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 Issues | Infant Baptism | Manner

The Child's Right to Baptism

J. Stafford Wright


1. The Manner of Baptism

Is Immersion the only valid form of Baptism?

The answer turns upon two points:

  1. The meaning of the Greek word Baptizo.
  2. The use of the word in Scripture.

It is often said that Baptizo means to immerse. This is true. But it means more than is popularly understood by immersion. It is not the same as Bapto, which means to dip in and out again, but it has an intensive force, and means to submerge and keep under. The contrast is seen in Greek literature, where the two words Bapto and Baptizo are applied to ships. The former is used for a ship in a storm dipping under the waves and up again; while the latter is used of a ship that is sunk for good. It is also used of men who have been drowned.

It thus appears that the dipping practised by many people represents the idea of Bapto rather than Baptizo. In the New Testament the two words are not confused, and the word Bapto is never used of Christian Baptism.

In the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament and Apocrypha Baptizo is only used of a ceremonial washing (2 Kings 5. 14, Judith 12. 7, Ecclesiasticus 31. 25), and it has this sense when we come to the New Testament. But even so it still retains its root meaning of submersion, though in a metaphorical sense. The metaphorical use is found in Isaiah 21. 4 (“Wickedness baptises me”) and in Greek literature, where we have the thought of a person being baptised by debts (i.e., hopelessly in debt), or of a person being baptised into drunkenness. References to all these uses may be found in the new (1940) edition of Lidddell and Scott's Greek Lexicon.

Judaism and Christianity took up this metaphorical use of the word Baptizo. With the exception of Mark 1.9 the New Testament never speaks of a person being baptised into water (as we should have expected if the thought of literal immersion was present). but of being baptised with or by water into a new spiritual sphere or relationship in which the person is to abide permanently, e.g., into the name of the Trinity (Matt. 28.19), or the name of Christ (Acts 8.16). or into the death of Christ (Rom. 6. 3), or into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12. 13). In other words, nothing is said about the manner in which the water is applied, but the thought is directed towards the significance and end of Baptism.

That Christian Baptism was not necessarily (or even usually) by immersion, appears from certain New Testament texts. In the Greek of Luke 11.38 the Pharisee marvels that Christ had not been baptised before dinner. He obviously did not expect Jesus to immerse Himself, but he was surprised that He had not first used the customary ceremonial sprinkling with water. The water pots mentioned in John 2.6 were for this purpose, and the guests would hardly be expected to immerse themselves in these!

In Hebrews 9.9,10, the writer refers to divers Baptisms practised in connection with the Tabernacle worship. The Greek is Baptismoi, a masculine variant of the usual neuter Baptismata. There were many cases of sprinkling and washing in the Tabernacle ceremonies, but none of immersion (Num. 8.6,7; Lev. 14.7; Lev. 8.5,6). If the word Baptism carried with it the necessary idea of immersion, the writer could not have applied such a word to the Tabernacle ceremonies.

No “Baptist” to-day could possibly use the word Baptism of sprinkling or pouring. Yet the New Testament does.

The difficulties of immersing the 3,000 on the day of Pentecost have often been pointed out, as also the difficulty of finding a place in an Eastern prison where a jailer could be immersed in the middle of the night (Acts 16). The arguments in favour of immersion that depend upon people going down into the water are really beside the point. Whatever method of applying the water was practices, convenience would suggest that both baptise and baptised should stand in the pool or stream. Early pictures in the catacombs show this: the baptism is pouring water on the head of the one who stands with him in the stream.

Scripture lays down no rules as to the method, but the general implication seems to be that some form of sprinkling or pouring wits the usual method. The Old Testament “Baptisms” were of this nature, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is spoken of as the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples (Acts. 1.3,8). When the cleansing under the New Covenant is spoken of in Ezekiel 36. 25-27, it is called a sprinkling. Since it is likely that Christ had this Scripture in mind in John 3.5. baptism by sprinkling fulfils the type of the New Birth better than baptism by immersion.

This is not to say that New Testament Baptism was never by immersion. The picture of Romans 6.4 suggests this. But equally the picture of Galatians 3.27 suggests allusion, or pouring, so that the water flows down the body and “clothes” the Christian. (Cp. Psalm 133.2).


>> 2 The Subjects of Baptism

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