Together with faith* in Christ, baptism administered in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is regarded by almost all Christian communions as the basis of the Christian life and membership of the one church* of Christ. Unity* in baptism should thus be for all such disciples of the Lord Jesus the mark by which they recognize each other as members of the Body of Christ. The importance attached by Christians and their churches to baptism – reflected in the 1982 Lima text ( Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry *) and the responses to it – derives from the teaching of the New Testament and the practice of the first Christian community.

The evidence of the nt and the first Christian community

We may consider here four different aspects of early Christian baptism. Significance . Together with the proclamation of the gospel, with which it is closely linked, the act of baptism is presented in the NT as an essential mission,* entrusted by the risen Christ to his disciples so that all human beings might share in the salvation* he came to bring (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 10:47-48; Rom. 6:3-6). In John’s gospel, the Lord affirms the necessity of baptism for entry into the kingdom of God:* “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). As at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11 and par.), so too the baptism received by the disciples from the Lord closely connects the rite with the Holy Spirit* (Mark 1:8 and par.; Acts 2:38) and implies faith, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:37 [Western text]; Rom. 6:8). Through the Spirit, the baptized person becomes a son or daughter in the Son, an adopted child of the heavenly Father (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:5-7; Eph. 1:5), a child of God (John 1:12). Buried with Christ in baptism, the baptized person has died to sin,* partakes of the life and resurrection of the Lord (Rom. 6:3-11; Col. 2:12) and, with other baptized persons, becomes a member of Christ’s Body (1 Cor. 12:12-13). For the baptized, this means a new birth (John 3:5). This rite of baptism is a mystery or sacrament* because it was instituted by the Lord as a visible and effective sign of the regeneration of those receiving it and of their incorporation in the church as the Body of Christ. The responses to BEM show the churches to be largely agreed on this as the meaning of baptism.

The baptismal rite . Baptism is a washing with water accompanied by a word (cf. Eph. 5:26). This “word” can be understood as a confession of faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (see Trinity ), mentioned in all baptismal rituals back to Matt. 28:19 (cf. Didache 7.1). Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. During the first centuries the Christian tradition retained the practice of baptizing in running water, usually channelled into a pool or basin known from earliest times as a baptistery. In any case, the rite had to be performed with water, even still water, as became customary in most churches very early on (already accepted in the Didache 7.2). BEM declares that “baptism is administered with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (B17).

Gift of the Spirit . The gift of the Spirit which accompanies the baptismal rite seems to have been mentioned variously from very early times, as attested in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles Peter and John come to Samaria so that the Spirit might “come” on those evangelized and baptized by Philip (Acts 8:16-17). In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29-38), however, and above all of Saul (9:18-19), the Spirit appears to have been given prior to baptism. During the “Caesarean Pentecost”, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household because they have just received the Holy Spirit (10:45-48, 11:15-17). This variety ultimately lies behind the observation in BEM that “Christians differ in their understanding as to where the sign of the gift of the Spirit is to be found” (B14).

Communion . The NT provides no clear evidence of newly baptized persons participating immediately in the eucharistic celebration after receiving the baptism with which the gift of the Spirit is linked (cf. 1 Pet. 2:2-3), but all the baptismal orders of the patristic church attest the participation of newly baptized persons or neophytes in the eucharist* following their baptism (esp. in the case of the paschal vigil). As full members of the church, the Body of Christ, they partook of the Lord’s supper along with their brothers and sisters (cf. John 6:53). Linked in this way with the gift of the Spirit and the eucharistic meal, baptism constituted a single if complex unity regarded as “initiation” into the mysteries. In several places BEM hints at the restoration of that unity where it has been lost (e.g. B14 comm., E19 comm.).

Baptismal customs

Historically, the church has exhibited both uniformity and diversity in its practice of baptism.

The ancient custom . The first detailed rite of Christian initiation is found in the document identified with the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. A.D. 217), which reports customs which were certainly earlier: a catechumenate including instruction, scrutinies, prayers and exorcisms; then the baptism of infants and adults, almost certainly in the night between Saturday and Easter Sunday. This rite began with the signation of the candidates and prayer over the water, over the oil of thanksgiving and over the oil of exorcism. The candidates renounced Satan and were anointed with the oil of exorcism. They were dipped three times in the water with the confession of faith (see common confession, creeds ) in the form of questions and responses. After the water baptism there was a first anointing of the newly baptized ones with the “oil of thanksgiving” by a presbyter. Then the bishop laid hands on them to “make them worthy of being filled with the Holy Spirit” and again anointed them with the oil of thanksgiving. He then marked them with the sign of the cross and gave them the kiss of peace, after which they joined in the eucharistic celebration with all the faithful and received the communion in the body and blood of Christ.

