There are a variety of opinions on how Christian baptism should be performed or administered.
Who should do it, where should it be done, by whom and in what circumstances? In recent times, Roman Catholicism experienced an internal controversy particularly in America in which people changed the words used in baptism so that the Roman Catholic pope in Rome has muscled in to nullify many Roman Catholic baptisms, rather like his opinion that he can nullify marriage.
This blogpost is the third in my short series on Christian baptism. Following the biblical teaching on the subjects of Christian baptism, this post now deals with the more prominent divide between Bible-believing Christians as to the mode of Christian baptism – whether it must be by total submersion under water, as Baptists wrongly teach, or whether other modes such as pouring or sprinkling water on the person being baptized are sufficient or adequate.
On this particular subject, Baptists have made a greater attempt at biblical exegesis – after all, it is their raison d’être.
Baptists rely upon such texts as “buried with Him in baptism” Rom 6:3 to suggest that the baptized person must go down under the water like a burial, although burials in the land of Israel were often into caves rather than down into the earth. A brief study of this biblical passage will demonstrate that Paul is in the middle of a theological argument rather than describing the mode of baptism.
There have been many and enormous word studies on the Greek words bapto and baptizo to show the usage and meaning of these words. One study even amounts to four volumes! and concludes against the insistence by Baptists that a person must be submerged under water. Such etymological studies are useful for those who have the patience to read through them all. However, the Lord has given us a more authoritative solution, to test all things by the Word of God, which is our final and ultimate authority.
The two main opinions
The main point to notice about Baptist teaching is that they deny that anyone is properly baptized who has not been submerged totally under water. They call this immersion, but they mean submersion. I can immerse my feet in water and yet I am not submerged, the imagery seen in New Testament baptism. Dipping one’s finger into water is immersion while not submerging the hand. However, this legitimate distinction in the accurate use of words distracts from the main point of difference – the Baptists insist upon submersion under water whereas other Christians believe that it is sufficient and adequate to pour or sprinkle water upon the person being baptized, acknowledging that submersion under water is adequate but not necessary.
For example, in Act 8:38 we read “they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him”. The Greek words clearly indicate that they both went down to the water’s edge and then both went into the water. They stood in the water. They both stood in the water, but they were not both baptized. Then Philip baptized the eunuch. Some Baptists say that this proves that the eunuch was submerged under the water in baptism. No, it does not. It does not say so. This is a Baptist assumption; it is read into the text – this is eisegesis, not exegesis. Rather, the text shows that they were both in the water, at least up to their ankles, but it does not say that either or both of them were submerged. In order to pour water on the eunuch’s head in that desert place Act 8:26, the easiest way to do this was to stand in the water, just as a child might stand in the water at the seaside, or their mother might say, “Don’t go into the water”, and then Philip poured some water over the eunuch’s head, as we see in a fresco in the catacombs of Rome.
1Cor 10:2 shows that baptism does not mean submersion. The Egyptians were submerged under the sea but not the children of Israel, who were, at most, sprinkled or showered by water from the Red Sea, although the biblical emphasis is that they went over dry land Ex 14:21,29 whereas the Egyptians were submerged and drowned Ex 15:19. The children of Israel “were all baptized into Moses”, but they were not submerged.
On the other hand, Roman Catholics add all sorts of material to their ‘holy’ water with which they baptize their children, and as we see in the reference above they insist on other factors for valid baptism. Further, they claim that all baptisms are really Roman Catholic – a sure way ‘to boost your numbers’. Even when Roman Catholics abandon their faith, these numbers are retained. They also insist that Roman Catholic baptism is necessary for salvation – (Roman Catholic Catechism, No. 1257) – demonstrating their poor exegesis of Scripture.
There have been many debates and books about the subject and mode of Christian baptism. However, in my experience of half a century of reading, there are no books that will do the plain biblical exegesis on either or both of these topics. Many erudite tomes, full of interesting arguments, non sequiturs and faulty rationalism have failed to identify the relevant biblical texts that should commend themselves “to every man’s conscience” 2Cor 4:2.
I drew attention in an earlier blogpost to the two relevant texts that demonstrate who are the subjects of Christian baptism – Mat 28:19-20 and Jn 4:1-2. I now do the same with the mode of Christian baptism.
