“He who believes and is baptized will be saved"
Some New Testament Texts: Matthew 28:18-20; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 18:8; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21.
III.1BARNABAS: Let us inquire if the Lord was careful to make a revelation in advance concerning the water and the cross. Concerning the water it was written with regard to Israel how they will not receive the baptism which brings forgiveness of sins but will supply another for themselves. . . . Blessed are those who placed their hope in his cross and descended into the water. . . . We descend into the water full of sins and uncleanness, and we ascend bearing reverence in our heart and having hope in Jesus in our spirit. (11.1, 8, 11)
2HERMAS, SHEPHERD: The tower which you see being built is myself, the church. . . . Hear, then, why the tower has been built on the waters. Your life was saved and will be saved through water. The tower has been founded by the pronouncement of his almighty and glorious Name, and it is supported by the invisible power of the Master.
(Vision 3.3.3, 5=11.3, 5)
3“I have heard, Sir, from some teachers that there is no other repentance except that one when we descended into the water and received the forgiveness of our former sins.” He said to me, “You heard correctly, for it is so. He who has received forgiveness of sins ought to sin no more but to live in purity.” (Mandate 4.3.1-2=31.1-2)
4Therefore these also who have fallen asleep received the seal of the Son of God and “entered into the kingdom of God.” For, he said, before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead, but whenever he receives the seal, he puts away mortality and receives life. The seal then is the water. They descend then into the water dead and they ascend alive. The seal itself, then, was preached to them also, and they made use of it in order that they might “enter into the kingdom of God.” . . . These apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, when they fell asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to those who had fallen asleep before them and gave to them the seal of the preaching. They descended therefore with them into the water and ascended again. The former went down alive and came up alive, but the latter who had fallen asleep previously went down dead but came up alive. (Similitude 9.16.3'6=93.3'6)
5DIDACHE: Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. After you have spoken all these things, “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” in running water. If you do not have running water, baptize in other water. If you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you do not have either, pour out water three times on the head “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Before the baptism the one baptizing and the one being baptized are to fast, and any others who are able. Command the one being baptized to fast beforehand a day or two. (7)
6JUSTIN: We shall explain in what way we dedicated ourselves to God and were made new through Christ lest by omitting this we seem to act improperly in our explanation. As many as are persuaded and believe that the things taught and said by us are true and promise to be able to live accordingly are taught to fast, pray, and ask God for the forgiveness of past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to where there is water, and in the manner of the new birth by which we ourselves were born again they are born again. For at that time they obtain for themselves the washing in water in the name of God the Master of all and Father, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ also said, “Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” . . . Since we have been born without our knowledge or choice at our first birth from the moist seed at the union of our parents and have existed in bad habits and evil conduct, in order that we might not remain children of ignorance and necessity but become children of choice and knowledge and might obtain in the water the forgiveness of past sins, there is called upon the one who chooses to be born again and who repents of his sins the name of God the Master of all and Father. . . . This washing is called illumination since they who learn these things are illuminated in their understanding. (Apology I, 61)
7For Christ, being “the firstborn of all creation,” became also the beginning again of another race, who were born again by him through water, faith, and wood (that is, the mystery of the cross). (Dialogue 138.2)
8FRAGMENT OF AN UNCANONICAL GOSPEL: You have washed in these running waters wherein dogs and swine have been cast night and day, and you have cleansed and wiped the outside skin which also the harlots and girls who play the pipe anoint, wash, wipe, and beautify for the lust of men, but within they are full of scorpions and all wickedness. But I and my disciples, who you say were not baptized [baptizō for ceremonial purification], have been dipped [baptō] in the waters of eternal life . . .” (Oxyrhynchus Papyri V:840)1
