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The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
In any study of the relationship between an initial act of faith and the reception of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, a crucial question often emerges: “Since the New Testament affords no clear picture, what do we know about the early church and its subsequent theology and practice?”
As we shall look briefly at that early history, it will be important to note especially what is understood by the reception (or like terms) of the Holy Spirit, and the significance of baptism and faith in relation thereto. Also where there are references to such matters as outpouring (abundance, fullness, etc.) of the Spirit and to gifts of the Holy Spirit, these will be mentioned.
The Apostolic Fathers (ca. 96-150 A.D.)
It would seem of particular importance to note what is to be found in the non-canonical Christian writings of the Fathers who belong to the same general period as many of the New Testament books. Reference here is made to such writings as The First Letter of Clement, The Letter of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, and The Letters. of Ignatius and Polycarp.
I Clement and Barnabas have nothing to say about the relationship between faith and the reception of the Holy Spirit but do make some reference to a fullness or abundance of the Spirit. I Clement, in a letter addressed to the church in Corinth, speaks of this church as one long known for its hospitality, humility, and consecration to Christ. “Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and ye had an insatiable desire for doing good, while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all” (chap. 2). Clement thereafter speaks of Christ's sending out the disciples thus: “Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand” (chap. 43). Mention might be made also of Clement's question: “Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us?” (chap. 46). Barnabas has one reference of some interest, namely in the salutation. The letter begins: “All hail, ye sons and daughters, in the name of the Lord Jesus, who loved us in peace. Seeing that the divine fruits of righteousness abound among you, I rejoice exceedingly and above measure in your happy and honored spirits, because ye have with such effect [or, “in such high degree”] received the engrafted spiritual gift.” Then Barnabas adds: “I truly perceive in you the Spirit poured forth from the rich Lord of love” (chap. 1).
The Shepherd of Hermas, a strange, visionary document, may afford some light on the matter of initial faith and the reception of the Holy Spirit in speaking of the relation between “receiving the name” of Christ and being clothed with “holy spirits.” After the statement, “who so does not receive His name shall not enter the Kingdom of God,” reference is made to these “holy spirits,” and Hermas adds: “Men cannot otherwise be found in the Kingdom of God unless they have put their [the “holy spirits”] clothing upon them; for if you receive the name only, and do not receive from them the clothing, they are of no advantage to you.... If you bear His name but possess not His power, it will be in vain that you possess His name.... So also they who have believed on the Lord through His Son, and are clothed with these spirits shall become one spirit, one body” (Similitudes 9, chap. 13). According to Hermas, therefore, it is possible to receive and bear Christ's name, to believe on Him, and yet not possess His power through the “clothing” of spiritual reality. It would seem that Hermas envisions a kind of initial faith (possibly at the time of baptism, though baptism is not mentioned) that may need subsequent endowment of the Holy Spirit.
The Didache provides an interesting account of baptism but says nothing thereafter about a reception of the Holy Spirit. Baptism, we are told, is to be done “‘in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ in running water; but if thou hast no running water, baptize in other water, and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (chap. 6). This directive about baptism is followed by instructions about fasting (to precede baptism), prayer, the Eucharist, and how to treat visiting apostles and prophets. In the latter case The Didache adds: “Do not test or examine any prophet who is speaking in a spirit, ‘for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven’” (chap. 11). It is interesting to observe that, though there is no mention as such of the reception of the Holy Spirit, reference is made to prophetic spiritual utterance.
Other writings of the Apostolic Fathers are of little help in our study. So we may summarize briefly what has thus far been noted: first, there is reference to outpouring of the Spirit and abundance of spiritual endowment; second, mention is made of the possibility of believing in Christ without yet possessing His power and thus the need for the “clothing” of the Spirit; third, teaching about baptism, while not followed by any reference to the reception of the Holy Spirit, does speak of the continuation of prophetic utterance in the church.
We shall focus particularly on the eminent Fathers of the second and third centuries: Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165), Irenaeus (ca. 130-200), Tertullian (ca. 155-225), Hippolytus (160-238), Origen (ca. 184-255), and Cyprian (ca. 200-258). Some reference will be made later to fourth and fifth century Fathers such as Athanasius (ca. 296-373), Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315-386), and Augustine (ca. 354-430).
Justin, in his First Apology, has a brief section on baptism (chap. 61, “Christian Baptism”). Therein baptism, following upon prayer and fasting for the remission of past sins, is said to bring about regeneration—”they [the candidates for baptism] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated”—and “illumination” of the understanding. Those baptized are thereupon brought to the assembly of the brethren for prayers, the “kiss of peace,” and celebration of the Eucharist. Justin makes no reference as such to the reception of the Holy Spirit.
