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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Brief: Deep Exegesis

A fascinating book in many ways, and also a little weird. You don’t see many hermeneutics books talking about the musical features of a narrative passage (complete with illustrative sheet music in the appendices). I didn’t always feel like Leithart was doing it right, but he’s the kind of thinker and writer who insightfully challenges modern assumptions in a well-informed way, which I can appreciate. He’s also just wicked smart and makes me want to be smarter. So I’ll definitely be reading more of his stuff.