Real Baptism: Is Immersion Essential for Baptism to be Valid?

Having come to faith in Christ through the preaching of a no-nonsense, credo-baptistic, evangelical church — like most contemporary evangelicals, I embraced the church’s interpretation of baptism. As far as I was concerned it was black and white. Any baptism, that was not by immersion, was not a real baptism. However, in the providence of God, somehow a copy of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology made its way into my small but growing library of books. The year was 2004, and I was learning about the doctrines of grace and enjoying the writings of Calvinistic scholars. It was here that I made the fatal mistake of reading Berkhof’s chapter on baptism. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t persuaded to become a Presbyterian, but although unconvinced, my presuppositions were shaken. I came to appreciate that Presbyterians had more of a Biblical case for their position than I had given them credit for.

Berkhof’s Systematic Theology is available online for free, and you can access it here. And below is the original excerpt from Berkhof that helped me rethink baptism.

 

  1. WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL THING IN THE SYMBOLISM OF BAPTISM? According to the Baptists immersion, followed by emersion, is the essential thing in the symbolism of baptism. A surrender of this would be equivalent to giving up baptism itself. The real baptismal idea, they say, is expressed in the going down into, and the coming up out of, the water. That such an immersion naturally involves a certain washing or purification, is something purely accidental. Baptism would be baptism even if one were immersed in something that has no cleansing properties. They base their opinion on Mark 10:38,39; Luke 12:50; Rom. 6:3,4; Col. 2:12. But the first two passages merely express the idea that Christ would be overwhelmed by His coming sufferings, and do not speak of the sacrament of baptism at all. The last two are the only ones that really have any bearing on the matter, and even these are not to the point, for they do not speak directly of any baptism with water at all, but of the spiritual baptism thereby represented. They represent regeneration under the figure of a dying and a rising again. It is certainly perfectly obvious that they do not make mention of baptism as an emblem of Christ’s death and resurrection. If baptism were represented here at all as an emblem, it would be as an emblem of the believer’s dying and rising again. And since this is only a figurative way of representing his regeneration, it would make baptism a figure of a figure.

Reformed theology has an entirely different conception of the essential thing in the symbolism of baptism. It finds this in the idea of purification. The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Question 69: “How is it signified and sealed unto you in holy baptism that you have a part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?” And it answers: “Thus, that Christ has appointed the outward washing with water and added the promise that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.” This idea of purification was the pertinent thing in all the washings of the Old Testament, and also in the baptism of John, Ps. 51:7; Ezek. 36:25; John 3:25,26. And we may assume that in this respect the baptism of Jesus was entirely in line with previous baptisms. If He had intended the baptism which He instituted as a symbol of something entirely different, He would have indicated this very clearly, in order to obviate all possible misunderstanding. Moreover, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that baptism symbolizes spiritual cleansing or purification, Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:4 f.; I Cor. 6:11; Tit. 3:5; Heb. 10:22; I Pet. 3:21; Rev. 1:5. This is exactly the point on which the Bible places all emphasis, while it never represents the going down and coming up as something essential.

