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The Catechumens—Progress of Infant Baptism—Delay of Baptism—
Gregory Nazienzen—Chrysostom—Basil—Ephrem of Edessa—
The Emperor Constantine—Immersion still the Mode.


The statements made in former sections are abundantly confirmed by impartial divines and historians. One of the most learned men of the present day, the late Baron Bunsen, writes thus in his work entitled, “Christianity and Mankind.”

“The Apostolical Church made the school the connecting link between herself and the world. The object of this education was admission into the free society and brotherhood of the Christian community. The Church adhered rigidly to the principle, as constituting the true purport of the baptism ordained by Christ, that no one can be a member of the communion of saints, but by his own free act and deed, his own solemn vow made in presence of the Church. It was with this understanding that the candidate for baptism was immersed in water, and admitted as a brother upon his confession of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It is understood, therefore, in the exact sense (1 Peter 3:21), not as being a mere bodily purification, but as a vow made to God with a good conscience through faith in Jesus Christ. This vow was preceded by a confession of Christian faith made in the face of the Church, in which the catechumen expressed that faith in Christ, and in the sufficiency of the salvation offered by him. It was a vow to live for the time to come to God and for his neighbour, not to the world and for self; a vow of faith in his becoming a child of God, through the communion of his only-begotten Son, in the Holy Ghost; a vow of the most solemn kind, for life and for death. The keeping of this pledge was the condition of continuance in the Church; its infringement entailed repentance or excommunication. All Church discipline was based upon this voluntary pledge, and the responsibility thereby self-imposed. But how could such a vow be received without examination? How could such examination be passed without instruction and observation? As a general rule, the ancient Church fixed three years for this preparation, supposing the candidate, whether heathen or Jew, to be competent to receive it. With Christian children the condition was the same, except that the term of probation was curtailed according to circumstances. P?obaptism in the more modern sense, meaning thereby the baptism of new-born infants with the vicarious promises of parents and other sponsors, was utterly unknown to the early Church, not only down to the end of the second, but indeed to the middle of the third century.”1

The catechumen institution may be traced back to an early period-as far as the second century. At first, as we gather from the New Testament, converts were baptized as soon as they acknowledged Christ. Afterwards, it was judged expedient to prepare them for baptism by a course of instruction, generally extending, as Baron Bunsen states in the above-cited passage, to three years. In the first  ages they experienced Christianity, and then professed it. In after times they learned Christianity, and that, in too  many instances, was all: conversion and experience were unknown. But this catechumenical system was adapted to  those only who were able to learn, and therefore excluded  infants. Its very existence was incompatible with infant?baptism; and the consequence was, that when the latter became general the former disappeared, or dwindled down to an unmeaning form. But in the period which is now before us the Catechumens were a distinct order. Certain  persons, called Catechists, were appointed to instruct them. They occupied a separate place in Christian assemblies,  and were required to withdraw before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which they were not permitted to witness.  From the Latin phrase used in dismissing the assembly,  the whole service was called “Missa,” from which the English word “Mass” is derived. There were the Missa Catechumenorum, or service of the Catechumens, and the Missa Fidelium, or service of the Faithful; the former comprising the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon; the latter, the Lord’s Supper and the devotional exercises which preceded and accompanied it, denoting the fellowship of believers, to which class the Catechumens did not belong till after their baptism.

It is a very noticeable fact, that the baptismal service, as prescribed in the earliest liturgies, was prepared for Catechumens only. There was no provision for infants. Had infant-baptism been then in existence, the ecclesiastical arrangements would have recognized it, and there would have been a twofold service, as there is now in the Church of England, one for infant, and the other for “those of riper years.”

