Everett Ferguson on Baptism in the Early Church

Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. This book represents a lifetime of study on baptism in the early church.

Of course I had to read chapter 55 “Conclusions” first where he covers the following topics:
  • Origin of Baptism
  • Doctrine of Baptism
  • Baptismal Ceremony/Liturgy
  • Origin and Progress of Infant Baptism
  • Mode of Baptism: Immersion with Exceptions
Two things, of course, I was dying to know. Is there evidence of infant baptism before the second century? (If not, how did it come about?) Also, what was the primary mode of baptism in the early church? Here are the relevant sections where he answers:
With regard to infant baptism Ferguson writes:

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)

So then how did infant baptism come about?

The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries. (857)

What was he usual mode of baptism?
The Christian literary sources, backed by secular word usage and Jewish religious immersions, give an overwhelming support for full immersion as the normal action. Exceptions in cases of a lack of water and especially of sickbed baptism were made.
Submersion was undoubtedly the case for the fourth and fifth centuries in the Greek East and only slightly less certain for the Latin West. Was this a change from an earlier practice, a selection out of options previously available, or a continuation of the practice of the first three centuries? It is the contention of this study that the last interpretation best accords with the available facts. Unless one has preconceived ideas about how an immersion would be performed, the literary, art, and archaeological evidence supports this conclusion. (857)

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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