A History of the Baptismal Order: From the Early Church through the Lutheran Reformation, to Contemporary Lutheran Rites

By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.

Pastoral Theology 506: Lutheran Liturgics (Spring 2010)

Note: The footnotes have been omitted, to facilitate the conversion to a website format. However, all sources consulted are listed in the bibliography.



“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” With this invocation the assembly of the baptized begins the divine service each Sunday. They gather in the name of the Holy Trinity, the name above all names (Php 2:9), the name by which they were marked and sealed for the forgiveness of sins, new life, and eternal salvation. For many Christians, the baptismal liturgy was the first order of service that they ever experienced, and it is altogether fitting that subsequent services commemorate that sacramental means by which the Holy Spirit brought faith into their hearts, clothed them with the merits of Christ, and made them children of the Heavenly Father. This paper examines the history of baptismal liturgies with a particular focus on the Lutheran tradition, gleaning insights also from pre-Reformation rituals that have shaped Lutheran practice.


Baptisms in the New Testament

The New Testament does not prescribe any specific form of baptismal liturgy. Nevertheless, guiding principles may be readily identified in the baptismal mandate of Mt 28:19-20, the ministry of John the Baptist narrated in the Synoptic Gospels, and the history of the early church found in the Acts of the Apostles. A careful study of Scripture also reveals that these guiding principles flow from and support a core essence of the sacrament as instituted by Christ.

The risen Christ instituted baptism on the mountain in Galilee, when He commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). From this instruction, the Trinitarian baptismal formula originates.

Lutheran theology holds that this baptism instituted by Christ was identical in its efficacy with the earlier baptismal practices of John the Baptist and of the disciples of both John the Baptist and Jesus during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Synoptic Gospels recount that John “came baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. … Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mk 1:4-5; cf. Mt 2:6; Lk 3:3). Although Scripture does not indicate further details, it is apparent that John baptized for the purpose of comforting penitent sinners with forgiveness on the basis of the forthcoming work of the Messiah whom he heralded.

Peter, too, preached a baptism of repentance on the Day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38-39). Although St. Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles does not explicitly quote Peter as following the Trinitarian formula that Christ had instituted in Mt 28:19-20, nor does Luke’s account suggest anything less than a Trinitarian theology of baptism. Peter had just concluded a sermon in which he emphasized God the Father’s promise that Christ would come as well as the Father’s validation of Christ’s ministry through the resurrection (Ac 2:22,24,30,32). Peter also had highlighted the Holy Spirit’s office, as proceeding from the Father and the Son (Ac 2:33). In such a context (and similarly in Ac 10:34-48 and 19:1-6), baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” may have been a shorthand expression for the more explicit Trinitarian formula of Mt 28:19-20.


Baptisms in the Early Church

“From the church’s very beginning,” write Gaylin Schmeling, “Baptism was considered to be an indispensable means through which an individual participated in the salvation of Christ and was received into Christian fellowship.” Dating from the mid second century, the Didache provides one of the earliest extra-Scriptural records of Christian baptismal practices: “‘Baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ in running water” or else “pour water three times on the head ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” The Didache also included an encouragement for both the baptizer and the baptized to fast prior to the sacrament, though the central emphasis was neither on this nor on the particular method by which water was to be applied. The Didache simply required that baptism follow the Trinitarian formula of Mt 28:19-20.

Earlier in the second century, Justin Martyr similarly promoted a Trinitarian formula, emphasizing with appositive phrases the roles of each Person. Jesus Christ he called “our Savior,” and explained that in the baptismal water people “are regenerated” as Christ taught in Jn 3.

Fathers of the early church professed that baptismal rebirth belonged also to infants. On this point, St. Ignatius, St. Iranaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus, and Origen were all agreed. By the third century, it was common for adults to first complete a long (perhaps two-year or three-year) instructional period (the “catechumenate”) prior to being baptized, but this was not to suggest that baptism was for prior believers only. When catechumenates had children, Hippolytus advised, “they shall baptize the little children first.” That such “children” included also those two young to speak is indicated by the directive to “let their parents answer or someone from their family.” As Christianity became socially normative in the post-Constantine era, adult conversions from paganism became less common. By the early sixth century, infant baptism had become the rule, and adult baptism the exception. Nevertheless, the baptismal rite retained clear vestiges of the catechumenate, although now condensed from a multi-year course into a rite within the divine service, usually celebrated at the Easter Vigil (when Ro 6:3-4 is read) or on the Day of Pentecost (when Ac 2:38-39 is read).

