Sunday, Nov 16, 2003: “Early Christian Tradition: #2: Baptism in the Early Church”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary

Early Christian Tradition

Session Two: Baptism in the Early Church

Led by and Summary Supplied by Mike Kreutzer

Sunday, November 16, 2003


Last week:
We examined the great diversity that existed within the early Church: how different communities developed in different ways, with different forms of ministry, with differing understandings of the person and significance of Jesus. We looked at the Jewish roots of Christianity and the growing gap between Judaism and the early Church. We examined the relationship of the early Christians to the Roman Empire in which most of them lived, and to other religious movements that they encountered.

This week:
We will begin to examine the two great sacraments of the Church, Baptism and the Eucharist, and the ways that they were understood and practiced during the first few centuries of the Christian era.

The worship of the “early Church” can be defined as worship as it was celebrated and experienced from the end of the New Testament period (c. 120-130 A.D.) until the death of Pope Gregory I in 604. This was, at least for believers in the West, the formative period to which every liturgical reform movement has sought to return.

During this time, Christianity spread to encompass the entire Roman Empire, both East and West. It included also some areas beyond the bounds of the Empire, such as Ireland, Armenia and Persia. Each of these churches developed its own approach to liturgy, drawing upon and responding to its own culture, yet maintaining a sense of unity with the entire Church throughout the known world.

James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship page 42:

“Christianity became a legal religion in 313 and the official religion of the empire in 380. The changes for Christianity in our own times in the former Soviet Union are mild compared to those happening to fourth-century Christians. Suddenly their furtive assemblies had become public convocations. It was necessary to re-envision worship with a new sense of scale. Simple ceremonial was replaced with elaborate performances. Space always dictates what is possible and the house-church simplicity yielded to imperial magnificence in the new churches. Despite occasional periods and places of persecution, Christian worship has never since relinquished for long the appearances of an imperial religion.”

Movement from great individual freedom in liturgy to set formulas:

· Justin Martyr (c. 155): the one presiding prayed “to the best of his ability”

· Apostolic Tradition (c. 215): prescribes prayers for ordinations, baptisms and the eucharist, but allows for some variations if one prays “what is sound and orthodox”

· Serapion of Egypt (c. 350): used an entire collection of set prayers

Liturgical diversity has been the norm for about 3/4 of the Church’s history.


In about 596, Pope Gregory I sent Augustine of Canterbury to England with the advice: “Your brotherhood is familiar with the usage of the Roman Church since you have very pleasant memories of being raised and nurtured in that usage. But it seems to me that you should carefully select for the English Church, which is still new to the faith and developing as a distinct community, whatever can best please Almighty God, whether you discover it in the Roman Church, or among the Gauls, or anywhere else. For customs are not to be revered for their place of origin; rather those places are to be respected for the good customs they produce. From each individual church, therefore, choose whatever is holy, whatever is awe-inspiring, whatever is right; then arrange what you have collected as if in a little bouquet according to the English disposition and thus establish them as customs.”



Even in the New Testament period, the practice of baptism evolved. Initially, it apparently was a baptism in the name of Jesus. Later, it was done in the name of the Trinity. According to the accounts in Acts, the Holy Spirit apparently was sometimes received prior to baptism, sometimes during, sometimes after. In Acts, people were baptized immediately after they accepted the gospel message; later on, periods of preparation and instruction preceded baptism.

The Didache (c. 100): “Concerning baptism, baptize in this way: Having first reviewed all these things, baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water; but if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water three times on the head in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And before the baptism, let the baptizer and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others as they are able. And you shall instruct the one to be baptized to fast one or two days before.” (VII)

Justin Martyr, First Apology (c. 155): new Christians are to be examined to their faith and ethical commitment. Then they “are brought by us where there is water, and are reborn by the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were reborn; for they are then washed in the water in the name of the Trinity. This washing is called ‘illumination.'” They are then clothed and led into the community where prayer is offered for them. They are greeted with a kiss and are then admitted to the Eucharist for the first time.

Other early interpretations:

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120) compares baptism to the moisture that makes flour into dough and bread. To our bodies it gives “the unity which brings us to immortality.” To our souls it conveys the Holy Spirit.