9PSEUDO-CYPRIAN: It follows therefore that Israel is condemned by the hand thrust toward the baptismal bath, and there it is witnessed what he believed. And after the reception of the seal, purified by the Spirit, he prays to receive life through the food of thanksgiving, namely of the bread which comes from benediction. . . . Those learn who one time taught, they keep commandments who once commanded, are dipped (intingō) who used to “baptize” (baptizō), and are circumcised who used to circumcise. Thus the Lord wanted the Gentiles to flourish. You see to what extent Christ has loved you. (Against the Jews 10.79-82)2
10MELITO: Are not gold, silver, copper, and iron, after being fired, baptized with water? One in order that it may be cleansed in appearance, another in order that it may be strengthened by the dipping. [The author proceeds with illustrations of baptism from nature and concludes:] Now if the sun with the stars and moon is washed in the ocean, why is Christ also not washed in the Jordan? (Fragment of his lost work On Baptism)3
11THEOPHILUS: On the fifth day came into existence the living creatures in the waters, through which the manifold wisdom of God is made plain. For who would be able to count their multitude and variety? Moreover, the things which come from the waters were blessed by God, in order that this might be a sign that men were going to receive repentance and forgiveness of sins through water and the “washing of regeneration,” namely all those who come to the truth and are born again, and receive blessing from God. (To Autolycus 2.16)
12IRENAEUS: Now, this is what faith does for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us. First of all, it admonishes us to remember that we have received baptism for remission of sins in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became incarnate and died and was raised, and in the Holy Spirit of God; and that this baptism is the seal of eternal life and is rebirth unto God, that we be no more children of mortal men, but of the eternal and everlasting God. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 3)4
13For so (they said) do the faithful keep when there abides constantly in them the Holy Spirit, who is given by Him in baptism. (Ibid. 42)
14CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: Is Christ perfected by the washing and is he sanctified by the descent of the Spirit? It is so. The same thing also takes place in the case of us, for whom the Lord became the pattern. Being baptized we are illuminated, being illuminated we are made children, being made children we are perfected, being perfected we are made immortal. . . . This work is variously called a grace gift, illumination, perfection, washing. It is the washing through which we are cleansed of our sins, the grace gift by which the penalties for our sins are removed, the illumination through which the holy light of salvation is beheld, that is through which the divine is clearly seen. . . . Instruction leads to faith, and faith together with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit. . . . We who have repented of our sins, renounced our faults, and are purified by baptism run back to the eternal light, children to their father. (Instructor 220.127.116.11-26.2; 30.2; 32.1)
15TERTULLIAN: We as little fishes, in accordance with our ichthys5 Jesus Christ, are born in water. (On Baptism 1)
16It has assuredly been ordained that no one can attain knowledge of salvation without baptism. This comes especially from the pronouncement of the Lord, who says, “Except one be born of water he does not have life.” (Ibid. 12)
Baptism was the decisive act of conversion for one who accepted the Christian gospel. It marked the break with the past and the initiation into the church of Christ. The fundamental convictions of the faith that was preached by Christian teachers found expression in the act of baptism. Baptism was an act of faith, and it embodied the faith. The centrality of baptism for the faith of early Christians is testified to in early Christian art.6
The reader may notice the following items in the texts: baptism was customarily an immersion in water; it was administered to believing penitents; and it was understood as bringing the forgiveness of sins. All are present in the Barnabas passage (III.1). Only a few Gnostics on the remote fringes of Christianity denied water baptism or its necessity for the remission of sins. Subsequent chapters will discuss the practice of pouring as a substitute for immersion and the rise of infant baptism.
It may be noted here that the references presuppose immersion as the ordinary manner in which baptism was administered: “We descend into the water . . . and ascend” (III.l); “they descended with them into the water and ascended again” (III.4); “they are led by us to where there is water” (III.6). Melito’s illustrations are of a dipping in water (III.10). The word baptism itself means a dipping or plunging and was used by Jews and Christians for a ritual bath involving the dipping of the whole body. The passage from the Didache (III.5) permitting pouring will be discussed in the next chapter.
