Good Ancient Journal Entry on Water Baptism in the Early Church (chalk one up for the Church of Christ and believer's baptismal regeneration)

Here is the journal article and I have posted my brief thoughts at the very end. BTW, I am not for baptismal regeneration or supporting the position and practice of the Church of Christ. I am simply asserting that baptismal practice and theology in the early church most accords with this view.

The early church generally practiced baptism in a simple ceremony upon the occasion of professed faith, by some form of immersion, and used the language of “Regeneration” in reference to the occasion. Things were not that monolithic, however, and will quickly diverge as I continue to tackle this topic in future posts.

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Water Baptism in the Ancient Church

Part I

William A. BeVier

[William A. BeVier is Instructor in Historical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary.]

This investigation was undertaken because of the great and divers divisions in Christendom today in respect to the ordinance of baptism, especially in regard to mode. At the outset it must be admitted that this presentation will not solve the problems or issues to everyone’s satisfaction. The controversy is too old and involved for that. The very fact that so many Christians for centuries have held various views on the matter is proof enough that the Scriptures are not precise on the question. Practically all Christians for all generations have maintained a belief in baptism as an ordinance. The Scriptures are sufficiently clear on this, and on every other vital issue. Therefore, it is to be accepted that because the Scriptures are not definite as to mode in its details, then mode of baptism is not a vital issue, in spite of what some might say to the contrary.

The early church fathers and archaeological findings are resorted to in order to determine how they interpreted the Scriptures on this issue. They lived much closer to the actual presentation of the revelation of God than we do. It is to be accepted that the fathers were all mortal and fallible, and thus they are not a sure or inspired guide. But they are the best area of investigation available beyond the Scriptures, and, in the case of the fathers, the closer they lived to the apostles the better.

Because of the fact that in the early centuries it is impossible in many cases to separate the topic of modes from baptismal regeneration, it has been necessary to include much in these articles that does not strictly pertain to mode of baptism only. It is further to be noted that the majority of the reference material used in this work is from secondary sources, and as a result the source of any given citation must be kept in mind as to whether the author is an immersionist, affusionist, or aspersionist. In the field of baptism the lack of objectivity among historians is appalling. All seem to give

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the truth, but never the whole truth, and, therefore very few give testimony to more than one view in respect to mode. Each has his own belief and presents evidence only in favor of that one.

General Background

Historians are generally in agreement that in apostolic and subapostolic generations water baptism was a very simple service. In the first century most of the converts were from Judaism and baptism immediately followed profession of faith. By the third and fourth centuries most converts were pagans and a period of instruction was set up between profession and baptism, generally of three years duration but sometimes less. By the third century several symbols and much ritual had been added to the simple baptismal service as described by Justin Martyr, and this order of service will be presented below. Some of these symbols were the sign of the cross; giving of milk, honey, and salt; unction of the head; and the white robe. Schools were set up to handle the large numbers and grades of advancement. In the fourth century for these schools baptism was a sort of elaborate graduation exercise. The Coptic Constitutions of the fourth and fifth centuries called for the three years of instruction, an examination, exorcism, an anointing with oil, an oral profession, and a baptism of triune immersion before the convert was allowed into the church and to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The anointing with oil combined with the water in some areas to render the picture of salvation. Water symbolized the removal of sin, the anointing the positive gift of the Spirit. It has been pointed out that from the second century forward the idea gradually gained ground that baptism works more or less magically, the water itself having power.

The place of baptism in these early centuries seemed to make no difference whatsoever as is seen from Hinton’s quotation from Tertullian’s De Bapt. c. IV: “There is no

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difference whether baptism takes place in the sea or in a pond, in the river or the fountain, the lake or the bath; nor between those who were baptized in the Jordan by John, and those who were baptized in the Tiber by Peter.” We cannot fail to notice in this citation the complete lack of distinction on Tertullian’s part between John’s baptism and Christian baptism. From all indications, baptism took place in the nude in the early centuries. Robert Robinson gives a rather lengthy discussion and presentation of the facts of this aspect of the baptismal service. It is stated there was a separation of the sexes, with deaconesses assisting with the women. Robinson suggests there was theological significance to this method, that in such baptism we put off the old man, being typified by the removal of the clothing. Another suggestion was that as we were naked in our first birth, so should we be in our new or second birth.

