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The concept of "baptism with Holy Spirit and fire" is introduced for the first time by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11, referencing Jesus as the baptizer. Jesus confirms this in Acts 1:4,8, and we then see several manifestations, such as Acts 2:1-4, Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-7.

How did the early Church Fathers interpret the "baptism with Holy Spirit and fire"? Are there any extra-biblical writings documenting their views, practices and expectations regarding this spiritual experience?

Note: as indicated in the comments, the concept of "early Church Fathers" is compatible with a wide time range, typically the first 3 centuries of Christianity. I don't want to constraint answers to very specific narrow periods, so the 3-centuries time range is fine. Thus, a very complete answer could include a summary of early Church views in chronological order, as they were evolving over time.


Possibly related: Do any early Church Fathers record the event of the ceasing of spiritual gifts?

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  • Can you be more specific about early Church Fathers? There's a huge time range compatible with this. Jun 29 at 17:47
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    @Lucian The purpose of this site is to ask specific questions and get answers to them, so people can search for those answers and find them rapidly. You could say the same thing about many questions asked here ("too occupied to learn ancient Greek?" "too occupied to read the entirety of the OT trying to find an answer to a specific question?" and so on). Jun 29 at 17:51
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    @Lucian This question definitely isn't basic- it's an advanced question most Christians would have no clue to answer. Why do you think this sounds like it comes from a homework question? Jun 29 at 18:06
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    @Lucian It's not clear to me why that would make the site better. Can't ask a question until you've spent months or years pouring over a vast numbers of books? That doesn't make sense to me. The whole point of the site is to leverage existing knowledge. Here's the link to question guidelines for C SE. christianity.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-ask Jun 29 at 18:43
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    @Lucian I disagree with some of the above comments and have up-voted a thoughtful, positive and edifying question (+1). The study of Christianity cannot be compared to History and Physics. We study spiritual truth and we help one another to understand and comprehend invisible things, that we may know God, and His Christ, who is above all. Nor do we despise those who ask for help in this most superlative form of knowledge : rather we share our knowledge that we may all grow together in understanding - to reach a common goal, and a better destiny.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 29 at 18:46
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+50

What was the early Church Fathers' understanding of the “baptism with Holy Spirit and fire”?

The terms ”baptism by fire” and ”baptism of fire” are derived from the Bible, from the New Testament book of Matthew 3:11.

Baptism by fire and baptism of fire are two idioms that mean the same thing. Baptism by fire is more often used in the United States and baptism of fire is more often used in Britain. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal meaning. We will examine the meaning of baptism by fire and baptism of fire, where these terms came from and some examples of their use in sentences.

Baptism by fire and baptism of fire describe something being experienced for the first time that is very difficult. Most often, enduring a baptism by fire means to be thrown into a situation with little or no preparation and surviving it through one’s wits and gumption. Previously, baptism by fire referred to experiencing battle for the first time or to endure martyrdom. The terms baptism by fire and baptism of fire are derived from the Bible, from the New Testament book of Matthew 3:11: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” The fire in this passage refers to the fire or inspiration of the Holy Spirit. - Baptism by fire and baptism of fire

There seem to be no “Early Church Fathers” (with your time frame intended) that deal with with this subject matter. The extremely Early Church Fathers do not seem to employ the expression(s) as is mentioned in this subject matter. Nevertheless, the phrase Does occur several times in Scriptures.

As for what the other Church Fathers thought of these terms the following may be of assistance:

Commentary from the Church Fathers

Glossa Ordinaria: As in the preceding words John had explained more at length what he had shortly preached in the words, Repent ye, so now follows a more full enlargement of the words, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Gregory the Great: John baptizes not with the Spirit but with water, because he had no power to forgive sins; he washes the body with water, but not at the same time the soul with pardon of sin.

Chrysostom: For while as yet the sacrifice had not been offered, nor remission of sin sent, nor the Spirit had descended on the water, how could sin be forgiven? But since the Jews never perceived their own sin, and this was the cause of all their evils, John came to bring them to a sense of them by calling them to repentance.

Gregory the Great: Why then does he baptize who could not remit sin, but that he may preserve in all things the office of forerunner? As his birth had preceded Christ's birth, so his baptism should precede the Lord's baptism.

