Early Church Baptism

justin martyr iconI had a conversation recently with some friends about how many different interpretations there are for baptism these days.  Some see it as a nice symbolic act, others as something you’re just supposed to do since Jesus said so, and still others as a literal cleansing away of sin.

Since there is an ancient Christian document (written around 150 AD) which discusses the baptismal process, I decided it would be best to simply let the early Church speak for itself.  Too often we turn to secondary sources for information when the answers can be found in ancient documents if we know where to look.

The author, Justin Martyr, was a pagan-turned-Christian who was trained in his early years in the Greek philosophical schools of the Roman Empire.

A few interesting points:

  • The one being baptized would fast before hand.  Those in his or her church would also fast and pray with them.
  • They completed a Trinitarian baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • Baptism was called illumination, and those who were baptized were not called “saved” but “illuminated.”
  • According to Justin, the apostles taught that baptism is what it means to be “born again.”

Without further ado, here is the sixty-first chapter of Justin Martyr’s First Apology:

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.

Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all.

And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Isaiah the prophet, as I wrote above; he says: “Wash and make yourself clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

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