An Interesting Argument Against Immersion

Geerhardus Vos gave a lot of ground to the Baptists (some would argue too much). He insisted that “baptizo” means “immerse,” although he goes on to argue that the immersion is secondary, and that washing is primary. For Vos, the immersion is incidental to the meaning of the word. The substance of baptism can, for Vos, be accomplished in another way. But the most fascinating thing about his argument against immersion is his advocation of catholicity (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 5, p. 125):

To what, finally, can one still appeal against the Baptists? To the universal character of Christianity. Christianity is catholic, that is, intended for all times and places. That must come out in its sacraments too. Hence, the signs in these sacraments are such as are to be found everywhere: water, bread, wine-the most common products of nature that can be kept everywhere. But the same thing will also have to apply to their manner of use. Immersion is something that is sometimes feasible in Middle Eastern lands, but then again in many regions, not. If Christianity is thus bound to something like this, then in this respect it is the same as Islam, which obligates all its adherents to a pilgrimage to Mecca. But Islam is then also particularistic; Christianity is universal, catholic, intended for all times, countries, circumstances, and conditions.

I had not thought of using the catholicity of Christianity as an argument against immersion before. So I thought I would throw it out there for the readers. What do you think of this argument?



  1. elnwood said,

    December 17, 2016 at 3:41 am

    I wonder if Vos would similarly argue that wine is secondary to the Lord’s Supper because you can’t grow grapes and produce wine in some parts of the world.

  2. paigebritton said,

    December 17, 2016 at 7:43 am

    I guess there may be analogous cultural products to bread and wine (so grains would include rice, in places where people don’t bake bread; and I’d guess that most cultures produce a kind of alcohol or fruit juice, even if they don’t grow grapes per se). But there’s no getting around the issue of the immediately available water supply in certain places without some deliberate and time-consuming engineering. I find it a reasonable common-sense argument.

  3. elnwood said,

    December 17, 2016 at 8:36 am

    I would think that water is more readily available than bread and wine. People can live without bread or wine, but everyone needs water, and even the people in the most dry regions have to know where to get sources of water.

    One thing that might mitigate against Vos’s reasoning: the Ethiopian eunuch said “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This implies that not having adequate water would prevent a person from being baptized, whereas Vos seems to argue that, because of catholicity, this cannot be the case.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    December 17, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Elnwood, I am not sure that the Ethiopian eunuch proves your point. If sprinkling or pouring were the method of baptism envisioned, and the pond or source of water was too shallow for immersion, there is no obstacle to understanding the text that way. In other words, it is just as possible that sprinkling or pouring is in view there as that immersion is. In fact, the amount of water is not hinted at in the text at all, as far as I can see. The emphasis on the text is the presence of water, not the amount of it.

    As to your point in your first post, the issues seem to me to be different. In the case of immersion versus sprinkling/pouring, the issue is the amount of water. In the case of wine versus other alcoholic beverages, we are dealing with a different substance.

  5. elnwood said,

    December 17, 2016 at 10:23 am

    greenbaggins, you are right, the emphasis in the text is the presence of water.

    But, the Ethiopian eunuch was travelling all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and back. On such a long trip through arid areas, do you think he carried any water with him? If so, do you think that amount would be sufficient for him to be baptized? If it was, why would he have been so excited to see water? Why did he think he would have been prevented from being baptized otherwise?

  6. Adam Kane said,

    December 17, 2016 at 10:27 am

    As a slightly more credobaptist than paedo, and belonging to a credo church, I’d have to say we generally are too focused on the immersion piece, and not enough on the actual, biblical language of baptism. In this sense, we are not catholic as we ought to be, that is, in allowing for God’s grace to be the primary issue in baptism, rather than our act of obedience.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    December 17, 2016 at 10:35 am

    I wouldn’t want to give up my drinking water, if I wasn’t certain of getting more water later on (life being more important than baptism). If he was carrying water, he might very well have not wanted to use that, but seeing a source of water nearby that would be more than adequate for his needs, he makes his statement. Again, I am not saying that the incident with the eunuch proves sprinkling or pouring. All I am saying is that it cannot bear the weight of proving immersion.

  8. elnwood said,

    December 17, 2016 at 10:45 am

    I’m curious, greenbaggins, how much water do you use when you baptize? The last paedobaptism I saw at a presbyterian church, the pastor dipped his finger in water and dabbed it on the baby. It couldn’t have been more than a few drops. Is that your practice as well?

    In any case, I think the text shows that the Ethiopian eunuch was so eager to be baptized, not wanting anything to prevent him from being baptized, that it is difficult for me to consider that he had enoughdrinking water for a long, long, LONG trip, but couldn’t spare a few drops to be baptized.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    December 17, 2016 at 11:33 am

    My practice is to use a small bowl and pour it from about 8 inches above the baby’s head (I aim for the back side of the head, so that the baby does not have breathing problems!). In my opinion, it is hardly a sign if it cannot be seen!

    As to your contention, I can certainly understand why you might think that. However, it seems to me that because you want the text to say that, it does. It is more a matter of how your interpretive grid gets at the text. My interpretive grid (I am hardly claiming neutrality!) does not see what you see. Therefore, it might be more profitable to speak about our respective grids. That being said, I just don’t think that the passage has anything to say about the quantity of water.

  10. Roy Kerns said,

    December 17, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Greenbaggins @9, since John the Sprinkler did not use a bowl and pouring, since baptism rather clearly tracks to the OT sprinkling, since sprinkling could (does) fit every example of NT baptism, since sprinkling can be a seen sign, suggest you shift from a bowl to a dipped hand. More of an friendly observation from an ally sharing your interpretive grid than a vital concern.

  11. greenbaggins said,

    December 17, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Roy, pouring has a significant amount of evidence behind it as well. Exodus 29-30, Leviticus 4, 14, 17 show the pouring out of the blood of the sacrificial offerings. The pouring out of the Spirit might also have relevance. I do not think it matters much between sprinkling or pouring. I find pouring more visible, though I would have no problem with sprinkling.