Pseudo-Chrysostom: Or, John was sent to baptize, that to such as came to his baptism he might announce the presence among them of the Lord in the flesh, as himself testifies in another place, That He might be manifested to Israel, therefore am I come to baptise with water. (John 1:31.)

Augustine: Or, he baptizes, because it behoved Christ to be baptized. But if indeed John was sent only to baptize Christ, why was not He alone baptized by John? Because had the Lord alone been baptized by John, there would not have lacked who should insist that John's baptism was greater than Christ's, inasmuch as Christ alone had the merit to be baptized by it.

Rabanus Maurus: Or, by this sign of baptism he separates the penitent from the impenitent, and directs them to the baptism of Christ.

Pseudo-Chrysostom: Because then he baptized on account of Christ, therefore to them who came to him for baptism he preached that Christ should come, signifying the eminence of His power in the words, He who cometh after me is mightier than I.

Saint Remigius: There are five points in which Christ comes after John, His birth, preaching, baptism, death, and descent into hell. A beautiful expression is that, mightier than I, because he is mere man, the other is God and man.

Rabanus Maurus: As though he had said, I indeed am mighty to invite to repentance, He to forgive sins; I to preach the kingdom of heaven, He to bestow it; I to baptize with water, He with the Spirit.

Chrysostom: When you hear for He is mightier than I, do not suppose this to be said by way of comparison, for I am not worthy to be numbered among his servants, that I might undertake the lowest office.

Hilary of Poitiers: Leaving to the Apostles the glory of bearing about the Gospel, to whose beautiful feet was due the carrying the tidings of God's peace.

Pseudo-Chrysostom: Or, by the feet of Christ we may understand Christians, especially the Apostles, and other preachers, among whom was John Baptist; and the shoes are the infirmities with which he loads the preachers. These shoes all Christ's preachers wear; and John also wore them; but declares himself unworthy, that he might show the grace of Christ, and be greater than his deserts.

Jerome: In the other Gospels it is, whose shoe latchet I am not worthy to loose. Here his humility, there his ministry is intended; Christ is the Bridegroom, and John is not worthy to loose the Bridegroom's shoe, that his house be not called according to the Law of Moses and the example of Ruth, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed. (Deut. 25:10.)

Jerome: Either the Holy Ghost Himself is a fire, as we learn from the Acts, when there sat as it were fire on the tongues of the believers; and thus the word of the Lord was fulfilled who said, I am come to send fire on the earth, I will that it burn. (Luke 12:49.) Or, we are baptized now with the Spirit, hereafter with fire; as the Apostle speaks, Fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it ise. (1 Cor. 3:13.)

Chrysostom: He does not say, shall give you the Holy Ghost, but shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost, showing in metaphor the abundance of the grace. fThis further shows, that even under the faith there is need of the will alone for justification, not of labours and toilings; and even as easy a thing as it is to be baptized, even so easy a thing it is to be changed and made better. By fire he signifies the strength of grace which cannot be overcome, and that it may be understood that He makes His own people at once like to the great and old prophets, most of the prophetic visions were by fire.

Hilary of Poitiers: He marks the time of our salvation and judgment in the Lord; those who are baptized in the Holy Ghost it remains that they be consummated by the fire of judgment.

The above lines by the Church Fathers can be found in the following book: Catena aurea, commentary on the four Gospels; collected out of the works of the Fathers

Addendum:

The Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers, Christian Fathers, or Fathers of the Church were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of Christianity. The historical period in which they worked became known as the Patristic Era and spans approximately from the late 1st to mid 8th centuries, flourishing in particular during the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity was in the process of establishing itself as the state church of the Roman Empire.

In traditional dogmatic theology, authors considered Church Fathers are treated as authoritative, and a somewhat restrictive definition is used. The academic field of patristics, the study of the Church Fathers, has extended the scope of the term, and there is no definitive list.

Eras of the Church Fathers

The church fathers are generally divided into the Ante-Nicene Fathers, those who lived and wrote before the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, those who lived and wrote after 325. Also, the division of the fathers into Greek and Latin writers is also common. Some of the most prominent Greek Fathers are Justin Martyr, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor. Among the Latin Fathers are Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great.

