Monday, December 29, 2014

Spurgeon Calling

The popular Jesus Calling devotional by Sarah Young is often criticized for being written from the perspective of Jesus himself. The author’s words are presented in the devotional as the Lord’s personal words to the reader, and this gets some people bent out of shape. To them, it seems principially inappropriate for non-inspired human words to be presented as God’s words.

But regardless of the merits of the criticism, I wonder if those who disparage Jesus Calling for this reason would stand ready to equally criticize Charles Spurgeon, who occasionally employed the same stylistic device. For example, in his morning devotion of January 16, Spurgeon writes the following paragraph, presented as God’s words to the reader:
It is but a small thing for me, thy God, to help thee. Consider what I have done already. What! not help thee? Why, I bought thee with my blood. What! not help thee? I have died for thee; and if I have done the greater, will I not do the less? Help thee! It is the least thing I will ever do for thee; I have done more, and will do more. Before the world began I chose thee. I made the covenant for thee. I laid aside my glory and became a man for thee; I gave up my life for thee; and if I did all this, I will surely help thee now. In helping thee, I am giving thee what I have bought for thee already. If thou hadst need of a thousand times as much help, I would give it thee; thou requirest little compared with what I am ready to give. ’Tis much for thee to need, but it is nothing for me to bestow. “Help thee?” Fear not! If there were an ant at the door of thy granary asking for help, it would not ruin thee to give him a handful of thy wheat; and thou art nothing but a tiny insect at the door of my all-sufficiency.
As another example, take the famous hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” This is a classic song, probably well-loved by the sorts of people who criticize Jesus Calling. And yet it’s written by a non-inspired man, and presented as God’s words to the hearer.
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand. 
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. 
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
This isn’t an endorsement of Jesus Calling by any means. I haven’t read the book. My only point here is that if we’re going to be principially opposed to the stylistic device of presenting non-inspired human words as God’s words, then we ought to be opposed to it across the board, regardless of who’s doing it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Peter Jackson’s Fan-Fiction

I wrote out some thoughts in a Facebook discussion about some of the problems with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.

I understand that it’s fantasy, but even a fantasy world needs to be properly “tuned” to itself. Sure, Middle-earth is a magical place, but gravity has always worked there. We shouldn’t be seeing a physics-defying escape from Goblin-town. We shouldn’t be seeing Bilbo fall down a massive chasm with no real harm to speak of. We shouldn’t be seeing Legolas bouncing along atop dwarf heads, or running up a staircase of falling stones. (In fact, we shouldn’t be seeing Legolas at all.) These sorts of shenanigans don’t belong in the world that Tolkien created. You don’t read anything like this in the book.

Moreover, the book is not filled with virtually non-stop action. The book is conservatively paced. But Jackson’s retelling wears the viewer out with one epic action sequence after another. And this sort of overused action makes for a boring movie. If everything is epic, nothing is epic.

I’m not saying that book-movies must follow the narrative of the book line-by-line in every detail. But I do think watching the movie should at least feel very similar to reading the book. It should feel like the same story.

Which is a huge part of what’s wrong with the Hobbit movies. They don’t feel like the same story. They feel wildly different. They’re bloated with what basically amounts to fan fiction. Stuff that Jackson and his writers made up out of their head. Stuff that they felt would make the story better. Characters who shouldn’t be there. Plot lines that shouldn’t be there. These don’t add to the story. What they do is make it feel like a completely different story.

Jackson wastes too much time trying to make me care about characters and sub-plots that are entirely foreign to the original story. But I wanted to see The Hobbit. I’m not interested in Jackson’s fan-fictional elf-dwarf romance sub-plot. There are internet sites for that sort of stuff.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Baptizo Battle

I recently had some interaction concerning modes of baptism at the blog of a fellow named James Attebury. I figured I would re-post my comments here.


Hi, James. Thanks for the interaction at Denny Burk’s blog. Here are some of my thoughts on what you’ve presented here. I’ve limited myself to responding only to things related to the mode of baptism. I agree wholeheartedly with much of what you said regarding the meaning of baptism, specifically as an act of repentance. Spot on. Very well articulated. Personally, I think 1 Pet. 3:21 is one of the strongest credobaptistic texts in Scripture. Though I do get the impression that you are far less comfortable with child baptism than I am. In any case . . .
The term ‘baptism’ comes from the Greek baptizo which means “to dip” or “to immerse.” There is no disagreement among reputable Greek scholars on this.
This is the kind of just-take-my-word-for-it approach that is so common amongst immersionists. You could at least mention a few names. Is Strong not a reputable scholar? He gave this sense: “to make whelmed (i.e. fully wet).” Is Thayer not a reputable scholar? He gave these senses: “to wash, to make clean with water” and metaphorically “to overwhelm.” Is J. W. Dale not a reputable scholar? His analysis of baptizo is the most exhaustive I’ve ever seen, and he emphatically disagrees with the immersionist position. Do bapto and baptizo very frequently denote dipping or immersion? Yes. But that isn’t the only thing the terms can denote (as I’ve labored to show in my own article:
You will not find a single Greek lexicon that defends “to pour” or “to sprinkle” as an acceptable translation of the term.
Because that would be a much too specific way to define or translate a term as general as baptizo. Nevertheless, there are clear instances where baptizo and its related words are used to refer to washings that are conducted via pouring or sprinkling. I mention a good number in my article, but I’ll reproduce a few examples here:

– The Septuagint uses bapto to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s being “bathed in the dew of heaven” (Dan. 5:21).
– The author of Sirach refers to the cleansing rituals of Numbers 19 (i.e. sprinklings) as baptisms (Sirach 34:20).
– The Noahic flood waters are described as a type of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21).
– The author of Hebrews describes various levitical sprinklings as baptisms (Heb. 9:9-14).

Now, none of this means that lexicons should start including “to pour” or “to sprinkle” as additional definitions of baptizo, because the sense of “washing” covers everything just fine; as long as we understand that the washings denoted by the bapto word group were very often conducted via modes other than immersion.
Even if we had no idea what “baptism” means, “to pour” or “to sprinkle” are impossible meanings here. Those who are being baptized are the subject of the verb. A person cannot be divided into parts or poured out like water can. Only a liquid can be sprinkled or poured, but a person can be immersed.
I think you’re confused about how the active and passive voices work. First off, those who are baptized are the object of the verb, not the subject. Now, baptizo often occurs in a passive form, in which case the subject is also the object. That’s how the passive voice works. When Acts records that the Philippian jailor “was baptized” (Acts 16:33), baptizo is in a passive form, which means that the jailor is both the subject and the object. (This does not mean he baptized himself.)

But when John says “I baptize you with water” (Matt 3:11), baptizo is in an active form, which means that John is the subject of the verb while “you” is the object. Syntactically, it would be entirely reasonable for John to say “I sprinkle you with water,” or for Acts to say of the Philippian jailor, “he was sprinkled.” I’m not saying these statements should be translated this way. I’m just pointing out that the syntactical argument you’re making is nonsensical.
The Jordan river is the indirect object of the verb.
No, it isn’t. “In the Jordan” is a prepositional phrase that describes where John was baptizing. It is not an indirect object.
The preposition en or ‘in’ only makes sense with immersion. Bible translation committees mistranslate en in Matthew 3:11 as ‘with’ because if it is accurately translated as ‘in water’ then this would exclude baptism by pouring and therefore not sell as many copies (Bible translations must be denominationally neutral).
This is way overblown. Prepositions are just diverse in the ideas they convey. That’s all there is to it. There’s no conspiracy here. I addressed arguments from prepositions in my article (footnote 16), but I’ll reproduce it here:

“Prepositions can and often do take a variety of different meanings. En frequently denotes instrumentality: “Shall I come to you with [en] a rod” (1 Cor. 4:21); “Greet one another with [en] a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20); “God . . . comforted us by [en] the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:6). . . . It was for good reasons that my Greek professor often warned against theologizing from prepositions.”
If baptizo can mean “to pour” we could translate the Bible like this: ‘were being poured by him in the river Jordan’ (Mark 1:5).
The weirdness is only due to the nature of the English verb pour. An additional helping word is required in order to convey it passively. You would just say “being poured upon by him.” The verb sprinkle, on the other hand, would not require an additional helping word: “being sprinkled by him.” These are just English quirks. It has no bearing whatsoever on the Greek verb baptizo.
It is not the “removal of dirt from the body” – the physical action of being immersed in water (how does pouring a little water remove dirt from the body?) . . .
1. Who said it has to be a little water? A profuse pouring could remove just as much dirt as an immersion. Don’t force immersion into the text. Just take “baptism” here in the more general sense of washing. Washing can be achieved in various ways.

2. You’re not giving adequate space for symbolism in the ordinance. Sprinkling a small amount of water may not amount to a literal baptism, but it does sufficiently represent one. The same applies to the way we commonly practice the Lord’s supper. A bite of bread and a shot of grape juice does not amount to a literal supper, but it does sufficiently represent one.

Hope this is helpful.


Postscript: I said the passive voice means that the subject is also the object, but that may be an inaccurate or confusing way to put it. A better way to describe it is that the subject receives or undergoes the action of the verb.


Hey, James. This will likely be my last rejoinder. I’m happy to give you the final word from here. Thanks for the discussion.
The reason why they practiced pouring is because they had no knowledge of Greek and just followed established custom.
Can you demonstrate that the Anabaptists had no knowledge of Greek? Also, the Anabaptists were radical reformers. What makes you think they were inclined to just follow custom?
The Greek Orthodox who practice infant baptism always use immersion because they know Greek.
This is overblown. Lots of people in my camp know Greek, and plenty of Greek Orthodox don’t know Greek any better than you and I. Besides, the Greek Orthodox are ultra-traditional, so if anyone’s inclined to “just follow custom,” it’s them.