  12. elnwood said,

    December 17, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Hi greenbaggins, fair enough, interpretive grids often determine our positions. I’m perfectly happy to talk about interpretive grids as long as you are happy to talk about yours. Do you see a flaw in mine? Have I made unwarranted assumptions?

    As far as Bible backgrounds, could you research how far it is from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and back? How long does that take to travel? Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds commentary suggests that, at 25 miles a day, it would have taken 96-120 days round trip!

    If you were to take a chariot there and back, you would need at minimum one horse and one other person to drive the chariot while you read from your enormous Isaiah scroll, but likely his entourage was greater, since he was a person of great importance.

    So, again, for such a long, long, LONG journey through Africa and the Middle East, one which he had to feed both himself and others, do you think the eunuch would have taken a lot of water? Or just a small amount?

    Again, I’d be grateful if you would point out the flaws in my interpretive grid. But it seems to me, from my interpretive grid, that if the best way to defend sprinkling or pouring in this passage is that the eunuch’s desire to be baptized was small in comparison to his thriftiness in sparing a bowl-ful, or even a sprinkle-ful, of his water supply, then I would question your interpretive grid. Am I out of line for suggesting this?

  13. Phil Derksen said,

    December 17, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    The vast majority of Reformed theologians up to the 18th century, including many Westminster Divines, believed that immersion was the intentional – and many even said the sole – apostolic mode of baptism. Many also declared that a straightforward and commonsense reading of the account of the eunuch’s baptism was in fact a prime case that proved it. I’ll spare everyone the direct evidence unless pressed, in which case it may take several posts to present it all…

    Whether they intend to or not, those who criticize the Baptists for seeing immersion in the NT equally and unavoidably criticize all of these men as well. The real question is, why did these same men insist against Rome that the Lord’s Supper must only be observed in apostolic fashion, while insisting baptism need not be. The most frequently given reason was in fact along the same lines of catholicity as suggested in the OP, but with the discomforts of immersion in cold climates – not even infants as the subjects – most often specified as the primary disincentive.

    I don’t seek or desire, let alone assume the authority to invalidate anyone’s baptism on the basis of mode, but I do think means other than immersion suffer from the same inconsistencies and problems as observing the Lord’s Supper by intinction. Both are unfortunate abridgments, albeit, IMO, not invalidating ones. Yet the constant criticism and sometimes even ridicule by modern Reformed writers of seeing immersion in the NT is rather ridiculous and annoying in light of the host of their leading forefathers who did, and the considered reasons they gave for such.

  14. Phil Derksen said,

    December 17, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    It might also be noted here that Dr. William Thompson (1806–94), a well-known American Presbyterian missionary to Syria and Palestine, factually disabused another anachronistic supposition as to why the eunuch could not have been immersed—namely, an imagined scarcity of water given the time and place of the event (summertime in a desert). In a documentary about the region in which he personally lived and ministered for over forty years, Thompson observed:

    ‘He [Philip] would then have met the chariot somewhere southwest of Latron. There is a fine stream of water, called Murubbah, deep enough even in June to satisfy the utmost wishes of our Baptist friends. This Murubbah is merely a local name for the great Wady Surar, given to it on account of copious fountains which supply it with water during summer.’ (The Land and the Book, [New York: Harper & Brothers., 1880], 2:310]

    The New Englander & Yale Review – that rascally Baptist rag… – made these apropos remarks about Thompson’s qualifications to comment on the matter:

    ‘Dr. Thompson has the inestimable advantage of having resided for nearly fifty years in the country which he describes. He is no hasty traveler, giving out the information which he has collected for the purpose. He is, moreover, sympathetic with the Scriptures, a reverent believer. He writes in a devout spirit. He is an accurate and truthful observer. He is, also, familiar with the Bible, and is thus able to bring forward its passages in apposite relation to the scenes and phenomena to which they refer.” (1880; 39:565.)

  15. greenbaggins said,

    December 17, 2016 at 11:51 pm

    Phil, I have not, or ever, discounted immersion as being a valid form of baptism, nor do I discount the fact that there is solid NT evidence that can be given for immersion. What I definitely dispute is that immersion is the only valid form of baptism, even by NT standards. I do not believe that the only valid argument for sprinkling and pouring is catholicity. I do believe that washing is the primary idea of baptism, in which case sprinkling, pouring, and immersion are all valid forms of baptism, and can be found in the OT and NT. I do not believe that the passages adduced by immersion-only folks can bear the weight of interpretation put on them for an immersion-only position.

    I have said before, and I remain unconvinced that the story of the Ethiopian eunuch has anything to say about the amount of water, any more than the Gospels saying that Jesus came out of the water implies that He was under the water in immersion. If it was a long trip, I would be counting every drop of water. He found a source of water adequate for baptism. Whether that water was deep enough for immersion or not is immaterial. It could have been as deep as Lake Tanganyika but that would still not force an immersionist-only interpretation. It still remains only possible that immersion happened. If people want to say that immersion was the likely mode, I would not have a serious quibble with that. I balk at the immersionist-only interpretation that says that immersion was the only way the eunuch could have been baptized. The passage simply does not force us to that conclusion.

  16. December 18, 2016 at 8:10 am

    As a former Baptist, I am well aware of how inherently schismatic the Baptist tradition is in their rejection of other modes (sprinkling and pouring) and candidates (children of believers).

  17. Phil Derksen said,

    December 18, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Rev. Keister,

    I know you’ve never said immersion is an invalid form of baptism, just as I’ve made clear I don’t believe other means are necessarily invalid. My default position on that is perhaps best summed up in 1 Peter 3:21. But that’s not what’s at issue here. My main point has to do with the glaring variance between so many modern Reformed pastors and teachers concerning the understanding of the NT accounts of baptism, and that pretty uniformly expressed by their historical predecessors (meaning pre-18th century).

