Friday, December 22, 2006

Baptism in the Didache

As a response to my post, "Faith Validates Baptism," I received an email from someone interested in the history of believer's baptism. One of the strongest arguments for paedobaptism is that it came early in the history of the church. I'm not sure it came as early as the Catholic and Orthodox churches would claim; evidence in the first few centuries is thin and ambiguous. Delaying baptism until one was on one's deathbed (e.g. Constantine) so that one could not sin after being baptized was also practiced in early years.

So far as I know, the earliest extra-biblical reference to baptism is in the Didache ("The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 7 section 6), generally dated around AD 120. The whole passage reads as follows:
And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: 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 thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice 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 whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
Not that the Didache is authoritative, but it does give us some light on baptismal practices in the early post-Biblical era. What can we learn from it?
  • Baptism was conducted using the formula Jesus gave in the Great Commission, not (as some churches hold, based on statements in the book of Acts) merely in the name of Jesus;
  • Baptism was normally done by immersion; pouring is suggested as an alternate method if water (evidently meaning a sufficient quantity of water) is unavailable;
  • Running water and cold water were to be preferred over still and warm water, perhaps for health reasons;
  • There was some flexibility in the administration: it was considered better to be baptized in less-than-optimal conditions than to delay baptism;
  • Baptism was evidently understood to be for believers, since the one being baptized is instructed to fast for one or two days prior.
Once again, the Didache is not authoritative, and it may not describe the baptismal practices of the church as a whole. Nonetheless, it does belie claims that "the whole church" had "always" practiced infant baptism until those crazy Anabaptists started re-baptizing one another in the sixteenth century.


  1. Hi Keith,

    Memory may fail me but I believe the following book may be helpful to your inquirer. If I recall correctly, it is by conservative presbyterians and suggests that believer's baptism was more than likely the way it was in the beginning. Again, I could me mistaken, but it is supposed to be a very fair treatment of the subject of baptism in the early years. I got most of that from conversations at the Boar's Head Tavern.
    "Baptism in the early church" by Stander and Louw.

    (I enjoy your blog!)

    - Craig

  2. Very interesting baptism posts.

    We had our son baptized as an infant, although my husband had a few reservations about it (we both grew up in the Baptist tradition). But eventually we decided that it was God reaching down to our son, before he was old enough to reach up to Him.


  3. Just a note to Craig:

    I'm terribly sorry--usually I get comments in my email and post them right away. I must have missed yours, and it languished in my "Comments Moderation" folder.

    Anyway, welcome! Thanks for the encouragement.