For example, take a look at this little epistle by an 18th century Orthodox Archbishop: Compare how much space he devotes to making the sort of lexical arguments you make with the amount of space he devotes to establishing immersion on the basis of tradition. Here was an Archbishop who gave no indication of knowing Greek any better than your average seminary student.
If your understanding of baptism is correct, then you are the first person to have a correct understanding of baptism since the Anabaptists.
First, there have always been credobaptists who hold my view. Sure, they’re not as common as immersionist credobaptists anymore, but they’ve always been around. Yet even if your assertion were correct, so what? I could attribute the same kind of absurdity to your own camp. If the immersionist understanding of baptism is correct, then immersionists were the first Christians to have a correct understanding of baptism since the patristic era.
The two beliefs don’t go together because baptism pictures our death and burial with Christ (Rom 6:3-5). If baptism is not regenerative, then infants have not been buried and raised with Christ.
And the same sort of argument can be made with respect to other modes. Sprinkling pictures the cleansing of sins by the blood of Christ, which is a spiritual blessing that infants presumably have not yet received. Likewise, effusion pictures the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is another spiritual blessing that infants presumably have not yet received. Pouring and sprinkling are just as friendly to credobaptism as immersion.
Hence this is why immersion was the way baptism was practiced in the first century (Acts 8:36-39).
There is nothing in Acts 8:36-39 that proves the eunuch was immersed. He could have been, but it’s not clearly stated.
This is an exaggerated use of the term bapto to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s entire body being covered by water as he slept on the ground. Pouring or sprinkling are impossible meanings here since his entire body was wet because of condensation whereas ‘baptism’ by pouring only wets part of the body.
1. If anything is an impossible meaning here, it’s immersion. No translation of the LXX that I’m aware of translates Dan. 5:21 with immersion language, because Nebuchadnezzar was not “dipped” or “immersed” in the dew of heaven. He was bathed in it. He was covered in it. He was bapto-ed in it. And in the phenomenology of the biblical authors, the dew would be conceived as falling down upon Nebuchadnezzar.

2. Pouring and sprinkling are perfectly capable of wetting the entire body. It happens every time I take a shower.

3. But I think your main problem is that you’re far too concerned about how much water gets on the body. You’re incredulous toward the idea that a simple pouring or sprinkling is sufficient to cleanse a person, but that’s only because you aren’t letting Scripture set your categories: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ez. 36:25).

4. You’re also not giving due place to symbolic representation. A simple pouring or sprinkling symbolizes a baptism just as well as a bite of bread and a shot of grape juice symbolize a supper.
The point is he was just as wet as if he had been immersed in water.
And here is a good example of the unfalsifiable nature of immersionism. No amount of counter-evidence can shake the immersionist’s lexical commitment. He will find a way to make immersion fit.

Advocates of the eclectic position, however, aren’t obligated to force anything. They’re perfectly comfortable acknowledging that some usages of the word denote immersion, while others don’t. Because they understand that the term is as general as the word wash. If someone wants to wash by sitting in a tub full of water, that’s one way to do it. If others want to wash by standing under an effusing shower head, that’s another way to do it.
The focus is on the effect of the condensation (being drenched), not how he got wet.
Which sounds strangely similar to something I said myself in the conclusion of the lexical section in my article: “The important part is the end result, and not so much how it got that way.” The word itself does not demand a specific mode.
Sirach 34:25 is describing the ritual immersion of Numbers 19:19. The person must “bathe himself in water” and this was done by immersion.
How do you know that the “bathings” of Numbers 19 were immersions?
Noah’s flood immersed the whole earth in water. The entire world was covered over with water and that is why it is a type of immersion.
Except Peter says that baptism corresponds to the safety that Noah and his family experienced inside the ark. Baptism does not correspond to the world’s experience of the flood, but to Noah’s.
Hebrews 9:10 is describing the ritual immersions in water mentioned in places like Lev 11:32; 14:9; 15:5-13; Num 19:7-8, 19. These are distinguished from the ritual sprinklings in 9:13 by the verb rantizo.
1. Again, I’m not sure how you know that the “bathings” mentioned in those texts were immersions.

2. You’re not following the logical flow of the passage. The baptisms of verse 10 are the sprinklings of verse 13. I spelled this out in my article, so I’ll just reproduce what I said:

“The old ceremonial system featured the sprinkling of the blood of goats, the blood of bulls, and the ashes of a heifer. Thus, various sprinklings are itemized, which correspond to the ‘various baptisms’ in verse 10. Additionally, these sprinklings are said to be administered for the purification of the flesh, which again mirrors the baptisms in verse 10, described there as ‘regulations for the body.’ In short, it is very difficult to get around the fact that the writer of Hebrews has no problem speaking of sprinklings as baptisms.”
The reason why Dale’s work needs to be 4 volumes long is because whereas Conant can just cite the occurrences of baptizo in Greek literature and let the evidence speak for itself, Dale has to engage in obfuscation to hold on to his traditions.
Well, I suppose your opinion is your opinion. And for what it’s worth, I actually don’t always agree with Dale myself. Sometimes it seems he wants baptizo to mean just one thing (which is a fault that immersionists are likewise guilty of). Be that as it may, of the recommendations you’ve given, so far I’ve read through Conant’s work, and here are some initial thoughts:

1. Before writing my article, I looked at a vast number of extrabiblical usages of the bapto word group using the Perseus Digital Library, and this was before I ever knew that old writers like Conant and Dale had already compiled them. So a lot of this is material I’ve already seen.

2. I don’t understand why writers like Conant insist that baptizo means “to immerse” while acknowledging that it can also mean “to whelm,” which is a verb that doesn’t require a specific mode.

3. Conant consistently chooses the translations that are friendly to his cause. But two can play that game. Here is an appendix I’m putting together that I plan to include in a future revision of my initial article: I compile a number of instances where bapto and baptizo are used or rendered in ways that immersionists may find surprising. And it’s by no means an exhaustive list.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Church Discipline and Knuckleheaded Christians

Some comments on some statements in Tom Schreiner’s chapter, “The Biblical Basis for Church Discipline,” in Those Who Must Give Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (Nashville: B&H, 2012).
“Treating the person disciplined as a Gentile or tax collector means that he is no longer considered to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ. He is no longer a part of the fellowship of believers. He is not considered to be a brother.”
1. I agree with this. But at the same time, it betrays the incoherence of something else that Baptists like to say on a separate occasion. I’m thinking of those Baptists who argue that people who have been baptized only in infancy should not be admitted as church members unless they first get baptized the right way, whose reasoning for this strict stance is that a paedobaptist’s admission into membership would have to be immediately followed by church discipline, since the paedobaptist is living in disobedience to Christ’s command to be baptized. They bar such people from membership and view it as a sort of preemptive church discipline. Excommunication applied in advance.

But in Scripture, church discipline is carried out only when the offense is of such a nature that sustained impenitence inevitably leads to the conclusion that the offender is actually not a true believer. “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17). And yet this is not the way that Baptists typically view paedobaptists. John Piper and Mark Dever, for example, have great respect for Ligon Duncan and Kevin DeYoung. They’re all brothers in Christ. They speak at conferences together. They recommend each other’s ministries.

So how does a Baptist withhold membership from paedobaptists in the name of preemptive church discipline, when Baptists by and large believe that paedobaptist convictions do not preclude someone from being a genuine and godly believer? Exercising church discipline on someone whose profession of faith you have no reason to doubt is incoherent.

2. Schreiner shoots himself in the foot later in the chapter by reading 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 as an instance of church discipline, even though in that passage Paul speaks of the troublemaker as a brother: “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (3:15). My own view is that this passage is not an instance of church discipline or excommunication, but simply Paul’s instructions for how to deal with knuckleheaded Christians in the church. Sometimes even fellow believers can behave in ways that make their fellowship unprofitable. “Take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (3:14).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Gender-Based Insults

Virtually every woman would be highly offended if she were told that she looks like a man. Similarly, when a man is told that he plays ball like a girl, he understands that it is not a compliment. But what makes these insults so insulting? Is there something wrong with looking like a man? Is there something wrong with playing ball like a girl? Well, that depends on whether you’re a man or a woman.

Women are naturally expected to be prettier than men, and they generally are. The average female is better looking than the average male. So when a woman is told that she looks like a man, she’s being told that her physical appearance is woefully below average for a woman.

On the other hand, men are naturally expected to exhibit greater physical strength and ability in things like sports, and they generally do. The average male is stronger than the average female. There aren’t any women in the NFL – not padded up and on the field anyway. So when a man is told that he plays ball like a girl, he’s being told that his athletic skills are woefully below average for a man.

Now just because women are typically better looking than men doesn’t mean that a man should be flattered if he’s told that he looks like a woman. Because that’s also unnatural. I was mistaken for a girl once, back when I had long hair and wore girl pants; and while I’m not sure I had any right to be surprised, I know that I didn’t take it as a compliment. I didn’t take it as an admission that my looks were exceedingly above average. Because a man should look like a man, and this is not a bad thing at all for a man. It’s a good thing.

And I imagine the same would apply in the case of a female athlete being told that she plays ball like a man. I doubt she would find this flattering, even if the intention were to compliment her athletic skills as exceedingly above average. Because a girl should play ball like a girl, and this is not a bad thing at all for a girl. It’s a good thing.