  1. IS IMMERSION THE ONLY PROPER MODE OF BAPTISM? The generally prevailing opinion outside of Baptist circles is that, as long as the fundamental idea, namely, that of purification, finds expression in the rite, the mode of baptism is quite immaterial. It may be administered by immersion, by pouring or effusion, or by sprinkling. The Bible simply uses a generic word to denote an action designed to produce a certain effect, namely, cleansing or purification, but nowhere determines the specific mode in which the effect is to be produced. Jesus did not prescribe a certain mode of baptism. He evidently did not attach as much importance to it as the Baptists do. Neither do the Biblical examples of baptism stress any particular mode. There is not a single case in which we are explicitly told just how baptism was administered. The Baptists assert, however, that the Lord did command baptism by immersion, and that all those who administer it in a different way are acting in open disobedience to His authority. To prove their assertion, they appeal to the words bapto and baptizo, which are used in Scripture for “to baptize.” The second word seems to be an intensive or frequentative form of the first, though in general usage the distinction does not always hold. Bapto is frequently used in the Old Testament, but occurs in the New Testament only four times, namely, in Luke 16:24; John 13:26; Rev. 19:13, and in these cases does not refer to Christian baptism. Baptists were very confident at one time that this verb means only “to dip”; but many of them have changed their mind since Carson, one of their greatest authorities, came to the conclusion that it also has a secondary meaning, namely, “to dye,” so that it came to mean “to dye by dipping,” and even, “to dye in any manner,” in which case it ceased to be expressive of mode.[Carson, Baptism in its Mode and Subjects, pp. 44 ff.] The question further arose, whether baptizo, which is used 76 times, and which is the word employed by the Lord in the words of the institution, was derived from bapto in its primary or in its secondary meaning. And Dr. Carson answers that it is derived from bapto in the sense of “to dip.” Says he: “Bapto, the root, I have shown to possess two meanings, and two only, ‘to dip’ and ‘to dye.’ Baptizo, I have asserted, has but one signification. It has been founded on the primary meaning of the root, and has never admitted the secondary…. My position is, that it always signifies to dip; never expressing anything but mode.”[Op. cit., p. 55.] The Baptists must maintain this, if they want to prove that the Lord commanded baptism by immersion.

But the facts, as they appear in both classical and New Testament Greek, do not warrant this position. Even Dr. Gale, who was perhaps the most learned author who sought to maintain it, felt constrained by the facts to modify it. Wilson in his splendid work on Infant Baptism, which is partly a reply to the work of Dr. Carson, quotes Gale as saying: “The word baptizo perhaps does not so necessarily express the action of putting under water, as in general a thing’s being in that condition, no matter how it comes to be so, whether it is put into the water, or the water comes over it; though, indeed, to put into the water is the most natural way and the most common, and is, therefore, usually and pretty constantly, but it may be not necessarily, implied.”[p. 97.] Wilson shows conclusively that, according to Greek usage, baptism is effected in various ways. Says he: “Let the baptizing element encompass its object, and in the case of liquids, whether this relative state has been produced by immersion, effusion, overwhelming, or in any other mode, Greek usage recognizes it as a valid baptism.” He further goes on to show in detail that it is impossible to maintain the position that the word baptizo always signifies immersion in the New Testament.[For the various possible meanings of baptizo consult, besides the treatise of Wilson, already referred to, such works as those of Armstrong, The Doctrine of Baptisms; Seiss, The Baptist System Examined; Ayres, Christian Baptism; Hibbard, Christian Baptism.]

It is quite evident that both words, bapto and baptizo, had other meanings, such as “to wash,” “to bathe,” and to “purify by washing.” The idea of washing or purification gradually became the prominent idea, while that of the manner in which this took place retired more and more into the background. That this purification was sometimes effected by sprinkling, is evident from Num. 8:7; 19:13,18,19,20; Ps. 51:7; Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 9:10. In Judith 12:7 and Mark 7:3,4 we cannot possibly think of dipping. Neither is this possible in connection with the following passages of the New Testament: Matt. 3:11; Luke 11:37,38; 12:50; Rom. 6:3; I Cor. 12:13; Heb. 9:10 (cf. verses 13,14,19, 21); I Cor. 10:1,2. Since the word baptizo does not necessarily mean “to immerse,” and because the New Testament does not in any case explicitly assert that baptism took place by immersion, the burden of proof would seem to rest on the Baptists. Was John the Baptist capable of the enormous task of immersing the multitudes that flocked unto him at the river Jordan, or did he simply pour water on them as some of the early inscriptions would seem to indicate? Did the apostles find enough water in Jerusalem, and did they have the necessary facilities, to baptize three thousand in a single day by immersion? Where is the evidence to prove that they followed any other method than the Old Testament mode of baptisms? Does Acts 9:18 indicate in any way that Paul left the place where Ananias found him, to be immersed in some pool or river? Does not the account of the baptism of Cornelius create the impression that water was to be brought and that those present were baptized right in the house? Acts 10:47,48. Is there any evidence that the jailor at Philippi was not baptized in or near the prison, but led his prisoners out to the river, in order that he might be immersed? Would he have dared to take them outside of the city, when he was commanded to keep them safely? Acts 16:22-33. Even the account of the baptism of the eunuch, Acts 8:36,38, which is often regarded as the strongest Scriptural proof for baptism by immersion, cannot be regarded as conclusive evidence. 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 the water. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the apostolic age some were baptized by immersion, but the fact that the New Testament nowhere insists on this proves that it was not essential. Immersion is a proper mode of baptism, but so is baptism by effusion or by sprinkling, since they all symbolize purification. The passages referred to in the preceding prove that many Old Testament washings (baptizings) took place by sprinkling. In a prophecy respecting the spiritual renewal of the New Testament day the Lord says: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean,” Ezek. 36:25. The matter signified in baptism, namely, the purifying Spirit, was poured out upon the Church, Joel 2:28,29; Acts 2:4,33. And the writer of Hebrews speaks of his readers as having their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, Heb. 10:22.

