The Apostolic and Patristic Tradition on Validity of Baptism Outside Ecclesial Bounds


In the 3rd-century a dispute broke out between Pope St. Stephen of Rome (245-257) and other churches on the matter of Baptismal validity. It was held by the opponents to St. Stephen that baptism administered in the holy name of the Trinity was not valid if performed outside the visible boundaries of the authentic Episcopal communion, leaving converts from heretical sects which baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit with the need to be rebaptized (or baptized for the first time, as they saw it). The Pope, however, said that the efficacy to impart a true Baptism was not impaired by being administered outside those boundaries, provided that the Trinitarian name was invoked properly. Consequently, those converting to the true Church from these heretical or schismatic sects are not to be baptized “again”, but only to have hands placed on them for the reception of the Holy Spirit in penance, which is only providential through Bishops in the authentic communion.

Unfortunately, we only have two fragments (255 AD) of Pope St. Stephen’s writing on this matter. One is a letter written to St. Cyprian, and another to the Bishops of Asia Minor, both which threaten to excommunicate those who re-baptize converts from heresy. The first fragment is found by way of being included and referenced in a letter of Cyprian to a certain Pompey, Bishop of Sabrat (Letter 74,  Cyprianic Epistolary), and the second fragment is included in the letter of the St. Firmilian of Caesarea in Cappadocia to Cornelius-Cyprian1aCyprian (letter 75, ibid). I will give the English of these two fragments which come from W. Hartel’s edition of Cypria, CSEL, Vol. 3, part 2, Vienna (1869), but otherwise the Latin can be accessed through Patrologia Latina 1128-29 and 1169-70, respectively.

St. Stephen writes, via St. Cyprian:

If, therefore, someone comes to you from any heresy whatsoever, let nothing be renewed except that which has been handed down (nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est), namely, that the hand be imposed on him in penance, for the heretics themselves quite properly, do not baptize those who come to them from each other, but simply admit them to communion


“’But the name of Christ’, Stephen says, ‘accomplishes much toward the faith and sanctification of Baptism, so that whoever has been baptized anywhere in the name of Christ, immediately receives the grace of Christ’.

In contradistinction to this this, St. Cyprian made it clear while presiding in presence of the 7th Council of Carthage:

“The letter which was written to our colleague Jubaianus expresses quite at length my opinion that according to evangelic and apostolic testimony, heretics, who are called anti-christs and adversaries of Christ, when they come to the Church, must be baptized with the one baptism of the Church, so that friends may be made of adversaries, and Christians of antichrists.” (7th Council of Carthage)

St. Firmilian himself added some harsh criticism to St. Stephen when he wrote in his letter to St. Cyprian:

“Inasmuch as Stephen and those who agree with him contend that the remission of sins and the second birth can take place in the baptism given by heretics, even while they admit that the Holy Spirit is not present among the heretics, let them take thought to understand that there can be no spiritual birth without the Spirit…But what is his error, and how great his blindness, who says that the remission of sins can be given in the synagogue of the heretics….In this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and evident stupidity of Stephen: that although he glories so much in the place of his Bishopric and contends that he holds the succession of Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church have been laid, he should introduce many other rocks and establish the new building of numerous Churches, since he defends with his authority that Baptism is found in them
” (Ep. 74, Cyprianic Epistolary).

Now, St. Firmilian here makes it seem as though St. Stephen understood the Baptism of heretics to effectively impart the remission of sins and the second birth. However, we don’t have evidence from his own writings on this other than that when the heretics return, they are not received as clean, but are given the imposition of hands for penance. One might be able to speak of this “imposition” as where the Spirit is first received, as canon 8 of the Council of Arles does (see more on this below) That would indicate that either St. Stephen did not think the validity of heretical Baptism allowed the reception of saving grace, or that once it was received it was withdrawn, or perhaps something to this effect. In any case, thus far things don’t look well for this Pope if we read him through St. Cyprian and his Cappadocian correspondent. Other than “Well, he is the Pope”, is there anything else we can observe? Let’s look at what else we know from the time.

