Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ferguson on Infant Baptism and the Mode of Baptism

In an earlier post on Everett Ferguson's just-released massive/magisterial book, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, I mentioned that I'd post something about the conclusion to his 900+page study as it relates to infant baptism and the mode of baptism.

First, an outline of the topics he covers in his section on "Conclusions":
  • Origin of Baptism
  • Doctrine of Baptism
  • Baptismal Ceremony/Liturgy
  • Origin and Progress of Infant Baptism
  • Mode of Baptism: Immersion with Exceptions
Below I'll reproduce the heart of his conclusion on paedobaptism and the mode of baptism. Please note that my quotes are selective. To read more of his explanation you'll have to get the book!

On infant baptism, he 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 id 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. . . .

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. (pp. 856, 857)
On the mode of baptism, he writes:
The comprehensive survey of the evidence compiled in this study give a basis for a fresh look at this subject and seeks to give coherence to that evidence while addressing seeming anomalies. The Christian literary sources, backed by secular word usage and Jewish religous immersions, given 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. (p. 857)