Shepherd of Hermas (c. 150): The washing is for “the remission of our former sins.”

Clement of Alexandria (c. 200): baptism means enlightenment, adoption and being made 
perfect. As a washing, it cleanses us form sin and removes the penalties of sin. As enlightenment, we are “made keen to see the divine.” As perfection, nothing is lacking for “him who has the knowledge of God.”

3rd century:

Tertullian (200) offers a treatise on baptism. He mentions a triple immersion. He says that water can convey sanctity when God is invoked and can cleanse body and soul. After washing, the person was anointed with oil (as Moses anointed Aaron for priesthood) and receives the laying on of hands, “inviting and welcoming the Holy Spirit.”


He mentions the giving of a gift of milk and honey to the newly baptized as a welcome to the promised land.

He notes that a bishop, presbyter or deacon normally ministers baptism, but “even laymen have the right: for that which is received on equal terms can be given on equal terms.” He notes that Easter is the “day of most solemnity for baptism” although any time during the Great Fifty Days is acceptable.

The Apostolic Tradition details the process of baptism in fourth-century Rome.


A catechumenate existed which lasted up to three years. Those who suffered martyrdom during that time were considered to have been baptized in their own blood. Catechumens were not permitted to pray with the baptized, to give the kiss of peace, or to receive the Eucharist.


Each year, suitable candidates were chosen to be baptized. They were known as “the elect.” They underwent a period of intense preparation, culminating in the Great Three Days, which included for them prayer, fasting and exorcism. They joined the community for the Great Vigil of Easter which lasted all night. At cockcrow on Easter morning, they assembled at the font, renounced Satan, made their profession of faith, and descended into the water. Emerging, dressed and entered the church. There the bishop laid hands on them, invoked God’s grace, and anointed them with the oil of thanksgiving. They then, for the first time, joined the faithful in prayer, were given the kiss of peace, and joined in the Eucharist. They also received a cup of water and a gift of milk and honey.

The Didascalia Apostolorum (Syria, late 3rd century) refers to the ministry of women to baptize and provide ongoing instruction to women. “For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important. For our Lord and Saviour also was ministered unto by women.”

Also from Syria comes the evidence from Dura Europa. Discovered in 1922, this community 
included, along with a Jewish synagogue and a temple to Mithras, a Christian place of worship. It had been a private home, but a wall had been removed to provide one large room for gatherings. Another room served as a baptistery. Above the font was a painting of Adam and Eve as children standing hand-in-hand in front of Jesus as the Good Shepherd; baptism was portrayed as a new paradise in which one becomes a new Adam or Eve. Other biblical images fill the room.

4th and 5th centuries:

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 350): renunciation of the devil (while facing west), the move to the 
baptistery, profession of faith in the Trinity; descent three times into the water, anointing, then admission to the Eucharist

Ambrose of Milan (late 4th century): mentions the ephatha (Mark 7:32-35); he describes the 
font as a womb from which they received new birth. He includes mentions of a “sacrament” of foot washing, differing from the church in Rome (Ambrosian Rite). He speaks of the “spiritual seal” and the giving of the Holy Spirit.

John Chrysostom (Antioch, c. 390): mentions a renunciation of the devil, followed by the 
declaration, “And I enter into thy service, O Christ.” The priest puts the persons head into the water and lifts it up again three times, using the passive form, “N. is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This form, which continues to be used in the East, affirms that it is Christ who baptizes, doing so through the priest.

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 390) mentions that the person is anointed all over with oil, “a 
mark and a sign that you will be receiving the covering of immortality, which through baptism you are about to put on.” After the washing, he or she is robed in white and is anointed with oil in the name of the Trinity.

The practice of baptizing children existed at least by the 3rd century. Tertullian came to oppose the baptism of children (and even of the unmarried). The Apostolic Tradition accepted it as common practice, even for those who were too young to “speak for themselves.” By the end of the 4th century, baptism of infants became the norm for over a millennium.

Other practices included the development of the “Mystagogia”: a period of further teaching and introduction to the mystical meanings of the rites of the Church. It encompassed “The Fifty Days.”