    So what’s changed? Were all of these men just poor exegetes, as the modern Reformed like to tag so-called immersionists for coming to the same conclusions concerning what is being described? Do you really think it is a commonsense, natural reading to suppose that ‘καὶ κατέβησαν ἀμφότεροι εἰς τὸ ὕδωρ…καὶ ἐβάπτισεν αὐτόν’ indicates sprinkling or pouring is in view? Calvin, Turretin, a Brackel, etc, etc. etc. sure didn’t think so. Falling back on sheer technicalities and the attitude that ‘well, it isn’t stated explicitly’ is rather unseemly, and is only a fairly modern phenomena even among the Reformed. I think you realize that if such a simplistic interpretive grid were applied consistently there would be all kinds of problems with Reformed baptismal theology, infant baptism not being the least among them. And isn’t this actually what the Reformed so frequently accuse the Baptists of doing?

    The denial that the concept of death, burial and resurrection is prominent in the NT’s teaching and portrayal of baptism suffers from the same historical inconsistencies. It has been the testimony of the universal church for millennia, again including the first several generations of Reformed theologians, that such, in addition to the concept of cleansing, is clearly indicated. But this fact certainly hasn’t deterred many modern Reformed from denying and outright ridiculing immersionists for seeing the very same thing. How can this be? I’ve seen more than one prominent modern Reformed theologian even boldly declare that such a concept was only contrived in the 5th century, once the early church had begun to imitate the pagan practice of immersion. Well, they only forgot to read the very first theologian known to have written a major treatise specifically on baptism (Tertullian, 3rd century), who indeed talk about this symbolism as being intentional in the church’s practice of immersion. And he is writing as an apologist, explaining the long accepted beliefs and practices of the Christian community to an ignorant interloper. (And I’ll anticipate the possible objection that Tertullian ended up espousing some erroneous doctrines by noting this his statement on this was made in his early orthodox period.)

    I also had to cringe a bit at the opening comment in the OP. ‘Geerhardus Vos gave a lot of ground to the Baptists (some would argue too much).’ I guess we are to conclude either one of two things from this: 1) Vos was simply a poor or sloppy exegete on these matters akin to the Baptists, or, 2) if he really did come to the same well-considered conclusions as the Baptists on these points, for partisan reasons he should have just kept quiet about it. Really? Why not rather try to come to honest terms with his conclusions and what he is saying? After all, Vos is only reiterating the historical Reformed consensus on the points he was making about the natural understanding of the biblical accounts of apostolic baptismal symbolism and practice. Their given grounds for not finding a continuance of this practice necessary is what really deserves a discussion. You don’t seem to like the main reason of catholicity given by Vos as sufficient in the matter, but there it is.

    I do wish more modern Reformed pastors who find themselves at variance with the historical Reformed understanding on such things would have the integrity to at least admit that, historically speaking, their’s is actually the modern and minority viewpoint.

  18. Phil Derksen said,

    December 18, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    In rethinking my posts, I find I expressed myself with an inappropriate snarkiness, especially toward a minister of the Gospel. Please forgive me for that.

  19. Bob S said,

    December 18, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Catholicity? When I read Vos I thought the catholic epistle of Hebrews pretty much clarified whether baptizo meant immerse. The NT mention of the OT washings/baptisms in Heb. 9:10 (further detailed as “sprinkling” in 9:13,19,21) are in reference to the sprinkling/baptisms of Lev.16, Num. 19, Ex.24.

    Speaking of Vos, what I find interesting, is that I have yet to see anybody talk about his view of (cough) the length of creation days, though he does say that those who hold a long time view are not to be regarded as a heretics!?

    31. What supports the interpretation that takes “day” in its ordinary meaning? . . . (RD, Vol. I:168,9)


  20. greenbaggins said,

    December 18, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Phil, thanks for your last post. I was starting to wonder. I do forgive you. I don’t have access to my library at the moment, and won’t for at least another month, and probably more, so I am rather hampered at the moment about what I can say or research regarding much of anything.

  21. elnwood said,

    December 19, 2016 at 6:05 am

    Another comment on catholicity. Yes, it’s true that some Baptists do not accept other modes of baptism. I was a member of a Baptist church that struggled whether to accept a person into membership who was credobaptized, but not by immersion, in a PCA church. She was ultimately accepted into membership without having to be baptized again by immersion, but not without some conscienscious dissent.

    But catholicity cuts both ways. The lady at our church wasn’t permitted to be baptized by immersion at the PCA church, and because of that, we had to wrestle with the issue. Presbyterians talk about the mode of baptism as a “secondary issue,” but in practice, they almost exclusively practice sprinkling or pouring. Greenbaggins, how many times have you baptized by immersion as a Presbyterian minister?

    Immersion is the only mode of baptism that enjoys near-unanimous acceptance in the church universal. Therefore, I think we ought to baptize by immersion whenever possible. Consider this a catholicity argument FOR immersion.

  22. Ron said,

    December 19, 2016 at 6:28 am

    “In my opinion, it is hardly a sign if it cannot be seen!”

    That bears repeating. Good one, Lane.

  23. Reed Here said,

    December 19, 2016 at 6:35 am

    Phil, in your study, have you run across any early church father who describes the motions used in baptism!? I.e., any statements that do more than just use the word (or cognates of) baptidzo?

    Thanks, Reed.

  24. Phil Derksen said,

    December 19, 2016 at 7:45 am

    Reed, as I mentioned before on a previous thread of yours on this subject, the earliest detailed physical description I know of is from Theodoret (5th century), who described a self-immersion of the candidate while the administrator’s hand rested on their head. He also made several references as to how this act and the resulting condition of being completely covered by the water obviously typified death, burial and resurrection, if that’s what you’re getting at.

  25. Phil Derksen said,

    December 19, 2016 at 7:53 am

    There are also numerous descriptions from the 4th Century on that use phrases like “when you are/were immersed completely in the font”.

