Musings on the Mode of Baptism

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BradyC

Puritan Board Freshman
After much reading and reflection over this long-debated controversy, I thought I would post a few of my thoughts on the issue. I am of the conviction that as Christians we should allow for diversity in this area and not let it disturb our Christian unity in the Gospel. I am aware that there are certainly many others far more capable than myself that have put forth a good case for leniency when it comes to baptismal mode, so I do not expect to contribute anything new to the volumes they have written, but only hope to faithfully present what they, and I believe, the Scriptures, teach.

Let me just say from the outset, that though I am in a church that administers baptism via sprinkling, I am most definitely not an anti-immersionist. I would never call into question the validity of one’s baptism over mode – immersion, aspersion and effusion are all valid modes of baptism in my opinion. The reason I can say this is because I believe the essence of baptism is attached to its meaning, not to its mode. At the heart of Christian baptism is the idea of purification and identification through the form of a ritual washing, regardless of mode. As Louis Berkhof wrote, “...as long as the fundamental idea, namely, that of purification, finds expression in the rite, the mode of baptism is quite immaterial.”

However, there are many within Baptistic traditions that would contend immersion as the only meaning of baptizo and therefore the only valid mode of Christian baptism. For example, Alexander Carson, in his famous work, Baptism in Its Mode and Subjects Considered, noted, “BAPTIZO in the whole history of the Greek language has but one [meaning]…It not only signifies to dip or immerse, but it never has any other meaning.” I would contend that baptism does not only mean immersion. It has a wider semantic range than that, and its specific meaning can only be determined by its context. However, as Carson noted, for one to hold that baptizo is synonymous with immersion, and that the meaning does not in any instance extend beyond immersion, would mean that throughout the entire development of Greek literature it has only possessed one meaning, and that when we examine the actual evidence it should not allow for any alternate meanings. I think this is demonstrably false, as I will attempt to show below. Also, as a side note, though I am not a philologist, I believe it is a rarity to find in any language a word that has been cultivated for ages and maintained such an absolute fixed meaning.

Some have made reference to James W. Dale’s exhaustive work on baptizo, where he basically surveys the word’s usage in the Greek Classics, Jewish, Christian and Patristic writings to demonstrate the many different meanings of the word. Now, I certainly do not have the time or the resources to survey all of the examples throughout the entire Greek corpus as Dale did, however, hopefully a few examples from his work will suffice. In one instance, Dale cited Plutarch concerning the baptism of Bacchus (a.k.a. Dionysus), the god of wine, “Why do they pour in beside the wine sea-water, and say that fishermen received an oracle commanding them to merse Bacchus by the sea?” In other words, when water was poured into wine (which was representative of Bacchus) he was considered baptized. Elsewhere, Dale cited Lucian, “When an old man drinks, and Silenus takes possession of him, immediately, he is, for a long time silent, and resembles one heavy-headed and mersed.” In context, Lucian is not referring to drinking from a cup, but from the fountain of Silenus (a tutor to Bacchus). Here it is used to refer to an intoxicated state. In another example, he demonstrates that the continent Asia was baptized by fighting. He cites Heimerius, “Great at Salamis; for there, fighting, he mersed all Asia.” As a final example, he quotes Libanius as an instance where bakers baptized a city when they fled from it, “He exhorts the class of bread-makers to be more just, but he did not think it proper to use compulsion, fearing the running away of the mass; by which the city would, immediately, be mersed, just as a ship, the sailors having deserted it.”

As you can see, from these few examples, the semantic range is wider than most immersionists allow. I think Dale's definition of baptizo adequately comports to the usage in these instances, "Whatever is capable of thoroughly changing the character, state, or condition of any object, is capable of baptizing that object; and by such change of character, state or condition does, in fact, baptize it."

The famous Princeton theologian Charles Hodge made use of Dale’s work in his classic Systematic Theology, and argued, “The word βαπτίζω, as Dr. Dale so strenuously argues, belongs to that class of words which indicate an effect to be produced without expressing the kind of action by which that effect is to be brought about…So with regard to the word βαπτίζω, there is a given effect to be produced, without any specific injunction as to the manner; whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling.” Also, in his Concise Theology, J.I. Packer aptly summarizes the position thusly, “The command to baptize may be fulfilled by immersion, dipping, or sprinkling; all three modes satisfy the meaning of the Greek verb baptizo and the symbolic requirement of passing under, and emerging from, cleansing water.”