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    Are you sure these are early Church Fathers? I checked the birth dates of a sample of them and none was born earlier than the 4th century. Jun 29 at 20:59
  • That will depend on what you define as Early Church Fathers? You were not clear in your question as to what you define as an Early Church Father! In general the Church Fathers are also known as the Early Church Fathers! Without a time frame appointed in the question, I believe that I have answered your question.
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 29 at 21:08
  • My question was edited with a note indicating that I'm interested in the first 3 centuries of Christianity, an the edit was made on Jun 29 at 18:48. Your answer was posted on Jun 29 at 20:11, that is, more than one hour and 20 minutes after the edit. Jul 4 at 19:52
  • My answer was being put together at the same time of editing. If you prefer, I will delete it!
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 4 at 21:49
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The Roman Catholic scholars, Kilian McDonnell and George Montague, did a lot of work in this area. One can read about it in their book, “Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Evidence from the First Eight Centuries.” For example, they write about the fourth century church father, Cyril of Jerusalem:

The bishop of Jerusalem prepared catechumens who were ‘soon to be baptized in the Holy Spirit,’ by explicitly exhorting them to approach the mysteries in awe, to expect the charisms... (p. 216)

Note how the phrase "baptized in the Holy Spirit" was viewed in relationship to the gift of the Holy Spirit connected with the rite of initiation (See Acts 2:38). Cyril of Jerusalem, writing around 340 A.D., states (emphasis added):


...(Catechumens) who are about to be baptized even now in the Holy Spirit...Let each one prepare oneself to receive the heavenly gift...according to your capacity...God grant that you may be worthy of the charism of prophecy...My final words, beloved brethren, in this instruction, will be words of exhortation, urging all of you to prepare your souls for the reception of the heavenly charisms...” (CL 16:6; 17:37; 18:32)

Tertullian’s (pre-Montanist) work “On Baptism” reads in the Latin:

Petite de domino peculia gratiae distributiones charismatum subiac‘re.

Translated this reads:

Ask your Lord for the special gift of his inheritance, the distributed charisms, which form an underlying feature [of baptism].

Hilary of Poitiers, writing around 356 A.D., also links the rite of initiation with an experience of the Holy Spirit and the charisms:

... After the water-bath, the Holy Spirit rushes upon us from the gate of heaven, that we might bathe in the anointing of the holy glory, and that we might become sons of God through adoption spoken by the voice of the Father...(believers are given a share in)...diverse gifts and charisms.’ (On Matthew, 2:6; 15:10)

In our modern era, there has been an attempt to interpret patristic tradition in light of a more nuanced theology of the Holy Spirit

For example, Fr. Francis Sullivan who taught ecclesiology at the Gregorian University in Rome, writes in his book, "Charisms and Charismatic Renewal: A Biblical and Theological Study," the following:

When we use the term 'baptize in the Spirit' in the charismatic renewal, we are using it as a synonym for 'send the Spirit' or 'pour out the Spirit.' In this case, it is only Jesus who really 'baptizes in the Spirit,' because it is his unique glory, as the risen Lord, to receive from the Father the gift of the Spirit and to pour it out on his disciples (Acts 2:33). It is not the people who gather around and pray for someone who 'baptize him or her in the Spirit'; it is the Lord who does this in answer to their prayer. (pp. 73-74)

Fr. Sullivan goes on to caution, about the confusion that can take place in using the phrase "baptism in the Holy Spirit" in a time bound additional sense to the once and for all sacrament of initiation. He writes:

It would be better to speak of praying for a 'new baptism in the Spirit,' or even better, to say that we are asking the Lord to 'baptize someone anew in his Holy Spirit.' (p. 75)

What Fr. Sullivan writes about can be seen to be an acceptable practice that is contained in the modern prayers and liturgy of the Catholic church. For example, Pope Benedict XVI gave a sermon on the day of Pentecost in which he said:

Let us rediscover, dear brothers and sisters, the beauty of the being baptized in the Holy Spirit; let us be aware again of our baptism and our confirmation, sources of grace that are always present...

Pope Benedict XVI goes on to write about how joining in prayer, with the communion of saints, to obtain the Holy Spirit can release:

...a renewed Pentecost for the Church again today, a Pentecost that will spread in everyone the joy of living and witnessing to the Gospel. (2008 Sermon on Pentecost)

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