Water Baptism in the Early Church

July 12th, 2009 - [edited 02-23-2014]

This post is my answer to a question sent via e-mail on "Water Baptism in the Early Church." [Unfortunately I have lost the first part of this discussion.]

I have a question about our church Fathers. I have read that some believed that baptism was needed for salvation and some believed that only faith in Christ saves. Do you know which one believed in faith alone for salvation?

Water baptism was a tricky issue in the early church. As usual, I will give my short, concise answer, then follow that with a bit more historical context which will illustrate why there is not an easy answer.

The short answer is that ALL the early fathers believed that part of the conversion experience was going under the water in baptism. At the same time NONE of the early fathers said faith without baptism was impossible - in other words, NO church father argued that salvation was impossible without water baptism. It was simply assumed that a believer would be baptized.

Now the longer answer:
Without knowing the historical context (especially of the second century) you could read the early fathers and come away thinking that most of them believed water baptism was essential in salvation. The danger with reading the early fathers is taking them literally without knowing the historical context.

1. The early church was not "monolithic." Though the church claimed to be "catholic" (universal), sects, or schools of thought always existed within the church that disagreed on many, many things. "Denominations," to use a contemporary term, have always existed. What does this mean in this discussion? Church fathers were rarely in 100% agreement on many things when it came to details, thus you find different slants and views when it comes to water baptism.

2. The record in the book of Acts seems to indicate that water baptism was done fairly quickly (even immediately) after conversion. Though universally seen as something the Christian must do upon conversion, by the second century baptism was typically not done immediately after conversion. This delay is probably due to the changing nature of the church, moving from a Jewish orientation to mainly a Gentile church. Jews practiced various forms of water baptism (see the paper at the end of this page on Essenic Baptism) - Gentile converts needed some explanation. What you find in the records of the second century and following is a training period for a new convert to follow before he/she is allowed to celebrate the Lord's Supper or be baptized in water.
[It is called catechesis, the Greek word that means "to sound" something. It carries the idea that "catechumens" (students) would be taught by "repeat after me," or "sound this out:" I believe in God the Father Almighty...]"
This training period might last a few months, but most records from the few first centuries indicate it to be more than a year of training and learning. This is evidence that these early Christians did NOT think baptism was "required" to be saved. In fact, there is mention in Origen (Contra Celsum) and in the Didascalia (both early third century) that should a catechumen meet a martyr's death prior to being baptized, he/she would be saved through a "baptism of blood." This mention is made in defense of the necessity of baptism, yet is given to show that there is an exception - kind of like thethief on the cross for those who insist that water baptism is a necessity for salvation.

3. Another difficulty in reading statements by early fathers regarding water baptism is contention with heretical groups. The Marcionites, Gnostics, Montanists, and many others - all practiced their own form of baptism and all considered themselves to be "Christian." There is a great amount of difference among church fathers as to whether "converts" from these unorthodox groups should be baptized again OR could their unorthodox baptism be considered sufficient. While some of these groups were certainly outside the boundaries (Gnostics and Marcionites for example), others should be seen more like a modern-day denomination (Montanists and Novatians for example) because their basic theology was not the problem. Whatever the case, dealing with unorthodox baptism confused the issue in the early church AND throws a wrench in trying to figure out the issue in this discussion.

4. Finally, due to other issues in the early church, many people would postpone their baptism until they were near death. It was commonly believed in the early church that a Christian could not commit a "mortal" sin after being baptized and have assurance of salvation. This became known as the "Second Repentance" issue [you can read my paper on the topic.]

It is never insisted that these people were not Christian because they had not been baptized - they were just never considered fully installed in the Church...which was considered the only vehicle for obtaining the grace of Christ. You can see that this statement is kind of fuzzy - so was the position of the early church on this matter. Many people were afraid that they MIGHT commit a "mortal" sin [apostasy, adultery, fornication, and murder were the main mortal sins] and they wanted the assurance that they could repent, be forgiven, and then get baptized. Even this was a murky issue with some bishops saying that you could receive a "second" forgiveness after baptism and others (like Tertullian) saying that only God would know if you could obtain forgiveness for a mortal sin after having been baptized.