  26. elnwood said,

    December 19, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Reed, the Didache uses the verb ἔκχεον, “pour out,” to describe baptism. But this is if baptizing ἐν ὕδατι ζῶντι, “in running water,” or baptizing εἰς ἄλλο ὕδωρ, “in other water,” is not possible.

  27. Phil Derksen said,

    December 19, 2016 at 11:47 am

    For those who may be interested, here is the full passage from the Didache, which is generally believed to be the oldest extant treatment of baptismal practice apart from the NT. I’ve inserted transliterations of key Greek words to hopefully make it more useful to a wider readership.

    “Regarding baptism [baptismatos (baptisma)], baptize [baptisate (baptizo)] as follows: After first explaining all these [previously given] points], baptize [baptisate] in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water [en hydati zwnti]. But if you have no running water, baptize [baptison (baptizō)] into [eis] other water; and if you cannot in [en] cold, then in [en] warm. But if you have neither, pour [ekcheon—pour out] water on the head three times in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    For those familiar with Greek, here is the full text.

    Περὶ δὲ τοῦ βαπτίσματος, οὕτω βαπτίσατε· ταῦτα πάντα προειπόντες, βαπτίσατε εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐν ὕδατι ζῶντι ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἔχῃς ὕδωρ ζῶν, εἰς ἄλλο ὕδωρ βάπτισον· εἰ δ’ οὐ δύνασαι ἐν ψυχρῷ, ἐν θερμῷ. ἐὰν δὲ ἀμφότερα μὴ ἔχῃς, ἔκχεον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν τρὶς ὕδωρ εἰς ὄνομα πατρὸς καὶ υἱοῦ καὶ ἁγίου πνεύματος.

    Skeptics of immersion may want to note a sensible observation made by Dr. Philip Schaff (Presbyterian), who was one of the first Western scholars to examine and offer a detailed appraisal of the then newly rediscovered document, and essentially the same observation as made by Dr. Everett Ferguson, whose comprehensive tome ‘Baptism in the Early Church’ is widely considered the premier work on the subject.

    [Schaff] ‘Immersion must be meant otherwise, there would be no difference between the first mode and the last which is aspersion or pouring. Besides it is the proper meaning of the Greek word used here.’

    [Ferguson] ‘It may be noted that in this document ‘baptize’ (baptizo) still means ‘immerse,’ and to describe another action another word [ekcheou] was used.’

    Strict Immersionists may want to note a sensible observation made by Dr. Georg Schollgen, a widely respected German-Roman Catholic historian and textual scholar.

    ‘In accordance with local or seasonal circumstances, he [the author of the Didache] permits also water of a lesser quality and finally even allows baptism by the threefold pouring of water over the head in place of immersion, though only where there is great shortage of water. The argument of the section is clear: while adhering strictly to the preference of flowing water and baptism by immersion, necessary concessions are made to local circumstances. One reasonable assumption is that the author may want to solve a particularly pressing question for the communities in waterless regions.’ (as the Didache is believed to have Syrian origins.)

  28. rfwhite said,

    December 20, 2016 at 12:22 am

    Green Baggins,

    We can all acknowledge that the citation from the Didache is a comment on the range of permissible actions that properly constitute an action as Christian baptism. Beyond that, it is not clear, to me at least, how the citation necessarily implies immersion as the preferred method of baptism. Here’s the Greek text in question again.

    Περὶ δὲ τοῦ βαπτίσματος, οὕτω βαπτίσατε· ταῦτα πάντα προειπόντες, βαπτίσατε εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐν ὕδατι ζῶντι ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἔχῃς ὕδωρ ζῶν, εἰς ἄλλο ὕδωρ βάπτισον· εἰ δ’ οὐ δύνασαι ἐν ψυχρῷ, ἐν θερμῷ. ἐὰν δὲ ἀμφότερα μὴ ἔχῃς, ἔκχεον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν τρὶς ὕδωρ εἰς ὄνομα πατρὸς καὶ υἱοῦ καὶ ἁγίου πνεύματος.

    Question: how does “baptize … in running water or in still [not-running] water” necessarily point to immersion as the preferred method of baptizing? The claim, with appeal to Schaff/Ferguson to bolster it, appears to be this: the Didache sets before us three different baptizing actions: baptizing in running water, baptizing in still water, and baptizing by “pouring [out] water on the head.”

    But how do we know that the statement pertains to the modes of baptism as we discuss them today? What exactly is said about mode when reference is made to baptizing in running water or in still water? Anything necessarily? Admittedly, baptizing *could* be by immersion, but how do we know that the differences under consideration are not the modes of the baptizing action but rather the source of the water used in baptism by pouring: that is, might the differences be between water that is naturally occurring, whether from a running source or a still source, and water that is not naturally occurring, perhaps from a source of storage?

    Also, in the translation provided, there is apparently an attempt to distinguish “baptizing *in*” (running or still) water, “baptizing *into*” (neither running nor still) water, and “pouring *[out]*” water. The way the citation is mechanically translated suggests that prepositions in verb-preposition combinations are to be translated and interpreted as semantic units isolable from the verbs with which they’re combined. It is the verb-preposition combination, however, that is the semantic unit to be interpreted, not the prepositions as such. That this is the way to proceed can be seen even in the rest of the Greek citation itself. Notice: how are the words ἔκχεον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν τρὶς ὕδωρ translated in the translation provided? If we did not properly take the verb-preposition combination as the idiomatic semantic unit that it is, we might translate: “pour *[out]* water *into* the head three times.” The translation presented, however, recognizes the verb-preposition combination for what it is and gets the idiomatic meaning of the combination right, even if with a bit redundancy (the word *out* not being strictly required): “pour *[out]* water *on* the head three times.”

    The payoff of this kind of observation is that, without more context, it seems anachronistic and question-begging to try to discern differences of baptismal mode; the distinction highlighted in the citation is the distinction in the sources of the water permissible for use in the act of baptizing.

