I have done some study online, read a couple of books (early church writings) and listened to an audio on baptism (by David Bercot). When I looked up the words in Matthew 28, Acts 2 and Romans 6, each time, I see the first definition as "to dip repeatedly".
While reading a primary source book from one of the 1st century teachers (Tertullian?) I saw that the mode of baptism was to be immersed three times. On the audio lesson, I also heard that the early Christians immersed three times or if immersion was not physically possible, pouring was done. I know that we practice single immersion.
Does salvation depend on the mode of baptism? What is you understanding/conviction on this?
I believe that your research into church history is good and your conclusion is accurate. The statements of early church "fathers" leads to the conclusion that the common mode of baptism was immersion three times, presumably once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the Son and once in the name of the Spirit. By the way, Tertullian wrote in the late second and early third century, not the first century, which is significant to the question at hand.
On the other hand, the definition you found for bapto/baptizo appears to be questionable. My Greek dictionary has the meaning to be to dip in, to dip. It is also translated as to plunge or immerse. I suppose it is possible for the word to imply repeated dipping, but I have looked this word up in more than one place and not found the meaning you discovered in a Greek dictionary. Possibly, what you are finding is what some people INTERPRET the word to mean in a biblical context. If so, it makes sense, as this seems to have been the common practice of the church after the second century. However, to infer that the correct mode of baptism is to do a multiple immersion is not supported by the normal meaning of the Greek word. If you allow a later meaning of the word from a Christian tradition found well after the time of the New Testament to define the biblical word, that would then be circular reasoning if used to support the conclusion that this is what is taught in the Bible.
So, what is the correct mode of baptism? I do not believe we are justified in using what was done by the church in the third or even the second century to decide what is the correct biblical teaching. I am not saying we should ignore this evidence, but I am saying it should not be made to trump the bibical teaching, which is our only authority. There is no evidence that I know of that triple baptism was done in the first century. Even if there were, the only essential question is what does the New Testament teach? There is no mention at all of baptizing three times in the New Testament. Acts 2:38 mentions baptism "in the name of Jesus Christ," whereas Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Given that both are mentioned, my conclusion is that one can be baptized simply in the name of Jesus Christ or in the name of all three. This is not a key doctrinal point and definitely not something to argue or divide over.
Although there is no mention of triple baptism in the New Testament and no evidence this was done in the first century, I find no reason to condemn such a practice. It is hard to think of a reason a person would not be saved because of this practice. However, it would clearly be wrong to demand such a practice. The fact that the church, as early as the second century, began this practice obviously does not make it a requirement for today. Even if one could make the case that triple baptism was practiced by the apostles, something I believe is questionable, this still would not prove that this is the "correct" or the "only acceptable" mode of baptism.
Now, let me get to my own personal opinion. Please remember that this is just my opinion. I believe that there is a significant possibility that triple baptism can become a point of contention and ultimately lead to division. In other words, although I think it is just fine for a person to be baptized three times–although I see no reason to declare this practice wrong or sinful, I believe that the temptation is for this practice to lead to division from those who do not practice it. For this reason, it is my opinion that it would be a mistake to move in this direction. I advise the churches to immerse only once.
Why did the church fathers choose this mode (triple baptism)? For this we will need some speculation. Perhaps it was in response to what is written in Matthew 28:19. More likely, the early bishops wanted to use baptism as a means to stress the teaching of the "trinity." Triple baptism might have been used as a way to make very concrete that God is triune. I do not know of any treatise from the church fathers which will help us to know why they began to practice triple baptism, so I am afraid we are stuck with making reasonable guesses.
In conclusion, church history does lead to the conclusion that triple baptism was practiced quite early, even by the primitive church. Arguments from the meaning of the word for baptism are at best inconclusive and do not support the idea of multiple baptisms. The question of how many times one is immersed is not an essential matter. For the sake of preserving church unity, my personal choice is to continue to immerse people once when they are baptized.
John Oakes, PhD