Baptism – Immersion, Sprinkling, and Pouring

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Word meanings can change over time. Today, baptism has become a general term within Christianity that encompasses sprinkling, pouring and immersing but only the latter is accurate to the Greek meaning of the word “baptism” in the New Testament and practice of the early church. If you doubt that please read the previous post, consult a good Greek New Testament lexicon, or have a look at Ferguson’s book, Baptism in the Early Church, 47-59  where he cites countless examples from extra-biblical literature where baptism is used to mean immersion. Here is his conclusion from, which was quoted in the previous post,

“Baptizo meant to dip, usually through submerging, but it also meant to overwhelm and so could be used whether the object was placed in an element (which was more common) or was overwhelmed by it (often in the metaphorical usages)…Pouring and sprinkling were distinct actions that were represented by different verbs and this usage too continued in Christian sources. When the latter speak of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit or the sprinkling of blood, they do not use baptize for these actions.” (Ferguson, 59)

The New Testament authors had other words at their disposal to talk about pouring and sprinkling and actually used them. They just never used them to describe immersion because pouring, sprinkling and immersion are three different things. There are more examples I could cite but I will just cite one each to make the point.

Pour – εκχεω (echeo)

  • Acts 2:17-18 – “I will pour out my spirit on all people…I will pour out my spirit in those days.”

Sprinkle – ραντιζω (rantizo)

  • Hebrews 9:21 – “In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies.”

Immerse – βαπτιζω (baptizo)

  • Acts 2:41 – “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
  • Acts 8:36-39 – ” As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.

The question is how do those who practice pouring or sprinkling justify calling that baptism/immersion when that is neither the original meaning of the word or the practice of the early church.

Ferguson puts it like this,

“Submersion was undoubtedly the case for the fourth and fifth centuries in the Greek East and only slightly less certain for the Latin West. Was this a change from an earlier practice, a selection out of options previously available, or a continuation of the practice of the first three centuries? It is the contention of this study that the last interpretation best accords with the available facts. Unless one has preconceived ideas about how an immersion would be performed, the literary, art and archaeological evidence supports this conclusion. The express statements in the literary sources, supported by other hints, the depictions in art, and the very presence of specially built baptismal fonts, along with their size and shape, indicate that the normal procedure was for the administrator with his head on the baptizand’s head to bend the upper part of the body forward and dip the head under the water. Whether the person was standing, kneeling, or sitting may have varied in different circumstances, but in the art the one baptized is standing.” (p.857-858)

He continues on pouring and sprinkling,

“The only viable alternative interpretation of the evidence that would account for the fonts is a partial immersion in which the baptismal candidate stood in water and the administrator poured water over the upper part of the body, but this is largely conjectural. This interpretation is not really supported by paintings and sculpture…and with little (and that dubious) literary support. A pouring or sprinkling did occur in two special circumstances: a lack of water and (more often) sickbed or deathbed conversions. Both were treated as exceptional, second choice, and undesirable alternatives.” (p.858)

Ferguson is right, immersion was the common practice for several hundred years. He is also correct that pouring and sprinkling did begin at some point in the first few hundred years of the church’s existence. When? No one can say with 100% certainty but it appears to have had some separation from the first century church. You can see where pouring and sprinkling comes from. Some guy is about to die, he repents and a pool of water is too far away. What do you do in that moment? Let’s say you sprinkle the guy and he dies. Okay…so you did the best you could. Does that then justify making sprinkling or pouring the practice from that point on for the rest of the church and those who come to the Lord? Is that justifiable? A few more questions…I really am curious how people who practice sprinkling and pouring would answer these:

  • Why do something other than the practice of the New Testament?
  • Why do something other than the teaching of the New Testament?
  • Why do something other than what Jesus went through himself?
  • Why do something other than what Jesus commissioned us to do in Matthew 28:19, other than what Peter taught the crowd and did to the crowd in Acts 2:38-41, and other than what Paul went through himself in Acts 9:18?
  • Why adopt an alternative practice that is devoid of the beautiful symbolism described by Paul in Romans 6?
  • Why do something other than the teaching of  the New Testament when immersion is not done with great difficulty. It is not like we live in the desert and this is near impossible. It is not like it is going to take that much extra effort to go from from sprinkling to immersing. What’s the hold up? I would say it is being stuck in tradition. Is that justifiable?

Last, we all have to realize it is God who does the saving. In Churches of Christ we have sometimes sounded like the water does the saving. It is important reminder that God forgives sins, not water. And yet God has told us what to do in faith for our sins to be forgiven (Acts 2:38), how we are united with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Rom 6:1-7, Col 2:12), and which gives us a clean conscience toward God (1 Peter 3:21). That response is immersion.

I am not here to judge someone else’s servant. I am not here to point fingers. I am here to say let’s have a good look at what was taught and practiced in the New Testament and by faith (over tradition) practice and teach what we find there. I hope this has been helpful to you. If you have any comments, questions, or answers to my list of questions above please comment below. I look forward to the discussion.

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