  29. Reed Here said,

    December 20, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Phil, yes, thanks. What I,was looking for. Might you give me the source reference? I’d like to look at it a bit closer. Thanks.

    Fowler, good observations. I find the evidence vrery unclear that baptidzo is to be strictly interpreted “to immerse” in evey usage. Rather, it seems to me, that an idiomatic meaning, such as “to wash” is much more consistent with the breadth of uses of baptidzo.

    Lane, regarding Vos’s onservation, would it be fair to sum it up this way? Uniformity in practice (of the mode of baptism) is a factor in universality of participation (of membership in the Church).

    If so, I admit this does have a certain ring to it, especially when applied to something like the entrance sacrament/ordinance. At the same time, I’d want a lot of qualifiers on that, so as not make this an absolute principle (lest we end up with a modern Essene’s approach).

  30. elnwood said,

    December 20, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Hi Reed, I don’t know anyone who claims that βαπτιζω strictly means “to immerse” in every usage. As every linguist knows, words have different meanings in different contexts. For example, “wash” means one thing in “I wash my hands before I eat” and something completely different in the sentence “Let’s call it a wash.” A better example: a nail on a finger has little or nothing to do with the nails used to crucify someone, and will often be translated into another language by two different words.

    To limit the range of meanings of a Greek word to only one concept, or only one English word, is lexically fallacious. To try to import the meaning of one use of the word into the other uses of the word is also lexically fallacious. It would be like trying to take what we know about a finger nail and trying to use that to understand about what the nails in Jesus’ cross were like. If you tried to account for all uses of “nail” with a single definition, you might come up with something broad like “something sharp,” or “something that can scratch,” but that would give you nothing that would shed any light on what a nail is, what it looks like, what it is made out of, or what it is used for, especially in the context of Jesus’ crucifixion.

    The question is not, then, what definition accounts for all uses of βαπτιζω. The question is, what does the word mean within the context of New Testament baptismal rite?

    Too often people look everywhere in the Bible EXCEPT within the context of New Testament rite of baptism to determine what βαπτιζω means. That’s the opposite of good lexicography. To determine the meaning of a word in a particular context, you need to study the uses of the word within that particular context.

  31. elnwood said,

    December 20, 2016 at 10:48 am

    For reference, D. A. Carson lists the fallacy above in Exegetical Fallacies as Word-Study Fallacy 13: Unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field.

    “The fallacy in this instance lies in the supposition that the meaning of a word in a specific context is much broader than the context itself allows and may bring with it the word’s entire semantic range. This step is sometimes called illegitimate totality transfer.” (pg. 60-61)

  32. Phil Derksen said,

    December 20, 2016 at 11:12 am

    It seems to me that with its discussion of various options the passage from the Didache is directly relevant to the issue of catholicity in baptism. If the given translation seems wooden, a variety of others have also been made if one prefers to use them – including at least two which employ the word ‘immersion’ for baptizo (and those not by Baptists)…:-)

    Years ago I browsed through a volume at a well-known theological seminary library in which various scholarly appraisals of the Didache from across the decades had been collected, again, none written by Baptists. Among the five or six contributors that considered the baptismal passage in depth (others focused more on other subject-matter in the Didache) the consensus that immersion was in view was unanimous and emphatic. Various arguments of supposed ambiguity such as the one recently presented here were actually addressed as well. Here’s one statement I copied:

    ‘Some are disposed to think that all language implying immersion [in the Didache] is to be treated as conventional or indeterminate…But, if this is so, it is difficult to see what reliance or certainty we can place upon any [of its] statements about anything.’

    Notably, a couple of the authors also pointed out that some of the earliest known translations of the Didache render baptizo with words that specifically denote immersion in those languages (if I recall correctly these include the Georgian and Armenian versions).

    I do find it interesting that the objections or skepticism to seeing immersion in the Didache that I have seen all come from within the same party…

  33. Phil Derksen said,

    December 20, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Reed: I mistakenly said Theodoret, when I should have said Theodore (of Mopsuestia), but which would still put the account at around the turn of the fifth century. Here are some relevant parts of what I again copied from a book at a seminary library, which gave a translation of a Syriac text shown in parallel – with which I am completely unfamiliar and therefore unqualified to assess.

    “So it is because Christ our Lord has abolished the power of death by his own resurrection that St. Paul says: ‘All of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death’; we know he means that Christ our Lord has already abolished death.

    …Believing this we come to him for baptism, because we wish now to share in his death so as to share like him in the resurrection from the dead. So when I am baptized and put my head under the water, I wish to receive the death and burial of Christ our Lord, and I solemnly profess my faith in his resurrection; when I come up from the water, this is a sign that I believe I am already risen…At the time I have already explained to you, you go down into the water that has already been blessed by the bishop.

    …Then the bishop lays his hand on your head with the words, ‘In the name of the Father,’ and while pronouncing them pushes you down into the water. You obediently follow the signal he gives by word and gesture, and bow down under the water. You incline your head to show your consent and to acknowledge the truth of the bishop’s words that you receive the blessings of baptism from the Father…You bow your head when you immerse yourself…

    …You bow down under the water, then lift your head again. Meanwhile the bishop says, ‘And of the Son,’ and guides you with his hand as you bend down into the water as before.

    …You raise your head, and again the bishop says, ‘And of the Holy Spirit,’ pressing you down into the water again with his hand. You bend beneath the water again…Then you come up out of the font to receive the completion of the mystery.

    …Three times you immerse yourself, each time performing the same action, once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the Son and once in the name of the Holy Spirit.” (Baptismal Homilies 3ff)

  34. greenbaggins said,

    December 20, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Phil, unfortunately none of those quotations actually address Dr. White’s arguments. The nature of the water as “living” (usually running) is an interesting tidbit in the passage itself. You haven’t addressed the possible impact this could have on the interpretation. Dr. White’s interpretation of the running water versus standing water seems plausible to me. Are you sure that immersion isn’t being read into the passage? Is there any evidence, for instance, of people in that time period thinking that running water is more in line with the idea of cleansing than standing water is? It seems to me that this idea should be followed out before any kind of firm stance could be taken on Dr. White’s interpretation. I know you don’t think much of the five-volume work of James Dale on baptizo, but I think he has made some seriously good points in favor of “washing” being just as important, if not more important than the mode of washing. If this is true, then Dr. White’s interpretation becomes buttressed with some powerful linguistic data.

