A History of the Baptism Apostasy
The theme of baptism is one of the simplest and easiest to understand of most any theological subject in the New Testament. How tragic it is, therefore, that there should be so much confusion—indeed such uncommon error—in the community of “Christendom” regarding this important New Testament doctrine.
According to The Exhaustive Concordance to the Greek New Testament (Kohlenberger et al. 1995), the Greek verb bapto, together with its derivatives, occur some 116 times in the New Testament in various verbal and noun forms.
- Bapto (to dip) is found four times. Translators have had no difficulty in translating that term literally (cf. Lk. 16:24; Jn. 13:26; Rev. 19:13) in these passages.
- The verb baptizo (found seventy-seven times) signifies “to dip in or under,” “to sink,” “to immerse” (Kittel 1985, 92). In most English versions today the original term has been anglicized, i.e., the Greek form is retained, but with English letters, thus obscuring the meaning of the original word. To translate the word into the English expression “immerse” would scarcely be feasible commercially in a world where the mode of the procedure has been altered radically by the sprinkling or pouring of water.
- Two noun forms, baptisma (nineteen times) and baptismos (four times), are generally rendered as “baptism” (cf. Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12), or “washing” (Mk. 7:4; Heb. 9:10), depending upon the context.
- Baptistes (twelve times), “one who immerses,” is used to depict John the Baptist.
A careful consideration of these texts in concert with one another clearly reveals:
- The term most commonly refers to a ritual in water, and at a place with sufficient water to accommodate immersion (Mt. 3:6; Jn. 3:23). It required going “down into” the water and coming up “out of” the water (Acts 8:38-39; cf. Mk. 1:10).
- The immersion was preceded both by “faith” (Mk. 16:16) and “repentance” (Acts 2:38), as requisite to the act.
- The ritual resulted in forgiveness, or having the guilt of one’s sins “washed away” (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 3:21).
- Genuine baptism transitions one from outside of Christ “into Christ” (Gal. 3:27), or to say the same thing in another way, into the benefits of the Lord’s death (Rom. 6:3). This act of obedience constitutes one a member of the “one body” (1 Cor. 12:13), of which Christ is the Savior (Eph. 5:23).
Departures from the Sacred Plan
There are a number of instances in the New Testament where inspired writers warn of an impending apostasy from “the faith” system once for all delivered unto the saints (Jude 3-4). Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders regarding “wolves” that would invade the flock of God, and even from within the leadership. Men with base motives of self-interest would proselyte their own disciples (Acts 20:28-30). It was foretold that the time would come when some would no longer endure sound doctrine, hence would depart from the faith, exchanging truth for error (1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1ff; 4:1-4). The fact is, such lawlessness was beginning to work even at an early stage of the church’s existence (2 Thes. 2:1-12, especially v. 7; see also Revelation chapters two and three). Virtually every epistle in the New Testament deals with some sort of error beginning to manifest itself in the church of the apostolic age.
One area of corruption came in the doctrine concerning baptism (as summarized at the commencement of this essay). Progressively there was a departure from the faith regarding:
- the manner of administering the rite;
- the proper subject for whom it is designed;
- and the divinely specified purpose of its role in the scheme of human redemption.
Let us reflect upon the elements of change that have evolved with the passing of the centuries.
The Corruption of Immersion
As indicated earlier, the word “baptize” is an anglicized Greek term literally meaning “immerse.” It never means to sprinkle or pour water upon a subject. In fact, it is carefully distinguished from those actions. Note this text:
And the priest shall take of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand; and the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle of the oil with his finger seven times before Jehovah (Lev. 14:15-16, LXX).
The difference between the verbal actions is easily discerned. New Testament baptism is a burial in water (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).
By the middle of the second century, however, conviction was yielding to convenience. The first historical reference to a substitute for immersion occurs in a document known as the Didache (ca. A.D. 120-150). A passage in chapter seven reads:
Now as regards baptism, thus baptize: having first rehearsed all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you have not running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then warm. But if you have neither, pour water upon the head three times (Roberts and Donaldson 1994, 7.379).
A few years later, Cyprian (ca. A.D. 200-258), a church dignitary in Carthage, made the first recorded defense of sprinkling when he wrote:
You have asked also, dearest son, what I thought of those who obtain God’s grace in sickness and weakness, whether they are to be accounted legitimate Christians, for that they are not to be washed, but sprinkled, with saving water. . . . In the sacrament of salvation, when necessity compels, and God bestows his mercy, the divine methods confer whole benefits on believers; nor ought it to trouble anyone that sick people seemed to be sprinkled or affused, when they obtain the Lord’s grace (Ibid. 5.400-401).
