Written January/February 2007. Some links broken.
In these posts I am responding to a long post on baptism written by Aaron. As I said, I am glad to discuss things with Aaron (though whether he has the time to continue is another story – I invite other input). I must confess, though, a little exasperation with the immersionist position (the position – not Aaron) that states Christian baptism can only be valid if performed as immersion. The evidence for that position is just not there.
In my previous post, I addressed Aaron’s reference to 2 Kings 5:14 as an example of something called baptism that is described as immersion – a claim that I acknowledged could be true contrary to my own statement in the comment section of the first of his baptism posts. He then goes on to assert that there are various clues in the New Testament accounts of baptism that amount to a description of these events being carried out as immersion.
I do not agree. None of the New Testament examples describe an actual baptism – at most, they provide clues that can just as easily be taken either way depending on your bias. And considering that in the years before the Gospels and Acts the Septuagint (LXX) presents all Israelite baptisms as sprinkling or pouring, and in the years after the book of Hebrews presents baptisms as OT sprinkling or pouring, it is not unreasonable to proceed with a bias toward sprinkling or pouring. Still, John Murray is cited as agreeing that there was a tradition of immersion for ceremonial washing in some cases, so neither is immersion ruled out.
Now in older arguments against immersion I have seen disputes about the rendering of the Greek referring to entering and exiting the water and also the use of “in” instead of “with” but I am not sure of their validity. At this stage I am happy to accept Aaron’s version of these Greek words – though not his understanding of what they signify.
For example, Aaron acknowledges that Matthew 3:16 could refer to Jesus walking out of the Jordan, yet says he still sees the most natural reading as Jesus coming up from being immersed. I cannot agree. When the text says: And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; it is clear Jesus’ “going up” is after he was baptised. Even if the argument is made that baptism is going under the water, not coming up, the phrase “immediately he went up from the water” is redundant – of course he came up from the water! There would be no more gospel to tell otherwise!
Aaron also questions why wading into the water to have water poured over you would be necessary, and suggests the only reason John the Baptist would need to be where there was plenty of water is because people were being immersed.
Assuming that the Greek in Matthew 3:16 and Acts 8:38-39 is accurately translated, I have no problem seeing the sense in standing in water to pour water over people’s heads (I prefer pouring as the NT method) – with no container and to prevent the need to bend down time after time after time, it seems to me the most sensible thing to do.
John 3:23 also presents no problem for pouring. First of all, there is the often mentioned meaning of Aenon – springs – that indicates the water mentioned does not necessarily mean a large body of water (it’s also pointed out the phrase “much water” can equally be translated “many waters”). Then there is the question of just how much water John would need to immerse people – more than to pour, but does it really require more water than the Jordan? No, it is more likely that the water is mentioned as being needed to sustain the people coming to be baptised, rather than to baptise them.
Aaron also applies the need for a certain amount of water to the Ethiopian in Acts 8:26-40 – surely the eunuch had enough drinking water to pour water over him if that was how baptism was administered. But a closer reading shows that the events were completely logical regardless how baptism was administered. First, Philip was taken into the chariot to explain the Isaiah passage and the gospel. He would have talked about the story of Jesus, including baptism in the Jordan and perhaps even his own experience of baptising the Samaritans. Then the eunuch sees water, and the sight of the water makes him say, “What prevents me from being baptized?”
What is the practical thing to do at this stage? Should Philip say, “Okay, but we don’t have to use that water, we can use some of your valuable drinking water that you are saving for your trip across the desert”? No, it is far more natural to use the water that prompted the eunuch’s question and to carry it out as Philip had explained in his story of Jesus.
One more example is mentioned by Aaron, taken from an earlier post of mine on baptism – the baptism of the jailer in Phillipi. He says the text indicates the jailer took Paul and Silas into his house, then left the house to wash their wounds and be baptised (obviously somewhere that immersion was possible sinces there would be enough water to wash wounds in the house), and then re-entered the house. But is that really the best way to read the story?
First, the earthquake, the open doors and the unfastened chains. Then, the jailer (who obviously lives there) woke, sees the doors open and is about to kill himself. Where is he at that stage? It is unlikely he is in his bedroom or Paul would not have been able to see him to call out. It is more likely that he is in a courtyard in the prison complex.
Paul calls out, the jailer calls for lights rushes in, takes them “out”…where? Out of the jail proper, but it’s unlikely he took them into his house – more likely the courtyard. Paul and Silas tells him he and his household will be saved if they believe on Jesus. Where is his household? At least some of them are holding the lights, and human nature is such that it is likely all of them have come to see what is going on. If not, then Paul and Silas’ comment about his household would encourage the jailer to fetch them. So, Paul and Silas explained the gospel to the jailer and “all who were in his house”. This does not mean, as Aaron suggests, that they were all physically in his house at that moment! At this stage he hadn’t even washed their wounds, so it’s unlikely he would have taken them into his house yet.
It was after Paula and Silas spoke the gospel to them that the jailer took Paul and Silas and washed their wounds – took them where? It’s unlikely the phrase means more than took them to water inside the complex in order to wash their wounds. And they were baptised, probably with the same source of water – not enough to immerse, but enough to pour or sprinkle. The man had been about to kill himself not more than an hour before because he thought the prisoners had escaped. Was he about to now take his whole household down to a river to be baptised and leave the other prisoners unattended?
It is then he took them to his house – for the first time.
Now, personally, I think my version of events fits the text far better. Is Aaron’s version of events impossible? No, but it rests on the phrase, “all who were in his house”, a phrase that is equivalent to “household” not an explanation of where they were at that moment. This account of baptism, as with all others, is completely consistent with the mode of pouring, and as I see it, far more consistent than immersion.
In all of this, immersionists have the more difficult task. They must show that all of the Christian water baptisms in the New Testament can only be by immersion. On the other hand, those who do not champion immersion as the only mode still accept immersion as an acceptable way to baptise and therefore only need show the likelihood of baptism by other methods in the New Testament. I believe the above explanations certainly show that immersion is not the only possible – or even probable – way baptisms were done in the NT. There are strong cases to be made for other methods – too strong to claim immersion is the only mode.