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When speaking about baptism we must begin with a definition of baptism. Very often
you will hear many in the church speak about Baptism as a process one goes through in order to
be cleansed from the original sin. This however, does not sit well with me because if baptism
is a cleansing of the original sin what then happens to me as a human being when I begin to sin
again and again. Baptism is much more than that. Baptism as understood by many off our
theologians, both past and present, always saw Baptism as the entrance point of the catechumen
into the church. The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the renowned liturgical theology professor
of St. Vladimirs Orthodox Theological Seminary describes Baptism as, the sacrament of
regeneration, as recreation (new creation) as the personal Pascha and the personal Pentecost of
man, as the integration into the laos, as the passage from the old into the new and as an epiphany
of the kingdom of God. This is the starting point which we can to start to understand the
meaning of baptism and what it means for us today in our 21
century world. Using Fr.
Schmemann as my starting point I hope to show all that Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration
and gives live to all who live in the body of Christ. Baptism is not an event that happens when
one is born but rather it is an everlasting event that is constantly lived out till the end of time (the
conclusion of liturgy is an example of this which I will mention in more detail later on). Baptism
then is not an event that cleanses sin but rather, as the fathers of old and new understood it is the
event in which the individual takes of the old man and put on the new one; Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15)!
The church has always been understood through tradition. A building up off tradition is
what constitutes the church today. Fr. Georges Florovsky once said, The true church is not yet
the perfect church, and this is because the church is constantly seeking out Christ. Christ, who
himself had a history and lived as a human being is our starting point in understanding
everything we do in the church. This is no different when we try to understand the mysteries of
the church. Baptism, just like any practice within the church, has a history before the church
began to use it. We must understand this history in order to see how the early church understood
the meaning of baptism.
Early Witness:
Within Judaism the concept of baptism was present within the culture. We have what
scholars call a proselyte baptism. This type of baptism functioned as a ritual cleansing. This was
a cleansing for those who became Jewish and was understood as the individual was dead and
came back to life. The convert would be even given a new name (a tradition that many in the
church still practice when they baptize the new born) and would be received in the community.
This was the most common practice for baptism we have in the first 1
century. The second type
of baptism is taken from the community of the Essenes. They were a Jewish monastic
community who isolated themselves living in the Qumran region in Palestine. They originated
around 100 BC as a reaction to the secularism of the Jewish people. The group was apocalyptic
in their ideology and always thought the end of the world was nearing. To be accepted into the
group one had to go through a ritual cleansing which the community practiced occasionally. You
were not restricted to the amount of times you can go through the ritual so it became a common
practice within the community. The third and last type of baptism we find in the Jewish tradition
is the baptism of John the Baptist. The gospels begin and end with repentance and baptism. This
is when we get the figure of Jesus into the story who was baptized by John. Baptism was central
to the gospel account that even Josephus, the famous 1
century Jewish historian calls John the
baptizer. Unlike the Essenes John did go around preaching and baptizing. The baptism of John
emphasised repentance and change in behaviour (Lk 3.10-14). This leads to the baptism of
The baptism of Christ is presented in the gospels in the context of Jesus ministry. It was
hard for early Christians (and even Christians today) to understand how the Son of God can be
baptized by another human being. John the Baptist is presented as the first confessor of the faith
in Christ (cf. Jn 1.24-36). In Luke Jesus is baptized and then Jesus begins to pray as the Holy
Spirit descends on him after his baptism. The link between Christ and his ministry is present in
his baptism (as it should be linked to our own mission). The synoptic gospels presents the
baptism as the prophetic commissioning of Jesus as the prophets of the Old Testament were
presented to the nation of Israel. Baptism is the beginning point of Christs mission. The event is
interpreted as affirming him being divinely authorized. His messiahhood is preached when the
Holy Spirit is sent by God and is present throughout Jesus works. It is this which becomes a
model for our baptism and we discover our own identity. We are united to God through our
New Testament:
It is hard to discern what the practice was in the early church. The New Testament is
written for those who are already baptized and so it does not have instructions on how to do it.
