As a holy sacrament, baptism is a wonderful thing. It God’s gift to the church but it has never worked ex opere (by the working). It works as a sign and seal and it becomes a seal when the Spirit grants new life and true faith. It works as a symbolic representation, as a sacred ritual but however many people in the 4th century and after who came to believe that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies, the Creed no more requires us to think that than does Scripture itself.
HB reader Mike asks whether this language requires Reformed believers to confess that baptism necessarily regenerates, i.e., is new life necessarily conferred at the moment of administration. It is widely claimed that “the ancient church taught baptismal regeneration.” In this context “regeneration” signifies the spiritual awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life, i.e., that, at the moment baptism is administered one is necessarily born again.
Let us address the latter question first. Was baptismal regeneration the universal teaching of the ancient church, as is often claimed? No, it was not. The first problem in this discussion is anachronism, i.e., the business of reading later views back into earlier contexts. Anachronism is the oxygen of the Romanist view of history and tradition. Anachronism, however valuable it be to Romanist apologetics, is poor history. Rome would also have you to believe that the 2nd century church taught a doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice. That is a gross anachronism. Indeed, the five false sacraments did not exist in the ancient church as sacraments. They were not recognized as sacraments ecclesiastically until the 13th century (where some ambiguity remains) and were not finalized as such until Trent in the 16th.
So it is with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. The word regeneration was used in the ancient, medieval, and Reformation period in at least two senses. We can only know the sense of a word in a given context. We may not simply assume that every use of the word regeneration refers to the conferring of new life. Baptism and regeneration are connected by the early fathers but sometimes it means no more than “to sanctify” or “to set apart.” The doctrine that baptism necessarily confers new life did not become widespread until the 4th century but even then there were tensions and ambiguities.
For one thing, the doctrine that baptism necessarily confers new life necessarily raises questions about election and perseverance, which Augustine and the North African church, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, would hash out against Pelagius and Coelestius. As Augustine battled the Pelagians (and later, those whom we now call semi-Pelagians) he asserted that only the elect come to faith and the elect are never lost. In that case, baptism does not necessarily confer new life since clearly some who are baptized fall away. The point is that each case must be decided in its own context, on its own terms. Does the writer intend to signify “setting apart” or “conferring new life”? The answer cannot be known a priori. In some cases it may be the latter but some authors use the word regenerate in both senses.
Another major problem with the anachronistic reading of to regenerate or regeneration is that the conceptual framework which made the ex opere (“from the working it is worked”) view plausible did not exist right away. Certainly, by the high medieval church, in the Latin church, the ex opere view of the sacraments was dominant. That view relied on certain assumptions, however, which did not exist in the church immediately. Principally, the ex opere view of baptism assumes a sort of realism, a certain identification with the word and the thing signified, that did not exist right away. In other words, the notion that a sacrament might have a figurative rather than a literal signification co-existed with the literal for a very long time. It is anachronistic to assume that every Patristic use of regeneration also assumes the literal and not figurative or symbolic relation.
This brings us to the question of how to interpret the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is the Nicene Creed as it was elaborated at the first Council of Constantinople, in 381 ,where the orthodox refuted those who wanted to do to the Holy Spirit what the Arians (and semi-Arians) had tried to do to the Son in 325, i.e., to make him like the Father but not consubstantial (of the same substance or essence) with the Father. So, the Creed was revised and elaborated to the form received today. The last major change, of course, was the addition of the filioque (“and the Son”) to affirm the double procession of the Holy Spirit at the (western) council of Toledo in 589. This revision, of course, was rejected by the Eastern churches.