Certain seasons of the year were the standard times of baptism after the first century, generally Easter and Pentecost, or Epiphany in the East. The favorite hour seems to have been midnight, with a torchlight service. Men were baptized first, and then the women.

In the minds of some of even the later fathers baptism was not enough in itself for salvation. Tertullian called for repentance to accompany it (De poenitentia, 6) and Origen stated that sin must be forsaken (Homily 21, on Luke). Yet we know that in a real sense Tertullian believed in baptismal regeneration.

As to the mode used, Schaff gives two very revealing citations. One quotes Marriott (in Smith and Cheetham, I, 161) as saying: “Triple immersion [italics Schaff’s], that is thrice dipping the head while standing in the water, was the all but universal rule of the church in early times,” and he quotes in proof Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Jerome and Leo I. But Schaff points out that Marriott later admits (p. 168ff) that affusion and aspersion were exceptionally used,

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especially in clinical baptism. The second citation is from Dean Stanley’s Christian Institutes, who states that immersion was thrice dipping the head of the candidate, who stood nude in the water; but some claim the entire body was plunged under three times. The significant force of these citations is that while baptism may have been by immersion in many cases, it in all probability was not the entire plunging of the body as is practiced today, the claims of some not withstanding.

Most all of the fathers believed that baptism was to “complete and seal the spiritual process of regeneration…” And in both East and West baptism served three purposes, “forgiveness of sins, communication of the Spirit, and the obligation to fulfill the commandments of Christ.”

Early Fathers and Writings

As mentioned above, it is in the early church fathers and their writings that we have probably the best human interpretations of the apostolic Scriptures available to us.

It is most significant that in all the extant writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp—the three outstanding subapostolic fathers—there is no mention whatsoever to water baptism in any form. This is not to say that they did not believe in or practice water baptism, but it is indicative that they did not lay the great stress on the ordinance that was present in the later fathers. This is clear evidence that these who were taught by the apostles themselves put no emphasis on any particular mode, but they did at the same time stress many other doctrines in their epistles. We undoubtedly should learn much from these early pupils of Peter, Paul and John and at the same time save ourselves and those about us a lot of time, effort, and ill feeling wasted on that which is not vital.

It is not until we come to the Shepherd of Hermas, written about 100 A.D. at Rome, that we find the first subapostolic

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mention of water baptism. Hermas, however, presents a well developed approach to the subject and no doubt the doctrine as it appears in Hermas did not originate with the author. Commandment 4.3 teaches baptism for forgiveness of sins, stating the event was “when we went down into the water.” In Parable 9, chapter 16, baptismal regeneration is taught, with water being the seal of regeneration. “So they go down into the water dead, and they come up alive. So this seal was preached to them also, and they took advantage of it, in order to enter the kingdom of God.” The reference here is to Old Testament saints, baptized in death. In the same chapter the reference to the living is: “But these went down alive and came up alive, but those who had previously fallen asleep went down dead and came up alive.” We see from these citations that baptismal regeneration appeared early and from this point on, all manner of elements were attached to this ordinance.

The writings of Justin Martyr (ca. 115) are the next significant ones that are extant. It is to be remembered that this is less than twenty years after the generally accepted date of the death of the Apostle John. Justin (Apol. I, c. 61) wrote concerning those to be baptized, that after prayer and fasting: “…are led by us to a place where is water, and in this way they are regenerated, as we also have been regenerated; that is, they receive the water-bath in the name of God, the Father and Ruler of all, and of our Redeemer Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost…The baptismal bath is called also illumination (ψωτισμός) because those who receive it are enlightened in the understanding.” Justin in his “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew” (XXX.19) speaks of baptism bringing pardon and the new life, and is therefore necessary to salvation. He also was the first one to demand that baptism be administered by clerics only (Loofs, DG4). But the very fact that he felt called upon to demand such a thing is proof enough that such was not the general practice until that date.

