History of Baptism

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

We are perhaps familiar with the Trinitarian formula employed at each of our own baptisms, whether it be through aspersion, effusion, or immersion.[1]  We know also that as an initiation rite, it is patterned after Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.  But how did the church come to adopt baptism as one of the sacraments practised?

There is little doubt that the early church used baptism as an initiation rite in expressing the new reality of the Christian life.  However, various scholars (such as Jon Isaak and Jeffrey Truscott) remind us that the New Testament provides us with little direct teaching about baptism.  Instead, the New Testament authors wrote more pointedly in discussing the implications and consequences of baptism.  Jeffrey Truscott, the former worship and liturgy lecturer at Trinity Theological College, wrote:

The New Testament actually tells us very little about baptism.  It gives no full service order of baptism.  It may give us hints about formulas used in the apostolic-era church (“in the name of Jesus” “in the name of the Father and of the Son…”)… It seems to indicate a connection between hand-laying and baptism (Acts), but the evidence for that in the NT is very sparse.  The New Testament does not say anything about ministers, preferred days for baptism, the mode of baptism, catechesis, a candidate’s confession of faith…

The early Jewish antecedents to Christian baptism include such as the Jewish rite of circumcision as well as the Jewish rites of ceremonial purification/washings.  While both the rite of circumcision and ritual washing are indeed initiation rites, both however do not provide an adequate basis for understanding Christian baptism.  Water baptism signifies a spiritual rebirth in water and the Spirit, which is a perspective not attached to circumcision.  Concurrently, washings do not provide a sufficient basis for Christian baptism primarily because baptism is not about achieving ritual purity.

Water baptism signifies a spiritual rebirth in water and the Spirit …… baptism is not about achieving ritual purity.

Another distinctive practice that pre-dated and foreshadowed Christian baptism was the baptisms of John the Baptiser.  It should be noted that John’s baptisms were distinct from the ritual washings (of the Jews and even those of the Essenes), in that, they were baptisms of repentance that prepared the people for the work of the coming Messiah.  Truscott noted that the fact that John’s baptism was in the Jordan is important; since the Jordan (river) was regarded as ritually unclean, it is indicative that John’s baptisms were hence, not purification baths.  Instead, the “significance lies in its historical connotations: it is a new Jordan experience that transforms the people of Israel.”  As with his life and ministry, John’s baptisms foreshadowed and eventually gave way to a baptism by the Messiah Himself – one that is of water and the Holy Spirit.  Just as John himself was insistent that “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16), John’s baptism (and ministry) essentially proclaimed and ritually enacted the dawning of the new age.

The association with the Holy Spirit at baptism is significant, who was present at Jesus’ baptism.  In that regard, the Holy Spirit is in fact that which distinguishes the baptism of Jesus (and Christian baptisms) from John’s baptisms.  Correspondingly, the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the synoptic Gospels not only described what happened to Jesus but also provided the basis in understanding what happens in Christian baptism.  In other words, Jesus’ baptism demonstrates for us that we become sons and daughters of God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism.  Recall Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptised every one of you 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: “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Yet it should also be understood that through the history of the church, baptism (and the later rite of confirmation) is also regarded as initiation rites for the church; they are about entrance into a new (faith) community, necessitated by conversion and faith.  Though scanty on the historical development of baptism, the New Testament authors do present us with various interpretations of baptism itself.  It was the later works of such as the Didache, (a late first or early second-century Syrian teaching on church order), the Didascalia Apostolorum (an early third-century Syrian document) as well as the writings of second-century apologist, Justin Martyr that provided the framework for later developments in the baptismal order.

* For more information on the history and development of baptism, please refer to Maxwell Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation

[1]               According to S. Anita Stauffer, church history attests to four different modes of conferring baptism throughout history: submersion (the candidate goes completely under the water); immersion (water is poured over the candidate who stands in the water, or the candidate’s head is pushed partially under the water); affusion (water is poured over the head of the candidate); aspersion (the candidate is sprinkled with water).

Rev Dr Andrew Peh Swee Kian

Diaconal Minister, Charis Methodist Church

Trinity Theological College Lecturer

Chaplain to CAC Students at Trinity Theological College


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