The Evolution of Baptism in the First 4 Centuries

I have read Ferguson, who is here quoted by Wright, and concur that infant baptism was first given in emergency, and then became normal practice into the 3rd century as the church essentially adopted a view of baptismal regeneration. As debates about post-baptismal sin arose, baptism was then delayed until one was near death in order to maximize the cleansing power of the rite over past sin. Just some thoughts. More to follow as I digest Wright’s book.

 An American scholar, Everett Ferguson, in an article in the Journal of Theological Studies in 1979, used the evidence of the inscriptions to argue that infant baptism developed by the regularising of emergency procedures. ‘Tertullian stood at the point where there was pressure from some to extend the emergency measure to other circumstances.’ Ferguson linked the emergency baptism of children observed in the inscriptions to the influence of John 3:5, ‘the favourite baptismal text of the second century’, which was thought to deny heaven to the unbaptized. ‘The high mortality rate of infants in the ancient world, to which the Christian inscriptions are a powerful if mournful witness, would encourage the practice of giving baptism soon after birth as insurance no matter what might happen.’

This thesis is not inconsistent with the evidence surveyed so far. It offers an alternative explanation to Jeremias’ of Justin’s failure to mention infants in his account of baptismal practice at Rome at a time when, from Irenaeus’ assertion, we inferred that baby and infant baptism were already being observed there. Justin’s silence would show that the emergency baptism of infants had not by then become the regular baptism of all infants, while Irenaeus might be alluding to the regular practice of emergency baptism of children. Ferguson’s account also has the advantage of smoothing out the course of the early history of paedobaptism, at least if it did not begin until well into the second century and did not become common until the third century, and then in the fourth century became less common. To Ferguson the fourth-century delay of baptism arose from the same association of baptism with death evident in the emergency baptism of infants.[1]


[1] Wright, D. F. (2007). Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective (12–13). Great Britain: Paternoster.

© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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