There is nothing within the Church that may be as historically undocumented as the history of baptism. It is clear from Acts that each early convert was baptized. Indeed, this is the Lord's command as given in the Great Commission.
Matthew 28:19-20 (NKJV)
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
The history of the very early Church demonstrates that this effort continued after the death the Apostles. In fact, it may safe to state that the concept of baptism was such an integral part of the early church that it is not mentioned in most historical records that we possess.
We noted in one of our early lessons that to fight heresy within the church, the church moved to a "new members" class to assure that people had truly accepted Christ. As part of that effort, the baptism appears to have been postponed, being moved from immediately after salvation to the end of the new members class, a process that varied greatly from one location to another. Some groups took just a few months to teach the Rule of Faith while others may have taken as much as three years.
The other issue that arose in the early church involved the baptism of infants. Again, it is unclear how widespread this process began, nor do we have any clear records of the pattern of its spread. The issue of baptizing infants may have been another result of the church attempting to protect itself from heresy and false doctrine. The theory behind infant baptism reaches back into the Old Testament and looks at the community of God rather than the individual.
The Old Testament teaches a community of God, the nation of Israel. As part of belonging to this community, God gave to Abraham the covenant of circumcision. Each male child was circumcised on the eighth day as "proof" of the child belonging to God's family nation.
Genesis 17:9-14 (NKJV)
9 And God said to Abraham: "As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."
The early church viewed the baptism as the equivalent of the circumcision and deemed it should baptize infants as a sign that they were part of God's family. This was viewed as placing a protective measure upon the child and as being a means of protecting the community. The belief or hope was that by being baptized, God would be more active in assisting the child to grow into Christianity.
That infant baptism was practiced in the early church is reasonably well documented. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (the Didache, c.150), while not specifically speaking of infants, appears to support this practice. Origen (writing about 244) states, "according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants." The Council of Carthage, in 253, condemned the opinion that baptism should be withheld from infants until he eighth day after birth. Augustine (writing in 408) is quoted as stating, "The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned . . . nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic."
It is during the Middle Ages that the Church moves to the current position of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to baptism, namely that it is a sacrament by which the soul is cleansed from sin. In other words, the Roman Catholics (as well as many protestant groups) teach that baptism is a necessary part of salvation. Baptism is necessary for the remission of sin, both original sin and actual sin. This being true, children should be baptized to wash away their original sin. This doctrine is then extended to provided that if a child dies in an unbaptized state he will not enter heaven because of the existence of original sin. Verses used to support this position include Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; and 1 Peter 3:21. Many of the reformers continued baptizing infants for similar reasons.
The problem with this position is that it assumes the community can save a person. This is clearly not the teaching of the Scriptures. Scriptures clearly teach that only an individual believing in Jesus may be saved. The analogy to the Old Testament community fails when it comes to salvation. Each individual must come to a saving knowledge of Jesus to be saved. In the case of infants who are too young to understand their sins, God does not hold this against them since they are incapable of making such a decision. If they die in their infancy, they enter heaven, baptized or not.
It should be noted that most of these groups take a reformed (Calvinistic) perspective on the translation of the Scriptures and view Israel and the Church as a single group. Thus, they "freely" substitute events and doctrines both from the church to Israel and from Israel to the church. It would be surprising if they did not view baptism as the equivalent to circumcision.
The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles does appear to support the practice of pouring rather than immersion. "Now concerning baptism, baptize thus: Having first taught all these things, baptize ye into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, in living water. And if thou has not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm (water). But if thou has neither, pour water thrice upon the head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." The Council of Ravenna (1311) states that baptism is by "tribe immersion or aspersion (pouring)." However, all of the councils that address baptism, except for the one of 1311, only mention immersion!
The first actual case of sprinkling recorded in the literature is that of Eusebius in 253. He writes of the baptism of a man named Novation who was terminally ill. The church leaders fearing that immersion would kill him, sprinkled him.
The important point of the Didache is not that pouring was allowed, but that immersion ("in living water") was preferred! Notice carefully the order given. It is clear there is an emphasis upon the need for baptism, but there is also a clear order given as to the preferred methods. Almost all of the Lexicons (Greek dictionary) give the definition of the Greek word translated baptize as being to immerse, to plunge, or to dip. There is no lexicon that provides sprinkling or pouring as a valid definition.
In Romans 6 (cf. Col 2:12), Paul uses the analogy of baptism to describe one's death and burial to sin with Christ at the Cross and one's rising to life with Christ's resurrection. This picture only carries a valid analogy if the baptism is similar to death, that is, to being buried. Pouring or sprinkling does not accomplish this metaphor. Only immersion presents a valid picture of the analogy.
It might also be noted that most of the Reformation leaders are quoted as believing that immersion is the proper method of baptism: Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Wall (Episcopalian), Whitfield, MacKnight (Presbyterian), even Brenner a Catholic!
So, why would the early church switch to pouring? Frances Schaeffer who wrote and taught during the 1940s-1980s was a Lutheran. A godly man who has offered much to the spiritual growth of the church, nonetheless, Schaeffer supported the Lutheran practice of pouring. He does so mostly on the basis of the community argument used by the early church. However, he also offers historical support in the form of drawings found on the walls of the catacombs in Rome that appear to show pouring as the valid method of baptism.
There is no doubt that such pictures exist and that they strongly suggest that pouring was used in that setting. What most practitioners of the practice of pouring or sprinkling over look is the historical setting of both the catacombs and the inference of the language of the Didache. Re-read the language of the Didache again. Living or running water, that is a river or a stream was preferred and if not, the strong suggestion is that the same method as employed by John the Baptist and the Apostle's, namely immersion, should be employed in non-living or non-running water. In modern terms, we might say the second choice of the Didache is to immerse in a bathtub or a baptismal pool. It is only when such an abundance of water is not available that the Didache suggests that pouring is acceptable.
When would such an alternative be acceptable? History suggests a couple of examples. At various times there have been areas of extreme draught. If water is non-existent or at a severe premium, then the need to be baptized is more important than the method. At times in history, without knowing why from a scientific perspective, people did not immerse to due plague or illnesses. Obviously those on their deathbed cannot be moved to the river and immersed either. Eusebius' example of Novation cited early is an excellent illustration of this situation.
It appears to be clear from Scripture that believer's baptism must be undertaken after a confession of faith as a public means of identifying with Christ. This is the cumulative teaching of the Bible. At the same time, if a person finds himself in circumstances where this is totally impractical, a different means of baptism is probably acceptable. After all, the thief at the Cross went to heaven without being baptized at all (Luke 23:39-43). The point to remember is that baptism is a sign of submission and obedience. If you have not been baptized according to Scripture and later have the opportunity to correct this situation, obedience and submission would suggest that you do so!