All of this to say, men and women are different. Which is why some insults are effective against males that are not effective against females, and vice versa. It isn’t natural or good for a woman to be manly or for a man to be womanly. And if we didn’t know this, then we wouldn’t find these gender-based insults so insulting.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Selectively Egalitarian

I know a woman who once punched her husband, nearly knocking him unconscious, during an argument over Christmas tree decorations early in their marriage. While I’m sure this woman isn’t proud of what she did, she and her husband nevertheless look back on the whole thing and laugh. And I doubt any serious person would contend that the woman should be locked up for such a thing.

Compare this with the public reaction to the Ray Rice debacle. Our culture’s outrage over Rice’s actions shows that deep down we all know egalitarianism isn’t really true. Men and women are different in ways far more significant than plumbing, and men have a God-given responsibility to sacrificially protect women as weaker vessels. Which is what makes Rice’s actions particularly reprehensible.

Consider some alternative scenarios. If it were a man knocking out another man, the story wouldn’t be getting all this air time. If it were a woman knocking out a man, the video might still go viral, but only because people are laughing at the poor guy. But when a man knocks out a woman, that crosses a uniquely significant moral line — one that even a godless society still recognizes. We’re only selectively egalitarian.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Not a Numbers Game

John Hammett, in Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline, writes:
“At least 13 [usages of ekklesia] seem to refer clearly to the church in a universal sense, as encompassing all the redeemed of all the ages. . . . But the New Testament pattern of usage indicates that we should think of the church primarily in terms of a local, visible assembly, for that is how the word is overwhelmingly used.”
It seems like I hear this kind of argument a lot, but I’m not sure it really shakes out. This isn’t a numbers game. Just because ekklesia is most often used in Scripture to denote a local assembly, doesn’t necessarily mean we should think of the church primarily in local terms. I can understand why that might seem reasonable at first blush, and there may be an element of truth in there somewhere, but I think the argument misses something important.

Local churches are visible expressions of the universal church, which means that the universal nature of the church is logically prior to its local nature. In other words, the church is universal before it is local. Furthermore, the local church will eventually become obsolete and pass away, while the universal church remains for all time. Thus, the church should be understood primarily (i.e. in its most prime sense) as universal, rather than local.

Loose Quotation

“Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp’” (2 Kings 6:8).
This way of speaking shows that quotations were not always direct. The king of Syria wouldn’t have actually verbalized the words “such and such a place” as he was detailing his plans. This is simply the writer’s way (informal by modern standards) of recording the basic gist of the king’s proposal. The exact place the king wanted to go is not relevant to the writer’s purpose.

Consider a similar example:
“Then Hushai said to Zadok and Abiathar the priests, ‘Thus and so did Ahithophel counsel Absalom and the elders of Israel, and thus and so have I counseled’” (2 Sam. 17:15).
Hushai obviously would have said a lot more to the priests about the counsel that he and Ahithophel had given Absalom, but those details have already been recorded earlier in the chapter. So the words “thus and so” are sufficient to communicate what Hushai is reporting, even if he likely wouldn’t have said exactly those words.

Of course, neither of these examples should be considered as errors in the text. It’s simply a looser style of quotation that’s more concerned with summarizing what was said than with recording speech verbatim. We do this sort of thing all the time in colloquial English. Biblical authors did it in their writings. Which is one reason why the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy rightly denies that inerrancy is negated by “a lack of modern technical precision.”
“We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hyperbole or Allegory

In the HCSB Study Bible’s notes on Matthew 5:29-30, Chuck Quarles writes the following:
“Jesus here uses hyperbole (intentional exaggeration for the sake of making a point) and allegory (in which the eye represents a lustful perspective and the hand represents an immoral deed) in order to convey a vital requirement of discipleship.”
I think it’s better to say that Jesus is using either hyperbole or allegory.

1. Quarles obviously wants to guard against the error of interpreting this passage in terms of literal self-mutilation, which is certainly a good thing to guard against. But an appeal to either hyperbole or allegory will do that job just fine. You don’t need both.

2. Furthermore, if Jesus is actually using both hyperbole and allegory, it would effectively and significantly undermine the point that he’s making. If we assume Jesus is speaking allegorically, then, as Quarles recognizes, the eye represents “a lustful perspective” and the hand “an immoral deed,” both of which should be cut out of the Christian’s life. But if Jesus is also speaking hyperbolically, then it means that he is rhetorically exaggerating when he makes this point – in which case, the Christian need not actually cut lust and immoral deeds out of his life.

So it’s one or the other, but not both.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Someone Else’s Quip

“ . . . we dispel the false notion that Christians are nauseatingly self-righteous people who are worried that someone somewhere might be having fun.” – Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church
This is plainly based on H. L. Menken’s definition of puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Dever replaces Mencken’s words with synonymous ideas, but the essence of the quip clearly originates from Mencken. Should Dever be expected to cite this sort of thing?

I’m only asking because of the recent controversy surrounding accusations that Mark Driscoll plagiarized some material in one of his books, which lead some others to write thoughtful pieces about what plagiarism actually is, and what it is not. In any case, I wonder if those who vehemently criticize Driscoll’s alleged plagiarism would also be willing to criticize Dever with equal enthusiasm for using the essence of someone else’s quip without giving any credit or citation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Early Church Membership

A few comments on some statements in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
“If you read the story of the early church recorded in the book of Acts, you will find no evidence that any of them meant to have anyone other than believers as members.”
1. First off, searching Acts to find out what the early churches required for church membership is like searching Acts to find out their policy on baptistries (“You will find no evidence that any of them used anything other than a natural water source”) or the mode of the Lord’s supper (“You will find no evidence that any of them used wafers and Welch’s”).

The Acts narrative isn’t built to answer every question we might have about categories the earliest Christians didn’t operate with, or issues they didn’t face. Dever’s point assumes that “church membership” would have been a category as pivotal and axiomatic for the earliest Christians as it is for 9Marks ecclesiology. And in my mind, that’s a pretty large assumption.

This is not to say that church membership isn’t biblical. I believe it is, though I’m not willing to say that it jumps right off the pages of the New Testament. We get there by good and necessary consequence, along with perhaps a dash of sanctified cultural pragmatism.

2. Yet still, there’s evidence even in Acts that households were treated as covenantal units (Acts 16:15). A household was covenantally and socially joined to whatever the head of the household was joined to, which is unfriendly to Dever’s claim.
“When you read the letters of Paul, it seems clear that Paul too wrote as if the churches were composed entirely of believers; thus he addressed them as saints – those whom God has specially chosen.”
And yet Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:14, says that the children of at least one believer are to be considered hagios, the word frequently translated elsewhere as saint.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Inspiration of Unspoken Premises

A miscellany from February 23, 2014.

In Matthew 23:23, Jesus says this to the scribes and Pharisees: “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law.” For some reason, reflecting on this verse got me thinking about some of the commonsensical, and yet theologically-informed, hermeneutical principles that we often naturally apply when reading the Bible.

One thing Jesus teaches us here is that there are some matters of the law that are weightier than others. But strictly speaking, Jesus never says that. He does not say, “There are some matters of the law that are weightier than others.” But he does clearly assume that such is the case. Since Jesus was God, we know that he was never mistaken about anything; and this means that neither were any of his assumptions mistaken. So if ever we see Jesus assuming that x is true, we can confidently affirm that x is indeed true, based on God’s word. This is a basic example of one way that we arrive at biblical truths by good and necessary consequence. Scripture is not limited to teaching us things only through gift-wrapped propositions. It can speak in manifold ways, and it’s our responsibility to listen carefully.

What about when the one speaking isn’t Jesus? Are we likewise to say that all of the apostle Paul’s operating assumptions are true when he’s writing Romans, Ephesians, or 2 Timothy? After all, unlike Jesus, Paul was a fallible man, and throughout the course of his life, I’m sure he was mistaken about many things. I imagine he held all sorts of beliefs and assumptions that were in fact erroneous. Yet we believe that when he wrote his Spirit-inspired letters, everything he said was true. Infallible. Inerrant. But informal argumentation often contains unspoken premises – things that must be true in order for an argument to make sense, but are seen by the author as being unnecessary to express. And I think it’s important to recognize that inspiration extends not only to what Paul explicitly stated, but also to everything his statements assumed.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Much More Excellent

A miscellany from March 22, 2014.

I usually enjoy reading the New Testament more than I enjoy reading the Old Testament. If someone asks me why this is, I like to respond half-jokingly by saying, “Well, because the New Testament is better.” I say “half-jokingly” on purpose, because I fancy it’s a sentiment at least somewhat inspired by Hebrews 8:6: “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.”

Our English word testament comes from the Latin word testamentum, which is what the Vulgate uses to translate the word “covenant” in this verse from Hebrews. It’s also the word Jesus uses at the last supper: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant [novi testamenti] in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Testament is basically another word for covenant.

The New Testament gets its name from the fact that it is the part of our Bibles that concerns the new covenant. As such, it contains the clearest and fullest expression of the Christian faith; which is why I suppose I typically find it more enjoyable to read. It’s as much more excellent than the Old as the covenant of which it speaks is better. Of course, none of this is to say that the Old Testament is bad. Just inferior. Hebrews says so, kinda.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fluid Prepositions

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis] the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38).
It’s sometimes noted that the Greek preposition eis (here translated “for”) can mean “because of.” In which case, the point would be that these believers are baptized not in order to gain forgiveness of sins, but because they have already been forgiven. That’s a fair reading, but I don’t think it even requires an appeal to the Greek. The English preposition “for” can itself mean “because of.” For example, “It was impossible to concentrate for all the racket outside.” Prepositions are just fluid in that way.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When You Have Nothing to Say

A miscellany from February 5, 2014.