  35. Phil Derksen said,

    December 20, 2016 at 2:18 pm


    I’m at best only modestly proficient in Greek, so I am simply relating that virtually every scholar I have read (15-20?) on the matter sees in that passage a clear modal distinction between baptizo-ing in various qualities of water vs. pouring out the water, which is pretty plainly offered as an alternate procedure. I must be missing how Dr. White’s grammatical points have direct bearing on that seminal issue. Maybe they could be restated in a simplified way for the benefit of a layman such as myself.

    I seem to recall there may be another patristic account or two extolling the use of running water as a preferred circumstance in baptism, but it seems it may have had more to do with the idea that ‘living’ water best conveyed the concept of being given life, or regeneration, as opposed to conferring a superior quality of cleansing. Not sure how difficult it may be to find them though…

    As I’ve stated before, I don’t dispute that the idea of cleansing or washing is present in the cultic use of baptizo. But I also don’t think it’s ever been satisfactorily shown that the underlying idea of immersion is ever absent. The two certainly aren’t excusive of each other. Again, in my reading that has been the broad historical consensus.

    Yes, Dale’s scholarship is absolutely horrid, IMO. His ‘primary’ definition of baptizo was actually ‘intuspositon.’ Try even finding that word in an English dictionary. And when someone also has to come up with completely new translations for the Greek texts they are examining (but for which he never gives a source – he never even uses footnotes or endnotes of any kind), which often are dramatically different than those of every other translator in history, in order to try and establish his claims, then yes, that does raise a big red flag for me. And the list of problems I and others have with Dale goes on and on… He was the extremist – ‘baptizo never conveys they idea of dipping’ – not his opponents. Do you know of any schools or seminaries that actually use his books as study material, as opposed to perhaps just briefly making vague references to them?

  36. rfwhite said,

    December 20, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    35 Phil Dirksen:

    Your observation that many scholars see a clear modal distinction in the Didache passage provided is a helpful observation to take into account. My interest is to say that we (I) need more context to agree with them in their claim that the issue in the Didache is differences of baptism’s mode as we understand those differences. Given what we’re provided, the mode of baptism assumed by the author can plausibly be seen as pouring, and the question he is addressing is whether baptism can be properly administered without running water. The Didache’s answer is, Yes, it can be done with standing water or other (perhaps stored) water.

    As for the bearing of the grammatical comments I made, I was pointing out that the prepositions alone don’t and can’t establish the mode of baptism. Nor can the word βαπτίζω, as the Didache citation itself makes clear.

  37. elnwood said,

    December 20, 2016 at 11:21 pm

    I’ve noticed that, when evidence is presented in favor of immersion from both Acts 8 and the Didache, the response has been that the passages are ambiguous enough that they cannot definitively show immersion. That, despite the fact that many non-Baptists throughout history have understood them to be immersion.

    Yet, in another comment, an instance of blood (not water) poured onto an altar (not on a person) in an Old Testament sacrificial ritual (not even an initatory rite, like circumcision!) in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 4 is uncritically cited as credible evidence for pouring as the mode of water baptism in the New Testament.

    As greenbaggins pointed out, I think this is due to differing interpreting grids, and I think it would be profitable to discuss that topic further. Again, I am happy to discuss the inadequacies in my own interpretive grid. But it seems to me that, for others with another interpretive grid, there has been excessive skepticism about Acts 8 and the Didache, but no skepticism whatsoever regarding Scripture cited in favor of pouring.

    Now, I’m not saying that Acts 8 and Didache prove immersion 100%. There will always be room for ambiguity. But we should weigh whether the passages give a good, strong credible case for a given position, rather than setting the bar so high that nothing can overcome one’s own presuppositions.

  38. Phil Derksen said,

    December 21, 2016 at 3:53 am

    elnwood #37:

    Agreed. For all the times I’ve been cautioned not to read immersion into a text, I’ve never seen the same people give a caution to anyone to be careful not to read immersion out of a text, even when the broad and overwhelming scholarly consensus is that it is indeed there.

    It has also long bemused me why Reformed skeptics of immersion aren’t seemingly ever willing to discuss their stark differences on the issue of the meaning of baptizo and the presence of immersion in the Bible with that of their ecclesial forefathers. In my reading over the years I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of pre-18th century Reformed – as well as some notable later figures like Vos and Bavinck – were largely unified on the following points.

    (1) They agreed that the native and normal meaning of baptizō is to dip/immerse, and that the New Testament’s usage of it generally involves this physical characteristic.

    (2) They agreed that the spiritual symbolism attached to Christian baptism in the New Testament prominently includes or, according to some, even centers on the integrated concept of the believer’s vicarious inclusion in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and that this truth is vividly portrayed by a brief immersion into, and emersion out of water.

    (3) They agreed that a natural, commonsense reading of the New Testament’s accounts describing both John’s and subsequent Christian water baptism amply supports the understanding that the normative and intentional mode practiced in the apostolic church was a full bodily immersion.

    (4) Secondarily, they also agreed the historical evidence clearly indicates that until the 14th century or so, the vast majority of Christians continued to practice baptism by immersion whenever possible.