From Hippolytus in the early third century to the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century, the baptismal rite consistently involved a renunciation of Satan and his works, a confession of faith in the Holy Trinity, baptism into the names of each Person of the Trinity, and an anointing with oil (symbolizing the gift of the Holy Spirit). Additional layers of symbolism included the sign of the cross on the forehead and breast (cf. Eze 9:4, Rev 7:3), a practice that had become common by the second century at the latest. Western churches baptized in the active voice: “I baptize you in the name of….” Eastern churches preferred the passive voice: “[Name] is baptized in the name of….” In either case, the standard Trinitarian formula invariably followed. Just as the early church fathers emphasized the applicability of Christ’s baptismal mandate to infants and children, so also the medieval church increasingly highlighted Christ’s welcoming of children into His kingdom. According to Nagel, the use of Mk 10:13-16 (“Let the children come to me,” etc.) as the Gospel reading for baptismal rites can be dated to at least as early as the seventh century, and the parallel passage in Mt 19:13-15 was used as early as the tenth century. According to Pfatteicher, however, Luther’s use of Mk 10:13-16 in his Little Book of Baptism (1523) was a “significant addition” lacking precedent in the medieval rite.


Baptisms in the Lutheran Reformation

Lutheran theology cannot be understood apart from the careful distinction between Law and Gospel. Martin Luther’s approach to the late medieval baptismal rite that he inherited reflects this overriding concern for “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Ti 2:15). Luther retained much of that heritage, while streamlining it in places and taking care to emphasize that Baptism is not a work of man—neither the recipient, nor the officient, nor the sponsor—but a work of the Holy Spirit through the Word, on the basis of Christ’s merits, in order to make us children of the Father.

Luther’s Little Book of Baptism retained many of the rituals derived from the catechumenate, including the exsufflation (“The officient shall blow three times under the child’s eyes and shall say: ‘Depart thou unclean spirit…’”) at the beginning of the rite and other exorcisms following the Flood Prayer, which recalls the Noachian Deluge and other Old Testament typological precursors of Baptism. This prayer Luther composed from his rich knowledge of Scripture and his awareness of how the church fathers had recognized the deep significance of baptismal “types,” thus establishing a prayer that replaced the medieval collect but did so by renewing, rather than jettisoning, Christian tradition.

Later, Luther streamlined his baptismal rite. A 1526 revision of Little Book of Baptism omitted one of the exorcisms, the giving of salt (as a symbol of wisdom), and the “ephphatha” (opening of the ears to receive God’s Word), and condensed two of the prayers into one. In 1529, the Little Book of Baptism appeared as an appendix to the Small Catechism, by which it shaped Lutheran practice throughout Europe. Even so, further simplifications were called for in the 1540s, placing stronger emphasis on the words of institution from Mt 28.


American Lutheran Baptismal Rites

The Saxon Lutherans who founded the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in America developed the Kirchen-Agenda (1856), which closely followed the 1526 edition of Luther’s Little Book of Baptism. However, the exorcism was relegated to an optional rite, printed in a footnote. In 1916, the synod began using Liturgy and Agende, which omitted that footnote, thus abandoning the exorcism altogether. The nearly contemporaneous Lutheran Hymnary published by the Norwegian Synod in 1913 did not contain an order for Baptism, perhaps reflecting a long-standing custom that Baptisms be conducted in private services, separate from the weekly congregational celebration of the divine liturgy. This may explain why the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal of the Synodical Conference did not contain an order for Baptism either, although it did contain a brief rite for emergency baptism, consisting of the Trinitarian formula and, insofar as time permits, the Lord’s Prayer.

