Reviewed by David Perry
Everett Ferguson has been studying Christian initiation in the early centuries of the Church for very many years. This large tome (953pp) is a vast labour of love and a culmination of all his efforts. The contents run from “Antecedents of Christian Baptism” via the New Testament and the patristic period through to the late fifth century. For evidence and discussion of Christian faith and practice it is unrivalled in its comprehensiveness. In parallel with his own treatment of original sources, the author sets summaries of the scholarly debate. He can be relied on to give an accurate picture of the story so far. This does not mean that what he says is the last word on any given issue, but it means the reader has been given a large and reliable platform on which to build further insights. Enormously helpful are the six indices which occupy the last 100 pages of the book, heroic in their comprehensiveness.
Within its chosen compass this book is outstanding. However, one aspect of the genesis and development of Christian baptism is not directly covered. There is no attempt to set out the interplay between the Church and its political and social setting. For example, the Theodosian Code is mentioned only in a footnote clarifying a point about the Marcionites. There is no attempt to present and analyse the secular and political pressures that affected the practice of baptism through time. The addition of a companion volume “Politics and Baptism in the First Five Centuries” would make the coverage truly complete.
That being said, this book provides a wonderful starting point for anyone seeking to learn about baptism as it developed in the first five centuries. It should entirely displace the work of Jeremias and Aland in this field and be the basic textbook/source book for all students of baptismal theology.