Jesus Creed

This is the first installment of what we hope will become a feature of this blog: a solid book review on Saturday afternoon. This review, by Marius Nel (pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church and a Research Associate in the New Testament department at the University of Pretoria in South Africa), is on Everett Ferguson’s big book on baptism: Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

Baptism in the Early Church – History, Theology, and Liturgy in the first Five Centuries – Everett Ferguson

Reviewer: Marius Nel

 Everett Ferguson’s magnus opus is a comprehensive historical study of the doctrine and practice of baptism in the first five centuries of Christianity.  Ferguson’s focus is primarily on early Christian literary sources, though he also gives attention to the depictions of baptism (mostly of Jesus) in various art forms, as well as the architecture of a number of surviving baptismal fonts and baptisteries.  He attempts to be as complete as possible for the first three centuries and “representatively comprehensive” for the fourth and fifth centuries (xix).  The primary strength of Ferguson’s excellent study is its comprehensive focus on all the available primary literature, while also surveying (chapter 1) and engaging (in numerous footnotes) the relevant secondary literature.

Part One covers the antecedents to Christian baptism.  Ferguson begins with a discussion of Greco-Roman pagan washings for purification and the role of water in the Mystery Religions (chapter 2).  He concludes that while the use of water as a means of purification was common in the religious activities of Greeks and Romans it did not fulfill the same religious role as in Christianity (25).  Washings for example, were a preliminary preparation for the initiation into the Mystery religions, while it was the center of initiation into the church (29). 

Chapter 3 focuses on the literal and metaphorical meaning of words from the Bapt-root in Classical and Hellenistic Greek usage.  The verb Baptizo literally meant “to dip” (usually referring to a thorough submerging of an object in a liquid).  Metaphorically it meant “to be overwhelmed by something” (for example the influence of wine) (38, 59).  Pouring and sprinkling were distinct actions that were represented by different Greek verbs.  

Chapter 4 examines Jewish washings, baptismal movements and proselyte baptism
as a more immediate context for Christian baptism than possible Greco-Roman
antecedents (60).  Ferguson comes to the conclusion than Jewish
baptismal practices cannot be taken as the direct antecedent for Christian
baptismal practices.
  Not only
is the precise chronological relationship between the Jewish baptism of
proselytes and the Christian baptism unclear, but are there also a number of important
differences between them (although Jewish proselyte baptisms were also one-time,
full immersions, they differed from Christian baptism in being self-administered
(81-82)).  The heart of the
rabbinic conversion ceremony of proselyte
males was also circumcision and not baptism. 

In chapter 5 the primary sources for the baptism of John the Baptist is
surveyed.  From the New Testament
it is clear that the practice and meaning of John’s baptism had some overlap
with both Jewish and Christian practices. 

l Like Jewish proselyte baptism it was a
one-time immersion.  It differed however
in being offered specifically to Jews. 

l John’s baptism
shared the theme of purification with Jewish
ceremonial washing
practices, but differed in being an act of prophetic
symbolism (85) that prepared Israel for the coming Lord by calling for
repentance and granting forgiveness of sins (88-89).  The baptism of John was also not self-immersion (95). 

l It differed from
Christian baptism in being a
confession of sin rather than of faith in Jesus (89).

Theologically the baptism of
John expressed conversionary repentance, mediated forgiveness, purified from
uncleanness, foreshadowed the ministry of an expected figure (Jesus), protested
against the temple establishment and was an initiation into the “true
Israel” (93). 

In part two Ferguson turns
his attention to baptism in the New Testament.  He begins by identifying the prominent motifs in canonical
and noncanonical interpretations of the
baptism of Jesus
(chapters 6 & 7) namely; the descent of the Spirit
(the possible fulfillment of Isa. 11:2), the beginning of the messianic
ministry of Jesus, the identification and revelation of Jesus as God’s beloved
son, the sanctification of water for baptism (109) and Jesus’ identification
with humanity (112). 

From chapters 8 till 11 Ferguson discusses the various New Testament baptismal
texts in canonical order.  In
regards to the Gospels he focuses
primarily on Matthew 28:19 (133), the references to Jewish purification rituals
in Mark. 7:4 and Luke 11:38, before arguing that John 3:5 is indeed a baptismal
text (142-145).  Ferguson (in
agreement with Kuss) summarizes Paul’s
understanding of baptism as presupposing preaching and faith, occurring in the
name of Jesus and mediating the eschatological gifts of salvation, forgiveness
and the Holy Spirit (147).  Paul’s
characteristic teaching relative to baptism is to connect it with the death and
resurrection of Christ and to draw out its moral consequences (164).  While human cooperation (faith) is
presupposed by baptism the decisive action it testifies to come from God alone (165).  In Acts
conversion accounts ordinarily include a mention of baptism.  Where any details are given an
immersion is either implied or consistent with what is said (Acts 16:33).  Baptism was also not self-performed but
rather done in the name of Jesus. 
It was preceded by the preaching of the Gospel and promised forgiveness of
sin and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the person being baptized.  Acts shows little interest in who
performed the baptism (185).  Of
the rest of the New Testament only 1
Peter makes a truly significant contribution to the understanding of baptism in
that 1 Peter 1:3 and 23 refer to believers being begotten again by the resurrection
of Jesus (193). 