What is stressed in the New Testament is the necessity of baptism. Baptism is the symbol of
passage; it is the symbol of conversion of the old into the new as well as the sign of submission
to God on the one hand. Baptism is presented as a sign of recognition to those it has called to the
faith. The Holy Spirit precedes the church and faith. The Holy Spirit starts the process of
conversion. Faith is a response to the preaching. And preaching is not instruction rather
preaching is the event that occurs by choice as it is presented to your face. We are called to react
to Christ; to react to the past, and in fact not to react to past sins but to the past life. Sin is not
merely infraction of the old law, but sin rather breaking away from God. Sin is not recognizing
Jesus when we do not face him. Sin is alienation from God. Sin therefore can be identified by
those who have been saved from it. In the New Testament this is the theme and it starts the
working out and understanding of what it means to be a Christian. It is not only true that faith is
a pre-condition to salvation because salvation can bring faith. If one looks at the Apostles and the
Virgin Mary, at Pentecost there is no evidence that the Apostles or Mary were ever baptized. For
them is seems there baptism was there immediate participation of the passion of Christ. The book
of the Acts on the other hand records a few baptisms that we will turn our focus too.
The first case is Acts chapter 2 which is the first Pentecost; the good news is that Jesus is
Lord and Christ. The second account is in Acts 8.14-17. Peter asked the Spirit to descend on the
Samaritans. This is a unique situation because they were already baptized and then the spirit
came on them. The laying of the hands in unique to Luke with the exception to one reference in
the entire scripture in Hebrews which lays out the criteria that communion with the church in
Jerusalem is necessary for the laying down of the hands. In Acts 8.26, we have the story of
Phillip and the Ethiopian woman where baptism requires a confession of faith. In Acts 10 you
have the story of Cornelius. He was already living a good life before he sees Christ and is
converted. In a dream he is told to call Peter and as he speaks the Spirit falls on them and then
you have the baptism occurring. The spirit comes before baptism in this situation and they come
to the church and the Christian community spread to the gentiles. Other passages from the book
of the Acts give different accounts regarding baptism. In Acts 16 we have the baptism of Lydia
and her household. This is one passage that many use to justify infant baptism (which is not the
focus on this paper). Also in Acts 16 we have the baptism of the jailer and his household. With
these two baptisms in chapter 16 there is no preparation of the believer but rather an immediate
talk and response occurring. This shows the different practices that were present in the New
Testament. There was no conformity and the practice was wide spread. To conclude this section
on the New Testament practices of baptism a few points can be made First you have kerygmatic
preaching about the risen Christ. Then follows with a response of faith. Then follows baptism
plus the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then life in a spirit filled community. We see this in Acts 2.42
when the community came together to break bread. Baptism inaugurates us into a life dominated
by the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the context of the New Testament was not understood as a means
of cleansing any original sin but rather it was an entrance point into the church. The church is the
gathering of the community coming together in the body of Christ. Baptism was and will always
be the entrance point of the catechumen. We will now turn to the patristic period and see how the
practice of baptism was done and understood in the early Christian community.
Baptism in the New Testament was a practice of acceptance into the church community.
In terms of theological understanding the New Testament does not lay out a concise theological
understanding however, hints of the development of the theological understanding of baptism
emerge in the letters and gospels. Baptism is reconciliation with Christ and his Church. The
implications of Baptism are laid out with Paul and Peter. We will deal with the gospels following
Paul and Peter. We begin with Paul because he is the earlier writer.
