An Inquiry Into Baptism (2)

By Jefferson David Tant

The Testimony of Historians

“It is without controversy, that baptism in the primitive church was administered by immersion into water, and not by sprinkling; seeing that John is said to have baptized in Jordan, and where there was much water, as Christ also did by his disciples in the neighborhood of these places. Philip also going down into the water baptized the eunuch” (Ecclesiastical History, Chap. I, Sec. 138).

“Immersion, and not sprinkling, was unquestionably the original form. This is shown by the very meaning of the words baptizo, baptisma, and baptismos used to designate the rite” (History of the Apostolic Church, Schaff, p. 488).

“The practice of the Eastern Church, and the meaning of the word, leave no sufficient ground for question that the original form of baptism was complete immersion in the deep baptismal waters” (History of the Eastern Church, Stanley, p. 34).

“The Greek Church in all its branches does still use immersion, and so do all other Christians in the world, except the Latins. All those nations that do now, or formerly did submit to the Bishop of Rome, do ordinarily baptize their children by pouring or sprinkling. But all other Christians in the world, who never owned the Pope’s usurped power, do and ever did dip their infants in the ordinary use. All the Christians in Asia, all in Africa, and about one-third in Europe are of the last sort” (History of Infant Baptism, Wall, Vol. II, p. 376, 3d ed.).

“In this century (the first) baptism was administered in convenient places, without the public assemblies, and by immersing the candidate wholly in water” (Ecclesiastical History, Century 1, Part II, Chap. 4, Mosheim).

“From the thirteenth century sprinkling came into more general use in the West. The Greek Church, however, and the church of Milan still retained the practice of immersion” (History of Doctrine, Hagenbach, Vol. 11, p. 84, note 1).

The first record of pouring or sprinkling is that of Novatian in 251 A.D. Eusebius, the father of church history, describes it: “He (Novatian) fell into a grievous distemper, and, it being supposed that he would die immediately, he received baptism, being besprinkled with water on the bed whereon he lay, if that can be termed baptism.”

Comment: We could go on for page after page citing such quotations, but these will serve our purpose of establishing the unanimity of thought on the part of historians. One might wonder how the word “baptize” ever came to be used in the English text, rather than the translation “immerse” or “dip,” Perhaps a bit of historical background will be of interest.

When King James (Church of England) authorized the translation of the Bible, which was completed in 1611, he gave the scholars some fourteen rules to follow. Two of these rules were: 1. “Old ecclesiastical words must be kept, as, the word church must not be translated congregation, etc.” 2. “The ordinary Bible, read in the church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the originals will permit” (see Lewis’ history of the English translation of the Bible).

It was during this time that the controversy over immersion vs. sprinkling was heating up, and it was in this atmosphere that the King James translation was made. Some of the Bishops had gone before parliament affirming that “the devil of immersion ought to be legislated out of the realm, it was so troublesome.” When these men came to the word baptizo, they had a problem. If they were to translate the word by its accepted meaning of immerse or dip, it would effectively serve to “legislate the devil of immersion” into the realm, rather than legislating it out.

They decided not to translate the word at all, but rather transfer it from the Greek into the English language. They dropped the Greek letter omega (o) at the end of the word, by which the ancient Christians, received their baptism.” replacing it with the English letter e. So from baptizo in the Greek we have baptize in the English. Therefore, the Bishops did not translate the word at all, but left it in the Greek, to cover up their pious fraud. Those who read could then assign whatever meaning they wanted to this new English word.

As earlier indicated, all historians of whom I am aware are unanimous in their statements concerning the practice of immersion by the early church, which, we remember, was under the direct and inspired guidance of the apostles.

The Testimony of the Church Fathers

Basil the Great, A.D. 370: “The bodies of those baptized are as if buried in the water.”

Barnabas, A.D. 119: “We indeed go down into the water.” Again, “Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water” (Epis. XI, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 144).

Origen, A.D. 184-254: “Man, therefore, through this washing is buried with Christ; is regenerated” (Comment on Matthew).

