Origin, Features, and Administration of Baptism
Baptism is the sacrament by which the recipient is regenerated through triple immersion in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, enters into union with Christ and the body of the church, and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is regarded as the first and principal sacrament, without which none of the other sacraments can be administered. Its primary importance is manifest in the words of Jesus Christ: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5).
This sacrament was instituted by Christ following His Resurrection, when He said to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:18-19), and, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). Christ’s words indicate the universal nature of the sacrament of baptism and its prerequisite importance for salvation.
Before Christ’s institution of baptism as a sacrament, other baptismal forms had existed, such as that performed by John the Baptist, which was by divine command (Mt. 21:25; Mk. 11:30). The disciples, too, used to baptize people during the life of Christ on earth, before His Resurrection and the fulfillment of divine ransom. However, in contrast with Christian baptism, carried out in accordance with Christ’s teaching and recommendations, those earlier forms of baptism had no sacramental qualities. They were merely acts of immersion in water as an expression of repentance on the part of penitent Jews and their belief in the imminent fulfillment of the messianic hope and the coming of Christ.
The sacrament of Christian baptism, on the other hand, is administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to all believers without distinction, for the purpose of penitence and the forgiveness of sins, and for the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is, furthermore, an expression of belief in Christ who has already come, while the earlier baptism was nothing but a prelude to a fuller and more efficacious baptism by One greater than John and the disciples, One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:8).
This basic distinction between Christian baptism and earlier baptisms was clearly brought out in the writings of the early fathers. According to Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220), “in the Acts of the Apostles, we find that men who had “John’s baptism,’ had not received the Holy Spirit, whom they knew not even by hearing. And so, “the baptism of repentance’ was dealt with as if it were a candidate for the remission and sanctification shortly about to follow in Christ: for in that John used to preach “baptism for the remission of sins,’ the declaration was made with reference to a future remission that repentance is antecedent, remission subsequent; and this is “preparing the way'” (Tertullian, On Baptism).
Similar interpretations permeate the writings of other Fathers, such as ATHANASIUS of Alexandria (c. 296-373) in the Treatise on Matthew 3, CYRIL OF JERUSALEM (c. 315-386) in Catechetical Lecture 3 and 4, and Augustine (354-430) in Epistle 51.
The effect of baptism in purification, remission of sins, and spiritual regeneration makes it an essential, indispensable element for salvation. This inherent feature was also amply expounded by several of the fathers, such as Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), Saint CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 150-c. 215), Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386), Saint BASIL THE GREAT (c. 330-379), and Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407).
Baptism imparts the following graces to the baptized: (1) spiritual regeneration, as explained by Christ to Nicodemus (Jn. 3:3- 8); (2) purification and remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 1 Pt. 3:21; Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Cor. 6:11); (3) membership in the one body of Christ (Gal. 3:26-29; 1 Cor. 12:13; Acts 2:41; Rom. 6:3-5); and (4) release from the punishment of sins (Mk. 16:16; Ti. 3:5-7; 1 Pt. 1:3, 4).
As ordained by Christ in teaching and put into practice through His baptism in the waters of the Jordan, the visible element used in administering the sacrament of baptism has always been water, by trine immersion in the name of the three hypostases of the Holy Trinity. Full immersion is symbolic of Christ’s burial, hence Saint Paul’s words, “Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom. 6:4, 5). These principles receive ample attention in the writings of the church fathers.
Once baptism is validly administered, it cannot be repeated. Hence the reaffirmation in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “We confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” A repetition of the baptismal rite would therefore be sacrilegious, for the following considerations. Since baptism is an act of spiritual birth, no one person can be born twice; in its symbolic nature and sacramental representation of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, it should take place only once; according to the concept of baptism, it has an indelible, ineffaceable character on the soul of the baptized, which renders its repetition utterly otiose.
In the case of those persons seeking reconciliation with the church after having been baptized by heretics or schismatics, the sacrament is administered to them on the grounds that the earlier baptism was null and void. Hence the stipulation of Apostolic Canon 47, “Let a bishop or presbyter who shall baptize again one who has rightly received baptism, or who shall not baptize one who has been polluted by the ungodly, be deposed, as despising the cross and death of the Lord, and not making a distinction between the true priests and the false.”
The issue of rebaptism was one of the vexed questions that troubled the church in the third century, giving rise to a prolonged and serious dispute between Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258), and Pope Stephen of Rome (254-257). The former maintained the urgency of rebaptism in certain cases, the latter held that any baptism in the name of Christ or the three Persons of the Trinity should not be repeated. The Council of Carthage (255) ruled that heretics and those whom they baptized had to be rebaptized, while those who had been baptized in the church but lapsed were not to be baptized.
According to Canon 19 of the First Council of NICAEA (325): “Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the bishop of the Catholic church . . .” (The Canons of the 318 Holy Fathers). Likewise, Canon 8 of the synod of Laodicea (between 343 and 381) decreed that: “Persons converted from the heresy of those who are called Phrygians, even should they be among those reputed by them as clergymen, and even should they be called the very chiefest, are with all care to be both instructed and baptized by the bishops and presbyters of the church.”