Dionisii_alekWe know that the contemporary Bishop of the Church of Alexandria, Pope St. Dionysios (248-264), believed alongside the Pope of Rome that baptism was not to be repeated in the manner explained (Ancient custom refers to the Episcopal occupant of this See as Pope, such as Pope Tawadros II today). Thanks to an edition of an old uncial codex which contains an ancient “refutation” of Pope St. Leo’s famous Tome by the heretical Monophysite Patriarch Timotheos of Alexandria, and which was preserved in the library of Valarshapat in Russian Armenia in a translation from the Greek, we have recently discovered some writings from Pope St. Dionysios which reveal more information about this baptismal controversy. This codex contains epistolary citations from former Patriarchs of Alexandria (i.e. Dionysios), and we have come into the possession of some which were addressed to Rome. What concerns us here is one which was received by Pope St. Stephen’s successor, Pope Sixtus II (257-258). The English Historical Review gives us a literal translation of a fragment. It reads:

Inasmuch as you have written thus, setting forth the pious legislation, which we continually read and now have in remembrance—namely that it shall suffice only to lay hands on those who shall have made profession in baptism, whether in pretense or in truth, of God Almighty and of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; but those over whom there has not been invoked the name either of Father or of Son or of the Holy Spirit, these we must baptize, but not rebaptism. This is the sure and immovable teaching and tradition, begun by our Lord after his resurrection from the dead, when he gave his apostles the command: Go ye, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This then was preserved and fulfilled by his successors, the blessed apostles, and by all the bishops prior to ourselves who have died in the holy church and shared in its life; and it has lasted down to us, because it is firmer than the whole world. For, he said, heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Volume XXV, 1910, p. 112)

The early Church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (314-340), recounts about some letters of Pope St. Dionysios which were addressed to Pope St. Stephen on the matter of Baptism prior to the one translated above. Eusebius’ words:

Dionysius wrote to him the first of his letters on baptism, as no small controversy had Eusebius_of_Caesareaarisen as to whether those who had turned from any heresy should be purified by baptism. For the ancient custom prevailed in regard to such, that they should receive only the laying on of hands with prayers. First of all, Cyprian, pastor of the parish of Carthage, maintained that they should not be received except they had been purified from their error by baptism. But Stephen considering it unnecessary to add any innovation contrary to the tradition which had been held from the beginning, was very indignant at this. ” (Ecclesiastical History, Book 7, Ch. 2).

He also testifies to the epistle sent to Pope Sixtus (translated above):

But Stephen, having filled his office two years, was succeeded by Xystus. Dionysius wrote him a second epistle on baptism, in which he shows him at the same time the opinion and judgment of Stephen and the other bishops…” (ibid Ch. 4, #4)

This proves that this early Bishop-Historian held that the view of St. Cyprian and St. Firmilan was an “innovation” which went “contrary” to “ancient custom” and “tradition which had been held from the beginning”, as St. Stephen himself had originally testified. So right here in the middle of the 3rd century, 100 years before St. Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis was even born, we not only have the hierarchs of Rome and Alexandria teaching that baptism is valid in heretical sects under the proper condition, but transmit that this was the ancient and Apostolic tradition up to their times.

Closest to this period is a document entitled “The Treatise on Rebaptism”, which is dated to 250-257, which brings up the question in the beginning, and then succintly answers:

“I Observe that it has been asked among the brethren what course ought specially to be adopted towards the persons of those who, although baptized in heresy, have yet been baptized in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and subsequently departing from their heresy, and fleeing as supplicants to the Church of God, should repent with their whole hearts, and only now perceiving the condemnation of their error, implore from the Church the help of salvation. The point is whether, according to the most ancient custom and ecclesiastical tradition, it would suffice, after that baptism which they have received outside the Church indeed, but still in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, that only hands should be laid upon them by the bishop for their reception of the Holy Spirit, and this imposition of hands would afford them the renewed and perfected seal of faith; or whether, indeed, a repetition of baptism would be necessary for them, as if they should receive nothing if they had not obtained baptism afresh, just as if they were never baptized in the name of Jesus Christ….. And he on whom, when he should be baptized, invocation should be made in the name of Jesus, although he might obtain baptism under some error, still would not be hindered from knowing the truth at some time or another, and correcting his error, and coming to the Church and to the bishop, and sincerely confessing our Jesus before men; so that then, when hands were laid upon him by the bishop, he might also receive the Holy Spirit, and he would not lose that former invocation of the name of Jesus.” (On Rebaptism)

