This article looks at the baptismal practice of submersion in water over against the sprinkling of water. The author traces this practice through the Bible and the history or the early church, favouring submersion over sprinkling since it better expresses the meaning of baptism.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2010. 5 pages.

Submersion Rather Than Aspersion

The Reformed churches in The Netherlands have become accustomed to aspersion (i.e. the sprinkling of water on the head) as the manner in which Holy Baptism is administered – usually to newborn infants. We are only familiar with baptism by submersion (or immersion) through the photos in missionary magazines. In our country we associate this type of baptism with the baptismal practice in the various charismatic or evangelical churches – where it is always a case of adult baptism.

Why has baptism by aspersion become prevalent in the Netherlands (and Western Europe) as opposed to submersion? Perhaps it has something to do with the climate. Perhaps it is linked to the development of a decrease in the number of converts as opposed to an increase in the number of requests for baptism by Christian parents.

Yet the distinction is not to be found between baptism of babies (by aspersion) and adults (by submersion). That is what I would like to address in this article: does baptism by submersion have a greater value than that of aspersion? Is baptism by submersion also possible where small infants are concerned?

Submersion Foremost🔗

The first point of the Reformed teaching about baptism in the Form for Baptism is: all children of men are born and conceived in sin (Ps 51:7) and bear God's wrath. Our state and that of our children is so bad that we 'cannot enter the Kingdom of God'. There is only one way out: 'we must be born again' (John 3:3). Subsequently, baptism is brought forward: 'This is what the immersion in or sprinkling with water teaches us.'

It is surprising that immersion comes foremost and sprinkling follows. This pairing can be found even in the early versions of the Form for Baptism. The leading position of immersion seems to stem from the beginning of the New Testament baptismal practice: baptism in the river Jordan, the baptism of our Lord Jesus being the most vivid example.

'As Jesus was coming up out of the water...' (Mark 1:10, cf. Matthew 3:16). The immersion-sprinkling pair could therefore portray the historical order. The origin of baptism 'is not to be found in a stone or silver baptismal font, but in a river, namely the Jordan in Palestine' (Van Bruggen, p.17).

Sprinkling of Blood🔗

In the Reformed liturgical tradition it is customary to sprinkle the child or person to be baptized with water (once or three times, scooping water in the hand). In the Old Covenant, holy vessels and other articles were sprinkled with sacrificial blood (Ex 24; Heb 9:21). This also included the people (Ex 24:8; Heb 9:19). Even in the New Covenant there is talk of 'the sprinkled blood' as an image of the blood of Jesus (Heb 12:24

Can baptism also be characterized in this way?

  • In Heb 10:22 it is about '...having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience'
  • In 1 Pet 1:2 it says: 'for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood'.

There is no mention of water and baptism in a direct sense but of the true cleansing that the Mosaic practice of sprinkling referred to. 'Sprinkling' is an Old Testament ritual that took place pre­eminently with (sacrificial) blood. A few drops of the (red) blood were sufficient.

Does God's promise in Ezekiel 36 put us on the track to baptism? 'I will sprinkle clean water on you' (Ezek 36:25). That is reminiscent of the cleansing water in the Mosaic worship service that was sprinkled on an unclean person so that he became pure again – clean in God's eyes (Num 19; Heb 9:13-14). This occurred together with or after the sacrifice. With this word from Scripture, a prophetic line can be seen from sprinkling to what Christian baptism portrays and works in us. It is an indirect line as far as the manner of administration of baptism is concerned.