“In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin speaks in one place about “baptism with the Holy Ghost.” “What need then have I of circumcision, who have been witnessed to by God? What need have I of that other baptism, who have been baptized with the Holy Ghost?” (chap. 29). Further on, in a number of places, Justin speaks of gifts of the Spirit, e.g., “...one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of fear of the Lord” (chap. 39); “...the prophetical gifts remain among us even to the present time” (chap. 82); the various gifts are those which “from the grace of His Spirit's power, He [Christ] imparts to those who believe in Him, according as He deems each man worthy thereof” (chap. 87); “it is possible to see amongst us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God” (chap. 88). Thus, though Justin does not clarify just what is meant by “baptism with the Holy Ghost”—or how it occurred to him, it is clear that he wishes to emphasize that the gifts of the Spirit continue in his day.
Irenaeus, the first outstanding theologian of the early church, in his Against Heresies, writes variously about faith and the reception of the Holy Spirit, the laying on of hands, and gifts of the Spirit. First, Irenaeus, in several places, associates the reception of the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands subsequent to initial faith. For example, in discussing Acts 8 (about the Samaritans) Irenaeus speaks of “their filling with the Holy Spirit, through the imposition of hands, those who believed in God through Him who was preached by them, namely, Christ Jesus” (Bk. 1, chap. 23, Sect. l). Also, in a reference to I Corinthians 3:2 (“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it”) Irenaeus writes: “...the apostle had power to give them strong meat—for those upon whom the apostles laid hands received the Holy Spirit, who is the food of life—but they were not capable of receiving it, because they had the sentient faculties of the soul still feeble and undisciplined in the practice of things pertaining to God” (4, 38, 2). Second, it is interesting to note in this latter statement that Irenaeus not only associates the reception of the Spirit with the laying on of hands upon believers, but that he views the Corinthians as not yet capable of receiving the Spirit because of their feebleness of soul and lack of discipline. Irenaeus immediately proceeds to draw a parallel with the situation of man at the beginning of creation: “So, in like manner, God had power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter was only created anew, he could not possibly have received it, or even if he had received it, could he have retained it” (ibid.). The newly created, or re-created, man may lack capacity for receiving and retaining the Holy Spirit: he is not yet ready. Third, Irenaeus, as just noted, views the reception of the Spirit as having to do with man's perfecting (God's granting of perfection). In this same connection a further statement of Irenaeus, referring to I Corinthians 2:6, is quite relevant, “...[so] does the apostle declare ‘we speak wisdom among those who are perfect,’ terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God” (5, 6, 1).
Thus it is that in such ways Irenaeus speaks of the reception of the Holy Spirit as a further stage beyond initial faith. This is not always clear, for occasionally in his Against Heresies Irenaeus makes reference to the reception of the Holy Spirit in such close connection with initial faith as to seem to be inseparable from it. For example, Irenaeus speaks of our being engrafted as a wild olive tree into the good olive tree and adds that thus “man is grafted in by faith and receives the Spirit of God” (5, 10, 2), and so becomes fruit-bearing. However, in the same chapter, he has already spoken of this reception of the Spirit as occurring through progress in faith: “Men, if they do truly progress by faith toward better things and receive the Spirit of God, and bring forth the fruit thereof shall be spiritual” (5, 10, 1). Indeed, the overall picture Irenaeus portrays is that of life as progress, or process, and the reception of the Spirit occurring within the movement of faith.
Finally, in reference to the gifts of the Spirit, Irenaeus, immediately follows the words (quoted above) with, “So does the Apostle declare ‘we speak wisdom among those who are perfect,’ terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God” adds, “and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used to speak. In like manner do we hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts (4, 6, 1). Noteworthy is the close connection Irenaeus makes between receiving the Spirit and speaking “in all languages” (reminiscent of Acts 2), and the way in which this leads to mentioning “prophetic gifts.” Something of the wide range of spiritual gifts attested by Irenaeus may be gathered from another passage: “For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover...the dead have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church throughout the world has received from God” (2, 32, 4).
