Baptism in the Early Church

Written by Frederick on . Posted in Boeke, Dienste-Communitas

Chapter 3 focuses on the literal and metaphorical meaning of words from the Bapt-root in Classical and Hellenistic Greek usage. The verb Baptizō 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 in running water is either implied or consistent with what is said (cf. however 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) participation 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 (310-311).

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 252 (372).

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 (631).

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 (455).

Liturgical practices 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 baptism (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 immersion (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).
  • 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 (cf. 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.
  • 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 example)? 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).
  • 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 adult 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?
  • 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 (a) no clear prohibition of the baptism of children in the New Testament, (b) the high probability that children were baptized along with their converting parents in Acts, and (c) 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.

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Comments (1)

  • Gideon Aggenbag


    Provided that Ferguson’s viewpoints are reflected correctly, I cannot agree with some of his arguments and I miss the most cardinal reason for the baptism of Jesus.

    Firstly, John the Baptist’s advent was foretold in Mal.3:1 and confirmed in Joh.1:6. His mission was to prepare the way for Jesus as God’s last and final covenant messenger (Mal.3:1; Joh.1:23). The covenant messenger’s mission was to confront the covenant breaker with his breach and to announce the consequences thereof – in this case God’s righteous wrath over Israel’s contiunous breaches of the covenant (compare Mal.3:2 & 3; Mat.3:12).

    John’s preparing the way for the coming of Jesus consisted in that he not only confronted Israel with, and called upon them to repent from the breaching of the covenant, but also to become known as the baptiser of those who repented and confessed their sins. Such baptism took place in the public eye.

    It is to be noted that John’s message was directed at Israel as the covenant breakers and not at heathen in order to call them to convert to faith in God. I can therefor not agree that the baptism of John expressed conversionary repentance, neither that it was an initiation into the “true Israel”. John’s ministry was focused only on Israel as God’s (unfaithful) covenant people, and never on the heathen.

    Jesus’ first coming was the culmination of a long train of covenant messengers sent to God’s covenant people (Israel), in terms of the covenant. His advent was, so to speak, under a cloud of God’s wrath towards the continuous breach or the covenant.

    But Jesus’ advent was not only as Messenger of the covenant, but also as Saviour – Saviour of those covenant breakers who would repent of their breach of the covenant as well as of those who would ultimately be converted to faith in Him. He would also (metaphoricaly) place Himself under God’s wrath and take/draw that wrath upon Himself. In presenting Himself to John (in plain public view) as a candidate for John’s baptism of repenting and confessing sinners, He stepped into the shoes of those who had placed themselves under God’s wrath and needed forgiveness.

    To understand what was really happening at Jesus’ baptism, we have to consider what happened in the prophetic annual rituals described in Lev.16. In vv.5-10 & 15-22 one goat (the goat for the Lord) was to be slaughtered and offered as a sin offering. The second goat (the goat for Asasel – the scapegoat) was brought to Aäron, who confessed their sins over the goat’s head, whereafter the scapegoat, now laden with the confessed sins of the people, was led out into the desert and left there.

    When Jesus approached John to be baptized, John summarized the mentioned two goats in one sentence (Joh.1:29): “Behold the Lamb of God, which (now!) taketh away (picks up and carries away) the sin of the world.” And after Jesus did just that, He is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert and left there.

    Interestingly: John himself had not understood that he was to baptize Jesus. As a matter of fact, he objected thereto, because he knew that Jesus had no sins to confess (just as the scapegoat of Lev.16 had never sinned but yet became sin-laden upon the confessions of sin). Here, Jesus had to explain to John that God’s righteousness (that the wages of sin is death) had to be fulfilled. So it came about that Jesus carried away this load of sin three years away, to offer Himself as a sin offering (“the goat for God”) on the cross of Calvary.

    In the light of the above, I cannot agree with Ferguson that John’s baptism “…was an initiation into the “true Israel” (93)”. His baptism was directed at a covenant-breaching Israel, not at initiating any other into the “true Israel”.

    As concerns the Christian baptism which Jesus commanded about three years later at the tme of His ascension: Through faith in Jesus Christ (becoming His disciple) a converted heathen is included in the covenant which God made with Abraham (Gal.3:7). Just as Abraham’s physical offspring were included in the covenant because of their father’s faith, even so a disciple’s physical offspring is included in the covenant (1Cor.7:14).

    Baptism in the Name of Jesus is the token and seal of being “children of Abraham” through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal.3:7) and that He will keep true to His promises – much like a wedding ring. As token and seal of having been included in the covenant through faith in Jesus Christ, baptism can never be/do the following (much like a wedding ring cannot make a person a married person):
    (i)initiate one into the covenant; (ii)grant access to the eschatological community of salvation; (iii) affect salvation, forgiveness of sins, freedom from the rule of sin and death; (iv)constitute rebirth; or (v)be an instrument unto salvation.


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