In the course of a debate over a controversial issue, whatever it might be, you may occasionally receive a criticism of your own position that you don’t quite know what to do with. If this criticism is one that you routinely encounter, then one simple way to respond is to make the criticism itself seem tired.

So, for example, if you’re an atheist, you might try sighing dramatically the next time you hear yet another Christian point out that a naturalistic worldview has no way to account for objective moral norms. Or, if you’re a leftist, and some Bible thumper challenges your steadfast commitment to marriage equality by pointing out what consistency would require of you, try following up with something like, “Oh, great. Here we go again with that whole ‘gay marriage leads to polygamy’ mantra. Haven’t heard this one before.”

Treating such criticisms in this way is effective for a number of reasons. First off, if you can make the criticism seem overused, then it’ll create the impression that this is really all your opponent has in his arsenal, which will make his position seem hopelessly weak. But even better, it will distract everyone from the fact that you actually have nothing substantial to say in response.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Estienne’s Numbers

A miscellany from January 11, 2014.

Sometimes I regret that I often don’t remember the exact verse, chapter, or even book where significant passages of Scripture are found. But then I’m encouraged when I read the book of Hebrews, whose writer felt it was entirely acceptable to simply state that “it has been testified somewhere” (Heb. 2:6). Knowing precisely where a passage comes from is not the important thing. The important thing is knowing the passage itself, with its proper meaning and application. Hiding the word in your heart is not a matter of memorizing numerical citations. God’s words are infinitely greater than Estienne’s numbers.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What the Great Commission Did Not Mean

A miscellany from February 22, 2014.

Evangelicals who are missiologically zealous often claim that Jesus’s commission to the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 is a command that every individual Christian must obey. But they can only pull this off by subtly reworking what Jesus actually said. Here’s what the Great Commission did not mean: “Wherever it is you decide to go, and whatever your station in life, always live in an evangelistic way, sharing the gospel with those around you.” Of course, this is by no means a bad thing to be teaching every Christian to do, but it isn’t what Jesus was telling his disciples to do. He was telling them to go disciple the nations, which effectively ruled out the option of staying where they were.

The Great Commission wasn’t a command to participate in the kind of day-to-day evangelism to which modern Christians are accustomed: sharing the gospel with family members, friends, co-workers, etc. Rather, it was a command to travel land and sea to reach various countries and people groups. In other words, it was a command to go and do the sorts of things the apostles historically went and did. And you might think that they didn’t get the job done, but Paul seemed to think otherwise (Rom. 16:25-26; Col. 1:6, 23).

Some might attempt a more nuanced approach and posit that the Great Commission had a specific historical meaning for the apostles, and yet also functions as a broader and more general command for each believer today. But that seems to me like an arbitrary and unnecessarily complicated perspective.

Perhaps some people worry that interpreting the Great Commission as a command that was contextually confined and historically fulfilled would lead us into the evangelistically frozen mentality of hyper-Calvinism. But I don’t see any reason why that should be the practical result. After all, surely the Christian’s responsibility to perpetually live in a way that promotes the fame of Jesus doesn’t stand or fall by this one passage. That’s a lifestyle you would simply expect from someone who knows the risen Lord of heaven and earth.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Necessity vs. Compulsion

A miscellany from May 17, 2014.

Calvinism is often criticized for destroying human responsibility, since it teaches that fallen man, apart from the new birth, is incapable of exercising faith or repenting of his sins. But Calvin, following Augustine, makes a critical distinction between necessity and compulsion (Institutes 2.3.5).

Consider this distinction, as Calvin does, with respect to the goodness of God. God is necessarily good and righteous, which means that these characteristics are part of his very nature. He thus cannot be anything other than good and righteous. But it does not follow from this fact that God is somehow forced to be good and righteous. That sort of language is simply inaccurate. Rather, these traits flow out of his own nature by necessity, not by compulsion.

Now consider this distinction with respect to the wickedness of man. Outside of regeneration, fallen man is necessarily sinful and rebellious, which means that these characteristics are part of his very nature. He thus cannot, apart from the new birth, be anything other than sinful and rebellious. But it does not follow from this fact that fallen man is somehow forced to be sinful and rebellious. That sort of language is simply inaccurate. Rather, these traits flow out of his own nature by necessity, not by compulsion.

And if this notion of necessity somehow means that fallen man cannot be held responsible for his sin (i.e. that his sin is not actually blameworthy), then it would likewise mean that God cannot be “held responsible,” as it were, for his goodness (i.e. that his goodness is not actually praiseworthy).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Brief: Exegetical Fallacies

For scholarly competence and clarity of expression, it doesn’t get much better than Carson in my book. Exegetical Fallacies is good; it just isn’t as special as I was anticipating it would be. By the end, you realize that it’s not much more than a compilation of particular exegetical arguments that Carson personally takes issue with. While his critical remarks are legitimate by and large, the attempt to categorize these examples of problematic argumentation into formalized “fallacies” seems a bit forced at times. But again, it’s good overall.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On Modes of Baptism

Note: This is a lengthier piece with a good number of footnotes. If you’d like a spiffier and more reader-friendly format, you can download a PDF here.


The debate over baptism’s proper recipients often eclipses the question of its proper mode. In other words, we tend to spend more time talking about who should be baptized and less time talking about how baptism ought to be administered.1 The arguments that I’m laying out here are related only to that second question – baptism’s proper mode. I’m assuming credobaptism, which means that I’m taking it for granted that baptism should only be received by those who personally confess Christ as Lord. But seeing as how most paedobaptists will basically agree with the conclusions I’m going to draw here, my fellow credobaptists are my primary audience.

So how should Christian water baptism be administered? Historically, three modes have been practiced: immersion, pouring, and sprinkling.2 The large majority of credobaptists today believe that immersion is the only valid, or at least the most preferable, mode of baptism. Some credobaptists, in exceptional circumstances where immersion is not feasible, are willing to accept baptism by pouring or sprinkling. But they consider these modes less than the best, to use the words of a theology professor I once had. Other credobaptists will take a harder line. For example, my former church history professor, Nathan Finn, whom I greatly esteem, has said, “I do not believe a practice other than immersion is ever a biblical baptism, even in exceptional circumstances.”3

I want to be clear at the front end precisely what it is that I’m arguing here. I am not arguing that pouring and sprinkling are merely permissible modes of baptism given certain circumstances. Rather, I’m arguing that both pouring and sprinkling are theologically meaningful, biblically warranted, and thus perfectly legitimate modes of baptism that should be warmly welcomed in credobaptist churches right alongside immersion. In other words, I’m arguing that Christians should be open to all three traditional modes; and this openness is not rooted in squishy ecumenism, but in the conviction that Scripture itself is richly multifaceted in the language and imagery it uses to express the meaning of water baptism.

As I see it, debates over the mode of baptism typically feature two kinds of arguments: lexical arguments, and theological arguments. Lexical arguments approach the issue at the word level, making a case based on the meanings of the specific words associated with baptism. This involves giving careful attention to how these words are used in both biblical and extrabiblical writings (i.e. writings outside of the Bible). Theological arguments, on the other hand, focus on the spiritual significance of baptism, and deduce the proper mode from that significance. For example, here are the simplified ways in which each traditional mode of baptism is deduced from theological premises:

  1. Baptism signifies the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:1-4), which implies the mode of immersion.
  2. Baptism signifies the reception of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8), which implies the mode of pouring.
  3. Baptism signifies the cleansing blood of Christ (Heb. 9:10-14; 1 Pet. 1:3), which implies the mode of sprinkling.

We’ll say more about each of these lines of argument in due time; the goal here is only to nail down the difference between lexical arguments and theological ones. So with this distinction in mind, let’s look at the issue from each angle in turn.

Lexical Considerations: The Bapto Word Group

The New Testament uses several Greek words that bear directly on this discussion: two verbs, bapto and baptizo; and two nouns, baptisma and baptismos. Since the latter three ultimately originate from the first, we can refer to these words collectively as the bapto word group, though most of our discussion in this section will concern only the two verbs.

It’s necessary to start with a few comments about the meaning of bapto and baptizo, considering that it’s often taken for granted that their basic meaning is something along the lines of dip or immerse, which for many immersionists virtually decides the case from the get-go. I once read a tweet from one Baptist who said something to the effect that the phrase “baptism by immersion” is a redundancy, because it’s like saying “immersion by immersion.” Now that sort of claim reveals a pretty dogged commitment to immersion as the basic meaning of the word baptism, but I hope to show here that such a commitment is actually rather indefensible.

Extrabiblical Usage

In terms of the usages found in extrabiblical Greek literature, it can be readily and happily admitted that bapto and baptizo are very often used to denote an act of immersion. Consider these examples:
“And Semus says, in the sixth book of his Delias – ‘They say that a boy once dipped [bapto] a ewer into the well, and brought water to some Athenians who were sacrificing at Delos, to wash their hands with” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 8.3, trans. Yonge).
“If the spear-shaft fall into the water, it is not lost; for it is made of both oak and pine wood, so that although the oaken end sinks [baptizo] because of its weight, the rest stays afloat and is easily recovered” (Strabo, Geography, 1.2.16, trans. Jones).
“Such a storm descended upon the whole city and all the country that quantities of trees were torn up by the roots, many houses were shattered, the boats moored in the Tiber both near the city and at its mouth were sunk [baptizo], and the wooden bridge destroyed” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 37.58, trans. Cary).
“Having thus dealt death to his whole family, standing over their bodies in view of all, and raising his right hand, that every one might be witness, he buried [baptizo] his sword in his own breast” (Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.476, or 2.18.4, trans. Traill).
It would be both futile and needless to argue that bapto and baptizo do not frequently denote dipping or immersion of some sort, for they most certainly do. But this isn’t a good reason to conclude that immersion is therefore the most fundamental idea the words convey. There’s a difference between what a word denotes and what a word means. For example, consider the English word travel.4 What does it mean? Most fundamentally, it means to go from one place to another. But traveling can obviously be done in multiple ways: on foot, on a bicycle, by automobile, by airplane, by boat, etc. In our day, it seems to me that travel is most commonly used to denote a journey of considerable distance, usually in an automobile or airplane. But of course, this doesn’t mean that long distance and the use of automobiles or airplanes are in any way essential to the basic meaning of the word travel.

