committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs




The Case for Immersion at Present.



For one man to shout, "it is!" and another to shout back, "it is not!"?a reiterated affirmation on the one hand and a reiterated denial on the other?is a see-saw of contradiction, rather than a logical process. It must be confessed that the long-drawn baptismal controversy Sometimes seems to degenerate into such a contradiction, issuing in little progress towards unanimity, or other fruits of the Spirit. The careful observer, however, will find evidences of an awakening conscience in many quarters on this subject, and it cannot be in vain for Baptists, in all charity, to continue to affirm their Strong conviction on a matter which so large a portion of the Christian world seems determined to ignore.

"The Case for immersion at Present" is the theme assigned to me. An adequate statement of "the case will require some space, and some patience on the part of the reader.

The Meaning of the Word.

The case for immersion, as based upon the meaning of the Greek word translated "baptize" in our English Bible, is as convincing as it is possible for evidence to make it. The purposes of this article require a brief presentation of this evidence. Liddell & Scott?s Greek Lexicon is a universally accepted standard among scholars. It gives immersion, and immersion only, as the meaning of the Greek word baptizo. This applies to classic as well as New Testament Greek. Grimm?s Wilke?s Lexicon of New Testament Greek says the word means to submerge, to wash by submerging. In the New Testament the word means "an immersion in water, intended as a sign of sins washed away, &c." This lexicon gives no other meaning of the word. Cremer?s Lexicon says the word means "submerge," and in the New Testament "submersion for a religious purpose." Thayer?s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, which is a translation, revision, and enlargement of Grimm?s Wilke?s Lexicon, gives an extended definition of baptizo in its various New Testament connections, and it is uniformly the same as in the lexicons named above?to submerge, to dip, to plunge. The figurative uses of the word are all based upon the same meaning. Testimony from other lexicons might be given. I will only add that of Professor Sophocles, in his Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine period, from B.C. 140 to A.D. 1100. He gives the meaning which is found in all the standard lexicons?to dip, plunge, submerge. In addition, he cites Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Gregory, Epiphanius, Origen, Cyril, and others of the earthly fathers, in proof of this meaning. The testimony of the fathers is well-nigh universal in favor of immersion for over 400 years. Modern Greeks regard the translation of the word baptizo, "to sprinkle," as absurd. Dr. Broadus quotes a modern Greek scholar as saying:

"The church of the West commits an abuse of words and of ideas in practicing baptism by aspersion, the mere statement of which is itself a ridiculous contradiction."

The above position is abundantly sustained on the authority of the reformers of the sixteenth century, as well as by evidence from great numbers of modern scholars. Martin Luther advocated a return to immersion as the New Testament form of baptism. John Calvin admitted that immersion only was the original mode, but that the form was a matter of indifference. Dr. Doellinger, a Roman Catholic scholar of very high standing, has said that, as to the mode of baptism, "the Baptists are, from the Protestant standpoint, unassailable, since for their demand of baptism by submersion they have the clear Bible text." innumerable modern scholars of all denominations maintain the position that immersion only was the New Testament form of baptism. In Germany, two names of interest are Meyer, the great commentator, and Harnack, the great historian. The latter wrote, some years ago, a very interesting letter to Dr. C. E. W. Dobbs, in reply to questions about the meaning of the Greek word, and especially as to whether a "sacred sense" of the word baptizein is ever to be understood, allowing sprinkling instead of immersion. Dr. Harnack wrote, in part, as follows: "Baptizein undoubtedly signifies immersion. No proof can be found that it signifies anything else in the New Testament, and in the most ancient Christian literature. The suggestion regarding a sacred sense is out of the question. There is no passage in the New Testament which suggests the supposition that any New Testament author attached to the word any other sense than to immerse." Dr. Harnack wrote the above as a statement on "the present state of opinion among German scholars."

Besides the above, practically all the great names of scholars of the Church of England who have expressed themselves on the point might be quoted in support of the view that immersion, and immersion only, was the form of baptism taught by the New Testament.

In view of the above array of evidence, it would seem that "the case for immersion at present" is closed, if we confine our view to the meaning of the Greek word of which it is the translation.

The "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles."