We get another early source on this question of heretical Baptism from the Council of Arles, which was held in 314 AD. This Council was convened by the Emperor St. Constantine himself, chiefly due to the persistence of the Donatist schismatics in Africa, Annunciation,_Late_XIV_Century,_St_Constantine_and_Helena_Church,_Ohrid_Icon_Gallerywho had appealed to him from the decision of the Council of Rome held the year prior. This was a rather large Council, and was considered Ecumenical for the Western region. In a letter to the Bishop of Syracuse, St. Constantine described the plan of this Council as follows: “We have therefore commanded that very many Bishops from various and numberless places should assemble at the city of Arles by the first of August” (Eusebius, Church History, 10.5). Most likely a stretch, St. Augustine refers to it as “a plenary Council” (Contra Donatists, Book 2, Ch. 9). Its president was Marinus, Bishop of Arles, and Pope Sylvester, who had just succeeded Militades,  sent legates to represent the Apostolic See. The canons of this Council were sent to Rome for review and ecumenical execution. The canon which concerns us here is the 8th, which reads as follows:

Concerning the Africans, because they follow their own peculiar law and rebaptize: It is determined that if someone come to the Church from heresy, let them ask him his Creed; and if they see that he has been baptized in the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, only is the hand to be imposed upon him, so that he may receive the Holy Spirit. But if, upon being interrogated, he does not respond with this Trinity, he is to be baptized”.

The letter which this Council ended up writing to the Pope is very interesting, and there are a few things in its contents worth mentioning. It writes:

“… We have been brought to the city of Arles, by the wish of the most pious Emperor, and we salute you with due reverence, most glorious Pope. Here we have suffered from troublesome men, dangerous to our law and tradition – men of undisciplined mind, whom both the authority of our God, which is with us, and our tradition and the rule of truth reject, because they have neither reason in their argument, nor any moderation in their accusation….Therefore by the judgment of God and of Mother Church, who knows and approves her own, they have been either condemned or rejected. Would, most beloved sylvester_i_and_constantine.jpgbrother, that you had thought it well to be present at this great spectacle! We believe surely that in that case a more severe sentence would have been passed against them; and our assembly would have rejoiced with a greater joy, had you passed judgment together with us; but since you were by no means able to leave that region where the Apostles daily sit, and their blood without ceasing bears witness to the glory of God…We also agreed first to write to you who hold the greater dioceses that by you especially they should be brought to the knowledge of all”  (Council of Arles to Pope Silvester, C.S.E.L. 26, 206).

So what we have here is a rather large Council held in the early 4th-century which rules the same decision as Pope St. Stephen in the previous century, and that this ruling is to be passed onto “all” through the Pope. Whether this “all” is towards the Western “dioceses” or farther is not known, but one would wonder why a Council convened by the Emperor would be of purely regional significance. I am not aware of any evidence that the Eastern churches received this Council, but then, we aren’t given much evidence that it even reached Rome or was received by Rome other than the Council’s intention as inscribed. Even so, this evidence of a Conciliar canon forbidding rebaptism is pertinent to the article.

Moving forward, in the Canons of the great Council of Nicaea I (325), we have an indication that repeating Baptism for converting heretics was not the presumed norm, as St. Cyprian was adamant about. One observed canon reads as follows:

Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized” (cn. 19)

Now, why would it need to be decreed that the Paulianists should be re-baptized? ItNicaea_icon would appear superfluous to order the rebaptism of a certain class of converts if the instinct was always to baptize anew converts coming from heretical or schismatic sects. There is even more reason to believe that the Paulianists were a group which particularly called for this decree on their being baptized again since we have recorded an instruction from Pope St. Innocent I in the early 5th-century where he writes to a certain Rufus and other Bishops of Macedonia:

Indeed, from the canon of Nicaea, Paulianists coming to the Church are to be baptized, but not the Novatianists…Clear reason declares what is distinct in the two heresies themselves; for the Paulianists never baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and the Novatianists do baptize in those same tremendous and venerable names; neither among the Novatianists has any question ever been raised about the unity of the divine power that belongs to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Patrologia 20, 532)

