… when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. (1 Peter 3:20-22)
That baptism is related to both life and death is clear in the New Testament. St Peter in the above quote connects baptism to the story of the Great Flood in which humanity is destroyed except for the 8 people in the ark. For Peter the story of the flood is a prophecy and prefiguring of baptism – a narrative about salvation from death.
St Paul also famously connects baptism to Christ’s death:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
While St Paul connects our baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ, historians note that this connection was not always a main part of Church thinking. For a number of centuries, the emphasis was much more on Christ’s resurrection than on his crucifixion. As noted below Origen is the only Eastern Christian writer in the first 4 centuries of the Church to mention St Paul’s quote above in relationship to baptism. Theology professor Michael Peppard comments:
“… one of the ‘big stories’ of pre-Nicean art and ritual is the stunning lack of emphasis – judged the against evidence of later centuries – on the imagery of Christ’s death.’ (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 55)
[While in modern times the connection between our baptism and Christ’s death and resurrection is commonly made, that was not the case in the ancient Church which tended to focus on Christ’s resurrection. There may have been a pastoral reason for this as noted below.]
Kilian McDonnell makes the point sharply: ‘What is a matter of surprise is that in the immediate post biblical, the second century, the Pauline paradigm of death and resurrection fell out of Christian consciousness so completely. . . . [It] seemingly had fallen through a hole in the memory of the church. To be specific, in the second century [it] is found neither in the Didache, nor in the Epistle of Barnabas, nor in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, nor of Clement, nor in [The Shepherd of] Hermas, nor in Justin or the other apologist, nor in Irenaeus.’ These authors, for the most part, cite Romans in their writings – just not this passage, even when discussing baptism. In fact, Origin of Alexandria was the ‘only Eastern theologian to refer to the text of Roman 6 in relationship to Christian baptism’ before the mid-fourth century. And for Origen, like Paul before him, death-resurrection was just one of many meanings connected to the rite. . . .
Alistair Campbell summarizes this idea: during the era of possible martyrdom, ‘those being baptized hardly needed to be taught through the liturgy of the cost of their commitment. They knew it all too well. What they needed was the assurance of the presence of the Spirit, giving them strength to cope.’ Then after the fourth century, participation in Christ’s death came to be increasingly ritualized through baptism, the Eucharist, and the bodily mortification of the new ascetic movements. (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 121)
[The early Christians realized being baptized and becoming a Christian was life threatening as the Roman government periodically persecuted and executed Christians. So, those Christians did not need a reminder that baptism was related to death. Only after the threat of martyrdom passes does the Church begin to place a greater emphasis on one’s baptism being an experience of Christ’s death as well as His resurrection. ‘Death’ was always part of the understanding of baptism, but the emphasis changes through history. Early on the emphasis was on receiving the Holy Spirit and participating in Christ’s resurrection. Baptism was about salvation, being united/married to Christ the Bridegroom. Later piety emphasizes more our need to die to self and to die with Christ by self-martyrdom (asceticism). However, in the earlier Church… ]
The baptismal font is not a grave but rather a bridal chamber that survives the water: it is an ‘ark’ [of] salvation when the watery flood rages.’ (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 132)
Christian initiation symbolizes a return to paradise – a microcosmic restoration of paradise – not in the western (and mostly later) sense of a drowning of inherited sin, but in the sense of reuniting alienated entities. The theory of atonement at work here may not be sacrifice in place of sin, but reconciliation and restoration in place of alienation and exile. (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 206)
The concept of the robe of glory, or robe of light, derives from Jewish thinking and was taken as a reference to the potential divine nature of man at creation. . . . The aim of the incarnation, according to Ephrem and other Syrian writers, is to re-clothe mankind in their robes of glory.’ The putting on of the primordial, immortal robe occurs through baptismal initiation, ‘a re-entry into Paradise, not just the Paradise of the beginning of time, but also an eschatological Paradise, of which the church is the terrestrial anticipation.’ Thus Adam and Eve here do not call to mind sin and death so much as incarnation and immortal paradise. (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 207)
Christian piety (especially in the West, but the East often follows the same trend) changed through the centuries from a joyful emphasis on salvation and resurrection to a focus on the impact of original sin on all of humanity and Christians entering into salvation through asceticism, self-denial, taking up the cross and dying to one’s self. Christ’s death became viewed less as God’s victory over sin and death and more as a necessary event because of human sin – whose piety required constant repentance and self-abnegation.