The above document revived interest in the baptismal controversy upon its publication, some seventeen years ago. Being a witness raised up out of its grave, so to speak, in the Jerusalem library, and dating from about the middle of the second century, its testimony as to baptism was examined with great eagerness by all parties. Both immersionists and anti-immersionists claimed the document in confirmation of their respective views. Baptists have every reason for the claim that in no degree does the "Teaching of the Twelve" weaken their position as to the teaching of the New Testament. Its instructions on the subject of baptism are pronounced in favor of immersion. In brief, it directs that baptism shall be "in living water; and if this be not convenient, in other water; and if not in cold water, baptize in warm." Finally, if water in sufficient quantity for immersion be not found, then "pour water thrice upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." it is perfectly clear from the testimony of the "Teaching" that its writer held to immersion as the original and proper mode of baptism. The fact that pouring as an alternative mode in certain contingencies is prescribed does not destroy the force of the teaching as to immersion. The only open question which is left by this document is whether or not the direction about pouring was, in the mind of its author, based upon apostolic example and precept, or upon other considerations. The evidence in favor of the latter view is overwhelming. The following facts shed light on the point. Cyprian (A.D. 200-257) wrote a tract in defense of clinical baptism (i.e., baptism of sick people), against those who denied its validity. It was commonly held about this time that, although in certain cases of sickness pouring was allowable as a substitute for immersion, it was defective baptism and disqualified for the priesthood. Moreover, Schaff says it was probably because Novatian had been baptized by aspersion, when on a sick-bed, that he failed of re-election to the see of Rome, and that this fact became "the occasion of a subsequent schism which attended his name." As to the existence in the age after the apostles of substitutes for immersion, Baptists do not make denial. But the very fact that the substitutes are never adhered to as resting on scriptural authority, and the further fact that they are dealt with and treated as departures from the customary mode, and especially because it was necessary to defend them against many who rejected them, the conclusion is unavoidable that they arose after apostolic times: The adequate cause for their introduction is found in the exaggerated importance attached to baptism, and the supposed peril of unbaptized persons at the point of death. The Greek word employed in "The Teaching" to set forth the three-fold pouring which is admitted as a last resort is a word never once used in the New Testament in connection with baptism.

The Witness of History.

Let us glance at the case for immersion as witnessed by Christian history. The briefest survey is all that is possible within the limits of this article. The following are the facts: First of all, there is no shred of evidence that the New Testament form of baptism (immersion) was ever departed from in New Testament times. At an early date, however, clinic baptisms by pouring or sprinkling came into vogue. These clinic baptisms were not the rule, but the exception, and were practiced for the benefit of the sick, and were never urged on direct scriptural grounds. Immersion continued to be the usual and the preferred mode for over a thousand years. In the Greek church, immersion has ever been and is still the practice. The longer catechism of the Russian church declares that "trine immersion in water is most essential." Similar witness is borne by Professor Philaret Bapheidos, of the Russian church, and author of a Church History, and many other living writers testify to the same effect. In the Roman church, immersion continued the rule until the thirteenth century. In the Anglican church, there is abundant evidence in favor of immersion as the ancient and biblical form of baptism. In theory, the church of England still holds to immersion, as is evidenced by the Prayer Book and other authorities. In the rubric of the Church of England we read, as to the baptism of infants: "Shall dip the child in water; but, if they certify that the child is weak, it shall suffice to pour water upon it" The witness of Christian history is, therefore, conclusive as to the original mode of baptism. The admission of other forms was due to circumstances and expediency, and not to Scripture teaching. The Protestant world which practices sprinkling, therefore, must maintain it on grounds which are at variance with the fundamental principle of Protestants?the Bible alone the authority in matters of faith and practice.

Immersion Viewed in its Relations.

Baptism, when viewed in its relations, strongly reinforces our contention for immersion as distinguished from all other so-called modes of baptism. This ordinance is not to be viewed apart from its connections in the Christian system. For one thing, it is related in its very form to most vital Christian doctrine. Death, burial, and resurrection are strikingly symbolized by the act of baptism. A complete purification and cleansing from sin are also thus set forth. A death to the old, a resurrection to a new life, are among the truths which receive graphic portrayal in the baptismal act of obedience to Christ. Rev. William Sandy, D. D., LL. D., author of a very able recent commentary on Romans, says, in connection with Romans 6:1-14: "Baptism expresses symbolically a series of acts corresponding to the redeeming acts of Christ: Immersion?death; submersion?burial (the ratification of death); emergence-resurrection." Now, so far from being unimportant because a mere external form, is baptism, its real importance arises from the fact that it is a form. Now, we do not exalt the ordinance of baptism over against the truth of the atonement or other great doctrines, and declare them of equal importance. Such comparisons are unnecessary. To set forms against doctrines, or doctrines against forms, is a thing unwarranted by Scripture. To arrive at an understanding of the importance of a form, we must inquire what use it subserves as a form, and what authority enjoins the form. As to the latter, Christ has spoken. This must suffice for all who accept him as Lord. As to the former, baptism as a symbol must remain unchanged in form. Symbols, in the nature of the case, cannot save. They can only represent pre-existing spiritual life. As a symbol, form is everything. This is true because only forms can serve as symbols. Truths cannot be symbolized by other truths. Abstract teachings cannot be symbolized by other abstractions. The fitness of the form to shadow forth truth is the determinative principle in the institution of forms. The ritualistic system of the Old Testament illustrates this at every point. Hence it follows that in its symbolic form it is all-important. Understand me; I do not say form is all-important in itself, or as compared with doctrine and life, but form, when employed as a means of setting forth truth?form utilized as a symbol?is all-important. This is true because form as a symbol is a "mould of doctrine." The doctrine is contained in the symbol as water is contained in a vessel. To mar the form is to destroy the doctrine, so far as the agency of the form is concerned, just as to break the vessel is to spill the water. Its utility as a symbol is gone the moment you alter its form. Then, too, to change baptism from immersion to sprinkling, when we remember the symbolic uses of the ordinance, is really to make less of doctrine than of form; for it is to make doctrine wait on form, rather than form on doctrine. If doctrine is important in comparison with form, then we should begin with doctrine, and make the symbol conform to the requirements of doctrine. When we alter the form, we compel the doctrine to take its chances for adequate representation in a mutilated form. Doctrine is the jewel, form is the casket. Caskets are made for jewels, not jewels for caskets. Who ever heard of a dealer manufacturing a set of handsome jewel-cases, and then casting about for jewels to fit them? Baptists desire that the jewel of doctrine shall abide in its pristine beauty, and that the casket of a symbol shall match it in form, as in the beginning.