The anointings . When and how the practice of ritual anointing was introduced into the baptismal rite is uncertain (see chrismation ). There is not much evidence for it in the NT (perhaps 1 John 2:20,27; 2 Cor. 1:22; also Mark 14:3-8 and par., 16:1 and par.), but theologically it rests on the Christian’s participation in the anointing of Jesus the Messiah or Christ (cf. Isa. 61:1-2 = Luke 4:18-19; 2 Cor. 2:15); moreover it was the custom in antiquity for baths to be preceded by anointings with oil for detergent purposes and to be followed by anointings with aromatic and invigorative oils. These were given a spiritual significance in Christian practice.

Diversity of customs . The sequence of rites in Hippolytus appears to have influenced the baptismal practices of most of the churches in subsequent centuries, even though the twofold post-baptismal anointing is attested in the Roman tradition only. The early Syrian tradition, however, conferred the gift of the Spirit before the water baptism and for long knew nothing of any post-baptismal anointing with the “oil of thanksgiving”, called chrism or myron , i.e. aromatic oil. The same was the case in Constantinople down to the mid-5th century, as John Chrysostom and Proclus (d.446) testify. It also appears that a laying on of hands as sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit was not universal. The spread of the custom of post-baptismal chrismation in connection with the gift of the Holy Spirit appears to have been linked to the conflict with Messalianism and also to the use of chrismation in the reconciliation of heretics. Moreover, the diffusion throughout the Christian world of the mystagogic baptismal homilies and catecheses of such well-known bishops as Basil, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia helped to produce not only a more uniform theology but also a more uniform symbolism and practice of baptism.

Generalization of baptism and divergent customs . With the mass entry of pagans into the church from the 4th century onwards, a difference between East and West emerged, which was re-inforced by the reaction against Pelagianism. It was not always possible for the bishop to preside at baptism. Moreover, baptism came to be administered systematically to newborn infants. In the churches of the East, the post-baptismal anointing conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit was performed by the priest immediately after the baptism but with myron consecrated by the bishop. In the churches of the West, Rome, under Innocent I (401-416), reserved this gift of the Holy Spirit to the imposition of hands and the anointing performed by the bishop, while the priest continued to perform an initial anointing with chrism. In the West, therefore, the gift of the Spirit conferred by the bishop was deferred to a later date, eventually making it possible for persons baptized in infancy later to renew, in the presence of the bishop and the church, the profession of faith that had been made on their behalf in baptism. Because of the dominical precept concerning the necessity of eucharistic communion for participation in eternal life ( St Augustine , Innocent I), communion came to be given prior to the gift of the Spirit by the bishop. It was, however, only in fairly recent times that this custom of eucharistic communion prior to the gift of the Spirit conferred by the bishop became general in certain countries. Despite usages to the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church has retained in principle the sacramental sequence of baptism, anointing for the gift of the Holy Spirit and eucharistic communion, as do the Orthodox and pre-Chalcedonian churches, and it is always in this sequence that it now administers them in the case of adult baptism.

Chrismation and confirmation.* Essentially, the gift of the Spirit is linked to Christian baptism. In the “Catholic” churches, however, a specific rite marks this gift: the imposition of hands and/or anointing with chrism or myron . The different practices followed by churches in East and West in the administration of infant baptism have led to different theological emphases. The churches of the East have kept the celebration of baptism, confirmation/chrismation and eucharistic communion as an indivisible whole even for infants. Their emphasis has thus been not so much on the personal commitment of faith which is in principle presupposed in these sacraments but rather on the single whole they together constitute. On the other hand, the churches of the West, because of reserving confirmation/chrismation for the bishop, have usually allocated the rites of baptism, confirmation and communion to different times in a person’s life and have come since the middle ages to attach considerable importance to the Christian’s ratification of the commitment of faith made for him or her in infant baptism. The churches of the Reformation, abolishing the rite of anointing, have retained the personal commitment of Christians which “confirms” the promise made by other Christians for them in infant baptism. Among the Protestant churches, the heirs to the Anabaptist or Baptist traditions of the 16th century are unable to attach any significance to the baptism of an infant too young to make a personal commitment of faith and are themselves willing to baptize only at a later age, while “(re-)baptizing” those who have received infant baptism.

Theological issues underlying different baptismal practices

Baptism conferred outside the full communion of the church. A controversy over this arose in the 3rd century between Rome and the churches of Africa led by Cyprian of Carthage (d.258). According to the Roman position (and its later refinements), if baptism is correctly administered – with water, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with the intention of doing what the church does – the personal status of the ministrant is of only secondary importance. Baptism administered outside the institutional bounds of the church can therefore be recognized as valid and even to some degree efficacious. Taking its cue from this theology, the Roman Catholic Church, along with many churches of the East, accepts the baptism of Christians of other churches, recognizing it as an important element in the ecclesial communion* which continues to unite Christians in some measure, despite their divisions. The Second Vatican Council* strongly emphasized this position ( Unitatis Redintegratio 3-4, 22-23; Lumen Gentium 15).

But Cyprian and the bishops of Roman Africa affirmed that outside the church there can be no gift of the Holy Spirit or any sacrament. Almost all churches have in one way or another abandoned the rigidity of this position. From the position of Basil of Caesarea (d.379), who regarded the baptism given by certain Christians outside the great church as a special case, all the Orthodox churches have inherited an attitude towards the baptism of other churches which is often reserved. Some Orthodox churches recognize this baptism only “by economy”,* i.e. while seldom administering baptism to such Christians requesting admission to the Orthodox church, they refrain from official comment on the value of baptism conferred outside the Orthodox communion. Despite this, all the Orthodox churches now recognize that the practice of baptism with water in the name of the Blessed Trinity by other churches is a decisive factor for recognizing them as true Christian brothers and sisters and cooperating with them in the quest for the visible unity of all Christ’s disciples.

The ministrant of baptism . For the vast majority of churches, the ministrant of baptism should be an ordained minister or at least a baptized Christian. The Roman Catholic Church holds that, in an emergency, any human being (quicumque homo) can administer baptism, even one who is not baptized or even a Christian. The Orthodox churches do not accept this position.

Participation in the eucharist . If the baptism administered by other churches is in some way recognized, how can Christians from these same churches not be allowed to partake of the eucharist – which is the completion of baptismal initiation and does not as such require an act of faith different from that of baptism? The reply offered is that as the visible expression in worship of the fullness of the community’s faith, the eucharist can be shared only by those who are fully and visibly integrated into this community by complete communion in faith, sacraments and discipline.

The restriction of baptism to adults only . Discussion of this issue has made little progress on the theoretical side since the 16th century. Recent meetings between Mennonites and Lutherans in France have shown that the principles remain unchanged on both sides, though regret over the harshness of past condemnations (see the Augsburg confession, arts 9,12,14,16-17) and the desire for dialogue is expressed on both sides. The increasing frequency of adult baptism in all churches may eventually help to resolve this question. BEM seeks to make the most of existing agreements by affirming that “baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift… Both the baptism of believers and the baptism of infants take place in the church as the community of faith” (B8 and 12).

“Baptism of the Spirit.” While Pentecostals see this as the foundation of the Christian life, it poses problems for other Christian communions. Useful clarifications have been achieved, but without settling all the basic questions.

The ecumenical significance of the common baptism

Under the combined pressure of the Orthodox churches and then of the Roman Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council, the WCC’s Faith and Order commission attached increasing importance in the 1950s and 1960s to a common recognition of baptism by all the churches. Recognition of value to all correctly administered baptisms in other Christian communions amounts already to recognition of a measure of ecclesiality in the community administering such baptisms; it means recognizing a fundamental community of faith in Christ as unique Lord and Saviour, in the Trinity of the Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world and bestowed the Holy Spirit, who enables us to call on the Father. It is also recognition of a certain degree of communion in the one Body of Christ, the church. Many of the dialogues between the Christian communions have dealt specifically with the question of baptism. In 1987 the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches produced a document devoted solely to this theme: “Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church”.

The challenge of the tension-laden words of BEM remains: “The inability of the churches mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism as sharing in the one baptism, and their actual dividedness in spite of mutual baptismal recognition, have given dramatic visibility to the broken witness of the church… The need to recover baptismal unity is at the heart of the ecumenical task” (B6 comm.). “When baptismal unity is realized in one holy, catholic, apostolic church, a genuine Christian witness can be made to the healing and reconciling love of God. Therefore, our one baptism into Christ constitutes a call to the churches to overcome their divisions and visibly manifest their fellowship” (B6). These themes have been taken up again by a Lutheran Strasbourg Institute symposium in 1996 (“Baptism and the Unity of the Church”), and by a Faith and Order study beginning in 1994 on the role of worship in the search for unity.


n Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry , WCC, 1982 n T.F. Best & D. Heller eds, Becoming a Christian: The Ecumenical Implications of Our Common Baptism , WCC, 1999 n A. de Halleux, “Foi, baptême et unité”, IR , 61, 1988 n E. Lanne, “La contribution du Cardinal Béa à la question du baptême”, in Simposio Card. Agostino Bea (16-19 dicembre 1981) , Rome, 1983 n M. Lienhard, “Von der Konfrontation zum Dialog: Die lutherischen Kirchen und die Täufer im 16. Jahrhundert und heute”, in Einheit der Kirche: Neue Entwicklungen und Perspektiven , G. Gassmann ed., Frankfurt, Lembeck, 1988 n Louisville Consultation on Baptism, Review and Expositor , 77, 1, 1980 n M. Root & R. Saarinen eds, Baptism and the Unity of the Church , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1998 n G. Sava-Popu, Le baptême dans la tradition orthodoxe et ses implications œcuméniques , Fribourg, Editions universitaires, 1994 n

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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