Ferguson summarizes the New Testament witness to the practice of baptism
as follows: (i) there is no certain
indication of infants or children being baptized. (ii) Baptism is adult baptism,
initiatory and unrepeatable. (iii) It is connected to the eschatological
baptism of John, but has its specific character in the saving work of Christ.
(iv) Baptism grants the one baptized access to the eschatological community of
salvation. (v) It affects salvation, forgiveness of sins, freedom from the rule
of sin and death, purification, and washing. (vi) It gives the Holy Spirit and (viii)
a part in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4). (ix) Baptism names
Christ and is rebirth. (x) It has an instrumental character and is closely
bound with the paraenesis of daily life whilst being the gracious action of
God. (xi) Not much detail is given in the New Testament on the manner in which
baptism is given, though immersion in running water seems to have been the norm.

Part Three surveys baptism
in the Second Century by focusing on the Apostolic Fathers (chapter 12),
Christian Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha (chapter 13), the Greek Apologist (chapter
14), the Pseudo-Clementines and Jewish Christianity (chapter 15), Jewish and
Christian Baptisms (chapter 16), Marcionites, Gnostics and related groups (chapter
17), Irenaeus (chapter 18), and Clement of Alexandria (chapter 19). 

The material Ferguson presents testifies to the developing diversity and general pragmatism of baptismal practices and theology in early
Christianity during the Second Century. 
The Didache for example allowed
for the use of collected water if running water could not be used, and the
pouring of water over the head of the one being baptized if there was
insufficient water for a full immersion (204-205).  2 Clement has the
first baptismal use of “seal” in reference to baptism (208).  In the Acts of Paul we find the self-baptism of Thecla (230), a baptized
lion (231) and the earliest explicit testimony to triple immersion (231).  A baptismal anointing is first attested
amongst the Gnostics writings (282).  It is interesting that the Valentinian baptismal procedure did not
differ significantly from that of the great church (289).  Irenaeus
could be earliest reference to infant baptism (308), while Clement of
Alexandria emphasized the period of instruction before baptism (315) and used
regeneration, sign, bath, seal and illumination as important images for baptism

Part Four addresses the
Third Century up to Nicaea (325).  It
begins with the writings attributed to Hippolytus (chapter 20) and focuses on
Tertullian (chapter 21), Cyprian (chapter 22), the rebaptism controversy (chapter
24), Origen (chapter 25) and various texts from Syria (chapter 26).

While the major controversy in the mid-third century was not over the
baptism of infants, but over whether the church should accept the baptism
administrated by heretics and schismatics (in short: Stephen of Rome said “yes”
and Cyprian of Carthage “no” – chapter 24) the third century is
important for understanding the origin and early development of infant
baptism.  Tertullian (in the late
second century) refers to the baptism of small children as something already being done.  He is also a witness to the role of
sponsors who would guarantee that the baptized children would be brought up in
the faith (364).  While Tertullian
did not explicitly oppose paedobaptism, he did regard it as unnecessary (366).  It
is important to note that after Tertullian we do not hear of any general opposition
to the baptism of infant children
(626-627).  Origen (about 246) however does refer to questions about the
practice of infant baptism and the argument that was used against it, namely
that infants had no sins to be forgiven by it (368).  Origen’s innovation was to extend baptismal forgiveness to the
ceremonial impurity associated with childbirth.  He could thus argue that while infants had no sin they were
impure and therefore needed to be baptized (369).  Cyprian and his fellow bishops concluded that infants should
be baptized before the eight day (370). 
A verdict accepted by sixty-six
bishops indicate a well-established and accepted practice of paedobaptism in

The general instruction to parents to baptize their children however
only begins in the late fourth century, while infant baptism only became the norm under the influence of Augustine in
the fifth century (627-628).  There was also no agreed theology underlying
infant baptism between the Greek and Latin churches
(632), which gives the
impression of a practice preceding its theological justification (cf. 369).  The displacement of dipping by pouring only
began at the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century

Inscriptions on tombs leads Ferguson to the conclusion that there was no
common age at which baptism was administrated, and that there is no evidence
that infants were routinely baptized
shortly after birth.  There is
however ample evidence for the prevalence of emergency baptisms (377). 
For Ferguson the understanding of John 3:5 by the second-century church (as
demanding baptism as a recruitment for entering heaven) lead to more and more
emergency baptisms of ill children. 
The practice of emergency baptism is therefore for him the genesis of
the practice paedobaptism (contra Jeremias – who argued for Jewish proselyte
baptism and family solidarity; Aland – who saw its genesis in the acceptance of
the doctrine of original sin and Wright – who took it as the extension of
believers’ baptism to younger and younger children – 377-377).

