A 2,000 Year Old View of Baptism
The Sacrament of Baptism in the Didache
Some years ago, as deacon in a small Colorado mountain parish, I used to teach RCIA -- the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. In case you don’t know the meaning -- RCIA is the normative path for adults to explore and then possibly enter the Catholic Church. I say ‘possibly’ enter the Church because some times people may decide that they don’t feel called to enter. But RCIA would have been the proper way to ‘look at’ the faith and come to a decision about entry or not. Another point about RCIA, even cradle Catholics and others come to these classes to help bolster or fill-in-the-blanks about areas lacking in their knowledge of the faith. Some wonderful faith and people experiences have come about by my five or so years of leading RCIA.
We just celebrated the feast of the Baptism of Christ -- and as I was looking around my computer files on the topic of baptism, I found a 2,000 year old statement of many of the practices of the earliest Christians. This comes -- surprisingly not from the Bible -- because the Bible wasn’t ‘defined’ and made into the document we know today until about the year 390 AD. The early practices of the Church were contained in a document called the Didache which roughly translates into ‘teachings of the twelve.‘
I prepared a handout for our RCIA attendees about the proper form of baptism -- the Trinitarian formula along with some background on the Didache. I found this and thought to share it with you.
I hope you will find this educational and substantive for documenting the practice of the Catholic Church for this first sacrament of initiation. Here’s the handout:
As Found in a History of the Church’s Practices
Jesus commands a Trinitarian baptismal formula
Jesus commands the Disciples to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Scholars used to say that this verse was a late interpolation into Matthew, because they could scarcely conceive of a full-fledged Trinitarian theology in Jesus’ mouth. However, there is no textual evidence that Matthew 28:19 is an interpolation—in other words, there are no ancient manuscripts that omit this verse.
In 1873, an eastern rite Archbishop named Bryennios rummaged around in the library of a monastery in Constantinople and discovered a large manuscript that included a little document called the Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” He released his findings over time, publishing the Didache in 1883. It turns out to be an authentic document of the ancient church. Even ultra-liberal scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, date the Didache to the second half of the first century, within the time when people who knew Jesus personally were still alive and in the church.
What is notable about the Didache for us is that it gives instructions for baptisms and in Didache 7:1 prescribes the same wording as Matthew 28:19.
From this we know that the first-century church baptized, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Whether the Didache quotes Matthew or Matthew quotes the Didache is beside the point, the fact remains that this Trinitarian formula is genuine.
Matthew begins Jesus’ ministry in chapter 3 with His baptism by John and ends it in chapter 28 with the Great Commission. In Matthew 3:16-17, the Spirit of God alights on Jesus just as His Father’s voice proclaims that He is well pleased; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all simultaneously active. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands a Trinitarian baptism.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry begins and ends with the Trinity!
Finally -- it may be of interest to you to know that the Catholic Church honors the baptism of other Protestant Churches as long as they use water and the Trinitarian form of baptism. Compare this to most other denominations which, if they use baptism as an entrance practice will not accept Catholic Baptism to enter their churches. Strange isn’t it?