Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2009). 975 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
21.1 (Spring 2010) : 111-112

I have read so many books and articles on the mode and subjects of baptism from both “Baptist” and “Presbyterian” perspectives that I was a bit hesitant about what this book could contribute. I was overwhelmed, however, when I encountered the vast amount of information in it that should make it go down as “the last word” on the subject. Baptism in the Early Church is without a doubt the most exhaustive examination ever written about the baptismal teachings and practices of the earliest Christians.

Everett Ferguson is a senior scholar at Abilene Christian University, already well known for his admirable Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd edition). He has been honored with the Distinguished Service Award by the North American Patristics Society—just one indication of how highly he is regarded in the world of patristic scholarship. This massive study of well over 900 pages leaves no baptismal stone unturned. Ferguson has plowed through the NT for every reference to baptism, providing a full analysis of each text that contributes to the meaning, mode, and subjects of baptism (99-200). In addition he deals thoroughly with the Jewish antecedents of baptism, including a survey of the mikvaot installations uncovered in Israel (60-82). He proceeds century by century discussing every mention of baptism in the successive church fathers through Augustine in the fifth century (201-818). He also deals with the material culture of baptism, namely the numerous depictions of baptism in various art forms (various pages) and also the surviving baptismal fonts in the remains of the earliest churches (819-52). His thorough discussion of the patristic texts and the art and architecture of baptism is probably the most original contribution of his work and contributes greatly to knowledge about this often debated subject.

One will never need another book on baptism, although handing this one to a beginner would probably be a serious example of overkill. A primer it is not. Perhaps a condensed version would be quite useful in churches. As it stands, this book will serve mainly academics and pastors desiring to delve deeply into the issues.

By the way, if anyone is wondering about the controversy over the mode and subjects of baptism, Ferguson’s marshaled evidence points overwhelmingly to immersion (usually trine) of believing adults as the dominant practice well into the fifth century. The first reference to infant baptism was by Tertullian, who mentioned the practice in the late-second century. He referred to it, however, as a practice that was different from that of the church as a whole. In any case it did not become widespread for nearly five centuries.

This reviewer would like to add some personal experiences to the data assembled by Ferguson. I have debated and discussed this subject with Presbyterians for years. I am quite familiar with their arguments for pouring, even many of them arguing for that mode in the NT. On the other hand, whenever I have had contact in academic meetings with critical scholars from various denominations and a discussion of the practice of baptism arises, they always have acknowledged that the ancient practice was immersion. No question about it ever arose for those who are interested mainly in historical matters, not denominational arguments. It is only in evangelical circles that some will argue for pouring as the original mode. The critical scholars, many of whom may be in churches where pouring or sprinkling is practiced, always acknowledge that the original and ancient mode was immersion. To them the evidence is so clear that the issue is not even discussed. Such is the overwhelming evidence that is so thoroughly examined in this book. While pouring might be found on occasion, it was the exception and not the rule. During a personal visit to Calvin’s Cathedral in Geneva last December, I examined the excavations under the church and there at the earliest level was a baptistery that was clearly intended for immersion.

A closing word is in order about the pattern followed in the Didache, the oldest Christian writing outside of the canonical NT scriptures. Immersion in the trinitarian “name” (chap. 7) was commanded for those who had been taught the basics of their new life (chaps. 1-6). While pouring on the head was permitted in special circumstances, it was clearly exceptional and not the preferred practice among the teaching of the apostles. The preferred practice was immersion in cold, flowing water. Ferguson’s abundant evidence indicates that such was the almost exclusive practice by Christians for centuries.

The question that must be faced is this: If baptism in the NT was by pouring and if infants were included in the ordinance, why then did the church get it wrong for nearly 500 years, but then return to the NT practice in the Dark Ages?