Book Reviews

Baptism in the Early Church

History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

Everett Ferguson Grand Rapids 2009-03-29

This extensive volume thoroughly examines the doctrine and practice of water baptism in the first five centuries of the church. Ferguson is distinguished scholar in residence at Abilene (TX) Christian University.

He discusses Jewish immersion rites, the practice of John the Baptist, the word baptivzw, which he says means “to dip” but which can also mean, metaphorically, “to overwhelm.” He then discusses Jesus’ baptism and references to baptism throughout the New Testament.

As a Church of Christ minister, Ferguson repeatedly affirms that forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit stem from baptism. For example “The Christian’s  existence as a Christian does not occur without baptism” (p. 164). “Baptism was a fundamental means of salvation” (p. 165). Baptism “effects salvation, forgiveness of sins, freedom from the rule of sin and death, purification, and washing; it gives the Holy Spirit” (p. 197). “The New Testament and early Christian literature are virtually unanimous in ascribing a saving significance to baptism” (p. 854). Also the author repeatedly notes that the water in John 3:5 (“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”) is a reference to baptism. His book takes no account of the scores and scores of Bible verses that clearly state that salvation is obtained simply by faith in Christ apart from any works (e.g., John 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; Rom. 5:1; 6:23; Eph. 2:8–9).

Ferguson then discusses the views on baptism of the second-century apostolic fathers, apologists, Marcionites, and statements in the pseudipigrapha and the apocrypha. Third-century authors whom Ferguson discusses include Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Lactantius, Eusebius, and others. Fourth-century writers include Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ephraem the Syrian, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and others. In the fifth century the writers include Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, Augustine, and others. The final chapters discuss baptismal rites.

Ferguson repeatedly affirms that the view of the early church on the mode of baptism was immersion (which he also calls submersion).

Infant baptism was not practiced “before the latter part of the second century” (p. 856). But, he suggests, it may have arisen as an “emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. . . . It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries” (p. 857). “Original sin became the reason for infant baptism in the western church” (ibid., italics his).

This comprehensive work concludes with an impressive ninety-three pages of six indexes: biblical passages, Greek and Roman authors, Jewish authors, noncanonical Christian authors, modern authors, and subjects.

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Roy B. Zuck
Roy B. Zuck, was senior professor emeritus of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary and editor of Bibliotheca Sacra.
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