Since the key word in this blog is baptism, I need to be sure it’s in the first line. There you go.
A Bible encyclopedia from 1901 claimed that “The great majority of those who call themselves Christians, throughout the world, have been baptized in infancy, so that there is a general denial by Christendom that immersion is essential to the sacrament of baptism” (The Popular And Critical Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 229). Yes, but how many infants requested that they be “baptized”? The same number that asked to be born with freckles.
My friend and I were baptized in a river many years ago. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Our faith was not complicated. We simply believed what the Bible said. For us it was simple obedience to Jesus’ command and identifying ourselves with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection. It was clear to everyone standing on the river bank that God’s kingdom was made of the likes of us: childlike followers of Jesus.
Today I marvel at the cleverly “pious” ways Jesus’ words are twisted. Even undercut. He said, “My words will never pass away.” Yet any “Reverend” with a group of letters getting in line behind his name, can come along and snip them as easily as a rose in the parsonage garden. No regrets. No remorse. A scissors is all you need.
That doesn’t change Jesus’ words. But it does mean unsuspecting parishioners, who may actually be perishing, are given only husks to eat. The corn is gone. The rose blossoms snipped clean.
As for our study, what is baptism anyway? Unfortunately this question is especially relevant today. Since the issue has been thoroughly muddled. One could say the baptismal waters are murky. So who wants to step in?
Everyone agrees that baptism relates to water. But that doesn’t simplify the matter.
Some say baptism is sprinkling water on a head. Some, that it’s pouring water on someone. For others it is immersion. Some don’t even care or think it matters. Take your pick. It’s all good!
Trouble is, if you went down to the Jordan when John the Baptist or Jesus’ disciples were baptizing, they would be doing it in a certain way. When Jesus said, “Disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), He had a mode in mind which was being practiced in His day. He was not thinking in shotgun terms, or Heinz 57 Varieties. How could His disciples obey this command if no one knew how it was done? They were already doing it (John 4:1,2). It was as familiar to them as collecting taxes or fishing in the Sea of Galilee.
For those who were living at the time of Jesus, baptism was like crucifixion. It was a common thing. The NT doesn’t elaborate when it says Jesus was crucified. It just says, “They crucified Him.” No explanation was needed. Everyone knew what that meant. Likewise when the NT says someone was baptized, usually no description is given. Everyone knew what it meant and what it looked like.
The next question is, who is baptized? Infants, adults, infants and adults, believers, unbelievers, ducks, your dog who loves to jump in the river?
I think the greatest “why?” is why the confusion? The answer to that winds back to the Garden of Eden. The answer is a question. “Has God said?” Quite often the mother of confusion is doubt. Doubt? Yes. Doubt that God said what He said. What complicates things even more: we seem to have the strange ability to make God say anything we want. But it is “passing strange.” He will clear that up before long. Jesus said, “The [actual] Word I have spoken will judge [a man] in the day [of judgment]” (John 12:48).
What is baptism?
The primary, or fundamental meaning of the Greek verbs βαπτιζω (baptizo) and βαπτω (bapto) is to dip, to immerse. No further description is necessary because that’s what the words mean.
Seeing as how these are verbs, they are actions, not intellectual playgrounds where “great” minds can debate about angels on pins and scribble endlessly on a chalk board. As I said before, a certain thing is done. Like walking. You put one foot in front of the other until you move from point A to point B. You do not fly or crawl. When you walk, you walk.
The primary meaning of these words is to dip or immerse. Sorry to say. That excludes pouring and sprinkling.
To make my case, I will begin with
The witness of history
You may be surprised to find that it is widely held that (1) “dip” or “immerse” is the primary meaning of these NT words (another closely related meaning is “washing” or “bathing”) and that (2) immersion was practiced by the church in the first century.
See for yourself.
1. “Lexicographers [authors of Greek lexicons] universally agree that the primary meaning of βαπτιζω [baptizo] is ‘to dip’ or ‘to immerse,’ and there is a similar consensus of scholarly opinion that both the baptism of John and of the apostles was by immersion.” (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 466.)