I realize Pope St. Innocent here is speaking a bit ahead of the time we were examining prior, but this epistle to Rufus (and associating Bishops of Macedonia) reveals to us how the 19th canon of Nicaea was read, at least by the Pope within merely 80-90 years after the convening of the Council. And what do we observe? We observe that St. Innocent recognizes that for some heretics converting to the true Church, such as the Novatianists, who are specifically instructed in Canon 5 to be received without rebaptism (the Cathari, καθαροί, literally “pure ones”, were none other than the Novatianists, cf. the 7th Canon of Constantinople 381 & The Christian Councils: From the Close of the Council of Nicaea, Hefele, pg. 410), they are not to be rebaptized in light of their invocation of the Trinity in the baptismal sacrament. Moreover, others, such as the Paulianists, are specifically instructed to be rebaptized, in light of a defective understanding of God and a failure to invoke the Trinitarian name. Thus, even in Rome, the matter was not a universal reception of heretical converts through merely the laying of hands, but was conditioned by the invocation of the Trinity, at the least. In any case, this is quite striking evidence that the Council of Nicaea did not accept the ecclesiological perspective of St. Cyprian who forbade the notion of any valid Baptism outside the true Church. This is confirmed by the study of an Eastern Orthodox scholar, Archbishop Peter L’Huillier:

“Precisely, the Nicene Council did not urge the rebaptism of Novatians, for their doctrine on the Holy Trinity was basically in accordance with catholic teaching. Thus, the Nicene father implicitly reject the Cyprian position in ecclesiology (Ecclesiology in the Canons of the First Nicene Council in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 27, n. 2 [1983])

Another Eastern Orthodox specialist on Canon Law, Fr. John Erickson, says the following:

But what of Cyprian? The standard answer in Byzantium would relegate him and his position to the dustbin of history. St. Basil already regarded Cyprian’s baptismal practice as obsolete. He observes (canon 1) that Cyprian and Firmilian had rejected Novatianist baptism, which according to his own system of classification would be accepted.” (The Challenge of Our Past, Pg. 120).

Associate Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Maxwell E. Johnson, sums it up as follows:

While history shows that it was the view of Stephen and the Church of Rome that ultimately triumphed in this controversy, the problem remained unresolved in the life times of both Cyprian and Stephen (+257) themselves, both of whom suffered martyrdom during the Valerian persecution. Furthermore, as we shall see, the early North African tradition of requiring re-baptism for heretics and schismatics will return with a vengeance in the fourth century and beyond what is called the ‘Donatist Controversy’ during the episcopate of Augustine of Hippo” (The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, Pg. 71)

Following the Nicene Council, we have evidence of edictal decrees sent to the the provinces [of the West?] by Pope St. Liberius (352-366), wherein it was strictly forbidden to rebaptize. The account of this comes from an epistle of Pope St. Siricius (384) to the Bishops of Tarragona. He wrote:

The report, my brother, which you sent to our predecessor, Damasus of holy memory, found me already installed in his seat….On reading it carefully in the assembly of the brethren, we discovered as many points in it that deserved rebuke and correction as we hoped to find worthy of praise…For in view of our office, we have no right to dissemble and none to keep silence, since it is our duty more than anyone’s to be zeal for the Christian faith. We bear the burdens of all who are heavy laden; nay, rather, the blessed Apostle Peter bears them in us and protects and watches over us his heirs, as we trust, in all the care of his ministry. Now, on the first page of your letter, therefore, you indicated that multitudes who were baptized by the impious Arians were hastening to the catholic faith, and that certain of our brothers wished to baptize these same people again. This is not allowed, since both the Apostle forbids and the canons oppose doing it; Pope_Siriciusand after the Council of Rimini was annulled, the general decrees sent to the provinces by my predecessor of venerable memory Liberius prohibit it. We unite these people, and the Novatianists and other heretics, to the assembly of Catholics, just as it was constituted in the synod, solely through invocation of the sevenfold Spirit by imposition of the bishop’s hand. Indeed all the East and the West preserves this practice, and it is also inappropriate henceforth for you to deviate from that path, if you do not wish to be separated from our company by synodal sentence….Now let all your priests observe the rule here given unless they wish to be plucked from the solid, Apostolic rock upon which Christ built the universal Church…let them understand that they are deposed by the authority of the Apostolic See…We have, I think, dearest brother, disposed of all the questions which were contained in your letter of inquiry and have, I believe, returned adequate answers to each of the cases which you reported by our son, the priest, Basianus, to the Roman Church as to the head of your body.” (P.L. 13.1132)