By the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the imbedding of Baptism within the Sunday service became more common, under the hope that the “custom of including baptism in our services of public worship helps edify the people of God. It reminds Christians of the manner in which they too were rescued from the kingdom of Satan and enrolled into the kingdom of Christ.” The Service Book and Hymnal, published in 1958 by the Lutheran Church in America, reflected this change in the following rubric: “Baptism shall ordinarily be administered in the Church at any of the stated services, … [but] when circumstances demand, Baptism may be administered privately.” The same synod, together with the American Lutheran Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, jointly issued the Lutheran Book of Worship twenty years later, which similarly included an Order for Holy Baptism intended to precede the offering. The Missouri Synod published its own hymnal, Lutheran Worship, in 1982, which placed the Baptismal Order prior to the “Introit, Psalm, or Entrance Hymn,” rather than between the sermon and offering, as in LBW. The Wisconsin Synod’s Christian Worship (1993) placed the rite much earlier in the service, replacing the Confession of Sins with a formulation that “accentuates, in the words of both minister and congregation, the continuing benefit of baptism throughout Christian life.” The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Lutheran Hymnary (1996) suggests that “Baptism may follow the Holy Gospel in the Divine Service, or the Psalmody in Matins or Vespers.” The Missouri Synod’s Lutheran Service Book (2006) contains a traditional baptismal order, but a rubric as to its sequence within the divine service is not provided in the hymnal itself.

With the exception of LBW (which omits Mk 10:13-16 and the Lord’s Prayer) and CW (which omits the renunciation and separates the Baptismal rite from the Apostles Creed, which occurs later in the service), all of these late twentieth- and early twenty-first century hymnals contain a common essence, divisible into seven components that serve the rite as a whole: 1) the teaching of original sin; 2) the reading of the Baptismal Gospel (Mk 10:13-16); 3) the renunciation of the devil and all his works; 4) the Lord’s Prayer; 5) the Apostles Creed; 6) the application of water together with Word (specifically, a Trinitarian formula modeled after Mt 28:19); and, 7) a blessing. Adults speak for themselves, whereas sponsors or parents speak for infants with respect to the renunciation of Satan and the confession of the Apostolic Christian faith.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) stands in contrast to the hymnals just discussed, despite its inclusion of all seven standard components. The influence of the Second Vatican Council upon the ELCA appears in several places, as does a more general liberalizing trend to impersonalize the devil and attribute sin to a vague sense of evil. In Lumen Gentium (1964), the Vatican Council recast the church as primarily a community of “the people of God,” even suggesting that this gathering of God’s people “is a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race.” The horizontal relationship among members of the community received so much emphasis that the vertical relationship to God became obscured. For example, the Vatican Council claimed that Jews and Muslims “are related to the people of God in various ways” and suggests that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nonetheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—these too may attain eternal salvation.” The suggestions that human sincerity suffices to acquire God’s favor, and that grace may be received apart from the means of grace which are the marks of the church, tend logically toward a denial of original sin and the baptismal mandate of Mt 28.

These innovations manifest themselves in the ELCA’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship. An introduction to the various baptismal liturgies emphasizes the “Christian community at worship” and the manner in which “we welcome new companions in the mission of God.” The minister addresses the congregation as “People of God,” and the rubrics call for a “Welcome to Baptism” for “those who are beginning a public relationship with a Christian congregation as they inquire into the Christian faith and life.” Although none of these statements directly contradict the Scriptural purposes for which Christ instituted the Sacrament, they invariably shift emphasis away from God acting through this means of grace and toward the human community welcoming new members. Indeed, in the case of the “Welcome to Baptism” rite, parents and sponsors are invited to bring infants and children forward to “gather with this community of faith and hear the word of God with us,” but these children receive only the sign of the cross (plus, “a Bible may be presented to each person being welcomed”); no Baptism takes place. A rite of incorporation into the community has thereby replaced the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, or at best has become a precursor to an intentionally delayed baptism. The ELCA emphasizes the inclusive nature of the faith community by consistently referring to “sisters and brothers” and “daughters and sons,” and offering rubrics for baptizing “her/him”—always with the feminine gender receiving priority over the masculine. Such a formula comes neither from the pages of Holy Scripture nor the historic language of the Christian church, but rather from late-twentieth-century political ambitions toward sexual egalitarianism and retribution for past inequality. The reformulation of the Baptismal rite to advance social reform—regardless of how favorably one evaluates the reform itself—further displaces the sacramental essence of Baptism as a means of grace, a means by which one is made a child of God through faith in the saving work of Christ. The politicized inclusive language instead centers undue attention on the people’s work of building a welcoming community.

