John chose a certain place to baptize, because there was "much
"And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim,
because there was much water there: and they came, and were
baptized." (John 3:23).
If sprinkling were deemed sufficient, any place might have been
the right place; why trek to the Jordan River, when water ample for
sprinkling is available right at home? Any place fit for human habitation
must have at least that much. And if it is not necessary to
go down into the water, then why does the New Testament speak about
people coming "up out of the water"?:
"And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the
heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:. .
." (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16).
In the early years of the church, baptism continued to be
carried out by immersion, though as seen here, the Didache, an early
church manual, permits effusion in case of water shortage:
"Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you
have reviewed all these things, baptize 'in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' in running water. But if you
have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you
are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if
you have neither, then pour water on the head three times 'in the
name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.'" (The Didache, 7:1-3).
Justin understands baptism as a 'washing,' which is not very efficiently
accomplished by sprinkling. Justin continues to understand the fit subjects for baptism to be
those fully convicted believers who have repented of their sins:
“I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated
ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest,
if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are
making. 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. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the
universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy
Spirit, 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. And how those who have sinned and repent shall
escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote
above; he thus speaks: 'Wash you, make you clean; put away the
evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the
fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason
together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I
will make them white like wool; and though they be as
crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and
rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord
hath spoken it.'” (The First Apology of
Justin, Chapter LXI).
The idea that these people would be brought "where there is water"
does not suggest only a small amount of water, say a pitcher-full,
because there is nowhere that human life is conducted that lacks even a
pitcher full of water. People cannot survive without water! Rather, it
suggests the presence of a meaningful amount of water. The only "sprinkling" of which Justin was aware was carried out by
pagans. The 'Apostolic Constitutions' (which are not especially apostolic) continue
to understand baptism as a paired 'descent/ascent' to be undertaken by the
“. . . After that, either thou, O bishop, or a
presbyter that is under thee, shall in the solemn form
over them the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and shall dip
them in the water; and let a deacon receive the man, and a
deaconess the woman, that so the conferring of this inviolable
seal may take place with a becoming decency. . .
baptism, therefore, is given into the death of Jesus: the water
is instead of the burial, and the oil instead of the Holy Ghost;
the seal instead of the cross; the ointment is the confirmation
of the confession; the mention of the Father as of the Author
and Sender; the joint mention of the Holy Ghost as of the
witness; the descent into the water the dying together with
Christ; the ascent out of the water the rising again with Him.
The Father is the God over all; Christ is the only-begotten God,
the beloved Son, the Lord of glory; the Holy Ghost is the
Comforter, who is sent by Christ, land taught by Him, and
“But let him that is to be baptized be
free from all iniquity; one that has left off to work sin, the
friend of God, the enemy of the devil, the heir of God the
Father, the fellow-heir of His Son; one that has renounced
Satan, and the demons, and Satan’s deceits; chaste, pure, holy,
beloved of God, the son of God, praying as a son to his father,
and saying, as from the common congregation of the faithful,
thus: “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. .
.” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 3, Section 2, Chapters XVI-XVIII,
This author describes baptism as a "figure," i.e., a symbol:
"Nay, though he be but a catechumen, let him depart without trouble;
for his suffering for Christ will be to him a more genuine baptism,
because he does really die with Christ, but the rest only in a
figure." (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 5, Section 1,
Chapter VI, ECF 0.07, p. 873). As to the mode, Cyril chimes in with a "plunge:"
"This grace was not in part, but His power was in full
perfection; for as he who plunges into the waters and is baptized is encompassed on all sides
by the waters, so were they also baptized completely by the Holy Ghost."
(Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 17:14).
Christian baptism is in continuity with Jewish conversion rites,
which included the requirement of a bath: "For R. Zera said in the
name of R. Johanan: One does not become a proselyte until he has
been circumcised and has performed ablution; and so long as he has
not performed ablution he is a gentile." (Babylonian Talmud,
Tractate Berakoth, 47b.) Or, "Just as one who is to be admitted to Judaism
must first submit to the thee ceremonies of circumcision, baptism,
and sacrifice, so Israel did not receive the Torah until they had
performed these three ceremonies." (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of
the Jews, Volume 3, Kindle location 1029).
"When a man entered the Jewish religion from heathenism, it
involved three things — sacrifice, circumcision and baptism.
The Gentile entered the Jewish faith by baptism. . .As he was in
the water, he made confession of his faith before three fathers
of baptism and certain exhortations and benedictions were
addressed to him. The effect of his baptism was held to be
complete regeneration; he was called a little child just born,
the child of one day." (William Barclay, The Letter to the
Romans, p. 84).
John the Baptist redefined all Israel, not
only those with a heathen family background, as converts in need of
cleansing. Just as evangelicals understand all Christians to be converts,—
no one is born a Christian,— so John did not perceive any
essential difference between the born Jew and the newly-made convert.