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Justin, seemingly following the pattern of Hermas, regarded baptism as the end act of regeneration; only then does actual forgiveness of sins take place. Another item has been drawn from his writings on the subject of water baptism. He wrote (Second Apol. p. 93): “We were born without our will—but we are not to remain children of necessity and ignorance (as to our birth) but in baptism are to have choice, knowledge…. This we learned from the Apostles.” The fact that the word “choice” is used here seems to rule out infant baptism, because an infant has no power of making a choice. Justin Martyr then appears to present baptism by immersion, clearly believed in baptismal regeneration, and omits the doctrine of infant baptism.

One reference to water baptism occurs in The Letter of Barnabas, 11:11 (ca. A.D. 130, perhaps Alexandria). The reference is to Israel in the wilderness and their baptism, and then allegorically applied to Christians with these words: “This means that we go down into (είς) the water full of sins and pollution, and we come up (ἀνεβαίνομεν) bringing forth fear in our hearts and with hope in Jesus in our spirit.” This would seem to indicate baptism by immersion, and clearly advocates regeneration. A problem here is that the letter is extremely allegorical and its validity and interpretations are not generally accepted.

The next citation chronologically is important. This is in the Didache or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” This work is significant because it gives a systematic presentation of baptism as to features and more particularly to modes. It dates from about A.D. 150 and probably originated in the region of Antioch. In chapter 7 we read: “About baptism, baptize in this way: After first repeating all these things, baptize in living (running) water, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If you have no running water, baptize in other water, and if you cannot use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour (ἔκχεον) water on the head three times in the name of the Father and Son and

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Holy Spirit. And before the baptism let the baptizer and the one who is to be baptized and any others who can do so fast. And you must order the one who is to be baptized to fast one or two days beforehand.”

This passage should make all the advocates of any mode today take notice. Nothing is made hard and fast about the mode used and the only thing actually commanded is the previous fast. The concept appears to be that any mode can be used, just so water is applied. The immersionists can well point out that their mode seems to have first choice (but one cannot even be dogmatic here), and it must also be noted that “cold” and “running” water would have precedence over any other, which excludes the modern heated baptistry. One fact is clear, very few Christians of this generation can be found who practice the teaching of the Didache to the letter, and indeed the very tone of the Didache seems to allow a great amount of freedom as to mode and amount of water used.

In North Africa between about A.D. 150 and A.D. 450 flourished a leading segment of the church in that day centering around the city of Carthage. During this period and in this area came forth three of the most noted church fathers of all centuries, namely Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, chronologically in that order. They are each remembered for various contributions to theology, but here we wish only to consider their views on baptism. It is to be pointed out that in a great measure Tertullian laid the theological foundation in central North Africa, Cyprian built thereupon and Augustine finished the structure in a grandiose manner. But each had concepts peculiar to himself on the matter of baptism. Tertullian argued from John 3:5 and Mark 16:16 that water baptism was necessary for salvation. He also leaned toward the notion of a magical operaton of the baptismal water. Tertullian, as most of his century, required also the subjective conditions of faith and repentance, items which later disappeared as necessary for salvation. But it has been written concerning Tertullian that: “No Christian writer of the early

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centuries wrote so extravagantly regarding the magical effects of water baptism.” More will be presented later on Tertullian’s views on infant baptism and baptismal regeneration.