The Didache (III.5) and Justin (III.6) tell us what we know about the order of baptism in the early second century. A period of instruction, especially pertaining to the moral implications for the Christian life, preceded the baptism. A preparatory time of prayer and fasting enhanced the seriousness of the occasion. An administrator (self-immersion is not confirmed for Christian baptism, unlike Jewish proselyte baptism) and some witnesses were present, but not necessarily the whole community. Baptism was administered to those who believed Christian teaching and repented of their sins.
All references to a “formula” pronounced at the baptism give the triune name (“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”) as in Matthew 28:19 (III.5, 6, 12).7 References to baptism “in the name of Christ” characterize the baptism as Christian baptism or refer to the confession of faith made by the candidate at his baptism.8 The “pronouncement of his almighty and glorious Name” (III.2) would be the name of Christ (cf. “suffer on account of the Name” in Vis. 3.3.1 = 10.1). The words said by the administrator may have been interrogatory (as in 11.12) rather than declaratory, but this is not certain. The confession of faith in Christ was an essential feature of the baptism and is intimately bound up with all descriptions of baptism and accounts of the meaning of baptism. The phrase “in” or “into the name” is to be understood as meaning “with reference to,” “with regard to,” “for the sake of,” “for the worship of.”
As the confession implies, faith was the necessary prerequisite to baptism. Baptism was administered to those who “are persuaded and believe” (III.6), and they are baptized in a spirit of reverence and trust. “Hope” (III.1) is often used by early Christian writers, especially those of a Jewish background, much as “faith” is used today, bringing out the elements of trust and faithfulness that were in the early Christian understandings of “faith.”
Baptism was also viewed as an act of repentance (III.3). It was a turning away from past sins and a “promise to live” according to Christian teaching (III.6).
Not only was baptism connected with the faith and repentance of the candidate, but it was also connected with the cross of Jesus (III.1, 7, II.2).9 This connection is underscored by the preference for the Passover season as the time for administering baptism.10 It is this connection which gives baptism its doctrinal meaning and accounts for the claims made for baptism.
Quite impressive is the way all second-century authors speak of the meaning and benefits of baptism. Among the blessings ascribed to baptism in these writers are the following: remission of sins, salvation, illumination, eternal life, new birth or regeneration, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The idea of sacramental regeneration (regeneration effected by the water when properly administered in distinction from a regeneration effected in the water) that developed in the ancient church is possible only from a position which relates baptism directly to the procuring of spiritual blessings.11 Hermas even went so far as to say that the righteous dead before the coming of Christ had to receive baptism in order to obtain life (III.4). Such a view finds no support in the New Testament, but it does testify to the strength of the writer’s conviction about the necessity of baptism, which was related to a generalizing of the thought found in John 3:5. The unanimity and vigor of the early second-century statements about baptism are presumptive of a direct relationship between baptism and forgiveness of sins from the early days of the church. The consistency with which second-century authors make the statements which they do would have been impossible if this had not been the common Christian understanding earlier. It is inconceivable that the whole Christian world reversed its understanding of the meaning of its central rite of conversion within fifty years of the lifetime of the apostles.
A common designation for baptism in the early sources was “the seal” (e.g., III.4, 12; 2 Clement 6.9; 7.6; 8.6), signifying that the person now belonged to the Lord.11a When the bestowal of the Holy Spirit was identified with the post-baptismal laying on of hands and anointing, the terminology of the seal was applied to these actions (III.9).
The language of new birth or regeneration appears to have been the favorite conception of the second-century church about baptism. John 3:5, or the language from the same tradition, laid hold on the imagination of the early church and shaped much of its thinking about baptism. There seems to have been no doubt that the text referred to baptism (III.4, 6 [cf. IX.3], 16).12 Its imagery was everywhere used to describe the meaning of baptism, and its influence helped to determine new practices (ch. V).