So you see, there is just not an easy answer. But if you insist, my easy answer is that NO, the early fathers did not believe water baptism was a requirement for salvation - they just assumed you would be baptized and if you were not they questioned your salvation.   ;)

Here is an interesting paper on Essenic baptism:
"The Essene Yearly Renewal Ceremony and the Baptism of Repentance,"
by Stephen Pfann, Ph.D.
Visitor Comments:
Let me be honest with you, I believe water baptism is a requirement for salvation and I am not ashamed to admit my "preconception" right up front, here and now....I read your response to the question about water baptism with great joy until the final sentence in which you write "my easy answer is that NO, the early fathers did not believe water baptism was a requirement for salvation - they just assumed you would be baptized and if you were not they questioned your salvation." Seems to me you are providing your "easy" answer in an attempt to placate most of your readership who believe all you have to do today is "invite Jesus into your heart" by reciting a "believers prayer". It seems to me, that the act of "inviting Jesus into your heart" is taught as a replacement for water Baptism. Gal 3:27 ASV "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ". Rom 6:3 speaks of being "baptized into Christ Jesus". As you noted the early Christians believed it was by baptism one was "fully installed in the Church". And, all of us believe...that to be saved one must be "in Christ"...etc....Of course the early fathers questioned the salvation of one who would not be water baptized - they knew. Oh, I really am blessed by the CH101 site. Keep it alive. God bless all who are involved with the site.

Response - Feb 23, 2014
When someone asks me if the early church believed a certain doctrine or not I try to go by the evidence of what we have which is not always as clear as we would like. Water baptism is a great example. Even the NT is not clear on this topic. Yes, there are a few texts which seem to indicate that baptism is a salvivic act, but then there are texts that seem to suggest that salvation is not dependent on baptism. This is why we have disagreement about the topic. Just like many other doctrines - think about it:
almost ALL Christian churches hold to the divinity of Jesus and most hold the trinity. Yet many other doctrines (Calvinism, eschatology, the Holy Spirit and gifts of the Spirit) have many positions represented by several groups. This is evidence that the text is not crystal clear or at least has conflicting data.

But the evidence in the first 100 years of Christian history tends to reflect what we find in the NT. As per my memory, none of the early documents clearly say that baptism is required to be saved. In fact, in the Didache, for example, we have this text:

Chapter 7: Concerning Baptism. And concerning baptism, baptize this way: 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. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The person being baptized is encouraged to fast 1-2 days prior to the baptism, but notice there is nothing said about it being salvivic. Didache is dated around 65-80AD and cites a version of what becomes Matthew's gospel. It is also instructive that this document gives various modes for the application of the water, dunking and pouring. Didache does say that the Eucharist must not be served to anyone who has not been baptized.

I will fully agree that the early writers say things that can be interpreted as baptismal regeneration/salvation, but I cannot remember any early church father clearly stating that one cannot be saved until they are baptized. I realize that you may think I am hedging or, how did you say it, that I was attempting to placate my readers, but my position is to try to educate people as to what the early church believed and taught. When they are clear, we can clearly state this, but when they are not clear I owe it to myself, my readers, the early writers and to God to admit that it is not clear.

I have spent 3 hours today looking at texts again. I completely understand how you can read them and believe that the writers are speaking to salvivic baptism. As my memory serves me, none of the early writings clearly state salvivic baptism, yet all assume that baptism is part of the cleansing of sin. Because of the Second Repentance issue many Christians began to wait on baptism, some waiting until they were on their deathbed - there was a fear that IF they committed a "mortal" sin they could NOT be forgiven. Yet I have not read any text that speaks of this practice as putting a person's salvation at risk.

This is how I read it.
RA Baker

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