Losing The Faith (7/22)


Baptism continued, after apostolic times, to be the means of entering the household of faith, and for many years it was administered in the apostolic fashion. That is, baptism implied submersion, and the candidates were believers who had been instructed in the one faith.

Early Witness – Baptism Essential

Barnabas (AD 100): “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” (Epistle of Barnabas, xi).

Justin Martyr (AD 150): “… 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” (The First Apology, lxi).

Melito, Bishop of Sardis (AD 170): “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” (On Baptism).

Clement of Alexandria (AD 193): “It is the washing through which we are cleansed of our sins … Instruction leads to faith, and faith [to] baptism … We have repented of our sins, renounced our faults, and are purified by baptism…” (The Instructor, ch. vi).

Evidence – Baptism by Submersion

Didache: “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” (On Baptism).

Tertullian (AD 200): “Baptism itself is a bodily act, because we are immersed in water, but it has a spiritual effect, because we are set free from sins” (On Baptism, vii).

Origen (AD 230): “… you descend into the water … having washed away … sin, you come up a ‘new man’” (Homilies on Exodus, v:5).

Basil of Caesarea (AD 350): “How then do we become in the likeness of his death? We are buried with him through baptism … How then do we accomplish the descent into Hades? We imitate the burial of Christ through baptism. For the bodies of those being baptized are as it were buried in water” (On the Holy Spirit, xv:35).

Ambrose (AD 375): “So therefore also in baptism, since it is a likeness of death, without doubt when you dip and rise up there is made a likeness of the resurrection” (On the Sacraments, iii).

Immersion Compromised

The first indications of a form of baptism other than immersion leave no doubt that an alternative practice was considered to be valid only in exceptional cases. Cyprian, in the third century, is the first to suggest that sprinkling or pouring might be an acceptable substitute for immersion. “You have asked also, what I thought concerning those who obtain God’s grace in sickness and weakness, whether they are to be accounted legitimate Christians, because they are not washed with the water of salvation but have it poured on them … We think that the divine benefits can in no way be mutilated or weakened … Whence it appears that the sprinkling also of water holds equally with the washing of salvation” (Epistles of Cyprian, lxxv). There is, of course, no scriptural basis for the substitution of sprinkling for immersion. These exceptions eventually became the rule, and so the practice of baptism was changed in character and meaning.

Eusebius, who wrote in the fourth century, tells us that immersion was still the rule, and that sprinkling or pouring of water was limited to the infirm. In those cases, the effort was made to emulate immersion by pouring water over the whole body. Until the Middle Ages, baptismal fonts were designed for submersion, not for sprinkling or pouring (Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, ch. xliii).

The Didache purports to be “The Teachings of the Apostles” and is a kind of manual for Christian converts. It is said to date to the second century, but it was probably “updated” and may be more correctly assigned to the third or fourth century in its present form. In addition to the quotation we have already given, the Didache provides for sprinkling or pouring “if there is not sufficient water” (Didache, iii.5).

J Banta.

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