2. “Immersion seems to have been widely practiced in the first century. . . [Even after 100 A.D.] baptism was normally by immersion; [but] on occasion affusion or pouring was practiced. Infant baptism developed in this period [100-313 A.D.]. In. . .the third century Cyprian considered infant baptism as an accepted fact.” (Christianity Through the Centuries, Earle E. Cairns, pp. 90, 129, 173.) And was himself an advocate for it (Children of the Promise, Robert R. Booth, pp. 170, 171).
3. “[In the first-century church] baptism was normally by immersion either in the river or in the bath-house of a large house. . . From the early second century, baptism by pouring of water was allowed in cases of emergency or sickness. . . From the fifth century onwards, believers baptism declined and the baptism of infants became normal [because infant mortality rates were high].” (Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, pp. 10, 149.)
4. “Reputable authorities in church history agree that infant baptism was practiced as early as the second century” (The Popular And Critical Bible Encyclopedia from 1901, vol. 1, p. 229). In other words, there is no reason to believe it was practiced in the first century.
To this, Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible adds, “As for NT evidence. . .there is no express instance of infant baptism” (vol. 1, p. 467). And Philip Schaff, author of the classic eight-volume History of the Christian Church, says, “The NT contains no express command to baptize infants” (vol. 1, p. 470).
In spite of this, Origen (185-253 A.D.) and some other early Christian leaders claimed that “the church received a tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to infants.” (This could be “based” on Gospel accounts of Jesus blessing children.)
5. “Baptizo means first to dip, then to bathe, the whole body being immersed. [The OT Hebrew word] tabal means only to dip” (Jewish Rabbi Emil G. Hirsh). So the “Seventy” Jewish scholars who translated the OT into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX) used βαπτιζω to convey the meaning of tabal in II Kings 5:14 (Naaman dipping himself seven times in the Jordan) and elsewhere. (Information from W. A. Jarrel in Baptizo-Dip-Only, p.34.)
6. There are three Greek words used in the NT: βαπτιζω (baptizo – to dip or immerse), ραντιζω (rantizo – to sprinkle), and χεω (cheo – to pour). Around 1910, Professor Chatzidake, at the National University of Greece in Athens, wrote, “No lexicon in the Greek language gives rantizo [or] cheo as the equivalent to baptizo. The word baptizo means to dip, never to sprinkle or to pour” (quoted in Baptizo-Dip-Only, p. 34). These are the words of a Greek scholar who knows his own language.
7. “Augustine enforced the practice of nude immersion [practiced in the early church] with this consideration: ‘Naked we were born, naked we go to the washing and naked we go to the gate of heaven’.” (The Form Of Baptism In Sculpture And Art, John Tyler Christian, 1907, p.68.)
8. “Bible versions since the second century to post-Reformation times, have translated baptizo immerse.” (Baptizo-Dip-Only, p. 44.)
9. “Without doubt. . .the word tauf [which I used to translate βαπτιζω in the NT] comes from tief [meaning ‘deep’] because when one baptizes he sinks deep in the water.” These are Martin Luther’s own words on his rendition of βαπτιζω (baptizo) in his German translation of the Bible. “Luther’s version is the only German version for the many millions of Germans throughout the world; the only German version that Lutherans, Methodists and other effusionist (pouring) churches have. [This] dip version [is] the only version [for them]. And still they sprinkle and pour! Ignoring the plain command of God, to dip, before them in their Bible.” (Baptizo-Dip-Only, pp. 48, 50.)
10. Even John Calvin, the father of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, which are characteristically Paedobaptist (infant “baptizers”), says, “It is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive church.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, p. 524.)
11. In light of this, a Roman Catholic theologian wrote, “We would like to know why the Protestants who profess to imitate the primitive church scrupulously, have not restored the use of giving baptism by immersion” (Dogmatic Theology by Bergier, vol. 1, p. 488, quoted in Baptizo-Dip-Only, p.39). A Congregationalist concedes: “Let us give up our disputes with Baptists as to the primitive mode of baptism; for we must acknowledge that baptism in the early church was performed by immersion” (also a quote in Baptizo-Dip-Only, p. 74).
