Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John 3:5, The Patristic and Modern Interpretation.

The Greek text of John 3:5 reads as follows,

"ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ."

Which is literally translated, "Answered Jesus, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God'."

And which most popular translations render as, "Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." [1]

One of the burning questions in this text has been, what does ὕδατος here refer too? That the Catholic fathers are in agreement with the traditional and apostolic interpretation of hudatos as water baptism are the following examples:

· The Shepard of Hermas, "to come up through the water, so that they might be made alive; for they could not otherwise enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5), except by putting away the mortailty of their former life...they go down into the water dead, and come out alive." (9, 16, 2).

· Tertullian agrees and writes, "Since it is in fact prescribed that no one can attain to salvation without Baptism, especially in view of the declaration of the Lord, who says: "Unless a man shall be born of water, he shall not have life." (De baptismo. 12. 1) [2]

· St. Cyril of Jerusalem is in accord with the ancient tradition, "And He (Jesus) says, "Unless a man be born again" - and He adds the words, "of water and of the Spirit, - he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." He that is baptized with water, but is not found worthy of the Spirit, does not receive the grace in perfection." (Catecheses. 3, 4)

· St. Basil is in accord, "This then is what it means to be born again of water and Spirit: just as our dying is effected in the water, our living is wrought through the Spirit. In three immersions and in an equal number of invocations the great mystery of baptism is completed in such a way that the type of death may be shown figuratively." (De Spiritu Sancto. 15, 35)

· St. Ambrose of Milan is clear, "Nor on the other hand is there any mystery of regeneration without water: for "unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the knigdom of God." Even a catechumen believes of the Lord Jesus, by which also he is signed; but unless he be baptized...he cannot receive the remission of sins nor be recipient of the gift of spiritual grace." (De mysteriis. 4, 20)

· St. Augustine, "It is this one Spirit who makes it possible for an infant to be regenerated through the agency of another's will when that infant is brought to Baptism..."Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit." The water, therefore, manifesting exteriorly the sacrament of grace, and the Spirit effecting interiorly the benefit of grace, both regenerate in one Christ that man who was generated in one Adam." (Letter to Boniface. 98, 2)

Thus it is quite clear what the regula fidei is concerning this text in John. The fathers equate the regeneration of man by the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism, so they see no roadblocks whatsoever in our text. In modern academic circles this traditional interpretation has been vigorously defended [3] but objectors are not hard to find. [4] However, the great Protestant exegete F.F Bruce makes a telling admission, claiming that those who reject the recieved interpretation do so on theological grounds, namley the denial of baptismal regeneration. [5]


[End notes].

[1]. (ESV). The RSV(C)atholic(E)dition is the same as the ESV. The construction is different in the NRSV but the idea is essentially the same, "Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."

[2]. Written during Tertullian's orthodox period.

[3]. By both Catholic scholarship; R.E Brown (John: Anchor Bible. 139-141), as well as Protestant scholars; Luther (22nd and 23rd Sermons on John), H. Ridderbos (Ad loc.), G.R Beasley-Murray (John: Word Bible Commentary. Ad loc). D.A Carson while not holding this view admits that the word water here, "is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism" (John: Pillar Commentary. 192). Still other scholars have argued that not Christian baptism but rather "John's baptism" B.F Westcott (John. 108-109), or using Jewish proselyte baptism as a earthly contrast to the Spirit's baptism, C.S Keener (John. 548-49).

[4]. Such as Morris in the NICNT, Carson in the Pillar entry and Kostenberger in the BECNT to name but a few.

[5]. Found in Bruce's commentary on John, ad loc.


George Weis said...

Brother Rick,

In this perspective, if I was baptized by soul brother southern baptists in a nearby river (which I was) am I good to go? Or does this have to be within the Catholic context? Also, what of statements such as...

"If one loves himself, he loves the Lord, and he confesses unto salvation, so that he may save his soul." -Clement of Alexandria

"If you repent of your sins, and recognize Him to be Christ, and observe His commandments, you may assert [that you have done no wrong]. For, as I have said before, the remission of sins will be yours."
-Justin Martyr

Talk to me, as I know you will brother Rick!

Love you man!


R. E. Aguirre. said...

George, good to hear from you.

First off, you're first question is a complex one and is a loaded question in many respects. In the early fathers there were two views on this question, namely the validity of the sacraments outside the Church. Those such as St. Cyprian would argue that only the sacraments performed in the Catholic Church were valid. The sacraments performed by the schismatics and heretics were void. Others such as St. Augustine would hold that sacraments performed by a Trinitarian officer (not by a heretic such as the Arians)was valid up to a certain degree (since the sacraments draw their meaning from God not the person applying it). However, Augustine is very clear that these crippled sacraments are not fully effective, since they are done outside the bounds of the One and Holy, Apostolic Catholic Church. I would say that the proper forms of the sacraments are done within the recognized Catholic orders, Western, Eastern, Oriental branches of Catholicism. Sacraments done outside the Church are to a certain degree valid if certain theological conditions be met, namely an "orthodox" minister (Trinitarian and Creedal). But even these "sacraments" are recognized only because of the grace of God which grants them recognition, despite their erroneous understanding.

As far as the quotes from Clement and St. Justin - I'm not really sure what the question is. If, the question is that they believed in some notion of salvation by faith alone, that's simply incorrect. If you were to give the sources of those quotations, I can quickly prove from those very works, that these fathers did not believe in some form of salvation by faith alone.

Hope this helps my friend,

You and Ashley are in my prayers,


George Weis said...


I didn't mean to have a loaded question... or did I? Perhaps it had a side of slyness to it. ;)

But I love you brother!

Now, if you don't consider me to be with in the real deal umbrella, how is it that you call me brother? Is that a kind hearted gesture or is it something else?

I will have to check on those quotes. I have an encyclopedia of the beliefs of the church fathers. So I will have to look beyond that, because I am not sure that it gives the exact writing.

I appreciate your prayers my friend! Our business is going well. This month has been extraordinary. We are thinking about missions work and I am also thinking about going back to school for these very subjects.

I pray your weekend was blessed for the sake of Christ!


R. E. Aguirre. said...


I call you brother because as Vatican II states, the Protestants are our seperated brethren in the Lord.

We view Protestants (that hold to essential Creedal doctrines) of the Church as fellow Christians, albeit with a truncated view of the Catholic faith (and hence why Catholics do not consider Protestant orders valid).