Everett Ferguson, a Protestant elder, biblical scholar, and Church historian, has written what’s perhaps the definitive work on the subject, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Ferguson spends hundreds of pages carefully combing through the evidence to expose the first five hundred years’ worth of Christians thought about baptism.
His findings are neatly summarized on page 854:
Although in developing the doctrine of baptism different authors had their particular favorite descriptions, there is a remarkable agreement on the benefits received in baptism. And these are present already in the New Testament texts. Two fundamental blessings are often repeated: the person baptized received forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The two fundamental doctrinal interpretations of baptism are sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ, with the attendant benefits and responsibilities (Rom. 6:3-4), and regeneration from above (John 3:5), with its related ideas.
Recall that St. Paul seems to treat the theology of baptism as a basic doctrine upon which the early Church (which could otherwise be so divided) was one. Ferguson’s point is that throughout the first five hundred years of the Church, we find that same unity on baptism. But what the early Christians are united around is this idea of regenerative baptism. A modern time traveler, holding to a standard Baptist or Reformed vision of baptism, would find himself at odds with all Christians everywhere on this basic doctrine during these early years.
Can this really be true?
Let’s take a closer look, particularly at those living and teaching prior to the year 200. In fact, let’s start with a question: why was Jesus baptized (Matt. 3:13-17)? This is a difficult question to answer if baptism is merely a symbolic gesture of our turning away from sin.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Jonathan Pennington claims that it’s because “Jesus is fulfilling his role as the obedient Son of God by practicing the required righteousness of submitting to God’s will to repent.” But Pennington is aware that this view sounds obviously wrong (“how does a sinless man repent?”), so he explains: “Jesus repents not in the sense of turning from sin (our repentance necessarily includes this where his does not), but in the sense of dedicating himself to follow God’s will fully on earth.”
But that’s not how the earliest Christians understood this event. Their understanding was that this was about not a change in Jesus (either a turning from sin or a dedication to follow God’s will), but a change in baptism.
But a change from what, and to what?
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