The next theologian of eminence was Tertullian. We may turn first to his treatise On Baptism, wherein Tertullian has much to say about baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. First, Tertullian views the waters of baptism as being sanctified by the Holy Spirit and thereby bringing about spiritual cleansing. “Waters...after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them for Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying.... Therefore, after the waters have in a manner been endued with medicinal virtue through the intervention of the angel the spirit is corporeally washed in the waters, and the flesh is in the same spiritually cleansed” (chap. 4). Tertullian is here making reference to the angel who, according to some texts, was said to stir the pool at Bethsaida (John 5:1-9) thereby how he understands the relationship between the sanctifying of the waters by the Holy Spirit and their enduement with “medicinal virtue” by the angel. This rather curious picture may be somewhat clarified in the next quotation.
Second, according to Tertullian, baptism is followed by the reception of the Holy Spirit. He writes of how man now “receives again that Spirit of God” which had been lost through sin, but immediately adds: “Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under (the witness of) the angel, we are cleansed and prepared for the Holy Spirit” (chaps. 5 and 6). Then, seeing an analogy between John the Baptist and the angel, Tertullian adds: “Thus, too, does the angel, the witness of baptism, ‘make the paths straight’ for the Holy Spirit, who is about to come upon us, by the washing away of sins, which faith, sealed in (the name of) the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, obtains” (chap. 6). Thus cleansing completed through faith and the sealing of the Triune God in the waters of baptism, there may then occur the reception of the Spirit.
The next step, according to Tertullian, is the anointing with oil. “After this, when we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction” (chap. 7). Then follows the laying on of hands for the reception of the Spirit. “In the next place the hand is (laid upon us), invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit through benediction,” and as a result, “Then, over our cleansed and blessed bodies willingly descends from heaven that Holiest Spirit.” Thereby “to our flesh as it emerges from the font, after its old sins, flies the dove of the Spirit, bring the peace of God” (chap. 8).
Thus, in his treatise on baptism, it is evident that Tertullian distinguishes between the activity of the Holy Spirit in baptism and the reception of the Spirit through the subsequent laying on of hands. The Holy Spirit is active in baptism sanctifying the waters and cleansing body and soul, but it is only after both unction and the laying on of hands that the Spirit is obtained. It is further clear that Tertullian views the whole sequence of acts—baptism, unction, imposition of hands—as constituting a progressive movement.
Regarding this latter point we might make reference to Tertullian's treatise, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, wherein stressing the unity of soul and body, he shows a movement beginning in baptism and climaxing with the Eucharist. “The flesh indeed is washed, in order that the soul might be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross) that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands that the soul may also be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ that the soul likewise may fatten on its God” (chap. 8). There is, for Tertullian, clearly a sequence, however differently worded, that, begun in baptism, includes the reception or illumination of the Spirit.
Finally, regarding the gifts of the Spirit, Tertullian views asking for them as the climax to all that he has described in his On Baptism. Several chapters after those on baptism, anointing, laying on of hands Tertullian concludes: “Therefore, blessed ones, whom the grace of God awaits, when you ascend from that most sacred font of your new birth, and spread your hands [in prayer] for the first time in the house of your mother [the church], together with your brethren, ask from the Father, ask from the Lord, that His own specialties of grace and distributions of gifts may be supplied you. ‘Ask’ saith He, ‘and ye shall receive’” (chap. 20).
It might be added that Tertullian himself was not unaware of the presence of gifts of the Spirit. In his treatise, Against Marcion, one argument Tertullian uses is that Marcion cannot exhibit such gifts: “Let Marcion exhibit, as gifts of his God, some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God, such as have both predicted things to come, and have made manifest the secrets of the heart; let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer—only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy, that is, in a rapture, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him.... Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty” (Bk. 5, 8). All of this belonged to what Tertullian speaks of as “the new prophecy,” and which he insists represents the historic faith.
We may now make brief reference to Hippolytus and his treatise on The Apostolic Tradition. Herein is to be found the description of the Roman liturgy toward the end of the second century, and quite possibly represents the general practice of the whole church at that time. Relevant to our concern is that immediately following the rite of baptism, there is anointing with oil by a presbyter, “I anoint thee with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ”—and the gathering in the church building where “the Bishop shall lay his hand upon them invoking and saying: ‘0 Lord God, who didst count these [thy servants] worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with thy Holy Spirit and send upon them Thy grace, that they may serve Thee according to Thy will’” (22).
After this, the Bishop says, “I anoint thee with holy oil in God the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus and the Holy Ghost,” and “sealing him on the forehead, he shall give him the kiss of peace.” The whole ceremony then climaxes with the celebration of the Eucharist.
