Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Baptism in the Ancient Church

By the late second century an elaborate process had developed leading into baptism including:

1. Catechesis. This process included an intense period of instruction in the rudiments of the Christian faith, and often included a time of probation of seven years.

2. Fasting and Prayer. Since baptism often was done on Easter, the forty days prior to this event was dedicated to various spiritual exercises including fasting, prayer, and reading of Scripture.

3. Renunciation. When the time for baptism came, the candidate would be called upon to renounce the devil and all his pomp. Facing westward, direction the sun went down, he would exlaim "I renounce, thee O Satan, and all thy works", and then spit three times in the direction of darkness.

4. Credo. And turning eastward to the sunrise he would say, "And I embrace thee, O Lord Jesus Christ". And this point he would be baptized and recite a baptismal confession of faith often given the form of answers to questions and response with "I believe".

5. Disrobing. The candidate would remove all clothing and enter naked into the waters.

6. Immersion. In some churches the candidate would be immersed three times in the name of the Triune God.

7. New Robe. Coming out of the baptismal waters the candidate would be given a new rob symbolizing their putting on Christ.

8. Annointing. Each candidate would be annointed with oil symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

9. Laying on of Hands. This represented a sealing of the blessing given to each newly baptized Christian. It connoted a kind of commissioned to stand for Christ and his truth.

10. The Lord's Supper. Only those initiated into the church could partake of the Lord's Supper, and so the candidates would have an early morning supper with fellow Christians.

See Tertullian, De Baptismo; Hippolytus, Apostolic Constitutions; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures; John Chrysostom, Baptismal Homilies.

Take from Timothy George, Galatians (NAC; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), pp. 280-81.


Christopher Drew said...

I always enjoy imagining the Baptismal rites of the early church. I think it would have been very powerful to watch the newly baptized enter the church, the smell of perfumed oil wafting through the air, as they communed with their new family of faith. Cool post.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

What about this ancient rite of baptism is important for our context? I say this not dismissively, but really asking for your reflections, here. My teacher, Glenn Hinson, used to say that in the ancient church, baptism was preparation for martyrdom. How does baptism today prepare for costly witness?

J. K. Walters said...

I don't think it is correct to say that the purpose of baptism is to prepare us for costly witness (though we ought to be ready for it). The importance of baptism, as a prescribed outward symbol of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (regeneration) and of our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, may well be taken too lightly today. A look at the importance of, preparation for, and reverent execution of baptism in the ancient church could serve us well as a reminder of the gravity of the sacrament.