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What Did the Early Church Think about Baptism?

Ryan Warnock

Obviously baptism is important to us Baptists - it’s in the name.


After 2000 years of this practice, you would expect a massive amount of change and controversy to occur, and that certainly happened.


But for Baptists this ordinance (command from Jesus) still reflects the descriptions given in the New Testament.


How did the newly formed Christian communities practice this teaching as they began to grow and spread throughout the Roman world?


What did the early church think about Baptism?


Let's take a look at church history.


Baptism in the Didache

We can begin our look at baptism with The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, otherwise known as the Didache.


The exact author and date are unknown, but it can be traced to the late first century or early second century.


This document acts almost as a training manual for pastors, giving instruction on how to greet other Christians, fasting, prayer, and aspects how to handle public worship.


The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles was not written by the apostles but tries to take their teaching and help apply it in daily church life.



For Baptism, the Didache gives a very instructional approach, not delving into the theology behind the practice.


“And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before.”



Though never getting into the meaning of the practice, we do see later a discussion on sprinkling if you cannot submerge.


Notice how overall there is a pragmatic spirit underlying this necessary ordinance.



There is also a recommendation for fasting, both by the baptized as well as the baptizer for one to two days prior to the event.


This stands out from modern baptism debates as we would never ask a newborn infant to fast.


However, we also do not see the immediacy that is often characterized in the New Testament.


The general practice of baptism we see in the Didache is that a person trusts Christ as their savior and is given several days for prayer and fasting before they can be baptized.


Baptism and early church fathers

Ignatius of Antioch

Around the end of the first century, we see the church father Ignatius of Antioch expressing his theology of Baptism with stronger rhetoric, connecting it more with Christian ethics derived from the fruit of the Spirit.


“Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.”



Commenting on this passage, early church expert Everett Ferguson writes,


“This indicates a realistic conception of the benefit imparted by baptism, comparable to Ignatius’s realistic view of the blessing associated with the Eucharist. Baptism is related to the Christian qualities of faith, love, and endurance (the equivalent of hope).”



Through the first few centuries baptism remained an act of obedience, demonstrating our union with Christ through it.


Baptism was a rite of entrance into the church and the Lord’s Supper was done only by those who had been baptized.


While the meaning remained stable the practice grew and developed. Professor John Hannah remarks,


“The process that culminated in baptism was a lengthy one. Hippolytus indicates that a learner, a catechumen, received instruction over a three-year period and progressed through stages”



Church historian J. N. D. Kelly refers to baptism and communion in the early church as,


“those external rites, more precisely signs, which Christians believe convey, by Christ’s appointment, an unseen sanctifying grace.”



The nature and degree of the “sanctifying grace” will be at the heart of the controversy as these doctrines develop. While the Roman Catholic church will eventually expand the number of sacraments to seven and give them an even greater power, from the beginning we see something closer to what is described in the New Testament.


In the early church, baptism demonstrates our union with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).




Third-century developments in baptism

Augustine

The middle of the third century is where we begin to see Baptism become more than a practice done by believers and we start to see arguments for children and infants being baptized.


In Augustine we find the most notable understanding of baptism that differs from earlier beliefs.


Everett Ferguson writes,


“Before the Pelagian controversy Augustine was not much occupied in his catechesis with the remission of original sin, although it was implicit in his teaching. It is typical that one responds to what is challenged and that opposition forces one to draw out implications of a position; even so, for Augustine the necessity of baptism because of original sin comes to special notice with the Pelagian controversy. His coupling of infant baptism with original sin was the foundation of the reconstruction of baptismal doctrine and practice that was to dominate the western church for subsequent centuries.”



Augustine felt that baptism for infants was a tradition handed down from the apostles and was to be equated with circumcision from the old covenant.


Though he was not the first to speak out on behalf of infant baptism, his teachings had the greatest impact.


As Baptists, we recognize that scripture does not speak of infant baptism and only mentions it in the context of a person able to trust in Christ.


We are grateful to Augustine for many of his contributions to the church, but infant baptism is one area we would differ with him.


Conclusion

The first five centuries of the church do not contain the most radical changes that would come, but we can see from the first century the basic practices and beliefs that come straight from scripture.


Like all areas of theology, time and cultural contexts have a dramatic impact on how people interact with God.


Understanding that helps us see why some of the changes occurred throughout history.


Hopefully we can appreciate any development that has benefitted the church and remove anything that does not align with scripture.


At the end of the day, Baptism points to the work of Christ so let us always keep Christ at the center as we celebrate baptism.



You can see some of the baptisms from our little church on Instagram @growabc

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Ryan is always on the lookout for a chance to read a good book or see a new movie. He has a Bachelors in Biblical Studies through Moody Bible Institute and is working on his Masters of Theology through Dallas Theological Seminary. Ryan is 32 and has given presentations on Pro-Life apologetics, homosexuality and the Bible, and teaches Bible and Historical Theology at Allendale Baptist Church. Ryan has been married to his wife Stephanie for 12 years and they have five children: James, Lael, Lydia, Isaiah, and Titus.