It clearly will be observed that even at this point in time sprinkling is advised only upon cautious grounds, “when necessity compels,” and thus was not the normal practice. And, as with the previous quotation, the plea is too late to have the approval of apostolic authority.
The first known case of sprinkling involved a man by the name of Novatian, who lived in Rome. Eusebius (ca. 263-340), known as the “father of church history,” says of Novatian that he was “attacked with an obstinate disease, and being supposed at the point of death, was baptized by aspersion, in the bed on which he lay.” Again, though, this was considered abnormal, for Eusebius subsequently observes that restrictions were put upon Novatian because “it was not lawful that one baptized in his sick bed by aspersion, as he was, should be promoted to any order of the clergy” (1955, 266).
Even as late as the eighth century, Pope Stephen III in France authorized pouring water on infants’ heads only “in cases of necessity” (Rowe 1957, 456). In fact, the Council of Nemours (A.D. 1284) limited “sprinkling to cases of necessity” (Schaff 1884, 201). Finally, at the Council of Ravenna (A.D. 1311), it was officially made law (human law) that the candidate for baptism be given his choice between sprinkling and immersion. What of God’s choice?
Since both faith and repentance are conditions leading to New Testament baptism, naturally infants are excluded (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38). Infants have not the mental capacity to believe in Christ, and they cannot repent, for they “have no knowledge of good or evil” (Dt. 1:39). Hence, the practice of infant baptism is unknown to Holy Scripture.
The first possible allusion to infant baptism is by Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 140-203), a second-century theologian in Gaul.
He [Christ] came to save, through means of himself, all who through him are born again unto God, infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men (Against Heresies 2.22.4). But a contemporary, Tertullian (ca. 150-222 A.D.), a scholar in the Roman province of Africa, opposed the practice:
Let them come while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught to what it is they are coming; let them become Christians when they are susceptible of the knowledge of Christ. What haste to procure the forgiveness of sins for the age of innocence! . . . Let them first learn to feel their need of salvation; so it may appear that we have given to those that wanted (On Baptism xviii).
Augustus Neander, a Lutheran historian, made this important comment:
Tertullian appears as a zealous opponent of infant baptism; a proof that the practice had not as yet come to be regarded as an apostolical institution; for otherwise Tertullian hardly would have ventured to express himself so strongly against it (1850, 432).
Neander also acknowledged that “baptism at first was administered only to adults,” because baptism and faith were “strictly connected” (430).
Although Tertullian opposed infant baptism, he did “fertilize the soil” for its ready acceptance by others. He taught that the human spirit, like the body, is transmitted from parent to child (Strong 1976, 493). Thus, man inherits both a blemished soul and body. Cyprian, in the third century, reasoned:
But again, if even the chief of sinners, who have been exceedingly guilty before God, receive the forgiveness of sins on coming to the faith, and no one is precluded from baptism and from grace, how less should the child be kept back, which, as it is but just born, can not have sinned, but has only brought with it, by its descent from Adam, the infection of the old death; and which may the more easily obtain the remission of sins, because the sins which are forgiven it are not its own, but those of another (Epistle lviii.5).
Origen (ca. A.D.185-254), another post-apostolic writer, erroneously declares:
Little children are baptized for the remission of sins. Whose sins are they? When did they sin? Or how can this explanation of the baptismal washing be maintained in the case of small children, except according to the interpretation we spoke of a little earlier? No man is clean of stain, not even if his life upon the earth had lasted but a single day" (Homilies in Luke xiv.5).
The practice of infant baptism did not become common until the fifth century, after the writings of the North African theologian Augustine had popularized the theory of original sin. Even Philip Schaff, a member of the Reformed Church, and a strong pedo-baptist advocate, was forced to admit that “adult baptism was the rule, infant baptism the exception” until the church was fairly established in the Roman Empire. He points out that Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, and Chrysostom had “Christian” mothers, yet these men were not baptized until early manhood (210).
H. A. W. Meyer (1800-1873) was one of the most prominent commentators produced by the German Lutheran Church. He thus had no intrinsic bias against infant baptism, yet in his commentary on Acts (16:15), he wrote:
The baptism of the children of Christians, of which no trace is found in the N.T., is not to be held as an apostolic ordinance, as, indeed, it encountered early and long resistance; but it is an institution of the church, which gradually arose in post-apostolic times (1883, 312).
The practice of “baptizing” infants is a human tradition, utterly void of biblical sanction. It instills a false sense of confidence in youngsters as they grow up, and is a hindrance to genuine obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Church Fathers on Baptism’s Purpose
The divine connection between baptism and the forgiveness of past sins was universally acknowledged by writers of the post-apostolic age. They recognized, and appealed to, the divine authority of the Scriptures for this conviction (Mk.16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21, etc.). George P. Fisher (1827-1909), a professor at Yale Divinity School and prominent church historian, wrote:
Very early, baptism was so far identified with regeneration as to be designated by this term. This rite was considered essential to salvation (1890, 83).
In his outstanding volume, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David Bercot, an Anglican scholar and an attorney, lists approximately eighty-five references from the writings of the early “church fathers” highlighting their conviction that water baptism is essential to divine pardon from one’s past sins (1998, 50-56). This proposition was universally conceded for centuries following the establishment of Christ’s church. There are more New Testament texts connecting baptism with forgiveness than there are passages explicitly identifying Jesus Christ as God! How incredible it is, therefore, that this connection should be so flagrantly repudiated by a significant portion of modern “Christendom.”
The Error of Baptismal Regeneration
Eventually, as the centuries of the post-apostolic age multiplied, an almost magical aura began to be associated with baptism, resulting finally in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (power in the water itself). It was only natural that a reaction against this erroneous perception would develop eventually. But, as with many doctrines in church history, the reactionary pendulum swung too far to the opposite extreme.
“Baptism,” as administered by the Roman Catholic Church, reflects a form of “baptismal regeneration” that is wholly at variance with the New Testament. A leading Catholic authority defines “baptism” in the following fashion:
A sacrament of the New Law instituted by Jesus Christ, in which, as a result of washing with water accompanied by the words “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” a human being is spiritually regenerated, and made capable of receiving the other sacraments (Attwater 1961, 45).
On the same page, the author contends that even the “insane” may be administered this baptismal rite; additionally, he says an aborted fetus “must be baptized.” Protestant reaction against baptismal regeneration was manifest through various outlets.
Salvation by Faith Alone
Jacobus Faber (ca. 1455-1536), known also as Jacques Lefevre, a French Roman Catholic priest, was a harbinger of the Protestant movement in France. Though he never formally severed himself from the Catholic Church, through his influence (largely due to his translation of the New Testament from the Vulgate into French in 1523) French society was cultured for the advancement of Protestantism. Faber has been characterized as the forerunner of the Reformation. Five years before Luther’s formal rebellion against Catholicism (in October 31, 1517 with the declaration of his ninety-five theses), Faber published his Commentary on the Epistles of Paul, in which he argued that justification before God is by faith without attendant works. Faber failed to distinguish works of law (cf. Rom. 4:1ff) and works of human merit (Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5) from works of obedience enjoined by God (Jn. 6:27-29; Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
A few years later, Martin Luther declared:
I, Doctor Martin Luther, unworthy herald of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, confess this article, that faith alone without works justifies before God (D’Aubigne 1955, 56).
So convinced of this was Luther that he altered the text of Romans 3:28 to read: “A man is justified by faith only.” He further rejected the inspiration of the book of James because of its stress on works (obedience) as a demonstration of faith. James declared: “You see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (2:24).
Luther’s position on baptism was confusing. At times he argued that baptism is “necessary for salvation”; at other times he contended that “baptism is no more than an outward sign,” and if one “cannot have it,” or even if he “refuses it, he is not condemned, so long as he believes the Gospel” (Harvey 1964, 38).
There is little doubt that Martin Luther significantly prepared the way for that modern and monstrous sectarian doctrine which asserts that baptism is not essential to salvation.
- Attwater, Donald. 1961. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Bercot, David W. 1998. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle. 1955. The Life and Times of Martin Luther. Chicago, IL: Moody
- Eusebius. 1955. Ecclesiastical History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Fisher, George Park. 1890. History of the Christian Church. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Harvey, Van A. 1964. A Handbook of Theological Terms. New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Kittel, Gerhard, ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Kohlenberger, John, Edward Goodrick, and James Swanson. 1995. The Exhaustive Concordance to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Meyer, H. A. W. 1883. Commentary on Acts. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls.
- Neander, Augustus. 1850. General History of the Christian Religion and Church. Vol. 1. London, England. Henry Bohn.
- Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. 1994. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Rowe, John. 1957. A History of Reformatory Movements. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
- Schaff, Phillip. ed. 1884. Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls Co.
- Strong, Augustus H. 1976. Systematic Theology. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.