How the doctrine of baptism changed

The period of the Pergamos church was a time of doctrinal amalgamation and changing beliefs. V. Norskov Olsen traces how one doctrine, the doctrine of baptism, underwent a change during this era.

V. Norskov Olsen, Ph.D., is president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.


The following article, "How the Doctrine of Baptism Changed,'' illustrates the period of changing beliefs and doctrinal amalgamation that took place within the era of the Pergamos church.—Editors

The New Testament presents a doctrine of baptism in which the essential spiritual prerequisites are the preaching of the gospel, confession of sin, and a personal affirmation of faith in Christ's death and resurrection, leading to a baptism burial of the "old man" and a spiritual resurrection to a regenerated life with Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Since the baptism was by immersion of adult believers, one may well ask, "How and when did the practice of infant baptism with its different theological content originate?"

Basic religious influences

In the postapostolic age of the second century, an apostasy began that touched most Christian doctrines, leaving hardly a single Biblical truth free of Jewish or pagan ingredients.

Many factors aided this process. One major influence was superstition, which associated itself with the numerous pagan mystery cults, where sacred rites performed by an initiated priesthood with a mystic efficacy conveyed "spiritual" cleansing. As a materialistic concept of the baptismal water entered the church, the significance of the scriptural teaching of repentance in the life of the recipient was reduced. The growing belief in the mechanical efficacy of baptism went hand in hand with a failure to understand the New Testament concept of salvation by grace alone.

Christian parents who believed in the mystical, magical power of baptism administered the "sanctifying" water as early as possible in the lives of their children. On the other hand, the same concept made some parents postpone the act of baptism in fear of postbaptismal sin. For this reason the emperor Constantine was first baptized on his deathbed, because he believed that his soul would be purified of whatever errors he had committed as a mortal man through the efficacy of the mystical words and the salutary waters of baptism. However, the practice of infant baptism gradually became more firmly established, especially after the church father Augustine (died A.D. 430) undergirded the mystical efficacy of infant baptism with the doctrine of original sin.

The post-Nicene fathers

In the period of the post-Nicene fathers (c. 381-600), adult baptism continued along with infant baptism until the latter became the common practice in the fifth century. Bishop Ambrose of Milan (died 397) was first baptized at the age of 34, even though he was the son of Christian parents. Both Chrysostom (died 407) and Jerome (died 420) were in their twenties when they were baptized. About A.D. 360 Basil said that "any time in one's life is proper for baptism," and Gregory of Nazianzus (died 390), when answering the question, "Shall we baptize infants?" compromised by saying, "Certainly if danger threatens. For it is better to be sanctified unconsciously than to depart from this life unsealed and uninitiated." How ever, when no danger of death existed, his judgment was "that they should wait till they are 3 years old when it is possible for them to hear and answer something about the sacrament. For then, even if they do not completely understand, yet they will receive the outlines."

This statement reflects the ever-present theological dilemma when one seeks to adhere both to the New Testament prerequisites for baptism (personal hearing and acceptance of the gospel by faith) and the belief in a magical efficacy of the baptismal water itself. The latter concept gained the upper hand when Augustine made infant baptism cancel the guilt of original sin and was more solidly established as the church developed the idea of sacramental grace (the view that the sacraments serve as vehicles of divine grace).

The historical development of infant baptism in the ancient church marked a milestone at the Council of Carthage (418). For the first time a council prescribed the rite of infant baptism: "If any man says that new-born children need not be baptized ... let him be anathema."

The conflict over rebaptism

In the middle of the third century, the church of North Africa faced the question of the validity of a baptism administered in a schismatic or heretical church. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, and other bishops decided at two councils at Carthage in 255 and 256 that "heretics" and "schismatics" who wanted to join the Catholic Church should be baptized anew. Stephen, the Bishop of Rome, opposed this concept and threatened the African bishops with excommunication, declaring that the validity of the baptismal act depended only on the proper formula and intention. Further, the virtue of the baptism would be realized when the person joined the one true Catholic Church. The issue had subsided by the death of Stephen, in 257, and Cyprian, in 258, but was revived early in the fifth century among the Donatists in North Africa.

The Donatists claimed to be the only true Catholic Church, in distinction to the established church, with its worldliness and lack of discipline. Those from the established church who wanted to join the pure church were requested to be rebaptized. The unity of the church, which Constantine so much needed in order to glue his empire together, was threatened by the Donatist schism, so the first church council he convened after becoming ruler of the West Roman Empire dealt with this issue. At Aries in A.D. 314 this council opposed rebaptism.