Another thought related to the foregoing is that Jesus always viewed things in their totality, and not in fragments. He enjoins truth and its expression. The tree is vindicated by its fruits; words are made good by deeds; life is authenticated by conduct. So, also, faith ripens into expression. The internal and the external are required to complete the Christian act. Baptism is the outward expression of the inward change. Baptism by immersion is not only the fitting expression of the inner life, it is the necessary complement to the Lord?s supper. The two ordinances shadow forth the supreme facts of the gospel. Christ?s death is symbolized in the supper, his burial and resurrection in the ordinance of baptism. Thus, in their relations to the Christian system, baptism and the supper occupy a position of unique value. They serve as a medium for the exhibition in striking form of the chief fundamental and vital facts as to Christ and the Christian. Was not this comprehensiveness a part of the design of Christ in instituting the Ordinances? Is it not evident that he meant these forms to serve as visible instrumentalities for thus setting forth before the eyes of men a complete gospel? If this completeness of representation was a part of Christ?s original design, can we depart from the forms, which are necessary to the symbolic completeness, without violating Christ?s will? We must find Christ?s point of view in leaving the ordinances to his churches, as well as seek to understand their significance; and, having found his point of view, we must adopt it as our own. The owner of certain grounds desired a landscape gardener?s services to lay them out with a view to a given effect from the portico of his residence, which stood on an elevation in the midst of the grounds. The gardener, during an absence of the owner, discovered what he regarded as a better effect from a different point of view, and laid out the grounds accordingly. But he was summarily dismissed upon the owner?s return, because of his disobedience, and because his new point of view left out of account the chief item in the owner?s plan?viz., the effect from the portico of his residence. The ordinances of baptism and the supper constitute a ceremonial survey of the landscape of Christian fact and doctrine, comprehending the chief vital facts. To break the form of baptism is to eliminate a part of its doctrinal significance. Sprinkling cannot symbolize burial and resurrection. The ordinance is thus left a mere fragmentary representation. Thenceforth the ordinances cease to give the completeness of representation which Christ designed. We thus lose his point of view.

It thus appears that an ordinance even must be viewed in its relations before it can be understood. As a mere form, it is nothing. As a form employed to symbolize vital truth, and as a supplement to another form symbolically setting forth other truth, and as a part of an arrangement for the complete exhibition of a group of truths, prescribed by a supreme will, it is much. A very minute wheel lying on a jeweler?s table is an insignificant thing; as a part of the machinery of a watch, it is indispensable; for without the tiny wheel the watch would not run, and would cease to nave utility as a timepiece.

The Other Side.

Various arguments and objections have been urged against the Baptist position. I can scarcely do more than name some of the more popular of these, and then briefly reply to the more important.