Finally, the ELCA rites also abandons the traditional renunciation formula in favor of vaguer references to forces of evil. As preserved in Service Book and Hymnal, Lutheran Worship, Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, and Lutheran Service Book, the historic rite has the adult baptismal candidate, or sponsor for a child candidate, “renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways.” Lutheran Book of Worship instead refers to “all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises.” The commission responsible for that revision supposed “that sin was less liable to misunderstanding than Satan,” and therefore emphasized that the candidate should “reject sin.” As Pfatteicher explains, “Satan is a problematic figure and concept for most moderns, and the rites of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal and Lutheran churches are all clearly struggling to make the figure meaningful in the modern world.” In the wake of Vatican II, Rome permits either a “renounce the devil” or “reject sin” formula. The ELCA no longer offers the choice, and instead steers decidedly toward a vague, impersonal sense of evil. The preface to the new rites in Evangelical Lutheran Worship twice refers to “forces of evil” without identifying the devil or Satan. The orders for Baptism and Baptismal Affirmation each involve the same triple renunciation: first, of “the devil and all the forces that defy God”; then, of “the powers of this world that rebel against God”; and, finally, of “the ways of sin that draw you away from God.” Although the devil receives mention in the first of these, his dominion over the powers of the world and his activity in tempting people to sin no longer find clear statement. Luther, too, employed a three-fold renunciation, but in each case referenced the devil: “Dost thou renounce the devil? Yes. And all his works? Yes. And all his ways? Yes.” Now lacking the long-abandoned exorcisms, and now with less direct attention upon the work of Satan, the “people of God” in the ELCA may, therefore, tend to view Baptism less as a triumph of Christ over Satan for the rescue of a child’s soul and more as a transfer a child from a hateful world into a loving community of faith.



Baptism and teaching belong together, since that is where Christ placed them in the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20). Lutherans recognize that the liturgical traditions of the Christian church have value as teaching tools (AC XXIV).Therefore, although the bare essence of baptism consists of “water and the Word,” the benefit of a richer baptismal rite should not be overlooked. Indeed, every celebration of the divine liturgy is a baptismal service. Christians gather in the name of the Triune God, just as they were baptized into that name; they confess their sins and receive absolution as a recollection of their baptism, which drowns the old Adam and brings to life the new man; they pray “Our Father…” on the basis of their adoption as sons through baptism (Gal 3:27). If the purpose of liturgy is for instructing the people, then liturgical rites must be carefully evaluated for theological orthodoxy. Moreover, what is omitted can be just as significant as what is included. Therefore, future generations would be wise to preserve the seven components identified earlier as typical of Lutheran baptismal rites: 1) the teaching of original sin; 2) the reading of the Baptismal Gospel (Mk 10:13-16); 3) the renunciation of the devil and all his works; 4) the Lord’s Prayer; 5) the Apostles Creed; 6) the application of water together with Word (specifically, a Trinitarian formula modeled after Mt 28:19); and, 7) a blessing. Taken together, these components preserve a biblical understanding of Holy Baptism. Without them, God’s people risk losing that understanding. For example, removing the emphasis on original sin, or the Baptismal Gospel’s implication that infants are to be baptized, would eventually lead a congregation astray, just as surely as adding a contrary teaching.

This paper has also discovered that merely including those seven components does not ensure liturgical orthodoxy. The ELCA’s recent hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, for example, contains all seven and also has the appearance of preserving a deep heritage of Christian tradition, but nonetheless its general tendency veers away from sound doctrine. The ELCA refers to its “Welcome to Baptism” ritual as preparation for the “catechumenate” period of instruction, a practice that does have strong precedence in the early church. However, historical precedence should be neither the sole nor the primary criterion by which Christians evaluate church rites. Scripture must remain the norm. Elsewhere the ELCA has sharply departed from tradition, by retooling the baptismal rite to promote a contemporary social agenda of sexual egalitarianism and by diminishing references to Satan, his power, and his influence, from all of which Christ rescues His people through Holy Baptism. Such innovations run contrary to Scripture and remake baptism into a sacrament of the church.

Whatever details a congregation adds to or subtracts from the baptismal rite it inherits from the preceding generation, great care must be taken to ensure that baptism is preserved as Christ’s gift to the church, the Holy Spirit’s act of washing and regenerating the baptismal candidate, and the means of grace by which the Father is reconciled to call that child His own. Only by first making us God’s children through the washing away of our sins for Christ’s sake, does baptism also make us members of His body, brothers and sisters in His family, and co-heirs of heaven in a common blessed community that gathers regularly in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The assembly of the baptized gathers not primarily to be with one another, but so that they may together recall the ongoing meaning of their baptisms, as they participate once more in the drowning of the Old Adam and the rising of the new man through Word and Sacrament.



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