The first treatise devoted to baptism of which we know, by Melito of Sardis (III. 10), indicates the importance of baptism. In the one passage from the work which survives the author finds all of nature having received a baptism. Hence, it was fitting that the Lord of nature was baptized. Our oldest surviving work on baptism is by Tertullian (III.15, 16). He goes further in finding baptism everywhere he finds a reference to water in scripture.
The benefits conferred by Christian baptism placed it in contrast with the ceremonial washings of the Jews (III. 1, 8, 9).13 This is the chief point in the episode from the otherwise unknown apocryphal gospel preserved in the Oxyrhynchus papyri. This document and Pseudo-Cyprian attest the use of baptizō for the Jewish ritual bath by immersion. Intinguō (or intingō), “to dip, plunge, or dye,” was the Latin equivalent of the Greek baptizō, which the Latin borrowed and which prevailed over intinguō as the Latin term for the Christian ceremony.
Considerable elaboration in the ceremony of Christian initiation had occurred by the end of the second century. The writings of Tertullian of Carthage and Hippolytus of Rome at the beginning of the third century are in sufficient harmony to indicate a fairly uniform baptismal ceremony in the West by the end of the second century. One can discern through the elaboration the simpler New Testament process of instruction, confession of faith, immersion, and acceptance into Christian fellowship. Many of the elements in the procedure may be seen as a “ritualizing” of the teaching concerning faith and repentance in connection with baptism. Some elements from Jewish and Greek culture were borrowed and used to develop Christian ideas. All added to the solemnity of the occasion.
We follow in the outline below the procedure described in the full account of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, with the supporting references from Tertullian added.14
- Catechumenate (Apostolic Tradition 16-19)–Three years were to be spent as “hearers of the word” before baptism, but character and not length of time was the decisive thing. Many occupations and sins were to be rejected before one could be a candidate for baptism.
- Scrutiny (Apos. Trad. 20)–The candidate’s life was “examined” and those who brought him testified to his manner of life while a catechumen.
- Baptismal preparation (Apos. Trad. 20; Tertullian, On Baptism 20)–On the Thursday before the Sunday of the baptism (Passover and Pentecost were the preferred times according to On Baptism 19) the candidate, according to Hippolytus, bathed. He spent Friday and Saturday in fasting, on Saturday was exorcised by the bishop (to drive out any demons), and spent Saturday night in a vigil of Scripture reading and instruction. Tertullian refers to fasting, praying, and confessing one’s sins.
B. Pre-Baptismal Liturgy.
- Blessing the water (Apos. Trad. 21; Bapt. 4)–Prayer to God brought the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit upon any waters in order to give them the power to confer spiritual blessings. This practice has plausibly been connected with the change from “running” (literally “living”) water, as in the Didache (III.5), to cistern water for baptizings.15
- Disrobing (Apos. Trad. 21)–The candidates removed their clothes, for they were naked at their baptism. Later writers tell of provisions to preserve modesty.
- Renunciation of Satan (Apos. Trad. 21; Tertullian, On the Crown 3 and On Shows 4)–The candidate made a verbal repentance before witnesses, “I renounce you Satan, and all your service16 and all your works” (Hippolytus), “the Devil, his pomp, and his angels” (Tertullian). Later sources balance this with a verbal adherence to God.
- Anointing with oil of exorcism (Apos. Trad. 21)–All evil spirits departed so the candidate was delivered from their power and was ready to be brought into Christ.
C. Baptism Proper.
- Confession of faith (Apos. Trad. 21)–The candidate was asked if he or she believed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and following each affirmation there was an immersion (11.12). The triple confession alternating with immersions may be alluded to by Tertullian (Bapt. 6; more clearly in On the Crown 3), but another passage seems to imply a profession of faith before the baptism (On Shows 4). In other sources later a declaratory recitation of one’s faith supplanted (or supplemented) the reply to interrogations. Both procedures may be ancient (cf. the reading of Acts 8:37 in the manuscripts of the “Western” text, represented in the Authorized Version, for the candidate’s declaratory confession).