There are a few things worth noticing here. First, Rome still held to the tradition testified by St. Stephen in the Pontificate of St. Liberius. Second, this inquiry written to Rome by the Bishops of Tarragona (Spain) was originally addressed to Siricius’s predecessor, Pope St. Damasus. This is important since we know that under St. Damasus, St. Jerome had served as a correspondence secretary answering questions referred to the Pope from “councils of the East and West” (#123, Letters of St. Jerome). This means that St. Damasus’s successor, Siricius, would have been familiar with views from both East and West, i.e. the universal Church. Third, because of the former, when Siricius says that both East and West hold to the Roman tradition as decreed by Pope St. Liberius, it is more than likely on the basis of real correspondence which the Pope knew about. And fourth, the matter was grave that the Pope threatened excommunication by the full force of Papal power.

One of the lesser known Saints in modern day, yet renowned in his day, is St. Optatus, Bishop of Milevis. For instance, holy Augustine says the following concerning Optatus, even shelving him alongside St. Cyprian and St. Hilary of Poitiers:

And what else have many good and faithful men among our [African] brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorious, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men!” (On Christian Doctrine, Book 2-Ch. 40)

In other words, the writings and ministry of Optatus brought “gold and silver” to the Catholic Church. In any case, Optatus writes in his famous work “Against the Donatists” produced anywhere around 370-385, the following concerning the erroneous praxis of re-baptizing those who were properly baptized in the Trinitarian name even in heretical sects:

“For what can be more to our purpose than your argument from the fact that there was only one Flood —-the type of Baptism? And, in maintaining that the one Circumcision availed for the salvation of the people of the Jews, you have written in defense of our doctrine, as though you were one of us. For this is our argument, who defend the Unity of Baptism conferred in [the Name of] the Trinity. It is not an argument in favor of you, who dare to repeat, against the laws, that Baptism, of which the one Flood and one Circumcision are typical. And this, although you yourselves would not deny that what has been commanded to be done once only, ought not to be repeated. But whilst you have praised with acuteness that which is worthy of all praise, you have by a quibble introduced your own persons, as if—-since it is only lawful once [to baptize]—-for you it were lawful, for others unlawful. If it be unlawful for Betrayers to baptize, it cannot be lawful for you, for we can prove that your first fathers were Betrayers. If it be unlawful for schismatics to baptize, it must therefore be unlawful for you, for you originated the Schism. If it be unlawful for sinners to baptize, we can prove from divine testimony that you are sinners also. Finally, since the validity of Baptism does not depend upon the character of the man who has been chosen to baptize, but upon an act which lawfully is done but once, for this reason we do not set right baptisms which have been administered by you, because both amongst us and amongst you the Sacrament is one. The whole nature of this Sacrament we shall set forth in our fifth book.”
Following this, we have evidence from the 7th Canon of the Council of Constantinople (381). A portion reads as follows:

Those who from heresy turn to orthodoxy, and to the portion of those who are being saved, we receive according to the following method and custom: Arians, and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari or Aristori, and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God. Thereupon, they are first sealed or anointed with the holy oil upon the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears; and when we seal them, we say, The Seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost…”

We read here that there are plenty of heretical and schismatic groups whose converts to the true Church are specifically not rebaptized, but rather, upon open renunciation of their former errors, are administered the sacrament of Chrismation. Interestingly enough, there are groups whose beliefs on the Father and Son are explicitly heretical (cf. Arians), but whose administration of baptism does not vitiate the validity of Baptism.    Again, St. Cyprian’s principle is implicitly rejected, at the very least.

