Sorry it took me a while to get back to this thread. The “Hebrew and Greek with Heiser” courses started this past weekend, so I had a bit of work to do for those.

I want to post something in regard to the mode of baptism. Naturally, most churches that baptize infants use sprinkling, while most who reject infant baptism use immersion.  There is some boundary-crossing in certain circumstances, and you can go to a Greek Orthodox Church to have your infant immersed (quickly)!  So who’s right?  Before I chime in on this, here are some comments on the mode of water baptism from several theology books. Hint: They all have one thing in common with respect to discussing the meaning of the Greek word behind baptism, baptizo. See if you can guess what it is before I spill the beans.

The principal supports of the mode by immersion are (a) the custom in the patristic church of immersing in the laver of the baptistery and (b) the classical meaning of bapto and baptizo.

Concerning the first argument, it is to be noticed, first, that the baptistery dates from a period when Christianity had become powerful and able to erect churches with all the appointments of an imposing ritual. The apostolic church could not do this. The baptistery and laver are as late as the fourth century. Furthermore, the first baptismal fonts were too small for immersing. The fresco in the catacombs of St. Calixtus (a.d. 200 according to Rossi) represents the rite administered by pouring from the vessel upon the person standing upright. The “Teaching of the Apostles” (a.d. 160) says that baptism may be performed by pouring. Second, a more profuse application of water than that of sprinkling or pouring belongs to a period in the history of the church when baptism was held to be regeneration itself. If water be efficacious when applied by the officiating minister, then immersion would be deemed more efficacious than sprinkling. Immersion grew with the growth of the sacramentarian theory of baptism and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

Respecting the classical meaning of bapto and baptizo, it is to be observed that these words had no technical or ritual signification in classical Greek. They were never used to denote a pagan rite. There were purifying rites in the Greek and Roman worship, but they were not called “baptisms.” The Greeks denominated their purifying rite katharsis, and the Romans theirs lustratio. Sprinkling was the mode in both. The nouns baptismos and baptisma are not in the classical vocabulary. They were coined by Jews and Christians from baptizo in order to denote the rite of purification in the Jewish and Christian churches. Consequently, it is the secondary technical use in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, not the primary untechnical meaning in the Greek classics, which must be considered in determining the mode of baptism.

The classical meaning of bapto and baptizo is to dip into water, to sink under water, to dye or tinge in a fluid. The classical meaning favors baptism by immersion, as the classical meaning of sacramentum proves that the Christian sacrament is an oath. But in Hebraistic and New Testament Greek, bapto and baptizo are employed in a secondary ceremonial signification to denote a Jewish and Christian rite. Consequently, their meaning in the Septuagint and New Testament must be determined by their ritual and historical use, not by their classical. The word pagans (pagani), etymologically and classically, denoted persons living in the villages (pagi) outside of the large towns and cities. Classically, pagans were “villagers.” As Christianity spread first among the inhabitants of the cities, the villagers were the unevangelized; and thus “pagan” came to mean “heathen” instead of “villager.” Similarly, bapt? and baptiz?, which in heathenism denoted any unceremonial, nonritual immersion into water, when adopted by Judaism and Christianity, came to have the secondary signification of a ceremonial sprinkling or effusion of water. And he who argues that baptism means immersion in the Scriptures because in the classics the primary meaning of bapto and baptizo is “to immerse” commits the same error with him who should argue that a pagan is a villager because this was the original signification of paganus or that the Christian sacramentum is an oath and not a symbol because this is its meaning in Livy and Tacitus.

The word baptizo is employed in the Septuagint to signify a ritual purification performed by applying water to a person or thing so as to wet it more or less, but not all over and entirely. The passages that have been quoted prove indisputably that the mode in which the baptismal water of ritual purification was applied under the levitical law was sprinkling or pouring. There was no immersion of the body in the sacramental baptism for guilt or in the ceremonial baptism for pollution. And the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit is pouring, not immersing. There is no good reason for supposing that the New Testament use of baptizo is different from that of the Septuagint.1

A couple of comments on this selection from Shedd.

1. He states, “But in Hebraistic and New Testament Greek, bapto and baptizo are employed in a secondary ceremonial signification to denote a Jewish and Christian rite. Consequently, their meaning in the Septuagint and New Testament must be determined by their ritual and historical use, not by their classical . . .” This really isn’t correct. The word bapto appears in the NT outside “ritual” contexts (see Luke 16:24 [“dip” = bapto ]; John 13:26 [“dip” = bapto the morsel – doesn’t seem to be a specifically ritual act here to me]; Rev 19:13 [white robe “dipped” in blood = bapto]. All this is to say that this neat qualifier isn’t so neat at all.

2. Regarding his argument from the Septuagint (LXX). The lemma baptizoactually occurs four times in the LXX (English translations are from the NETS translation of the LXX):

Isaiah 21:4 – “My heart wanders, and lawlessness overwhelms (baptizo) me; my soul has turned to fear.”

Judith 12:7 – “[Judith] went out each night into the ravine of Baityloua and bathed (baptiz??? ) at the spring of water.”