- Triple immersion (Apos. Trad. 21; Tertullian, On the Crown 3; Against Praxeas 26)–The confession according to Hippolytus is made while the candidate is standing in the water. The administrator’s hand rests on his head and after each confession plunges it beneath the water. Tertullian admits that the triple immersion is an “ampler pledge than the Lord appointed in the Gospel.” Its origin is obscure. Possible explanations refer to the influence of the triune formula in Matthew, contrast with Jewish proselyte baptism, or controversies in the second-century church over the Trinitarian nature of God.17 Hippolytus makes no reference to a formula pronounced by the administrator in addition to the interrogations, but Tertullian declares that Christ had delivered the formula in the command to baptize (Bapt. 13). Tertullian allows the baptism to be performed by a bishop, presbyter, deacon, or disciple (Bapt. 17), but Hippolytus assigns different functions in the ceremony to each.
- Anointing with oil of thanksgiving (Apos. Trad. 21; Tertullian, Bapt. 7)–This was done by a presbyter as soon as the one baptized emerged from the water. The person then dried off, put on clothes, and was led into the assembly.
D. Post-Baptismal Liturgy.
- Laying on of hands and second anointing (Apos. Trad. 22; Tertullian, Bapt. 8)–The bishop laid a hand on the newly-baptized person’s head, prayed, poured oil on his head, and “signed him.” Tertullian mentions only the laying on of the hand at this point and connects the coming of the Holy Spirit with this moment and not with the baptism. This assumes that his reference to anointing in chapter 7 is to be equated with Hippolytus’ first anointing. In On the Resurrection of the Flesh 8 he puts an anointing, signing, and laying on of the hand together. Tertullian’s interpretation is the starting point for treating confirmation as a separate sacrament from baptism.
- Kiss of peace and baptismal eucharist (Apos. Trad. 22-23; Tertullian, On the Crown 3)–The kiss was a sign of fellowship and brotherly love. At the new Christian’s first communion, which followed immediately on the baptism, there was given along with the bread and wine a cup of water and then milk mixed with honey. This was the food of infants and symbolized entrance into Canaan, the promised land.
The three acts of immersion (symbolizing cleansing and remission), anointing (symbolizing receipt of the Holy Spirit), and taking the eucharist (symbolizing fellowship and the heavenly banquet) were kept together and were regarded as forming the whole of initiation and acceptance into the church. The sermon Against the Jews (III.9), preserved among the writings of Cyprian but possibly dating from the end of the second century, alludes to the three acts together, and in so doing pulls together a common conception.18
Benoît, André and Charles Munier. Le Baptême dans l’Eglise ancienne (IerIIIe siècles). Traditio Christiana IX. Bem/NewYork: Peter Lang, 1994. [Original Greek and Latin texts with French translations; the German edition has German translations.]
Ferguson, Everett. “Baptismal Motifs in the Ancient Church.” Restoration Quarterly. Vol. 7:4 (1963), pp. 202-216.
Ferguson, Everett, ed. Conversion, Catechumenate, and Baptism in the Early Church. Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. XI. New York: Garland, 1993.
Finn, Thomas M. Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria. Message of the Fathers of the Church 5. Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: Italy, North Africa, and Egypt. Message of the Fathers of the Church 6. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992. Whitaker, E. C. Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy. Second edition. London: S.P.C.K., 1970.
Ysebaert, J. Greek Baptismal Terminology. Nijmegen, Netherlands: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1962.
1 The papyrus itself is fourth-century, but the editors (Greenfell and Hunt) assign the original to the second century. Jesus and his disciples have been criticized by a Jewish priest for ceremonial uncleanness. The quotation is from Jesus’ reply, partially restored at the end, but the restoration is certain.
2 I have closely followed the German translation of the Latin original given by Dirk Van Damme, Pseudo-Cyprian Adversus ludaeos, “Paradosis” XXII (Freiburg, 1969).
