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Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church: A Liturgical Appraisal
This essay analyzes Everett Ferguson’s massive study of Baptism in the Early Church using questions from the catechetical tradition: what is baptism? what are its benefits? how can water do such great things? what is the significance of such a bathing? why does the church baptize infants? These questions get at the phenomenological, theological, ritual, liturgical, and pastoral issues in baptism. I consider baptism to be an extended ritual process of initiation rather than as a discrete ritual act. I question Ferguson’s view about submersion in ancient baptismal practice and offer a wider view of the ancient church’s practice of infant baptism.

Everett Ferguson’s magnum opus1 is a singular achievement: a one-author encyclopedia of just about everything that can be known about baptism in the first five centuries of Christian history, although his research extends both before and after that time period. He reaches back to the washing rites in Greco-Roman paganism and to Jewish purification practices before Christianity as well as to Jewish proselyte baptism and Greco-Roman social bathing practices contemporary with early Christianity, all of which may have exerted some influence on early Christian practice. His chronicle extends to the cusp of the early Middle Ages to conclude with the Byzantine Codex Barberini Greek manuscript 336 (790) and the Gelasian Sacramentary in Rome and Gaul (mid-eighth century). Both documents fit antiquity because they reflect earlier practice. In between he leaves no stone

1. Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009). Page citations to Ferguson will appear in the body of the essay.
Journal of Early Christian Studies 20:3, 439–455 © 2012 The Johns Hopkins University Press



unturned in exegeting New Testament texts and passages in early Christian literature. He marches chronologically through the five centuries with a section of the book devoted to each century. He further sub-divides each century into literary genres, authors, and geographic areas. Not content to deal only with the literary references to baptism, Part Seven examines the evidence of baptisteries wherever they may be found in both eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. Finally, in the concluding eight pages he summarizes his views with regard to issues that had received special attention throughout the book: the origin of baptism, the doctrine of baptism, the liturgies of baptism, the origin and development of infant baptism, and the modes of baptism. The concluding ninety-two pages of indices should make it possible for the researcher to find anything in this book, which deals with just about everything concerning baptism in the first five centuries. It is difficult to get a handle on a work of this scope for review purposes. Perhaps an author who has devoted as much time and effort to producing such a monumental work as Everett Ferguson has done should be immune from criticism just out of gratitude for the resource he has provided. But having accomplished this feat, Professor Ferguson would surely be interested in what difference it makes to other scholars and even (especially!) to those who administer holy baptism in the churches. My own contribution to this discussion is to assess how this book, which will surely be a standard work on the subject for years to come, addresses issues related to liturgical practice and pastoral teaching. I am not a patristics scholar; I am a liturgist and pastor (and my research is not limited to early Christianity). It is from these areas of expertise, and with these perspectives, that I offer a liturgical critique of Ferguson’s book. A liturgist, thinking about actual practice, might have a somewhat different perspective on some texts than a historian. Since I come at this task from a particular Christian tradition, as does Ferguson himself, I have organized my review around the questions concerning holy baptism in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism. My purpose is not to bring the sixteenth century reformer into conversation with the ancient church fathers. But the questions in his Catechisms are as good as any to put to the vast data Ferguson presents, and they are questions rooted in the catechetical tradition that has accompanied baptism. What is baptism? What are its benefits? How can water do such great things? What is the significance of such a bathing? In addition to these I raise the question Luther also addresses in the Large Catechism, although not in the Small Catechism: why does the church baptize infants?