One particular Church Father, a near contemporary who died just before the convening of the above Council, St. Basil the Great (329-379), speaks to the variance of practice, but makes a systematic distinction between what to do with persons coming into the true Church from either heresy versus schism. He writes:

So it seemed good to the ancient authorities to reject the baptism of heretics altogether, but to admit that of schismatics, on the ground that they still belonged to the Church.”(Letter 188)

Although he here recognizes the orthodoxy of the Nicene fathers on this matter of baptism, contra St. Cyprian, he then later in the same letter finds that the latter had good Sf_Vasile_cel_Mare_(1652)reason to believe as he did, since “who had apostatized from the Church had no longer on them the grace of the Holy Spirit, for it ceased to be imparted when the continuity was broken.” But then, the last part of the citation above causes one to be puzzled, since it says that schismatics still belong to the Church, which is anything but what St. Cyprian held. Interestingly enough, St. Basil comments on Pope St. Dionysios of Alexandria and his acceptance of the Baptism of Montanists, but concludes: “I am astonished how this can have escaped Dionysios, acquainted as he was with the canons”. I don’t know much else to comment on St. Basil other than that I am curious as to what he would have thought of the canon of Constantinople 381 where the baptism of Arians, Macedonians, and even Apollinarians (i.e. clear heretics) was accepted. Perhaps he felt their theology was still of the sort which vitiated the baptismal act altogether. There is much to speculate on, but not enough space here to do that for.

Next, there is the Eastern Council of Laodicea (held somewhere in the mid to late 4th century), whose 8th canon says the following:

Persons converted from heresies, that is, of the Novatians and Quartodecimans, whether they were catechumens or communicants among them, shall not be received until they shall have anathematized every heresy, and particularly that in which they were held; and afterwards those who among them were called communicants, having thoroughly learned the symbols of the faith, and having been anointed with the holy chrism, shall so communicate in the holy Mysteries.”

The early Biblical scholar, St. Jerome, recounts the African dispute on baptism with Pope St. Stephen in these words:

Cyprian of blessed memory tried to avoid broken cisterns and not to drink of strange Madonna_dell'Orto_(Venice)_-_St._Jerome_and_St._Augustine_by_Girolamo_da_Santacroce.jpgwaters: and therefore, rejecting heretical baptism, he summoned his African synod in opposition to Stephen, who was the blessed Peter’s twenty-second successor in the see of Rome. They met to discuss this matter; but the attempt failed. At last those very bishops who had together with him determined that heretics must be re-baptized, reverted to the old custom and published a fresh decree” (Dialogue with the Luciferians, para. 23)

Another significant witness is St. Vincent of Lerins (445) whose Commonitorium gives us a recounting of the African debate between St. Stephen and St. Cyprian, as well as supporting the Pope’s move to excommunicate those churches who deviated from the tradition. He wrote:

“Once on a time then, Agripinnus, bishop of Carthage, of venerable memory, held the doctrine — and he was the first who held it — that Baptism ought to be repeated, contrary to the divine canon, contrary to the rule of the universal Church, contrary to the customs and institutions of our ancestors. This innovation drew after it such an amount of evil, that it not only gave an example of sacrilege to heretics of all sorts, but proved an occasion of error to certain Catholics even.

When then all men protested against the novelty, and the priesthood everywhere, each as his zeal prompted him, opposed it, Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his place, so he should also in the devotion of his faith. In fine, in an epistle sent at the time to Africa, he laid down this rule: Let there be no innovation — nothing but what has been handed down. For that holy and prudent man well knew that true piety admits no other rule than that whatsoever things have been faithfully received from our fathers the same are to be faithfully consigned to our children; and that it is our duty, not to lead religion whither we would, but rather to follow religion whither it leads; and that it is the part of Christian modesty and gravity not to hand down our own beliefs or observances to those who come after us, but to preserve and keep what we have received from those who went before us. What then was the issue of the whole matter? What but the usual and customary one? Antiquity was retained, novelty was rejected.” (Commonitorium, Ch. 6)

What is even more striking is that St. Vincent takes this issue to the level of asserting that those who support and defend the practice of rebaptism will be consigned to eternal fire with the devil, even though the original authors supporting rebaptism are pardoned for their ignorance. He writes:

