Module 6 | Modes of administering baptism

There are three modes by which water is applied in baptism: immersion and emersion, in which the person is completely submerged and comes out of the water; affusion, in which water is administered by pouring; and aspersion, which is sprinking. Evangelical Christians differ on the matter of which mode or modes are proper forms of baptism. From the language of baptism in Greek, and from the New Testament’s description of situations of baptism in the New Testament, we can draw certain inferences about whether or not baptism occurred by immersion or by sprinkling.

There are those, usually credobaptists, who believe that only immersion has biblical warrant. They argue that the Greek word in the New Testament transliterated baptizo means “to immerse”; that John the Baptist selected a place for his ministry, Aenon, (John 3:23 ESV) “because water was plentiful there,” which seems to suggest immersion; and Jesus (Matthew 3:16) “immediately went up from the water,” which also would suggest immersion. Probably the strongest argument for an immersion-only position is that it accommodates Apostle Paul’s use of the picture of baptism to represent our death and resurrection with Christ, in Romans 6:2-6 and Colossians 2:11-12.

Biblical scholars won’t deny that the word baptizo does mean to immerse, yet many disagree that it means immerse, exclusively. For example, in Luke 11:38, the same word baptizo means “to dip” and refers to people’s washing before dinner, which was almost definitely not by immersion. It’s possible that John needed “much water” not necessarily to make sure people were immersed, but just to have enough water to baptize all those people who were present. Also, the phrases “going down into the water” and “coming up out of the water” don’t necessarily imply immersion, because sprinkling or pouring might have taken place after people entered the stream, which might only have been ankle-deep. Also, sometimes baptisms took place at people’s residences, which would be unlikely settings where there was enough water for full-body immersion (cf. Acts 9:11, 18; 10:25, 47; 16:32-33).

Now that we’ve negated the notion that the word baptism strictly means only immersion, we’ll look at evidence in the New Testament that suggests sprinkling and pouring were used as modes of baptism. In Hebrews 9:10, the Greek noun transliterated baptismos unmistakably refers to Old-Testament ceremonial washing of articles, including tables or “dining couches” (ESV) that used sprinkling as indicated in the following verses:

(Hebrews 9:13, 19, 21) “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, … For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people … And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.”

In the Old Testament, we find a precedent to baptism that sprinkling with water mixed with ashes was necessary before rejoining God’s people after having into contact with the dead (Numbers 19:1-13, cf. Hebrews 9:13); as well as a rite of cleansing those with skin diseases (Leviticus 14:1-9). Aaron’s sons were consecrated to enter the Holy Place and to minister as priests (Exodus 40:12-15, Leviticus 8:6-9), which preceded their being clothed with holy garments, which is an allusion we find in baptism (Galatians 3:27).

Remarking on the broader spiritual significance of the Greek word baptismos to describe the washing of various articles in Hebrews 9, Dr. Sartelle has written:

“Baptism means being set apart to a holy life. Just as utensils and people were anointed with water or oil in the Old Testament and set apart for holy use, so in baptism the person is anointed and set apart for holiness.” (What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism, p. 7)

In addition to these customary Jewish sprinklings or washings that are referred to as “baptisms” in Hebrews 9, Christians are later said to be “sprinkled” with Jesus’ blood in Hebrews 10:22, 12:24, and also in I Peter 1:2, a clear allusion to Moses’ blood sprinkling or splattering upon the people in Exodus 24:6-8 before he ratified the covenant with God on Mount Sinai. (Note that this rite of cleansing was applied to everyone, presumably including infants.)

Dr. Chapell has made some interesting observations about the circumstances surrounding several accounts of baptism in the New Testament:

“Nowhere does the Bible say that Jesus (or anyone else) went under the water for baptism. Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in a desert, where deep pools of water would be unlikely. And the Bible tells us that the eunuch requested baptism after reading from the portion of Isaiah that says the Messiah will ‘sprinkle many nations’ (Isa. 52:15; cf. Ezek. 36:25). Finally, the baptism of the Philippian jailer and his entire household occurred immediately after a cataclysmic earthquake, when it seems unlikely that they would have trailed through the town looking for a pool of water after midnight (Acts 16:33).” (Why Do We Baptize Infants?, p. 22)

Other passages (cf. Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17, 33, Romans 5:5) depict baptism in the Spirit as “pouring.” The Holy Spirit “comes upon” us (Acts 1:8), or the Holy Spirit “falls upon” us (Acts 10:44). Though these verses referring to “pouring” are dealing with regeneration and not baptism, they are cogent to our topic because regeneration is the spiritual reality to which baptism points. Dr. J.V. Fesko wrote, “Baptism proclaims that Christ has baptized, or poured out, the Spirit upon the church in the wake of his ascension and session at the right hand of the Father.”

Based on the level of detail that the Bible provides us, clearly, there necessarily is some speculation involved here — we can make educated guesses based on circumstantial evidence how much water was used during instances of baptism catalogued in the New Testament. Yet, in the New Testament there is hardly anything conclusive enough for any party to be dogmatic on the issue. It’s also all the more reason why narratives, such as Acts, which focus on informing what occurred rather than instructing how it should occur, don’t make the strongest foundations for doctrinal instruction — as intentionally prescriptive Scripture texts do.

While one might fairly make an argument for which mode of baptism is a more technically correct execution than another one, all the methods of applying water discussed here are lawful modes of the sacrament. As Rothwell wrote,

“Whether we are immersed, sprinkled, dipped, or receive a pouring, we come under water — are buried — in baptism. Thus, our union with Christ is signed and sealed. And if we are truly baptized into the death of Christ, we are also united to Him in His resurrection. Baptism is God’s promise to believers that our old Adamic selves have been crucified and that we are new, resurrected creatures in Christ.” (“Baptism and Union with Christ,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 48)

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Covenant theology, sacramentology, systematic theology