The Patriarch: Immersion Only?

Following his previous article on Infant Baptism, Archbishop Craig Bates, Patriarch of the International Communion of the Charismatic Church, issued this response to questions regarding immersion versus effusion (sprinkling) in Baptism.  The article was originally posted on the web-site of the Church of the Intercessor, Malverne, NY, and has been blatantly stolen and republished here.

After posting an article on Baptism several have asked me to address the question of immersion.  The real question, for some, is whether or not baptism by “infusion” (pouring) is a valid baptism.  This has lead some well meaning Christians to consider a “second baptism” since they believe that their first baptism, usually as an infant (a concern I addressed in the previous article), is invalid.  They would argue that one must be fully “immersed” or “dunked”, i.e., their entire body including their head must go under the water.

The New Testament gives no specific directions on how to administer the sacrament of baptism, with the exception of using water.  However, those who support the concept of fully “immersing” or “dunking” argue that the Greek word “baptizo” means just that.  They argue that baptism reflects the symbolic significance of being “buried” and “raised” with Christ.  (Romans 6.3-4)

As a Pastor, I have had the joy of baptizing several adults (all never having been previously baptized) in either the ocean, a river, or a swimming pool.  It was a wonderful occasion and the symbolism was indeed powerful.  I have also had the joy of being present at an Eastern Orthodox Rite of baptism where the child was fully “immersed” into the water (with the exception of the head upon which water was poured).  Again there was a powerful symbol of the naked child being immersed and then dressed in the white gown of baptism symbolizing the new righteousness.  But though these events were joyful and moving they are not arguments for eliminating the well-established practice of “pouring” or “sprinkling” as practiced by the vast majority of Christians.

It is true that the Greek word “baptizo” is often translated “immersion.”  In the story of Naaman, at the direction of the prophet, Naaman went to the Jordon and “dipped” himself seven times in the Jordon.  The Greek word here, as translated in the Septuagint 2 Kings 5.14, is “baptizo”.

“Baptizo” is not always translated as “immersed” or “immersion.”  In other contexts the word is used to mean “to wash” or “to clean up before dinner.”  In Luke 11.38, Jesus has been invited to dine at the home of a Pharisee.  The Pharisee was surprised that Jesus did not first wash (“baptizo”) before dinner.  Certainly this does not suggest that Jesus failed to totally or fully place himself under water (take a full bath) prior to dinner.

Mark 7.3-4 states, the Pharisees “do not eat unless they wash (Greek word ‘nipto’) their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, to do not eat unless they wash (Greek word ‘baptiso’).”  So, we see in these two places that the word ‘baptiso” can be translated not only as immersion but also as cleansing.  In other places it is used for “ritual washing”.

The word “baptize” or “baptisma” is often used in a metaphorical or figurative manner.  In other words, there can be an event in a person’s life that is figurative immersion as in the case where Jesus is speaking in Luke 12.50, “I have a baptism “baptisma” to be baptized “baptize” with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished.”   In Mark 10.38, he asks his disciples “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized (“baptisma”) in with the baptism (“baptizo”) that I am baptized (“baptisma”).”  And, the in Mark 10.39, he tells them that discipleship will result in such a baptism (“baptisma”).  This of course does not refer to a second “water baptism” but rather that Jesus will be “immersed” into the suffer of the cross for our redemption and that as followers of Christ we to will be required to “pick up our cross” (Luke 9.23)

Jesus tells his disciples that they shall be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1.5).  In fact we read it Luke 24.49 and again in Acts 1.4, Jesus is insistent that they not leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father – the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  This of course fulfills what we read in Mark 1.8, John says, “I indeed baptized (“baptizo”) with water, but He will baptize (“baptizo”) with the Holy Spirit.”

Does this mean they were “dunked” with the Holy Spirit?  No, in Acts 2.17-18, 33) we see that the Holy Spirit was “poured” out on them.  Later Peter tells us that the Spirit “fell” upon them.  And, we read of other events where persons are “baptized with the Holy Spirit”.  Clearly the word “baptizo” is not limited to the concept of “dunking” but can also include a metaphorical “immersion” or in the case of the Holy Spirit a “pouring” or “falling upon.”

I would conclude, as have the vast majority of Christians throughout the centuries, that to limit the use of the word “baptizo” to always meaning “immersion”, “full immersion under water”, or “dunking” is at best an over simplification and more so limits the concept of new life or new birth that our God wants, by grace, to convey to us.  The Christian community adopted the secular Greek word “baptizo” and gave it a far deeper theological meaning.

In fact, far before the Christian community adopted the word the Jews used it, particularly the Essene community, to signify a “ritual washing”.  We know that the Gentile converts to Judaism under went a “baptism” before being circumcised.  John the Baptist practiced a “baptism of repentance” suggesting that the Jews were in much a need of “conversion” or “purification” as the Gentiles.  The word Baptism or “baptizo” had a far deeper meaning than merely being “immersed” or “dunked.”  It carried with it the notions of conversion, repentance, as well as, initiation into the community of faith.

