Ancient Writings: Has Christianity Changed Views on Baptism Over Time?

Ancient Writings: Has Christianity Changed Views on Baptism Over Time?

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One of my favorite Christian speakers, William Lane Craig, when discussing baptism, said that it as an outward act to profess belief in Jesus, but also, in the moment he was speaking, seemed to be wrestling with some confusion. Paraphrasing a bit, he said that we know that baptism isn’t a lynchpin, but no believer could feel secure in their salvation without being baptized, as it was a command from God. He phrased it as being “in some way a part of the process of salvation.”

Holding baptism as both a part of salvation and yet of no ultimate value seemed odd to me. Christianity as a whole has gone through changes in perception over 2000 years, so I wondered what earlier Christians thought about immersion (baptism). Did they also find baptism to be an insignificant but cool moment which marks as an outward sign your inward profession of Jesus? I decided to do some snooping around to find out.


Early Understandings of the Relative Importance of Baptism

Many early Christians seemed to consider immersion to be vital, which is a huge contrast to our modern times. Around 110-165 AD, Justin Martyr wrote,

“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly…are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.

They then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all…there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe.” (ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus by Philip Schaff)

—Justin Martyr

Notice that Martyr quoted John 3, where Jesus explained that one must be born again, being born of the water and the Spirit. (John 3:3-5) Martyr, like Jesus, says that being born again occurs in baptism, and that baptism takes place in water. In our point in modernity, many don’t believe that baptism is of much significance, and certainly not to the degree that Martyr and Jesus seemed to.

If Martyr is correct, people who believed that Jesus was the son of God were also baptized out of belief, and with good cause. Martyr also wrote about those who desired to follow Christ saying,

“They are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. […] They then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'” (ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus by Philip Schaff)

—Justin Martyr

Martyr referred to this washing of baptism as a “regeneration.” Why did he call it that? It’s likely in reference to Titus 3:5, which says, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)

This same wording—equating baptism with a removal of sins and with a bestowing of the Holy Spirit—is found elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, that passage from Titus is very similar to a section from Acts: “Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

In that passage, we see washing in immersion and renewing by the Holy Spirit. Being born again happens with immersion, at least as Martyr and some parts of the Bible describe it.


Baptism as Belief

What is fascinating to me is that early Christians very solidly equated baptism with belief. To them, if you believed, you were immediately baptized. There was no delaying. Martyr speaks to this when he writes,

“There, the one who refuses to be baptized is to be condemned as an unbeliever, partially on the basis of what Jesus told Nicodemus….He that, out of contempt, will not be baptized, shall be condemned as an unbeliever, and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. […] For the Lord says: ‘Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ And again: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved but he that believeth not shall be damned.'” (Mark 16:16)

(The Complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Collection of Early Church Fathers: Cross-Linked to the Bible (only $2.99))

—Justin Martyr

Condemning someone as an unbeliever for not being baptized is shocking in modern times! While Martyr thought about Mark’s writings, it reminded me of a different part of the Bible where belief and baptism are equated. Acts 19:2-3:

“And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?

Paul equates believing with baptism in this passage. Did this happen when you believed? No? Well what was this baptism then? This makes sense though, because part of our belief in Christ is in His resurrection. In that respect, we see that belief, baptism, and Christ are often contemporaneous, as noted in the second chapter of Colossians:

“In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12)

Despite the above, baptism can seem like an odd thing: since when has getting wet meant anything to God? Why did it just pop up out of nowhere? In 2nd Kings 5:10-14, a man named Naaman had the same disbelief when God told him to immerse himself in a dirty river to be made clean again. Yet he finally did, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

God indicates, as we saw above, that baptism does this for our spirits rather than our corporeal bodies, and makes us clean of sin. It is like being born again. Between 120-205 AD, Irenaeus, an early Christian, wrote,

“As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'” (Saint Irenæus (120-202) Fragments, Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson)

—Irenaeus

Irenaeus, like Martyr, took God’s words to be deadly serious. He went on to say,

“This class of men has been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole faith.” (The First Principles of the Faith, A Handbook of Christian Doctrine)

—Irenaeus

According to Irenaeus, as early as 100-200 AD, Satan was already trying to convince people that baptism was pointless and that when God says, “baptism now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:18-21) it wasn’t really true. This is very similar to Satan’s tricks with Adam and Eve, where he simply contests what God has said by making it seem silly.

Still, why would saying “baptism isn’t important” be a renunciation of faith?  I imagine that Irenaeus was thinking of Colossians 2:12 when he wrote that, as Colossians says, “having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

It is likely that Irenaeus and others believed that if we don’t have faith in God raising us in baptism, we don’t have faith in His work, which they would have seen as a renunciation of faith. 


Baptism and Water: How and Why?

