Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions | Robin M. Jensen


Jensen, Robin M. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. 256 pp. $28.00.

“Baptism is not only a bath. . . . Baptism is also the restoration of the lost paradise” (212). In Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity, Robin M. Jensen, Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, traces the history of baptism beginning with the apostles through the fifth century. While many histories present material in chronological order, Jensen’s history is thematically arranged around the imagery found in the rituals (e.g., oil-anointing), visual expressions (e.g., catacomb art), and theological writings. Jensen’s central goal is to thoroughly document the early church’s dependency on imagery to reinforce and relay God’s truth. In doing so, the author effectively appeals to the reader’s “imagination by offering a collection of both textual and material data that both informs and inspires” (4).

Jensen argues that Christian baptism has always been about cleansing and salvation. In its most basic form, it is a bath, but more specifically it has to do with cleansing from sin. John the Baptist proclaimed the need for “forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). When he saw Jesus, he exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). But for the early church, baptism did not start with John (8–10), and “almost any narrative that involved water could be a type of baptism.” Cyprian asserts that “every reference to water in the Holy Scriptures is a prophetic allusion to baptism” (16). The most obvious baptismal allusion in the Old Testament was the story of Naaman (25).

Related:  A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, by Calvin R. Stapert

Incorporation into the body is also an important part of baptism. While modern believers often view baptism as public profession, for the early church “the ritual of baptism was a closed, secret rite. Those who received it were initiated into an exclusive group that allowed them entry to the similarly private table fellowship” (63). Early Christian images like the fish (often caught in a net) and flock of sheep reflect this herd mentality (69). Even the sign of the cross performed at baptism is thought to have been viewed as a mark of identifying with the group like the branding of cattle (79).

The Spirit’s works of sanctification and illumination was a major part of baptism. By the fourth century, anointing with oil (which represents the Spirit) regularly accompanied baptism (93). A symbol that occurred often in early Christian art was the dove. Just as the dove appeared to Noah at the baptism of the earth, so did the Spirit appear at the baptism of Christ (117). In some early Christian communities, we find milk (or cheese) and honey being consumed as a ritual for neophytes (127). As a picture of the sanctification and illumination the Spirit offers, the ancient world viewed milk as a sign of wisdom and perfection (115).

Rooted in Paul’s teaching that believers are “buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Rom 6:3­–11), baptism as a symbol of dying and rising was also common. For this reason, baptism was especially common during Easter (141). Early Christians found affinity with imagery such as the pagan Phoenix, the mother’s womb, and white garments.

Related:  The Nursery of the Holy Spirit: Welcoming Children in Worship

“The ritual of Christian baptism not only effects the cleansing, incorporation, enlightenment, and regeneration of an individual . . . it recalls the moment when all creation began and foreshadows the unending moment when all creation will be transformed” (177). As with Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians, early Christians saw eschatological meaning related to baptismal imagery in rivers, weddings, the number eight (ogdoad), facing east, and nude baptism. According to Jensen, “The ritual of baptism reconstructs creation’s mythical, primordial beginning and interrupts the ordinary cycle of birth and death” (212).

An area that needs attention is the suggestion that believers may be genderless in the resurrection, which is proposed as possible motivation for the practice of nude baptism (181). If Paul did, in fact, intend for the church to neutralize gender (Gal 3:27–29) as Jensen suggests, then Paul himself did a poor job of doing so (see Eph 5:22­–33 and 1 Tim 5:1–2). Jensen admits that the early church authors “stress the loss of socially identifying markers in baptism (e.g., social class, ethnicity), but genderlessness is not as prominent in their thinking” (182). This topic is addressed in the portion dealing with baptism as a picture of the restoration of Eden; what the author fails to note is that the distinctions of male and female (Gen 1:27) and the establishment of marriage between the man and woman (Gen 2:23–25) occurred in Eden before the fall.

Jensen’s Catholic presuppositions do manifest in places throughout the work. For instance, the opening chapter is called “Baptism as Cleansing from Sin and Sickness” (7), which seems to reveal that the author holds the Catholic position of the redemptive necessity of baptism. This will be problematic for non-Catholic readers, but this work is still valuable for its thematic collection of the historical data. Jensen is a fair-minded scholar, not blindly defending Catholic practice. For instance, she points out that the use of candles in the liturgy is not well attested in literature predating the early Middle Ages (128). Another obstacle for readers who hold to Sola Scriptura is that Jensen does not seem interested in resolving the conflict that occurs between biblical practice and post-apostolic practice. She tends rather to view the practice of the early church as equally authoritative to Scripture.

Related:  Personal Jesus by Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts

Robin M. Jensen is an insightful historian and a delightful author. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity is an important contribution for helping today’s church understand the same church that existed two thousand years ago. I recommended this book as an aid for understanding the place of sacrament and art in the life of the early church.


Daniel Webster