12. “Baptizo means immersion. The original mode of baptism until the thirteenth or the fourteenth century was by immersion.” (John S. Murphy, Priest of St. Patrick’s Church, Houston Texas, 1893, quoted in Baptizo-Dip-Only, p. 39.)
13. “The record left [in paintings in Catacombs and churches, mosaics, sculptural reliefs, and drawings in ancient NT manuscripts] overwhelmingly testifies to immersion as the normal mode of baptism in the Christian Church during the first ten to fourteen centuries. This is in addition to the evidence found throughout the writings of the church fathers that immersion was the early church’s common mode of baptism.
“Christian baptism [believers baptism by immersion, originated in] the religion of Israel. It is generally agreed that immersion was practiced at Qumran [the wilderness region near the Dead Sea and Jordan River where John the Baptist began his ministry]. . . It would seem therefore, that John the Baptist, and later the disciples of Jesus, simply followed the mode of baptism that was familiar to the people of that day–immersion.
“During the ministry of the apostles, baptisms were performed whenever adequate water could be found in lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, the sea. When imperial persecution drove Christians underground, baptistries were constructed in the Catacombs of Rome. The remains of these baptistries stand as the oldest archeological witness to the rite of Christian baptism.” (George E. Rice, associate professor of New Testament, Andrews University Theological Seminary in Michigan, 1981, quoted from Ministry-International Journal for Pastors online.)
14. Information specific to the Catacombs:
“Immersion was the unanimous practice in the ancient churches, and the baptism performed in the Catacombs was in harmony with that of the churches. . . .There is no doubt that immersion was the ordinary practice of the Christian world.” (The Form Of Baptism In Sculpture And Art, John T. Christian, 1907, p. 57.)
“The entire nudity of the baptized catechumen [the one being baptized in Catacomb pictures] indicates that the baptism was done by immersion, according to the usage of the primitive church.” (Catacombs de Rome, 1853, Louis Perret, vol 6, p. 41, quoted by John T. Christian, p. 78.)
“The representation of baptism in the Catacombs proves that the Apostles used immersion and this was the rule.” (D. Walther, Professor of Church History, quoted by John T. Christian, p. 79.)
“Sprinkling as a form of baptism appears to have never entered the minds of these early Christians [who] hid themselves in these secret caverns.” (John T. Christian, p. 92.)
“During the dark days of imperial persecutions the primitive Christians of Rome found a ready refuge in the Catacombs, where they constructed baptistries for the administration of the rite by immersion.” (The Archaeology of Baptism, Cote, quoted by John T. Christian, pp. 94, 95.)
15. “The oldest of the baptismal pictures [found in the Catacombs] is on the wall of the Crypt of Santa Lucina in the Catacomb of St. Calixtus. Some put it as early as the third century while others pronounce it of the fourth or fifth century.” (The Form Of Baptism In Sculpture And Art, John T. Christian, p. 60.)
“We have here [in the picture referred to in the paragraph above] the scene of nude trine [triple] immersion as practiced in the early times of the Christian dispensation, bordering upon the days of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. It is from the oldest part of the cemetery of St. Calixtus.” (Monumental Christianity, Lundy, an Episcopalian, pp. 384, 385.)
“[This picture] represents the baptized as coming up (after immersion) from the river which reaches over his knees, and joining hands with the baptizer, who is dressed in a tunic, and assists him in ascending the shore; while in the air hovers a dove with a twig in its mouth. It is usually understood to exhibit the baptism of Christ in the Jordan as he comes out of the water.” (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Philip Schaff, p. 37.)
“Here [same picture] is Christ represented as being aided by John to step out of the river in which he is still immersed almost up to the middle.” (Benjamin Warfield, quoted by John T. Christian in The Form Of Baptism In Sculpture And Art, p. 63.)