Romans 6.3-11 is speaking within the context of the newness of the new age. What
difference does the death of Christ mean to us? On one side you have Adam who sinned and
therefore brings about death. On the other side you have Christ who brings grace which therefore
leads to life. Adam represents the old humanity and Christ is the new humanity. There is no
continuity; there is a sharp dividing line. The dividing line is the death of Christ. Baptism is the
continuity were we experience Christ himself. The way the writers of the New Testament present
it is that the death of Christ was for us and it demands a reaction from us and this reaction is to
share in that death experienced in our own baptism (cf. Gal 3.27). This means that we are free
from the law but to be free from the law we are bound in a deeper submission to God. In
Galatians it is done through faith while in Romans it is through baptism. The death of Christ is
something that engages us. The way that Paul presents it is that we are buried with him through
baptism into death. Water represents death. We are now a new people and thats why Paul says
to the community that they seem shocked that you are not living in this community. There was a
separation from the community which Paul sought to correct. Now as a new people we are to
walk in newness of life without death and without sin. Pauls Christ does not mean a model of
Christ but incorporation into Christ, his image of the church, Christ being the head and we are its
members. This incorporation into Christ is an ongoing situation of being constantly crucified
with Christ. As Christians we are in a constant state of limitation. We are not of the world but we
are fully not out of it. Shifting from Paul we now turn to Peters letters.
The letter of 1
Peter is addressed to suffering Christians who had suffered. The letter is
broken into two parts. The first part some claim is a baptismal sermon (1.3-4.11) and the second
part is an exaltation to endure (4.12-5.14). To remain faithful through the suffering redemption is
gained through baptism. This is a tension that is being fought out. Life is to be lived out in
holiness and brotherly love. There is a new reference to Old Testament typology to Noah and his
Arc. The few who responded to the voice are saved by the arc. Baptism is an appeal to surround
to God in faith and obedience as a new covenant. The new covenant with Noah was made
possible through the resurrection and death of Christ. Turing our focus to the gospel we will talk
about the gospel of John.
Johns gospel is full of baptismal imaginary. John 3.1-8 refers to two worlds in this
specific passage. Between water and wine, the old temple and the new, between the baptism of
John and the baptism of Jesus which gives the spirit. Jesus tells Nicodimus that one must be born
a new. This new birth is an act of God. None of us chose to be born. Washing belongs to the
world. What is new is the act of the spirit; which gives a new sense of identity. Faith shows to be
inseparable from baptism (cf. Jn 3.14). Going away from the gospel of John and looking at the
first letter of John we see more themes to baptism. 1 John 5.4-8 speaks about regeneration
associated with believing in Christ being the Son of God. This belief is a sign that the person is a
child of God and has overcome the world. What makes this possible is that Christ really shares
both our life and death, grounded in the incarnation and the cross. Here the emphasis is on
baptism as a proclamation of the churches faith promoted by the spirit. John takes on a different
method when comparing this to St. Paul.
It is clear that baptism is understood as a crucial moment as a transition. Belonging to the
people of God it is also a pledge for the future. Why? Because it awaits fulfillment-fulfillment in
the parosia. The effects of baptism are a new set of relationships through incorporation of the
community of the church. Through this relationship we now have the ability to call God Abba.
This is only made possible through our baptism in Christ. The Holy Spirit has an important role
to play, no one can call God father expect by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit acts but we are
called to react and to accept Christ and we accept Christ through baptism. Have looked now at
the New Testament sources we will turn our attention to the Patristic era and see what we get
from the first 4
centuries of the church practice of baptism.
Patristic Era:
The first early church source is the Didache. A text that was written in the late 1
or early 2
century however it reflects early usage towards the late 1
century. The author is
unknown and we only have it in one manuscript. Chapter 7 gives a description of baptism.
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: 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 you have no
living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm.
But if you have neither, pour out water three times 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
whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before (Chapter 7).
Rehearsing the teaching, a moral instruction of what to do and what you do not do, probably
deriving from Jewish background. Baptism according to the Didache must be based on the trinity
formula and an emphasis on living water is made. The fasting before baptism is also stressed
because fasting is secondary ritual showing a separation of life and if your stomach is full then it
shows that the worldly pleasures are consuming your mind rather than Christ. The fast represents
dying in Christ. Fasting is not only for the person being baptized but the one who is doing it and
anyone else who is present needs to be fasting. Baptism is understood as a corporate act so the
community also fasts. In chapter 9 of the Didache only the baptized can participate in the
Eucharist. A few details that we have in the New Testament accounts is missing from the
Didache. There is no mention of the Holy Spirit, no laying on of hands, there is no mention of
infant baptism and there is no mention that baptism is connected in dying and rising in Christ as
mentioned in the letters of Paul. The next text we will look at is from the first apology of Justin
The text of Justin Martyr was written in 160 AD addressed to the emperor of the Roman
Empire (Emperor Pius). His first apology is more developed from the Didache. The text
reference fasting by the entire church and then the baptism is identified with rebirth and
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to
be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the
remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought
by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were
ourselves regenerated (Apology 1.61).