    It might even be said they were immersionists in principle if not practice – and that to me is also an important issue worth exploring why. And many of them in fact stated their reasons, but ones which I think many now find inadequate or uncomfortable to deal with. Rather, most or all of these basic historical understandings are seriously questioned, flatly denied or even ridiculed by many modern Reformed. I’ve presented this list before, here and many times elsewhere, and have never gotten a nibble. No denial of its accuracy, just no willingness to engage at all. Ultimately, as I’ve also said before, I find it hard to disagree with the following assessment by the Presbyterian Philip Schaff:

    “The Protestant Baptists can appeal to the usual meaning of the Greek word and the testimony of antiquity for immersion…The baptism of Christ in the Jordan and the illustrations of baptism used in the New Testament (Rom. 6:3, 4; Col. 2:12; 1 Cor. 10:2; 1 Pet. 3:21) are all in favor of immersion rather than of sprinkling, as is freely admitted by the best exegetes, Catholic and Protestant, English and German. Nothing can be gained by unnatural exegesis. The persistency and aggressiveness of the Baptists have driven Paedobaptists to the opposite extreme.”

    Are there any non-immesionists out there who might be willing to consider this as a possibility?

  39. Reed Here said,

    December 21, 2016 at 8:54 am

    Elnwood, thanks for the review of lexical comsideratioms. Had those kinds of things in mind in my brief comment.

    My simple observation is that “to wash” is the best technical meaning at the center of each NT use of baptidzo, not “to immerse”. “To wash” applies to all the NT uses in a manner that supports the idiomatic reference of each usage, whereas “to immerse” does not.

    I find it hard to escape the consistency of such exegesis.

    And yes, I recognize this is not an argument against immersion as a mode of baptism. If true however, it certainly does argue against immersion as THE mode of baptism. And it might actually tilt away from immersion being even the preferred mode (with others defective).

  40. Reed Here said,

    December 21, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Phil, no. 38, I’d enjoying taking up your request. Not to deny every single point at every single location, but yes, in principle I’d like to challenge the strength of each of your number points. But time won’t allow. This brief summary of my key critique Is only intended to offer you respect and love.

    I’ve read closely much of your (older?) stuff at PB on baptism (not sure if you’ve added substantive,y to what you said a few years back). I sincerely considered your arguments as I developed some lessons on baptism for our congregation. I came away persuaded differently than you on the native/normal (adopting your language from your comment above) meaning of baptidzo as used in Scripture.

    That has an inferential application to the question of mode, but not the direct on at which you arrive. I think the Scriptures do not speak to mode as the debate has historical been shaped. Rather I think the mode is a bit fluid. As long as the mode pictures the act of washing in a given culture then it is appropriate.

    I sincerely would love to engage in a fun, friendly conversation around more lrngth, but my circumstances won’t allow it. Please accept this brief response as a sign that you’re not being ignored, even if it does little more than state a difference.

  41. rfwhite said,

    December 21, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Agreed, interpretive grids are an issue here. Can’t we agree that no one and nothing – not even a consensus – is immune to their effects? Is it not the case that every consensus is a product of an interpretive grid, a grid constructed from shared assumptions, methods, standards, sources, and even sanctions? Every interpretive grid purports to constrain conformity, especially in non-adherents, through appeal to “an assured consensus.” How are we to see consensus: a help or a rule? Where is our hope of deliverance from the effects of interpretive grids?

  42. Phil Derksen said,

    December 21, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Reed, thank you for the courtesy of at least a reply.

    Dr White: Well said. But specifically, as a student of history, I’m still trying to figure out what caused the paradigm shift in how the Reformed have typically seen the things I listed. What has changed so dramatically within the intra-Reformed interpretive grid? It would take a lot to convince me that the first several generations of Reformed leaders were just bad or sloppy exegetes of the basic biblical and historical data – especially, of course, when it coincides with my own trying-to-be-as-honest-as-I-can evaluation of it… :-)

    On the other hand, it would also take a lot to relieve my skepticism of the reasons they actually gave for abandoning what they saw as the biblical norm of immersion (e.g. Calvin, ‘…the church did grant itself the liberty to change the rite somewhat…’). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conservative modern Reformed writer willing to defend such a view either, and when it is encountered or pointed out it is essentially ignored.

    Either way, both myself and those who disagree with me seem to have a big problem with the early reformers: I think they were unwarranted in changing what they confessed was an intentional and meaningful apostolic practice, while others seem to think they wrongly interpreted virtually all of the applicable data (which in some way seems a bit irrelevant – going in circle now – when you consider that they did in fact specifically indicate a willingness to replace such, essentially for the sake of convenience…) I mean shouldn’t we all be at least a little bit bothered by that? I find it all a bit of a dilemma, not easily resolved.

    But I guess until I have other substantive reasons to consider, along with Schaff I still have to think the predominant Reformed prism for interpreting the basic data on this particular topic has become increasingly clouded and suspect (as Schaff said, too often completely discounting what historically has been almost universally deemed the most natural and unbiased understanding and unhesitatingly replacing it with and readily promoting less probable options – basically indicative of a hold your ground at all costs mentality).

    Given the timing of the change, it does seems reasonable to me that it is likely part of an overreaction to aggressive strict immersionism – which did meet with a considerable degree of success, especially in America, much to the displeasure of the Reformed. Anyone who has read the 19th and 20th century baptismal literature will know how extremely emotional and heated – and I would say, increasingly irrational – the polemical arguments in fact became on both sides. And, greenbaggins, this would certainly include Dale – who despite some pleas by his promoters to the contrary, was in the end, IMO, as rabidly partisan as they came. (By the way, do people realize that his aberrant view of baptizo – and language in general – was ultimately instrumental in leading him to declare that the Great Commission had nothing to do with the sacrament of water baptism? As such he was also obliged to say that Trinitarian baptism was an un-scriptural practice! Imagine, a supposedly confessional Presbyterian who was actually a precursor to the Oneness Pentecostals on that issue – yet whose works are still often unconditionally promoted by truly, but apparently somewhat ignorant confessional Presbyterians…) [Stand down from soapbox…]

    Anyway, all things considered, I do believe a sub-conscious, less-than-consistent defense reflex can indeed be a powerful and formative force, even in the realm of theology and sacramental practice. And yes, I need to be fully aware that I am subject to that as well. So as always I’m certainly open to reasonable alternative explanations, or being shown where my own inconsistencies are.