16. Three summary quotes related to the historical nature of immersion:
“The old church understood by baptism an immersion of an adult believer.” (Gustav Adolf Juelicher, Professor of Church History, University of Marburg, quoted by John T. Christian, p. 112.)
“The form of baptism practiced by the ancient church was immersion.” (George Lampakis, Professor of Christian Archaeology, University of Athens, quoted by John T. Christian, p. 113.)
In another old artistic “representation [of baptism]. . .Jesus is a nude child. . . John is in the act of dipping him in the Jordan. . . A prophet stands on the opposite side of the stream with a roll in his hand. The roll would indicate that the child was old enough to receive instruction and therefore of an age to receive baptism.” (John T. Christian, pp. 192,193.)
Let us dog paddle from here to
Twelve witnesses to baptismal immersion during the first eight hundred years of the church
The following are witnesses to baptismal immersion given to us during the first eight hundred years of the church. (We have already seen Augustine’s statement above, which would be included in this period.)
- The so-called Egyptian Church Acts: “[The baptizer] shall immerse [the candidate for baptism] three times, while he makes confession every time of his faith.”
- Tertullian bears witness for the second century (Tertullian, De Bapt).
- Hippolytus describes baptism at Rome at the beginning of the third century: “[The candidate for baptism] should descend into the waters, and the presbyter [baptizer] should first lay his hand on his head, and ask him this: ‘Do you believe in God, the omnipotent Father?’ The candidate shall answer: ‘I believe’; then only shall he be first plunged into the water.” Then the candidate is baptized two more times. After answering “I believe” to the following questions. “Do you believe in Christ Jesus?” And “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” But these final questions are more detailed than as given here.
- Jerome, fourth century: “We are dipped in water that the mystery of the Trinity may appear to be but one, and therefore, though we be thrice put under the water to represent the mystery of the Trinity, yet it is reputed but one baptism” (from his note on Eph. 4:5,6).
- The Apostolic Constitutions or Canons in the Greek, Coptic and Latin versions, A.D. 350-400: “If any bishop or presbyter does not perform the three immersions. . .” etc. So, it was understood that baptism could not be properly administered without this.
- Cyril of Jerusalem, A.D. 386: “You are about to descend into the baptistry to be plunged into water. . . Thus the apostles were baptized in the Holy Spirit, but. . .whilst the water can reach only the outer surface of the body, the Holy Spirit cleanses in a mysterious manner the inner soul.”
- Ambrose of Milan, A.D. 397: “In the sacrament of baptism the whole outer man is buried.”
- Leo, the Great, fifth century: “Trine immersion is an imitation of the three days’ burial, and the rising again out of the water is like the rising from the grave.”
- Dionysius Areopagita, A.D. 450: “As Jesus, who is the Prince of Life, remained three days and nights in the heart of the earth, so the three immersions represent the three nights, and the three emersions [coming out of the water] the three days.”
- Pope Pelagius, sixth century: “There are many who say that they baptize in the name of Christ alone and by single immersion. But the gospel command, which was given by God himself and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, reminds us that we should administer holy baptism to every one in the name of the Trinity and by trine immersion, for our Lord said to his disciples: ‘Go baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’.”
- Gregory the Great, sixth century: “Let the priest baptize with a triple immersion, but with only one invocation of the Holy Trinity, saying: I baptize these in the name of the Father, (then let him immerse the person once),” etc.
- Theodulf, of Orleans, eighth century: “We are buried with Christ when we descend into the font of washing as into a sepulchre, and are immersed three times in the name of the holy Trinity; we rise with Christ when. . .we come out of the font as from a tomb.”
(This information was collected from The Form Of Baptism In Sculpture And Art by John T. Christian, 1907, p. 55f, and Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 115.)
We have looked at the historical evidence. But to make a definitive case for baptismal immersion, the most important question is:
What does the Bible say?
Benjamin Warfield asked, “Where. . .are we to go for knowledge of really primitive baptism? . . .where can we obtain satisfactory guidance? . . .only from the New Testament itself” (Bibliotheca Sacra, October 1896, p. 644).
