By Robert L. Reymond in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

With the exception of those in the baptistic tradition who regard immersion followed by emersion as the only proper mode of baptism, the catholic (universal) position and practice of the Western church regarding the question of the proper mode of baptism is that “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, XXVIII/iii).35

Baptist apologists support their claim by contending that (1) βαπτίζω, baptizō, has the root meaning “to dip” or “to immerse,”36 (2) John 3:23 implies that immersion was the mode of baptism John the Baptist employed from the fact that he was baptizing in Aenon near Salem “because there was plenty of water [ὕδατα πολλὰ̀, hydata polla, literally “many waters”] there,” (3) New Testament descriptions of actual acts of baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:9, 10; Acts 8:36–39) support immersion as the proper mode of baptism, and (4) Romans 6:3–6 and Colossians 2:11–12 explicitly make the burial and resurrection of Christ the pattern for the mode of baptism, that is to say, just as Christ was buried so also to represent his death to sin the baptized party is to be immersed in water, and just as Christ rose from the dead so also to depict his resurrection to newness of life the baptized party is to emerge from water.

None of these contentions can be sustained. With reference to the meaning of βαπτίζω, baptizō,37 while it may sometimes mean “to dip,” there are several New Testament contexts where it must mean simply “to wash,” with no specific mode of washing indicated. For example, ἐβαπτίσθη, ebaptisthē, hardly means “was immersed” in Luke 11:38, where we are informed that a certain Pharisee, “noticing that Jesus did not first wash [literally “was not baptized”] before the meal, was surprised.” Surely this Pharisee did not expect Jesus (note that Jesus the person is the subject of the verbal action and not simply Jesus’ hands) to be immersed in water before every meal! Surely his surprise was provoked by Jesus not ritually washing his hands before eating, in keeping with the ceremony referred to in Matthew 15:2 and Mark 7:3–4, most probably by having water poured over them (see the practice alluded to in 2 Kgs. 3:11 and Luke 7:44).

Speaking of Mark 7:3–4, in verse 4 we read: “And [when they come] from the marketplace, except they ceremonially wash [βαπτίσωνται, baptisōntai, literally ‘baptize themselves’] they do not eat.” Surely again, βαπτίσωνται, baptisōntai, cannot mean that “the Pharisees and all the Jews” immersed themselves every time they returned home from the market.38 Verse 4 also refers to “ceremonial washing [βαπτισμοὺς, baptismous] of cups and utensils and copper bowls,” with the Received Text even adding “and beds [κλινῶν, klinōn].” While κλινῶν, klinōn, is textually suspect, at least it must be acknowledged that this textual tradition saw nothing incongruous about the idea of “baptizing” beds (see Lev. 15), an act which could be carried out quite simply if the beds in question were sprinkled but which would be quite difficult if the beds, sometimes quite elaborate in construction, were immersed.

To say that John 3:23 implies something about the mode of baptism from its notice that there were “many [springs of] waters” at Aenon (which proper name means “springs”) where John was baptizing is a stretch of exegesis. The “many springs” would have been necessary to any great gathering of people such as came to the Baptist to hear him and to receive baptism from his hand, but hardly for baptismal purposes. They would have been necessary for the very sustaining of life! And the streams of Israel which are formed from springs are usually rather shallow.

Then it is often argued that the expressions, “went down into the water” and “came up out of the water,” used in connection with Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:9, 10) and that of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36–39) indicate that immersion followed by emersion was the mode of baptism practiced in these instances. But a careful reading of the text in each instance will show that the act of baptism, whatever mode was being employed, was a separate act that followed upon the going down into and preceded the coming up out of the water. It should be noted too, in the case of the eunuch’s baptism, that Luke records that both Philip and the eunuch went down into and came up out of the water. Clearly these acts in no way constituted any part of the baptismal act itself. Therefore, nothing can be definitely determined from these expressions regarding the mode of the baptismal act itself which occurred between the acts of going down and coming up.39 Moreover, never does the New Testament describe the act itself of baptism as going down into or coming up out of water. It is a distinct possibility that what made the Ethiopian eunuch even think of and request baptism in the first place, reading Isaiah 53:7–8 as he had been doing, was his having read just moments before the words of Isaiah 52:15: “So will [my Servant] sprinkle [יַזֶּה, yazzeh, that is, cleanse] many nations.”40 (He also may have been familiar with Ezekiel 36:25: “I will sprinkle [וְזָרַקְתִּי], we;zāraqtî]41 clean water on you, and you will be clean.”) Thus the preponderance of evidence suggests that the eunuch’s baptism was accomplished by sprinkling. Finally, it may also be noted that the act of going down into the water, say to the knees or thighs, would have been an appropriate procedure for a baptism by sprinkling or by pouring, making it much easier for the baptizer to raise the water from the water’s surface to the top of the subject’s head.