 

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3 thoughts on “Real Baptism: Is Immersion Essential for Baptism to be Valid?

  1. Louis Berkhof had quite a mind and I envy him! His classic Systematic Theology was published in the early 1930s and so was unable to benefit from the many archaeological and documentary discoveries since which, I think, confirm immersion as the mode of baptism used in the NT and the primary practice of the early church. Had Berkhof lived longer, or been born a generation later, I suspect that his conclusions regarding this topic would be significantly different.

    Not all Baptists believe that immersion is the only valid mode of baptism but I would think that all Baptists believe that immersion is the mode closest, in fact was, NT practice; and that it best reflects all the symbols attributed to it by the NT such as repentance, dying to self, rising to new life in Christ, receiving salvation (and entry to a new kingdom/community), and – yes – being cleansed from sin. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Baptist or indeed Christian of any leaning who doubted the inherent cleansing symbolism of coming into contact with water – though clearly Berkhof managed to find some!

    The Zondervan Academic blog recently posted a short article on baptism in the NT and early church, the link to which is http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/early-church-infant-baptism-or-full-immersion/

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    • Hi Gordon, thanks for taking the time to comment. Good to engage with these issues. If I can respond with two points. 1. Can you back up your claim “Louis Berkhof . . . was unable to benefit from the many archaeological and documentary discoveries since which . . . confirm immersion”? Can you cite these discoveries which confirm that immersion was the only way that baptism was administered? Further, If these amazing discoveries would have changed Berkhof’s thinking, why are they not convincing reasonably-minded reformed scholars’ thinking today? 2. The blog you linked to simply cites the church Fathers. These, as you know, are not new discoveries. And Berkhof had these documents available to him — as did Calvin and the Reformers. The blog cites 4 fathers, and out of those four fathers, he only cites one example of immersion, and cites two examples were immersion is not used — and there seems to be no reference to the 4th Father he cites. So, out of 4 references, two advocate sprinkling or pouring. I’m not sure how this helps the baptist’s claim that immersion was the only mode of true baptism. In fact it confirms the Presbyterian’s claim, that all three modes are valid. — And a third thing (I know I said two), 3. Even if archaeological evidence did emerge that trumped the ancient documents of the pre-Nicene Fathers (a mammoth and controversial find that would have to be!), we would still have to show the case from scripture. Which Berkhof, by his expounding of the Greek, demonstrates that Baptism need not only refer to immersion. Indeed, as the narratives reveal, it didn’t.

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  2. A really interesting post, from both a theological and personal level.

    I was brought up in the Anglican church, but my parents did not believe in infant baptism. I chose to be baptised at the age of 12, and my baptism was a traditional Anglican one – by sprinkling. I have always wondered what a baptist would think of me – not an infant but maybe still a child and not immersed but sprinkled.

    My personal thoughts have always been similar to Berkhof’s – that it is less about the “mode” and more about the symbol. However, I had always been taught that baptism came from the Greek word for “submerge”, so it’s interesting to hear other thoughts.

    One of my issues with (what I understand to be) the classical Baptist theology is that it has no leeway to allow people who want to affirm either their Christening (as a way of honouring the faith of their parents) or sprinkling (as in my case). Full membership is reserved for those who have been immersed as adults, which I personally find a little too narrow (even as someone who primarily believes in credo-baptism).

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