The principle of the noniteration of baptism receives particular stress in the writings of John Chrysostom: “Baptism is a cross, and “our old man was crucified with Him’ for we were made conformable to the likeness of His death’ [Rom. 6:5; Phil. 3:10], and again, “we were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death’ [Rom. 6:4]. Wherefore as it is not possible that Christ should be crucified a second time, for that is to “put Him to an open shame’ [Heb. 6:6], so neither is it possible to be baptized a second time” (Homilies on Hebrews 9.6).
The authority to baptize was conferred by Christ to the apostles (Mt. 28:19) who, in turn, gave it to the bishops who succeeded them and to the presbyters. Deacons and deaconesses who assist the bishop or presbyter do not exercise the right of administering the sacrament.
Since the apostolic age, baptism has been administered at any time of the year, upon condition that the candidate is deemed worthy to receive it. There were, however, certain occasions on which large numbers of people were usually baptized, such as on Easter Eve, Pentecost, and Epiphany. “Pascha [i.e., Easter] affords a more than usually solemn day for baptism; when, withal, the Lord’s passion, in which we are baptized, was completed. After that, Pentecost is a most joyous space for conferring baptisms” (Tertullian, De Baptismo 19).
In the Coptic church, many baptisms are usually carried out on the Eve of Epiphany (11 Tubah) in commemoration of Jesus’ baptism, and also on the sixth Sunday of the Great Lent, known as Christening Sunday.
Believers who were martyred for the sake of Jesus Christ without having been baptized are said to have gained an extraordinary baptism of blood, or martyrdom. It is recognized by the church through the commemoration of the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, those children of Bethlehem who were massacred by order of Herod in his attempt to kill the Infant Jesus (Mt. 2:16- 18). It also applies to martyrs who died during the times of persecution without having previously received the sacrament.
Before a person is baptized, it is essential that he or she have a firm belief in Jesus Christ the Redeemer (Mk. 16:16; Acts 16:31) and a genuine feeling of repentance (Acts 11:38; 3:9), make an explicit confession of faith, and repeat after the priest the formula of the renunciation of the devil. In the case of children, their sponsors make these commitments on their behalf.
Since the apostolic age, the baptism of infants has been recognized as a common and by no means premature practice. Male infants were due for baptism forty days and females eighty days after birth, when the mother had completed her purification days. In cases of illness or fear that an infant might not survive this prescribed period, he or she could be taken to church by another woman who acted on this occasion as sponsor. Hence the obligation that the church places on parents, requiring them to have their offspring baptized at the first available opportunity after the aforementioned duration of time.
The reasons for this practice are several. First, baptism is a sacrament of purification, cleansing from original sin, and spiritual regeneration. Second, baptism is a prerequisite for salvation and entry into the kingdom of God. To deny it to infants is to deprive them of this grace. The argument that at this age children are still immature and lacking in the ability to understand matters of faith is refuted on the basis that they are to be baptized in accordance with their parents’ or their sponsors’ faith, just as in the Old Testament circumcision on the eighth day after birth was routine ritual not dependent on the age of discretion. Baptism in the New Testament is the counterpart of circumcision in the Old.
Third, we learn from the Acts of the Apostles that the apostles administered baptism to entire families, grown-ups as well as youngsters. Peter baptized Cornelius the centurion, one of the early converts to Christianity, and his household (Acts 10:44-48). Paul baptized the family of Lydia the dealer in purple fabric (16:14-15); the jailer at Philippi and his whole family (16:33); Crispus, who held high office in the synagogue at Corinthus, and his family (18:8); and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16).
Fourth, the fathers placed particular emphasis on infant baptism. Origen (185-253), the “greatest scholar of Christian antiquity,” wrote: “The church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. For the apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine mysteries, knew that there is in everyone the innate stain of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit.”
Similarly clear views are expressed by a host of other fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Augustine, and many others.
The issue was also debated in church councils, and the church’s decision was given its definitive form in the provisions stipulated by canon 110 of the Council of Carthage (419): “. . . whosoever denies that infants newly from their mothers’ wombs should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin, which needs to be removed by the laver of regeneration, from whence the conclusion follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins, is to be understood as false and not true, let him be anathema” (Canons of the 217 Blessed Fathers).
- De Pressensé, E. The Early Years of Christianity, Vol. 1. London, 1880.
- Evetts, B. T. A. The Rites of the Coptic Church. London, 1888.
- Habîb Jirjis. Asrar al-Kanisah al-Sab‘ah, 2nd ed., pp. 30-58. Cairo, 1950.
- Jurgens, W. A., ed. and trans. The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, Collegeville, Minn., 1970; Vols. 2 and 3, Collegeville, Minn., 1979.
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- Yuhanna Salamah. Kitab al-La‘ali’ al-Nafisah fi Sharh Tuqus wa- Mu‘taqadut al-Kanisah, Vol. 2, pp. 38-40. Cairo, 1909.