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PFRS Home > Doctrinal Studies > Oneness Pentecostal & Baptism

According to the Early Church
Copyright © Tim Warner 08/2001

Invariably, discussion between Trinitarians and Oneness Pentecostals turns to the Early Church, and what their practice was regarding baptism. While the early Christian writings do not hold any authority for us, they are important witnesses to how the disciples of the Apostles understood these things. The following are the oldest descriptions of actual Christian baptism where any kind of "formula" was used.

The Didache: A.D. 80-120
One of the oldest early Christian documents known to exist (outside the New Testament) is the "Didache." ("Didache" is the Greek word for "teaching"). This is the short name for the document called, "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." This document is usually dated by scholars between AD80 and AD120. It was a church manual, affirming the tradition that had been passed down by the Apostles through the local churches. It contained teaching for new converts prior to being baptized.

The Didache shows strong signs of very primitive first century Christianity, including instructions on how to receive traveling "prophets," and how to distinguish the true prophets of God from the false prophets. Since traveling prophets were only known to the very primitive church, through the end of the first century, the document can be dated with a fair amount of certainty. Also, the form of church government outlined in the Didache is very primitive, like the Pauline structure, of several co-equal bishops/elders in a single congregation, as opposed to the system that emerged toward the end of the first century, that of a single bishop, and "presbyters" under his authority. Therefore, it is most likely that this is a first century document.

One more point worth considering. This document was not a single document for a particular church, but was meant to describe Christian teaching and practice in general.

Here is the chapter on Christian baptism after the candidate was thoroughly instructed in the Christian Faith. 


"And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before."

The reference to "living water" means running water, such as a river or stream. "Other water" such as a lake was acceptable if no running river or stream was available. As a last resort, where no standing water was available deep enough to baptize, then pouring was acceptable. (You have to keep in mind that under the Roman persecutions, public baptism was not always an easy thing to accomplish. The interesting thing about these instructions is the clear reference to the Trinitarian formula. Oneness folks might be able to dismiss the first part, just like they try to dismiss Matt. 28:20. However, there is no mistaking the three separate "pourings" mentioned in the latter part, one for each member of the Trinity. This is a very ancient witness to Trinitarian beliefs as well. The typical "Oneness" view, that Matt. 28:19 means the name of the Father and Holy Spirit is "Jesus," was clearly NOT the view of the early Church.

Justin Martyr: A.D. 110-165
Justin was a Gentile convert who wrote a defense of Christianity to the pagan Romans. In His "First Apology," Justin described Christian practice in general in all the churches. Here is his comment on baptism. 


"I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. ..."

"And for this we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the layer the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed."

Cyprian: A.D. 200-258
In Epistle LXXII, Cyprian was discussing the rebaptism of heretics. The heretics he referred to were formerly Gnostics, followers of Marcion, Valentinus, &c., who had left these cults to become Christians. The Gnostics believed "Christ" was a spirit that came upon the man Jesus at His baptism. They also believed that the God of the Old Testament was not the supreme God. These heretics had a "baptism" in the name of "Christ" only (since they denied the Father). In the following passage, Cyprian argued that they needed to be rebaptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He also discussed the reason the Trinitarian statement regarding baptism was given by Jesus in Matt. 28:19 for the Gentiles. Yet, in Acts the Jewish converts were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ only.

"Since, therefore, from the preaching and testimony of Christ Himself, the Father who sent must be first known, then afterwards Christ, who was sent, and there cannot be a hope of salvation except by knowing the two together; how, when God the Father is not known, nay, is even blasphemed, can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ, be judged to have obtained the remission of sins? For the case of the Jews under the apostles was one, but the condition of the Gentiles is another. The former [Jews], because they had already gained the most ancient baptism of the law and Moses, were to be baptized also in the name of Jesus Christ, in conformity with what Peter tells them in the Acts of the Apostles, saying, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For this promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Peter makes mention of Jesus Christ, not as though the Father should be omitted, but that the Son also might be joined to the Father. Finally, when, after the resurrection, the apostles are sent by the Lord to the heathens, they are bidden to baptize the Gentiles “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” How, then, do some say, that a Gentile baptized without, outside the Church, yea, and in opposition to the Church, so that it be only in the name of Jesus Christ, everywhere, and in whatever manner, can obtain remission of sin, when Christ Himself commands the heathen to be baptized in the full and united Trinity? Unless while one who denies Christ is denied by Christ, he who denies His Father whom Christ Himself confessed is not denied; and he who blasphemes against Him whom Christ called His Lord and His God, is rewarded by Christ, and obtains remission of sins, and the sanctification of baptism! But by what power can he who denies God the Creator, the Father of Christ, obtain, in baptism, the remission of sins, since Christ received that very power by which we are baptized and sanctified, from the same Father, whom He called “greater” than Himself, by whom He desired to be glorified, whose will He fulfilled even unto the obedience of drinking the cup, and of undergoing death? What else is it then, than to become a partaker with blaspheming heretics, to wish to maintain and assert, that one who blasphemes and gravely sins against the Father and the Lord and God of Christ, can receive remission of sins in the name of Christ? What, moreover, is that, and of what kind is it, that he who denies the Son of God has not the Father, and he who denies the Father should be thought to have the Son, although the Son Himself testifies, and says, “No man can come unto me except it were given unto him of my Father?” So that it is evident, that no remission of sins can be received in baptism from the Son, which it is not plain that the Father has granted. Especially, since He further repeats, and says, “Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up.”

It seems Cyprian believed the Trinitarian formula for baptism was for the Gentiles, since they were pagans, and did not know the Father. However, being baptized in Jesus' name was only necessary for the Jews and Samaritans who were already Monotheists, and who had a prior covenant with God. We believe this is probably the correct understanding since the accounts in Acts of baptism do not discount it,[1] and since the only reference to baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, was Jesus' command to baptize Gentiles (Matt. 28:19-20).

1. The only possible exception is Acts 10:48. Some manuscripts read "in the name of the Lord Jesus." The Textus Receptus and Majority Text reads "in the name of the Lord" as in the KJV & NKJV.

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