Part Five gives an
overview of the understanding of baptism in the Fourth Century by making a
circuit round the Mediterranean, beginning with Egypt before moving on to
Jerusalem (chapter 29), Syria (chapters 30 & 31), Antioch (chapters 32-34),
Cappadocia (chapters 36-38), Milan (chapter 40), Italy (chapter 41) and Spain (chapter
42).  Ferguson also has an excursus
on the polemic regarding the delay of baptism (chapter 39).  Part five makes it abundantly clear
that the Fourth Century furnishes us with
the fullest information of any of the early centuries on the richness and
variety of Christian practice of baptism

associated with baptism in the Fourth Century were: Fasting (506), footwashing
(492, 639), the ceremony of ephphatha
(the opening of the ears – 636), sanctification of the water (507, 525, 653),
exorcisms (476, 523, 538, 604), invocations (576, 638) and the renouncement of
Satan (477, 566), pre- and/or post-baptismal anointing (540, 575), putting on
new clothes (498, 515, 526, 543, 561, 594, 640), the celebration of Eucharist, eating
milk and honey after baptism (467, 679). 
Baptism was only in a few instances not by single (668) or triple
immersion (479, 567, 584, 607), but by sprinkling and pouring (456-458, 669).  Baptism was commonly received in the
nude (466, 477, 541, 649) and understood
as enlightenment or illumination (474, 560, 572, 655, 673), becoming a member
of the church (522), bestowing the Holy Spirit (530, 573), regeneration (571),
receiving forgiveness of sins (556, 573), purification (557) and as death and
burial with Christ (654).  Martyrdom
was also seen as a baptism by a number of writers (591).  Numerous Old Testament episodes were also
understood as types of baptism (490, 500, 586, 614, 641) while various connections
were made between baptism and circumcision (497, 500, 544, 560, 577, 589, and
671).  The role of sponsors for
children also became more common (521, 536, 545, 578) as well as appeals to
parents to baptize their children (568; 577; 594).  Baptism was usually administrated by a bishop and in some
instances by a deacon (664), but not by any women (568).

Part Six follows the pattern
established in the previous part in doing a circuit around the Mediterranean in
the Fifth Century.  Egypt (chapter 44),
Syria, Armenia (chapters 45 & 46), Asia Minor, Constantinople (chapter 48),
Ravenna, Rome (chapter 49), Gaul and North Africa (chapters 50-52) all receive
attention.  In this era most of the liturgical practices associated with baptism in
the Fourth Century continued to be elaborated on
.  A number of adaptations
were however made in order to accommodate the increasing practice of infant
(699, 717-719, 722-723, 788). 
Augustine’s coupling of infant baptism and original sin served as the
foundation of his and others’ reconstruction of baptismal practice that was to
dominate the western churches for subsequent centuries (804).  Another interesting shift was to a first-person-active
formula (“I baptize”) in the Coptic and Latin rites in contrast to
the third-person-passive form (“x is baptized”) that was used in Greek
and Syrian rites (698).  

In part seven Ferguson
examines the baptisteries and fonts in the East (chapter 53) and West (chapter 54).  He arranges the material roughly
according to the geographical expansion of Christianity and then in the
approximate chronological order within each country (821).  He comes to the conclusion that the design
of baptismal fonts made baptism by full
(or in some cases immersion by kneeling in the font) the normal
baptismal practice (849-850).  The
last chapter gives a number of Ferguson’s conclusions regarding baptism in the
early Church.


