Study of Baptism

The following is from “A history of the Christian Church” by Williston Walker


Baptism is older and predates Christianity. Probably a spiritualization of the Old Levitical washing and the baptism of prosylites to Judaism. It was heavily practiced by the Essenes and at Quamran. With Paul, baptism was not merely the symbol of washing from sin, it involved a new relation to Christ and a participation in His death, burial and resurrection. Though Paul did not think baptism was escential for salvation his view approached that of one of necessity rather than choice. Baptism soon came to be regarded as indispensible. To Hermas (100-140 ”baptism was the very foundation of the church which is builded on waters” (Vis., 3:33). Even to the philosophical Justin (153) baptism effected regeneration and illumination (Apology, 61). In Tertullian’s estimation it conveyed eternal life itself (Baptism, 1).

By the time of Hermas and Justin the view was general that baptism washed away all previous sins. As in the mystery religions, and the prosylite washings of the Jews, it had become the great purification and rebirth into eternal life. Hence it could be received but once. With the early disciples baptism was “in the name of Jesus Christ” and no mention is made in the name of the trinity in the New Testament, except in the case of the command attributed to Christ in Matthew 28:19. The Christian leaders of the third century retained the recognition of the earlier form and in Rome at least, baptism in the name of Christ was deemed valid, but eventually included the trinity in the ceremony.

Regarding persons baptized, till past the middle of the second century, they were those only of years of discretion. The first mention of infant baptism, and an obscure one at hat, was about AD 185 by Irenaeus (Heresies, 2.22.4). Tertullian spoke distinctly of the practice, but discouraged it as so serious a step that delay of baptism was desirable till character be formed. Hence he even doubted its wisdom even for the unmarried (Baptism 18). Less earnest men than Tertullian felt that it was unwise to use so great an agency of pardon till one’s record of sins was practically made up. A conspicuous instance, by no means solitary, was the Emperor Constantine, who postponed his baptism till his death bed. To Origen, infant baptism was an apostolic custom (commentary on Romans, 5). Cyprian favored its earliest possible reception (Letters, 58-64:5). Why infant baptism arose, there is no certain evidence. Cyprian in the letter just cited, argued in its favor from the doctrine of original sin. Yet the older general opinion seems to have held to the innocency of childhood (Tertullian Baptism, 18). Most probable was the belief that outside the church there was no salvation and parents did not want their children being denied the kingdom. Infant baptism did not however become universal until the sixth century, largely through the felling already noted by Tertullian, that so cleansing a sacrament should not be lightly used.

As to the method of baptism, it is unmistakable that the original form and preferred method was that of immersion. That is implied in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. Pictures in the catacombs would seem to indicate that the baptisms were by immersion either full or partial. The fullest evidence is that of the teaching (didache) “baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water, and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water upon the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Immersion remained the prevailing practice till the late middle ages in the West and is still done in the East.

[quote] [bold]The teachings and Justin show that fasting and an expression of belief, together with an agreement to live the Christian life were necessary prerequisites.[/bold[ By the time of Tertullian an elaborate ritual had developed. So much so that ones employment was checked to see of what report the candidate had with those outside the church. The ceremony began with the formal renunciation by the candidate of Satan and all his works. Then followed the three fold immersion, then the newly baptized tasted a mixture of milk and honey signifying entrance into the promised land and to that succeeded anointing with oil and the laying on of hands of the baptizer in token of the reception of the Holy Spirit. Baptism and what was later called confirmation were later combined.[/quote]

The didache albeit a spurious work at best clearly teaches that immersion is the preferred way. Where the church got the belief that running or still water or cold or warm water made a difference we will never know. But only after all the first prescribed methods were exhausted was pouring even suggested. How did it become the norm or prescribed method?

Baptism was a beautiful celebration of the believer being baptized with “his” full participation. How we got to the belief that godparents can now make this profession of faith is any bodies guess.

The slow and constant move away from what was scriptural and apostolic in practice to something else cannot be denied.

Below is a excerpt from Eerdmans “The History of Christianity”

Hippolytus’ account of baptism at Rome at the outset of the third century is very important:

“when the person being baptized [bold] goes down into the water [/bold] he who baptizes him putting his hand on him shall say ‘Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?’. And the person being baptized shall say, ‘I believe’. Then holding his hand on his head he shall baptize him once.

And then he shall say, “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit, of the virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day alive from the dead and ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead.

And when he says, “I believe” he is baptized again. And again he shall say. “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church and the resurrection of the body”? the person being baptized shall say, “I believe”, and then he is baptized a third time.

Other things were added as time went by to the questions and this formula eventually formed the apostles creed. But the undeniable facts are that no infant could have met the requirements of the early church and its practices.

Early Church Fathers: The apostle Paul represented baptism as a death and burial into Christ’s death. We do not see this imagery in pouring. We can only see this in a literal going under and being buried in Christian water baptism and rising up in newness of life, a new creature for Christ.

Hermas and Justin very early church fathers believed and taught that baptism washed away only the sins committed prior to the baptism. They also taught that baptism should be put off as long as possible to make sure that all the sins one would commit in life would be taken care of. So much for baptism as entrance into the church. The Emperor Constantine fully believed this and was not baptized until his death bed.

Third century Christian leaders (in Rome at least) retained this practice of immersion, a late time for doing so, and in the name of Jesus Christ. We can see this as late as Bishop Stephan (254-257)

Till past the middle of the second century only those of discerning age were baptized. That is those who were aware of what sin was, what price Jesus paid for those sins, and could make a conscience decision to accept Christ and His church for their own. A very obscure mention of infant baptism was made about AD 185 by Irenaeus (also a church father) although it was not practiced in the church as yet.

Tertullian was adement about the seriousness of Baptism and taught that it should not be done early but discouraged its use till character be formed in the individual. He even doubted that it was even wise for unmarried people. How do we see this as effecting the sacridotal priesthood, I wonder?

Origen and Cyprian on the other hand favored and taught infant baptism and favored its earliest possible reception. No unity here! But the older and generally accepted thought was that of the innocency of childhood and that waiting posed no doctrinal emergency. So much for original sin as well.

Immersion continued to be the generally accepted practice until the “Late Middle Ages” accompanied by confessions of faith, the renouncing of Satan, anointing with oil and the tasting of milk and honey. All later incorporated into what is now confirmation. With the incorporation of this confirmation, godparents now made the vows for their infants and pouring along with infant baptism became the norm and preferred method.

The New Catholic Catechism (#1229 PG. 315) is correct at least in their recognition of the apostolic practice and the need to first hear and accept the gospel before a burial can take place. The New CCC is also correct in their explanation of just what Baptism is (#1214 pg 312) when they correctly say it is an immersion or plunge into the water and symbolizes a burial into Christs death, from which we are raised up by resurrection as new creatures. One has to ask how many times one has to read something in scripture before it becomes true. Believe and be baptized Those that believed were baptized And believing he said here is water what prevents me from being baptized All those that believe and are baptized will be saved

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