Going Down to the River to Pray:
Baptism and the Mode of Baptism
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
[We have request to baptize by immersion. In our constitution (All Saints) we promise to defer to the head of household on such matters. This article explains why.]
How should baptism be done? By immersion, pouring, sprinkling, face down, backwards, three times in, or jump-down-turn-around-pick-a-bail-of-cotton? Presbyterians, Reformed, Lutherans, Anglicans, and some Mennonites today, as well as Roman Catholics prefer affusion (pouring/sprinkling) on the head. On the other hand, Eastern and Greek Orthodoxy, Baptists, Pentecostals, and some Anabaptists prefer immersion. Though, some insist on triune immersion or going in face forward or backwards, etc. Don’t get me started on being baptized in a bathtub.
Getting the grand picture of baptism in all of Scripture is much more important than a specific form, as I have tried to make clear in recent sermon allusions. From the Garden of Eden, the Mountain of God, flowed rivers (Gen. 2:10; Ez. 28:13-14). The water of God is a theme throughout Scripture. There are springs in the patriarch narratives, the laver in the synagogue, the ocean and basins on chariots in the temple, and finally the rivers of water in the new covenant (Zec. 14:8). Following the Fall, these pure waters become waters of purification. Christ said of the Spirit’s reality: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:38, cf. Is. 58:11, Zec. 13:11). Pure water flows from God’s presence. This is surely the image of the new covenant spiritual reality pictured by Ezekiel’s temple (Ez.47:1-3). This is a prophecy of the baptism of the nations (Mt. 28:19-20).
Then he brought me back to the door of the house; and behold, water was flowing from under the threshold of the house toward the east, for the house faced east. And the water was flowing down from under, from the right side of the house, from south of the altar (Ez. 47:1).
Then in the New Testament, we find waters flowing out of Jerusalem. The outline of Acts is wet with this flowing river—the gospel was to go to Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The early church understood well the image of water flowing out, as in the water basins on chariots in the temple (1Kg. 7:23ff) and the deepening river flowing out of Ezekiel’s temple (Ez. 47:1-5). I think this is why they preferred rivers rather than ponds or fiberglass baptismals.
The Didache (A.D. 70-85). reads, “Concerning baptism, baptize in this manner: Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water [that is, in running water, as in a river]. If there is no living water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Hippolytus (d. 236), in the Apostolic Tradition, says, “Let the water be flowing in the font or poured over it. Let it be thus unless there is some necessity; if the necessity is permanent and urgent, use what water you can find” (xv-xxi, c. 217). I guess this is where the bathtub comes in “urgent necessity.”
On the necessity of a particular form or mode, only a few moments thought will help us see the relative unimportance of how this washing is done. Compare baptism with the Lord’s Supper. Whether the Lord’s Supper is actually a “supper” (deipnon, an evening meal), is not essential to its purpose, meaning, or sacramental quality. No one should claim that the Lord’s Supper is invalid because it is done at 9:30 a.m. It is still eating and drinking the gifts of God for the people of God. In the same way, the mode of baptism, whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling, is still a washing with water in the name of God. How it is done is surely less important than its meaning and action.
So then we have to fight our baptistic immersionists friends who claim that other forms are invalid on the one hand, and our Presbyterian brethren on the other hand who will not perform baptism by immersion because of their tradition. John Calvin does not stand with most of his Calvinist progeny today. He writes,
Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed . . . or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church” (Institutes, 1975 ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, II, 524.).
So even though most Calvinist Presbyterians today won’t immerse, we will be more Calvinistic than the Calvinists. Sunday, down at the river, we are following Calvin’s view — “Churches should be at liberty to adopt either.” Come on in — the water is fine!