Robin M. JENSEN. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. pp. 210. $pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-4832-6.
Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618

This book presents the history of early Christian Baptism rituals and imagery in an accessible, well-written narrative, which is solidly researched. A scholar of early Christian worship and art, the author asserts: “This study does not try to reconstruct the details of actual baptismal practices in different places and times; rather, it elucidates its effects and meaning for those who received and administered the ritual” (3). Because Baptism came to signify the initiation into the Christian way of life, it affected its recipients in a holistic way--socially, spiritually and ontologically. “Thus”, as Jensen announces, “this book seeks to explicate the sensory as well as the spiritual experience by showing how symbols and figures emerged, merged, and took precedence at various points in the ritual process” (3). To this end the study offers a variety of sources, including ritual texts, theological treatises and archaeological evidence, to show how early Christians both practiced and understood Baptism.

The book’s five chapters presents Christian Baptism according to five major themes. They follow a chronological progression, beginning with most ancient understanding: 1) “Baptism as Cleansing from Sin and Sickness”; 2) “Incorporation into the Community”; 3) “Baptism as Sanctifying and Illuminative”; 4) “Baptism as Death and Regeneration”; and 5) “Baptism as the Beginning of the New Creation”. These themes overlap with one another, of course; although, the author strives to show how each individual baptismal effect was “typified in Scripture, instantiated through ritual, expressed in visual art, or explained by theologians” (4).

In each chapter, the author provides interesting information concerning how each ritual effect was associated with ancient, pre-Christian types (e.g., shepherd, bridegroom, lamb, Israel, Noah’s flood, Red Sea), and how these types became important verbal and visual symbols of the sacrament. Illustrative quotations from catechesis and liturgical evocations as well as photos and graphics from archealogical remains of sarcophagi and baptismal fonts show how understandings of pre-Christian types and the Gospel message were brought together, to life in the practice and expression of early Christians. As a whole, the book offers a fulsome understanding of the complexity of the ritual and its processes, spaces, textual descriptions and visual illustrations in early Christianity.

Due to Jensen’s expertise in both art and worship, and her apparent sensitivity to the multi-dimensional human person, the work provides a much needed holistic picture of the initiation ritual for early Christians. Such an approach is most fitting to the symbolic, sacramental order, which strives to make the invisible visible. Furthermore, by using both textual and non-textual evidence, the study provides a window to view what the sacrament meant for early theologians, administers of the sacraments as well as its recipients, and the community of everyday Christians. The book is clear and accessible, while at the same time thoroughly researched. Therefore it is valuable for ministry students as well as art historians, archaeologists and theologians. It is well-suited for upper undergraduate or graduate level courses on theology, ritual studies, liturgy, worship and sacraments.

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