3 Translated from E. J. Goodspeed, Die ältesten Apologeten (Göttingen, 1914), pp. 310f. Cf. also, R. M. Grant, Second Century Christianity (London: S.P.C.K., 1946), pp. 73f.
4 This and the following passage are quoted from the translation of Joseph P. Smith, St. Irenaeus Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Ancient Christian Writers 16 (New York: Newman, 1952), and are used by permission.
5 Ichthys is the Greek word for fish. Origen, Commentary On Matthew 13.10 and the Inscription of Abercius (see ch. XIII. 11) refer to Christ as the Fish. Is the “big fish” of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas 8 Christ? The classic study of the fish symbolism in early Christianity is F.J. Dölger, Ichthys: Das Fisch-Symbol in frühchristlicher Zeit (Münster, 1928), 4 vols., the last two of which are plates. Dölger argues that the acrostic on the letters of the Greek word for fish-Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior-which is found in the Sibylline Oracles 8.217-250 is as old as the second century (Vol. 1, pp. 51-68; cf. 153-159). The acrostic poem on “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” in the Sibylline Oracles is quoted in Eusebius, Or. Const. 18. “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” is a short confessional formula, but it is an open question whether the initial letters of the words in the formula was the start of the fish symbol for Christ or the symbol gave rise to the acrostic. For fishes as a designation of Christians, see J. Daniélou, Primitive Christian Symbols (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1964), pp. 50f. Piscina (= fish pond) was a favorite word for baptistery. Note the picture in the Catacomb of Callistus showing the baptism of Christ alongside a fisherman drawing a fish from the water-Plate I of this book, and compare Plate III.
6 André Grabar, Christian Iconography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), passim; F. van der Meer and Christine Mohrmann, Atlas of the Early Christian World (New York: Nelson, 1958), pp. 42, 125ff; J. Wilpert, Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms (Freiburg, 1903), plates 27, 29,39, 58, 73, 228, 240. See Plates I and II of this book.
7 Acts of Peter 5; Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 4.32; Didascalia 16.
8 Joseph Crehan, Early Christian Baptism and the Creed (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1950).
9 For the connection of the passion and baptism, see also Justin, Dialogue 13 and 86. Ignatius (II.2) expresses the further thought that the baptism of Christ had purified water for the purposes of salvation; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Selections from the Prophets 7.
10 Tertullian, On Baptism 19.
11 The Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 11.25ff. strongly stresses the necessity of baptism. This passage is considered to belong to an early stratum of this composite work.
11a G. W. H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit, Second edition (London: S.P.C.K., 1967).
12 Add also Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.17. If.; Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 4.25.
13 Cf. also Justin, Dialogue 14; 19.
14 The full texts are given in Whitaker (see bibliography), pp. 2-9. See ch. II, note 4 for editions of the Apostolic Tradition.
15 For “living water” see Pseudo-Clement, Contestatio 1.2 and the article cited in note 7 to Chapter IV. For the blessing of the water, L. L. Mitchell, “The Thanksgiving over the Water in the Baptismal Rite of the Western Church,” in B. D. Spinks, ed., The Sacrifice of Praise (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1981). On artificial collections of water, Timoteo Jose Ofrasio, The Baptismal Font: A Study of Patristic and Liturgical Texts (Rome: Pontificio Instituto Liturgico, 1990).
16 “Pomp” is preferred by Botte, La tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte (Munster, 1963), ad loc., as the Greek word behind the Sahidic for “service.”
17 The comparison of the three immersions to the three days spent by Jesus in the tomb is a symbolic explanation and hardly the cause of the practice–Cyril of Jerusalem, Lectures on the Mysteries 2.4 ( = Catechetical Lectures 20.4). A curious piece of evidence for the practice is the triple immersion of the lion in the name of Jesus Christ in the Coptic fragment of the Acts of Paul (Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, rev. ed., Vol. 2 [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992], p. 264).
18 The Acts of Peter 5 has the sequence of baptism in the triune name, signing, and eucharist.