Another Paedobaptist brother wrote: “Our first object should be to see how the words baptize and baptism are used in the Bible. We should look for our definitions of the word primarily in the context of its use in Scripture. There is a common temptation to set the definition of these words primarily on the basis of lexical reference and definition, rather than contextual study” (To A Thousand Generations, Douglas Wilson, p. 101).
It’s not like anyone ever looks in a dictionary to find the meaning of a word, right? Nevertheless, the point is well taken.
So. Let us study on! How does the Bible use these words?
We will begin with βαπτω (bapto, pronounced bap-“toe”), translated “I dip” or “immerse.” A word, as we have already discovered, bearing the same meaning as βαπτιζω (baptizo, pronounced baptidzo, the i being long e, the z being “dz,” the o long like a “toe”: a little humor for those of us who may have rather “long” toes).
We find βαπτω (bapto) first in the LXX, the Jewish translation of the OT in Greek (referred to above: see #5 under The witness of history), dating from the third century B.C.
The word is used in the LXX in Leviticus 14:6 and 51. “Dip the cedar wood, scarlet, hyssop, and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed, and in the running water.” Paedobaptists would like for us to think, that unless you dip the entire bird (etc.) in the blood and water, it is only a partial dip, which does not count for an immersion. Only “total” immersion constitutes “immersion.” It’s another way of saying you can dip something without dipping it. (Something to ponder.) You can probably see how this will lend itself to sprinkling or pouring.
What I have to say to them, is this. Take a moment and think. It’s not that complicated. Only that part of the bird that is dipped is immersed. The rest is not. When you dip a chip in sour cream and onion, the end of the chip that goes into the dip is immersed. You don’t have to stick it in to your elbow to achieve a “true dip.” I’m using extreme language to make my point. Whatever goes in and under is indeed immersed. Perhaps it is too simple for some to grasp.
Now let’s look at NT examples of this word and see how it is used there.
John 13:26: “Jesus answered [John’s inquiry about who the betrayer is]: He it is to whom I will dip the piece of bread and give it to him. Having therefore dipped the piece of bread, He takes it and gives it to Judas.” That part of the piece of bread that went into the dip, was in fact immersed. A child can understand this. Doctors of Divinity may not.
Matthew 26:23: “He [Jesus] answered and said, The one having dipped the hand with me in the bowl, this one will deliver [betray] me.” I’m pretty sure Paedobaptists will, with one voice and perhaps a minor uproar, renounce this as an immersion of hand in bowl. However, as Thayer points out, the bowl could have been “deep,” the hand gone in and cleared the rim. Shall we get out a measuring tape? Are we straining at gnats so we can swallow camels?
Luke 16:24: “[The rich man] said, Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” This is pretty self-explanatory. Most of us have dipped our finger tip in frosting to taste it. We didn’t need to stick our finger in to the knuckle to do this.
But that gives us something else to think about.
Do you think the rich man was asking for a finger tip sprinkled with water?
And last but not least, Revelation 19:13: “[The One riding a white horse] was clothed with a garment dipped in blood.” The idea here, is a garment immersed in blood, so that it is dyed red.
One wonders in all of this, how anyone could question the meaning of baptize. This is how bapto is used in the NT.
Now we will look at the verb βαπτιζω (baptizo) and see how it is used in the Bible.
We will begin again in the LXX.
II Kings 5:14: “[Naaman] dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God [Elisha]: and his flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Naaman was a Syrian leper. He sought to be healed by Elisha. Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan River seven times, and his flesh would be renewed and he would be cleansed of his leprosy. He dipped himself seven times in Jordan. We see how Elisha’s command to “wash” was taken by Naaman as an “immersion” in the river.
Now that we’re here, why not stay in the Jordan for awhile and fast-forward to the NT? What kind of picture emerges as we stand in the Jordan River and witness NT baptism for ourselves?
It is a busy place to be! We see multitudes of people approaching the stream!
