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Sprinkling Examined

broadusChapter 4. The Defense of Sprinkling.

In the face of such facts as have been stated, on what ground do any Christian people defend the practice of sprinkling for baptism? Well, some of them have really never known the facts, or never stopped to think about them. But others, with the facts before them, still defend sprinkling. Respect for my fellow Christians requires that this matter be as carefully considered as the time will allow. Yet I can but briefly mention and rapidly discuss.

There are several distinct grounds which are relied on by different classes of persons.

I grant that New Testament baptism was immersion, some hold that “the church has authorized a change.”

Yes; clinic baptism – baptism of a sick person in bed – began, as early as the third century, to be allowed by some ecclesiastics, e.g., Novatian. They poured water copiously around the dying or very sick man as he lay in bed. This practice arose from exaggerated notions of the importance of baptism. We should say, if the man was too ill to be baptized, it was not his duty; but they were afraid to let a man die without baptism, and as real baptism was impracticable they proposed a substitute which, by copious pouring, would come as near it as possible. There were many disputes as to the lawfulness of this, but it came by degrees to be generally recognized as lawful.

As the centuries went on there was gradual progress. The more convenient substitute was preferred in other cases than illness, was further reduced to mere sprinkling, and became increasingly common. It was long with-stood by Popes and Councils, but grew in popularity through the Dark Ages, until, in the thirteenth century, one thousand years after clinic pouring began, the Pope finally yielded, and authorized sprinkling in all cases.

So the Reformers found it. And, unfortunately for our modern Christianity, they did not insist on a change. Luther repeatedly said a change ought to be made, e.g., “Baptism is a Greek word, and may be translated immersion, as when we immerse something in water that it may be wholly covered. And, although it is almost wholly abolished (for they do not dip the whole children, but only pour a little water on them), they ought, nevertheless, to be wholly immersed, …. for that the etymology of the word seems to demand.” Again, he says that baptism does not simply represent washing for sins, but “is rather a sign both of death and resurrection. Being moved by this reason, I would have those that are to be baptized to be altogether dipt into the water, as the word means, and the mystery signifies.” So elsewhere (see Ingham’s “Handbook of Baptism”, p.89).

In like manner Calvin. In commenting on the baptism of the eunuch by Philip (Acts 8:38), he says: “‘They descended into the water.’ Here we perceive what was the rite of baptizing among the ancients, for they immersed the whole body into the water; now the custom has become established that the minister only sprinkles the body or the head. But so slight a difference of ceremony ought not to be esteemed by us so important that on account of it we should split the church or disturb it with quarrels. For the ceremony of baptism itself, indeed, inasmuch as it was handed down to us by Christ, we should a hundred times rather fight even to death than suffer it to be taken away from us. But when in the symbol of the water we have a testimony as well of our ablution as of our new life; when in water, as in a mirror, Christ represents to us his blood, that from it we may seek our purification; when he teaches that we are fashioned anew by his Spirit, that, being dead to sin, we may live to righteousness – it is certain that we lack nothing which pertains to the substance of baptism. Wherefore, from the beginning, the church has freely permitted herself, outside of this substance, to have rites a little dissimilar.” (“Calvin on Acts”, viii, 38). The ancients, in the time of Philip and the eunuch, practiced immersion; a different custom has now become established, the church allowing herself liberty.

The leaders of the Reformation in England attempted a return – not, indeed, to the full New Testament plan, but that of the Fathers in the third century. The rubric of the Church of England has always been, from the Reformation till now, “shall dip the child in the water, …. but if they certify that the child is weak, it shall suffice to pour water upon it.” This is essentially the principle of the old clinic baptism. And this the Greek Church also tolerates as an exceptional practice.

But among the Reformers, on the Continent and in England, the custom of several centuries, with convenience, etc., triumphed over those attempts, and pouring – nay, even sprinkling – became the common practice.