 We have called the period from A.D. 254 to A.D. 604 the “Transition Period,” because, so far as baptism was concerned, and, indeed, in many other particulars which might be adduced if needful, the ecclesiastical system was in a formative state. It was neither one thing nor the other, but a mixture of incongruities. The catechumenical arrangement was founded on the theory of baptism on a personal profession of faith, and so far accorded with the New Testament. But infant-baptism had sprung up in Northern Africa, and was gradually extending itself through the powerful influence of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who wrote largely on the subject. His sheet-anchor in the argument was the supposed efficacy of baptism in removing the defilement of original sin. These two theories were in opposition to each other, for if all candidates for baptism were to become catechumens and receive preparatory instruction, infant-baptism had no place. Yet there it was, daily gaining ground. Augustine’s authority gave it the advantage in the West; but in the East, the baptism of children from three to ten years of age, who could in some sort answer for themselves, lingered much longer. And great numbers followed the example of the Emperor Constantine, who deferred his baptism till the latest possible period, that all his sins might be washed away at once, as he, poor man, vainly imagined they would be, by the administration of the ordinance. Thus we find a great diversity of practice. There was infant-baptism spreading from North Africa—child-baptism prevalent in the East—catechumen-baptism, properly so called, the ordinary mode of admitting converts—and procrastinated-baptism, including such cases as Constantine’s. We see, then, that this period is rightly termed the “Transition Period.”

Neander says, “It was still very far from being the case, especially in the Greek Church, that infant-baptism, although acknowledged to be necessary, was generally introduced into practice. Partly, the same mistaken notions which arose from confounding the thing represented by baptism with the outward rite, and which afterwards led to the over-valuation of infant-baptism, and partly, the frivolous tone of thinking, the indifference to all higher concerns, which characterized so many who had only exchanged the Pagan for a Christian outside,—all this together contributed to bring it about, that among the Christians of the East, infant-baptism, though acknowledged in theory to be necessary, yet entered so rarely and with so much difficulty into the Church-life during the first half of this period.”2

“The baptism of infants,” Gieseler observes, “did not become universal till after the death of Augustine.”3

Had infant-baptism been universally regarded as a Divine ordinance, it would have been everywhere observed, and Christian parents would have been scrupulously heedful of their duty towards their children in this matter. But it was not so. Some of the best men of the time were children of pious parents, but were not baptized till they attained maturity. We say again, this could not have taken place if infant-baptism had been from the beginning regarded as an Apostolic institution. A few instances may be given.

Gregory Nazianzen, Archbishop of Constantinople, who died in the year 389, and whose father was Bishop of Nazianzen, was not baptized till he was nearly thirty years old. He expressly intimated his disapproval of infant-baptism, in one of his public discourses, and advised that children should not be baptized till they were three years old or more, at which time they might be able to answer the questions proposed to candidates.4

Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed preacher, also Archbishop of Constantinople, and born of Christian parents, received baptism at the age of twenty-eight. He died in the year 407.

Basil of Caesarea, though he could boast of Christian ancestry for several generations, was not baptized till he was twenty-seven years old. Addressing Catechumens, he says (A. D. 350), “Do you demur, and loiter, and put it off, when you have been from a child catechized in the Word? Are you not acquainted with the truth? Having been always learning it, are you not yet come to the knowledge of it? A seeker all your life long, a considerer till you are old? When will you become one of us?” Observe—“from a child catechized”—but baptism still delayed.5

Ephrem of Edessa, a learned writer of the Syriac Church (died A.D. 378), was born of parents who, as Alban Butler remarks, “were ennobled by the blood of martyrs in their family, and had themselves both confessed Christ before the persecutors, under Diocletian or his successors. They consecrated Ephrem to God from his cradle, like another Samuel, but he was eighteen years old when he was baptized.”6 They would be called good Baptists in these times. They “consecrated” their child, that is, prayed for him, and trained him “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord;” but they did not think of his being baptized till he was a believer, which was not till he was “eighteen years old.” Would they have acted thus, if infant-baptism had been the universal and binding practice of the Church?

Speaking of the Emperor Constantine, the historian Gibbon says, “The example and reputation of Constantine seemed to countenance the delay of baptism. Future tyrants were encouraged to believe that the innocent blood which they might shed in a long reign would instantly be washed away in the waters of regeneration: and the abuse of religion dangerously undermined the foundation of moral virtue.”7 The truth of the last observation is undeniable. All ecclesiastical history illustrates it. And there is no more melancholy confirmation than that which is afforded by the records of baptism. The figment of baptismal regeneration, one of the earliest corruptions of Christianity, was an outrage on morals and religion. It encouraged men in sin, and holstered them up with a false hope, substituting the outward form for repentance, faith, and a changed heart and life. Infant-baptism, also, soon unfolded its injurious tendencies and effects. They will present themselves at every step of our progress. It seems astonishing that so gross a perversion of Christianity should have acquired such a firm hold of men’s minds. But it is among the things that are doomed, and the day is not far off.

