A Theology of Baptism

Baptists, unlike many other denominations, believe in baptism by immersion rather than by “sprinkling” or “pouring.” Three reasons that I know of are commonly cited:

  • The Greek word baptizo literally means to “immerse” or “submerge.”
  • The symbology of baptism as generally recognized is burial and resurrection, which is not adequately pictured by sprinkling or pouring.
  • The oldest known paintings of baptisms seem to depict immersions.

For me, personally, I must go by what I know from many years of studying the rich Jewish background of Christianity. If Scripture isn’t explicit about how to do something it commands us to do, then that is usually because when the Scripture was written, there was no ambiguity. The church started out 100% Jewish, and in fact “The Way”, as we were often called in the 1st Century, was regarded within and without as a Jewish sect. Another common name was “The Sect of the Nazarene”. Ritual purification by total immersion in “living waters” (a natural stream or one of thousands of constructed Jewish mikvot, or baptisteries), was required as a personal response to sin, and to prepare for almost any ritual event. I believe that Christian baptism following salvation and prior to admission to membership in a local assembly mirrors the Jewish practice of requiring a person to be ritually submerged prior to recognition of his or her conversion to Judaism.

Several years ago, one of my granddaughters was dating a boy who was a member of a Reformed congregation. She wanted to attend catechism classes with him. I agreed, with the stipulation that I would read a copy of the text for myself and review it with her. On at least two occasions I had lunch with the pastor of that church. He was teaching the classes, and we had some very friendly, but of course inconclusive, conversations about the doctrine he was teaching.

The text was Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine. Here are my responses to specific statements made in the chapter on Christian Baptism:

  1. Berkhof said, “We maintain that the mode is quite immaterial, as long as the fundamental idea of purification finds expression in the rite…It is perfectly evident from several passages that baptism symbolizes spiritual cleansing or purification” as opposed to death, burial and resurrection. We’ll start this list with a point of agreement. Berkhof lists a number of Scriptural references, but I will stick with just one of those here:

    1Pet 3:20-21. (CJB) [20] to those who were disobedient long ago, in the days of Noach, when God waited patiently during the building of the ark, in which a few people—to be specific, eight—were delivered by means of water. [21] This also prefigures what delivers us now, the water of immersion, which is not the removal of dirt from the body, but one’s pledge to keep a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah.

    The concept that Christian baptism represents Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection came into use early, and was supported by Paul, himself in Col 2:12, but that was not the original intent of the rite.
  2. “Jesus did not prescribe a certain mode of baptism, and the Bible never stresses any particular mode.” That is true precisely because it was not a new concept that needed to be explained. Christian baptism is patterned on the Jewish rites for ritual purification of new converts. The original writers of the Bible and their audiences, both in Israel and the Diaspora, were all intimately familiar with the Jewish purification rites, and there could have been no ambiguity on the forms required.
  3. “The word employed by [Greek translations of Jesus’ words] does not necessarily mean ‘to immerse,’ but may also mean ‘to purify by washing’.” To purify by washing is one application of the term. So is the process of dying a cloth. But both practically and linguistically, the method of doing either was by dipping something completely. Strong defines the root, bapto, as a verb meaning “to overwhelm, i.e., cover wholly with a fluid”, “to moisten” or “to dip”, and baptizo as “to make overwhelmed, or fully wet.” Thayer adds, “submerge” and “immerge” (immerse) and Vine illustrates all of these meanings. Linguistically, it is possible to derive a translation that includes something less than total submergence, but to do so in this instance ignores the cultural context under which the word was written and how it would have been understood by the two imminent Jewish theologians, Jesus and Paul.
  4. “From earliest times it was customary to baptize by sprinkling and pouring as well as by immersion. Purification was frequently, if not generally, effected by sprinkling during Old Testament times” (emphasis added). This is a true statement about ritual cleansing, but inapplicable to the subject of Christian baptism or the Jewish customs at its root. Berkhof is referring here to the purification of objects, and rituals like the washing of hands. There were many different types of purification rite specified in the Old Testament. Each type of purification had its own specified mode. Berkhof gives numerous scriptural examples, but in each case, the mode demonstrated was as commanded by God for the specific situation. Purification for the purpose of human conversion and for many types of personal defilement required complete submersion, down to the last hair on the head. In particular, purification by complete submersion was required for conversion to Judaism, so I’m very sure that for “conversion” to Christianity, that is what they, too, did.
  5. “The baptism with the Spirit certainly did not take place by immersion…” That’s a weak argument for the question of water baptism, and I don’t even think it’s true for spiritual! I’m very sure that Holy Spirit baptism requires metaphorically complete immersion in the Holy Spirit. If sprinkling with “tongues of fire” on the head (“sprinkling of the Holy Spirit”?) is what Berkhof had in mind, then where is my tongue of fire? I think I really have been “immersed” in the Spirit!
  6. “…nor did other baptisms mentioned in Scripture.” He gave three examples here that I think are instructive:

    (a) Lk 11:37-38, (CJB) [37] As Yeshua* spoke, a Parush* [Pharisee] asked him to eat dinner with him; so he went in and took his place at the table; [38] and the Parush* was surprised that he didn’t begin by doing n’tilat yadayim [ritual handwashing] before the meal.

    (b) Lk 12:49-51, (CJB) [49] “I have come to set fire to the earth! And how I wish it were already kindled! [50] I have an immersion to undergo—how pressured I feel till it’s over! [51] Do you think that I have come to bring peace in the Land? Not peace, I tell you, but division! Jesus is speaking here of His coming ordeal, His crucifixion and the ultimate division that that will cause in the final judgement. His “baptism of fire”, so to speak.

    And (c) 1Cor 10:1-2 (CJB) [1] For, brothers, I don’t want you to miss the significance of what happened to our fathers. All of them were guided by the pillar of cloud, and they all passed through the sea, [2] and in connection with the cloud and with the sea they all immersed themselves into Moshe* [Moses]. Jesus is speaking metaphorically about the Reed Sea crossing by the Israelites. Of course, they, unlike the Egyptians behind them, were not literally immersed.
  7. “Neither does it seem that this mode was followed in the cases mentioned in Acts.” Berkhof here provides several references: Saul’s immersion after his road to Damascus encounter; the Gentile conversions at the house of Cornelius; and the Philippian jailer and his family. Nowhere do these verses mention the mode followed. They just say, in effect, “they were baptized.” I think that Berkhof is here assuming that there simply was no place handy for a complete immersion. He’s wrong. Every synagogue in every town with 10 or more male Jews had its own mikvah. Where there was no mikvah, there was a river or stream that could be used as it was or dredged or dammed to form a deep enough pool.

    A Jewish mikvah at Qumran, ©2008, Ron Thompson
  8. “Spiritual renewal is sometimes said to have been effected by sprinkling.” Where sprinkling is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is usually blood or oil, sprinkled in specific places for specific reasons. Water is sprinkled, literally, in only two contexts, where the vast amounts of water that would be required for full immersion were impractical: (a) The initial consecration of the Levites—all of them—at the “commissioning” of the tabernacle. And (b) at red heifer ceremonies, when many objects and people were to be cleansed more or less simultaneously. The one Old Testament example given by Berkhof was

    Ez 36:24-26 (CJB)
    [24] For I will take you from among the nations,
    gather you from all the countries,
    and return you to your own soil.
    [25] Then I will sprinkle clean water on you,
    and you will be clean;
    I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness
    and from all your idols.
    [26] I will give you a new heart
    and put a new spirit inside you;
    I will take the stony heart out of your flesh
    and give you a heart of flesh.

    This was, of course, poetic language referring to the New Covenant and to the Olam HaBa (the end-time world to come), and not at all meant to be taken literally. God was speaking, through Ezekiel, about what He will do, not to an individual, but to the entire Nation of Israel. If it was meant to be taken literally, God is also promising to rip out their old hearts and spirits and replace them with new!

    Berkhof also inserts a New Testament example here:

    Heb 10:22 (CJB)
    [22] Therefore, let us approach the Holiest Place with a sincere heart, in the full assurance that comes from [faith]—with our hearts sprinkled clean from a bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    In this event, hearts are metaphorically sprinkled (since you can’t do that literally, let alone completely immerse it), but bodies are literally immersed.

Note the important point that salvation was never a result of ritual. Even in Temple days, Jewish salvation was by God’s grace, as a result of the individual’s faith in God. All ritual was an obedient response by a believing heart. Inevitably, many Church customs have evolved over the millennia. God’s grace will not condemn a “sprinkler”, but I prefer to do it right.