After baptism the entire community is lead to the gathered assembly which concludes with
the Eucharist liturgy. This system developed by Justine Martyr is more developed compared to
the Didache. During this time we also have a witness from Tertullian.
Tertullian was a lawyer who used strong words throughout his works. Baptism should not be
given easily. The church should acquire good behavior for baptism. He speaks of the baptism of
children and says this practice is dangerous and that sponsors might die and they were made sure
that the children would stay in church. Tertullian did not like the practice of infant baptism and
spoke out against it. The following are some passages from Tertullians treatise on Baptism:
In the next place the hand is laid on us, invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit through
benediction. Shall it be granted possible for human ingenuity to summon a spirit into water,
and by the application of hands from above, to animate their union into one body with
another spirit of so clear sound; and shall it not be possible for God, in the case of His own
organ, to produce, by means of holy hands, a sublime spiritual modulationthat is, to our
flesh-as it emerges from the font, after its old sins flies the dove of the Holy Spirit, bringing
us the peace of God, sent out from the heavens where is the Church, the typified ark. But the
world returned unto sin; in which point baptism would be compared to the deluge. And so it
is destined to fire; just as the man too is who after baptism renews his sins: so that this also
ought to be accepted as a sign for our admonition (Treaties on Baptism Chapter 8).
In this text he sees baptism as the remission of personal sin. His argument is that children do
not have person sin so what is the point of their baptism. If you understand it as that then his
point makes sense or if you look at the Augustine formula then it also makes sense. But baptism
is far more than remission of sin, birth of a new life, a life into a new community where we are
nourished in the Eucharist, so the argument of excluding them is also cutting them from the
community. Based on Tertullian we get the Roman Catholic practice of separating baptism and
confirmation. In the Orthodox Church Baptism always follows with the Chrism and partaking of
the Eucharist. Tertullian is also a witness of baptism on Easter.
The Passover affords a more than usually solemn day for baptism; when, withal, the Lords
passion, in which we are baptized, was completed. Nor will it be incongruous to interpret
figuratively the fact that, when the Lord was about to celebrate the last Passover, He said to
the disciples who were sent to make preparation, you will meet a man bearing water. He
points out the place for celebrating the Passover by the sign of water (Treaties on Baptism
Chapter 19).
He also refers to the catechumen giving them instructions that they need to be fasting the
entire night, in prayer and partake of the all-night vigil before the baptism and this is our source
to how baptism is connected to Pascha. Tertullian concludes with the process and steps of
baptism but he does not expand on his theology. Tertullian is an excellent source on baptism in
the 2
and 3
By way of conclusion one can see from the development of the Jewish customs to the
New Testament and finally the Church fathers there was a wide practice regarding Baptism and
how it was carried out. By the 4
century we see a consensus emerging and a more stable
practice emerging because the empire now has become a Christian empire. With the Empire
becoming Christian another new practice is introduced- infant baptism. Adults were not baptized
anymore because the entire empire was Christian. This changed the theology and understanding
of baptism post 4
century. Baptism was never understood as the cleansing of the original sin but
rather as the entrance into life; life that is attained through ones death. We die to death as we
receive life in the body of Christ. The church is constantly growing and evolving and we must
maintain the traditions yet still continue to grow and understand what it means to be baptized
into the body of Christ. Baptism is regeneration and life and this explains why the Coptic priest
throws the water at the end of the liturgy. It is to remind us of our baptisms as infants that we
were given life in order to live out in union with God.