With the sole exception of the clinics, already referred to, baptism still consisted in the immersion of the candidate, who was ordinarily divested of clothing. The same method was adopted for children as for adults. And the immersion was still commonly performed thrice.

The following passages are taken from Bingham’s “Antiquities “ (book xi. chap. 11).

“Cyril of Jerusalem” (died A.D. 386) “makes it an emblem of the Holy Ghost’s effusion upon the Apostles; for as he that goes down into the water and is baptized is surrounded on all sides by the water, so the Apostles were baptized all over by the Spirit; the water surrounds the body externally, but the Spirit incomprehensibly baptizes the interior soul.”

“So St. Ambrose” (died A.D. 396) “explains it. ‘Thou wast asked, Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty? And didst thou answer, I believe; and then, thou wast immerged in water, that is, buried.”’

“St. Chrysostom” (died A.D. 407) “proves the resurrection from this practice; ‘for,’ says he, ‘our being baptized and immerged into the water, and our rising again out of it, is a symbol of our descending into hell or the grave, and of our returning from thence.’”

“St. Jerome” (died A.D. 420) “makes this ceremony to be a symbol of the Unity as well as the Trinity. ‘For,’ says he, ‘we are thrice dipped in the water, that the mystery of the Trinity may appear to be but one; we are not baptized in the names of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but in one name, which is God.’”

“St. Augustine” (died A.D. 430) “tells us there was a twofold mystery signified in this way of baptizing. The trine immersion was both a symbol of the Holy Trinity, in whose name we are baptized, and also a type of the Lord’s burial, and of His resurrection on the third day from the dead. For we are buried with Christ by baptism, and rise again with Him by faith.”

Leo the Great (died A.D. 461) says, “The trine immersion is an imitation of the three days’ burial; and the rising again out of the water is an image of Christ rising from the grave.”

Gregory the Great (died A.D. 604) wrote thus to Leander, Bishop of Seville:—“Concerning the three immersions in baptism, you have judged very truly already, that different rites and customs do not prejudice the Holy Church, whilst the unity of faith remains entire. The reason why we use three immersions at Rome is to signify the mystery of Christ’s three days’ burial, that whilst an infant is thrice lifted up out of the water the resurrection on the third day may be expressed thereby. But if anyone thinks this is rather done in regard to the Holy Trinity, a single immer?sion in baptism does no way prejudice that; for so long as the unity of substance is preserved in Three Persons, it is no harm whether a child be baptized with one immersion or three; because three immersions may represent the Trinity of Persons, and one immersion the Unity of the Godhead.”

At first, baptism was administered in rivers, pools, baths, wherever a sufficient quantity of water could be conveniently obtained. In the fourth century, baptisteries began to be erected. These were large buildings, contiguous to the churches. There was usually but one in a city, attached to the bishop’s or cathedral church. The baptistery proper, or font, was in the center of the building, and at the sides were numerous apartments for the accommodation of the candidates. Several of these baptisteries yet remain, and have been frequently described by travelers. The baptisteries at Rome (in the church of St. John Lateran), Ravenna, Florence, Pisa, and Parma may be particularly mentioned. The fonts in these baptisteries are from three to four feet-deep, and of proportionate size. Of course they were intended for immersion.

1 Vol. ii. p. 105.

2 History of the Church, ii. p. 319.

3 Ecclesiastical History, ii. p. 47.

4 Ullmann’s Gregory of Nazianzen, p. 27.

5 “Oratio exhortatoria ad baptismum,” quoted in Wall’s History of Infant Baptism, chap. xii.

6 Lives of the Saints. Art. “ St. Ephrem.”

7 Decline and Fall, chap. xx.

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