Early Christian Writing on Baptism

The document known as the Didache is believed to be one of the earliest Christian writings. The word Didache means teaching, which captures the intent of this short catechism. The work is surprisingly short consisting of only 12 pages. Nevertheless, there is a lot here for us to learn about the views of the early church. Here is a link to the entire work: Didache.

The document starts out by explaining two paths: life and death. It states that the way of life consists in obeying the first and second greatest commandments: love God and love neighbor. The Didache’s description of neighborly love is helpful. Now  all  the  things  that  you  do  not  want  to  have   happen  to  you,  you  too  do  not  do  these  to  one  another.” This is a nice explanation of a text from the book of Romans: “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10).

The Didache moves on from the “two ways” to address the ordinances and leaders in the church. I find the instruction on baptism instructive. Take a look at the text.

Now  about  baptism,  baptize  this  way:  after  first  uttering  all  of  these  things,  baptize  “into   the  name  of  the  Father  and  of  the  son  and  of  the  holy  Spirit”  in  running  water.  But  if  you   do  not  have  running  water,  baptize  in  other  water.  Now  if  you  are  not  able  to  do  so  in   cold  water,  do  it  in  warm  water.  Now  if  you  don’t  have  either,  pour  water  three  times  on   the  head,  “into  the  name  of  the  Father,  and  of  the  son,  and  of  the  holy  Spirit.”  Now  before   the  ritual  cleansing,  the  baptizer  and  the  one  being  baptized  should  fast,  and  any  others   who  are  able.  Now  you  will  give  word  for  the  one  who  is  being  baptized  to  fast  for  one  or   two  days  beforehand.

But  do  not  let  your  fasts  be  with  the  hypocrites.  For  they  fast  on  the  second  day  of  the   week  and  on  the  fifth.  But  you  fast  on  the  fourth  day  and  the  day  of  preparation.  Neither   should  you  pray  like  the  hypocrites,  but  as  the  Lord  gave  word  in  his  good  message,  pray   like  this:  “Our  Father,  the  one  who  is  in  Heaven,  your  name  has  been  made  holy.  Let  your   kingdom  come.  Let  what  you  want  also  be  done  on  earth,  as  in  Heaven.  Give  us  the  bread   we  need  today  and  forgive  us  our  debts  as  we  also  forgive  our  debtors.  And  don’t  carry  us   into  trial,  but  rescue  us  from  the  evil  one.  For  yours  is  the  power  and  the  glory  for  the   age.”  Pray  this  way  three  times  daily.

There are a couple things that stand out to me. First, there is specific instruction to follow the exact language of Matthew 28:18-20 in the baptismal act. Baptism unites individuals to the Triune community. Second, the primary mode of baptism in the Didache is immersion. However, the Didache does make an exception for sprinkling on certain occasions.

The third observation is that the document encourages fasting for the baptismal candidates. This instruction may be influenced by the example of Paul (Acts 9:9,18; 22:16). It seems that this is a practice, good or bad, that is non-existent in the church today. Fourth, preparation for baptism includes prayer—specifically the Lord’s Prayer. The Didache encourages believers to use the Lord’s prayer three times a day as they engage with God. Clearly the early church viewed this prayer as central to its spirituality. 

In the next post we will explore the Didache’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper.

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