Gregory, A.D. 240: “He who is baptized in water is wholly wet.” Again, “Immerse me in the streams of Jordan, even as she who bore me wrapped me in the children’s swaddling clothes” (Ante-Nicene Father, Vol. 1, p. 70).

Chrysostom, A.D. 347: “To be baptized and to submerge, then to emerge is a symbol of descent to the grave, and of ascent from it” (Hom. 40 in 1 Cor. 1).

Canon of the Council of Calchuth, A.D. 816: “Let the presbyter also know, that they may not pour the holy water over the infants’ heads, but let them always be immersed in the font.”

Comment: The early church fathers lived and wrote while the Greek was still a living language, and history furnishes us with not even one example in all their writings where baptizo is ever used as meaning sprinkle or pour. Even in later years, after infant baptism had been introduced, immersion was yet the practice, as evidenced by the decree of the Council of Calchuth in 816 A.D.

The Testimony of the Scholars

MacKnight (Presbyterian): “In baptism the baptized person is buried under the water. Christ submitted to be baptized, that is, to be buried under the water.”

Luther (Lutheran): “Baptism is a Greek word and may be translated immerse. I would have those who are to be baptized to be altogether dipped.”

John Wesley (Methodist): “Buried with him in baptism – alluding to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion.

Wall (Episcopalian): “Immersion was in all probability the way in which our blessed Savior, and for certain the way by which the ancient Christians, received their baptism.”

Brenner (Catholic): “For thirteen hundred years was baptism an immersion of the person under water.”

Calvin (Presbyterian): “Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the latest 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, 4:15:19).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article on “Baptism (Non-Immersionist View)” Vol. I, pp. 388-394:

(1) Immersion – “It may be admitted at once that immersion, where the whole body including the head is plunged into a pool of pure water, gives a more vivid picture of the cleansing of the soul from sin; and that complete surrounding with water suits better the metaphors of burial in Rom. 6:4 and Col. 2:12, and of being surrounded by a cloud in 1 Cor. 10:2.

(2) Affusion – “The two usages (immersion and affusion – JDT) which were recognized and prescribed by the beginning of the 2d cent. may have been in use throughout the apostolic period although definite information is lacking.

(3) Aspersion – “It was in the early cents. exclusively reserved for sick and infirm persons too weak to be submitted to immersion or affusion. There is evidence to show that those who received the rite in this form were somewhat despised . . . it was long of commending itself to ministers and people, and did not attain to almost universal use until the 13th cent.”

Prof. Moses Stuart: “Baptizo means to dip, plunge, or immerse into any liquid. All lexicographers and critics of any note are agreed in this” (Essay on Baptism, p. 51; Biblical Repository, 1833, p. 298).

“Catholics are fully aware that the early practice of the Church (cf. the baptism of Christ, Matt. iii. 16, Mark i. 10; that of the eunuch, Acts viii. 38, 39, and St. Paul’s symbol of burial and resurrection, Rom. vi. 4, Col. ii. 12) was to immerse, and that this custom prevailed in both East and West in the solemn administration of the sacrament till the end of the thirteenth century” (Question Box, 364, 1913 edition).

Bishop Bossuet, celebrated French Catholic: “To baptize, signifies to plunge, as is granted by all the world” (See Stennett and Russen, p. 174).

Calvin (Presbyterian): “The Church hath granted to herself the privilege of somewhat altering the form of baptism, retaining the substance, that is, the words.”

Comment: Surely there is no need to go on, page after page, citing such quotations from men of learning, recognized by their peers and others. Calvin’s remarks were most enlightening. In the first reference, he admitted that it “is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive church.” But this is of no consequence to him, as churches “should be at liberty” to make their own laws, as his second quote infers. Is there to be no respect for the laws of him who is “King of kings,” nor for the meaning of the words spoken by the-only one who can save us – Jesus Christ?

The Testimony of the Commentators

“This passage cannot be understood unless it be borne in mind that the primitive baptism was by immersion” (The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, Conybeare and Howson [Episcopal], Rom. 6:4).