In this sense, then, the church ” has changed the act of baptism. On this ground the Roman Catholics stand – the church has changed it – so they always meet the complaints and censures of the Greek Church. And intelligent Romanists see exactly how the matter stands among us who are called Protestants. Thus the famous Dr. Döllinger says: “The fact that the Baptists are so numerous, or even the most numerous of all religious parties in North America, deserves all attention. They would, indeed, be yet more numerous were not Baptism, as well as the Lord’s Supper, as to their sacramental significance, regarded in the Calvinistic world as something so subordinate that the inquiry after the original form appears to many as something indifferent, about which one need not much trouble himself. The Baptists are, however, in fact, from the Protestant standpoint, unassailable, since, for their demand for baptism by submersion, they have the clear Bible text, and the authority of the church and of her testimony is regarded by neither party.” (“Kirche und Kirchen,” s. 337.)

I may remark here, that on this subject the Baptists belong to the majority. It is often objected to us that we are an insignificant minority of the Christian world, and it is a point about which we are not greatly solicitous. But if anybody cares greatly for majorities in such a matter, let him observe that, in contending for immersion as necessary to the baptism taught in the New Testament, we have on our side the whole Greek Church, and the whole Roman Catholic Church, and a very large proportion of the Protestant world, particularly of the Protestant scholars.

To return. This is an intelligible position. New Testament baptism was immersion, but the church has changed it. Accordingly, in the Church of England, few scholars ever, for a moment, question that baptizo means immerse or that the New Testament baptism was immersion.

The church has changed it. Very satisfactory for a Romanist, but how can a Protestant rest on this? Chillingworth, the Church of England scholar, left a dictum which has grown famous: “The Bible, I say – the Bible only – is the religion of Protestants.” Was this all a mistake?

John A. Broadus-Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism

  1. July 19, 2013 at 6:32 am

    Reblogged this on My Delight and My Counsellors.

  2. July 19, 2013 at 10:25 am

    To be technical, though the Catholic Church defends “sprinkling” (baptism by aspersion) in principle, she has never really practiced it. When it hasn’t been immersion (which was still the dominant method in the Catholic Church up until the twelfth century), it has always been effusion (pouting).

    • July 19, 2013 at 10:25 am

      Pouring*. I don’t think pouting is particularly efficacious. 🙂

      • July 20, 2013 at 6:49 am

        🙂 I understood what you meant, but thanks for clarifying.

    • July 19, 2013 at 10:32 am

      Also, I wonder if Broadus was aware of the Didache (which dates the practice of baptism by pouring to the first century)? I reckon this piece was dated 1892? The Didache was lost for many centuries and not rediscovered in Greek until 1873. The first English translation was not published until 1884. So it’s entirely possible that Broadus didn’t know about it.

      • July 20, 2013 at 6:56 am

        I am not sure if Broadus knew of the Didache. Nevertheless, in last weeks post, I posted his chapter concerning the definition of ‘baptizo’ and he stated that he was using the three most up to date lexicons:

        “Now as to the meaning of this Greek word, I will just consult, in our friend’s behalf, the three most recent standard lexicons, one of classical and two of New Testament Greek, which are acknowledged by all scholars as scholarly, scientific, and eminently authoritative. They are first, Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon of the Greek Language in general, prepared by two scholars of the Church of England; second, Grimm’s edition of Wilke’s Lexicon of New Testament Greek, published in Germany, and translated by Thayer, a Congregationalist scholar in this country; third, Cremer’s Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, published in Germany and translated in England.”


        The Reformers (Calvin and Luther) even acknowledged that the term ‘Baptizo’ meant immerse and acknowledged that this was the method of the ancients. However, they turn around and state that ‘baptizo’ can mean ‘pouring’ or ‘sprinkling.’ In my view, they added the two latter definitions in order to fit their theology.

