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

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

39. The Delay of Baptism: Sickbed Baptism,
Believers’ Baptism, and Infant Baptism

The importance of receiving baptism before death was felt early in Christian history. It was suggested in chapter 23 that this practice was a key factor in the origin of infant baptism. Cyprian (chap. 22) in the third century justified abridgements in the baptismal ceremony for those baptized in extreme circumstances. An example of deathbed baptism is provided by an inscription from Macedonia dated to the third century.1 The deceased, Nikandros, is perhaps described as a “neophyte” (newly baptized) according to a possible restoration of the damaged beginning of the inscription, and, seriously ill, he is said to have “received [baptism or grace] at the end of life.”2 Awaiting the resurrection, he is “pure since desirously he has attained divine washing

.”

The policy instituted by Constantine of favoring the church was advanced by his successors, with a brief interruption under Julian, until Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Hence, an affiliation with the church was advantageous for those politically and socially ambitious, but not all were willing to undertake full responsibilities of church membership. Moreover, the spiritual benefits of baptism in the forgiveness of all sins and guarantee of entrance into the kingdom of heaven promoted in the theology of the church made it seem desirable in the minds of many to delay reception of such a powerful sacrament until death approached so as to gain maximum benefits from it without risking the loss of those benefits by further sin.3

1. S. R. Llewelyn, “Baptism and Salvation,” in S. R. Llewelyn, ed., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity (North Ryde, N.S.W.: Macquarie University, Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1998), Vol. 8, pp. 176–179, based on D. Feissel, Recueil des inscriptions chrétiennes de Macédoine 5 (Paris, 1983), pp. 25–27.

2. Based on the common terminology in inscriptions of using the word “received” as shorthand for receiving baptism or grace, my translation departs from Llewelyn’s “has accepted the end of life.”

3. Hugh M. Riley, Christian Initiation, Studies in Christian Antiquity 17 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1974), p. 213, observes that the postponement of baptism threatened

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