The old claim that the scarcity of water in Jerusalem must have prevented the immersion of 3,000 converts in one day by twelve men is met by the well-known fact that Jerusalem was amply provided with large pools and a water supply which sustained it through numerous sieges of several months duration, and when the supply was exhausted on the outside, it was abundant inside the city; and by the further demonstration, in the immersion of our Telugu converts, of the ability of twelve men to perform the above task. The claim for a "sacred sense" of the word baptizo in the Scriptures has never been made out, and is distinctly negated by the consensus of German scholarship, as represented by Professor Harnack, as well as the great mass of scholars of all Christian nations. The plea for sprinkling, on the ground that immersion is not always "practicable," is met by the explanation that what is "impracticable" is what cannot be done, and that what cannot be done is never commanded. The force of the argument based on the rigors of the colder climates is neutralized by the fact that in cold England immersion continued much longer than in Spain and some of the warmer climates of the south. The fact that many learned and good men have believed in sprinkling, which is a solace to some, should not stand a moment as an excuse for personal investigation on the part of all, and personal obedience to the commands of Christ. Few of the errors of Christian history in doctrine and life are without learned and good men as their advocates. It was often thus that they originated. Over against this fact is another, far more significant?viz., that there is an increasing demand for immersion on the part of the common people, with their English Bible in their hands. This demand is witnessed to a greater or less extent in every Protestant community. It has reached such proportions in the Church of England that more than 100 baptisteries, according to The Freeman, have been erected in recent years for the baptism of adults, and others are in process of construction. The truth is that, although the word "baptize" is not a translation, but a transference of the Greek original?thus obscuring its meaning?nevertheless, the act of baptism as described in the English Bible, and as expounded especially in the Epistles, is convincing in itself as to mode. The passages describing the baptism of Jesus in Jordan and the baptism of the Ethiopian, as well as other Scriptures, leave no escape for the plain reader from the conclusion that immersion is the baptism commanded in the New Testament.

There are two really important arguments against our position?important not in themselves, but in their prevalence and power over men. The first is that the church has the power to alter the form of baptism. This is the view of Roman Catholics. I need not delay to reply to it in detail. It raises the larger question as to the authority of the church. Baptists can never admit that any church is coordinate in authority with Christ himself. The Protestant world is guilty of a gross inconsistency whenever it admits the principle for a moment. The Bible, and the Bible only, as Christ?s revealed will, is authority for Protestants in matters of religion. Hence the clear-cut deliverance of Dr. Doellinger, as given earlier in this article. Roman Catholics grasp this vital distinction better than some who claim to oppose them.

The second of these important arguments is that based on Christian liberty. Among the scholars and the well-informed laity of today in all denominations which do not practice immersion this is the final and sufficient ground, consciously or unconsciously held, for adherence to another mode. The case for immersion as the original New Testament teaching and practice has been so completely made out that another position has become necessary. "If you retain the essence," they say, "you are not obliged to do more in matters of form; Christian liberty relieves you from slavish obedience in externals." The sufficient Baptist reply is not far to seek. In the first place, Christian liberty never admits of departure from positive commands which are of permanent obligation. In the application of general principles to specific cases which may arise, it is true that Christian liberty sometimes allows room for variation in conduct. But not in definite, positive commands. Now, those who practice sprinkling maintain that baptism is an ordinance of permanent obligation, and binding because commanded by Christ. As a symbol it sets forth certain doctrines. To retain the "essence" of the symbol, we must retain its form, as has already been shown. To alter the form so as to deprive it of power to symbolize death, burial, and resurrection, is to rob it of a part of its "essence" as a symbol. If Christian liberty is to be pleaded in the case, the Quakers alone represent the consistent position; for liberty to alter a form implies liberty to reject it entirely. Indeed, in this case, to alter is to reject in part, because to alter the form is in part to destroy the meaning. To reject in part involves liberty to reject altogether. The Quakers do this. If to the Quaker it should seem allowable, in the name of liberty, to reject baptism as a symbol of purification, burial, and resurrection, why should it seem allowable for a Methodist in the name of liberty to retain it as a symbol of purification, and reject it as a symbol of burial and resurrection? Why split the ordinance into parts, and deal with one part on the principle of obedience, and with the other on the principle of liberty? There is no middle ground between Baptists and Romanists on the issue as to the relative authority of the Scriptures and the church, and there is no middle ground between Baptists and Quakers on the issue as to the principle of Christian liberty in the matter of baptism.

Our survey of "the case for immersion at present" brings us to the following conclusion: That, in view of the classical and New Testament meaning of the Greek word for baptize, as learned from standard lexicons; in view of the testimony of the Christian fathers of the early centuries; in view of the "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"; in view of the testimony of Christian history; in view of the symbolic significance of baptism and the relation of its form to truth, to the Lord?s supper, to the will of Christ; and in view of the authoritativeness of the Bible, and of any proper interpretation of Christian liberty, the case for immersion seems abundantly proved.

Reader, have you obeyed your Lord in his appointed ordinance? Have you the witness of a conscience void of offence in this matter? Do you know the joy of obedience, which is vouchsafed to all who take up their cross and follow their Lord into the experience which he knew as he entered the waters of Jordan, saying, "Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness"?

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved