What was the original and historic Christian mode?
Christian baptism replaced John’s, and so did its distinctly Trinitarian formula and mode. In instituting it our Saviour declared:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:18-20).
Being by the risen Christ’s authority (“All authority has been given to Me … Go therefore … baptizing”), the importance of baptism is settled from the outset. And what does our Lord Jesus Christ show us, concerning the mode or manner in which it should be administered (our sole focus in this brief overview)? Far more, in fact, than what a superficial reading might suggest.
Hence in the modern Bible Society Hebrew New Testament, “baptizing” is rendered here at Matthew 28:19 as tabal – the same word used of a modern submarine being “submerged”. Likewise in the modern (English) Jewish New Testament, “baptized” in Romans 6:3 is similarly rendered as “immersed”.
“If I were to ask you to ‘write the name of your father, your mother, and your uncle’ on a piece of paper, how many names would you have written? Even though I asked you to write the ‘name’ (singular) of your father, mother, and uncle, you would have written three names, not just one. In the same way, the command to ‘baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ entails three immersions, not just one”.
Thus the Greek Orthodox – the natural heirs to the Greek language written by the apostles – have universally taken this to mean baptism by threefold immersion, as will shortly be noted. Far from being a strained eisegesis, or “reading into”, Christ’s Great Commission, threefold immersion is thus its utterly natural exegesis – “directly of our Saviour’s own appointment”, as the learned Whiston (Sir Isaac Newton’s immediate successor at Cambridge University) observed above.
This, of course, does not represent three baptisms, but one with three immersions (tri-one, hence “trine”). It perfectly answers to the Trinity, where likewise the “three are one” (1 John 5:7). Thus Alcuin – king Charlemagne’s adviser and in his day Europe’s most respected scholar – declared of baptism’s administration:
“Then the priest baptizes … by trine immersion invoking the holy Trinity only once, and speaking thus: ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father’, and he immerses him once; ‘and of the Son’, and he immerses him again; ‘and of the Holy Spirit’, and he immerses him a third time”. (Italics in original).
Against this it may be objected that in Acts baptism is described as being “in the name of Jesus Christ” (eg., Acts 2:38), or such like. But this does not denote a different formula, but simply Christ’s authority, just as Peter and John in the identical words commanded the crippled man to walk “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 3:6) – that is, by His authority. Otherwise why did Paul ask the twelve Ephesian disciples what baptism they had had, when they told him they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-3)? His question, as has been noted, is a “complete non-sequitur”, if the baptism then practised did not contain the Trinitarian formula of “Father … Son … and Holy Spirit”. Confirming this is the expressly Trinitarian baptism recorded by both Justin Martyr and the Didache/Teaching within a century of Matthew’s Gospel being written, leaving no doubt as to the Triune formula being used.
“But doesn’t the Didache itself allow, as a last resort where immersion is simply not available, also a triple pouring?”, someone may rejoin. Indeed it does. But such an exception only confirms the rule – no more setting it aside than the occasional permission, in all churches, for a layman to baptize in a deathbed-type emergency, negates the norm of baptism being by the ordained clergy or local church leadership. Besides, some scholars hold that the pouring concession in the Didache (7:3) was actually a later interpolation or addition. This is the strong view of Didache specialist Jean-Paul Audet, and also of Kurt Niederwimmer, while Everett Ferguson even believes it refers to pouring in the case of a standing semi-immersion, where the whole body is still thoroughly drenched (effectively the same outcome for someone, say, with a phobia about being submerged). Whatever, it is hardly honest for such a remote exception – assuming it was even in the original – to be used against the regular rule and observance.
Far from some fringe novelty, trine or triple immersion was thus the normative and effectively universal practice of the early Church (sickbed emergencies aside). That is, those closest in time to Christ and His apostles, who were best placed to know what the regular apostolic mode was, administered threefold immersion as their standard form of baptism. Witness their consistent attestation to its practice:
|Tertullian: (gave us the word Trinity)||“And, indeed, it is not once only, but three times that we are immersed into the Three Persons, at each respective mention of their names.” (Ag. Praxeas, 26).|
|Jerome: (Bible translator)||“Thrice we are immersed, that there may appear one sacrament of the Trinity.” (Ephesians, 4:5).|
|Cyril of Jerusalem: (renowned bishop)||“And you … sank down three times into the water, and again came up.” (Initiation, 2:4).|
|Athanasius: (heroic opposer of heresy)||“For that the child sinks down thrice in the font, and comes up, this shows the death, and the resurrection on the third day, of Christ.” (Questions on the Psalms, 92).|
|Basil the Great: (champion of orthodoxy and a founder of Christian hospitals)||“This great sign of baptism is fulfilled in three immersions, with three invocations, so that the image of death might be completely formed …”. (On the Holy Spirit, p.59).|
|Pope Gregory the Great: (sent missionaries to England)||“Then let the priest baptize with a triple immersion [trina mersione].” (Order of Sacraments).|
|Dr William Cave: (Anglican historian)||“The party to be baptized was wholly immerged, or put under water … . This immersion was performed thrice, the person baptized being three several [distinct] times put under water”. (Primitive Christianity, pp.152,155-7). |
Reflecting this, Didymus, the influential head of Athanasius’ fourth-century school at Alexandria, said that those coming over to the Church from heretical groups had to be baptized by triple immersion. This does not, for a moment, mean that single immersion is invalid, but simply that triple immersion was the normative gold standard and touchstone of orthodoxy. This is still reflected by the Greek Orthodox today (who can surely be credited with understanding their own Greek language). As Timothy Ware observes:
“Orthodox still baptize by threefold immersion, as in the primitive Church … Orthodox are disturbed by the fact that western Christendom, abandoning the primitive practice of Baptism by immersion, is now content merely to pour a little water over the candidate’s forehead … though some Orthodox clergy have grown careless about observing the proper practice, there is no doubt about the true Orthodox teaching: immersion is essential (except in emergencies, sic).” (Emphasis added).
Significantly, those who, on account of an emergency sickbed baptism, did not receive immersion, but only pouring or sprinkling, were debarred in the early Church from ordination and the ministerial office. The fourth century historian Eusebius expressly states this in his Ecclesiastical History: “[I]t was not lawful that one baptized in his sick bed by aspersion [pouring], … should be promoted to any order of the clergy”. In other words, it would appear that not just all the Church Fathers, but even all – or very nearly all – of her thousands of early ministers, were, to the best of our knowledge, baptized by immersion (which, in the context of the times, as we have seen, clearly means threefold immersion). The only exception to this that I am aware of, Novatus, was himself under a doctrinal cloud, though otherwise apparently a sound Trinitarian.
Even with Patrick’s conversion of the Irish, immersion was the standard practice, as one of his modern biographers, Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, records:
“Baptism in those days was by total immersion after the manner of Baptist baptism today … a washing of the whole body [emphasis added].”
That this was by triple immersion is seen from the Irish Council of Cashel in 1172, where Patrick’s practice of seven centuries earlier was essentially reaffirmed in its Canon 1, which decreed that baptism shall be “by trine immersion, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.
Luther was just as emphatic as Patrick about this requirement (Large Catechism, Baptism 65), as Max Johnson also observes:
“Luther himself was adamant that baptism be administered by submersion, a literal three-fold dipping of the naked infant in the font. As early as 1519 he wrote in defence of this practice.”
Thankfully Luther emphasized more than just the mode of baptism – important though this is. It is to him that the whole church owes a debt of gratitude for restoring the ancient Gospel landmark of Justification by Grace alone through Faith. Yet, so far as the administration of baptism is concerned, the Reformer never deviated from his commitment to immersion, even declaring to his colleague Bugenhagen, about a pouring that took place in a Hamburg christening, that it was a misuse that “we ought to put away”.
Likewise John Wesley, whose surname is proudly borne today by a major Brisbane hospital, had no doubt that threefold immersion was the original apostolic mode of baptizing. As his friend and biographer Henry Moore wrote:
“When Mr Wesley baptized adults, professing faith in Christ, he chose to do it by trine immersion, if the person would submit to it, judging this to be the apostolic method of baptizing”. (Emphasis added).
“And we have seen and do testify”, declared John, “that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John 4:14; KJV). Everywhere that the Gospel anciently triumphed in the world, by the Holy Spirit, with repentance toward God and faith toward Christ, it was accompanied among the nations by the baptism of threefold immersion. In Germany the heroic Boniface, after felling the pagan Thor tree, baptized tens of thousands by trine immersion over the course of his ministry. In Russia Vladimir the Great (as the powerful prince came to be called) embraced Christianity and, with thousands of his subjects, famously went under the water three times in Kiev, in 988, as still attested by the trine immersion of the Russian Orthodox. The pagan English too, turned and tamed by the Gospel, were similarly washed by “the use of trine immersion at baptism”, as Augustine of Canterbury described it. Indeed everywhere, as Thomas Finn observes, the “heart of [baptism] was immersion in water … the candidates invariably were … immersed in the baptismal water three times in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – echoing the thrice-uttered “holy, holy, holy” of the angelic host in heaven (see Isaiah 6:3).
Mirroring this is the stirring baptism of Clovis, the feared warrior-king who was the first of (later) France’s kings to embrace the Christian Faith. On Christmas Day 496 he was baptized, along with some 3,000 of his believing troops. Hincmar of Rheims, successor to the officiating bishop Remigius, wrote of that deeply moving historic occasion:
“he [Clovis] was baptized by trine immersion, in the name of the holy and undivided Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and … he was anointed with sacred chrism, with the sign of the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Emphasis added).
The above observation, concerning Clovis’ baptism, that he was also “anointed with sacred chrism”, or holy oil, highlights the second aspect of ancient Christian baptism that is often neglected today. As baptismal scholars Kilian McDonnell and George Montague document, such anointing was likewise the universal baptismal practice of the early Church, throughout East and West, with no exception. And for good reason. Illustrious Old Testament examples establish a direct connection between anointing with consecrated oil and the Holy Spirit, as in David’s case: “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.” (1 Samuel 16:13). The high priest of Israel was likewise described as he “on whose head the anointing oil was poured”, the sacred act being called “the consecration of the anointing oil of his God” (Lev. 21:10a,11b).
How fitting that those who are spiritually called “kings and priests” by the New Testament (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; see also 1 Pet. 2:9) – namely, Christians – should universally be consecrated by a fragrant anointing with oil like Israel’s kings and priests, at their Baptism. Always accompanied by the laying on of hands – as indicated by the immediate sequence of “laying on of hands” to “baptisms” in Hebrews 6:2 – the anointing is described by the jurist-turned-presbyter, Tertullian, in his eyewitness account of early Church Baptism around 193AD (just one lifetime after the apostle John’s death):
“After that, we come up from the washing, and are anointed with the blessed unction, following that ancient practice, by which, ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses, there was a custom of anointing them for priesthood with oil … So also in our case, the unction [anointing oil] flows upon the flesh, but turns to spiritual profit, just as in the baptism itself there is an act that touches the flesh, that we are immersed in water, but a spiritual effect, that we are set free from sins.” (Emphasis added).
If even inanimate stones could be dedicated to God for a solemn purpose by Jacob pouring oil over them (Gen. 28:18; 35:14 – interestingly, the earliest mentions of oil in the Bible), how much more the “living stones” of Christ’s church (1 Peter 2:5). This was not a “take-it-or-leave-it” option for some, but provided as an integral part of baptism for all, as the former pagan judge turned Christian martyr, Cyprian, likewise wrote before his beheading in 258:
“It is also necessary that he should be anointed who is baptized; so that, having received the chrism, that is, the anointing, he may be anointed of God …”..
As we see from David’s own anointing from Samuel, not even the beloved Psalmist received everything all at once. In respect of the throne itself, the anointing was only anticipatory, with his actual possession of it following years later in his coronations at Hebron and then Jerusalem. Yet a guarantee, or “deposit”, it certainly was. So, too, with the baptized believer, who is commanded to still “ask, seek and knock” for the Holy Spirit’s aid as part of his or her ongoing daily dependence upon the Lord (see Luke 11:9-13) – not presuming, like the five foolish virgins, that the supply of “oil” will somehow automatically continue without attention (Matthew 25:1-13). Yet where there is the same spirit of faith as was in David, the baptized child of God can literally say, with him, that “You anoint my head with oil” (Psalm 23:5).
Baptism in the early Church was primarily viewed, not as “my act of obedience”, but as God’s gift of grace. It was something we receive rather than something we do (in terms of the subject), for “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27; KJV). This is truly wonderful news. God says that everyone (“as many of you”, Gk. hosoi, “all that”) who is baptized is actually “united with Christ in baptism”, as the New Living Translation puts it (emphasis added).
It is true that through faith the believer is already joined to the Lord, for “ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26; KJV). Yet in baptism this becomes formal and official, as it were (“united with Christ in baptism”), just as a couple already in love are yet formally and legally joined together at the wedding. It is not “either … or”, but “both … and” – hence Paul’s inclusion of both in Colossians 2:12: “buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead”.
Far from being just a “picture”, baptism is thus also a real bath and burial, in spiritual terms. Even the former head of Spurgeon’s College, London – the Baptist theologian Dr G.R. Beasley-Murray – acknowledges this:
“[T]he idea that baptism is a purely symbolic rite must be pronounced … out of harmony with the New Testament itself. … The extent and nature of the grace which the New Testament writers declare to be present in baptism is astonishing for any who come to the study freshly with an open mind.”
Thus the disciple Ananias declared to the kneeling Paul: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16; see v.13). If baptism, instrumentally, “washed away” the enormity of Saul’s guilt, through the efficacious blood of the Lamb, why should it do any less for us?
Hebrews 10:22 accordingly exhorts us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed (louo, “bathe”) with pure water”. The heart sprinkling is by the blood of Jesus, received through faith. But the washing is by “pure water” upon our “bodies”, which can only denote baptism. Again, as noted above, it is not “either … or”, but “both … and”, just as from Jesus’ side came both “blood and water”, and from His lips both “believe and be baptized”.
From Baptism, too, issues the solemn responsibility of discipleship, with the very words “baptize” and “disciple” being found together in Matthew 28:19-20 and John 4:1-2. Thus the Saviour declares: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). So disturbing is the neglect of serious discipleship in modern Christendom that even the pope’s personal preacher, Rev. Dr. Raniero Cantalamessa, describes the situation as “worse than in the Middle Ages”. Nor is this just a Roman Catholic problem. The heroic Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer similarly observed of much modern Protestantism that “We poured forth unending streams of grace, but the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard”.
Millions, alas, will be caught short by the Bridegroom’s glorious return, just like the five foolish virgins in the parable; or even spewed out, as Christ warned the lukewarm Laodicean church – all of whom, of course, would have been baptized (see Revelation 3:14-22). Thus Cyprian soberly warns that it is “of small account to be baptized and to receive the [Lord’s Supper] unless one profits by it both in deeds and works” – that is, bears the fruit of a godly life by faith (see John 15:2-5; Titus 2:11-14; 2 Peter 1:1-11). This has nothing to do with “salvation by works”, but everything to do with “the fruit of the Spirit” through abiding in Christ.
Well over 1,800 million people – more than the entire populations of China, the United States and Britain combined – today claim to be baptized, in one form or another. Yet what differences there are between their respective baptismal modes. By contrast, William Cathcart observes of the early Church that for a thousand years
“all Europe, and all Christians outside of it, observed one baptism in three immersions, except some Spaniards who administered one immersion” (emphasis added).
To call this universal observance “three baptisms” – as distinct from “one baptism in three immersions”, as Cathcart describes it – is not just false, but a travesty against the ancient Christians. So strongly did they maintain this uniform practice that the Apostolic Canons (not written by the apostles but certainly containing much sound teaching) actually required that “If any bishop or presbyter does not perform the three immersions of the one admission [baptism], let him be deprived” (Canon 50) – ie., stood down!
How sadly divided we must look by comparison. Whereas, then, the only difference in mode was whether immersion should be threefold or once-only, today the issue is split between sprinkling, and pouring, and once-only immersion, and threefold immersion, oil or no oil, and even, for some, no baptism at all! How is it that in almost any sphere of life, near-enough is not good enough – be it for a car engine, an aircraft wing, or a hearing aid? Why then should believers be satisfied with a piecemeal form of baptism, as if “anything goes” for Almighty God? As Malachi said of Israel’s defective offerings: “Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is” (Malachi 1:8; NLT).
If even a bishop, in the early Church, could be stood down for failing to baptize in the acknowledged ancient manner, is it not time for us today to seek to “raise up the foundations of many generations” (Isaiah 58:12)? This is not a matter of “my” denomination or my brother or sister’s, but rather of what the earliest Church, closest in time to the apostolic practice, both observed and insisted upon. By any reasonable reading of the evidence, whether the baptism was of confessing adults or of sponsored infants, it was by threefold immersion. Might it even be that a return to this is the wave of the future, as part of the preparation for Christ’s return? If so, the momentum for a recovery of the Church’s ancient practice, in tandem with the fearless preaching of repentance, faith, and discipleship, will become unstoppable.