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8. Mode and Form of Baptism

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XIV. Of Baptism

8. Mode and Form of Baptism. 

To this head belong,

  1. The manner in which the candidate for baptism received the appointed element, water.
  2. The ceremonies observed by the officiating persons in administering the ordinance.

In regard to both of these points, considerable difference of opinion and usage prevailed in the ancient church, from a very early period; nor are the Eastern and Western churches, to this day, agreed in this matter. This difference, however, has uniformly been treated as of less importance by the latter, than by the former church.

  1. Immersion or dipping. In the primitive church, this Was undeniably the common mode of baptism. The utmost that can be said of sprinkling in that early period is that it was, in case of necessity, permitted as an exception to a general rule. This fact is so well established that it were needless to adduce authorities in proof of it. The reader will be directed to them by reference to the index of authorities but there are some points in connection with this rite which require particular attention.

    It is a great mistake to suppose that baptism by immersion was discontinued when infant baptism became prevalent. This was as early as the sixth century; but the practice of immersion continued until the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Indeed it has never been formally abandoned; but is still the mode of administering infant baptism in the Greek church.

    Trine immersion was early practised in the church. The sacramentary of Gregory the Great directs that the person to be baptized should be immersed at the mention of each of the persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Tertullian says, "We receive the water of baptism not merely once, but three times, at the mention of each of the persons of the Holy Trinity;" and again, "We are plunged thrice in the water of baptism." Basil the Great, Jerome and Ambrose believed this custom to have been introduced by the apostles, though no authority for this supposition is found in the New Testament. Other of the fathers supposed the practice of trine immersion to refer not to the three persons in the Godhead, but to the three great events, which completed the work of our redemption, – the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. 

    Single immersion was at times considered valid. This decision was given by Gregory the Great, in a controversy with the Arians in Spain, who maintained that trine immersion denoted three gradations in the Godhead. Gregory, on the contrary, declared baptism by single immersion to be valid, and aptly significant of the unity of the Deity. This division was afterwards confirmed by the council ofToledo. 

    In the early centuries, all persons who received baptism were completely undressed, without distinction of age or sex; this circumstance was thought to be emblematical of the putting off of the old man, and the putting on of the new, – the putting away of the defilements of the flesh, etc. A sense of decency at length prevailed against this unaccountable superstition, and it was by degrees discontinued.

  2. Aspersion or Sprinkling. After the lapse of several centuries this form of baptism gradually took the place of immersion without any established rule of the church, or formal renunciation of the rite of immersion. The form was not esteemed essential to the validity of the ordinance.

The Eastern church however, in direct opposition to these views, has uniformly retained the form of immersion as indispensable to the validity of the ordinance, and repeated the rite whenever they have received to their communion persons who had been previously baptized in another manner. 

In defence of the usage of the Western church, the following considerations are offered.

  1. The primary signification of the word cannot be of great importance, inasmuch as the rite itself is typical, and therefore derives its importance, not from the literal import of the phrase, but from the significancy and design of the ordinance.
  2. Though no instance of baptism by sprinkling is mentioned in the New Testament, yet there are several cases in which it is hardly possible that it could have been administered by immersion, Acts 10:47, 48, 16:32, 33. 2: 41.
  3. In cases of emergency, baptism by aspersion was allowed at a period of high antiquity. Cyprian especially says, that this was legitimate baptism when thus administered to the sick. When performed in faith on the part of the minister and the subject, he maintains that the whole is done with due fidelity, and agreeably to the majesty of the divine character. 

This form was also admitted when the baptismal font was too small for the administration of the rite by immersion; and, generally, considerations of convenience, and of health and climate are mentioned as having influence in regard to the form of administering the ordinance. 

Aspersion did not become general in the West until the thirteenth century, though it appears to have been introduced some time before that period. Thomas Aquinas says: it is safer to baptize by immersion, because this is the general practice. Tutius est baptizare per modum immersionis, quia hoc habet communis usus. 

Form of Words used at Baptism.

From the time of Justin Martyr and the Apostolical Constitutions the liturgical books of all religious denominations have retained one and the same form of words; though they may have disagreed in their explanation of the form, they have still retained it unaltered. Even those who deny the doctrine of the Trinity, retain the same form; so that Augustine says: it were easier to find heretics who do not baptize at all, than any who do not use this form of words in their baptism namely, 'I baptize thee, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.'

It is remarkable that the earliest fathers, with respect to this baptismal formulary, do not appeal to tradition as in many other things relating to baptism; but to the words prescribed by Christ himself. To them Justin Martyr evidently refers, though he does not mention them as a prescribed form. Tertullian represents it as a definite and prescribed formulary: Lex tingendi imposita et forma praescripta;  so also Cyprian. The Apostolical Constitutions and canons require the use of this form, under severe penalties. 