Although I am only providing a small sliver of the early Christian writings about baptism, many of them contain the exact same, Bible-based reasoning. I mentioned earlier how Naaman was confused about the importance of immersing himself in water, and it’s true that people still wonder why water would be important. Between 140-230 AD, Tertullian wrote on this subject:

“After the world had been hereupon set in order through its elements, when inhabitants were given it, ‘the waters’ were the first to receive the precept ‘to bring forth living creatures.’ Water was the first to produce that which had life, that it might be no wonder in baptism if waters know how to give life.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325)

—Tertullian

To me it seems that God has always used water: priests had to cleanse themselves with it first, he cleaned the world and saved Noah’s family with it, He washed Naaman with it, and He used it to select soldiers. Indeed, we see the importance of water from the very second verse of the Bible:

  • Genesis 1:2— The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
  • Luke 3:21-22— Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”
  • Galatians 3:26-27— For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ 

Notice in the flow above that the Holy Spirit is associated with water. Hovering over water in the beginning, alighting on Jesus when He arose from the water, and clothing us all in Jesus when we are immersed. While water may seem strange given how far we’ve moved in time from Jesus’ days here on earth, it seems that it would be stranger for us to believe that God suddenly sees no value in it. 

Irenaeus of Lyons, around 200AD, made a beautiful connection between the Old and New Covenants, and why baptism in water is important. He said,

“`And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us.

For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: `Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’.” (John 3:5) (Schaff, as above also)

—Iranaeus

On the topic of baptizing, we’ve already seen a number of examples of people immersing themselves in water: going down into it and coming out again. Jesus himself did it. The word “baptizo,” from which we get “baptism,” means to immerse or dip something. Today some people do baptism by sprinkling or misting people with water, which doesn’t seem to fit either the definition of the original word of any of the practices that we see.

This history of “immersion” without immersion seems to be relatively early in Christianity, though it didn’t “hold water” with those observing it. Tertullian wrote that baptism was indeed a “plunging” bodily into water in AD 203.

“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins.”  (On Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).

—Tertullian

When the anti-pope Novatian was on his deathbed, Eusebius remarked on the ongoings of “sprinkling baptism/immersion” and showed some incredulity that one might call such a practice immersion. Writing in 258AD, he said:

“He (Novatian) fell into a grievous distemper, and it being supposed that he would die immediately, he received baptism, being besprinkled with water on the bed whereon he lay, if that can be termed baptism.” (Paedobaptism Examined; with Replies to the Arguments and Objections of Dr. Willians and Mr. Peter Edwards, by Abraham Booth)

—Eusebius

It also seems that Novatian was using baptism as his last-ditch effort to express a change of heart if he was even conscious at the time. In, “Novatus, his Manner of Life and Heresy” (which I find very readable), the same remark is made with slightly easier wording:

But Satan, who entered and dwelt in him for a long time, became the occasion of his believing. Being delivered by the exorcists, he fell into a severe sickness; and as he seemed about to die, he received baptism by affusion, on the bed where he lay; if indeed we can say that such a one did receive it.

And when he was healed of his sickness he did not receive the other things which it is necessary to have according to the canon of the Church, even the being sealed by the bishop. And as he did not receive this, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?”

What I find remarkable about the passage is that even that early, those who professed a belief in Christ saw sprinkling as a departure from actual baptism, which they viewed as salvific and associated with the Holy Spirit.

Since I’ve gone on a tangent about sprinkling, I should give a couple of references to support that baptism (immersion) was not done that way until man decided to make it “more convenient.”

“It is without controversy that baptism in the primitive church was administered by immersion into water and not by sprinkling; seeing that John is said to have baptized in Jordan, and where there was much water, as Christ also did by his disciples in the neighborhood of these places. Phillip also going down into the water baptized the eunuch.” (Reference: Ecclesiastical History, Chapter I, Sec. 138.)

“Immersion and not sprinkling was unquestionably the original form. This is shown by the very meaning of the words baptizo, baptisma, and baptismos, used to designate the rite.” (Reference: History of the Apostolic Church, Schaff, p. 488.)

Novatus was an example of an early “Christian” attempting to avoid baptism, for whatever reason, and Tertullian’s accounts let us know that fairly early on Satan was attacking the institution of immersion. He wrote,

“But they roll back an objection from that apostle himself, in that he said, ‘For Christ sent me not to baptize;’ [1 Cor 1:17—Luke] as if by this argument baptism were done away! For if so, why did he baptize Gaius, and Crispus, and the house of Stephanas?

However, even if Christ had not sent him to baptize, yet He had given other apostles the precept to baptize. But these words were written to the Corinthians in regard of the circumstances of that particular time; seeing that schisms and dissensions were agitated among them, while one attributes everything to Paul, another to Apollos.

