Did the Early Church Practice Infant Baptism or Full Immersion?

ZA Blog on June 6th, 2016. Tagged under ,,.

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It’s not hard to determine how the early church celebrated baptism.

You can find several accounts in writings from the early church, including Tertullian’s On Baptism and Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition. The Didache also helps us understand how baptism functioned in the life of the church.

Let’s take a look.

How baptisms were performed

Here’s how the process worked:

If someone wanted to be baptized, they first underwent a period of instruction and moral examination.  Because baptisms usually took place on Easter Sunday, this period of instruction happened during Lent.

On the Thursday before Easter, the person being baptized began a period of fasting, praying, confessing sin, and attending Scripture readings and instructions. Exorcisms were also performed, in order to banish demons from the person.

Then, early on Sunday morning—the day of baptism—the person prayed for the Holy Spirit to “come upon the water.”

When the time for baptism came, the candidates for baptism removed their clothing. (Children, men, and women were baptized separately.)

Next, they renounced the devil—a form of repentance. They were anointed with oil. This anointing functioned as a form of exorcism.

The person then stood in the water. They made a triple confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They were asked, “Do you believe in God the Father almighty?” “Do you believe in Christ Jesus the Son of God . . . ?” and “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?”

They answered each question with “I believe.”

After each confession, they were fully immersed—three times total.

Then, the person was anointed with oil a second time—this time, as an act of gratitude and thanksgiving.

After the anointing, the person dried off, put on clothes, and entered the congregation to pray and take the Eucharist. For the newly baptized, the Eucharist included a cup of water, symbolizing the washing that had occurred, and a cup of milk and honey, symbolizing the food of infants and entrance into the Promised Land.

But was immersion the only way?

If you look at the accounts of baptism in the early church, two things are clear:

First, in the early church, baptism was an extended event. The climax happened at the moment of immersion, but it took on greater meaning in the context of a more elaborate, multi-step process of initiation into the church.

Second, the early church, at least in the second and third centuries, seems to have preferred full immersion—not the sprinkling of water, or the baptism of infants.

2 exceptions

There were, however, two important exceptions to full immersion.

First, the Didache allows for the pouring of water three times instead of full immersion. This was allowed for in the absence of sufficient water for immersion.

Second, in the third century, Cyprian defended both sprinkling and pouring instead of full immersion in cases where a person was expected to die soon.

What about infant baptism?

Tertullian is the earliest to reference to the practice of infant baptism. He advised against it.

The Apostolic Tradition’s description of the ceremony of baptism shows that it was designed for those who were old enough to take an active part.

In fact, the confession of faith was so integral to baptism that, if a person could not confess the faith themselves, parents or someone else in the family would speak on their behalf.

A century after Tertullian, Cyprian advocated for infant baptism, although for many years this remained the exception to the rule of full immersion. Infant baptism did not become routine until the fifth and sixth centuries.

Keep learning

The practices of baptism in the early church are covered in much greater detail in unit 5 of the Church History online course, taught by Everett Ferguson.

You will also learn about:

  • How the early church celebrated the Sabbath
  • The role of women in the early church
  • The church’s understanding of moral issues, including sexuality
  • How the church withstood both sporadic and systematic persecution
  • And much more

Sign up today and get a limited-time introductory discount. Don’t wait—the price goes up next week!

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To learn how you can offer this online course at your church or school, contact us today!

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  • Don Wood 3 years ago

    Firstly, a short study of the Scripture against post 1st Century history proves the apostles prophecy of the Great Falling Away is axiomatic. By AD 169 that apostasy was in full flower and continues until today. First Century approved examples proves the pagan influences of AD 169 until today. See for example, “Pagan Christianity?” by Frank Viola.

    STABILITY of church doctrine was to be of paramount concern and practice, but it’s NOT; Deut. 4:2, 12:32, Joshua 1:7-8, Proverbs 30:5-6, 1 Cor 1:10, 4:6, 2 John 9, Rev. 22:18-19 and many, many more commanding faithfulness to what was written and to not go beyond what was written. 1 Cor 1:10 for example is a command from the Lord through Paul, and the only possible way to obey that command is to go back and obey what was done in the beginning and throw off the sinful practices of today. For example: Neither the Didache nor Cyprian were apostles who laid (past tense) the foundation of the church. That job was given ONLY to the apostles, see John 20:23, Acts 2:42 , 1 Cor 3:10-11, Eph 2:19-22, and they fulfilled their duties from the beginning of the church until shortly before their deaths. Peter announced near the end that the “full or true knowledge” (Gk= epignosis not just gnosis) had been given us. THEN as I said, around AD 169 the Great Apostasy was in full swing. Compare the 1st Century baptism to that of today. Most so called Christianity doesn’t even think baptism is essential for salvation, but EVERY PERSON without exception from Pentecost onwards was immersed in H2o FOR forgiveness of sins (see also Mark 1:4, Lk 3:3) and also TO received the indwelling Holy Spirit, see Acts 19:1-5. The thief on the cross was an exception ONLY because Christ (GOD) had the power to remit sins as Jesus demonstrated that day they lowered the sick man through the roof of Peter’s mother’s house. Jesus gave the binding, losing, and keys to the kingdom of God to Peter and then the rest of the apostles. See John 20:23, Acts 2:38 – 42, 5:32, Rom 8:9-11, & cf., Matt. 7:21ff. These dippings (baptisms or immersions) were done with a lot of water, Acts 8:36-39, John 3:23, and as I said, there is not a single example where they waited until Easter or later for this baptism. It was done immediately, even in the middle of the night FOR forgiveness of sins Acts 16:30-33, NOT as an outward sign of an inward experience (which is NOT taught in the Scriptures) as it WAS FOR forgiveness of sins then, as even for today, Acts 2:39, and will last until the end of the world, Matt 28:19-20, and was commanded by the Lord, Mark 16:16, which Peter proclaimed washed away our sin, ACTS 2:38, not the dirt from our bodies, but our sins, 1Pe 3:21 and saves us!

    I wonder why with Deut. through Revelation we would not at least include (as here) what the 1st Century church actually did up unto at least AD 169? I think it behooves us to see what Jesus actually had to say about ignoring His words, John 12:48. What the Holy Spirit inspired men to write IS the authority of Christ, and we change it, leave parts out, or add parts at our own eternal risk.

  • Robert Bellani 3 years ago

    The New Testament Survey by Robert H. Gundry is excellent.
    It is a clear and easy to read condensed outline of the culture, environment and teaching of Jesus and His Apostles within the Jewish and Greco-Roman world in which the New Testament was formed.

    Thank you Robert H. Gundry for this excellent work.

    Kind Regards
    Robert Bellani

  • BG Lynch 3 years ago

    On Biblegateway (which I love), I searched “baptism” for every reference mentioning it. I’m thinking traditions of men once again have replaced the simple obedience to Christ command and the teachings He gave to His apostles about it.

  • Jim Kerr 3 years ago

    Don Wood: I’m afraid your exegesis of many of the verses you site is faulty (e.g. there’s nothing about washing sins away or repentance in 1 Pet 3:21, nor are they implied in the immediate context). As well, it is common knowledge that Mark 16:16 is not original material. Baptism doesn’t save, my friend, faith in Christ does; and none of the Apostles believed or taught otherwise.

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