Episode 43: Exploring Church History (1) Baptism

Laurence introduces Stephen Blake for a new 3 part series on aspects of church history.  For this episode they look at the Christian practice of baptism from the early church, through the Middle Ages and beyond.  How and why does it change over time, and does it matter?  Listen in and tell us what you think!

Show Notes

Stephen and Laurence set up the context to the series and Stephen explains the reasons for his academic studies into early Christianity and church history. He explains the value we derive from studying this topic and the light it can shed on what original or authentic Christianity is.

Stephen continues by giving us a time framework for thinking about the history of the early church from the early church fathers, the Middle Ages through to the reformation and the age of Enlightenment.

Schools of thought about baptism

Laurence and Stephen then consider the first topic of baptism and identify there are two broad schools of thought on baptism. The first is adult baptism, sometimes referred to as believer’s baptism or credobaptism. The second is infant baptism, which is also known as paedobaptism. Of these two approaches in the Bible we only see examples of adult or believers baptism.

Stephen then refers to a passage in Matt 28:18-20 that describes the “Great Commission” Jesus gives to his disciples to go out into the world and make disciples of Christ. Stephen explains that the word disciple implies study. So Jesus wanted people to become his students and a significant part of this was to be baptised. They turn to Romans 8:1-8 to learn the link between the death and resurrection of Christ. For the believer, choosing baptism is supposed to be a conscious decision to walk in “newness of life”.

A ban on baptism?!

With the biblical basis firmly in place, Stephen explained how Christians were originally united on the topic of baptism, and adult baptism at that. As one historian puts it:

From the beginning, baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission into the Church…

J. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London, 1989), pp. 193-194

It’s therefore incredible to think that there was a time when the practice of adult baptism was banned. Stephen explains that this ban in 420 AD was during the reign of Roman Emperor Honorius, shortly after a pivotal moment in the history of the church. Just a few decades earlier, in 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius had officially made Catholic Christianity the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire. This branch of Christianity had replaced believer’s baptism with infant baptism, explaining the turn of events that resulted in a prohibition on adult baptism. Stephen and Laurence point to additional historical commentary that chart this change.

What began as a rite to initiate adult believers into the Christian Church developed, over several centuries into a ritual centred upon a passive infant.

K. Spierling, Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 31-32

For the vast majority of members of the church baptism was as involuntary as birth, and it carried with it obligations as binding and permanent as birth into a modern state, with the further provision that the obligations attached to baptism could in no circumstances be renounced.

R.W Southern, The Penguin history of the Church, Western society and the Church in the Middle Ages

Laurence comments on how much demonstrates a shift from baptism as an individual response to the gospel to a baby being brought into a church-state system.

The Anabaptists

Laurence and Stephen then explore the reemergence of adult or believer’s baptism and when it no longer was prohibited. Even as late as the sixteenth century, choosing to be baptised as an adult was still incredibly dangerous and hugely controversial. Communities who practised adult baptism in the sixteenth century were called ‘Anabaptists’ or ‘rebaptizers’ as it literally means. Mainstream Christians, even Protestant Reformers thought that baptism should only be infant baptism and to receive adult baptism was, in their eyes, to be baptised again, i.e. rebaptised. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that it became a lot safer to practise believer’s baptism.

Conclusions about baptism

Laurence and Stephen conclude by looking at the case study of the Ethiopian that Philip met traveling away from Jerusalem (Acts 8:35-39) and the process of belief and baptism that resulted.  Stephen comments that considering early church history teaches us lessons about diverging from original or authentic Christian practices and can help us make choices in our own journey of faith.

Further Resources

Stephen left us with some recommendations for further reading:

  • The Early Church, Henry Chadwick
  • Early Christian Doctrines, JND Kelly
  • Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church by Stuart G Hall

Episode 42 “Life in a 1st century church” provides a bit of a background to this and subsequent church history episodes, explaining why we think it’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the Bible with church history.