This latter issue is one in which Ferguson is particularly interested and for which he has made a helpful historical suggestion. WHAT IS BAPTISM? This is the phenomenological question. The Greek word for “baptism” simply means a bath. Ferguson provides a complete lexicon of words with the root bapt- in classical and koine Greek and discusses baths and bathing customs in Greco-Roman society. It is important to note that social bathing involved a ritual pattern that included divesting, anointing, sometimes exercising, moving from one pool to another (from hot to warm to cold), more anointing, receiving a massage, and being reclothed in clean garments. Rituals of Christian baptism follow a similar pattern. Since people don’t check their cultural practices and assumptions at the church door, the practices of public bathing may have had a more profound impact on Christian baptism than washing rites from the mystery cults or Jewish proselyte baptism. Indeed, these other rites could have also been influenced by Greco-Roman bathing practices. Ferguson also makes innumerable references to water in the ancient sources, especially the amount of water used and the size of the fonts which were filled with water. Modern sacramental theology has appealed to the natural symbolism of water as an agent of birth, cleansing, and destruction as the basis for developing the theological meanings of baptism. Liturgists and architects, especially those working on Roman Catholic church buildings, have displayed an interest in constructing baptismal pools based on ancient models. While modeled on Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist, Christian baptism as a sacramental act was performed on the basis of a direct commission from Jesus (Matt 28.16–18). It is not sufficient to base a sacramental theology on a single institution text. But neither can institution texts be ignored, especially one as critically controverted as Matt 28.18 because of its Trinitarian formula. Ferguson reviews the critical assessment of the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28 and comes down in defense of it. The same formula, he points out, is used in Didache 7.1. Either the Didachist copied Matthew or a common source lies behind both Matthew and the Didache (pp. 132–38). Sacramental theology’s focus on the baptismal formula (and indeed on the whole question of what makes for a “valid” administration of the sacrament) may obscure the fact that the water bath and the formula used with it are part of a whole process that makes baptism a major event



in the life of the church, requiring much of its time and pastoral energy. Liturgical theology has focused on the larger ritual pattern of Christian initiation rather than just on the water bath as a discrete moment. This also provides a different way of looking at Matt 28.16–20. A whole ritual pattern can be seen in the Great Commission as that ritual pattern evolved in the history of the church. That is, the elements of the ritual process that later developed in the church are already embryonically present in Matthew’s text: evangelization—go to the nations; catechesis—teaching; water bath—baptizing (and even indirectly the welcome to the meal). While the meal is not specifically mentioned, Jesus’ word of promise, “I am with you always,” not only echo the prophecy about Immanuel (“God with us”) in the infancy narrative (Matt 1.23) and Jesus’ promise that “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18.20), but also the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, “This is my body” (Matt 26.26). We should also note that the “teaching” in the Great Commission points back to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), which includes Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments. Moral teaching became standard catechetical fare in the preparation of candidates for holy baptism in the history of the church, beginning with the “Two Ways” in Didache 1–6, which cites copiously from Matthew. Liturgists have been interested in the full rite of Christian initiation within which the water bath is a pivotal moment. Everett Ferguson has not ignored the fully developed ritual of Christian initiation as it is laid out in the church orders and explicated in the catecheses of the fathers. But neither is this a central concept in his work. Perhaps no one excited more interest in the recovery of the ancient rites of Christian initiation and the adult catechumenate that flourished between the third and sixth centuries than the late Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B.2 I did not find a reference to Kavanagh in Ferguson’s work. In fact, Ferguson says very little about the overall “shape of baptism.” In his conclusions he does provide a summary list of the elements in the fully developed baptismal liturgy, and he also notes some of the divergences in practice (pp. 855–56). Along the way he reports what church fathers like Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, and church orders like the so-called Apostolic Tradition have to say about the “ceremonies” of baptism. But just as he stopped at various points along the way to review what the sources say (or fail to say) about infant baptism, so it might have been helpful to give an overview of how the rites of Christian initiation were developing in different times and places.
2. Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism (New York: Pueblo, 1972).



Paul Bradshaw has made us wary of looking for direct evolutionary lines of liturgical development because practices varied from place to place.3 But there were some common features of this development, such as inquiry, catechesis, election, handing over the symbols, exorcism, anointing, blessing the water, the water bath, laying on of hands, and welcome to the Lord’s table. Baptism is a liturgical act before it is a doctrine, and an overview of the liturgical development would be just as important as an overview of doctrinal development. Like contemporary liturgical scholars, Ferguson had to back off what he might have claimed for the so-called Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus of Rome. The critical edition of this church order by Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Phillipps4 questions Hippolytus’s authorship and the Roman provenance of what was once regarded as an Egyptian church order. Of course, most liturgists realized that the Apostolic Tradition did not represent the actual practice of the Roman church. If Hippolytus was its author (which is no longer assumed), it was the work of a conservative who thought that the Roman church had gotten off the tracks and was proposing what it should be doing. The lack of a Greek text for a Greek-speaking church also challenged the possibility of Apostolic Tradition being an actual liturgy. In any event, the church orders are “living documents” (as most liturgical books are) that were copied, translated, and changed in the process of being used over time and in different places. The critical edition of the Apostolic Tradition lays out in parallel columns the texts of seven church orders that exist in six different languages, which clearly demonstrates what “living document” means. Ferguson still wants to argue that some of the material in Apostolic Tradition might be as early as the third century and that “wide acceptance of the work suggests an influential center such as Rome” (p. 328). Certainly some of the “ceremonies” in the Apostolic Tradition compare with those described by Tertullian, which would put them in the early third century. But Rome was seldom a generator of liturgical rites in the first five centuries; it was usually on the receiving end of liturgical rites that came from elsewhere, e.g., Alexandria. Work on Christian initiation in various church centers of antiquity continues apace. A significant new contribution is Juliette Day’s work on
3. Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 144–70. 4. Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002).



