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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. By Everett Ferguson. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 2009. Pp. 953. $60.

In this impressive tome of 860 pages of text, 24 photos of ancient baptisteries and nearly 100 pages of indexes, Everett Ferguson offers a comprehensive and thorough review of patristic literature in the first five centuries of the Christian era for what it says about baptism. He begins with a look at records of Greco-Roman pagan washing practices, at "bapt" root words in classical and Hellenistic Greek, and at Jewish ceremonial washings to check their possible influence, or absence of influence, upon Christian thought and practice. In part two he surveys canonical and noncanonical accounts of the baptism of John and his baptism of Jesus, plus all specific biblical references and allusions to baptism such as Titus 3:5 and John 3:5.

In parts 3 to 6 Ferguson covers the second to the sixth centuries successively, doing a patient reading of the documents from these respective centuries to learn their views on the meaning of baptism and their descriptions of its practice--its liturgies and ceremonies. In addition the author devotes two chapters in part 7 to archaeological findings about the baptisteries surviving from these centuries for what they might suggest about baptismal practice. Almost all of these baptisteries have fonts more or less a meter deep, with several steps in them leading down and up. They stand in the middle of former baptistery buildings adjacent to church sanctuaries.

Baptism was a very important rite for the early church already in the era before Constantine when conversion to Christianity could incur persecution and even martyrdom. The author's findings suggest that there may have been considerable variation in the earliest period--for example, baptism in (or into) only the name of Christ instead of the later standard baptism in the name of the trinity. But all earliest frescoes show baptizands standing in water, as The Didachc suggests, with the officiant's hand upon the head of the baptizand, prepared to immerse the individual.

The importance of baptism inclined church fathers to see foreshadowings of it in any and every mention of water in the Old Testament or New, from Genesis 1 to Noah's ark to Jacob's well, even to the ax head that swam in the story of Elisha. Typology was, of course, a favorite method of interpretation during this time.

Despite the claim of the church fathers that they adhered to tradition, they made baptism more elaborate in successive centuries. Thus a typical rite of the fourth century might begin with a three-year catechumen ate, with priests consecrating the water, sometimes by breathing on it, sometimes by making the sign of the cross in it, though the theology of this era claims Christ's baptism had already consecrated all water. The liturgy required baptizands to face west to thrice renounce the service of Satan, then to face east with hands outstretched to embrace the service of Christ. They were then anointed with consecrated oil before baptism. Next they stepped down nude into the font and, confessing their faith in words of the Apostle's or Nicene Creed, had their heads submerged three times under the hand of the officiant. Sometimes this trine immersion was explained in terms of identification with Christ's three days from burial to resurrection (Romans 6:3-11), sometimes in terms of the trinity mentioned in the basic command of Jesus in Matthew 28:19, 20. Following their baptism a priest or bishop laid hands upon or breathed upon the newly baptized and/or anointed them with oil and myrrh to receive the Holy Spirit. They were then led in white garments to the church for their first eucharist, which for the newly baptized might include milk and honey. In some cases those baptized were expected to wear their white garments for an entire week.

The rite of baptism was modified for the sick, who may have sought baptism before they died. Patristic writers allowed affusion in clinical baptism, although it seems to have involved a considerable amount of water poured over the patient. Sickness or imminent death was very likely the reason for the development of child or infant baptism, says Ferguson. It was an age of high infant mortality, and since baptism was the only path to salvation, families did not want to let children die unbaptized. This may seem inconsistent to us today, seeing as the earliest justifications of infant baptism before Augustine, especially in Eastern Christianity, defended it in spite of the absence of sin in children, let alone guilt for Adamic sin.

Infant baptism did not, however, become universal practice during this era. In one chapter on the fourth century Ferguson lists the names of eighteen church fathers from Christian families who were baptized only as "responsible adults." Moreover, the liturgy remained one directed to responsible adults, even if "sponsors" answered for a child being baptized, saying, for example, in the question about faith, "N believes." Numerous defenses of infant or child baptism suggest it was far from universal practice during the centuries under discussion, even in Christian families. The author mentions one church father who suggests the age of 3 for child baptisms so that children might be able to speak the desired responses for themselves. Some church fathers also began to stress the importance of Christian rearing for baptized children.

The author devotes two chapters to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the chief architect of the doctrine of children's guilt for Adamic sin that influenced much of subsequent Christianity. The author argues that Augustine moved logically from the already widespread practice of infant baptism to the conclusion that infants must therefore be guilty of Adam's sin. This reviewer is inclined to recognize more Manichaean influence from Augustine's student days than Ferguson does.

The patristic era saw baptism as an "efficacious" sign that conferred what it signified: forgiveness of sin, regeneration, faith, the gift of the Spirit, death and resurrection with Christ, enlightenment, membership in the church, a transformed moral life in the service of Christ, and the hope of eternal life. Baptism was the exclusive door to salvation. By especially the fourth and fifth centuries (the time after Constantine) the church became increasingly aware of some hypocritical baptisms--and even more, lapses after baptism--for which the church councils instituted penance. The Catholic Church rejected rebaptism, even in the case of converts from what it considered heretical or schismatic sects, provided their baptism had been in the name of the Trinity, which made it genuine.

A member of the Churches of Christ, Ferguson seeks to remain objective, although recurring remarks in passing throughout the book indicate that he wants his readers to be sure to notice that standard baptismal practice of the era under study was believer's baptism, and that by immersion. He does not explicitly suggest what today's churches should learn from his exhaustive study. Perhaps he refrains from this to avoid any appearance of bias. But this reviewer and some other readers, I'm sure, would have welcomed his opinions as a respected churchman on what the practice of baptism in the patristic era might teach the church today, when such teaching is much needed.

Everett Ferguson, a distinguished scholar in residence at Abilene Christian University, is a patristics scholar equipped with a knowledge of the requisite languages for this study: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and even German and French. These latter allow him to comb also a multitude of secondary modern sources, footnoted at the bottom of the page, where footnotes belong, and for which the publisher Eerdmans is to be thanked. This study will remain an important reference point for some time to come on the doctrine and practice of baptism in the first five centuries of Christianity. Goshen College
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Author:Jeschke, Marlin
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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