In the same way, while it can be acknowledged that bapto and baptizo are frequently used to denote immersion, it doesn’t follow that immersion is fundamentally essential to the meaning of the words. This is made evident by various usages in which the idea being expressed is clearly not immersion:
“The pigment is contained between the mecon and the neck. The union of these parts is thick, and the colour is like a white membrane; this is taken away. When this is bruised, the pigment wets [bapto] and stains the hand” (Aristotle, The History of Animals, 5.13.4, trans. Cresswell).
“And he was driven forth from men; and his heart was given him after the nature of wild beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses; and they fed him with grass as an ox, and his body was bathed [bapto] with the dew of heaven” (Dan. 5:21, LXX, trans. Brenton).5
The above passages exhibit usages of bapto, from which baptizo originates.6 In the first example, Aristotle speaks of a pigment produced by a certain anatomical membrane in snails (“testacea”). When this part of the snail is bruised (or “squeezed” as other translations say), the pigment “wets” the hand, which Aristotle describes using bapto.7 In the septuagintal rendering of Daniel 5:21, Nebuchadnezzar is described as being bathed with the dew of heaven, and bapto is the word that is translated “bathed.” Undoubtedly Nebuchadnezzar’s body was completely soaked, but any attempt to understand the situation in terms of dipping or immersion is patently unnatural. The dew covered Nebuchadnezzar by falling on him.
“For as plants by moderate watering are nourished, but with over-much moisture are glutted, so is the spirit improved by moderate labors, but overwhelmed [baptizo] by such as are excessive” (Plutarch, Morals, “The Education of Children,” sec. 13, trans. Goodwin).
Plutarch speaks of the over-watering of a plant as an analogy for being figuratively “overwhelmed” (baptizo) by excessive labor, which naturally conveys a profuse outpouring. In this instance, to render baptizo as immerse would misrepresent the author’s analogy. We typically don’t water plants by dunking them underwater.
“Therefore my master very lately took / The well-turn’d orb of a thericlean cup, / Full foaming to the brim with luscious wine / . . . And then, by steeping me completely [baptizo] in it, / He set me free” (Aristophon, quoted in Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 11.44, trans. Yonge).
In this quotation of Aristophon, a master is said to “baptize” his servant with a cup of wine, which is, needless to say, impossible to understand in terms of immersion. In all fairness, this instance likely refers to the drinking of the wine, for Greeks sometimes used baptizo as a euphemism for drunkenness. But in any case, the idea is something other than immersion.
“When the old man had come near the robber embraced him, making excuse as best he could by his groans, and being baptized [baptizo] a second time with his tears” (Clement of Alexandria, The Rich Man’s Salvation, sec. 42, trans. Butterworth).
In this traditional story, a formerly wayward brother weeps as he embraces the apostle John (the old man), and his tears are said to “baptize” him a second time. By this point, baptizo has taken on a uniquely Christian ceremonial sense, referring to the ordinance of baptism. Yet Clement has no difficulty with the idea that mere tears can baptize. Granted, this is likely a hyperbolic expression; but even so, the hyperbole would convey a profuse outpouring, and not an immersion.

Additionally, a good number of usages are simply ambiguous in terms of specifying a particular mode. In these cases, it’s simply the translator’s decision as to whether the word is rendered with immersion language, or with the more general notion of overwhelming, as it can’t be decisively determined one way or another from the context. For example, “being busy and having our mind overwhelmed [baptizo] by a multitude of cares” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistles, #267, trans. Deferrari). Deferrari translates this figurative use of baptizo as “overwhelmed.” Jackson, on the other hand, renders the phrase “drowned in a multiplicity of cares,” which seems to more directly imply immersion. But since either rendering is equally sensible, it’s simply the translator’s choice.

The same can be said regarding the Septuagint’s rendering of baptizo in 2 Kings 5:14 (often wielded by immersionists), where Naaman “dipped himself” in the Jordan river.8 There isn’t anything in the passage that requires us to think that Naaman immersed himself seven times. The English can just as faithfully be rendered as “washed himself,” especially considering that Elisha’s command to Naaman was simply to “wash in the Jordan seven times” (5:10), which not insignificantly finds its basis in the levitical requirements for cleansing lepers:
“And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. . . . And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:6-8).
But indirect arguments aside, if we just play fair and neutrally transliterate the word (“baptized himself”), then we find that there’s actually nothing in the context of the passage that would necessarily lead us to prefer one rendering over another. The text does not specify the mode of Naaman’s washing.

On top of this, even in those cases where baptizo naturally conveys immersion, it isn’t always clear how fully the subject must be immersed before being considered “baptized.” Immersionists like to point out that baptizo often denotes the sinking of ships, which is true. For example, “the enemy leaped overboard into the sea whenever their vessels sank [baptizo]” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 49.3, trans. Cary). But pay attention to this particular example. Notice that when the crew realized their vessel had been “baptized,” they abandoned ship by leaping into the ocean. Clearly then, the ship was not fully immersed at this point, else the men would have already been in the water. The ship was therefore only partially immersed, and yet no less baptized.

Consider another translation of a similar occurrence: “For when our ship was flooded [baptizo] in the middle of the Adriatic” (Josephus, Life of Josephus, sec. 3, trans. Mason). “Flooded” is perhaps closer to the idea that Greek writers had in mind whenever they used baptizo to describe a sinking ship. The purpose is not so much to indicate what the ship is doing (going underwater), but to describe what the water is doing (flooding the ship). In other words, baptizo communicates the ship’s taking on water more-so than its sinking. A foundering vessel is described as “baptized” not because it has been immersed per se, but because it has been overcome by the water, so as to be rendered completely incapacitated.

On a related note, baptizo is sometimes used to denote total destruction. For example, “these very men, besides the seditions they raised, were otherwise the direct cause of the city’s destruction [baptizo]” (Josephus, The Jewish War, 4.137, or 4.3.3, trans. Whiston). Traill renders the same passage in this way: “Yet these in the sequel, irrespectively of the insurrection, overwhelmed [baptizo] the city.” Of course, this is a figurative use of baptizo, but figurative uses are known as such because they in some way conceptually represent a literal idea. So it isn’t out of bounds to ask ourselves what the use of baptizo in this context most naturally brings to mind. Does it evoke an image of the city being immersed, or does it make us think of the city as being overtaken? The latter seems far more natural. The city itself is not acting, but being acted upon by an outside force. The city isn’t moving into destruction. Destruction is coming upon the city.

For the above reasons, I would contend that bapto and baptizo most basically convey the broader notions of covering and overwhelming, rather than immersion specifically. Of course, immersion can certainly be an effective and convenient way to cover something in water, but it’s obviously not the only way to do so. If I wanted to “baptize” a sponge, I could do so either by dunking the sponge into a sink full of water, or by turning on the sink and holding the sponge under the faucet. Either way, I end up with a literally baptized sponge. The important part is the end result, and not so much how it got that way.

New Testament Usage

But what about the usages of the bapto word group that we find in the New Testament itself? After all, as Christians we ought to be most concerned with how the Bible uses these words.

Bapto occurs only four times in the NT, and is never used of the ordinance of baptism. It occurs twice in the gospel of John, at the last supper, when Jesus reveals the disciple who would betray him: “‘It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped [bapto] it.’ So when he had dipped [bapto] the morsel, he gave it to Judas” (John 13:26). Given the circumstances, dipping can be admitted as a perfectly natural idea here. And the same can be said of the use of bapto in Luke 16:24, where the rich man begs for Lazarus “to dip [bapto] the end of his finger in water” and cool his tongue. But even so, we shouldn’t put too much lexical stock in these basic English translations. Recall from examples cited earlier that bapto can take the simple sense of wetting without any notion of dipping. Certainly the use of condiments does not necessarily require dipping, and I doubt the rich man cared a great deal as to how the water got on Lazarus’s finger.

In Revelation 19:13, bapto is used to describe Christ’s garment as “dipped in blood.” But here is another place where it needs to be emphasized that “dipped” is simply an English translator’s decision, and isn’t required or even suggested by anything contextual. Other translations render the same phrase as “covered with blood” (YLT), or “stained with blood” (HCSB); and these are more general ideas that I would argue make much better sense than “dipped,” considering the fact that Revelation 19:13-15 is clearly alluding to Isaiah:
“I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel” (Isa. 63:3).
Baptizo, by comparison, occurs rather frequently in the NT (81 times), and is almost always used of the ordinance of baptism. Yet despite their frequency, very few of these occurrences give us any help in discerning a mode, and the vast majority are rendered with the simple transliteration “baptize.” There are a couple of exceptions:
“And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash [baptizo]. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing [baptismos] of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mark 7:4, cf. Luke 11:38).
Mark explains the Pharisees’ tradition of washing themselves before meals. Using the noun baptismos, he also indicates various additional washings they practice (cups, pots, etc.). While the mode of these ritual “baptisms” is not specified, it’s certainly difficult to imagine that anyone would go through the trouble of immersing couches.9 A simple pouring or sprinkling would make much better sense here. I’m not suggesting that these instances of baptizo and baptismos should be translated as either pouring or sprinkling. The basic idea is a ritual cleansing, so “wash” and “washing” are just fine. But we need to acknowledge that these “baptisms” were probably not always immersions.10

Standard Immersionist Appeals

This is a good place to deal with a few of the New Testament passages that are frequently cited in favor of immersion. I’ll mention three of the most common. But keep in mind that even though I’m going to express criticism here toward some of the arguments for immersion, this should not be taken to indicate that I believe immersion is a dubious mode of baptism. It only indicates that I find many of the typical arguments for it lackluster.