the baptismal liturgy in fourth and fifth century Jerusalem and adjacent regions.5 Day’s project is to situate the baptismal liturgy in Jerusalem in the comparative liturgical context of what is known of other contemporary rites, especially the Apostolic Constitutions in Syria and the Euchologion of Sarapion of Thmuis in Egypt. In the process of doing this, she dates the Mystagogical Catecheses, commonly attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem, in the episcopate of his successor John. Ferguson notes Day’s work in footnotes. It probably appeared at about the time Ferguson was wrapping up his own work, and perhaps for that reason he does not take up the challenge she issues concerning the reconstruction of the shape of baptism in Jerusalem. Yet what was done in Jerusalem was important simply because it was the main pilgrimage site of early Christianity. Impressionable pilgrims like Egeria undoubtedly took ideas from Jerusalem to try to implement back home. WHAT BENEFITS DOES BAPTISM GRANT? This is the theological question. Let us begin with an important text. Mark 16.16 states, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” What is promised to those who believe? Let me put that question into the context of this whole passage. This is part of Mark’s longer ending. Some think that it was tacked onto the original gospel, which otherwise ends rather abruptly at the empty tomb and the frightened women. But the longer ending contains a Great Commission in which the disciples are sent to preach the gospel to all creation, not just to the nations or peoples, as in Matthew. Ferguson argues that whether the “long ending” of Mark is original or a later addition, it was already cited by Irenaeus and “is notable for its testimony to the early Christian conviction of the importance of baptism as a condition of salvation and its connection with (as an expression of) faith” (p. 141). As Matthew’s Great Commission reflects the whole narrative of the Matthean gospel, so Mark 16.16 reflects the cosmology in the Markan gospel. There is a cosmological dimension to the mission of the church: the demons must submit to the authority of Jesus. The battle against the demonic is a major emphasis in Mark’s story of Jesus. Hence the commission to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. No part of creation is to be left untouched by the gospel message, including the realm of evil.

5. Juliette Day, The Baptismal Liturgy of Jerusalem: Fourth and Fifth Century Evidence from Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007).



The promise of Mark’s gospel is that signs will accompany the disciples and their proclamation. The gospel is not simply something interior to the believer but has concrete results in the world. The demonic, the realm of evil, is pushed back. Believers will cast out demons in Jesus’ name, speak in new tongues, pick up snakes in their hands, and heal the sick (Mark 16.17–18). Practices of exorcism were connected with baptism in the church orders and discussed in the catecheses of the fathers. The shape of Mark’s Great Commission also has a sacramental center that is inextricably linked with an act of assent. Baptism and belief go together. Belief is not sufficient without baptism, and baptism is not sufficient without belief. “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Churches divide over whether the belief must precede baptism or can follow it, which has an impact on whether or not infants are suitable candidates for baptism. In fact, baptism is always performed in the context of a community of faith. Historically, it is the faith of the church (expressed in creeds), not of individuals, that is confessed at baptism. But I will take up this issue in a later section; here I would note that Ferguson does not shy away from views of the church fathers concerning the necessity of baptism for salvation, such as the statement of Tertullian in On Baptism 13.3 that “faith was put under obligation to the necessity of baptism” (quoted on p. 339). In other words, faith alone is not sufficient for salvation when unaccompanied by baptism. Highlighting the words of the fathers concerning the necessity of baptism for salvation is an important contribution of this book, since it will undoubtedly be read by many who do not regard the rite of baptism as necessary for salvation. The aversion to the efficacy of ritual among many Protestants is a Reformation reaction to late medieval superstitious use of blessed objects and the product of modern (i.e. Enlightenment) rationalism; it is not a sensibility that was shared by ancient peoples, including ancient Christians. Romans especially (including those in North Africa) attributed efficacy to ritual acts, even to the point of regarding the rites as ineffective if they were not carried out exactly as prescribed. Roman Christians were not immune from this cultural mindset. Ferguson is at his best when summarizing the baptismal theology of the fathers. Especially good is his explication of John Chrysostom’s teachings, contained in the Baptismal Instructions, concerning the meanings of baptism as death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6.3–4), new creation (2 Cor 5.17), regeneration (Titus 3.5), forgiveness of sins (1 Cor 6.9–11), Holy Spirit, circumcision (Col 2.11), enlightenment (Heb 6.4–6, 10.32), and clothing with Christ (Gal 3.27; Col 3.9–10). Not so prominent in



