Baptism: Immersion Only? (Hodge)

Outlines of Theology, rewritten and enlarged ed. One question that Christians sometimes ask is this: What is the proper mode of baptism?  In other words, when we baptize someone, should it be by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling?  Reformed Christians will answer: Yes!  The main question about the mode of baptism is not how much water, but only the fact that water is used.  For example, the Westminster Confession notes that dipping is acceptable, but so is pouring or sprinkling (28:3). This Reformed view – that dipping, pouring, or sprinkling are all valid modes of baptism – is found in Scripture.

A. A. Hodge did a nice job of explaining this in chapter 42 of his “Outlines of Theology.”  In the following paragraphs, Hodge notes that the baptisms in the NT are not necessarily and always done by immersion.  In fact, Hodge notes that immersion is sometimes not even probable in these examples:

(1) The baptism of the eunuch by Philip, Acts 8:26–39, is the only instance which even by appearance favors immersion. But observe (a) the language used by Luke… applies just as naturally to baptism performed by affusion [pouring – spl] as by immersion. (b.) The Greek prepositions, εἰς, here translated into, and ἐκ, here translated out of, are in innumerable instances used to express motion, toward, unto, and from.—Acts 26:14; 27:34, 40. They probably descended from the chariot to the brink of the water. Philip is also said to have “descended to” and to have “ascended from the water,” but surely he was not also immersed. (c.) The very passage of Isaiah, which the eunuch was reading, Is. 52:15, declared that the Messiah, in whom he believed, should “sprinkle many nations.” (d.) Luke says the place was “a desert,” and no body of water sufficient for immersion can be discovered on that road.

(2.) Every other instance of Christian baptism recorded in the Scriptures bears evidence positively against immersion. (a.) The baptism of three thousand in Jerusalem on one occasion on the day of Pentecost.—Acts 2:38–41. (b.) The baptism of Paul.—Acts 9:17, 18; 22:12–16. Ananias said to him “standing up, be baptized,” ἀναστὰς βάπτισαι, and, “standing up, he was baptized.” (c.) The baptism of Cornelius.—Acts 10:44–48. (d.) The baptism of the jailor, at Philippi.—Acts 16:32–34. In all these instances baptism was administered on the spot, wherever the convert received the gospel. Nothing is said of rivers, or much water, but vast multitudes at a time, and individuals and families were baptized in their houses, or in prisons, wherever they happened to be at the moment.

 Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 614–615.

Shane Lems,
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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How To Baptize: The Mode

Biblically speaking, what is the proper mode of baptism? In other words, is the only option immersion, or are pouring and sprinkling also OK? In Reformed churches, all three are acceptable (dipping, pouring, and sprinkling; see WCF 28.3). Here’s how J. G. Vos explains it:

“The mode of baptism is a matter of indifference. That is, the quantity of water to be used and the manner in which it is to be applied are not matters which have been appointed in Scripture. In the history of the church there have been three modes of baptism, namely, effusion (pouring), sprinkling, and immersion. Any one of these constitutes a valid administration of baptism. The Confession of Faith states: ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person’ (28.3). It should be noted that the Confession does not say that immersion is wrong, but only that it is not necessary; nor does it say that sprinkling is the only right mode of baptism, but only that by sprinkling or pouring baptism is ‘rightly administered,’ that is, that either of these modes, equally with immersion, constitutes a valid administration of the sacrament.”

A good question arises: “Is it true that the Greek word translated ‘baptize’ in the New Testament literally means ‘to immerse’?”

“Certainly not. In its New Testament usage, the Greek verb baptizo literally means ‘to wash,’ as will be seen by looking up Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38, in both of which texts this verb is used, and where the idea of ‘immersion’ would obviously be out of place. The Greek noun baptismos literally means ‘washing,’ as is evident from mark 7:4, 8 and Hebrews 9:10. To suppose that tables were cleansed by immersion is absurd. Yet the Greek text of Mark 7:4 speaks of the ‘baptism’ of tables. The confident claim of Baptists that baptizo and baptismos in their New Testament usage mean ‘to immerse’ and ‘immersion’ will not stand the test of a careful scrutiny of the passages in the New Testament where these words occur.”

J. G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, p. 471-2.

Shane Lems