In the case of Saul’s baptism, the baptism of the household of Cornelius, and that of the household of the Philippian jailer, since each of these acts of baptism was carried out within a home (Acts 9:11; 10:25; 16:32), and in the last case sometime after midnight (Acts 16:33) but before dawn (v. 35), it is virtually certain that these baptisms would not have been by immersion, since few homes in those times would have had facilities for such an act (and again in the last case Paul would have hardly taken the jailer’s household to a river after midnight), but most probable that they would have been performed by sprinkling.

Furthermore, the author of Hebrews characterizes all of the ceremonial sprinklings of the Old Testament—the sprinkling (ῥαντίζουσα, rhantizousa) of those who were ceremonially unclean with the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer (9:13), Moses’ sprinkling (ἐράντισεν, erantisen) of the scroll and all the people with the blood of calves mixed with water and scarlet wool (9:19), and his sprinkling (ἐράντισεν, erantisen) of the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies with blood (9:21)—as “baptisms [βαπτισμοῖς, baptismois],” that is, as “ceremonial washings” (9:10). Moreover, the same writer immediately thereafter and Peter as well speak of Christians as being “sprinkled” with Christ’s blood:

Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled [ῥεραντίσμενοι, rherantismenoi] to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (See Ezek. 36:25)

Hebrews 12:24: “[You have come] to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood [αἵματι ῥαντισμοῦ, haimati rhantismou] that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

1 Peter 1:2: “who have been chosen … for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling [ῥαντισμὸν, rhantismon] by his blood.” (See Isa. 52:15)

Surely the universe of discourse of the Book of Hebrews would warrant the conclusion that the author would have regarded the Christian’s “sprinkling” with Christ’s blood—the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament typical sacrifice—as a spiritual “baptism” as well. And just as surely, “it would be strange if the baptism with water which represents the sprinkling of the blood of Christ could not properly and most significantly be performed by sprinkling.”42

Finally, Christ’s baptismal work (see Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 2:33; 1 Cor. 12:13), by which he baptizes the elect by or with his Spirit, is invariably described in terms of the Spirit “coming upon” (Acts 1:8, 19:6), being “poured out upon” (Acts 2:17, 33), or “falling upon” (Acts 10:44; 11:15). Note also Romans 5:5: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” Now what work does the outward ordinance of baptism signify and seal if not the Savior’s spiritual baptismal work? After all, no other saving work is termed “baptism” in the New Testament epistles. Therefore, if the ordinance of baptism is to signify Christ’s baptismal work, which is uniformly described in terms of affusion, then it follows that the ordinance should reflect the affusionary pattern of Christ’s baptismal work.

With reference to the alleged pattern of baptism in Romans 6:2–6 and Colossians 2:11–12 as being that of burial and resurrection, a careful analysis of these passages will show that Paul’s basic thesis is the believer’s union with Christ in his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection as the antidote to antinomianism. Baptism by immersion does not modally reflect our crucifixion with Christ, which is one of the four aspects of our union with Christ which Paul mentions in the Romans passage. Murray is right when he affirms:

It is arbitrary to select one aspect [of our union with Christ, namely, burial] and find in the language used to set it forth the essence of the mode of baptism. Such procedure is indefensible unless it can be carried through consistently. It cannot be carried through consistently here [since baptism by immersion does not and cannot visually reflect our being hung on the cross with Christ, which is as much an aspect of our union with Christ in the passage as our burial with him] and therefore it is arbitrary and invalid.43

We should no more single out our union with Christ in his burial and resurrection and make these two aspects of our union with him the pattern for the mode of baptism than we should appeal to Galatians 3:27 (“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” see also Col. 3:9–14) and argue on the basis of its statement that baptism should be carried out by requiring the new Christian to don a white robe, that is, by a “baptism by donning.”

The fact is that there is not a single recorded instance of a baptism in the entire New Testament where immersion followed by emersion is the mode of baptism. The Baptist practice of baptism by immersion is simply based upon faulty exegesis of Scripture. The ordinance should not be represented as signifying Christ’s burial and resurrection (aspects of the accomplished phase of his saving work, which the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper memorializes) but rather his baptismal work (the applicational phase of his saving work). I would conclude therefore that “dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.”

35 See Warfield’s article, “The Archaeology of the Mode of Baptism,” in Studies in Theology (1932; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988), 345–86.

36 Alexander Carson in his classic treatment, Baptism in Its Mode and Subjects (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1845), argues that the root meaning of βαπτίζω, baptizō, is to “dip, and nothing but dip,” with no intimation in the word itself that the object “immersed” is to be withdrawn from the substance into which it has been immersed. Emersion in the case of the ordinance of baptism necessarily follows simply as a matter of course since the living subject cannot be left in an immersed state in the baptismal water.