Ferguson’s exposition of the baptismal theology of the fathers is their use of typology: baptism as a type of creation, salvation in the flood, crossing the Red Sea, crossing the Jordan, and the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian that are prominent in sermons and prayers and the readings of the paschal vigil (Armenian Lectionary) that connect baptism with salvation history.6 In fact, there is no entry for “typology” in the subject index. HOW CAN WATER DO SUCH GREAT THINGS? This is the ritual question. In sacramental theology baptism without the Word is just plain water. As Louis Bouyer pointed out, rite and word go together.7 The power of the water of baptism lies with God’s Word of command and promise, the same Word that brought life into being in the beginning, the same Word that destroyed all but Noah and his family and the animals that were in the ark, the same Word that saved the Israelites at the Red Sea but destroyed their Egyptian slave masters, the same Word that parted the Jordan River so the Israelites could take possession of the promised land, the same Word that cleansed Naaman of his leprosy. The instance in which the Word of God comes to the water in the liturgical rite is the blessing of the water. This is the counterpart of the prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine in the Eucharist, which by the fourth century came to include the institution narrative. So, too, the texts of prayers of blessing of the font are replete with references to the typology of baptism in salvation history, the sanctification of the waters of the Jordan by virtue of the baptism of Jesus, and they often contain references to the command of Jesus to baptize, with appeal to the saving benefits of this sacrament. Ferguson comments on some of these prayers, such as those of Sarapion of Thmuis and the Apostolic Constitution. He itemizes the prayers in the Barberini Euchologion and cites a portion of its great prayer of blessing the font. But he does not provide any detailed itemization of the Gelasian Sacramentary prayers. He simply notes that the prayers in this sacramentary confirm earlier features in the history of practice at Rome (p. 768). Actually the Gelasian Sacramentary is probably a hybrid RomanGallican document, since it survives in a manuscript copied near Paris (Codex Reginensis 316), and may more likely represent sixth-century prac6. See Jean Daniélou, S.J., The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), 70–113. 7. Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 53–62.



tice. But it is unfortunate that Ferguson does not give it a more extensive analysis. A review of the Gelasian prayers, along with its corrolary Ordo Romanus XI (the sacramentary provides the prayers for the liturgy, the Ordo provides the order and the ceremonial rubrics—both are needed for liturgical performance), would have been a fitting conclusion to Ferguson’s study of the baptismal documents of the first five centuries. The prayers of the sacramentary and the rubrics of the Ordo indicate the practice of the scrutinies on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays in Lent, the blessing and giving of salt, the exorcism over the elect, the exposition of the gospels and the introduction of the creed and the Lord’s Prayer to the elect, the blessing of the oil on Maundy Thursday, the final exorcism on the morning of Holy Saturday, the readings and their accompanying prayers in the Easter Vigil (which are all leading up to baptism), and then the blessing of the font, the profession of faith in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit, the triple dipping in the water, the chrismation by the presbyter, the prayer for the sevenfold Spirit and laying on of hands by the bishop, the episcopal anointing, and presumably first communion at the Easter Mass. Here is the full sweep of the rites of Christian initiation at the end of the period of antiquity. The Gelasian prayer of blessing of the font had a lasting legacy in medieval agendas, from which it served as the basis for Luther’s “flood prayer” that was also translated by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and included in the “Order for Baptism” in the Book of Common Prayer. The flood is a major type in the Gelasian prayer (along with a citation of Ps 46.5). The prayer also has an epiclesis of the Holy Spirit on the water and a citation of the institution text of Matt 28.19. In addition to the power of the Word, baptism is a work of the Holy Spirit. A pivotal text relating the Spirit to baptism, apart from John 3.5, is Titus 3.5–8. Ferguson disagrees with those who see in the Titus text a spiritual baptism that does not include water. But he agrees that the text is a strong endorsement of the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism. The regeneration or new birth of baptism is a gift of new life given by the Holy Spirit poured out upon the candidate with the water. Baptismal liturgies, however, have accounted for the role of the Holy Spirit in the anointings, specific prayers for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the laying on of hands that formed an important part of the ancient baptismal liturgies. Ferguson comments on these prayers and ritual acts as they come up in the documents. He notes the divergence between Syria and the West in terms of whether the anointing is done before (Syria) or after (the West) the water bath. He hints at the separation of this ritual