      • July 22, 2013 at 11:40 pm

        Yes, I read that post. I’ve been digging around, and even despite such claims, it’s not entirely clear to me that the meaning of baptizo was so explicitly immersion-and-nothing-else. The problem with scholarship on the matter is that nearly everybody has a theological axe to grind one way or the other (and this is not just Protestant/Catholic, but between different branches of Protestant, too). One person will argue vehemently for immersion-only, and another person will argue just as vehemently that it’s not. I found no evidence of Broadus’s claim that Greek-speakers today laugh at westerners who think baptizo means something other than “immerse” — granted, I don’t know any Greek-speakers, and I was only consulting modern Greek lexica, but at least one of them gave the definition “christen.” It seems to me, based on my experience studying languages, that appealing to the etymology and historical usage of a word only takes one so far. The meanings of words change as they’re used, and it seems likely that in the Christian era, baptizo came to mean mostly “the thing Christians do,” without a real reference to its mode, just like our word in English baptize means, well, to baptize.

        The real problem immersion-only proponents have to overcome, I think, is that at least somebody in the first century, claiming the teaching was apostolic, thought it was permissible to baptize by pouring. “Baptize this way: Baptize in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” They don’t necessarily equate “baptize” with “pour” — “baptize” does seem to connote immersion, since they don’t explain what that means further — but they do understand that pouring accomplishes what baptism is supposed to accomplish.

      • July 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

        Thanks for your comment on this topic and I too agree that arguing from definitions of words, at times, obscures what is being discussed. Matter fact, one error committed by students of the Bible is the error of word searches. In other words, looking up a particular word in the Hebrew or Greek might aide one in understanding the scripture or context of which the word was present, but a word needs to be understood in how it was used within the sentence of which it was found. One word standing alone has very little meaning. But when it is used in a sentence, then it is to be understood as it is used with other words within the context of that sentence. I put together my notes from a class that I taught on this subject “Fallacies Most Bible Students Make in Interpreting Scripture.”

        Also I understand that as the church progressed through time, some came to understand that baptism could be performed by sprinkling and pouring, but this doesn’t mean that those who changed this were right in what they were doing. Seeing that scripture is our guide and not church history, then we have to be faithful to it. Many have strayed concerning countless doctrines throughout the history of the Church.

        I posted this article “Sprinkling Examined” on my Facebook page and I had numerous Protestant Paedo-Baptists comment on it. I gave the illustration that Israel was baptized in the sea and cloud per 1 Corinthians 10. These learned Reformed Protestant men came back and tried to refute my comment concerning Israel, by saying that this was a waterless baptism and that Egypt’s armies were immersed, not Israel. I told them that I was astounded that Reformed Protestants would attribute to God’s enemies (the Egyptians) as having received an ordinance of the Church, while saying the then represented Church (Israel) had not received it. I told them that they need to carefully read their scripture because the Bible never states that the Egyptians were baptized, but rather drowned (Exodus 15:4; Hebrews 11:29). Needless to say this stopped all discussion, as I think they saw their error.

        So Israel was immersed in the sea and cloud. Namaan was immersed in the Jordan. In the New Testament we see the statements: “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.” (John 3:23) or “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him” (Mark 1:10) or “And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:38-39). If baptism was performed by a simple sprinkling or pouring, then the baptized would not have had to go down into the water or come up out of it. Philip could have just sprinkled with his water bottle, instead of taking the eunuch down into the water.

        So I believe that scripture is clear that baptism was performed by immersion.

    • July 20, 2013 at 6:46 am

      Does not the Catholic Church baptize infants from a ‘stoup’ or bowl like container that holds Holy water? If so, this is not immersion.

      • July 22, 2013 at 11:21 pm

        Yes, we call that a baptismal font and no, it’s not immersion. But many Catholic Churches are going back to immersion these days, installing immersion baptisteries. The Church has always acknowledged that immersion is the “most expressive” mode of what Baptism symbolizes, burial into Christ’s death (CCC 1239.

  3. July 27, 2013 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for the clarification on the baptismal font.

    As for your comment: “The Church has always acknowledged that immersion is the “most expressive” mode of what Baptism symbolizes, burial into Christ’s death (CCC 1239.”

    This is precisely what Baptists argue, particularly that it pictures our death, burial, and resurrection in Christ.

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