“The candidate says to himself, Now I enter into fellowship with the death of Christ; I am to be buried with Christ in the immersion, and in the emersion I rise with Christ to newness of life” (Meyers, commentary on Rom. 6:4).

“Here is a plain allusion to the ancient custom of baptizing by immersion; and I agree with Koppe and Rosenmuller ‘ that there is reason to regret it should ever have been abandoned in most Christian churches; especially as it has so evident a reference to the mystical sense of baptism” (Rscens. Synop. Romans 6:4, Bloomfield).

“Verse 4. We are buried with him by baptism into death i It is probable that the apostle here alludes to the mode of administering baptism by immersion, the whole body being put under the water, which seemed to say, the man is drowned, is dead; and, when he came up out of the water, he seemed to have a resurrection to life; the man is risen again; he is alive!” (Adam Clarke [Methodist Protestant Church], Commentary on Rom. 6:4, published 1836)

“‘4. Therefore we are buried, &c. It is altogether probable that the apostle in this place had allusion to the custom of baptizing by immersion. This cannot, indeed be proved, so as to be liable to no objection; but I presume that this is the idea which would strike the great mass of unprejudiced readers” (Albert Barnes [Presbyterian], Commentary on Rom. 6:4).

Comment: These commentators, along with multitudes of others, recognized as scholarly men, were all of denominations that did not practice immersion. Their statements, though, show their understanding of what the New Testament teaches, even though they did not choose to follow this teaching in their personal lives, although there is evidence that some of them were immersed.

It is interesting to note the comment of Barnes that immersion “is the idea which would strike the great mass of unprejudiced readers.” In other words, just the simple, unadorned word conveys the idea of immersion. But if minds have been prejudiced by custom, tradition, or creeds of men, the conclusion might be different.


Although volumes could, and have been, written on this subject, perhaps it has been helpful to sift through the multitude of material and collect some of the more significant and cogent thoughts for consideration herein.

Is it not noteworthy that the combined testimonies of authorities in the Greek language (the language of the original writings of the New Testament), of biblical scholars and commentators, of church historians, of the church fathers, of the encyclopedias, and yea, of the biblical text itself, all agree? They all agree that the Apostolic teaching was immersion, that our Lord himself was immersed, that the early Christians practiced immersion, and that sprinkling as a substitute was not generally accepted until the 13th Century.

Therefore, if I am convinced that baptism is an essential part of my obedience unto the Lord, and I have a choice in the matter, which should I choose – that which all the evidence recognizes is the biblical practice (immersion), or that which has been invented by men through the passing years (sprinkling or pouring)? Remember the words of the Lord: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt. 15:9). Furthermore, Jesus said, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16). If, as the evidence supports, a correct translation of that verse is “He that believeth and is immersed shall be saved. . . ” (and there have been some translations on the market so reading), then what hope is there for those who have obeyed “He that believeth and is sprinkled shall be saved. . . “? If we are at liberty to change the manner (immersion to sprinkling), then why cannot we give approval to those who have changed the element (water to rose petals), or even to those who have changed the command itself to “He that believeth and is not baptized shall be saved?

Questions to Ponder

1. Have I been baptized into Christ for the remission of my sins according to the biblical pattern? (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:4). ___ Yes ____ No

2. If I have had sprinkling or pouring administered to me, do I have any assurance from the Lord that this is acceptable to him? ____ Yes ____ No

3. If baptism is an essential part of my salvation, can I have fellowship with a denomination or church that does not teach or practice the “teaching of Christ” in this regard? (2 Jn. 9-11) ___ Yes ____ No

4. Can I afford to allow men to tell me which of the Lord’s commands are important and which are unimportant? (Jn. 6:63; Matt. 4:11). ____ Yes ____ No

5. Is it permissible for anyone to change or alter any of the teachings of the Word of God? (Gal. 1:6-8) ___ Yes ___ No

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 5, pp. 144-146
March 1, 1990