cluster, including post-baptismal anointing, prayer for the sevenfold grace of the Holy Spirit, and laying on of hands by the bishop, from the liturgy of holy baptism in the West to form a separate rite of confirmation. He notes that the letter of Pope Innocent I (402–417) to Bishop Decentius of Gubbio “is important for distinguishing the postbaptismal rites that became confirmation from baptism” (p. 760), but he does not comment further. In a work not cited by Ferguson,8 Aidan Kavanagh analyzes the evidence in many of the same documents Ferguson has studied (including the letter of Pope Innocent). Kavanagh proposed a theory that confirmation developed from the liturgical rite of dismissals (missa), such as the dismissal of the catechumens. Kavanagh’s heavy reliance on the Apostolic Tradition as a source of later Roman liturgy does not invalidate his theory. Ferguson cannot be faulted for declining to take up the history of confirmation. But in the fifth century, the developing rite of confirmation was still seen as part of the initiation cluster. It is simply the delay of the post-baptismal ceremonies performed by the bishop until such time as the baptized could be brought to the bishop. This also attests to the increasing dislocation of baptism from the Easter Vigil, at which the bishop would be present. The time of baptism was also a part of the entire process of Christian initiation, as I discuss in the next section. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SUCH A BAPTISM WITH WATER? This is the liturgical question. It was natural that Christian baptism, associated by Paul in Rom 6.3–4 with Christ’s death and resurrection, would come to be celebrated at Easter once an annual paschal celebration was established. The connection of baptism with the paschal mystery was especially emphasized in the Roman church. The eastern practice of celebrating baptism on the feast of the Epiphany, with reference to the baptism of Christ, was not accepted in Rome, as is made clear in the letter of Pope Leo I to the bishops of Sicily (see pp. 762–66). (Pentecost was a back-up day for solemn public baptism in Rome—the last day of the octave of octaves.) Another liturgical implication of the Pauline teaching was the mode of baptism. It resembled a ritual drowning, a putting to death of the old sinful person in the waters of the font. Ferguson has done a great service by giving so much attention to ancient baptismal fonts, expanding on the

8. Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., Confirmation: Origins and Reform (New York: Pueblo, 1988).



work of the late S. Anita Stauffer in general9 and drawing on the research of Ioannis Volanakis on Greek fonts in particular.10 The literary sources comment on the symbolism of the fonts as the tomb of death and resurrection and the womb of new birth. The hexagonal and octagonal shapes of baptisteries may also refer to Christ’s death on the sixth day and resurrection on the eighth day (the eschatological day of the Lord). The three steps into the font were also given symbolic interpretations. Ferguson makes much of the literary and archaeological evidence that points to immersion rather than pouring as the mode of baptism. I am unsure whether or not these modes are mutually exclusive, as long as we understand that candidates went down into the fonts and were standing in water. It is not so certain whether immersion implies submersion. Ferguson argues that the preponderance of practice was that the candidate stood hip deep in water and the minister put his or her (deaconesses for women) hand on the candidate’s head and dipped him or her into the water. He notes that the depths of fonts varied (western fonts being generally shallower than eastern ones), and pouring and sprinkling were not unknown in exceptional circumstances. However, he argues that it would be possible for candidates to bend over and the minister’s hand on the head indicates that the candidate was pushed below the water. If the cultural backdrop of Christian baptismal practice is Mediterranean bathing practice, I think actual submersion is unlikely. In the bath houses, the bathers sat in the pools and slaves poured water over their heads. The minister’s hand on the head of the candidate is a gesture of blessing, perhaps even of manumission of sins. In Roman society, the laying on of hands was the gesture used by the master to indicate the granting of freedom to the slave, who then entered the service of the patron as a client.11 In the waters of baptism, we are freed from slavery to sin in order to serve Christ. There could have been multiple laying on of hands just as there were multiple anointings. A third liturgical implication of the Pauline teaching is the development of post-baptismal penance. What is put to death for Paul is our old sinful nature that is captive to sin. Sin is a power that rules over us. It is the power of pride, unbelief, and self-centeredness that takes us captive,