Sirach 24:25 (in the most recent English translation of the LXX, this verse is Sirach 34:30)- “When one bathes (baptiz??? ) due to a corpse and when one touches it again, what did he gain by his washing?”

2 Kings 5:14 – “And Naiman went down and immersed (baptizo) himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the word of Elisaie, and his flesh returned like the flesh of a small child, and he was cleansed.”

2 Kings 5:14 is accurately translated as “immerse” since the Hebrew word used in MT here for Naaman’s action means “to plunge” (it is not the normal word for “wash”). The imagery of Isaiah 21:4 appears best described with immersion (or at least something pretty thorough). That said, the other two references cannot be said to exclusively point to either immersion, pouring, or washing. It is conceivable any and all of those actions could be in view in “bathing.” The paragraph from Shedd assumes (on the Sirach verse) that the person in view would be careful to observe levitical law (and it is assumed that is in view, which also isn’t clear).

Here’s another selection from a current systematic theology.

Baptist apologists support their claim by contending that (1) baptizo, has the root meaning “to dip” or “to immerse,” (2) John 3:23 implies that immersion was the mode of baptism John the Baptist employed from the fact that he was baptizing in Aenon near Salem “because there was plenty of water [hydata polla, literally “many waters”] there,” (3) New Testament descriptions of actual acts of baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:9, 10; Acts 8:36–39) support immersion as the proper mode of baptism, and (4) Romans 6:3–6 and Colossians 2:11–12 explicitly make the burial and resurrection of Christ the pattern for the mode of baptism, that is to say, just as Christ was buried so also to represent his death to sin the baptized party is to be immersed in water, and just as Christ rose from the dead so also to depict his resurrection to newness of life the baptized party is to emerge from water.

None of these contentions can be sustained. With reference to the meaning of baptizo while it may sometimes mean “to dip,” there are several New Testament contexts where it must mean simply “to wash,” with no specific mode of washing indicated. For example, [the word] hardly means “was immersed” in Luke 11:38, where we are informed that a certain Pharisee, “noticing that Jesus did not first wash [literally “was not baptized”] before the meal, was surprised.” Surely this Pharisee did not expect Jesus (note that Jesus the person is the subject of the verbal action and not simply Jesus’ hands) to be immersed in water before every meal! Surely his surprise was provoked by Jesus not ritually washing his hands before eating, in keeping with the ceremony referred to in Matthew 15:2 and Mark 7:3–4, most probably by having water poured over them (see the practice alluded to in 2 Kgs. 3:11 and Luke 7:44).

Speaking of Mark 7:3–4, in verse 4 we read: “And [when they come] from the marketplace, except they ceremonially wash [baptisontai, literally ‘baptize themselves’] they do not eat.” Surely again, baptisontai, cannot mean that “the Pharisees and all the Jews” immersed themselves every time they returned home from the market.?2

I think Reymond’s observations about baptizo are fair; it does seem clear that word doesn’t *have* to mean  “immerse.” We’ve learned that the word itself doesn’t tell us anything conclusive about the mode of baptism. So now what? It’s at this point that the Baptist side will take us to Romans 6:3-5 and argue that the imagery of baptism favors immersion:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
The point here for Baptists is that the motion of immersing into water and bringing the person out of the water in baptism mimics the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The mode of baptism, then, it is argued, MUST be immersion since this death-burial-resurrection mime is *the point* of the mode. Having been (spiritually) raised in Baptist circles, I’m sympathetic to this view. It makes sense, regardless of how badly the same Baptists will desperately want Romans 6 to be a “dry” passage (not about water baptism) when it comes to debating Catholics and Lutherans on baptism, who see Romans 6 as a wet passage that points to some sort of regenerative act (however that be defined)!  I’ll give the Baptists their “mimic” argument here, but that begs a question: is that the *only* potential *point* or meaning to the acts involved in the mode?  I think not. Frankly, the Baptist argument for the mode is twofold: (1) the MOTION the recipient undergoes (death/going into the water; burial/under the water; and resurrection/brought out of the water); and (2) the places where baptizo clearly means “immerse” or “dip” in the NT.  But what if the *point* of baptism isn’t the motion? What if the point is the RESULT of the dipping — a RESULT that, in point of fact, isn’t dependent on a ritual picture-act that involves going down and coming back up? What I’m speaking of here as a “result” is membership in the body of Christ. For believers who are baptized, that would mean membership in the “universal” or “spiritual” body of Christ; i.e., a testimony of such unity that comes with faith in Christ. For infants, this would mean membership in the visible manifestation of the body of Christ — the local church, the place where the gospel is transmitted and preserved, a la our last post. If the *point* is this sort of result (depending on the recipient), then the mode is incidental (any mode would accomplish the teaching point of the rite). The truth is that we are not given complete clarity on the issue of mode in the biblical text. I’m willing to live with any mode.  My only real non-negotiable is the integrity of the gospel in how we view baptism (see Part 6).  When the data are not conclusive, we shouldn’t act as though they are.
  1. William Greenough Thayer Shedd and Alan W. Gomes, Dogmatic Theology (“First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1); 3rd ed.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2003), 820.
  2. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Lectures delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.;Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 930.