Instead of *, into the name, the phrase in Acts 2:38, is *, and in Acts 10:48, * in the name. The same phraseology is familiar with the earliest of the fathers, as Tertullian, and Ambrose, and Cyprian. It is also the rendering of the vulgate; but it is uncertain whether the original gave occasion for this latter usage, or whether it was designed to be an interpretation of the original *.

It was an ancient practice to omit the word *; but the omission was not supposed to vary the significancy of the formulary, both being used indiscriminately by Jerome and Tertullian.

Baptism in the name of Christ alone, was regarded as valid, but was discountenanced as an irregularity. 

In the Greek church baptism is administered in the third person instead of the first, that is to say, the officiating minister, instead of saying "I baptize thee," uses the form "This person is baptized," etc.

Henr. Pontani Dissertatt. de ritu mersionis in sacro bapt. Trajecti 1705. 4: Jo. Gill, the ancient mode of baptizing by Immersion, etc. Lond. 1726. 8. G. Ge. Zeltner, de mersione in baptisrno apostolica larga perfusione instauranda. Altd. 1720. 1725. 4: Jo. Bartholini dissert, de baptismo per adspersionem legitime adminisirato. Havniae 1557. 4.

Brenner's Geschichtl. Darstelluug der Verricbtung derTaufe, etc. 1818. S. 1–70.

Muratori. Liturg. Rom. Vet. tom. ii.

Adv. Prax. c. 2, 6. De Coron. Mil. c. 3.

De Spiritu Sancto. c. 27.

Advr. Lucif. c. 4. Comment, in Ep. Eph. 4

De Sacr. 2. c. 7.

Cyrill. Hieros. Catech. Mystag. 2. c. 4: Gregor. Nyss. in De Bapt. Chr. Athanas. De Parabol. Ser. Quaest. 94: Leo, Mag. Ep. ad Episc. Sic. c. 3.

Gregor. Mag. Ep. lib. i. ep. 41.

Cone. Toletan. 4. c. 5.

Ambros. Ser. 20: Cyrill. Hieros. Catech. Mystag. 2, 2: Chrysostom Horn. 6. Ep. ad Coloss. Ep. 1. ad Innocent: Athanas. Ep. ad Orthodox Comp. Vass. De Bapt. Dissputat.

Leo Allat. Eccl. Occid. el Orient. Con. lib. iii. c. 12, § 4: Alex. De Stonrdza. Considerationes siir la doctrine et I'esprit de I'eglise Orthodoxe: Act. et Script. Theol. Wertemberg et Patriarch Constant. Jerom. p. 63. p. 238: Metrophan. Critopuii Confess. c. 7. p. 86. Corap. Christ. Angeli. euchiriel de statu hodiern. Graceor. c. 24.

Ep. 76. ed. Oberth. vol. i. p. 279, 280.

Jto. Ciampini monument. Vet. part ii.: Mabillon. Mus. Ital. tom. i. Brenner's Geschichtl. Darstell. S. 14–16.

Walafr. Strabo. de rebus eccl. c. 26.

Jo. Gerhard, Loc. Theol. tom. ix.p. 146.

Sum ma. p. 3. quaest. 66. art. 7.

De Bapt lib. vi. c. 25.

Apol. 1. c. 61.

De Bapt. c. 13. Adv. Praxeam. c. 26.

Ep. 73. ad Jubaj. 0pp. tom. i. ed. Oberth. p. 233.

Apost. Const, lib. iii. c. 16. Canon, c. 49: Comp. Bingham, bk. ii. c. 3.

Ambrose De Sacrament, lib. c. ult.

Bingham, bk. ii. c. 3. § 3.

Unde apparet adspersionem quoque aquae instar salutaris lavacri obtinere, et quando haec in ecclesia fierent ubi sit et accipientiset dantis, fides Integra, stare omnia; et consummari ac perfici posse magistate Domini et fidei veritate. 

Notandum non solam, mergendo virumetiam desuper fundendo, maltos baptizatos fuisse, et adhuc posse ita baptizari si necessitas sit. Sicut in passione S. Laurentii quendam, urceo allato, legiraus baptizatum. Hoc etiam solet venire quum prorectiorum granditas corporum in rainoribus vasis hominera tingi non patitur. Quare cum in ecclesia, praesertim locis septentionalibus propter aeris frigiditatem teneris infantibus aqua lotis facile nocituram, adspersio, vel potius adfusio aquae usitata sit; ideo haec baptismi forma retinenda nee propter vitium adiaphoriae lites cum ecclesiae scandalo movendae. 

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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