“Baptism in the Early Church” will be the standard resource on the topic for decades to come.
Everett Ferguson, distinguished scholar in residence at Abilene Christian University and recipient of the North American Patristic Society’s 2008 Distinguished Service Award, surpasses his previous scholarly achievements and services to the church in this new volume.
Scholars should study it. Church leaders should read it. Church and seminary libraries should make it available.
ddSeven different indices totaling 93 pages indicate the work’s scope. Ferguson attempts to be, in his own words, “as thorough as possible on the first three centuries” and “representatively comprehensive” on the fourth and fifth.
Ferguson’s examination of conjectured antecedents to Christian baptism — washings in Greco-Roman paganism, mystery cults, Qumran, Jewish proselyte baptism and John the Baptist — is thorough and insightful.
Ferguson closes his comprehensive treatment of the subject, summarizing his research as follows: Regarding the origin of Christian baptism, early Christians tended to base their practice on Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 and his example in Matthew 3:13-17. They also found precedent in John the Baptist’s baptism, which Jesus and his disciples received (John 3:26; 4:1-2).
Christian baptism differed from John’s in its reference to faith in Jesus, performance in Jesus’ name and association with the Holy Spirit. Ferguson finds “little to associate Christian baptism with pagan religious washings.”
Drawing on Paul’s imagery of the gift of the Spirit as equivalent for circumcision (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13), those relating “spiritual circumcision” to baptism saw baptism as the occasion for “inward circumcision by the Spirit.”
Regarding the doctrine of baptism, Ferguson finds “remarkable agreement” among second and third century sources regarding the benefits of baptism. Fundamental blessings of baptism are forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Fundamental doctrinal interpretations are sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection –– with benefits and responsibilities (Romans 6:3-4) –– and regeneration from above (John 3:5).
Other features include being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27), deliverance from Satan and freedom in Christ (Colossians 1:13), enlightenment (Hebrews 6:4), and, less frequently, marriage to Christ (Ephesians 5:25), and contractual imagery (1 Peter 3:21).
Ferguson observes that baptism was viewed as God’s action, and salvation in baptism was based on Christ’s death and resurrection. New Testament and early Christian writings associate baptismal water with cleansing, view baptism as God’s work and unanimously ascribe saving significance to baptism.
Baptism was viewed as necessary for salvation, an exception being martyrs killed before receiving baptism. Infant baptism appears in the latter half of the second century, likely developing from emergency baptisms of seriously ill infants and children.
Still, the practice was not the norm in the fourth century and was questioned into the fifth century, when Augustine’s doctrine of original sin provided it theological support in the West.
Ferguson notes that, as has often been the case in church history, “the practice preceded its doctrinal defense.”
In time, as fewer converts were Jewish or familiar with the Old Testament, more attention was given to instruction and the ceremony evolved to convey baptism’s meaning (unclothing and re-clothing). Partial or complete nudity was practiced early on (suggesting childhood innocence, pre-fall conditions, etc.).
By the third century, triple immersion was common. Laying on of hands, practiced early, was possibly a functional gesture receiving other meanings over time, (prayer for the Holy Spirit, anointing, or marking with the sign of the cross.)
While anointing is attested in the late second century, indications are that it was not from the apostolic era. Mid-second century on, baptisms concluded with the newly baptized joining the church for communion — in some cases accompanied with milk and honey (symbolic of newborn purity as well as the promised land).
By the fourth century, post-baptismal re-clothing in white represented purity and eschatological identity.
Regional differences guided other developments. The West began separating post-baptismal confirmation from baptism. Syrian practice associated the Holy Spirit with anointing before baptism. Other practices included foot-washing and spitting in renunciation of the devil.
The mode of baptism, Ferguson states, was submersion in the East and “only slightly less certain” in the West. Small baptisteries, once taken to suggest infant baptisms, are now understood to reflect a manner of submersing adults. That is, candidates standing, sitting, or kneeling in small baptisteries were bent forward to submerge their heads under water by a “baptizer” outside the baptistery.
Exceptions to submersion were lack of water and sick- or deathbed conversions.
The significance of this magnificent work lies in the importance of the subject, the range and depth of the research and the style of writing that makes complicated matters clear without slighting the material.
Thank you, Everett Ferguson, for this volume. It will stimulate research and benefit innumerable Christians for decades to come. Michael R. Weed is Billy Gunn Hocott Professor at Austin Graduate School of Theology in Texas.