Mark 1:5 says, “All Judea and Jerusalem were going out to [John the Baptist] and being baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Notice. They were being baptized in the river. One “gnat-straining” Paedobaptist author suggested that the word “in” could be rendered “at Jordan, or with the water of Jordan” (The Popular And Critical Bible Encyclopedia, p. 229). (That way you can “fill in the blank” for the mode.) Surely one can imagine John carrying buckets of water up the bank of the Jordan so he can “baptize” without anyone actually standing in the river!
If he baptizes “with” the water, it is because he is standing “in” the water.
The Jordan carries a good stream. To administer baptism properly, one needs a good supply of water. Jesus’ disciple John writes in his Gospel that “John [the Baptist] was baptizing in Aenon near Salim because there was much [a lot of] water there” (John 3:23). The Greek says literally, “many waters were there.” The scale is definitely tipping in favor of immersion.
Pay close attention to what is going on around you! Remember, we are standing in the Jordan.
When NT baptism is described, as on occasion it is, it pictures individuals going down into the water and coming up out of it after the baptism. “After He was baptized, Jesus went up from the water” (Matt. 3:16). (Notice. Jesus had to be in the Jordan in order to come “up from” the water.) Acts 8:38 and 39 says, “Philip and the eunuch went down together into the water and [Philip] baptized him; [then] they went up out of the water.” One Paedobaptist sympathizer asks how we can know what Philip and the eunuch did once they were in the water. No doubt they took a couple laps around the pool! What do you think they did? Based on the way the word is commonly used, its fundamental meaning, and their trek into and out of the water, Philip immersed the man. Sprinkling or pouring could have been done alongside the pool.
What is the point in walking in?
“It’s elementary, my dear Watson. They go in until they find a suitable depth for an immersion.”
Our own experience supports this. We arrive at the beach in our striking bathing suit. For the guys, nothing striking. Just a plain pair of shorts. We go down into the water till we reach a depth where we can dive in and take a dip, and usually swim around, advertising our “dexterity” for anyone onshore who may be interested. Then we sludge out of the water to our beach towel. That is also our experience in a public pool. It will be rare if anyone ever goes out into the ocean or a pool to sprinkle or pour water on their head and return. Anyone who does that will probably do it at the water’s edge.
Paul’s references to baptism in Romans 6 and Colossians 2 bear this out.
Some say the “baptism” in Romans 6:3 and 4, and Colossians 2:12, refers to our spiritual baptism into the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:12 and 13. Not water baptism. One could make a case for this on the basis of Paul’s words, “as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:3; cf. Gal. 3:27). Water baptism does not place us in Christ. Whereas Spirit baptism does immerse us into the body of Christ.
Though all these references to baptism maintain the spiritual component, there is a distinguishing element in them. The baptism in I Corinthians 12 is baptism into His body, the church. The baptism in Romans 6 and Colossians 2 is into His death, sharing His entombment and providing the basis for walking in newness of life because we also share His resurrection. So it is probably most accurate to say that Paul’s primary allusion in Romans and Colossians is to water baptism. That doesn’t mean we are deposited into Christ, or saved, through water baptism. Instead, Paul is revealing what is portrayed by it. Incidentally, for all you Bible students and Bible detectives out there: in doing this, Paul discloses the form water baptism took in the first century. Something we have been saying all along. It was baptism by immersion: “Buried with Him in baptism” (Col. 1:13); “We were buried together with Him through baptism into death” (Rom. 6:4). Paul is pointing out our identification with Jesus in baptism: His and our entombment, His and our resurrection (see Col. 2:12).
So, the verdict is in! Baptism buries. (If it is true to form.) And what goes under, must come up again: a reference to resurrection.
Sprinkling gives you a wet head. “And that’s all I have to say about that” (Forrest Gump). No graveside service here.
But are you ready for a surprise?
You will find that immersion remains the primary meaning of baptizo even when we “step out of the water.”
See that in Part 2.
© James Unruh, 2017 and beyond