WHY IMMERSION AND NOT SPRINKLING OR POURING

imgresBy C. A. Stakely, D. D.
Pastor First Baptist Church
Washington, D. C.

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbade him, saying, 1 have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering- said unto him; Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straight way out of the water; and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. And lo, a voice from heaven, saying; This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. – Matt. 3:13-17.

HAPPILY for us who are called Baptists our principles are marked by great simplicity. In the presentation of them no special ingenuity is required and in their vindication there is no need of resorting to any process of explaining away the sources from which they are derived. They so lie on the surface of things that the unprejudiced reader can scarcely fail to see them, yet they are not superficial. So clearly are they imbedded in the truth itself, so unmistakably are they a part of the truth, that any candid look beneath the surface will find them amply confirmed.

In nothing else are we more clear-cut than in our position on the first of the two Christian ordinances, and at no other point in the statement and defense of our faith are we more entirely free from the necessity of artifice or indirection. With us, baptism is not in a mode, but in an act, a specific, definite act, a well designed, God-appointed act, a truth-proclaiming act, from which one can not diverge and maintain the rite itself. It is without the slightest reservation, but of course in perfect fraternity toward all Christian people everywhere, that we commit ourselves to the advocacy of immersion as against sprinkling or pouring, as the act in Christian baptism. And we rejoice to find ourselves more and more confirmed by every new appeal to the final authority no less than by the growing Christian scholarship of the world and the growing candor of those who represent it.

The question, Why immersion and not sprinkling or pouring? may be answered in the light of three considerations attaching to the former: First, its natural superiority; second, its normalness as the act in baptism; and third, its solitary position as the baptism of the New Testament.

1. THE NATURAL SUPERIORITY OF THE ACT.

On the supposition that immersion and sprinkling or pouring are valid modes of baptism, and hence that one is at liberty to make a choice between them, the former should be insisted upon for several reasons. In the first place, though not chiefly, it has the advantage of being universally acceptable. Whatever misgivings there may be in the mind of millions of Christian people touching the validity of sprinkling or pouring, there are absolutely none concerning immersion. The latter, it must be confessed, is greatly discredited in some quarters which witness every effort to break it down, but it is not absolutely rejected. No immersed person is ever required by any denomination of Christians to undergo sprinkling or pouring in order to baptism. The coin passes current universally, a fact which may some day become a stone in the temple of Christian union.

Of more importance is the consideration that in the act of immersion there is a gain on the dramatic, a legitimate, a necessary feature of baptism. Both in its nature and in its purpose, baptism is an acting out of certain truths or principles, and the more impressive it is made in the mode of its administration the truer it is to its own genius and the greater influence it exerts over the mind of candidate and observer. To intelligent and reverent persons who are in sympathy with any of the high and holy ideas associated with baptism, immersion properly administered must be more impressive than either of the other acts. It is a solemn, a meaningful performance; and, where all the conditions are favorable, it is beautiful beyond compare.

But more important still, it is a much better interpreter of the Scripture. We can handle the Bible better with immersion as our act in baptism than we can with sprinkling or pouring. There are many passages of Scripture back of the ordinance of baptism that were meant to be brought out in every administration of the ordinance, but some of them, yea most of them, it must be said, are exceedingly awkward in the hands of one who is sprinkling a candidate or pouring water on his head. It has been openly deplored by many devout Christian thinkers not of our faith that much of Christian baptism, the baptism of the Bible, the baptism that was known by our Lord and his apostles, is really left out in the acts of sprinkling and pouring. ”It must be a subject of regret,” say Conybeare and Howson in their great work on the life and epistles of the apostle Paul,”that the general discontinuance of this original form of baptism (though perhaps necessary in our northern climates) has rendered obscure to popular apprehension some very important passages of Scripture.” The reference to ”northern climates” might have been omitted if the distinguished authors had kept in mind the custom of the Greek church which has consistently practiced immersion in northern Siberia and Alaska, the coldest countries in the world. In any case, they note the inadequacy of sprinkling or pouring to convey the whole content of Bible baptism, and in this they have the company of Dean Stanley who wrote in the Nineteenth Century for October, 1879: ”The change from immersion to sprinkling has set aside the larger part of the apostolic language regarding baptism and has altered the very meaning of the word.”