Cyprian, who was the pupil of Tertullian, also saw in baptism the means of God’s saving work in man. Augustine is important because his views are the basis for the doctrine of baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, as systematized by the scholastics. Augustine (Against the Donatists) insisted upon the validity of baptism even when administered by unholy men and by schismatics. This was contrary to the views of many of his predecessors. He maintained that baptism removes all guilt, especially inherited guilt. Before Augustine the view was that baptism removed guilt of prebaptismal sins. His view became generally accepted in the West, having much more to commend it than the Eastern view of the removal of only prebaptismal sins. In some writings he would qualify this view by stating that though the baptism of schismatics was valid, the gifts of the Spirit were not received in such baptisms. Also, unrepentant sinners within the church did not receive the gfts of baptism. Converts or restored individuals who had once been baptized were not to be rebaptized (De Bapt., III, 16, 21). In this he did not follow Cyprian. Augustine felt that in the case of adults real conversion of the will is apart from baptism, but usually comes after it. Infants were to be baptized because baptism removed the guilt of original sin, not sin itself or its lusts, but only guilt of original sin. As to mode Augustine wrote: “After you professed your belief, three times did we submerge (demersemus) your heads in the sacred fountain.” (Hom IV) It would be difficult to prove either immersion as today viewed or affusion from this statement. True, the Latin word for submerge is used, but it is applied only to the head, and that into a “fountain,” not a pool or like vessel. Certainly pouring or sprinkling is not indicated, so the Romanists must look elsewhere for patristic authority relative to mode. Perhaps

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Ambrose should be cited in this connection, to add the testimony of another church father for whatever it is worth. He wrote: “You were asked, Dost thou believe in God Almighty? Thou saidst, I believe; and thus thou wast immersed (mersist), that is, thou, wast buried.” (De Sacraments, lib ii, C. 7, Ibid., p. 163). This citation presents immersion as the mode used, of course no reference being made to the exclusion of others. And it is to be stressed that Ambrose’s dates are 340–97, and that as early as the first quarter of the second century we have found gross corruptions of the Biblical presentation of baptism, so in actuality Ambrose’s views have little force beyond indicating what was in vogue in Milan in his day.

Moving on further west it is cited that: “In Spain the immersion was only once.” In the East we find the opposite extreme, triune immersion. Schaffs states: “The Oriental and the orthodox Russian churches require even a threefold [italics his] immersion.” All else was heretical. The Pope of Rome was an unbaptized heretic, and the single immersion of the Baptists was invalid. He then quotes the Longer Russian Catechism on the definition of baptism: “A sacrament in which a man who believes, having his body thrice plunged [italics his] in water in the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, dies to the carnal life of sin and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy.” There is little doubt that from the second century on in the East triune immersion was strictly adhered to by the bulk of the orthodox church. This is not to infer of course that they were correct, and especially can we place little weight in a Russian Orthodox creed because of its relative recency (ca. 8th cen. A.D.). Again we have only an indication of what was practiced in a given area at a given period. We can clearly see from the above citations that no uniformity as to mode of water baptism was evident in professing Christendom from the earliest centuries onward.

It seems:

–       The early church baptized  converts only and in a simple manner

–       The early church preferred some form of immersion, but allowed flexibility based on circumstances

–       The early church believed baptism to convey or complete the work of regeneration

–       All of this can be summarized well in the following part of the article:

  • He wrote (Second Apol. p. 93): “We were born without our will—but we are not to remain children of necessity and ignorance (as to our birth) but in baptism are to have choice, knowledge…. This we learned from the Apostles.” The fact that the word “choice” is used here seems to rule out infant baptism, because an infant has no power of making a choice. Justin Martyr then appears to present baptism by immersion, clearly believed in baptismal regeneration, and omits the doctrine of infant baptism.

–       Chalk one up to the Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ, which believe that water baptism by immersion for converts is part of their conversion (regeneration).

–       I am not arguing for this practice as Biblical, but only saying that the views of baptism within the early 2nd century seem to best support Believer’s baptismal regeneration.

–       More to come…

© 2010, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.


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