37 James W. Dale argues in his monumental four-volume work on baptism (Classic Baptism, Judaic Baptism, Johannic Baptism, and Christic and Patristic Baptism) that βαπτίζω, baptizō, does not mean “to dip” (that is, “to put into [and to remove from]”) but rather “to put together so as to remain together,” with its import “in nowise governed by, or dependant upon, any form of act” (Classic Baptism [1867; reprint, Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989], 126). He shows that the word in classical Greek means a variety of things, including to plunge, to drown, to steep, to bewilder, to dip, to tinge, to pour, to sprinkle, and to dye! He concludes by saying:

Baptism is a myriad-sided word, adjusting itself to the most diverse cases.

Agamemnon was baptized; Bacchus was baptized; Cupid was baptized; Cleinias was baptized; Alexander was baptized; Panthia was baptized; Otho was baptized; Charicles was baptized; and a host of others were baptized, each differing from the other in the nature or the mode of their baptism, or both.

A blind man could more readily select any demanded color from the spectrum, or a child could more readily thread the Cretan labyrinth, than could “the seven wise men of Greece” declare the nature, or mode, of any given baptism by the naked help of βαπτίζω, baptizō. (353–54)

Therefore, Jay Adams in his foreword to Dale’s Classic Baptism rightly declares that “water baptism is an appropriate ‘uniting ordinance’ that permanently introduces Christians to the visible Church, just as Spirit baptism permanently unites Christians with the invisible Church.”

38 A variant reading in א and B actually reads ῥαντίσωνται, rhantisōntai, literally, “sprinkle,” the thought being: “except they sprinkle [themselves, or what is] from the market place, they do not eat [it].”

39 However, because the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is described in terms of a “pouring out” (Acts 2:17–18, 33), because both John the Baptist (Matt. 3:11) and Jesus (Acts 1:5) call the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost a “baptizing” work by Jesus, and because both John and Jesus compare the former’s baptismal activity with the latter’s baptismal activity, the intimation is that the mode of John’s earlier baptismal activity, like the latter’s, was by affusion or sprinkling.

40 By his study of י֯זֶּה, yazzeh, the Hiphil imperfect of נָזָה, nāzåh, in Isaiah 52:15, in his Studies in Isaiah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1954), 199–206, Edward J. Young demonstrates that the root, which occurs twenty-four times in the Old Testament, is a technical ritual word found mainly in the Levitical legislation (see Lev. 4:6; 6:27; 8:11; 14:7a; 16:14; Num. 19:18) denoting ceremonial sprinkling with oil, oil and blood, or water, and means “will sprinkle” and not “will startle” or “astonish” as the Septaugintal θαυμάσονται, thaumasontai, suggests. In light of all the evidence, I concur with Henri Blocher’s judgment (The Songs of the Servant [London: Inter-Varsity, 1975], 61: “the burden of proof … rests with those who would reject ‘sprinkle.’ ”

It should be noted that some Pharisees asked John the Baptist, after he had denied that he was the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, “Why then do you baptize?” (John 1:25). Where did they get the notion that the Messiah would baptize? Without a translation such as “sprinkle” in Isaiah 52:15, there is no other prophecy in the Old Testament that expressly states this. But then this suggests that John’s mode of baptizing was by sprinkling, because it was his activity that provoked the Pharisees’ question in the first place. They saw him sprinkling, and knowing of the prophecy in Isaiah 52:15, they asked him whether he was the Messiah.

41 The Hebrew Old Testament employs two verb roots, נָזָה, nāzåh, and זָרַק, zāraq, both meaning “to sprinkle,” when it speaks of ceremonial washings. For the usage of the former, see footnote 40. The latter root seems to denote a heavier sprinkling than the former, executed with the whole hand rather than with the finger (Exod. 9:8; 29:20–21). It occurs thirty-five times, and, like the former root, is found mainly in the Levitical legislation (e.g. Exod. 24:6; Lev. 1:5, 11; 3:2, 8, 13; 2 Kings 16:13, 15; Ezek. 36:25; 43:18). Combined, the approximately sixty references to various sprinklings in the Old Testament, according to the author of Hebrews, may all be described as “baptisms” (Heb. 9:10)!

42 Murray, Christian Baptism, 24.

43 Ibid., 31. It should be noted too that Christ was not “buried” at all in the sense that the Baptist mode of baptism requires. That is to say, his body was not placed under the ground. Rather, his body was temporarily deposited in a new tomb preparatory to what his disciples thought would be a permanent entombment after the Passover festivities.

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