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

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

55. Conclusions

Origin of Baptism

Early Christians commonly based their practice of baptism on the dominical command of Matthew 28:19 and on the Lord’s example (Matt. 3:13-17 and parallels). Historically considered, Christian baptism had its precedent in the baptism administered by John the Baptizer, which seemingly was engaged in also by Jesus and his disciples (John 3:26; 4:1-2). Christian baptism was distinguished from John’s in its call for faith in Jesus, its being administered in Jesus’ name, and in its connection with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism, in its turn, had its background in Jewish religious washings but differed from them in its eschatological call for repentance, its one-time exercise, and its being administered by John and not self-administered.

Christians found lessons applicable to their practice in certain Old Testament events involving water — notably the crossing of the Red Sea at Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the flood in the days of Noah (both already in the New Testament — 1 Cor. 10:1-4 and 1 Pet. 3:20-22 respectively). These and other events as well as prophetic texts were interpreted in the light of Christian practice as providential preparations for Christian baptism.

There seems little to associate Christian baptism with pagan religious washings, a parallel drawn by some Christians in the second century for apologetic purposes. The verb for “baptize”

was not a religious term in pagan usage but kept its basic secular meaning of “plunge” or “dip” in Christian usage. Christians adopted for the noun , a word different from the word used for pagan and Jewish dippings .


Doctrine of Baptism

François Bovon identifies these common elements in early baptismal theology: baptism is a work of God and of humans and a sign of the covenant; baptism is a sign of

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