2. ITS NORMALNFSS AS THE ACT IN BAPTISM.

It will stand to reason that three different acts that are equally acceptable as Christian baptism must be equally normal. But can this be said of immersion and sprinkling and pouring? Is it possible for any one to claim it ? On the contrary nothing else is more generally and uniformly declared by church historians than that immersion was the normal baptism of New Testament times and indeed until a comparatively late day in the Christian centuries. ”In respect to the form of baptism,” says Neander, including the first three centuries of the Christian era, ”it was in conformity to the original institution and the original import of the symbol, performed by immersion, as a sign of entire baptism into the Holy Spirit, of being entirely penetrated by the same. It was only with the sick, where the exigency required it, that any exception was made; and in this case baptism was administered by sprinkling.” ”The usual form of the act was immersion,” says Schaff, covering nearly the same period, ”as is plain from the original meaning of the Greek βαπτιζειν and βαπτισμος from the analogy of John’s baptism in the Jordan; from the apostles’ comparison of the sacred rite with the miraculous passage of the Red Sea; with the escape of the ark from the flood; with a cleansing and refreshing bath, and with burial and resurrection; finally from the custom of the ancient church, which prevails in the east to this day. But sprinkling also, or copious pouring, was practiced at an early day with sick and dying persons, and probably with children and others, where total or partial immersion was impracticable.” In the same line are Mosheim and Stanley and Kurtz, and church historians generally, though no one of then, as neither Nander nor Schafr, asserts that there was any known deviation from the observance of immersion actually within the period of the New Testament.

It should be noted that when the departure came it was from immersion to the other acts and that these, at least at the time when we first come across them, were regarded as only a substitute ’for the former. Already in the second century the contest between principal and substitute had begun, as is known from the rule concerning baptism in the work called the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles: ”Having first uttered all of these things, baptize (baptisate) into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if thou hast not running water, baptize (baptisate) in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour (ekkeon) water upon the head thrice into the name of the Father and Son, and Holy Spirit.” In other words, if the administrator could not baptize the candidate (which was to immerse him) he must pour water on his head. The earliest known instance of administration out of the usual way was in the case of Novatian in the third century, whose baptism was seriously questioned after his recovery from sickness during which it was applied. The substitute appears to have arisen in accommodation of infirm persons or persons in danger of dying, and out of a mistaken and superstitious view of the ordinance of baptism.

It should make little difference with us that afterwards the substitute became baptism in the popular estimation. No authority on earth could change its real character. Baptists can not give it any countenance without some special authorization from the Lord himself. Our Roman Catholic friends, seeing the manifest incongruity between the normal act in baptism and the widespread practice of its substitute, have made bold to declare that the church purposely changed baptism from immersion, it having been invested with the authority to do so, a position which no Protestant can well assume.

3. ITS SOLITARY POSITION AS THE BAPTISM OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.

But would the Lord invite his people to make a choice of modes of baptism that do not equally represent the ordinance? Is it not in the nature of a positive institution to call for precise observance, and is it possible that baptism which is such an institution, may, in the intention of its divine author, be performed by one of several acts not equally normal? God is a God, not of confusion, but of order. Now we reach our highest point: that which has shown itself to be the superior act in baptism, and also the normal act, is in addition the only act known to the Savior and his apostles, and hence the only one obligatory upon us. And in support of this our confident appeal is to the meaning of the enacting word itself, to the examples of baptism given in the New Testament, to the figurative references to baptism therein contained, and to the New Testament symbolism of the ordinance.

It may have occurred to the reader ere this that it is manifestly absurd to speak of modes of baptism, though we have had to do it. If a person should stand up in one of our pulpits and read: ”Go ye therefore and matheteusatize all nations” and then proceed to expatiate upon the different modes of matheteusatizing the nations, what would we think ? We should want to know first what the word means in English, what duty or duties it commands in English, then we could listen to a discussion of the modes of performance. Now ”baptize” is an anglicized Greek word, not a Greek word translated into English. What does it mean in English? If it means to sprinkle, we may discuss modes of sprinkling; if to pour, modes of pouring; if to immerse, modes of immersing; but we can not in strict intelligence speak of modes of baptism. The Greek word baptizo is found one hundred and seventy-five times in extant Greek literature outside of the New Testament, before, during, and for three or four centuries after the Savior and the apostles, and in every instance it has the same general meaning. Whether employed literally, or figuratively, it never deviates from dip, immerse, overwhelm, plunge, sink; and there is absolutely no reason why it should not be taken in the same sense in the New Testament. As the Greeks used it, and as they use it to-day, it was used by the Savior and the apostles. What say the leading lexicographers on the subject? ”To dip in or under water” is the pronouncement of Liddell and Scott, whose lexicon of classic Greek is as good as we have. Sophocles, in his exhaustive lexicon of Greek usage in the Roman and Byzantine periods, from 140 B. C. to 1000 A. D., gives ”to dip, to immerse, to sink,” adding: ”There is no evidence that Luke and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament put upon this verb meanings not recognized by the Greeks.” Doubtless the very best lexicon of New Testament Greek in existence is Grimm’s Wilke’s edited by Thayer; and in this, after the definitions ”to dip repeatedly, to immerse, submerge,” and some secondary and figurative meanings of a similar import, the learned author says: ”In the New Testament it is used particularly of the rite of sacred ablution, first instituted by John the Baptist, afterwards by Christ’s command received by Christians and adjusted to the contents and nature of their religion, viz.: an immersion in water, performed as a sign of the renewal from sin, and administered to those who, impelled by a desire for salvation, sought admission to the benefits of the Messiah’s kingdom.” It is useless after such a showing as this to quote any example of the use of the word in Greek literature. The Greeks had words which meant to sprinkle and to pour, and they are freely used in the New Testament, but somehow they are never employed in connection with the ordinance of baptism; but the word and its cognates which always implied an immersion are the ones invariably used.