This magisterial
study by Ferguson will deserveably be the
standard work on early Christian baptismal practices and theology for a long
time.  It not only provides a detailed
and clear account of how rich and varied baptismal practices were in the first
five centuries of Christianity, but also a compelling thesis for the origin of
paedobaptism.  Ferguson argues that
the most plausible historical explanation
for the origin of infant baptism is to be found in the practice of the emergency
baptism of terminally ill children. 
Dying infants and children were baptized so that they would be assured
of entrance into the kingdom of heaven according to a literal understanding of
John. 3:5.  In time emergency
baptism developed into precautionary baptism, before paedobaptism became the norm
in the fifth and sixth centuries (857).

l Ferguson’s methodology
raises the question of the precise relationship between the historical descriptive task, as
undertaken by him, and the normative theological task of discerning
contemporary baptismal practice.  Are the earliest (post New Testament) practices and doctrines
still normative for the contemporary
church or does theological insight and practice mature over centuries (like the
doctrine of the Trinity)?  There is
also an inherent danger in Ferguson’s approach, necessitated by the scope of
study, of focusing on selected parts of
various ancient writers’ documents in isolation of their broader theology
.  While Ferguson does analyze most of the
important writers at some length, numerous documents are understandably only
briefly considered. 

l Ferguson’s
comprehensive survey of the first five centuries allows him to give coherence
to the available baptismal evidence, while also addressing some anomalies
therein.  Christian literary
sources (backed by secular word usage and Jewish religious immersions), for
instance overwhelmingly supports full immersion as the normal baptismal practice. 
Exceptions for a lack of water and sickbed baptism were however made
(857).  If this was the case the
question arises when is a baptismal practice (for example sprinkling instead of
full immersion) wrong and unacceptable (even heretical) instead of a practical
matter to be decided by faith communities in terms of their own specific
context?  Put differently: what is the relationship between the sign
(water) of baptism and what it signifies (redemption and regeneration for
To what extent can
the baptismal sign be minimized (as in partial immersion, pouring or sprinkling)
before it loses its theological significance?  Early Christian text (like the Didache) seems to imply that
the precise volume or nature of the baptismal water did not determine the
validity of a baptism (204-205). 

l In his final
chapter Ferguson comes to the conclusion that: “There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant
baptism before the latter part of the second century.  This fact does not mean that it did not occur, but it does
mean that supporters of the practice have a considerable chronological gap to
account for.  Many replace the
historical silence by appeal to theological or sociological considerations”
(856).  Ferguson’s conclusion
underlines the importance for denominations who practices paedobaptism (for
example on the grounds of covenantal theology like my own Dutch Reformed
denomination) to take the theological
task of continually reflecting on the meaning of baptism seriously.  I
would however argue that both credo- and paedo-baptist continually need to reflect
on the theological and sociological meaning of baptism
.  Present agreement with a historical
practice (for example baptizing only believers) does not automatically imply full
agreement with the theology and exegesis underlying the same practice in the early
church (who found numerous typological references to baptism in the Old
Testament).  Not all denominations who
reject paedobaptism for instance consider infants and children to be innocent
of sin (as Tertullian argued), or conversely not all who baptize infants
believe in the doctrine of the original sin (as Augustine did).  Every Christian generation must therefore
articulate their own theological understanding of the meaning and manner of baptism
for their unique context and time in the light of Scripture.  Questions that must be reflected on
anew are: (1) Why was there a surprising lack of controversy in regards to the
development of infant baptism in the Early Church?  (2) Why were there almost no meaningful liturgical
adaptations for the baptism of small children?  (3) What is the precise theological position of infants and
children in regards to faith, salvation and church membership?

l I am not totally
convinced by Ferguson’s arguments that there is no certain indication of infants or children being included in the
baptism of entire families in the New Testament (cf. Acts 10:1-48, 11:14;
16:15; 18:31 and 1 Cor. 1:16) (185). 
I would rather argue that we have no clear prohibition of the baptism of children in the New Testament, the high probability that children were
baptized along with their converting parents in Acts, and no indication of the treatment of children born subsequent to their
parent’s conversion.  Ferguson however
argues that when Luke meant to include children he did so specifically (as in Acts 21:5).  The problem with this line of argumentation is that women
are only specified as being baptized alongside men in Acts 8:12 (footnote 51,
page 185).  Are they thus also not included by Luke in his household conversions when
they are not specified as being present
?  How should reference to “all of his family” in Acts 16:32-33 thus be understood?  As only referring to men since Luke does
not refer specifically to women or children?  Or the entire
household of Crispus (Acts 18:8)?  Does
Ferguson’s footnote 38 (page 178) also mean that if ancient authors did not
specifically greet children in their letters none of the households they otherwise addressed contained any?  Is it socio-historically plausible that
in a context where life expectancy was in the low thirties that all of the households that converted to
Christianity in Acts had no infants or children?  Ferguson’s criteria for determining if children and infants
were present in households also presupposes that Luke would have applied the same criteria for receiving baptism
to the entire household – adults and infants (178). 

In conclusion there is no doubt in my mind that Ferguson’s brilliant study
has open up new avenues for the Biblical and patristic research of baptism
practices and that it will lead to a fresh theological reflection on the
meaning and manner of baptism.  It
should therefore be read and studied by all who are serious in reflecting on
the richness of the Christian baptism.


Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus