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Baptism Does Not Mean Immerse

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Angus Stewart


Baptists use two English words as synonyms of baptizein: dip and immerse. However these two words differ in four respects. First, dipping involves the movement of one object into and out of a fluid. In immersion, an object is submerged, but nothing is said of its removal from the fluid. Thus in Greek literature a person baptized in water is often one who has drowned.


Second, whereas the action of dipping is specific (entrance into and removal from a fluid), immersion can be achieved in many different ways. A man sitting in an empty bath could be immersed by the water that flows from the tap. Similarly immersion can be effected by pouring or even by sprinkling. A stone sitting in a bucket could be immersed by water from a watering can.


Third, immersion and dipping also differ regarding the time for which the object is submerged. Dipping speaks of a very brief period of envelopment in a fluid, whereas an immersion is a protracted submersion, possibly of hours, days, weeks or even many years.[10]


Fourth, dipping does not convey to what extent the object was submerged. A man on a beach may speak of going into the sea for a dip, though he only went in to his waist. Immersion suggests a more complete submersion, though baptists often feel that the word does not convey the thought strongly enough, so they speak of total immersion.[11]


Thus dipping and immersion differ regarding (1) the action (immersing and emerging or only immersing); (2) the means of the action (immersion can be effected in various ways); (3) their duration; and (4) the extent to which the object is submerged. To express accurately the meaning of baptizein according to the baptists, we may speak of it as a total immersion by dipping. This ought to be understood as allowing the non-dipping of the legs, since in their baptism the initiate usually wades into the water before he is dipped.


Though the baptist understanding of baptizein in the initiatory sacrament is very specific, they understand the word with a great latitude of meaning elsewhere. The baptist use of both dipping and immersion as synonyms of baptizein is very helpful for baptist apologetics. Thus baptizein, according to baptists, can refer to an act (dipping) or a state (immersion).[12] Though dipping is a weak verb (since the object is only submerged very briefly), immersion is a strong word, since whatever is submerged in a fluid for some time will probably partake of its peculiar characteristics. Furthermore, by figure, baptizein is used with great latitude by baptists when it comes to answering biblical objections to their position, as we shall see.


Nevertheless, at the very least, the baptist has to show that the baptized object is enveloped in the fluid or that the state resulting from the baptism was through dipping or immersion. This is his one great problem, and it is compounded by his definition of baptizein as always and only to immerse or dip. This claim is exclusive. No other ways of baptism can be permitted by a baptist. Thus his theory is easily falsified. One instance of a baptism not by immersion or dipping is enough to falsify the whole theory, whether it be found in classic, Judaic, patristic or biblical usage.


Though the immersionists claim to be the only ones who faithfully obey the biblical mandate for baptism by dipping, one is surprised that they often seek to make their case for immersion primarily from sources other than the Bible. Thus J. L. Dagg, in seeking to determine the meaning of baptizein, gives many examples from the classics (from Aristotle to Aristophanes and Homer to Hippocrates) with a few biblical references thrown in.[13] These claims are very difficult for most Christians to verify. Moreover, they are apt to be blinded by such a display of learning.


The question here is much more simple and much more easily tested: From the usage of baptizein in the New Testament, does it appear that it always and only means to immerse? The answer to this question is "No." That baptizein means to dip or immerse may be refuted in various ways:


(1) Baptism cannot mean immersion if the object to be baptized is too large to be immersed. Mark 7:4 speaks of the baptism (baptismos) of couches or beds. However, the Talmudic tractate, Kelim, and Maimonides, a Jewish scholar in the twelfth century, speak of the immersion of beds. Carson points out that "the couches might have been so constructed, that they might be conveniently taken to pieces, for the purpose of purification."[14] Thus we cannot certainly prove that the beds of Mark 7:4 were not immersed.


(2) Baptism cannot mean immersion if there was not sufficient water for immersion. In Acts 8, we read of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, by Philip in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza (v. 26). The eunuch—apparently surprised—saw some water as he and Philip talked, so they left the chariot and Philip baptized him. Are we to suppose that there was enough water to submerge a grown man?


Some have sought to strengthen the case for non-immersion by pointing out that the passage that the eunuch was reading (Isa. 53:7-8; cf. Acts 8:32-33) is only a few verses after a reference to the Messiah sprinkling many nations.[15] It ought to be pointed out, though, that the Septuagint version, which the eunuch was probably using, does not so translate the Hebrew.[16] Although it cannot be proved that Philip did not explain to the eunuch the proper rendering of this verse, the non-immersionist case is not necessarily strengthened by this appeal to Isaiah.


Dagg tries to turn the case around.[17] He says that few are so stupid as to fail to bring water supplies with them in a journey across a desert. Why then, he argues, was there need for water outside the chariot? If baptism was by sprinkling or pouring, surely the eunuch could have stopped the chariot and Philip could have used some of the eunuch's supplies. Against this we must say that since water is precious to those travelling through a wilderness a sight of water outside would naturally suggest using it instead of one's own reserves.[18]


Thus we return to the issue of water in the desert. Again a conclusive case against immersion cannot be made. One cannot rule out the possibility that there may have been a sufficiently large pool in that wilderness to submerge a man. It is, however, highly unlikely.


(3) Baptism cannot mean immersion if there were too many people to be immersed. On the day of Pentecost, three thousand converts were baptized (Acts 2:41). The five thousand new Christians of Acts 4:4 were also undoubtedly baptized. Three concerns arise for the baptists here. First, we note the relative scarcity of water in Jerusalem. Second, consider the amount of time required to baptize the multitude.[19] Third, remember the hostility of the Jewish authorities. Are we to suppose that they permitted the despised Christians to use Jerusalem's water supplies?


The first issue is easily overcome. The baptists are quite right: there was enough water to do it. Regarding the second, they note that there were not merely one but twelve apostles and point out similar occasions of mass immersions by baptists. The third factor might make it more difficult but probably not impossible. We must admit that immersion cannot absolutely be ruled out. It is much easier, however, to think of the mass baptism on the inauguration of the New Testament church as being by sprinkling or pouring. Thus Moses sprinkled the blood of the (old) covenant on the Israelites in Exodus 24.


(4) Baptism cannot mean immersion if the one baptized is in a position unsuitable for immersion. In both Acts 9 and 22 we read of Saul's conversion and baptism. Saul, later named Paul, was praying in a house in the street called Straight, when Ananias came to him and laid his hands on him. Ananias commanded Paul, "Arise and be baptized" (Acts 22:16) and Paul "arose and was baptized" (Acts 9:18). Paul had neither eaten nor drank in the last three days (Acts 9:9) and only after his baptism does he have a meal.


The question is, How can a man standing in a house be immersed? Most baptist scholars do not address this question.[20] John Gill makes an attempt, but it is not very successful. He says that there was probably a bath in the house since, he reckons, it was the house of a Jew. Next, he tries to derive some horizontal and not merely vertical motion from the word "arise."[21] This does not, however, come from the word itself, but merely from Gill's immersionist presuppositions. For Gill, since baptizein means immerse, there must be a bath in the house, and "arise" must mean "get up and go to it."[22]


(5) Baptism cannot mean immersion if one party is described as baptized, while another party is immersed. We have occasions of this in the only two Old Testament events referred to as baptisms in the New Testament: I Corinthians 10:1-2 and I Peter 3:20-21.[23] In the former, Moses and the Israelites pass through the Red Sea on dry land, while Pharaoh and his host are immersed in the water. In the latter, Noah and seven other souls are saved in the ark, while the "world of the ungodly" (II Peter 2:5) is drowned in the waters of the flood. Thus the two great redemptive events in the Old Testament that concern great volumes of water are referred to as baptisms. However, contrary to what would follow from the baptist view of baptizein, the Bible teaches that in the flood and in the Red Sea the ungodly who are not baptized are immersed and the church which is baptized is not immersed!


Baptist attempts to prove an immersion of the godly are not convincing. Carson argues that the Israelites did have a sort of immersion, since the sea was walled on either side of them and the cloud was above them.[24] Dagg is, perhaps, even bolder. He reckons that the English translation of I Corinthians 10:2 ought to read, "And were all immersed unto Moses."[25]


Regarding I Peter 3:20-21, Carson says that the ark was occasionally dipped into the flood waters as they rose and swelled.[26] John Gill reckons that "the ark with those in it, were as it were covered with and immersed in water," since "the fountains of the great deep were broken up below, and the windows of heaven were opened above." Not content with merely discovering an immersion, Gill exhibits even greater ingenuity in discovering both a burial and a resurrection in Noah's baptism. Noah and his family being "shut up" in the ark "represented a burial;" and the resurrection of Jesus Christ "was typified by the coming of Noah and his family out of the ark."[27]


Other baptists deny that the analogy or "like figure" (v. 21) is between Christian baptism and a Noahic baptism. They say that I Peter 3:20 speaks of Noah's salvation not baptism and verse 21 of our salvation and baptism.[28] Though we reject the sacramentarianism of the Lutheran scholar, W. H. T. Dau, he does point out the appropriate point of comparison between Noahic and Christian baptism:


Water saved Noah and his family by floating the ark which sheltered them, and by removing from them the disobedient generation which had sorely tried their faith, as it had tried God's patience. In like manner the water of baptism bears up the ark of the Christian church and saves its believing members, by separating them from their filthy and doomed fellow-men.[29]


(6) Baptism cannot mean immersion if a baptism is effected by pouring. The risen, but not yet ascended, Christ promised His disciples that they should "be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence" (Acts 1:5). He was referring to the day of Pentecost, as the succeeding narrative makes clear. The baptist attempt at finding an immersion here is valiant but futile. Some say that they were immersed by the Spirit who filled the room in which they were sitting. To this we must point out that it is not the Spirit but a sound from heaven that filled the house (Acts 2:2).