Jesus and the early Christian community took the word and drew even further theological implications – as we have seen a sharing in his life and sufferings as well as an empowerment to proclaim the Good News.  To use the word only in it “secular” usage causes us to divert from the entire Christian usage of it.  We must examine the use of the word “baptizo” as it is used in the Scriptures and in the life of the Church.

In this brief article, I do not want to address once again the issue of “faith” and “grace” in Baptism, but would refer you to the brief article I wrote on the practice of baptizing infants.  Nor, do time or space permit me to address a complete theology of Baptism.  I am merely trying to guide us through the mode of baptism, i.e. is “pouring” or “sprinkling” sufficient for a valid baptism.

Scriptures are clear that the outward act of baptism and an inward transformation go together. (John 3.5, Acts 2.38, Acts 19.2-3, Acts 22.16, Romans 6.3-4, Colossians 2.11-12; Titus 3.5; and 1 Peter 3.21).

The Scriptures also show us a connection between baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Peter, on the day of Pentecost states, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  (Acts 2.38)  In Acts 10.44-47, we read of Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit prior to baptism and Peter interprets this event in such a way as to advocate for their baptism – “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  If the Holy Spirit is “poured out”, as Scripture shows, is this connection between “water baptism” and the receiving of the Holy Spirit an indication that “pouring” can also be related to the practice of baptism?

It is true that the practice of “full immersion” or “dunking” is a powerful symbolic act stressing the idea of death, burial, and resurrection.  It is a strong argument for its practice in the Eastern Rite Churches both in Orthodoxy and Catholicism.  But it is not a argument to suggest that baptism by pouring is invalid for does it not relate to the “pouring” of the Holy Spirit into our lives.  It seems to me that “full immersion” or “pouring” both, convey the grace of new life, cleansing, empowering, and initiation that are given to us in baptism.

It is also necessary to look at the practice of the early Church in order to see how these first century believers applied the texts.  The Didache, written around 70 A.D. – one of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament – is a good glimpse into the life of the first generation Church.  The Didache certainly does not hold the same authority of Scripture it does give us an understanding of the practices of the earliest Christians who were not only born again and filled with the Holy Spirit but faced the day to day challenges of persecution and possible martyrdom.

The Didache reads, “Concerning Baptism, baptize in this manner:  Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water (that is, in running water, as in a river).  If there is no living water; and if you are not able to use cold water, use warm.  If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

There are many other early writings that suggest that “full immersion” or “dunking” is not the only means of baptism.

Hippolytus of Rome wrote in the Apostolic Tradition, 21, around 215 A.D., “If water is scarce, whether as a constant condition or on occasion, then use whatever water is available”
Cornelius, Bishop of Rome, wrote in 251 A.D. in a Letter to Fabius of Antioch, regarding Novatian, who was about to die, “he received baptism in bed where he lay, by pouring.”
Cyprian in a Letter to a Certain Magnus 69:12, written around 255 A.D, wrote, no one should be “disturbed because the sick are poured upon or sprinkled when they receive the Lord’s grace.”
Tertullian writing in 203 A.D in a document titled On Baptism states that baptism is done “with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, and finally without cost, a man is baptized in water, and amid the utterance of some words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner.”  Obviously Tertullian did not consider baptism by immersion as the only valid form of baptism.

Christian art also show us that baptism by full immersion was not the only valid form of baptism.  We have many pieces of artwork for very early in the life of the Church and not one of them shows baptism by immersion rather they show baptism by pouring using water poured from a cup or a shell.  Even if the candidate for baptism is depicted standing in a river they are shown having a cup or a shell of water being poured over their head.  We have lots of tiles or mosaics found in ancient churches, cemeteries, or catacombs that depict baptism being administered by pouring.  The archeological evidence is overwhelming that baptism was not restricted to “full immersion” or “dunking” as the only means of baptism.

We, of course know, that eventually “pouring” became the more normative way to administer baptism.  The practice of “pouring” continues to be the acceptable practice of not only Roman Catholic, but the majority of the churches that came from the Reformation – Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed.  Even the Puritans and their Congregationalist counterparts in America continued to practice baptism by “pouring”.

Once again a small group of believers coming from the influence of Zwingli and the Anabaptists of the 16th and 17th century that conclude that baptism by “pouring” or “sprinkling” was invalid and they hence required their followers to be “re-baptized” and to do so by “full immersion” or “dunking”.  The practice became common among the Revivalist of the 19th century in America and under those churches that grew out of the Revivalist movement has impacted other continents besides America.
Are we to conclude that all the saints and believers who received baptism by “pouring” or “sprinkling” from the first century up till the time of Zwingli are not invalidly baptized?  Can we conclude that so many of the saints and believers from the time of Zwingli until the present who were martyred or gave their lives to evangelize the world were not validly baptized?

Though we can applaud the desire of the Anabaptist and the Revivalist for calling people to a living faith we must also point out they err when it comes to baptism.  The Scriptures are clear (Ephesians 4.5) and the creeds of the Ancient and Historic Church confirm that there is “one baptism” not to be repeated.

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