9. S. Anita Stauffer, On Baptismal Fonts: Ancient and Modern, Alcuin Club 29–30 (Bramcote: Grove, 1994). 10. The work of Ioannis Volanakis, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (Athens, 1976) is untranslated, but Ferguson follows it as his main authority (pp. 828–32). 11. See Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “Manumission and Baptism in Tertullian’s Africa: A Search for the Origin of Confirmation,” Studia Liturgica 31 (2001): 129–49.



and from which we cannot free ourselves on our own. The reason for the image of death and resurrection is that our old sinful nature needs to be destroyed if a new, free self is to emerge. Some of the church fathers were concerned about the baptism of young children precisely because they had not yet faced the power of sin. If they were baptized at too young an age, they might fall captive to sin later on. Of course, some of the baptized who had faced the power of sin fell back into its power even after baptism. The old Adam in us is supposed to be drowned in the waters of baptism, but that old Adam is a mighty good swimmer and doesn’t give up easily. The problem of sin after baptism concerned many of the church fathers. This was especially a concern in the Messsalian Controversy. The Messalians were advocates of a strict asceticism that allowed one to devote one’s life to prayer in order to resist the devil. The opponents of the Messalians held that demons are chased away by baptism and not by prayer. Ferguson devotes the whole of his Chapter 47 to this controversy, involving as it did such important figures as Pseudo-Macarius, Jerome, and Mark the Monk. However, the way the main church dealt with post-baptismal sin was through penance, what Jerome called “the second plank” of grace extended to those who fell from baptismal grace. While it lies outside the purview of Ferguson’s already expansive volume, the study of penance also belongs to the study of baptism. The ancient church saw the development of an order of penitents that paralleled the order of catechumens. Tertullian already attests to such an ordo poenitentium in his treatise On Penance at the turn of the third century. Augustine also encouraged a life of penance as a way of living out baptism. In the ancient Roman church, the reconciliation of the public penitents occurred on Maundy Thursday, just as the baptism of the catechumens occurred at the Easter Vigil. The life of baptism is a penitential life. WHY DO WE BAPTIZE INFANTS? This is the pastoral question. The question of baptizing young children was raised in the early church beginning in the third century, but there is no question that young children were baptized. The Scriptures do not specifically enjoin the baptism of infants, but neither is such baptism forbidden. Rather, the church is commanded to baptize “all” peoples (Matt 28.19), and there are examples in the Book of Acts of whole households being baptized (e.g. Cornelius in Acts 10). But in treating this passage Ferguson shows his hand on the issue. He argues that in the case of Cornelius’s household they “‘feared God’ (10.2), heard Peter’s message (10.33, 44; 11.14),



believed (10.43; cf. 11.17), repented (11.18), received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues 10.44, 46), and magnified God (10.46)—descriptions hardly applicable to small children” (p. 178). One might also ask if these things were applicable to every adult in Cornelius’s household. Elsewhere it is granted that the Book of Acts presents an idealized picture of the early church. Why not in this episode also? The suggestion that the households in Acts might have included children is, admittedly, an argument from silence. But Ferguson is still adamant that there is no direct testimony to the practice of infant baptism in the first two centuries. By the beginning of the third century there is the indirect testimony of Tertullian. He was opposed to the practice, which means that it was being done. In On Baptism 18 he cites Matt 19.14, “Forbid them not to come to me.” “So let them come,” he writes, “when they are growing up, when they are learning, when they are being taught what they are coming to: let them be made Christians when they have become competent to know Christ. Why should innocent infancy come with haste to the remission of sins?”12 If the Apostolic Tradition cannot be located as Roman practice in the early third century, we lose that source as a testimony to the fact that children were being baptized at the beginning of the third century, and even how it was done. But Ferguson agrees that it was being done. Origen and Cyprian are witnesses to it. But he suggests that it was a practice in search of a theory. Without going so as far as Augustine later on in developing the doctrine of original sin, Origen appealed to Old Testament examples of ritual defilements in need of purification and extended baptismal forgiveness to ritual impurity associated with childbirth. In his Homilies on Leviticus 8.3 he states that “while the church’s baptism is given for the remission of sin, it is the custom of the church that baptism be administered even to infants. Certainly, if there is nothing in infants that required remission and called for lenient treatment, the grace of baptism would seem unnecessary.”13 As Jean LaPorte points out, it is not the stain of original sin that Origen is referring to here but the defilement of blood (this is a homily on Leviticus!).14 Origen thus sees baptism as a ritual purification. As Ferguson