Carson attempts a more sophisticated evasion. He says that the baptism of Acts 2 is "a figurative baptism in which there is no literal immersion, pouring or sprinkling."[30] "The baptism of the Spirit is ... explicable on the principle of a reference to immersion," he affirms. "To be immersed in the Spirit (sic), represents the subjection of soul, body and spirit to his influence."[31]


It ought to be clear to all that Pentecost's baptism of the Spirit was effected by pouring.[32] This is made clear by the account of Acts 2. The Spirit is "poured out" (Acts 2:17, 18) and "shed forth" by the ascended and enthroned Christ, who "received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:33). That this pouring out of the Spirit is described as a baptism is easily proved from Scripture.[33]


However, Carson attempts to refute this position. He makes three fallacious arguments. First, he begs the question. He states that baptizein means to immerse, when this is exactly the point under debate.[34] Second, he resorts to absurd accusations. To those who speak of the Spirit being poured out as the baptism of Pentecost he ascribes "the egregious and blasphemous error which teaches that God is material."[35] Needless to say, he is unable to prove that this follows from the Reformed position. Third, he fails to make the proper distinctions. He states that our argument equates pouring and baptizing.[36] This is not true. We hold that the baptism of the Holy Ghost was effected by pouring, but we do not say that baptizein means to pour.


On the significance of this baptism, Jay Adams writes,


If any baptism in the Scriptures is important, it is that which occurred at Pentecost. Joel prophesied it [Joel 2:28-29]; John predicted it [Matt. 3:16]; Christ promised it [Acts 1:4-5]; and Luke proclaimed it [Acts 2]. No other baptism is given as much space or prominence.[37]


The highly important baptism of Acts 2 was most definitely not by immersion.


(7) Baptism cannot mean immersion if a baptism is effected by sprinkling. Our last example proved a baptism effected by pouring; Hebrews 9 speaks of baptisms effected by sprinkling. Verse 10 of that chapter tells us that the Old Testament economy consisted of "meats and drinks, and divers washings [literally, baptisms, baptismos], and carnal ordinances." That there were a few immersions amongst the purifications of the Mosaic dispensation, we might grant. That immersion was the only, or even the most frequent, method of ceremonial cleansing no one would be foolish enough to assert. But we are not left to search the Old Testament to see to which baptisms (baptismos) the Holy Spirit is referring.


The inspired text goes on to enumerate some of the Mosaic baptisms. In verse 13 we read of the "sprinkling" of "the blood of bulls and of goats" and of "the ashes of an heifer" (cf. Num. 19:17-18). Verses 19-20 speak of Moses' purifying both "the book and all the people" in Exodus 24. With "scarlet wool and hyssop," he "sprinkled" "the blood of calves and of goats [which was mixed] with water." Verse 21 adds that later "he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and the vessels of the ministry."[38] Not once does the Holy Spirit refer to a baptism by immersion, but three times He speaks of sprinkling.[39] Thus when Dagg translates Hebrews 9:10 as "divers immersions," we can only wonder at how zealously men will seek to cling to a pet theory.[40]


One evasion would be to admit that the baptisms (baptismos) of Hebrews 9:10 were indeed effected by sprinkling, but to argue that this is not determinative for the meaning of the verb baptizein. This argument, however, will not do. Greek nouns with the suffix "-mos" indicate the abstract name for the action. If baptizein means to immerse or dip, then Dagg is correct: Hebrews 9:10 must be translated "divers immersions." Since the context forbids this, baptizein does not mean to immerse or dip.[41]


From our consideration of baptizein in Scripture, it is clear that it does not always and only mean "to immerse."[42] Moreover, even if it could be proved that baptism was effected by immersion in a few places, the baptist view still would not hold water. Just one example of a baptism not by dipping is enough to falsify the baptist position; and we have found several such examples. Therefore, the Word of God does not forbid but permits baptism by sprinkling or pouring. Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not disobeying the Scriptures in their mode of baptism.

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