The unity of church and state

When Constantine accepted Christianity and later made it the favored religion of the empire, he sought to fuse together church and state into a homogeneous Christian society. The process begun by him was continued by succeeding Christian emperors. In such a society, all citizens must be considered Christians ; to wait for the voluntary decision of the individual would contradict the very nature of a state-church. Further, a church in homogeneous unity with the state cannot dispense with compulsion. The "Christian" emperors already found infant baptism in existence; they believed that the act of baptism makes one a Christian; therefore, it is easy to understand how infant baptism gradually became the cornerstone of the established church in a Christian society, just as circumcision had been the covenant sign among the Israelites.

The great cleavage in the church of North Africa regarding rebaptism continued into the fifth century. At the suggestion of Augustine, the emperor Honorius called a meeting in Carthage in 411, with nearly three hundred bishops on both the Catholic and Donatist sides present. The outcome of the discussion was prejudiced by the presence of the emperor's representative, who declared the Donatists wrong in requiring rebaptism. Two years later, in March, 413, Honorius joined Emperor Theodosius in reissuing a law regarding rebaptism. This law formed a part of the Theodocian Code, a collection of sixty laws against heretics, with exile, confiscation of property, and corporal punishment among the penalties for heresy. A similar law was issued again in 428.

Most significant is the legal code Corpus Juris Civilis, by Emperor Justinian, 527-565. This code incorporated ecclesiastical decrees of the emperors and doctrinal resolutions of the church councils into the civil laws of the state, thus transforming them into judicial statutes to be en forced by the secular power. A whole section of the code deals with the question of rebaptism, specifying capital punishment as the penalty for this act. Since the Code of Justinian was adopted by the "Christianized" countries of Western Eu rope, it is not surprising that the law against heretics found application century after century. In fact, when Roman Catholics and Protestant Re formers alike sanctioned capital punishment for Anabaptists in the sixteenth century, they did so on the strength of the Justinian Code.

The mode of baptism

The word baptism comes from the Greek baptizo, "to dip," "to immerse." Accordingly, we find only one mode of baptism hi the New Testament—immersion. This form continued to be the most common for more than thirteen centuries, as reference upon reference from the church fathers demonstrates. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the foremost Roman Catholic theologian, asserted in his Summa Theologiae that "baptism may be given not only by immersion, but also by affusion of water, or sprinkling with it. But it is the safer way to baptize by immersion, because that is the most common custom" (III. 66.7). Baptistries in ancient churches up to the time of the Reformation tell us that baptism was performed by immersion even when infant baptism was practiced. However, sprinkling be came ever more common. Luther sought to restore immersion, but did not succeed. In England and Scot land, sprinkling was not practiced until after the Reformation, and the practice of immersion continues in the Eastern churches to the present.

Baptism by sprinkling or pouring came to be known as "clinical baptism," because it was first primarily used for those who were sick. No doubt because of bodily weakness the practice was used also on infants. However, sprinkling can also be traced to pagan rites. When the water of baptism became charged with a mysterious virtue, which gave it a quasi-spiritual efficacy operating more or less mechanically, the realistic symbolism of baptism by immersion was lost.

Yet the apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Romans points out that the rite of baptism by immersion ex presses symbolically our personal faith in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection in our behalf. The essence of baptism on the human side, wrought by the Holy Spirit, is a renunciation of self or a burial of the "old man" and a resurrection to a new life in which the power of the resurrected Lord is at work. Only believers' baptism by immersion can realistically symbolize the theological essence of the Biblical doctrine of baptism.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
V. Norskov Olsen, Ph.D., is president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

July 1978

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Dispensationalism: rightly dividing the Word?

Many evangelical Christians dismiss this system of interpreting Scripture as lacking Biblical support.

The wondrous cross

The events clustering around the cross are the all-essential element of the gospel of salvation.

The way of the blood

The song of heaven itself will ever be: Thou wast slain,and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood."

Pergamos—the popular church

Visiting the churches of Revelation——3

Ask the Editor

With homosexuality becoming such a prominent issue, how does MINISTRY view the subject? What is the Biblical perspective?

Science and Religion: How Scientific is Evolution?

Some basic assumptions of the evolutionary theory are now seen as examples of circular logic.

Biblical Archeology:Hebrew Inscriptions and the Word

Like an intricate puzzle, each piece of archeological knowledge fits into the Bible picture.

President's Page

What matters is not when Christ's followers were first called Christians, but that they be Christians first.

Health and Religion: Magic in Your Voice

Here are some things you can do to improve the preacher's stock in trade articulate speech.

Shepherdess: Mother-in-law. Daughter-in-law.

Friction between in-laws doesn't have to develop, as the love of Naomi and Ruth so beautifully demonstrates.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - IIW-VBS 2024 (160x600)