12. De baptismo 18, in E. C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 1970), 8–9. 13. Cited by Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1964), 2:83. 14. Jean LaPorte, “Models from Philo in Origen’s Teaching on Original Sin,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 112–13.



comments, “Origen’s statements indicate that infant baptism preceded this justification for the practice. As has often been true in Christian history, the practice preceded its doctrinal defense” (p. 369). The eastern fathers, who did not develop a doctrine of original sin, continued to appeal to Old Testament models such as circumcision (as we see in the list of the meanings of baptism in the Baptismal Instructions of John Chrysostom). Ferguson noted that Chrysostom defended the practice of infant baptism “on other grounds” than the forgiveness of sins (p. 545), but does not state what those grounds were. It would have been helpful if he had cited this text from a sermon by Chrysostom to the neophytes:
You have seen how numerous are the gifts of baptism. Although many men think that the only gift it confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places for the Spirit.15

In the Christian East, a tradition arose in which the baptismal theology for infants was adapted from the baptismal theology for adults, but without infant baptism being understood as a remission of sins, which, in the case of children, was considered unnecessary. But numerous benefits of baptism were stressed for the infant, as with the adult, candidate, baptism being interpreted in covenantal terms as a union with Christ and all the graces that flow from him. When we come to Augustine of Hippo, Ferguson is careful to note that the great North African father did not defend infant baptism on the basis of original sin but taught a doctrine of original sin on the basis of the fact that children were baptized. This is a typical patristic appeal to the lex orandi as the basis of the lex credendi. In the context of the Pelagian Controversy, Augustine repeated his emphasis in the Donatist Controversy that baptism is regeneration. But new life is possible only if sins are forgiven. Since infants are baptized, forgiveness of sin must also apply to them. Since infants are not capable of sinning, the sin forgiven must refer to the original sin inherited from Adam and Eve. Later on it might have been argued that infants should be baptized because they are born in original sin, but that is not how Augustine argued.

15. Trans. Paul W. Harkins, St. John Chrysostom: Baptismal Instructions, ACW 31 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1963), 56–65, cited in André Hamman, O.F.M., Baptism: Ancient Liturgies and Patristic Texts (New York: Alba House, 1967), 166.



So we return to the question: why did the church baptize infants and young children? Ferguson rejects Joachim Jeremias’s appeal to the example of Jewish proselyte baptism, Kurt Aland’s proposal of changing perceptions of children and acceptance of the doctrine of original sin, Johannes Leipoldt’s suggestion of the initiation of children in the mystery cults (children were initiated, but not infants), Joseph R. Moore’s case for the example of the old Punic practice of child sacrifice (since infant baptism found its strongest support in North Africa), and David Wright’s theory of the extension of children’s baptism to baby baptism. Instead, after examining inscriptions on tombstones (baptismal dates and death dates in close proximity), Ferguson suggested that “when a child of Christian parents (or of catechumens) became seriously ill, there was a natural human concern about the welfare of the child’s soul and a desire to make every preparation for the afterlife. Requests from parents or family members for the baptism of a gravely sick child would have been hard to refuse” (pp. 378–79). This theory of emergency baptism holds through the fifth century when most candidates for holy baptism were adults, and some even delayed baptism until they were on their deathbed (e.g., the emperor Constantine). However, after the fifth century, the high infant mortality rate, which was exacerbated by declining social conditions in the West, would prompt parents to rush their children to the font as quickly as possible. At that point in the West, the doctrine of original sin would provide a justification for the growing normalcy of the practice of infant baptism. However, the doctrine of original sin does not account for the growing normalcy of the practice of infant baptism also in the East. We have seen that the eastern church appealed to other “honors” conferred at baptism. Nevertheless, except for solitary voices like Tertullian’s, the main church in antiquity never found a reason not to baptize infants and young children. Ferguson has made a strong argument that the practice originated in emergency situations in which the child was likely to die. Augustine’s mother Monica arranged for her son to be baptized when he was seriously ill as a youth, but then cancelled the rite when Augustine recovered. Once the practice of infant baptism became more common, church fathers like Augustine could further develop views about the efficacy of the sacrament even with regard to the faith of the infant. As he wrote to Bishop Boniface in Numidia with regard to the pastoral issue of Christian parents desiring to have their child baptized, “even if that faith that is found in the will of believers does not make a little one a believer, the sacrament of the faith itself, nonetheless, now does so. For, just as the response is given that the little one believes [the response of the parent at the child’s baptism], he