“And O marvellous revolution! The authors of this same doctrine are judged Catholics, the followers heretics; the teachers are absolved, the disciples condemned; the writers of the books will be children of the Kingdom, the defenders of them will have their portion in Hell. For who is so demented as to doubt that that blessed light among all holy bishops and martyrs, Cyprian, together with the rest of his colleagues, will reign with Christ; or, who on the other hand so sacrilegious as to deny that the Donatists and those other pests, who boast the authority of that council for their iteration of baptism, will be consigned to eternal fire with the devil?” (Ch. 6, Paragraph 18)

This comes from the very Saint who coined the tri-partite dictum of antiquity, universality, and consent as the criteria of Apostolic Tradition.


Pope St. Leo the Great, who is the hero of Christological orthodoxy in the 5th-century, is in harmony with the above. In one letter of response to a Neo, Bishop of Ravenna, St. Leo writes the following instruction:

We know indeed that an unpardonable offense is committed, whenever in accordance with the institutions of heretics which the holy Fathers have condemned, any one is forced twice to enter the font, which is but once available for those who are to be reborn, in opposition to the Apostle’s teaching , which speaks to us of One Godhead in Trinity, one confession in Faith, one sacrament in Baptism. But in this nothing similar is to be apprehended, since, what is not known to have been done at all, cannot come under the charge of repetition….But if it is established that a man has been baptized by heretics, on him the mystery of regeneration must in no way be repeated, but only that conferred which was wanting before, so that he may obtain the power of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands. This decision, beloved brother, we wish to be brought to the knowledge of you all generally, to the end that God’s mercy may not be refused to those who desire to be saved through undue timidity”. (Letter 166)

Another letter to a Rusticus, Bishop of Gallia Narbonensis, answers a series of questions sent to the Pope. The 18th question & answer read as follows:

“Concerning those who have come from Africa or Mauretania and know not in what sect they were baptized, what ought to be done in their case ?

Reply. These persons are not doubtful of their baptism, but profess ignorance as to the faith of those who baptized them: and hence since they have received the form of baptism in some way or other, they are not to be baptized but are to be united to the Catholics by imposition of hands, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit’s power, which they could not receive from heretics.” (Letter 177)

St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (467-527 AD), a prominent Saint venerated in both East and West, and one of the greatest theologians of his day wrote the following regarding the intolerance of re-baptism:

From that time at which our Savior said: ‘If anyone is not reborn of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven’, no one can, without the sacrament of Baptism, except htose who, in the Catholic Church, without Baptism pour out their blood for Christ, receive the kingdom of heaven and life ternal. Anyone who receives the sacrament of Nuremberg_chronicles_f_141v_4Baptism, whether in the Catholic Church or in a heretical or schismatic one, receives the whole Sacrament; but salvation, which is the strength of the Sacrament, he will not have, if he has had the sacrament outside the Catholic Church. He must, therefore, return to the Church, not to that he might receive again the sacrament of Baptism, which no one dare repeat in any baptized person, but so that he may receive eternal life in Catholic society, for the obtaining of which no one is suited who, even with the Sacrament of Baptism, remains estranged from the Catholic Church” (De Fide Ad Petrum Seu De Regula Fidei or Rule of Faith, 43 – Latin original can be found at PL 65, 671-706 or in the Corpus Christianorum, Vol. 91 A [1968], pp. 711-760) .

In another place Fulgentius writes:

“Hold most firmly and never doubt in the least that the Sacrament of Baptism is able to exist not only within the Catholic Church but also among heretics who are baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; but outside the Catholic Church it cannot be of any profit; nay, just as within the Church salvation is conferred through the Sacrament of Baptism upon those who believe rightly, so too, outside the Church, if they do not return to the Church, ruin is heaped up for those who were baptized by the same Baptism. For it is the unity as such of ecclesiastical society that avails unto salvation, so that a man is not saved by Baptism to whom it was not given in that place where it is needful that it be given” (ibid, 79)

St. Gregory the Great ( Pontificate, 590-604+), or Gregory the Dialogist (as the Eastern Orthodox sometimes refer) writes the following:

