Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Baptism in the Early Church – History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, Everett Ferguson

Baptism in the Early Church – History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, Everett Ferguson

A few years ago, the congregation where I was attending was looking for a reputable building contractor.  I offered to consult with the head of the construction department where I worked to see if he could make some recommendations.  His first question was “Are you a Baptist?”  I replied, “No, but why?”  He said “Because Baptists practice full body immersion, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t need a baptistery.”  I stated that while I was not a Baptist, we did follow the New Testament pattern of the early church pattern of full body immersion.  He made a very significant point that I wonder if many have given thought to.  He stated that congregations which practice full body immersion; i.e., baptism, seek to install a baptistery which is a building’s worst nightmare, since a constant presence of heated water is detrimental to a building’s integrity.  One wonders if people have given much thought to the “convenience factor” when studying whether or not “baptism” is by sprinkling, pouring or immersing?   Certainly one recognizes that either sprinkling or pouring is far more convenient than immersing!  What does the practice of the early church reveal about the mode of baptism?  Certainly if the matter was up to matters of convenience, then their practice would reflect such.

When considering the “convenience factor” I came across this information in brother Ferguson’s research:

The literary sources give two principal symbolisms for the baptismal font—the tomb of the death and resurrection and the womb of new birth. The former symbolism was reinforced by variations on a cross shape, which became fairly common in the fifth and sixth centuries. Both baptisteries and basins in the shape of a hexagon may have alluded to Jesus’ death on the sixth day of the week; the octagon to his resurrection on the eighth day or at any rate to the idea of resurrection and eternal life. The latter was explicit in the case of the octagonal baptismal font in Milan. Even the frequency of three steps for the entrance and three for the exit of pools may have had symbolic worth (three days in the tomb), and the practice of sinking the font below floor level may have enhanced the association with a tomb. The rectangle may have alluded to a tomb, and the circle may have alluded to the womb or to eternity; or they could have been merely utilitarian. Often symbolic considerations must finally remain in the realm of speculation. (pp. 819-820)

Clearly the early church practiced full body immersion and went to great lengths to construct baptisteries for their buildings.  This would be of no surprise to men such as Luther, Wesley, Calvin and the Catholic Church.  These authorities readily admit that immersion was the practice of the early church.  The salient question remains—who gave their followers the authority to substitute sprinkling or pouring for the New Testament teaching and early church practice?  Dr. Everett Ferguson provides a monumental amount of research on the subject of baptism in his work Baptism in the Early Church.  This volume will be a standard reference work on this subject for years to come.  He has rendered the church an invaluable service with this research.  Be sure to include this volume in your church library for researchers. 

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