Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

7. Baptism of Jesus — II

Later Christian Interpretation of the Baptism of Jesus: Texts

The interpretation of the baptism of Jesus will figure in the interpretation of the baptism of Christians taken up in subsequent chapters. Hence, many of the later references in Christian literature to the baptism of Jesus will be better treated in the context of the thought of individual authors, but at this point we will sketch the principal motifs in a topical manner.1 One author relates the baptism of Christ and the baptism of the Christian for the Fathers according to these characteristics: The baptism of Christ was more than an act of humility but was a consequence of the abasement of the incarnation in assuming a sinful human nature; the baptism of Jesus was the institution of Christian baptism; it symbolized the tomb and resurrection; his baptism was the model; it purified the water; the cross gives power to water; the fount of the Holy Spirit now reposed on Jesus; the declaration of Sonship was parallel to the adoption of Christians; the opening of heaven symbolized the opening of paradise.2 I elaborate on these in a different order.

The thought adumbrated by Ignatius (chap. 6) that the baptism of Christ purified water is picked up in several writers. Tertullian states the idea succinctly when he speaks of “Christ’s being baptized [baptizato], that is, on his sanctifying the waters in his baptism [baptismate].”3 Finding a type of baptism in the bitter waters sweetened

1. Robert L. Wilken, “The Interpretation of the Baptism of Jesus in the Later Fathers,” Studia Patristica 11 (1972): 268–277; Kilian McDonnell, “Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan,” Theological Studies 56 (1995): 209–236 (231-235); Kilian McDonnell, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1996), who discusses some motifs that I do not, such as divinization and clothing with the robe of glory (pp. 128–155). An earlier treatment, which I have not seen, was by J. Bornemann, Die Taufe Christi durch Johannes in der dogmatischen Theologen der vier ersten Jahrhunderts (1896).

2. P. T. Camelot, La spiritualité du baptême: Baptises dans l’eau et l’Esprit, 2nd ed. (Paris: Cerf, 1993), pp. 245–266.

3. Answer to the Jews 8.14.

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