According, therefore, to The Apostolic Tradition, there was a clear differentiation between baptism for regeneration and the subsequent imposition of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit. Still they are both parts of one continuing occasion. In this respect, Hippolytus and Tertullian represent the same prevailing theology and practice.
We come next to Origen and his formulation of Christian doctrine in his On First Principles. Regarding the Holy Spirit, Origen first speaks of Him as present in all men. In a brief elaboration of the words “he that giveth spirit to the people who are upon the earth, and spirit to them that walk thereon” (Isaiah 42:5),Origen writes, “For every one who walks upon the face of the earth, that is to say, every earthly and corporeal being, is a partaker of the Holy Spirit which he receives from God” (Book 1, Chap. 3, Sect. 4). Shortly thereafter Origen adds, “Only in those who are already turning to better things and walking in the ways of Jesus Christ, that is, who are engaged in good deeds and who abide in God, is the work of the Holy Spirit, I think, to be found” (1, 3, 6). Thus does Origen seem to differentiate between all men's partaking of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit which occurs only among believers.
Now in connection with the matter of baptism and the Holy Spirit an interesting picture is drawn. First, concerning baptism Origen writes: “The person of the Holy Spirit is of so great authority and dignity that saving baptism is not complete except when performed with the authority of the whole most excellent Trinity, that is, by the naming of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (1, 3, 2). Second, after quoting the words, “Thou wilt take away their spirit and they will die, and return to their earth; thou wilt send forth thy spirit and they shall be created, and thou wilt renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29-30), Origen adds: “Which passage clearly points to the Holy Spirit who, after sinners and the unworthy have been taken away and destroyed, creates for Himself a new people and ‘renews the face of the earth,’ when through the grace of the Spirit men ‘put off the old man with his doings’ and begin ‘to walk in newness of life’. And this is why the passage fitly applies to the Holy Spirit, because he will dwell not in all men, nor in those who are flesh but in those whose ‘earth has been renewed.’ Finally, it was for this reason that the Holy Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands after the grace and renewal of baptism. Men should walk in newness of life in order to receive the new wine, the newness of the Holy Spirit's grace.” (1, 3, 7).
What is particularly significant in the preceding passage is not the clear differentiation between “the grace and renewal of baptism” which the Holy Spirit effects and the subsequent bestowal of the Holy Spirit through the imposition of hands (which we have noted in Tertullian and Hippolytus) but that Origen speaks of the need for men to “walk in newness of life to receive the new wine, the newness of the Holy Spirit's grace.” Thus Origen does not seem to be simply describing the ritual act of baptism immediately followed by imposition of hands but the need for a Christian “walk” that prepares for the reception of the Spirit.
In this respect Origen is like Irenaeus in viewing the reception of the Holy Spirit as occurring within the continuing life of faith.
Finally, Origen makes a brief reference to the gifts of the Spirit in a passage warning against misuse of such gifts. He writes that “when, whether through baptism or the grace of the Spirit, the ‘word of wisdom’ or the ‘word of knowledge’ or any other endowment has been given to a man and not rightly used, that is to say, either ‘hidden in the earth’ or ‘bound up in a napkin,’ the gift of the Spirit will surely be withdrawn from his soul” (2, 10, 7).
Only brief reference need be made to Cyprian since he says essentially the same thing as Tertullian in reference to baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Cyprian writes in his Epistles about the situation of the Samaritans (Acts 8) who had “believed with a true faith” and had been baptized, and afterwards “prayer being made for them and hands being imposed, the Holy Spirit was poured out.” He adds that the same thing “now too is done among us, so that they who are baptized in the Church are brought to the prelates of the Church, and by our prayers and by the imposition of hands obtain the Holy Spirit, and are perfected with the Lord's seal” (72, 9).
The following statements further elaborate: “For he who has been sanctified, his sins being put away in baptism, and has been spiritually reformed into a new man, has become fitted for receiving the Holy Spirit.... But further, one is not born by the imposition of hands when he receives the Holy Ghost, but in baptism, that so, being already born, he may receive the Holy Spirit....For the Spirit cannot be received unless he who receives first have an existence....The birth of Christians is in baptism” (73, 5, 7).
It is evident that Cyprian clearly views baptism and faith as preparation for the subsequent reception of the Spirit. It is only the “new man” who is able to receive the Holy Spirit. When hands are thereafter laid upon him, he is “perfected.”
In moving briefly now to the fourth and fifth centuries we find that, despite the more famous names of Athanasius and Augustine, the most significant figure in the area of baptism and the reception of the Spirit is Cyril of Jerusalem. We have reference to his Catechetical Lectures.
