Baptism – The Testimony of the Early Church

J.Ryan Davidson, in an article entitled “Reflections on Baptism and the Early Church” 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.” – Didache 7

The sentence in bold above is from the non-canonical early church writing called the Didache (“teaching”). There is much that could be said here on this quote, and of course, given its non-canonical nature, it is not binding on the church of Jesus Christ. However, the document’s value lies in its ability to give us a picture of what the very early church looked like, specifically, that the first generation after the Apostles (depending on which scholarly dating is accepted-likely late 1st/early 2nd century) utilized this document as a book of church order in a manner of speaking. A few quick observations/reflections from this text:

a). Baptism was taken seriously, and was accompanied by fasting. Not that we must mandate fasting, but do we take the sign of the covenant…the profession of faith made in the waters of baptism as seriously in our worship? Christ himself told us he would be with us as we baptize (Matthew 28:18-20), is this not a serious endeavor? Our day is full of quick baptisms, with all sorts of irreverent schemes. Ought we not to consider the gravity of this endeavor?

b). This implies that the persons baptized were old enough to fast. An argument could be made here for credobaptism. In fact, most will agree that the first reference (credible and rightly interpreted in context) to infant baptism found in any of the early church documents was not until the 200’s A.D. Why no instruction before that if paedobaptism was the/a standard practice? This brief post in no ways discusses all of the issue in this debate, however, this is just a simple observation.

c). Baptism was accompanied by an intensity in reflection on the part of the person baptize, the baptizer and the church (“and whoever else can”). We would do well to reflect on this example. It may be an anachronistic interpretation, but if we assume that baptism is a “means of grace”, then isn’t there benefit in taking the baptism of others seriously, for we too, as observers, are spiritually nourished as Christ is present among His people and the waters of baptism are stirred?

d). We notice that the baptism formula was the Triune name and that immersion was a regular, if not the regular mode (“living water”=stream, river, etc. and notice that going into this water is later contrasted with pouring as a mode, so it clearly means immersion here). I fall in the camp that says that immersion is the preferred mode, but I am not convinced that the mode validates or invalidates a baptism. However, these sentences show us some cohesion with the New Testament record. To be clear, the New Testament is all we need, but as a historian, it is beautiful to see historical documents reflecting biblical practice.

Most people may not even know about the document called the “Didache”. For me, while not inerrant, inspired, infallible Word, it is a wonderful historical window into our early forebears. May we take the sacrament of baptism as seriously in our day.

“Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit…and I am with you to the end of the age…”-Jesus, Matthew 28

One thought on “Baptism – The Testimony of the Early Church

  1. I personally cannot give early legalism any more weight or credibility than I can give present day legalism. We know from scripture that there was heavy pressure in the early church by the Judaizers to add physical rituals to the gospel. I believe this to be a natural inclination on the part of humans, and must be guarded against. Paul took it as no small matter, but Peter and James just sort of ‘went along’ with it not wanting to create an issue even though they recognized that it was wrong and fell in step with Paul eventually. This is how it happens. It creeps in gradually. I’ve listen to the Jewish roots movement people say that ‘no, the feasts and the rituals are not necessary, BUT practicing these things is respect toward God, shows the seriousness of our worship, and respect for the holiness of God.’ That’s how it starts because the appeal seems reasonable.
    I appreciate something Paul said and apply this to these situations:
    1Co_4:6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.
    Going beyond what is written tends cause divisions in the church. Written in the canon of the bible, not written by early church fathers no matter how agreeable it seems to us.

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