
Few theologians have emphasized the efficacy of the sacramental rites of the church more than Augustine. He believed that in baptism we are stamped with a character indelibilis. At the same time he was convinced that the outward rite has little power without personal conversion and commitment. “Faith and conversion of heart can fill up what is lacking in baptism.” Even in his anti–Pelagian period he did not believe the sign has actual power to effect grace. Now and again he alluded to a rite of chrismation that assumed the status of a sacramentum distinct from baptism.
The church fathers generally agreed that while the outward seal is baptism, the inward seal is the Holy Spirit. Lampe wisely observes:
It is sometimes dangerously easy to become so fully preoccupied with detailed problems of the manner of the seal’s bestowal—Baptism, consignation, the imposition of hands—and to become so far confused by the patristic tendency to apply the term “seal” to external rites, that one forgets that orthodox doctrine does not really lose sight of the essential truth that the seal which is impressed upon the faithful is in the last resort no outward sign but the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Donald Bloesch, Holy Spirit Works and Gifts, InterVarsity Press
Downers Grove, Illinois.