Baptism – A Historical Perspective: Part 1

Most everyone who professes Christianity agrees baptism is important. In fact, the overwhelming majority agrees that for over 2,000 years baptism has been very important. Jesus Himself was baptized, He commanded His followers to be baptized, and the apostles and early church leaders baptized those who came to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. The New Testament clearly demonstrates that baptism mattered to the early church and history shows that baptism has continued to matter to people professing Christianity.

While everyone agrees that baptism is important today, the subject has become rife with controversy. The controversy is not because of a lack of Bible material on the subject. There are many clear and straightforward passages in both the Bible’s narrative and teaching sections that reveal God’s purpose and mode for baptism. They spread over the whole range of the New Testament, from the Gospels and Acts to the Pauline and general epistles. Therefore, the controversy today has not developed because of a lack of clear teaching in God’s Word on the subject, but because of well-documented departures from that teaching by religious leaders over the past 2,000 years.

This brief article will present God’s original purpose and mode for baptism and document some of the major departures that have occurred from that teaching through the years.

What the Bible Says

A clear understanding of the Greek New Testament vocabulary should clarify some of the confusion over the meaning of baptism. The words “baptism” and “baptize” were not English words originally, but they are transliterations of the Greek noun and verb. In other words, the Greek form of the words is retained with English letters being substituted for the Greek letters.

The words bapto (4 occurrences) and baptizo (77 occurrences) mean “to dip in or under,” “to sink,” to immerse.” Two noun forms, baptisma (19 occurrences) and baptismos (4 occurrences), are generally rendered as “baptism” (cf. Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12), or “washing” (Mk. 7:4; Heb.9:10), depending upon the context. Baptistes (12 occurrences), “one who immerses,” is used to depict John the Baptist (Kittel, Vol. 1, pp.529-544).

The following references give a synopsis of the purpose and mode of baptism in the New Testament:

  • Baptism most commonly refers to a ritual in water, and at a place with sufficient water to accommodate immersion (Mt. 3:6; Jn. 3:23). It requires going “down into” the water and coming up “out of” the water (Acts 8:38-39; cf. Mk. 1:10).
  • “Faith” (Mk. 15:16), “repentance” (Acts 2:38), and “confession” (Acts 8:36-37) are all requisites that precede baptism.
  • The ritual results in forgiveness, or having the guilt of one’s sins “washed away” (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 3:21).
  • Genuine baptism translates one from outside of Christ “into Christ” (Gal. 3:27), and into the benefits of the Lord’s death (Rom. 6:3).
  • This act of obedience constitutes one a member of the “one body” (1 Cor. 12:13), of which Christ is the Savior (Eph. 5:23).

Departures from the New Testament Pattern

During the first 50 years after the death of the Apostle John, the church struggled to maintain apostolic purity. Inspired writers warned of an impending apostasy from “the faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3-4). Paul warned the Ephesian elders regarding “wolves” that would invade the flock of God, and that some of the wolves would come from within the leadership of the church. Men with base motives of self-interest would proselyte their own disciples (Acts 20:28-30). The time would come when some would no longer endure sound doctrine, and would depart from the faith, exchanging truth for error (1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1ff; 4:1-4). Such lawlessness was beginning to work at an early stage in the church’s existence (2 Thes. 2:1-12). Virtually every epistle in the New Testament deals with some sort of departure from the New Testament pattern that began to surface in the apostolic age.

To safeguard against such departures, the apostle Paul warns us to adhere to the “Word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). If a change in doctrine or organization cannot be found in the New Testament, we can be safe in concluding it is a departure. This test is the only one needed.

History clearly shows departures came regarding the doctrine of baptism; departures in the manner of administering baptism, the proper subjects of baptism, and the role of baptism in the scheme of redemption.

Departures from Immersion

As indicated earlier, the word “baptize” is a transliteration of the Greek word bapto, literally meaning “immerse.” It never means to sprinkle or pour water upon a subject. The Greek language has specific terms for “sprinkling” (rhantizo) and “pouring” (ekcheo), and these terms are used regularly in the New Testament. However, they are never used to designate the action used in the religious act of baptizing.

Dictionaries of the Greek usage of “baptize” show that a person wading through a river is “baptized” up to the waist, and a net is described as “baptized” while the cork holding it up is not. Naaman in 2 Kings 5:14 went completely underwater in the Jordan (one of the few occurrences of baptizo in the Greek Old Testament). It follows that New Testament baptism is a burial in water (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).

Scholars across all denominational lines (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) concede that baptism in first-century Palestine involved getting the entire body wet by immersion. There are many supporting references to immersion found in the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which date up to the year A.D. 325. Leading Protestant authorities agree, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley.

However, the Didache, a second-century church document, allows for pouring—but not sprinkling—of water only when immersion (preferably in cold flowing water) is just not possible. For example, a man named Novatian (ca. A.D. 251) received an emergency baptism by having water poured all over him while he lay in bed, since it was feared he would soon die. Such an emergency baptism is called “clinical” baptism (from the Greek word for “bed”). When Novatian was later elevated to the priesthood, there was much protest due to his unorthodox and incomplete baptism.  Eusebius (ca. A.D. 263-340), known as the “father of church history,” says restrictions were put upon Novatian because “it was not lawful that one baptized in his sick bed by aspersion (pouring), as he was, should be promoted to any order of the clergy” (266).

By the middle of the third century, Cyprian, a church dignitary in Carthage, was still reluctant to declare sprinkling as a valid a mode of baptism.  He writes:

You have asked also, dearest son, what I thought of those who obtain God’s grace in sickness and weakness, whether they are to be accounted legitimate Christians, for that they are not to be washed, but sprinkled, with saving water. . . . In the sacrament of salvation, when necessity compels, and God bestows his mercy, the divine methods do not confer whole benefits on believers; nor ought it to trouble anyone that sick people seemed to be sprinkled or affused, when they obtain the Lord’s grace (Vol. 5, 400-401).

Even by A.D. 753, Pope Stephen II while in France was being asked by monks from Cressy in Brittany whether it was valid to sprinkle an infant on the head. There are later councils (e.g., Calcuith, A.D. 816) that insist that even infants must be immersed. For a long time in church history, people who experienced only this “clinical” baptism could not partake of the Lord’s Supper until they were fully immersed. In fact, it is universally acknowledged that sprinkling and pouring did not become officially recognized as alternative modes to immersion until the Council of Ravenna in A.D. 1311 (John D. Castelein 140-141).


Article by: Carl Johnson