Trine immersion then, as to the origin of which Basil confesses his ignorance, must be older than either of the rival explanations. These are clearly aetiological, and invented to explain an existing custom, which the church had adopted from its pagan medium. For pagan lustrations were normally threefold; thus Virgil writes (Aen. vi. 229): Ter socios pura circumtulit unda. Ovid (Met. vii. 189 and Fasti, iv. 315), Persius (ii. 16) and Horace (Ep. i. 1. 37) similarly speak of trine lustrations; and on the last mentioned passage the scholiast Acro remarks: "He uses the words thrice purely, because people in expiating their sins, plunge themselves in thrice." Such examples of the ancient usage encounter us everywhere in Greek and Latin antiquity.
6. Age of Baptism. - In the oldest Greek, Armenian, Syrian and other rites of baptism, a service of giving a Christian (i.e. non-pagan) name, or of sealing a child on its eighth day, is found. According to it the priest, either at the door of the church or at the home, blessed the infant, sealed it (this not in Armenia) with the sign of the cross on its forehead, and prayed that in due season (ἐν καιρῷ εὐθέτῳ) or at the proper time (Armenian) it may enter the holy Catholic church. This rite announces itself as the analogue of Christ's circumcision.
On the fortieth day from birth another rite is prescribed, of churching the child, which is now taken into the church with its mother. Both are blessed by the clergy, whose petition now is that God "may preserve this child and cause him to grow up by the unseen grace of His power and made him worthy in due season of the washing of baptism." As the first rite corresponds to the circumcision and naming of Jesus, so does the second to His presentation in the temple. These two rites really begin the catechumenate or period of instruction in the faith and discipline of the church. It depended on the individual how long he would wait for initiation. Whenever he felt inclined, he gave in his name as a candidate. This was usually done at the beginning of Lent. The bishop and clergy next examined the candidates one by one, and ascertained from their neighbours whether they had led such exemplary lives as to be worthy of admission. In case of strangers from another church certificates of character had to be produced.
If a man seemed unworthy, the bishop dismissed him until another occasion, when he might be worthier; but if all was satisfactory he was admitted, in the West as a competens or asker, in the East as a φωτιζόμενος, i.e. one in course of being illumined. Usually two sponsors made themselves responsible for the past life of the candidate and for the sincerity of his faith and repentance. The essential thing was that a man should come to baptism of his own free will and not under compulsion or from hope of gain. Macarius of Jerusalem (op. cit.) declares that the grace of the spirit is given in answer to our prayers and entreaties for it, and that even a font is not needful, but only the wish and desire for grace. Tertullian, however, in his work On Baptism, holds that even that is not always enough. Some girls and boys at Carthage had asked to be baptized, and there were some who urged the granting of their request on the score that Christ said: "Forbid them not to come unto Me" (Matt. xix. 14), and: "To each that asketh thee give" (Luke vi. 30). Tertullian replies that "We must beware of giving the holy thing to dogs and of casting pearls before swine." He cites 1 Tim. v. 22: "Lay not on thy hands hastily, lest thou share in another's sins." He denies that the precedents of the eunuch baptized by Philip or of Paul baptized without hesitation by Simon (to which the other party appealed) were relevant.
He dwells on the risk run by the sponsors, in case the candidates for whose purity they went bail should fall into sin. It is more expedient, he concludes, to delay baptism. Why should persons still in the age of innocence be in a hurry to be baptized and win remission of sins? Let people first learn to feel their need of salvation, so that we may be sure of giving it only to those who really want it. Especially let the unmarried postpone it. The risks of the age of puberty are extreme. Let people have married or be anyhow steeled in continence before they are admitted to baptism. It would appear from the homilies of Aphraates (c. 340) that in the Syriac church also it was usual to renounce the married relation after baptism. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catecheses, insists on "the longing for the heavenly polity, on the goodly resolution and attendant hope" of the catechumen (Pro. Cat. ch. 1.). If the resolution be not genuine, the bodily washing, he says, profits nothing. "God asks for nothing else except a goodly determination.
Say not: How can my sins be wiped out? I tell thee, by willing, by believing" (ch. viii.). So again (Cat. 1. ch. iii.) "God gives not his holy treasures to the dogs; but where he sees the goodly determination, there he bestows the seed of salvation.... Those then who would receive the spiritual saving seal have need of a determination and will of their own.... Grace has need of faith on our part." In Jerusalem, therefore, whither believers flocked from all over Christendom to be buried, the official point of view as late as A.D. 350 was entirely that of Tertullian. Tertullian's scruples were not long respected in Carthage, for in Cyprian's works (c. 250.) we already hear of new-born infants being baptized. In the same region of Africa, however, Monica would not let her son Augustine be baptized in boyhood, though he clamoured to be. She was a conservative. In the Greek world thirty was a usual age in the 4th century for persons to be baptized, in imitation of Christ. It is still the age preferred by the Baptists of Armenia. But it was often delayed until the deathbed, for the primitive idea that mortal sins committed after baptism were sins against the Holy Spirit and unforgivable, still influenced men, and survived among the Cathars up to the 14th century.