The Alexandrian baptismal formula

For some years I have been pondering the history of the baptismal formula, and an article on the subject is forthcoming in Ecclesia orans, possibly this year. The abstract follows:

The origins of the baptismal formula found in fourth century eastern baptismal rites are explored. It is suggested that the formula originates as early as the first century in a syntactic dialogue between the candidate and the baptizer. The prayer of the candidate is subsequently transferred to the baptizer and, because it originated as a calling out by the candidate, is known as an epiklesis. The recognition that “epiklesis” in the third and fourth centuries may refer to the formula clarifies a number of aspects of the development of the baptismal rite.

What the abstract does not say (though I recollect that the article does) is that the active formula and the passive formula in eastern circles derive from the same original dialogue.

The reason for mentioning this is that I have just been reading Heinzgerd Brakmann, “ⲃⲁⲡⲧⲓⲥⲙⲁ ⲁⲓⲛⲉⲥⲉⲱⲥ: Ordines und Orationen kirchlicher Eingliederung in Alexandrien und Ägypten” in H. Brakmann et al. (ed.), “Neugeboren aus Wasser und Heiligem Geist”: Kölner Kolloquium zur Initiatio Christiana (Münster: Aschendorff, 2020), 85-196.

As one might expect this is a remarkable and detailed treatment of a vast amount of literature. However, I find one cause to question Brakmann. On p113 he observes the use of an active baptismal formula (“I baptize…”) in the Alexandrian literature, and observes its distinction from the passive use of other eastern churches (“The servant of God, N, is baptized…”), and its common ground with the Roman church. He deduces from this some Roman influence on Alexandria.

I do not think that this can be sustained. Critical in this is, of course, the evidence of Canones Hippolyti, in which an active formula is found, awkwardly combined with a baptismal interrogation derived from Traditio apostolica. Historically, and on the assumption that the Canones are Egyptian, this has been taken as (further) evidence for the active formula in Alexandria, though if I am right and the Canones are Antiochene or Cappadocian, then this indicates that the active and passive formulae are found alongside each other in Antioch in the fourth century (which is not unreasonable, as Chrysostom criticizes the active formula, which he would hardly do if such a formula were unknown to him.)

The active formula in Alexandria derives, I suggest, from the original syntactic dialogue taking place at baptism, in the same way that the now common (in the east) passive formula did. I do not think that there is a link to Roman practice. Indeed I do not think that the use of the formula in the west is ancient, but rather agree with E.C. Whitaker “The history of the baptismal formula” JEH 16 (1965), 1-12, that this came about due to growth in numbers being baptized, and the fact that the majority of candidates were infants.

More generally I have always been slightly sceptical about the often-heard assertions of a link between Roman and Alexandrian liturgical practice. The suggestion of a link on the basis of a common (but, I think, unrelated) active baptismal formula gives me no cause to abandon such scepticism.



Filed under Anything else, Canons of Hippolytus

2 responses to “The Alexandrian baptismal formula

  1. Pingback: Why and when did Antioch adopt post-baptismal anointing? | ancientchurchorders

  2. Pingback: Why and when did Antioch undertake post-baptismal anointing?

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