Many claim that Justin Martyr was a proponent of Baptismal Regeneration. Sometimes, they quote passages such as the following:
We also pray and fast with them. Then we bring them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated. They then receive the washing with water in the name of God (the Father and Lord of the universe) and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, ‘Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (First Apology, Chapter 61).
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
However, upon increased research of Justin Martyr’s writings, I think he is being misunderstood just like Origen is after him on the topic.
[A]s Isaiah cries, we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life. But the cisterns which you have dug for yourselves are broken and profitless to you. For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone? Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy, and from hatred; and, lo! The body is pure (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 14).
Many people read the underlined and say, “Aha! Baptismal Regeneration!” But, then they fail to consider the immediate context, which the emboldened letters are in reference to.
First, only those who have repented are purified by baptism. Sorry, no babies!
Second, apparently Justin views repentance, and not the literal practice of the Jews which he is deriding, as synonymous with baptism. This part is in bold.
We see this later in his book:
In fact, in the 19th chapter Justin speaks of how Abraham, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abel, and other righteous proto-Jews did not require circumcision to be righteous. While he does not explicitly say they were “baptized,” it would seem they would have been in the sense he is defining it here. This is why he writes about circumcision that:
For when Abraham himself was in uncircumcision, he was justified and blessed by reason of the faith which he reposed in God, as the Scripture tells. Moreover, the Scriptures and the facts themselves compel us to admit that He received circumcision for a sign, and not for righteousness (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 23).
This essentially makes outward baptism unnecessary. His whole argument hinges upon the fact that just as men were made righteous apart from circumcision, then men never needed circumcision. Justin then explains away the sign of circumcision as having its purpose in representing the reality of the faith of the one being circumcised. If baptism is the true circumcision, then obviously baptism represents a reality rather than conferring it as many modern adherents to baptismal regeneration claim.
So, like Origen, he appears to take the position that regeneration does not occur apart from there being a faithful volition in the heart of the one who approaches the waters. Cyril of Jerusalem said the same thing centuries later: “He casts not His pearls before swine; if you play the hypocrite, though men baptize you now, the Holy Spirit will not baptize you. But if you approach with faith, though men minister in what is seen, the Holy Ghost bestows that which is unseen” (Catechetical Lecture 17, Chapters 35 and 36).
It appears that the earliest witnesses on the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that being Justin Martyr and Origen, have found support in weightier thinkers such as Cyril of Jerusalem. Sadly, the teaching of all of these men is not the teaching of the churches that teach the doctrine today, that being the Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox.