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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia



1. Baptism of Proselytes

2. Baptism of John

3. Baptism in the Pagan Mysteries


1. The administration of the Rite

2. The Mode of Using the Water

(1) Immersion

(2) Affusion

(3) Aspersion

3. Who May Perform Baptism

4. Who May Receive Baptism

(1) Baptism of Infants

(2) Baptism for the Dead



The Doctrine of Infant Baptism


Baptism (baptisma, baptismos, baptizein) has been from the earliest times the initiatory rite signifying the recognition of entrance into or of presence within the Christian church. We find the earliest mention of the ceremony in the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 3:27), written about 20 years after the death of Jesus. There and in 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 12:13) Paul takes for granted that everyone who becomes a Christian (himself included) must be baptized. The rite seems also to have existed among the discipleship of Jesus before His death. We are told (John 4:1, 2) that, although Jesus Himself did not baptize, His disciples did, and that their baptisms were more numerous than those of John.

I. The Scriptural Names for the Rite.

The words commonly used in the New Testament to denote the rite are the verb baptizo, and the nouns baptisma and baptismos; but none are employed in this sense alone. The verb is used to denote the ceremonial purification of the Jews before eating, by pouring water on the hands (Luke 11:38 Mark 7:4); to signify the sufferings of Christ (Mark 10:38, 39 Luke 12:50); and to indicate the sacrament of baptism. It is the intensive form of baptein, "to dip," and takes a wider meaning. The passages Luke 11:38 and Mark 7:4 show conclusively that the word does not invariably signify to immerse the whole body. Some have held that baptismos invariably means ceremonial purification, and that baptisma is reserved for the Christian rite; but the distinction can hardly be maintained. The former certainly means ceremonial purification in Mark 7:4, and in Mark 7:8 (the King James Version); but it probably means the rite of baptism in Hebrews 6:2. Exegetes find other terms applied to Christian baptism. It is called `the Water' in Acts 10:47: "Can any man forbid `the Water,' that these should not be baptized?"; the layer of the water in Ephesians 5:26 the Revised Version, margin (where baptism is compared to the bridal bath taken by the bride before she was handed over to the bridegroom); and perhaps the laver of regeneration in Titus 3:5 the Revised Version, margin (compare 1 Corinthians 6:11), and illumination in Hebrews 6:4; Hebrews 10:32.

II. Pre-Christian Baptism.

1. Baptism of Proselytes:

Converts in the early centuries, whether Jews or Gentiles, could not have found this initiatory rite, in which they expressed their new-born faith, utterly unfamiliar. Water is the element naturally used for cleansing the body and its symbolical use entered into almost every cult; and into none more completely than the Jewish, whose ceremonial washings were proverbial. Besides those the Jew had what would seem to the convert a counterpart of the Christian rite in the baptism of proselytes by which Gentiles entered the circle of Judaism. For the Jews required three things of strangers who declared themselves to be converts to the Law of Moses: circumcision, baptism, and to offer sacrifice if they were men: the two latter if they were women. It is somewhat singular that no baptism of proselytes is forthcoming until about the beginning of the 3rd century; and yet no competent scholar doubts its existence. Schurer is full of contempt for those who insist on the argument from silence. Its presence enables us to see both how Jews accepted readily the baptism of John and to understand the point of objectors who questioned his right to insist that all Jews had to be purified ere they could be ready for the Messianic kingdom, although he was neither the Messiah nor a special prophet (John 1:19-23).

2. Baptism of John:

The baptism of John stood midway between the Jewish baptism of proselytes and Christian baptism. It differed from the former because it was more than a symbol of ceremonial purification; it was a baptism of repentance, a confession of sin, and of the need of moral cleansing, and was a symbol of forgiveness and of moral purity. All men, Jews who were ceremonially pure and Gentiles who were not, had to submit to this baptism of repentance and pardon. It differed from the latter because it only symbolized preparation to receive the salvation, the kingdom of God which John heralded, and did not imply entrance into that kingdom itself. Those who had received it, as well as those who had not, had to enter the Christian community by the door of Christian baptism (Acts 19:3-6). The Jewish custom of baptizing, whether displayed in their frequent ceremonial washings, in the baptism of proselytes or in the baptism of John, made Christian baptism a familiar and even expected rite to Jewish converts in the 1st century.

3. Baptism in the Pagan Mysteries:

Baptism, as an initiatory rite, was no less familiar to Gentileconverts who had no acquaintance with the Jewish religion. The ceremonial washings of the priests of pagan in the religions have been often adduced as something which might familiarize Gentileconverts with the rite which introduced them into the Christian community, but they were not initiations. A more exact parallel is easily found. It is often forgotten that in the earlier centuries when Christianity was slowly making its way in the pagan world pagan piety had deserted the official religions and taken refuge within the Mysteries, and that these Mysteries represented the popular pagan religions of the times. They were all private cults into which men and women were received one by one, and that by rites of initiation which each had to pass through personally. When admitted the converts became members of coteries, large or small, of like-minded persons, who had become initiated because their souls craved something which they believed they would receive in and through the rites of the cult. These initiations were secret, jealously guarded from the knowledge of all outsiders; still enough is known about them for us to be sure that among them baptism took an important place (Apuleius Metamorphoses xi). The rite was therefore as familiar to pagan as to Jewish converts, and it was no unexpected requirement for the convert to know that baptism was the doorway into the church of Christ. These heathen baptisms, like the baptism of proselytes, were for the most part simply ceremonial purifications; for while it is true that both in the cult of the Mysteries and beyond it a mode of purifying after great crimes was baptizing in flowing water (Eurip. Iph. in Tauri 167) or in the sea, yet it would appear that only ceremonial purification was thought of. Nor were ceremonial rites involving the use of water confined to the paganism of the early centuries. Such a ceremony denoted the reception of the newly-born child into pagan Scandinavian households. The father decided whether the infant was to be reared or exposed to perish. If he resolved to preserve the babe, water was poured over it and a name was given to it.

III. Christian Baptism.

1. The Administration of the Rite:

In the administration of the rite of Christian baptism three things have to be looked at: the act of baptizing; those who are entitled to perform it; and the recipients or those entitled to receive it. A complete act of baptizing involves three things: what has been called the materia sacramenti; the method of its use; and the forma sacramenti, the baptismal formula or form of words accompanying the use of the water. The materia sacramenti is water and for this reason baptism is called the Water Sacrament. The oldest ecclesiastical manual of discipline which has descended to us, the Didache, says that the water to be preferred is "living," i.e. running water, water in a stream or river, or fresh flowing from a fountain; "But if thou hast not living water, baptize in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm" (c. 7). In those directions the prescriptions of the ceremonial for the Jewish baptism of proselytes are closely followed. The earlier canons of the church permit any kind of water, fresh or salt, provided only it be true and natural water (aqua vera et naturalis).

2. The Mode of Using the Water:

(1) Immersion.

The use of the water is called ablutio. According to the rules of by far the largest portion of the Christian church the water may be used in any one of three ways: Immersion, where the recipient enters bodily into the water, and where, during the action, the head is plunged either once or three times beneath the surface; affusion, where water was poured upon the head of the recipient who stood either in water or on dry ground; and aspersion where water was sprinkled on the head or on the face. It has frequently been argued that the word baptizein invariably means "to dip" or immerse, and that therefore Christian baptism must have been performed originally by immersion only, and that the two other forms of affusion and aspersion or sprinkling are invalid-that there can be no real baptism unless the method of immersion be used. But the word which invariably means "to dip" is not baptizein but baptein. Baptizein has a wider signification; and its use to denote the Jewish ceremonial of pouring water on the hands (Luke 11:38 Mark 7:4), as has already been said, proves conclusively that it is impossible to conclude from the word itself that immersion is the only valid method of performing the rite. It may be admitted at once that immersion, where the whole body including the head is plunged into a pool of pure water, gives a more vivid picture of the cleansing of the soul from sin; and that complete surrounding with water suits better the metaphors of burial in Roman 6:4 and Colossians 2:12, and of being surrounded by cloud in 1 Corinthians 10:2.

(2) Affusion.

On the other hand affusion is certainly a more vivid picture of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit which is equally symbolized in baptism. No definite information is given of the mode in which baptism was administered in apostolic times. Such phrases as "coming up out of the water," "went down into the water" (Mark 1:10 Acts 8:38) are as applicable to affusion as to immersion. The earliest account of the mode of baptizing occurs in the Didache (c. 7), where it is said: "Now concerning Baptism, thus baptize ye: having first uttered all these things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, in living water. But if thou hast not living water, baptize in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water upon the head thrice in the name of Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost." This seems to say that to baptize by immersion was the practice recommended for general use, but that the mode of affusion was also valid and enjoined on occasions. What is here prescribed in the Didache seems to have been the practice usually followed in the early centuries of the Christian church. Immersion was in common use: but affusion was also widely practiced: and both were esteemed usual and valid forms of baptizing. When immersion was used then the head of the recipient was plunged thrice beneath the surface at the mention of each name of the Trinity; when the mode was by affusion the same reference to the Trinity was kept by pouring water thrice upon the head. The two usages which were recognized and prescribed by the beginning of the 2nd century may have been in use throughout the apostolic period although definite information is lacking. When we remember the various pools in Jerusalem, and their use for ceremonial washings it is not impossible to suppose that the 3,000 who were baptized on the day of Pentecost may have been immersed, but, when the furnishing and conditions of Palestinian houses and of oriental jails are taken into account, it is difficult to conceive that at the baptisms of Cornelius and of the jailer, the ceremony was performed otherwise than by affusion. It is a somewhat curious fact that if the evidence from written texts, whether ancient canons or writings of the earlier Fathers, be studied by themselves, the natural conclusion would seem to be that immersion was the almost universal form of administering the rite; but if the witness of the earliest pictorial representation be collected, then we must infer that affusion was the usual method and that immersion was exceptional; for the pictorial representations, almost without exception, display baptism performed by affusion, i.e. the recipient is seen standing in water while the minister pours water on the head. It may therefore be inferred that evidence for the almost universal practice of immersion, drawn from the fact that baptisms took place in river pools (it is more than probable that when we find the names of local saints given to pools in rivers, those places were their favorite places of administering the rite), or from the large size of almost all early medieval baptisteries, is by no means so conclusive as many have supposed, such places being equally applicable to affusion. It is also interesting to remember that when most of the Anabaptists of the 16th century insisted on adult baptism (re-baptism was their name for it) immersion was not the method practiced by them. During the great baptismal scene in the market-place of the city of Munster the ordinance was performed by the ministers pouring three cans of water on the heads of the recipients. They baptized by affusion and not by immersion. This was also the practice among the Mennonites or earliest Baptists. This double mode of administering the sacrament-by immersion or by affusion-prevailed in the churches of the first twelve centuries, and it was not until the 13th that the practice of aspersio or sprinkling was almost universally employed.

(3) Aspersion.

The third method of administering baptism, namely, by aspersio or sprinkling, has a different history from the other two. It was in the early centuries exclusively reserved for sick and infirm persons too weak to be submitted to immersion or affusion. There is evidence to show that those who received the rite in this form were somewhat despised; for the nicknames clinici and grabatorii were, unworthily Cyprian declares, bestowed on them by neighbors. The question was even raised in the middle of the 3rd century, whether baptism by aspersio was a valid baptism and Cyprian was asked for his opinion on the matter. His answer is contained in his lxxvth epistle (lxix Hartel's ed.). There he contends that the ordinance administered this way is perfectly valid, and quotes in support of his opinion various Old Testament texts which assert the purifying effects of water sprinkled (Ezekiel 36:25, 26 Numbers 8:5-7; Numbers 19:8, 9, 12, 13). It is not the amount of the water or the method of its application which can cleanse from sin: "Whence it appears that the sprinkling also of water prevails equally with the washing of salvation. and that where the faith of the giver and receiver is sound, all things hold and may be consummated and perfected by the majesty of God and by the truth of faith." His opinion prevailed. Aspersio was recognized as a valid, though exceptional, form of baptism. But it was long of commending itself to ministers and people, and did not attain to almost general use until the 13th century.

The idea that baptism is valid when practiced in the one method only of immersion can scarcely be looked on as anything else than a ritualistic idea.

3. Who May Perform Baptism:

The Scripture nowhere describes or limits the qualifications of those who are entitled to perform the rite of baptism. We find apostles, wandering preachers (Acts 8:38), a private member of a small and persecuted community (Acts 9:18) performing the rite. So in the sub-apostolic church we find the same liberty of practice. Clement of Alexandria tells us that the services of Christian women were necessary for the work of Christian missions, for they alone could have access to the gynaeceum and carry the message of the gospel there (Strom., III, 6). Such women missionaries did not hesitate to baptize. Whatever credit may be given to the Acts of Paul and Theckla, it is at least historical that Theckla did exist, that she was converted by Paul, that she worked as a missionary and that she baptized her converts. Speaking generally it may be said that as a sacrament has always been looked upon as the recognition of presence within the Christian church, it is an act of the church and not of the individual believer; and therefore no one is entitled to perform the act who is not in some way a representative of the Christian community-the representative character ought to be maintained somehow. As soon as the community had taken regular and organized form the act of baptism was suitably performed by those who, as office-bearers, naturally represented the community. It was recognized that the pastor or bishop (for these terms were synonymous until the 4th century at least) ought to preside at the administration of the sacrament; but in the early church the power of delegation was recognized and practiced, and elders and deacons presided at this and even at the Eucharist. What has been called lay-baptism is not forbidden in the New Testament and has the sanction of the early church. When superstitious views of baptism entered largely into the church and it was held that no unbaptized child could be saved, the practice arose of encouraging the baptism of all weakling infants by nurses. The Reformed church protested against this and was at pains to repudiate the superstitious thought of any mechanical efficacy in the rite by deprecating its exercise by any save approved and ordained ministers of the church. Still, while condemning lay-baptism as irregular, it may be questioned whether they would assert any administration of the rite to be invalid, provided only it had been performed with devout faith on the part of giver and receiver.

4. Who May Receive Baptism:

The recipients of Christian baptism are all those who make a presumably sincere profession of repentance of sin and of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour; together with the children of such believing parents. The requirements are set forth in the accounts given us of the performance of the rite in the New Testament, in which we see how the apostles obeyed the commands of their Master. Jesus had ordered them to "make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19)-to "preach the gospel to the whole creation. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned" (Mark 16:15, 16). The apostle Peter said to the inquirers on the Day of Pentecost, "Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit"; and 3,000 were added to the church through the initiatory rite of baptism. The Samaritans, who believed on Jesus through the preaching of Philip, were admitted to the Christian community through baptism; though in this case one of the baptized, Simon Magus, after his reception, was found to be still in "the bond of iniquity" (Acts 8:12, 23). The jailer and all his, Lydia and her household, at Philippi, were baptized by Paul on his and her profession of faith on Jesus, the Saviour. There is no evidence in any of the accounts we have of apostolic baptisms that any prolonged course of instruction was thought to be necessary; nothing of classes for catechumens such as we find in the early church by the close of the 2nd century, or in modern missionary enterprise. We find no mention of baptismal creeds, declarative or interrogative, in the New Testament accounts of baptisms. The profession of faith in the Lord Jesus, the Saviour, made by the head of the family appears, so far as the New Testament records afford us information, to have been sufficient to secure the baptism of the "household"-a word which in these days included both servants and children.

(1) Baptism of Infants.

This brings us to the much-debated question whether infants are to be recognized as lawful recipients of Christian baptism. The New Testament Scriptures do not in so many words either forbid or command the baptism of children. The question is in this respect on all fours with the change of the holy day from the seventh to the first day of the week. No positive command authorizes the universal usage with regard to the Christian Sabbath day; that the change is authorized must be settled by a weighing of evidence. So it is with the case of infant baptism. It is neither commanded nor forbidden in so many words; and the question cannot be decided on such a basis. The strongest argument against the baptizing of infants lies in the thought that the conditions of the rite are repentance and faith; that these must be exercised by individuals, each one for himself and for herself; and that infants are incapable either of repentance or of faith of this kind. The argument seems weak in its second statement; it is more dogmatic than historical; and will be referred to later when the doctrine lying at the basis of the rite is examined. On the other hand a great deal of evidence supports the view that the baptism of infants, if not commanded, was at least permitted and practiced within the apostolic church. Paul connects baptism with circumcision and implies that under the gospel the former takes the place of the latter (Colossians 2:12); and as children were circumcised on the 8th day after birth, the inference follows naturally that children were also to be baptized. In the Old Testament, promises to parents included their children. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost Peter declares to his hearers that the gospel promise is "to you and to your children" and connects this with the invitation to baptism (Acts 2:38, 39). It is also noteworthy that children shared in the Jewish baptism of proselytes. Then we find in the New Testament narratives of baptisms that "households" were baptized-of Lydia (Acts 16:15), of the jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:32), of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16). It is never said that the children of the household were exempted from the sacred rite. One has only to remember the position of the head of the household in that ancient world, to recollect how the household was thought to be embodied in its head, to see how the repentance and faith of the head of the household was looked upon as including those of all the members, not merely children but servants, to feel that had the children been excluded from sharing in the rite the exclusion would have seemed such an unusual thing that it would have at least been mentioned and explained. our Lord expressly made very young children the types of those who entered into His kingdom (Mark 10:14-16); and Paul so unites parents with children in the faith of Christ that he does not hesitate to call the children of the believing husband or wife "holy," and to imply that the children had passed from a state of "uncleanness" to a state of "holiness" through the faith of a parent. All these things seem to point to the fact that the rite which was the door of entance into the visible community of the followers of Jesus was shared in by the children of believing parents. Besides evidence for the baptism of children goes back to the earliest times of the sub-apostolic church. Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, who had been the disciple of John, and it is difficult to draw any other conclusion from his statements than that he believed that the baptism of infants had been an established practice in the church long before his days (Adv. Haer., II, 22; compare 39). The witness of Tertullian is specially interesting; for he himself plainly thinks that adult baptism is to be preferred to the baptism of infants. He makes it plain that the custom of baptizing infants existed in his days, and we may be sure from the character and the learning of the man, that had he been able to affirm that infant-baptism had been a recent innovation and had not been a long-established usage descending from apostolic times, he would certainly have had no hesitation in using what would have seemed to him a very convincing way of dealing with his opponents. Tertullian's testimony comes from the end of the 2nd century or the beginning of the 3rd century. Origen, the most learned Christian writer during the first three centuries and who comes a little later than Tertullian, in his 14th Homily on Luke bears witness to the fact that the baptism of infants was usual. He argues that original sin belongs to children because the church baptizes them. At the same time it is plain from a variety of evidence too long to cite that the baptism of infants was not a universal practice in the early church. The church of the early centuries was a mission church. It drew large numbers of its members from heathendom. In every mission church the baptism of adults will naturally take the foremost place and be most in evidence. But is is clear that many Christians were of the opinion of Tertullian and believed that baptism ought not to be administered to children but should be confined to adults. Nor was this a theory only; it was a continuous practice handed down from one generation to another in some Christian families. In the 4th century, few Christian leaders took a more important place than Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa. They belonged to a family who had been Christians for some generations; yet neither of the brothers was baptized until after his personal conversion, which does not appear to have come until they had attained the years of manhood. The whole evidence seems to show that in the early church, down to the end of the 4th century at least, infant and adult baptism were open questions and that the two practices existed side by side with each other without disturbing the unity of the churches. In the later Pelagian controversy it became evident that theory and practice of infant baptism had been able to assert itself and that the ordinance was always administered to children of members of the church.

(2) Baptism for the Dead.

Paul refers to a custom of "baptizing for the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:29). What this "vicarious baptism" or "baptism for the dead" was it is impossible to say, even whether it was practiced within the primitive Christian church. The passage is a it very difficult one and has called forth a very large number of explanations, which are mere guesses. Paul neither commends nor disapproves of it; he simply mentions its existence and uses the fact as an argument for the resurrection. SeeBAPTISM FOR THE DEAD.

IV. The Formula of Baptism.

The Formula of Christian baptism, in the mode which prevailed, is given in Matthew 28:19: "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." But it is curious that the words are not given in any description of Christian baptism until the time of Justin Martyr: and there they are not repeated exactly but in a slightly extended and explanatory form. He says that Christians "receive the washing with water in the name of God, the Ruler and Father of the universe, and of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit" (1 Apol., 61). In every account of the performance of the rite in apostolic times a much shorter formula is in use. The 3,000 believers were baptized on the Day of Pentecost "in the name of Jesus" (Acts 2:38); and the same formula was used at the baptism of Cornelius and those that were with him (Acts 10:48). Indeed it would appear to have been the usual one, from Paul's question to the Corinthians: "Were ye baptized into the name of Paul?" (1 Corinthians 1:13). The Samaritans were baptized "into the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 8:16); and the same formula (a common one in acts of devotion) was used in the case of the disciples at Ephesus. In some instances it is recorded that before baptism the converts were asked to make some confession of their faith, which took the form of declaring that Jesus was the Lord or that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. It may be inferred from a phrase in 1 Peter 3:21 that a formal interrogation was made, and that the answer was an acknowledgment that Jesus Christ was Lord. Scholars have exercised a great deal of ingenuity in trying to explain how, with what appear to be the very words of Jesus given in the Gospel of Matthew, another and much shorter formula seems to have been used throughout the apostolic church. Some have imagined that the shorter formula was that used in baptizing disciples during the lifetime of our Lord (John 4:1, 2), and that the apostles having become accustomed to it continued to use it during their lives. Others declare that the phrases "in the name of Jesus Christ" or "of the Lord Jesus" are not meant to give the formula of baptism, but simply to denote that the rite was Christian. Others think that the full formula was always used and that the narratives in the Book of Ac and in the Pauline Epistles are merely brief summaries of what took place-an idea rather difficult to believe in the absence of any single reference to the longer formula. Others, again, insist that baptism in the name of one of the persons of the Trinity implies baptism in the name of the Three.

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