“We have learned from the ancient institution of the Fathers that those who, in heresy, are baptized in the name of the Trinity, when they return to the Holy Church, are to be recalled to the bosom of Mother Church either by anointing with Chrism, or by the imposition of the hand, or by a profession of faith alone…because the Holy Baptism, which they received among heretics, re-engages in them the powers of cleansing at that time when…they are cropped-saint_ambrose_saint_gregory_the_great_saint_jerome_and_sai_wellcome_v00332151.jpgunited to the faith in the bowels of the holy and universal church. But as to those heretics who are baptized not in the name of the Trinity…when they come to the Holy Church, they are baptized, because that was not Baptism, which situated in error, they received not in the name of the Trinity. Nor can this be called a repetition of a Baptism, which, as was stated, was not given in the name of the Trinity.

Your Holiness may without any hesitation receive into your assembly, their own orders preserved for them…any who return from the perverse error of Nestorius, so that, while..through gentleness you make for them no opposition or difficulty about their own orders, you may snatch them from the jaws of the ancient enemy” (Letter of Pope Gregory I to Bishop Quiricus and other catholic Bishops of Georgia [Asiatic Iberia]. June 22, 601 A.D. [Quia Caritate nihil])

That last paragraph is difficult to interpret. I am curious if by “orders” is meant Episcopal orders. Secondly, whether those who are returning are Bishops who were once Catholic and then turned Nestorian in their life, or if it is Nestorian bishops who return and have their orders recognized. Any feedback would be helpful.

Lastly, one whom is considered by some as the last Church Father of the West, venerated by the Eastern Orthodox, namely, St. Isidore, Archbishop of Seville, and a great theologian of the era of Visigothic Kings who were converting to Christianity. He writes on this matter very succintly :

“Heretics also, if nevertheless they were taught to have received baptism in attestation of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, are not to be baptized again but are to be cleansed only by chrism , and therefore it is of no concern whether a heretic or a faithful one baptizes. The sacrament is so sacred that it is not defiled by a murderer ministering it.Certainly a heretic has the baptism of Christ but, because he is outside the unity of the faith, it produces nothing for him. But when he shall have come back in, immediately the baptism that he had outside toward destruction begins now to work in him toward salvation. For the fact that he received it, I approve; that he received it outside the unity of faith, I disapprove. When he comes back in, however, he is not changed; he is recognized. Since the character [given him in baptism] is of my king, I will not be sacrilegious. I correct the deserter; I do not change the character” (Book 2 De Ecclesiasticis XXV [7])


The reader will notice that no citations from St. Augustine have been adduced in this survey of evidence. This was done on purpose to demonstrate that his position on the baptism of heretics extends far long before he was born, even to what was considered “antique” for Pope St. Stephen in the middle of the 3rd-century.  St. Augustine’s arguments in support of validity for Baptism outside of ecclesial bounds was chiefly displayed in his “Against the Donatists”, as Dr. Maxwell E. Johnson descried above. This is crucial since, as Dr. Johnson testifies, St. Augustine’s plight against the Donatists was in response to a resurgence of a practice already condemned by the Church Fathers before St. Augustine’s time. So we have very good reason to believe that this was the Apostolic tradition as testified by the majority of the Patristic witness. Going back to the matter in the 3rd-century, it would appear as though the holy Pope Stephen was right, after all. And as for the Eastern Orthodox praxis today, which I understand to largely disallow re-baptism, there is also the 95th canon of the Council of Trullo (692) which they accept as a divine canon which speaks of the recognition of baptism even in heretical sects.



3 thoughts on “The Apostolic and Patristic Tradition on Validity of Baptism Outside Ecclesial Bounds

  1. I’ll admit that the acceptance of baptism by heretics/schismatics has always baffled, even to this day. Did the Fathers believe it to be valid as long as the Holy Trinity was confessed (even if the theology behind it might be dodgy); that the invocation of the Word was effective in Itself?

  2. Hi there. Thaks for all these beautiful quotes of the Church Fathers. Btw, I’m Eastern Orthodox, and so many western Fathers are loved in Eastern Church, they are so wise in reception the ones outsider the Church, Eastern ones are going with acrebia. Anyway, I just want to ask, do you have a pdf of St. Gregory the Great quotes of this article? Thank you.

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