A new feature that enters with Christianity is the
three-fold invocation, upon which some celebrants elaborated. In some cases early believers employed triple immersion:
"When the one being baptized goes down into the water, the one baptizing
him shall put his hand on him and speak thus:
"'Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?'
"And he that is being baptized shall say:
"Then, having his hand imposed upon the head of the one to be baptized,
he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say:
"'Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of
the Holy Spirit, of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate
and died and was buried, and rose up again on the third day, alive from
the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right of the Father,
about to come to judge the living and the dead?'
"And when he says: 'I believe,' he is baptized again.
"And again he shall say:
"'Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy Church and the
resurrection of the flesh?'
"The one being baptized then says: 'I believe.' And so he is baptized
a third time." (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 394i, pp. 169-170,
The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume I, William A. Jurgens).
"After these things, ye were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism,
as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulcher which is before our
eyes And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and ye made that saving
confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again;
here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ."
(Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 20:4).
as regards emerging in baptism, I know not why it came upon you
to ask, if you have accepted that immersion fulfills the figure
of the three days. For it is impossible to be baptized three
times without emerging as often." (Basil the Great,
Letter CCXXXVI, p. 201, Loeb edition, St. Basil, The Letters,
So says Tertullian: "When we are going to enter the water, but a
little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the
hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil,
and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed,
making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the
Gospel." (Tertullian, The Chaplet, Chapter 3, pp. 172-173 ECF). This was so as late as Leo the Great: ". . .for in the baptismal
office death ensues through the slaying of sin, and threefold
immersion imitates the lying in the tomb three days, and the raising out
of the water is like Him that rose again from the tomb." (Leo the
Great, Letters, Letter 16, To The Bishops of Sicily, Section IV.) The
rubrics attached to the Apostolic Constitutions try to make an issue of
“If any bishop or presbyter does not perform the three
immersions of the one admission, but one immersion, which is given
into the death of Christ, let him be deprived; for the Lord did not
say, 'Baptize into my death,' but, 'Go ye and make disciples of all
nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost.'” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, The
Ecclesiastical Canons, p. 1003).
While Jesus did lay three days in the tomb, He did not die three times
nor rise three times, so perhaps this once widespread practice is an over-elaboration of the
John Chrysostom remarks on the ease with which water parts, an
irrelevance if sprinkling is used:
"Not only on this account did he call death a baptism but
also because of the ease with which he would rise again. For just as one
who is baptized in water easily rises up because the nature of the water
poses no hindrance, so, too, Christ rose with greater ease because he
had gone down into death." (John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church,
On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily VIII, p. 226).
Immersion maintains the similitude with death, without which there is
no rebirth. Therefore those churches which pattern themselves upon the
early church baptize believers by means of immersion. It was Aurelius
Augustine in the fifth century who persuaded the church that all infants
must be baptized. Infants however cannot receive Biblical baptism, which
is the "answer of a good conscience toward God;" all they can do is get
wet: they can submit to physical washing, which Peter pointedly explains
does not save. Infants do not offer the heart-felt answer which God
seeks, they don't even hear the question. Augustine did not bestow upon
infants the gift of baptism, which they cannot receive rather he took it
away from all others; for a thousand years thereafter scarcely anyone
was baptized after the Biblical pattern.
The practice of the early church was revived during the time of
the Reformation by the Anabaptists, persecuted by the mainline
Protestant Reformers. The practice had erupted from time to time
during the preceding dark period, however, as among the
"It was in such a population as this that the first
antisacerdotal heresy was preached in Valloise about 1106, by Pierre
de Bruys, a native of the diocese of Embrun. The prelates of Embrun,
Gap, and Die endeavored n vain to stay his progress until they
procured assistance from the king, when he was driven out and took
refuge in Gascony. For twenty years he continued his mission.
. .Persecution at length became more active, and about the year 1126
he was seized and burned at St. Gilles.
"His teaching was simply antisacerdotal— to
some extent a revival of the errors of Claudius of Turin. Paedo-baptism
was useless, for the faith of another cannot help him who cannot
use his own— a far-reaching proposition, fraught with
immeasurable consequences. For the same reason offerings, alms,
masses, prayers and other good works for the dead are useless
and each will be judged on his own merits." (Henry C. Lea, A
History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume I,
Kindle location 1277).
Under successors like Henry this teaching achieved such penetration in the
south of France that St. Bernard lamented, "The little ones of Christ
are debarred from life since baptism is denied them. The voice of a
single heretic silences all those apostolic and prophetic voices which
have united in calling all the nations into the Church of Christ."
(Henry C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume
I, Kindle location 1310). In subsequent disputes with the Cathar gnostic
heretics, the Henricians claimed a wide following: "These Henricians
boasted that their sect was numerously scattered throughout all the
lands of Christendom, and their zeal is shown by an allusion to
those among their umber who perished at the stake." (Henry C. Lea, A
History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume I, Kindle location
1341). Fortunately God's gift has been reclaimed and is available to
whosever will receive it.