Immersionists often appeal to some of the circumstantial evidence surrounding instances of baptism in the New Testament. For example, Matthew 3:6 records that John the Baptist was baptizing “in the Jordan river,” and since pouring or sprinkling wouldn’t require anyone to get in the river, it’s argued that immersion is the mode that makes the best sense of this detail.11 By way of response, it’s true that pouring and sprinkling do not require the recipient to get into the river, but at the same time, getting into the river does not require immersion or in any way preclude pouring or sprinkling. In fact, there are early artistic depictions of baptism that show the recipient standing in a body of water as water is poured on his head.12 It’s entirely plausible that John’s baptisms “in the Jordan river” were carried out in this way.

A second example is John 3:23, which mentions that John the Baptist was baptizing in Aenon “for there was much water there.” Immersionists contend that this detail supports their view, because only immersion would require “much water.”13 But here, I think immersionists are simply trying to make the circumstantial detail work way too hard. The Greek literally refers to “many waters,” the basic point being that Aenon had a large number of water sources. There was no shortage of water there, no danger of running out. Why baptize in a place where water is scarce when you can baptize in a place where water is plentiful? Aenon’s water supply made it an ideal place to administer baptism to multitudes, which is a pragmatic rationale that would make sense regardless of the mode John was using.

A third shred of evidence that immersionists frequently wield is the descriptive language of coming “up out of the water” that shows up in some accounts of baptism, particularly that of Jesus himself: “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:9-10). Immersionists commonly take the words “he came up out of the water” as a description of Jesus emerging from the water after having been immersed in it.14

But this argument is easily weakened by another passage that describes baptism using precisely the same language, and yet cannot possibly be taken to indicate immersion. That passage is Acts 8:38-39, where Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch:
“And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away.”
Philip and the eunuch both walk down into the water (i.e. they wade out), at which point Philip baptizes the eunuch (with no particular mode specified), and then both men come “up out of the water” (i.e. they walk back onto the shore). The language of coming “up out of the water” simply indicates what Philip and the eunuch did after the baptism had been performed: they walked back out of the water. That’s all it means. And when the same language is used in the description of Jesus’s baptism, that’s probably all it means there too.

The bottom line is, these passages evidence immersion only if you really want them to. But notice here that I have no interest in arguing that immersion was not the mode used in any of the above instances. For all I know, it very well could have been. My point is simply that these passages don’t actually specify a particular mode, and thus do not even come close to warranting an insistence on, or even a privileging of, immersion.

Theological Considerations

Now we’ll look at some of the more theological aspects of water baptism. Evangelical Christians are agreed that baptism is an inherently symbolic ordinance15 that visually portrays certain truths about God, man, and salvation. But is there one particular mode of baptism that can be said to visually depict these truths in a comprehensive way? Our goal here is to explore several facets of the spiritual significance of baptism, asking ourselves which, if any, of the traditional modes is best suited to visually portray this significance.

The Reception of the Holy Spirit

In Mark 1:8, John the Baptist makes this statement: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Here we see a clear connection made between water baptism and Spirit baptism. John himself pointed toward and prepared the way for someone greater than him, namely Jesus; and in a similar way, John’s water baptism pointed toward and prepared the way for something greater than it, namely Spirit baptism. In effect, we learn that what John does with water is what Jesus will do with the Holy Spirit.

But what did Jesus do with the Holy Spirit? We find out in the book of Acts, when the disciples are filled with the Spirit at Pentecost and miraculously begin to speak in various languages. Peter stands up and declares to the skeptical onlookers that what they are seeing is the fulfillment of what had been prophesied by Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28). Then, after expounding the significance of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, Peter adds this: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). So what did Jesus do with the Holy Spirit? He poured out the Spirit in accordance with Joel’s prophecy, which was the promised baptism that the disciples had been instructed to anticipate (Acts 1:5). And here was Jesus doing with the Holy Spirit what John did with water.

In this light, it’s no surprise to see water baptism frequently connected to the reception of the Holy Spirit. After his Pentecost sermon, Peter instructs some inquisitive hearers to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The connection between water baptism and Spirit baptism is so basic that when some Ephesian disciples informed Paul that they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit, his first response is to ask, “Into what then were you baptized?” (Acts 19:2-3). For Paul, the reception of the Spirit through baptism was essential to the unity conveyed in the ordinance: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).

I cite these passages to showcase how closely Scripture connects water baptism with Spirit baptism, because I often find that this theological component of baptism’s meaning gets considerably marginalized in immersionist expositions of the ordinance. In any case, if the reception of the Spirit is a key theological truth expressed in baptism, it seems obvious to me that pouring is the mode that most vividly depicts this reality. Yet this is lost on some immersionists. I recently heard one of my favorite Baptist preachers curiously describe Spirit baptism as an immersion into the Holy Spirit; and as much as I respect the man, I had to shake my head. Why would there be a need to describe Spirit baptism in a way that is entirely different than the Bible’s own descriptions of it? The baptism of the Holy Spirit is repeatedly described as an outpouring, and never as an immersion.16

Salvation Through Water: Old Testament Types of Baptism

Next, consider how the New Testament connects Christian baptism to specific redemptive-historical events that occurred in the Old Testament. Peter connects baptism with the flood waters of Genesis 6-8:
“God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21).
Peter says that baptism corresponds in some way to the Noahic flood. More specifically, he says that baptism corresponds to the safety that Noah’s family experienced inside the ark. The waters of God’s judgment rained down on all of creation, even on Noah and his family. But because they were in the ark, they were not ultimately consumed, but saved. This event was an Old Testament type of Christian baptism. Peter even uses the word antitupos, from which we get our theological word antitype. The flood is the type, and baptism is the antitype (that which corresponds to and fulfills the type, cf. Rom. 5:14).

If Christian baptism corresponds to the Noahic flood, and specifically to Noah’s experience of the event, what might this suggest about the mode of baptism? It isn’t difficult to see how the imagery of a flood would naturally lend itself more-so to pouring than to immersion. “And rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights” (Gen. 7:12). In fact, it could be argued that immersion runs directly counter to this Old Testament type, since it would depict the fate of the wicked outside of the ark, and not the safety experienced by Noah’s family inside the ark.

Similar remarks could be made about the children of Israel who were likewise “brought safely through water” in the Red Sea crossing, and were thus baptized into Moses, as Paul teaches:
“For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:2).
Paul is exhorting the Corinthians against the arrogant assumption that sin is not as dangerous for believers this side of the cross, as if their baptism and participation in the Lord’s supper meant that they were somehow less susceptible to temptation or to the consequences of sin. Lest the Corinthians make this mistake, Paul reminds them that the Israelites were also baptized and likewise partook of Christ, and yet many of them perished as a result of their sin. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:13).

But if the Red Sea crossing was a baptism, then it seems fair to ask, what was its mode? While it isn’t easy to visualize what such an experience might have been like, it seems reasonable enough to assume that the Israelites would not have remained completely dry during the crossing. It may seem far-reaching to some, but I can imagine the Israelites were at least showered with mist from the walls of water on either side, not to mention the reference to pouring rain clouds in Psalm 77’s doxological recounting of the event (Psa. 77:17). This is the event that Paul looks back to as a type of Christian baptism.17

In light of these things, were we forced to choose one mode that best aligns with this typological baptism in the Red Sea, pouring would easily win my vote. In any case, regardless of whatever we might be able to infer here in favor of pouring, one thing we can say for certain is that this baptism — this “salvation through water” — experienced by the Israelites was not an immersion. In fact, once again, immersion would come closer to depicting the fate of the wicked who were drowned (in this case, the Egyptians) rather than the safety of God’s people. I don’t belabor this point to suggest that immersion is inherently inferior to pouring, but only to emphasize that the biblical imagery associated with baptism is multifaceted enough to keep us from insisting on, or even privileging, one particular mode. Why would we require immersion when that isn’t the way Noah’s family or the Israelites were baptized?

Waters of Judgment

In Mark 10:38-39, we read this exchange between Jesus and the disciples:
“Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ And they said to him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’”
Jesus is here speaking with the disciples about a task that he must soon accomplish, and he describes this task with the dual imagery of a cup and a baptism.18 From statements Jesus makes elsewhere, we know that this is a task he anticipates with dread: “Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36); “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50).

When Jesus mentions both the cup and the baptism side-by-side in Mark 10:38, he is speaking in a kind of parallelism. In other words, it isn’t as if there are two things on Jesus’s to-do list: (1) drinking the cup and (2) undergoing the baptism. Rather, there is one task that Jesus must accomplish, and he’s describing it in two distinct but complementary ways. As for the cup that Jesus must drink, many commentators rightly recognize it as the cup of God’s judgment upon sin; that is, the cup of God’s wrath, which is a significant Old Testament motif (Isa. 51:17). By virtue of the parallelism, the baptism Jesus mentions is another way of communicating the same awful reality. In one sense, Jesus will consume the contents of the cup, but in another sense, the contents of the cup will consume him. Jesus would drink and be baptized with the wrath of God.19

But it would be odd for us to try to think of this baptism as an immersion, because that isn’t the way Scripture expresses the infliction of God’s wrath. Instead, the wrath of God is consistently described as being inflicted in one of two ways: either drinking (Job. 21:20; Isa. 51:17; Jer. 25:15),20 or pouring (2 Chron. 34:21; Jer. 7:20; Eze. 7:8).21 In fact, some expressions of God’s wrath feature both drinking and pouring side-by-side:
“For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Psa. 75:8).
For these reasons, I would argue that Jesus’s baptism in the wrath of God is most naturally understood not as an immersion, but as an outpouring. With the dual imagery of a cup and a baptism, Jesus is making use of the Old Testament’s most common forms of expression (drinking and pouring) to describe the fearful reality of divine wrath that he would soon face.

But aside from providing us with an instance in which baptizo and baptisma most naturally convey an outpouring, this passage also highlights important aspects of the theological significance of water baptism. Jesus tells the disciples that they too would follow him under this baptism (10:39). At first blush, it might seem that Jesus is simply foreshadowing the literal distress, literal persecution, and literal deaths that the disciples themselves would experience for the sake of Christ’s name. But I’m inclined to think that Jesus’s statement has more to do with the sense in which every disciple of Christ must follow him into his death – by crucifying the old self (Gal. 2:20), and dying to sin (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ died so that we might die (1 Pet. 2:24), and water baptism speaks of this identification with the death of Christ (Rom. 6:3). In baptism, we follow Jesus under the outpouring of the waters of judgment, acknowledging and affirming his death as our own; but because we are in him (recall the correspondence with the flood and the ark), we are not ultimately consumed, but saved. Baptism vividly portrays these truths, and especially so when administered via pouring.

Romans 6, which I just referenced, begins in this way:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1-4).
This is a well-known passage that speaks of baptism as our identification with Christ in his death. Paul’s main point here is that if we have been baptized into Christ, then we have also died and been raised to new life with him, such that it is no longer possible for us to consistently live in sin. But because of this passage’s use of burial imagery to convey our identification with Christ’s death, it’s often cited (together with Col. 2:12) in favor of the immersionist position. So a few comments are in order.

First off, my argument is not that immersion is an illegitimate or less meaningful mode of baptism. So even if I were to grant that immersion best depicts Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (which I mostly grant), it wouldn’t do any damage to the argument that I’m making, which is that all three traditional modes (pouring, sprinkling, and immersion) are entirely legitimate.

Moreover, despite the immersionist tendency to zero in on the burial imagery of this passage, Paul is presenting burial with Christ as just one implication of our baptism. The most fundamental idea in his argument is baptism “into Christ” (v. 3), from which it then follows that we are also baptized into his death, burial, and resurrection. By way of illustration, Jay Adams uses the example of a bean inside of a jar.22 The bean, by virtue of the fact that it resides in the jar, goes wherever the jar goes. If the jar is suspended from a tree, the bean is likewise suspended; and if the jar is buried in the ground, the bean is also buried. Paul’s reasoning is similar in Romans 6. If we are baptized into Christ (united with him), then it follows that Christ’s death is our death, his burial our burial, and his resurrection our resurrection. Like the bean in the jar, we go wherever Christ goes — to the cross, to the grave, and to resurrection life — all by virtue of our being baptized into him (v. 3).

So Paul is not presenting death, burial, and resurrection as the essential meaning of baptism, but rather as necessary implications of it. That being said, I do think it’s profitable for such implications to be visually portrayed in the ordinance, which is something that immersion has going for it. But I don’t find in this text a good reason to insist on or privilege immersion over against pouring. While immersion can be acknowledged as a uniquely vivid depiction of Christ’s burial and resurrection, I’m not willing to grant that it’s a good depiction of his death. It isn’t splitting hairs to point out that Jesus had died well before he was buried, and his death was the result of his bearing the outpouring of God’s wrath (see the discussion of Mark 10:38-39 above), which inclines me to say that pouring is a better representation of the death Christ underwent.23

Finally, allow me a few loosely-related comments. In my experience, immersionists typically maintain that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” simply represents a metaphorical use of the term and thus should not inform our understanding of the mode of baptism. Curiously, these same immersionists are perfectly comfortable appealing to the burial language of Romans 6 as support for their view, even though such language is obviously metaphorical. We don’t baptize with dirt, after all. Moreover, even while I do maintain that immersion is an entirely legitimate mode of baptism, it has always perplexed me that immersionists would rather privilege the earthy burial imagery of Romans 6 over against the more watery imagery found elsewhere in the New Testament (outpouring of the Spirit, Noahic flood waters, Red Sea crossing, cup of God’s wrath, cleansing with the blood of Christ, etc.).

Washed in the Blood

Some may have noticed that, up to this point, I haven’t been saying very much about sprinkling. One reason for this is that I consider sprinkling to be virtually the same as pouring, only with less water. So in effect, any argument for the legitimacy of pouring could also be considered an argument for the legitimacy of sprinkling. In one sense, this is true simply by virtue of the nature of a symbol. We shouldn’t be opposed to administering baptism by sprinkling any more than we’re opposed to celebrating the Lord’s supper with small wafers and a shot of grape juice. Does such a tiny portion of food and drink amount to a literal supper? Of course not. But these elements do sufficiently represent a supper.24 In the same way, it can be readily admitted that sprinkling does not amount to a literal baptism. But sprinkling does sufficiently represent a baptism.

That said, sprinkling does not simply piggy-back on the arguments for pouring. To the contrary, sprinkling has its own unique theological significance as a mode of water baptism, and this significance shines forth brightly when we understand baptism’s theological association with the blood of Christ. To establish this association, let’s start by asking a simple question: What is baptism for? Peter tells us: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Water baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, a truth that other passages express using the language of washing. Ananias says to Paul, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

But here we also need to ask another question: What is it that truly washes away sins? It’s important to recognize that the physical water of baptism is not the answer. Rather, Scripture teaches that the blood of Christ is what truly washes away sins (1 John 1:17). Even though Peter, in his first epistle, makes the strong assertion that baptism saves us, he immediately clarifies that this salvation is not the result of the bodily washing itself: “Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21). Notice here that Peter also describes baptism as “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” which invites a comparison with a statement from the book of Hebrews: “how much more will the blood of Christ . . . purify our conscience” (Heb. 9:14).

In sum, baptism represents cleansing from sin, yet we know that the blood of Christ is what truly cleanses from sin. Likewise, baptism represents the purification of our conscience, yet we know that the blood of Christ is what truly purifies our conscience. The point here is that baptism is a clear representation of what the blood of Christ does.

If this is true, then what significance does it have for the mode of baptism? Much in every way. In Scripture, cleansing in general, and cleansing with blood in particular, is ubiquitously described in terms of sprinkling. “He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it (Lev. 16:19). “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Eze. 36:25). Not surprisingly, the New Testament describes the cleansing blood of Christ in the same terms. “But you have come . . . to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22, 24; cf. Heb. 10:22). “To those who are elect exiles . . . for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).

If baptism represents what the blood of Christ does, and the blood of Christ is applied by sprinkling, then sprinkling is a perfectly meaningful mode of baptism. What is more, the mode that immersionists insist is superior to all others does not vividly depict this spiritual blessing, at least not in the way that Scripture would have us think of it. Sprinkling uniquely portrays the application of the blood of Christ to a new believer.

The writer of Hebrews presents the association between baptism and the blood of Christ in a powerful way that furnishes an even more compelling argument for the legitimacy of sprinkling as a theologically meaningful mode.
“According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings [baptismos], regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:9-10).
The Greek word underneath “washings” is baptismos (which incidentally is the same word Paul uses of Christian baptism in Col. 2:12). The writer is literally referring to “various baptisms” that were part of the old ceremonial system, and he states that these baptisms were unable to perfect the conscience. But what are the baptisms to which he is referring? He specifies them shortly after:
“For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13-14).
The old ceremonial system featured the sprinkling of the blood of goats, the blood of bulls, and the ashes of a heifer. Thus, various sprinklings are itemized, which correspond to the “various baptisms” in verse 10. Additionally, these sprinklings are said to be administered for the purification of the flesh, which again mirrors the baptisms in verse 10, described there as “regulations for the body.” In short, it is very difficult to get around the fact that the writer of Hebrews has no problem speaking of sprinklings as baptisms.

But most significantly, the author then contrasts these old ceremonial baptisms with the superior efficacy of the blood of Christ: “How much more will the blood of Christ . . . purify our conscience” (Heb. 9:14). The baptisms of the old covenant sufficed for the purification of the flesh (v. 13), but the blood of Christ is superior in that it achieves something greater, namely, the purification of our conscience (v. 14); and do recall that a pure conscience is the very thing we seek from God in baptism (1 Pet. 3:21). All of this fits perfectly with the overarching theme of the book of Hebrews, which is the superiority of the new covenant over the old. For example, while the old covenant had its various sacrifices, these were all inferior to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 9:25-26). And in much the same way, while the old covenant had its various baptisms, these were all inferior to the one perfect baptism – a sprinkling not with the blood of animals, but with the blood of Christ.25

Concluding Remarks

This essay has been an attempt to demonstrate that when we listen to all of Scripture, we’re led to the conclusion that both pouring and sprinkling, alongside immersion, are biblically warranted and theologically meaningful modes of water baptism. Let’s call it the eclectic perspective. On one level, it’s a somewhat cumbersome case to make. When I first embarked on this study, I was expecting to come away from it with the conviction that one of these modes was to be preferred over the others. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Yet an attempt to argue for the legitimacy of all three modes runs the risk of appearing hopelessly contradictory. Which is it? Perhaps the first step in adopting the eclectic perspective is coming to grips with the fact that a singular devotion to one mode of baptism cannot be consistently maintained without blissfully ignoring or creatively twisting a number of biblical texts. But who would want to do that? The language and theological imagery associated with baptism is richly diverse, sometimes lending itself to pouring, other times to sprinkling, and other times to immersion. All three modes are entirely legitimate, for the Bible tells me so.

If it seems that I rarely had anything nice to say about immersion, that has everything to do with my primary audience. There isn’t any real need for me to sing immersion’s praises when the audience I’m seeking to persuade is by and large resolutely committed to the superiority (and in some cases, the absolute necessity) of immersion. So I chose to spend the large part of my efforts demonstrating both the lexical warrant and unique theological significance of alternative modes. Along the way, I took occasional opportunities to note that immersion turns out to be less than comprehensive in its depiction of the spiritual truths associated with baptism. But make no mistake, were a hot-headed Presbyterian to come along and start hating on immersion, arguing that sprinkling was the only right way to do it, I would be the first to rush to immersion’s defense.

If I’m right about all this, it might legitimately be asked why I think it’s important to get right. A couple of years ago, Jim Hamilton wrote a short article explaining why he holds to believer’s baptism by immersion.26 In it, he tells a story about a couple who had been “sprinkled in water as believers” and wanted to become members of his church. Hamilton says that he explained to the couple why he holds that immersion is the only right way to be baptized. This particular couple happened to be persuaded by Hamilton’s arguments and were subsequently baptized by immersion. But it certainly raised questions in my mind: What if the couple hadn’t been persuaded that they needed to be immersed? What if they had remained convinced that their baptism by sprinkling was legitimate, and decided they didn’t want to be baptized again?27

Hamilton didn’t answer these questions, but given the nature of the article, the couple presumably would have been outright denied membership, and this in the name of obedience to Scripture. In one sense, I’m inclined to commend a church that’s willing to stand by its convictions. But when it’s a fundamentally misguided conviction, motivating a biblically untenable and historically innovative requirement, any potential commendation is, shall we say, baptized by frustration. My desire is to see immersionist strictures like these go away forever.

So in a humble attempt to shift the tide on this regrettably controversial issue, I decided to lay out a brief sketch of some of the arguments for taking an eclectic approach to the mode of baptism. My hope for this essay is that it would at least nudge its credobaptist readers toward a greater and more biblical openness on the issue. This hasn’t been an exhaustive treatment by any means, and plenty of others have written ably on the topic, exploring it from various additional angles. I chose here to focus simply on those lines of argument that I’ve personally found most compelling. As I continue to reflect on the question, I’m sure I’ll discover more that needs to be said. Until then, I leave you with what has been here presented.


1. Sometimes the two issues are irresponsibly conflated, such that a certain view regarding the mode of baptism gets inextricably tied to a certain view regarding the recipients. Thus, baptism by sprinkling becomes virtually synonymous with the baptism of infants, and baptism by immersion is equated with the baptism of believers. But the two issues need to be treated separately. There’s nothing about holding to paedobaptism that necessarily commits you to the practice of sprinkling, nor does credobaptism always entail immersion.

2. Pouring and sprinkling are sometimes called affusion and aspersion, respectively.

3. Nathan Finn, “What If He Can’t Be Baptized?” Between the Times, July 17, 2013, accessed July 17, 2014,

4. I got this analogy from an old book by William H. Smith, The Subjects and Mode of Baptism (Summerside, P. E. Island: Pioneer Office [?], 1903), 27.

5. Seeing as how the Septuagint is a fallible, non-inspired Greek translation of the Old Testament, I’m treating it as an extrabiblical source.

6. Some will object to treating bapto and baptizo interchangeably, as if the meanings of the two verbs considerably differed. But while there are some minor nuances (for example, bapto regularly denotes dyeing), I’ve generally found them to be about as different as the verbs legitimate and legitimize; which is to say, not much. Bapto and baptizo are clearly related etymologically, and regularly communicate the same basic ideas. Even the primary meanings listed in standard lexicons bear this out, unless we’re to think there’s actually a considerable difference between dip and immerse. We might say that the difference is mainly one of intensity.

7. In Cresswell’s rendering, the word “stains” is translating ἀνθίζω.

8. In Hebrew, the word used for Naaman’s washing is tabal, which is frequently (and often reasonably) translated as “dip.” But the standard Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon points to the word’s usage in Lev. 14:16 as evidence that it can also refer to a simple moistening, presumably because it seems unnatural to think that the levitical priest’s hand could have held an amount of oil sufficient to dip his finger in seven times. In this way, the semantic range of tabal is similar to that of bapto.

9. I’m aware that some manuscripts do not include “dining couches” in the list of washed items, but there are good reasons to believe that their inclusion represents the original reading. According to one commentator, the couches are “omitted in the NIV because several very important manuscripts lack the word. . . . On the other hand, the unusualness of the word in the list of objects argues in favor of its inclusion, as do a respectable field of uncials, minuscules, and especially church fathers.” James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 207n68.

10. I’m skipping over some significant occurrences in this section, mainly because they are integrally related to theological discussions that will come later (e.g. baptizo as a reference to the outpouring of God’s wrath in Mark 10:38; or baptismos as a reference to levitical sprinklings in Hebrews 9:10).

11. R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2005), 144.

12. Robin M. Jensen, Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 137.

13. Robert H. Stein, “Baptism in Luke-Acts,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 60.

14. A variation on this argument is that the language of coming “up out of the water” simply implies that Jesus was immersed, since immersion is the only mode that necessarily involves walking into a body of water and coming back out again. But this is virtually no different and no stronger than the argument from Matt. 3:6 mentioned previously.

15. Even if they are not agreed as to whether it is merely symbolic.

16. Some might contend that the prepositions en and eis (“in” and “into”) imply immersion into the Spirit (as in Mark 1:8 and Acts 19:3). But this would be a feeble argument, as prepositions can and often do take a variety of different meanings. En frequently denotes instrumentality: “Shall I come to you with [en] a rod” (1 Cor. 4:21); “Greet one another with [en] a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20); “God . . . comforted us by [en] the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:6). Eis, moreover, can convey a diversity of ideas: “For David says concerning [eis] him” (Acts 2:25); “May your silver perish with [eis] you” (Acts 8:20). “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for [eis] the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). It was for good reasons that my Greek professor often warned against theologizing from prepositions.

17. For what it’s worth, Jonathan Edwards didn’t think such arguments were far-reaching; and I’m indebted to him for the observation from Psalm 77: “Hence we may learn what the apostle Paul means by 1 Corinthians 10:2, where he says that ‘their fathers were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.’ They were baptized in the cloud by the cloud’s showering down waters abundantly upon them . . . while they were passing through the Red Sea, for there seems to have been a remarkable storm of rain [Psalm 77:16–19]. . . . Hence an argument for baptism by sprinkling or affusion, for the Apostle calls affusion or sprinkling, ‘baptism,’ comparing it to Christian baptism.” Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 15 (New Haven: Yale, 1998), 139.

18. It’s intriguing that Jesus closely relates the drinking of a cup with the undergoing of a baptism, seeing as how Greek writers would sometimes use baptizo as a euphemism for drunkenness. For example, Josephus speaks of a man who was “drowned [baptizo] in his cups to the degree of insensibility” (Antiquities of the Jews, 10.169, trans. Whiston). The idea is that the man had consumed alcohol to the point where it has completely affected his whole person, overtaking his senses and bringing him entirely under its intoxicating influence. Such a man is described as “baptized.”

19. I don’t foresee any major objections at this point. Tom Schreiner, an immersionist, agrees that Jesus is referring to a baptism of God’s wrath: “Jesus himself, as Mark 10:38-39 explains, underwent a baptism in which he absorbed God’s wrath on the cross for the sake of his people.” Thomas R. Schreiner, “Baptism in the Epistles: An Initiation Rite for Believers,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 72.

20. See also Isa. 51:22; 63:6; Rev. 14:10.

21. The pouring out of God’s wrath is a truly pervasive biblical expression. See also 2 Chron. 12:7; 2 Chron. 34:25; Jer. 6:11; Jer. 10:25; Jer. 42:18; Jer. 44:6; Lam. 4:11; Eze. 9:8; Eze. 14:19; Eze. 20:8, 13, 21, 33, 34; 21:31; 22:22, 31; 30:15; 36:18; Hos. 5:10; Nah. 1:6; Rev. 16:1.

22. Jay Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1975), 36.

23. I’ve occasionally played with the idea that water baptism should feature both pouring and immersion. While this could be interesting, I wouldn’t insist that it be done.

24. One standard immersionist axiom is that baptism must be practiced exactly as it was practiced originally in the New Testament. But this insistence is strangely absent when it comes to celebrating the Lord’s supper. It doesn’t take careful exegesis to see that the supper was not originally observed in the way we typically observe it today. Not that I wouldn’t welcome condiments.

25. Some additional points in favor of sprinkling deserve at least a footnote. Isaiah prophesied that Christ would “sprinkle many nations” (Isa. 52:15). Some have pointed out that this is basically the same passage that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading before being evangelized and baptized by Philip (Acts 8:30-33). But it’s also significant that Jesus’s final commission to the apostles included baptizing the nations in his name (Matt 28:19).

26. Jim Hamilton, “Baptism and Church Membership: Sometimes Obedience Results in Painful Separations,” The Gospel Coalition, March 4, 2012, accessed July 14, 2014, article/baptism-and-church-membership.

27. Of course, immersionists like Hamilton are careful not to even speak in terms of re-baptism or being baptized again, because from their perspective, a pouring or sprinkling is no baptism at all.