Paul E. Kretzmann

Different modes

The Lutheran Church has always held that it is a matter of indifference, so far as the command of God is concerned, and therefore a point of Christian liberty, whether Baptism is performed by immersion or dipping, by sprinkling, by pouring, or by washing, the essential thing being the application of water, not the form of this application. Other church bodies are very narrow in this respect, the Greek Catholic Church maintaining that a threefold immersion is necessary, and the Baptist and Campbellite churches insisting that immersion it must be, at all costs.

Baptism in the New Testament

In deciding this question, it would obviously be useless to refer to the New Testament passages in which the Sacrament of Baptism is instituted, for there we gain no explanation of the method used by Christ and the apostles, and experience has shown how foolish it is to draw conclusions from attending circumstances about which we know little or nothing. The historical accounts, however, have some value. For instance, the apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, would have had neither time nor the water necessary to immerse the three thousand that were converted by the sermon of Peter, Acts 2:41. Also, the number of rivers in which the eunuch of Queen Candace of Ethiopia might have been immersed by Philip can easily be counted by an infant of a day, for there are none.

The word “baptize”

But a better method to get a clear understanding of the form of Baptism is to take the use of the word baptize in Scriptures, in passages where it is used in its ordinary meaning, where the Sacrament is not spoken of. Mark 7:4 is a passage illustrating such use. That cups and pots were immersed in ceremonial washing, might still be plausible, but that the couches of the dining-room were also dipped in water every day, is clearly out of the question. The prescribed form of ceremonial purification, which was the method in common use, was the sprinkling of consecrated water. The baptism of the children of Israel, 1 Corinthians 10:2, was not by immersion, as was that of the Egyptians, but by sprinkling. The Bible throughout prefers sprinkling to immersion as a symbol of cleansing, Isaiah 52:15; Ezekiel 36:25. In Joel 2:28 pouring, not immersion, is the figure employed. In fulfilment of this prophecy, the apostles, on Pentecost Day, were baptized with the Holy Ghost, Acts 1:5; Acts 2:3. Cp. Acts 2:41; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 16:32-35; Acts 8:38 [Theol. Quart., 20 (1916), 151-159].

The Church’s administration of Baptism

The fact that the mode of Baptism was not fixed by Christ or by His apostles, but that this was left open to the Christian Church, is substantiated also by the testimony of history. In a book which is reckoned with those of the Apostolic Fathers, called The Teaching of the Twelve [Luco note: Or The Didache], which dates not later than the middle of the second century, the passage occurs: “If you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot baptize in cold water, do so in warm; but if you have neither, then pour out water three times on the head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Walafrid Strabo, a German monk and writer (808-849), tells us that St. Lawrence, a Roman deacon who suffered martyrdom in the persecution of Valerian about 258, baptized one of his executioners with a pitcher of water, by pouring the water on the man’s head. The cases recorded in history might be multiplied indefinitely and brought forward to the time of the Reformation. But the conclusion which we must reach, after comparing all evidence, is that, while immersion was the rule for baptisms in the post-apostolic age, other modes of Baptism have always been in use in the Church, and any one of them may be employed, so long as the application of water with the appropriate formula, as instituted by Christ, is made [Theol. Quart., 18 (1914), 67-77].