The biblical mode of Christian baptism
It is tempting to list a number of texts that question the Baptist doctrine, but these are available in many books on the subject and experience tells me that making my blogposts too long risks losing those readers with a short attention-span. This is why I point to the kernal of the matter and in this context the key text is Act 1:5, where baptizing with water is compared to baptizing with the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in Scripture are we told about being submerged in the Holy Spirit. Scripture speaks about the Holy Spirit being poured forth or, on the day of Pentecost to which Act 1:5 refers, to His alighting kathizo ‘to sit down’ upon the persons baptized, or epipipto ‘to fall upon’ people, as in Act 10:44. Indeed, a better Greek word for submerging is buthizo ‘to plunge, cause to sink’, but it is used in only two places in the New Testament, in Lk 5:7 and 1Tim 6:9, neither of them relating to baptism.
“For certainly John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost after not many days” Act 1:5.The Lord Jesus Christ, Act 1:5
Acts 1:5 says that they were baptized with water, not in water. It is an instrumental dative; the water is the instrument or element used to baptize, just as they were baptized with the Holy Spirit, not in the Holy Spirit. Baptizers in the New Testament applied water to the person baptized, just as one applies water to a table being washed Mk 7:4.
The biblical description for the mode of Christian baptism
The Greek word used here is hudor ‘water’, from which we derive the word ‘hydro’, a neuter noun from the base of huetos ‘rain’, a masculine noun from huo ‘to rain’; see Act 14:17, Act 28:2, Heb 6:7, Jam 5:7,18 and Rev. 11:6. This usage explains ‘with the Holy Ghost’ in the latter part of the verse. Baptising with water is like rain, like water raining down on the person – the biblical description for the mode of Christian baptism. We speak about being ‘caught in the rain’ or ‘in a downpour’, and Act 2:17,18,33 speak about the Holy Spirit being poured out, using ekcheo ‘to pour out’, from ek ‘out of, from’ and cheo ‘to pour’. The commonest New Testament word for ‘rain’ is huetos and another word is broche, a feminine noun from brecho ‘to water’ – brecho ‘to water’ and huetos ‘rain’ occur together in Rev 11:6.
There is a fundamental difference between the Baptists and other Christians. The Baptists insist that baptism must be by submersion under water. Not only can this not be proved from Scritpure, not only can the opposite be proved from Scripture, but the dogmatic denial of other modes of baptism such as by sprinkling or pouring of water is unbiblical and schismatic. Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith, the confession of worldwide Christian churches since the 17th century, although modified in some places by independent, baptist and other churches, states:
“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.”Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 28, Section 3.
Presbyterians and many other Christians accept that sprinkling and pouring are adequate modes of baptism, but the Baptists do not. This blogpost should challenge this Baptist dogmatism.
The exaltation of this one rite into such an important distinguishing mark by the Baptists is used 1. to denominate a whole group of Christians – Baptists; and 2. to separate them from fellowship with other Christians around the Lord’s Table.
This attitude is schismatic and contrary to the apostle Paul’s attitude to baptism and schism. In Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, the first major topic he handled was schisms in the congregation 1Cor 1:10-17. He reproved them for their divisiveness. In doing so he specifically mentions baptism.
1Cor 1:13 Every one of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ.
1Cor 1:13 Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
1Cor 1:14 I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius,
1Cor 1:15 Lest any should say that I had baptized in my own name.
1Cor 1:16 And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.
1Cor 1:17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
Does Paul’s emphasis fit with the erroneous emphasis upon the necessity for baptism by submersion?
In the light of New Testament teaching it is quite unbiblical for Baptists 1. to deny the validity of the baptism of godly people whose baptism did not involve submersion under water, 2. to separate themselves from these godly people in their fellowship around the Lord’s Table, and 3. to insist upon other Christians denying their Christian baptism in order to submit to a submersion rite that is not required by Scripture.
May the Lord help the Christian church to see “eye to eye” by scriptural exegesis that commends itself to every man’s conscience. This is the way forward for the Christian church. “What shall this man do?” asked Peter. “What is that to thee? Follow thou Me,” said Jesus to him, and likewise to us all Jn 21:20-22.
I pray God’s blessing upon my readers in 2023 and beyond.
30 Oct 2014: Are you open to biblical correction?
7 Dec 2022: Christian discipleship baptism: those who have a right to Christian baptism; its subjects.
14 Dec 2022: the exegesis of Christian baptism: the necessity of biblical exegesis to resolve differences between Christians.
31 Dec 2022: Adequate modes of Christian baptism: one of the issues of the day for divided biblical Christians.
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