Anyone who reads the Bible carefully knows that baptism is a vital part of the Christian life. Some religious groups dismiss its importance on theological grounds that stem from a misinterpretation of Scripture. Others take it very seriously but see baptism as optional. The serious reader of Scripture can see the many places where baptism is commanded (Acts 2:38) and other places where it is described as necessary (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21). In the book of Acts, Luke includes a reference to baptism in nearly every conversion story (the exceptions being very brief accounts that occupy only a few verses).
Throughout the early history of the church, baptism was seen as a necessity for Christians. This was expressed not only in the Bible but also in the writings of the early church fathers. We also see its importance in funerary inscriptions, although it was often misapplied by the ancients, which, in turn, has been misunderstood by moderns. Let us examine what the ancient evidence says about baptism and how it was valued by the early church.
Baptism in Ancient Literature. The Didache—also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”—is a treatise dating to the end of the first century. It could be viewed as a kind of manual for church life. In its teaching on baptism, the text says:
Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. After you have spoken all these things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. If you do not have running water, baptize in other water. If you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you do not have either, pour out water three times on the head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Didache 7)
This passage includes elements not found in the New Testament (including a command to fast for a day or two beforehand). Still, it does indicate that the author considered baptism important enough to include precise instructions about how it should be performed. Although it goes beyond the biblical description, the Didache does highlight the necessity of baptism. Other early writers followed suit.
In the second and third centuries, Tertullian (AD 155-240) wrote on the subject in his short work De Baptismo (On Baptism). In this short work, he makes some of the clearest statements on the importance of baptism outside the New Testament. He says, “We as little fishes, in accordance with our fish Jesus Christ, are born in water” (On Baptism 1). He adds, “It has assuredly been ordained that no one can attain knowledge of salvation without baptism. This comes especially from the pronouncements of the Lord, who says, “Except one be born of water he does not have life” (12). Fish imagery was often quite important in the early church, which depicted Christians as “fish” and the baptismal font as a “fishpond.”
Even John Calvin recognized that immersion was the custom of the early church. He says:
But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church. (Institutes 4.15.19)
Baptism in Archaeology. A critical piece of the discussion about the necessity and timing of baptism comes from ancient inscriptions. Here we see evidence of the emerging practice of infant baptism in epitaphs for children. One example in the catacombs of Rome involves a 21-month-old child. Another belongs to a child who may have lived only a month, while another in North Africa dating to c. 206 indicates that a child who lived only nine hours after birth had been baptized before death. Generally, these inscriptions identify such children from newborns up until about twelve years of age who were baptized before they died an early death.
Paedobaptists frequently identify this as solid evidence that the early church practiced child baptism. However, one important consideration here is that these references occur in funerary inscriptions. That is, children were not baptized even though they were young; they were baptized because they were on death’s doorstep (and frequently died soon thereafter).
Infant mortality was extremely high in the ancient world. The reason why believing parents had their children baptized before they died should be apparent. Knowing that writers like Luke, Paul, and Peter placed great importance on baptism, who would not be tempted to baptize a child whose life was in danger because of illness, plague, or a serious accident? It seems this is where the practice of infant baptism originated: not in the apostles’ teachings but in the desperation of parents who wanted to ensure that they would see their little ones again in heaven. Unfortunately, what began as a final desperate act became the norm.
Baptism is a hotly-contested issue across the American religious landscape today. It was initially understood as immersion for the remission of sins but soon expanded to include additional modes and potential candidates. For hundreds of years, additional teachings began to accumulate, frequently adding to or blatantly contradicting biblical teaching. Today, it seems that theologians in different church traditions have returned to a more biblical model. We can only hope that one day they will fully embrace the Bible’s message about baptism in all its beautiful simplicity.