is also in that sense called a believer, not because he assents to the reality with his mind [the infant cannot assent] but because he receives the sacrament of that reality” (cited on p. 807). This discussion of the relationship between baptism and the doctrine of original sin emerged in the heat of the Pelagian Controversy. But I would like to step back and look at baptism in the light of Augustine’s less polemical writings, especially in his Confessions. Augustine was enrolled as a catechumen on his eighth day. His mother Monica was a baptized Christian; his father Patricius was a Christian catechumen. This was a normal arrangement at the time. Women were more likely to receive the water bath than men because they did not have public responsibilities that might compromise gospel values. Having not received the water bath as a youth, Augustine delayed his own baptism until the age of thirty when he was under the influence of Ambrose of Milan. Yet, between his enrollment as a catechumen and his baptism and first communion, Augustine still regarded himself as a Christian. He had received the sign of the cross at his enrollment, which he counted among the many sacramenta that were included in Christian initiation. “As a catechumen, I was blessed regularly from birth with the sign of the Cross and was seasoned with salt, for, O Lord, my mother placed great hope in you.”16 This leads me to argue that baptism was regarded as a ritual process that, in some instances, could last a lifetime. One could present oneself as a candidate for election and complete the process at any point before death (although extensive delay was discouraged). The whole ritual process extended from enrollment through mystagogia. If “baptism” is understood as including everything in this process, and not just the moment of the water bath, and infants were enrolled as catechumens, then “infant baptism” was being practiced far more regularly than has been assumed. Everett Ferguson has made a significant contribution to our understanding of why infants were at first baptized in terms of his hypothesis of emergency baptism. He fails to answer the question of why the church allowed for the practice in the first place. All we can say is that, from the beginning, the church did not regard lack of rational belief (or even in the eastern view the lack of sin) as an impediment to receiving this sacrament. This implies that there is something in the character of the sacrament that makes it available also for uncomprehending and supposedly sinless infants (and others). Any arguments that children lack reason or sin were

16. Augustine, Confessions 1.11 (trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin, Saint Augustine: Confessions [New York: Penguin Books, 1961], 31).



after the fact. The fact is that the early church was baptizing infants, even though it was not the norm. If I may be allowed to offer it here, this is my own pastoral defense of the practice. Without denying the realism about human nature and human society that the doctrine of original sin supports, I would argue that baptism is fundamentally about the relationship of the believer to Christ within the context of the community of faith in Christ, and therefore there is no reason to exclude infants from the full sacramental life of the church, which includes (as in the eastern practice) also the communion of infants and young children. To end with the standard text that was historically used at the baptisms of little children, Mark 10.13–16, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Ferguson rightly notes that the text in its context does not have to do with baptism. But in a sense Jesus was putting children forward as a model of faith for adults. We do not deny our children the blessing of baptism, or ourselves the comfort of knowing that our sons and daughters are more his than ours. Reviewing Everett Ferguson’s huge book has given me quite a workout on baptism. As a liturgist and a pastor, I might have approached the task differently, perhaps trying through summaries of each section to relate the data to the liturgical context which, as I have argued here, is larger than the momentary water bath. But just about everything said and done about baptism in the documentary and archaeological records of the early church is included in this book. Many will undoubtedly use this book for their own scholarly or pastoral purposes, and they will owe Professor Ferguson their appreciation for a work well done. Frank C. Senn is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, IL and adjunct professor of the history of Christian Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

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