  43. Pete Rambo said,

    December 21, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    On a recent trip to Israel, I spent a day traveling in the far south, visiting both Masada and Qumran. If I recall, the region receives less than a tenth of an inch of rain per year, yet it was instructive to note that archeological digs in both locations have unearthed walk in mikvahs where residents could enter and immerse themselves. Both locations had multiples of such, presumably for separate service to each sex, etc…

    The ‘living water’ issue was solved by having a very tiny inlet that literally dripped (I witnessed an active one under the Temple Mount along the Western Wall) thus providing a minuscule, though active, continuous addition to the bath.

    If they placed such a high priority on immersion in such an arid region, I would guess Vos’ thought does not hold water… ;)


  44. elnwood said,

    December 21, 2016 at 8:33 pm


    Yes, nothing is immune to the affects of our own interpretive grids. But there are several different things we can do to minimize the effects of our interpretive grids. Here are some ways, which include many we are doing right now:

    1. Recognize our own interpretive grids. Know that we have our own presuppositions that shape our interpretation.
    2. Dialogue with others with other interpretive grids. Different perspectives can be a benefit. Dialogue with people from other denominational traditions, and from other countries. Read broadly, and read books from different periods of history. Read books that challenge your preconceptions. If you read almost exclusively white male Reformed theologians, you will not be challenged. I’m not saying read raving heretics or poor writers and theologians, but read people with good qualifications that come with good recommendation from others.

    This past year, I read an entire systematic theology from a theologian from Africa. I have never been anywhere in Africa, have no plans of going there, and have no African descent, but it was useful in seeing things from a different perspective, and I make it a point to do it.

    Read other fields of study as well. Study theology, but also study linguistics, cultural anthropology, church history, and other relevant topics, as they become pertinent. Experts in different fields will have different perspectives.

    3. Challenge other’s presuppositions and be open to have yours challenged.
    4. When you make a point, ask yourself, if I didn’t already hold this position, would it be persuasive? If I don’t think an argument is convincing, ask yourself, am I holding the bar of certainty higher than I would for arguments supporting this position? Be willing to say, yes, I hold to this position, but that was a bad argument
    5. Take special note of people who are willing to give ground to positions outside of their own theological position. Vos and many other non-immersionists gave a lot of ground to Baptists. That is significant. Ask why. Pursue it further. It shows that the evidence to them was stronger than their presuppositions.

    Another example: Calvin’s Sabbath position is controversial, but Gaffin thinks Calvin did not hold to a Westminster Sabbath. If it came from a non-Sabbatarian, it wouldn’t be as noteworthy, but because Gaffin himself DOES hold a Westminster Sabbath, it is significant. Again, it shows that the evidence to him was stronger than his presuppositions.

    And finally,

    6. Be humble about your own position. We know in part (1 Cor 13:9). Faithful Bible-believing Christians disagree on these issues. Hold your own position as tentative, open to change as the Holy Spirit leads and convicts.

  45. rfwhite said,

    December 27, 2016 at 10:12 am

    42 Phil Dirksen: thanks for your comments. Let me comment on one thing, namely, your concern about those who would try to convince you that “the first several generations of Reformed leaders were just bad or sloppy exegetes of the basic biblical and historical data.” My response: agreed, some may have that interest. It is NOT, however, a necessary part of examining what others have said about the data. It’s my error if I presume that that is their interest.

    44 elnwood: good stuff. One addition at the end: as a mentor of mine at WTS taught me, “don’t presume that you’re OK, and those who differ with you are not.” Or, as we might apply it to your good list, “don’t presume that you’re practicing the above points, and those who disagree with you are not.”

  46. brandonadams said,

    January 23, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    From David Wright:

    At times when one eavesdrops on the Assembly’s deliberations, one can only marvel at the providence that produced such a majestic outcome from such an astonishing pot-pourri of discussion. This is nowhere more keenly felt than in the protracted altercations over whether the Directory should mention dipping. Herein, says Lightfoot, ‘fell we upon a large and long discourse’, on which they spent at least three days, 21 July and 7–8 August 1644, according to the minutes. Lightfoot was absent on 7 August. In the end, the Directory kept silent. To baptize the child,

    which, for the manner of doing of it, is not only lawful but sufficient, and most expedient to be, by pouring or sprinkling of the water on the face of the child, without adding any other ceremony.

    As Lightfoot commented, ‘it was thought fit and most safe to let it alone’. Later the Confession would be explicit, ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary’ (28:3), but the course of reasoning that led to this change of mind is hidden from us.

    On 7 August the company voted and split down the middle: 24 were for keeping a mention of dipping, 25 were against. And this was after a re-count: ‘it was voted so indifferently that we were glad to count names twice’, wrote Lightfoot. ‘And there grew a great heat upon it: and when we had done all, we concluded upon nothing in it.’ The arguments were truly wondrous in their variety and virtuosity:

    if dipping is needed to depict burial, ‘what must answer dying?’ (Francis Woodcock);52

    if we say dipping is necessary, ‘we shall further anabaptisme’ (John Ley, and John Lightfoot); what was the ‘proper native signification’ of the Greek verb baptizo? (Gillespie); how could 5000 be dipped in a day? (George Walker); what happened in Jewish proselyte baptism, which was followed by John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus? (Thomas Coleman and Lightfoot gave different answers); Lightfoot was in his element citing the rabbinic commentators; others reported what was the practice in Muscovy and Spain, or registered that ‘those that incline most to popery are all for sprinkling’; the Hebrew host ‘baptized into Moses’ were not immersed (John Arrowsmith); the meaning of Hebrew words was ventilated and Latin terms flew to and fro.

    And early on Lazarus Seaman posed one of the Assembly’s dilemmas: we must follow the mind and institution of Christ, but if that turns out to be dipping, we will be hard put to it to persuade parents to have their children baptized.
    Baptism at the Westminster Assembly

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