Baptism in the Early Church

Baptism in the Early Church

As the first century was coming to a close all of the New Testament books were completed except for the Johannine corpus. His writings were likely not produced until 85-96. By then some uninspired writings started appearing as well.

While not inspired, these early writings paint a picture of the church at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century. Some writers appear to be trying to shape the church or steer it in new directions. Others reinforce New Testament patterns. One important document is the Didache (pronounced di-duh-KAY). The Didache was used as a basic primer to Christianity as a synopsis of the Scriptures.

The Didache generally follows the New Testament, however there are a few places it embellishes on the inspired material. One place is its explanation of baptism, “7.1And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: 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. 2But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. 3But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” (Didache 7.1-3).

The troubling part of the Didache comes in section 3, where the writer indicates that pouring is an acceptable alternative to immersion. This practice is called affusion, and this statement is the “affusion exception.” This is a digression from the New Testament pattern of immersion—the actual meaning of the word “baptism.”

In Charles Bigg’s 1904 article, “Notes on the Didache: On Baptism by Affusion,” he notes that contemporaries with the Didache (Tertullian, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, and 2 Clement) considered immersion to be the proper form of baptism with no allowance for pouring or sprinkling. Thus, the Didache was an outlier to common practice into the middle of the third century.

Additionally, the Didache is a composition or compiled document. It did not originate from a single author at one time. Rather, it contains edits and interpolations that span decades. Bigg shows how a passage in the first chapter of the Didache contains a quotation from Luke 6:30, a reference to the Shepherd of Hermas, a “woe” from the third or fourth century, a quotation from Matthew 5:26, and a quote from a non-canonical “gospel” of the third century. Is it possible the passage on baptism has similar edits and interpolations?

Everett Ferguson, in his work on baptism, sees a strong possibility for such interpolations. He notes the first verse follows the New Testament pattern and is written in the second person plural. However, verses 2-3 embellish on the New Testament and are written in the second person singular. This shift in point of view may indicate a different person writing these verses at a later time perhaps to defend an emerging practice in the third century.

Baptism by immersion was the norm from the New Testament until the 240s when a dying Novatian asked for baptism and was dowsed with water, the first recorded case of baptism by affusion. Later he recovered and was made a bishop to the chagrin of many church leaders who questioned not only Novatian’s fitness for the episcopacy, but also questioned his legitimus christianus. Was he even a Christian?

A later compilation, The Apostolic Constitution, from the 4th century borrowed heavily from the Didache, but left off the controversial baptism by affusion exception. Thus, showing even a century after Novatian, pouring was not a widely accepted means of baptism.

Today, many use the Didache as support for baptism by sprinkling or pouring. However, in its own day it was alone in advocating pouring, and then only when water was scarce. The affusion exception shows signs of being a later addition. The teaching was not followed for over a century until Novatian was baptized—and even then, it was rejected by most church leaders. Around 375 the Didache’s teaching was amended to remove the affusion exception. The Didache does not offer strong support for changing the New Testament pattern. The modern church must follow the New Testament, and not the Didache, when it comes to baptism—or any other subject.

-Sam Dilbeck


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