With this meaning of the word in mind, it is easy to understand how John baptized ”in the river of Jordan” and ”at Elim near to Salem because there wasmuch water there,” and how Jesus when he was baptized ”came up out of the water,” and how Philip and the eunuch ”went down both into the water” and after the baptism of the latter, ”were come up out of” it again. It is easy also to understand the meaning of every passage in the New Testament in which the verbbaptizo or its corresponding noun is found in connection with these prepositions. And there is no reason for supposing the slightest departure from the common meaning of the word in the administration of baptism to the three thousand on the day of Pentecost. Distributing the three thousand equally among the apostles and allowing one minute of time for each candidate, the whole work would have been accomplished in four hours and ten minutes: or, if the apostles had called to their assistance the seventy disciples mentioned in the tenth chapter of Luke, each administrator would have had only about thirty-six candidates to baptize. In our Baptist mission at Ongole in India, in 1879, two thousand two hundred and twenty-two converts were baptized by six ministers in nine hours, with only two baptizing at a time.

The figurative uses of baptism in the New Testament also become clear and even luminous under this meaning of the word. What could the Savior have meant by the question, ”Are ye able to drink the cup that I drink of? or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” or by the expression, ”I have a baptism to be baptized with and how am I straitened till it be accomplished,” aside from the thought of the overwhelming sufferings into which He was about to he plunged. ”I would not that ye should be ignorant,” said the apostle Paul to his brethren at Corinth, ”how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the «ea,” while the apostle Peter, in addressing the strangers scattered throughout Pontus and Galatia and other parts beheld a baptism in the picture of the ark emerging from the flood, ”When once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is eight souls were saved by water.”

And when we turn to the symbolism of the ordinance with this meaning ofbaptizo in our thought there can be no question on the mind concerning what baptism was in the days of the New Testament. It symbolized purification indeed, but total purification, purification through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, purification always connected with its procuring cause in the Lord Jesus Christ, and so the believers’ union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. The element employed in baptism is symbolical, and the act is symbolical. The element is water and stands for purification, the act is an immersion, followed in the nature of the case, by an emersion, the one standing for a burial (which implies of course a death) and the other for a resurrection. Now neither sprinkling nor pouring will suit the case. Either of these could represent a partial purification, but it is a total purification that must be set forth; and neither of these could ever represent a burial and a resurrection. Do the words of the Savior, ”Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he can not enter into the kingdom of God,” refer to baptism ; and if so, how can that birth be set forth by sprinkling a few drops of water in the face or dropping a teaspoonful on the head? The figure is that of a delivery from the womb. In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul says: ”Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we also should walk in newness of life.” To the Colossians also he spake in a similar strain: ”Buried with him in baptism wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God who hath raised him from the dead.” And the apostle Peter: ”The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” What John Wesley says on the first of these passages, namely, that the apostle was ”alluding to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion,” is said by nearly all scholars on all of them. The thought of a sprinkling or a pouring is so utterly incongruous as to be inadmissible. We must have enough water for a mystic grave, and we must effect in symbol a burial and a resurrection. If it be suggested, as sometimes it has been, that the Greek word can not mean an immersion and an emersion at the same time, a reply is ready. The word means to dip as well as to immerse and may have generally had this meaning in the New Testament period; but it was not necessary for it to carry both meanings, the latter being implied in the purpose of the immersion. Still further, neither sprinkling nor pouring could have any advantage in such an issue. The Greek word could not mean to sprinkle and to cease to sprinkle at the same time, nor to pour and to cease to pour at the same time; so that if we should begin to do either we should have no authority from the word itself to cease. It would be as agreeable to drown by remaining under the water in the act of immersion as to die of congestion of the brain as a result of an unceasing application of water to the head.

Now with immersion as the superior act and the normal act and the sole New Testament act, what are we to do? Shall we join hands with those who say that it is sometimes impracticable, dangerous to health and life, indecent, inconvenient, and for these reasons set it aside for a substitute? Baptism is not a duty where it is really impracticable, and it should never be administered when it endangers health or life. The Father who instituted it, and the Son and Saviour who submitted to it in his own person in order ”to fulfill all righteousness,” and the Holy Spirit who was present with approval and a blessing at the baptism of the Son, may be allowed to be the best judge of whether it is decent or not; and the question of our personal convenience should be allowed to be sunk out of sight, and that utterly, in the larger issue of an honest and loving and selfsacrificing loyalty to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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