Further, in the New Testament (Mk. 7:3-4), a baptism of couches shows the absurdity of restricting this word to only immersion. Some have tried to dismiss this argument because it is based on a textual variant, however, regardless of its authenticity, it still accurately reflects the historical usage of the word and should be taken into account when doing a word study.

In light of this brief examination, I do not think it is wise to be dogmatic about baptizo having a fixed meaning of immersion, nor do I think such an idea is tenable. However, I realize some immersionists would further argue for their doctrine on the basis of New Testament examples. More specifically, they would point to passages that undoubtedly (at least in their mind) point to instances of immersion. And the rationale is that if there is a clear example of how the ordinance was administered in the New Testament, then we should not deviate from that pattern.

However, I think this fails on two fronts. Firstly, it fails on a hermeneutical level, as an example does not necessitate a prescription. In other words, even if an example can be proven, it does not follow that it should be employed in all circumstances. If this were so, we would be forced to only administer the Lord's Supper in the evenings, and only at a table, and do all sorts of other legalistic things. Secondly, it fails on an exegetical level, as there is no conclusive example of an immersion anywhere in the New Testament. The texts that are typically pointed to as ironclad examples of immersion can be interpreted and understood differently without violating the text. I do not have the time to examine all of the passages, but will simply refute the most common (and allegedly, the strongest) one, Acts 8:36, 38. Many immersionists consider the case of the eunuch's baptism in this passage to be a silver bullet in their arsenal of baptismal arguments. However, as Louis Berkhof noted, “a careful study of Luke's use of the preposition eis shows that he used it not only in the sense of into, but also in the sense of to, so that it is entirely possible to read the relevant statement in verse 38 as follows: 'and they both went down to the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.' And even if the words were intended to convey the idea that they went down into the water, this does not yet prove the point, for according to pictorial representations of the early centuries they who were baptized by effusion often stood in water.”

However, with that being said, I should note, even if the eunuch was immersed (he may have been, I do not know) and it was proven without a shadow of a doubt, it still would not, as mentioned before, necessitate that all baptisms must be performed the same way. I know for me personally, that if it was shown to be the case, it would not really affect my understanding of the administration of baptism.

Further, I think Heb. 10:9 is a key passage in the debate, as it opens a door for us to explore the Old Testament baptisms. If you survey all of the purification rites of the Old Testament, they were administered several different ways other than immersion. One would have to be extremely arbitrary to claim the author of Hebrews was only speaking of the washings that were by complete immersion.

When the author of Hebrews speaks of baptisms in the Old Testament, purification is in view, not mode. I could list several examples to help support this idea, but I hope that one will suffice. In the book of Sirach (from the Apocrypha), Ben Sira alludes to an Old Testament washing, “If a man washes after touching a dead body, and touches it again, what has he gained by his washing?” (Sirach 34:25) In the LXX, the word 'washes' in the Greek is baptizomenos (an inflected form of baptizo), and the word for 'washing' is loutron (used twice in the NT, translated as 'washing' in both instances, see Ephesians 5:26 & Titus 3:5 – Interestingly, we see here that baptizo is used synonymously with washing (further buttressing my earlier sentiments), but that is beside my point).

Now, he is undoubtedly referring to the washing recorded in Num. 19:11-22 (also reiterated in Num. 31:19-24) where the Israelites, upon becoming defiled (by touching a corpse, bones, etc.) were to undergo a rigorous purification ritual that lasted seven days. Within these seven days, water (mixed with ash) was to be sprinkled (zaraq) upon the defiled person on the third and seventh day in order to be clean. On the seventh day, there was to be a washing (kabac) of clothes and a bathing/washing (rachats) of the body. Now, if one were adamant on defending immersion only baptism, I suppose it could be argued that rachats is an immersion, however, I highly doubt anyone completely immersed themselves in water during their bathes. Further, one would have to divorce rachats from the rest of the purification process arbitrarily to have a leg to stand on.