For which reason the ‘peacemaking’ apostle, for fear he should seem to claim all gifts for himself, says that he had been sent ‘not to baptize, but to preach.’ For preaching is the prior thing, baptizing the posterior. Therefore the preaching came first: but I think baptizing withal was lawful to him to whom preaching was.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325)

—Tertullian

In my opening thoughts, I mentioned Dr. William Lane Craig’s remarks that, at least to me, seemed to show some vacillation on his part about his beliefs on immersion. Dr. Craig indeed mentioned the objection that Tertullian brought up above in explaining why he had conflicted thoughts on immersion. I think that Tertullian’s understanding of the conflict is accurate.


Baptism: Important or Just Kewl?

If baptism were not important, Satan wouldn’t want to attack it. But because it’s critical, he often goes at it first. Read this incredible analogy by Tertullian, noting Satan’s supernaturally evil attempt to undermine baptism:

“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life!

The consequence is, that a viper of the Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism. Which is quite in accordance with nature; for vipers and asps and serpents themselves generally do affect arid and waterless places. 

But we, little fishes after the example of our ikhthus, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes, by taking them away from the water!” (Reference: ibid)

We can also say that if water and baptism were important to God, they’d have shown up as important to Jesus Christ, too. Tertullian also pieced that together, and found from the Bible that baptism and Christ are inextricably bound, in life and in death:

“How mighty is the grace of water, in the sight of God and His Christ, for the confirmation of baptism! Never is Christ without water: if, that is, He is Himself baptized in water; inaugurates in water the first rudimentary displays of his power, when invited to the wedding; invites the thirsty, when He makes a discourse, to Himself being living water; approves, when teaching concerning love, among works of charity, the cup of water offered to a poor child; recruits His strength at a well; walks over the water; willingly crosses the sea; ministers water to his disciples.”

“Onward even to the passion does the witness of baptism last: while He is being surrendered to the cross, water intervenes; witness Pilate’s hands: when He is wounded, forth from His side bursts water; witness the soldier’s lance!… True and stable faith is baptized with water, unto salvation; pretended and weak faith is baptized with fire, unto judgment.” (Reference: ibid.)

Similar to Tertullian’s reasoning was that of Theophilus of Antioch, who in 181 AD wrote,

“Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God.” (Reference: To Autolycus 12:16 [A.D. 181]).

The concept of water and eternal life being linked should start to be clear by now, but it goes further than I’ve yet elucidated.

In 1 John 5:6-7, God says, “the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” When Christ died, the blood and water came out. We contact Christ’s death, and thus his blood, in the waters of immersion. It is this blood of the Lamb which cleanses us. Around 150-200 AD, Clement wrote,

“We are washed from all our sins, and are no longer entangled in evil. This is the one grace of illumination, that our characters are not the same as before our washing… In the same way, therefore, we also, repenting of our sins, renouncing our iniquities, purified by baptism, speed back to the eternal light, children to the Father.” (The Sacred Writings of Clement)

—Clement

Clement equated baptism with becoming a child of God. Why would this be? Galatians 3:26-27 explains his reasoning, saying, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Around 200AD, Cyprian wrote about being a son of God being tied in with immersion. He wrote,

“But what a thing it is, to assert and contend that they who are not born in the Church can be the sons of God! For the blessed apostle sets forth and proves that baptism is that wherein the old man dies and the new man is born, saying, ‘He saved us by the washing of regeneration.’ But if regeneration is in the washing, that is, in baptism, how can heresy, which is not the spouse of Christ, generate sons to God by Christ?” (Readings in Church History, Johnathan Marshall)

—Cyprian

Although long, it behooves us to read Romans 6:3-11, since Cyprian mentions it, and it is the old way to have the old man die, and have a new man be born:

“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”


My Conclusions from This

So what are my thoughts? I think that Christians have gotten away from the natural reading of the Biblical texts, nowadays seeing immersion as some strange, perfunctory ritual to be saved for a convenient time. It seems to me that early Christians were immersed as soon as possible. Look at the response of the Ethiopian eunuch when he realized that he needed to be immersed:

“As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)

God said, “My salvation will not delay,” in Isaiah 46:13. In Acts 22:16, He questioned Paul, saying, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

Why is He so insistent that we not delay? Because He wants our sins washed away, and He wants us to be in a covenant relationship with Him. Whereas Genesis 17:10-14 describes the use of physical circumcision and its purpose to achieve a covenant in the Old Testament, saying in part,

“This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among…shall be circumcised in the flesh…And the uncircumcised male child…shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:10-14)

Under the New Covenant this physical circumcision is no longer required. God explains to us that circumcision was nothing more than a shadow of the spiritual reality of baptism.

“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col 2:11-12)

We enter into a covenant relationship with Christ in immersion, wherein our spiritual circumcision takes place. It is in this that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, too, as we see so many early “church fathers” discussing. It is in immersion that we become a part of Ezekiel’s prophecy:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)


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