In Cyril's Lectures the emphasis is not on baptism and laying on of hands but on baptism and chrismation. At one place Cyril does make reference to the laying on of hands: “In the days of Moses, the Spirit was given by the laying on of hands; and by the laying on of hands Peter also gives the Spirit. And on thee also, who art about to be baptized shall His grace come” (Lect. 16, 26). Later, however, Cyril only refers to baptism and chrismation (Lect. 20, “On Baptism” and Lect. 21, “On Chrism”) and speaks of the former as ministering purging of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the latter as impartation of the fullness of the being of the Holy Spirit. Baptism “purges our sins and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost” (20, 6); through Chrismation (or anointing with oil) even as “the Holy Ghost in the fullness of His being lighted on Him [Christ],” so “to you in like manner, after you had come up from the pool of the sacred streams, then was given an Unction” (21, 1). Thus the ointment “after invocation...is made fit to impart His Divine Nature...the soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit” (21, 3). Notice—unlike what we have seen in Tertullion, Origen, and the other earlier Fathers—the climactic reception of the Holy Spirit is understood to occur at chrismation. But, like the preceding Fathers, Cyril also views a further impartation of the Holy Spirit beyond baptism.
Another significant feature of Cyril's catechetical theology is his insistence that, though salvation comes by water and the Spirit, if the heart and attitude are not right there is no renewal. “He casts not His pearls before swine; if thou play the hypocrite, though men baptize thee now, the Holy Spirit will not baptize thee” 17, 36). Thus the whole liturgical action (from baptism through chrismation) is a time of “great trial”: Thou art coming to a time of great trial, to a great muster, in that one hour, if thou throw away, thy disaster is irretrievable.... If thou believe, thou shalt not only receive remission of sins, but also do things which pass man's power...and He will give thee gifts of grace of every kind” (17, 36, 37).
One further word about Cyril's position: he recognizes the possibility of receiving the Holy Spirit both in part and in fullness. Commenting on the words, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22), Cyril says, “But though He bestowed his grace then, He was to lavish it yet more bountifully, and He says to them, ‘I am ready to give it even now, but the vessel cannot yet hold it; for a while therefore receive ye as much grace as ye can bear; and look forward for yet more; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be clothed from on high. Receive it in part now; then, ye shall wear it in its fullness’” (17, 12). Then Cyril immediately adds, “For he who receives, often possesses the gift but in part; but he who is clothed, is completely enfolded by the robe.” Does this mean that the Holy Spirit is divided—a part now perhaps and more at another time? No, says Cyril, “The Holy Ghost is not divided, but only the grace which is given by Him” (ibid.).
Finally, a brief word from Athanasius and Augustine. Athanasius speaks of the reception of the Holy Spirit as having to do with “perfecting.” Just following several Scriptural quotations about the Holy Spirit, including “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Athanasius says, “In Him (the Holy Spirit) perfecting all our knowledge of God and the initiation [=baptism] whereby He [Christ] joined us to Himself and, through Himself to the Father, He charged the disciples.” Concerning the laying on of hands Athanasius adds, a few sentences later, “Also, through the laying on of the Apostles' hands, the Holy Spirit was given to those who were being born again”(Letters Concerning the Holy Spirit, Epistle 1, 6).
Let us now attempt a summary of what has been heard from the Post-Apostolic Fathers.
Church Councils of Fourth and Fifth Centuries
It might prove helpful to look briefly at the decisions of early Church Councils relating to baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Although the decisions, or canons, deal with rather extreme situations, e.g., persons at point of death, the question of baptism from heretics, and the return of heretics to orthodoxy, some additional light may be shed on the practice of the early Church.
One thing, however, has not yet been commented on, namely, that the word “confirmation” for the first time appears in the second canon of the Synod of Orange in the year 441. Here, actually, is the beginning of a new stress (not known as such to the post-Apostolic Fathers from Justin to Augustine nor to prior councils) that the reception of the Spirit is for the confirming or strengthening of faith. Although the implications of this are not apparent in the canons of Orange, this is preparation for mediaeval teaching to come that baptism is for salvation and confirmation serves for increase of grace whereby the faithful are equipped for the combats and struggles of Christian living.
*Note: According to Hefele (History of the Christian Councils, Vol. II, p.368), this was not actually a canon, but “only relates what was the practice of the church with regard to the reception of heretics.” All the material above on the Church Councils, or Synods, has been taken from Hefele, History of the Christian Councils, Vols. 1-3. ---------- Top