Baptism in the Early Church

Ferguson Baptism

A review of Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries.

This huge, magisterial work on the history of baptism will inevitably, because of its erudition and wealth of detail, take its place as a standard work on the subject for many years to come. While Prof. Ferguson is certainly to be commended for such a mammoth achievement, which covers history, theology, liturgy, architecture, and artwork, it is not a book I can commend in its entirety. Theologically it has a certain agenda, which will not please either paedobaptists or anti-paedobaptists: baptism only means, and only ever was, by dipping or immersion; baptism of the children of Christian parents is without apostolic warrant and was only invented in the second century to comfort the parents of dying children; and there is no forgiveness of sins without baptism – they are tied necessarily and inseparably together.

Ferguson is author of numerous books on early Christian studies and was formerly co-editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, so he knows the field well. Despite a wealth of detail and scholarly engagement (the text contains untransliterated Greek and Aramaic for example, and the footnotes demonstrate a close acquaintance with secondary literature in several languages), there is often a curt dismissal of opposing arguments which tend to go against his ‘Christian primitivism’ or ‘restorationist’ views. For example, the account of Jesus blessing the children in Matthew 19:13-15 and parallels is often used as (part of) an argument for infant baptism, and was in the early church. Yet it is quickly passed over here, in a massive work with pretentions to comprehensive coverage, in a mere six lines, without really engaging or answering the actual way in which it was appropriated and read in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation traditions. I expected more familiarity with the way the text is actually employed by those who disagree with Prof. Ferguson. The household baptisms in Acts are also dismissed in a similar way. We must all be open to changing our views when confronted by superior evidence (I looked forward to the challenge this book might bring to my prior convictions); but if an opposing view never takes account of our best arguments, then it is never likely to persuade.

As for the close identification of baptism with the operation of the Holy Spirit which Everett sees as a continuous and consistent theme of the first five centuries, this is something which Protestant theologians and historians have always disputed, while countering Roman Catholic ex opere operato type sacramental theologies. The Apostolic Fathers and early Patristic writers, while we value their efforts in many spheres of theology were certainly prone to over-develop the ritual and ceremony and theology of baptism, which is why some put it off until just before death, so as to ensure they were forgiven at the optimal moment when they supposedly couldn’t sin again and mess it up.

Paedobaptists and anti-paedobaptists alike will not warm to the view which Everett presents as his own and that of the early church. Neither, of course, will those who (rather eccentrically) see the command to baptise in Matthew 28 as a command to ‘immerse the nations in the teaching of the gospel’ and not a dominical sanction for a practice involving some actual water! Everett concludes that, ‘Only a few (fringe) heretics of the ancient church tried to dehydrate the new birth.’ That’s a great polemical line, but not an ideal manifesto for where we need to return as a church. Treat with care, more for history than theology.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/4 (2013).

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