Single vs. Triple Action Baptism

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Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
(For the record, I am not advocating one way or the other, but have simply been exploring the historical aspect of tripart baptism.)

If one does much reading in the Early Church Fathers on baptism it becomes very obvious the they almost always performed the principle interaction with water in triplicate. Normally this consisted of three immersions, or sometimes, as adverse circumstances might require, three pourings were substituted. Prior to the 10th century the only specified exception to this threefold repetition (among the orthodox) was in Spain, where for a time Catholics, with the Pope’s blessing, decided to use only one immersion after some local Arians had appropriated the triple mode as a means of showcasing the substantially separate natures they claimed existed within the Godhead.

Even today Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Christians continue to immerse three times, and Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans generally pour three times. Some Reformed churches initially did likewise, and seemingly some still do. Such a broad commonality naturally raises the question as to the reasoning behind the tripart repetition. The Protestant reformers sometimes acknowledged that such a practice was historically used, but never really expounded on it. Those who did mention it almost always expressed indifference. Most recognizable in this regard probably would be Calvin (Institutes, 4.15.19).

Nonetheless, it is historically significant that the ECFs gave two very different explanations for triple baptism: 1) that such is inherently conveyed in the Great Commission’s command to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19); or, 2) that such is an important although extra-scriptural tradition handed down from the early church. It is also notable that both explanations are found in early Eastern Greek-speaking churches and Western Latin churches alike.

In all cases the typological significance attributed to the triple practice, when stated, is to proclaim the Trinity, and/or as a portrayal of the three days Jesus’ body lay in the grave, in which those being baptized vicariously share (based on Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).

For any who might be interested, I’ll share some of the ECF citations I’ve collected in this regard, starting with those directly deriving the practice from the Great Commission. The first one is more implicit, but with scholars generally agreed that the triple pouring allowed for clearly infers that the normative immersion was likewise performed three times, which in turn is assumed to be expressed in the stated formulary.

[Didache, Instructions, 7; c.80-120 AD; likely of Antiochan origin]​
Regarding baptism, baptize as follows: After first explaining all these points, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...​

[Apostolic Constitutions, Canons, 50; 4th century; thought to be a Roman redaction of church law, but having a distinct Greek-Antiochan provenance]​
If any bishop or presbyter does not perform the three immersions of the one institution, but only one immersion, which is given into the death of Christ, let him be deposed. For the Lord did not say, ‘Baptize into my death,’ but rather, ‘Go ye and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ Do ye, therefore, O bishops baptize thrice, into one Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost, according to the will of Christ, and our constitution by the Spirit.​

[Chrysostom, Homily on Faith, 7; 4th century]​
Christ delivered to his disciples one baptism in three immersions of the body, when he said to them, ‘Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’​

[Pope Pelagius II, Epistle to Gaudentium; 5th century]​
The Gospel precept given by our Lord God Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ, admonishes us to confer the sacrament of Baptism to each one in the name of the Trinity, and also with trine immersion.​

One ECF alluded to the specific reason behind the ruling given in the Apostolic Constitutions, namely, that a notorious Arian leader named Eunomius (d. c.393) had implemented a single immersion as a means of emphasizing the heresy that while Christ had indeed died, such proved he was but a mere human being.

[Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Compendium of Heretical Accounts, 4.3; 5th century]​
He [Eunomius] subverted the law of holy baptism, which had been handed down from the beginning from the Lord and the apostles, and made a contrary law, asserting that it is not necessary to immerse the candidate for baptism thrice, nor to mention the names of the Trinity, but to immerse once only into the death of Christ.​

Here, on the other hand, are some examples where other ECFs deemed triple immersion to be an extra-scriptural tradition. The emphatic way in which this opposing view was sometimes expressed is quite remarkable.

[Tertullian, the Chaplet, 3, 4; late 2nd century]​
...I shall begin with Baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge, than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel.​
...If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer.​

[Jerome, Against the Luciferians, 8; 4th century]​
Don’t you know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles [8:14–19]. And even if it did not rest on the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command. For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as for instance the practice of dipping the head three times in the bath, and then, after leaving the water, of tasting mingled milk and honey in representation of infancy. ...And there are many other unwritten practices which have won their place through reason and custom.​

[Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 7; 4th century]​
We bless the water of baptism and the oil of unction, and him also who receives baptism. By what Scripture? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? The unction with oil, what text has taught it? Now a man is immersed thrice, whence is it taken? The other things done in baptism, as the renunciation of Satan and his angels, where do we have it in Scripture? Is it not from this private and secret doctrine which our fathers preserved in a discreet and incurious silence? ...Those things which we observe and teach we have received partly from the written teaching, and partly delivered to us in a mystery from the tradition of the apostles.​

Interestingly, while Thomas Aquinas approved of the practice of triple immersion, which continued to predominate in medieval times, he rather bluntly opposed the idea that such was a scriptural command.

...Pope Pelagius understood that the triple immersion was equivalently commanded by Christ in the sense that Christ commanded that a person be baptized ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ But there is no such equivalence of form and use of matter, as has been said, to allow such an argument. (Summa Theologiae, 3.66.8)​

Finally, here is the reasoning given by the Spanish church for their local and, in the end, temporary deviation to a single immersion, as was earlier noted.

[4th Council of Toledo, Canons, 5; 633 AD]​
For shunning the schism or the use of an heretical practice, we observe a single immersion in baptism. Yet all those who immerse three times do not appear to us to approve of the claim of heretics, although they share the same custom.​
And that no one may doubt the propriety of this singly-acted sacrament let him see that it is the death and resurrection of Christ shown forth. For the immersion in the waters, as it were, into the grave; and, again, the emersion from the waters is a resurrection. Likewise, he may see displayed in it the unity of the Deity and the Trinity of persons—the unity whilst we immerse once, and the Trinity whilst we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.​

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Say What!?!

Eunomius was mentioned earlier. Well, some of his followers had some really strange modal practices, to say the least. In typical Gnostic fashion one sub-sect of Eunomians deemed the lower regions of the body (particularly the genitalia) to be debased and despicable, and thus unworthy of receiving the rite of holy baptism. As such they used a procedure where the candidate stood outside the baptismal font, and then bent over the edge to dip just their head. Another sect bandaged off the lower regions of the body, whereupon water was poured over their head and shoulders while standing up. (See: C. Bigg, Journal of Theological Studies, [1904], 5:582f.)

But the grand prize for “Most Bizarre Baptismal Practice” has to go to yet another group of Eunomians: the candidate was suspended over the water using a mechanical apparatus, rendering them “with their feet upwards, and their heads downwards”. Thereupon they were dipped up (or rather down...) to their waist. These people were derisively referred to as histiopedes (“hung from a mast by the feet”) or pederecti (“feet upward”) by their orthodox critics. (See: J. Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticae, 1:538.)

And now you know the rest of the story…
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