Thursday, February 19, 2004

The Mode of Baptism

[Note: Joel Garver has recently posted on this topic.]

I believe that baptism by immersion is a perfectly fine, perhaps because of its resurrection symbolism, even the preferred method.

However, those that argue that it is the only acceptable method of baptism are wrong. Not to mention that there is a nebulous inconsistency to the following view point:
  • Baptism is purely symbolic. It is not a means of grace.

  • You must do it in this precise manner and say these precise words. Even though there is nothing supernatural that occurs.

The main reason for arguing this way is a shaky etymological analysis of the Greek words bapto and baptizo which translate into English as immerse, sink, drown, go-under, dye, dip, bathe, or wash.

Immersion-only proponents like to argue that all these meanings signify total submersion. They don't (as we shall see.) However even if they did, the question would remain that if every account of baptism clearly indicated immersion was used, does that prove that it is the only acceptable mode? Before you answer yes let me ask two isomorphic questions:

  1. If every biblical account of baptism related that immersion was used, would that prove that immersion is the only acceptable means?

  2. If every biblical account of the Lord's Supper related that actual wine was drunk, would that prove that grape juice is a no-no?

This is not an open and shut case. (Early Christian art depicts people standing in a river, with water being poured over their heads.) In arguing against this view, that immersion is required, I would like to frame the debate as follows.

Does the use of the word baptizo convey a sense of cleansing or a sense of being submerged? If the word is used in the sense of washing, then we see that the true meaning of baptism is its serving as a sign (and a means) of washing away sin.

The best place to answer this question is, surprisingly, in the Old Testament. Specifically, we compare where the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses precisely the word in question baptizo (or a variant form of the same word) and look at how those passages have been translated into English. Do they mean immerse? Let’s take a look.

In all these passages, a form of baptizo is used in the obvious place.
Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored to you and you will be clean." (2 Kings 5:10)

"Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws. (Dan 4:33)

and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil. (Lev 4:17)

"As for the live bird, he shall take it together with the cedar wood and the scarlet string and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slain over the running water. (Lev 14:6)

At mealtime Boaz said to her, "Come here, that you may eat of the bread and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar." So she sat beside the reapers; and he served her roasted grain, and she ate and was satisfied and had some left. (Ruth 2:14)

and when those who carried the ark came into the Jordan, and the feet of the priests carrying the ark were dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the days of harvest), (Josh 3:15)

But Jonathan had not heard when his father put the people under oath; therefore, he put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened. (1 Sam 14:27)

Notice that many (all?) of these passages are related to priestly cleansing. Some indicate a situation where the "immersion" translation is physically impossible. In Lev. 14:6, there is not enough blood in the first bird with which one could submerge the second. In fact the only passage where one might argue for immersion is the cleansing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5, but even there the key is the washing, not the getting wet.

Finally, it is worth noting that documents from the early church indicate that the order of events for an adult convert was:

  1. Assent to the gospel
  2. Be baptized (more or less immediately, if possible)
  3. Receive instruction
In the modern era, evangelical churches have reversed steps (2) and (3). They require a convert to be catechized before being baptized. It would be as if Philip had instructed the Ethiopian eunuch to spend a few months studying and then, if he passed an oral exam, he could be baptized.

Early church liturgy would pose the question to the body, "Does anything hinder this (convert) from being baptized?" Modern day practice is closer to "Has this convert passed an exam?"

Man. I guess am now a Reformed, partial-preterist postmillennialist sprinkling-is-OK paedobaptist teaching adult Sunday school in a Baptist church. Is this a great country or what?

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