As we have seen, admission to the Church was through baptism. In the first few decades of the Church, baptism might be administered on a simple profession of faith in Christ. Thus on the famous day of Pentecost, often regarded as the birthday of the Church, when about three thousand are reported to have been added to the fellowship of the disciples, the injunction was to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Whether all were baptized on that day is not explicitly stated, but we hear of the Ethiopian Eunuch being baptized after only brief instruction and of a jailer at Philippi receiving the rite, with all that were in his house, on the very night in which he seems first to have heard of Christ, with the simple requirement of belief "in the Lord Jesus Christ." An early baptismal formula, in accordance with the command in the closing words of The Gospel according to Matthew, was "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Baptism seems to have been by immersion, at least normally. Whether it was by immersion only has been a matter of debate and on it no unanimity has been realized. Immersion appears to have been implied in the symbolism of death and burial to the old life and the resurrection to the new life of which Paul spoke so graphically. Baptism seems to have been regarded as requisite for the "remission of sins" and for the new birth through which alone one could enter the Kingdom of God. It was often, perhaps regularly, followed by the laying on of hands by one of the apostles, although not necessarily by one of the Twelve, and through this the Holy Spirit was held to be imparted.
By the time that the Didache was written, baptism, at least as that document knew it, was still comparatively simple. It was preceded by instruction. Both he who administered baptism and such other Christians as could do so were to fast before the rite was given to a neophyte. Baptism was to be "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." It was normally to be in "living," that is, running cold water, but if that were not available it might be in other and even in warm water. If immersion were impossible, water was to be poured upon the head three times "into the name of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost." Another early custom was to have the candidate anointed with oil both before and after baptism.
Tertullian, writing not far from the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, describes baptism. Evidently it had been further elaborated. The rite was to be administered by a bishop or a presbyter or deacon designated by him, or, in the absence of these, by a layman. It was generally given at Easter or during the fifty days after Easter. Candidates were to prepare for it by prayer, fasting, vigils through entire nights, and the confession of all past sins. Immediately before baptism, which was in water that had previously been blessed, the convert formally renounced the devil, his pomps, and his angels. He was also anointed with oil to drive out evil spirits. After the rite the newly baptized candidate was given a mixture of milk and honey to taste and was again anointed with oil. Then a hand, preferably that of the bishop, was laid on him, invoking the Holy Spirit, and he was signed on his forehead with oil. He refrained from the daily bath for a week after having received the rite.
Baptism was by a thrice-repeated immersion, preferably in water running through the baptistry. The first immersion was preceded by a confession of faith in God the Father, the second by a confession of faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, and the third by a confession of faith in the Holy Spirit. In at least some churches, so we must note in passing, the candidate was baptized naked, the children first, then the men, and finally the women. No one was to take into the water anything except his body.
The post-baptismal laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit was the rudimentary form of what later came to be esteemed one of the sacraments, confirmation. In Rome by the end of the fifth century this was regularly done by the Pope, as Bishop of Rome, in a special chapel behind the baptistry. There the newly baptized were brought. Then the Pope prayed to God a to send His Holy Spirit on them, and, dipping his thumb in the consecrated oil, made the sign of the cross on the forehead of each saying "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Peace to you."
Tertullian appears to have believed that he was describing baptism as it was generally practised in his day, but it may well have been that no such uniformity existed as he supposed. For instance, according to another early account, the bishop anointed the candidate before rather than after immersion. Tertullian vigorously opposed teaching and the administration of baptism by women, because there were Christians who advocated both.
By Tertullian's day the baptism of infants seems to have been common, so much so that he spoke of it as though all Christians were familiar with it. At baptism the children had sponsors who took vows, apparently on behalf of the children. Tertullian favoured the deferring of baptism for infants until they themselves knew Christ and asked for baptism. He also advocated that for the unmarried baptism be delayed either until they married or until the habit of continence had been established.
Some baptized infants eight days after birth, but Cyprian objected even to this postponement. In this he was supported by Augustine, who held that baptism removed the taint of original sin derived through Adam.
As we have seen in the case of Augustine, baptism was regarded as washing away previous sins and, since it could not be repeated (although martyrdom, being interpreted as a baptism by blood, might count instead of baptism by water or be a second baptism), it was by many deemed the part of wisdom to postpone it until the first heat of youth was passed or until one's final illness. Some authorities in the Church might discourage such delay, but numbers, even of eminent laymen, including more than one of the Emperors, judged it safe and adopted it.
In the years when Christianity was spreading rapidly and thousands of converts were coming from paganism, baptism was preceded by a period of instruction and probation as a catechumen. Admission to the catechumenate was eventually by a ceremony in which the priest blew on the face of the aspirant, signed his forehead with the cross, and put a grain of salt in his mouth. Catechumens were counted as Christians and were admitted to the services of the Church, but were required to leave when a certain stage in the ritual was reached, before the celebration of the Eucharist. In some places the catechu-menate was for three years.
The question began to be raised in the Catholic Church of the efficacy of baptism if it were administered by one who was regarded as a heretic. Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage stoutly maintained that such baptism was not valid. This view was held in some other sections of the Church, especially in Syria and Asia Minor. On the other hand, Rome and Alexandria regarded baptism as authentic no matter by whom it had been given, provided only that it had been with water and with the essential forms.
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