With that being said, I think the various baptisms of Heb. 9:10 are defined for us in the context (vs. 13, 19, 21, 23). I find verse 18-22 especially of interest, as it is the blood baptism of Sinai (Ex. 24:6-8), where Moses sprinkled the people with blood to inaugurate the Old Covenant. The author of Hebrews argues that like the New Covenant, blood was necessary to inaugurate the Old Covenant as well. It should not surprise us that the sprinkling of this blood on the Israelites was considered a baptism in light of Jesus’ referring to His own pouring out of blood to inaugurate the New Covenant as a baptism (see Mk 10:38-39, Lk 12:50). Further, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He again refers back to this blood baptism in Ex. 24:6-8 by claiming, “…this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:28). In the Septuagint, Jesus uses the exact phrase of Ex. 24:8, substituting only the personal pronoun ‘My’ in place of ‘the.’ I say all of that to say this: the ratification of the New Covenant through Christ’s crucifixion is intricately connected to the sprinkling blood ritual that inaugurated the Old Covenant. However, the connection between the two is not rooted in their external mode, but their internal meaning.

I could go on, but I suppose I better stop now, as this is getting rather lengthy. I hope these musings have been helpful. Ideally they will be a gateway portal into deeper study on the issue. It is my longing that those obsessed with mode as the essence of baptism (and to be sure, they exist on both sides of the debate, though more so on the immersionist side) would really examine the matter more closely and come to deeper understanding and appreciation for those who hold to a different position. I think if they do, there would be a lot more charity over this issue. God bless.

In Christ,
Brady
 

Cato

Puritan Board Freshman
Sorry, cant read the whole muse......but starting with water might......gotta run LOL

---------- Post added at 12:14 PM ---------- Previous post was at 12:10 PM ----------

PS: Hurry though, bout to get real oily in Louisiana!
 

bug

Puritan Board Freshman
In light of this brief examination, I do not think it is wise to be dogmatic about baptizo having a fixed meaning of immersion, nor do I think such an idea is tenable.

Have you considered the arguement of men like A H Strong (Systematic Theology, p935);

The absence of any use of [baptidzo] in the passive voice with 'water' as it's subject confirms our conclusion that it's meaning is 'to immerse.' water is never said to be baptized upon the man.

I believe he is suggesting that in the passive form the subject of the verb, is the person, not the water used, hence the person is dipped in the water, not the water is sprinkled on the person. Now my Greek is only very basic so I am open to correction here, hence I ask the question in relation to your musings :think:
 

BradyC

Puritan Board Freshman
In light of this brief examination, I do not think it is wise to be dogmatic about baptizo having a fixed meaning of immersion, nor do I think such an idea is tenable.

Have you considered the arguement of men like A H Strong (Systematic Theology, p935);

The absence of any use of [baptidzo] in the passive voice with 'water' as it's subject confirms our conclusion that it's meaning is 'to immerse.' water is never said to be baptized upon the man.

I believe he is suggesting that in the passive form the subject of the verb, is the person, not the water used, hence the person is dipped in the water, not the water is sprinkled on the person. Now my Greek is only very basic so I am open to correction here, hence I ask the question in relation to your musings :think:

Hey Jonathan,

I am certainly not a Greek expert either, however, Strong’s argument looks pretty flimsy to me. He seems to be under the mistaken assumption that others try to argue that baptizo means sprinkling or pouring. They don’t. They argue that baptizo can be appropriated by sprinkling or pouring, not that it means sprinkling or pouring. As I indicated earlier, at the heart of baptizo is the command to wash, so of course “water is never said to be baptized upon the man,” why would it? We would not say "water is washed upon a man", we would say rather, "a man is washed with water." And I would contend that this washing can take on the form of immersion, aspersion or effusion.

In Christ,
Brady
 
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Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Acts 10:47-48
Then Peter answered, 47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
The form of expression here is unusual and striking. Without any presumption on the mode for baptism, the words taken as given imply the bringing and/or application (mode irrespective) of the substance, rather than on the person. Contra Strong, the language is particularly passive with respect to the subjects.
 

houghite

Puritan Board Freshman
Brady,

I didn't realize that you were on PB. Funny enough, I was looking up some information on Moises Silva and one of your post (unbeknownst to me) was in the google search. I logged in and found your profile then found your other postings. Cool stuff brother! Just thought I would say hello! Take care!

Casey
 
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