Under Water🔗

In the Old Testament the story is told of how the Syrian general Naaman was instructed to wash himself by dipping (immersing) himself seven times in the river Jordan (2 Kings 5:14). Washing (e.g. with special cleansing water) took place completely or partially (egg. the hands), With the baptism administered by John, it is clear that it took place by immersion, The ceremony itself is not described but the word 'baptize' points clearly enough to what took place, The meaning of the Creek verb boptoo or boptizoo is immersion, with the following variations In meaning:

  • dipping in, submerging (in order to wet, to paint or to wash)
  • immersing with, submersion, covering with
  • submerging (a bucket) in order to draw water

A good example is Mark 7:4 concerning 'traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles'. The Creek verb for baptism is used here for washing, which can be seen in Young's literal translation: 'If they do not baptise themselves, they do not eat and many other  things there are that they received to hold, baptisms of cups, and pots, and brazen vessels, and couches', or, as some translations say "a ceremonial washing." Translating this with 'sprinkling' is a weak option (and that meaning does not occur in Greek outside of the Bible, a different verb is used for that). The conclusion is simple; the verb boptoo/boptzoo means 'dipping' in the sense of submerging (in) or covering (with water).

The verb clearly indicates that Man disappears completely into the water: 'if it was not a ceremony, it would become death by drowning' (Van Bruges, p.19). That corresponds with the first point of teaching in the Form ford Baptism where it continues as following: 'This is what the immersion in … teaches us'.

Running Water🔗

A good example of the baptismal practice in the early church can be found in the document The Didoche; Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, a source from the end of the 1st or beginning of the end century:

Now about baptism, baptise this way: after first uttering all of these things (the prior teachings) baptize "into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit" in running water (cf. John 7:38; Rev 22:1). But if you do not have running water, baptize in other water. Now if you are not able to do so in cold water, do it in warm water. Now if you don't have (a sufficient amount) of either, pour water three times on the head, "into the name of the Father, and off the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". Now before the ritual cleansing, the baptizer and the one being baptized should fast, and any others who are able (VII).

Out of this teaching we can discern the order of the most desirable practice. The first is baptism in living (= running and therefore cold) water, which would be in a river or a stream. The second possibility is in still water; the third is heated water; the fourth is sufficient (cold or warm) water to pour over the head.

It is possible that a few centuries later in church history the pouring of water pushed back the practice of complete submersion. The person to be baptized probably stood in the baptistery (baptismal basin), a jug was filled with running water (from a higher channel, representing a river) and the water was poured over his head. The shallowness of the basin makes immersion of adults implausible.

It is conceivable that infants were held in their parents' arms as they stood under the stream of water. Meijer writes: 'we must presume that it did not take long before infants were being baptized and that in those cases sprinkling took the place of immersion', but he provides no evidence for this thesis (183). He himself brings forward the text of a 9th century prescription: 'that they (the priests) should not pour the water over the infant's head but that they should always be immersed in water'. It is apparent from historical research that the baptismal practice was directed at adults who have converted to faith and, after some teaching, receive baptism. Children were baptized together with their parents. Yet a separate procedure for infant baptism was not developed, and no form was written to accommodate this.

Baptism by Burial🔗

It is cutting it short to say, simply based on the linguistic map of the New Testament, that baptism may therefore only be administered by immersion. Nevertheless, the meaning of 'immersion' also corresponds with the further teachings of the Apostle Paul. He wants it made clear:

Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.Rom. 6:3-4

Baptized is: being buried (as in a grave) and rising up (out of the water).

The Reformed forms and creeds build on that teaching. That reality is brought forward in the Form for Baptism in the comparison of baptism with the survival (by means of the ark) from the Great Flood and the passage (on dry ground) through the Red Sea. The whole prayer in the form is dripping with that meaning.

Not unimportant is that the creed also speaks of baptism as a 'washing' (H.C. answer 69; question 72). That follows from the image that is evoked when speaking of 'washing' (Eph 5:26) and through the reference to 'the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit' (Titus 3:5). The Belgic Confession, directed mainly against the Anabaptists, does not dispute the manner of administration of baptism, namely, baptism by immersion. They speak positively about it: 'as water washes away the dirt of the body when poured on us, and as water is seen on the body of the baptized when sprinkled on him...' (Article 34).

Finally we would like to point out that on the Indonesian mission fields, explored by the Reformed churches, baptism (of adults) is administered by immersion in the river. Children are baptized while the parents hold them in their arms, while standing in the water.

Baby's Bath🔗

We have hereby answered the first question: baptism by submersion has a greater value, because that manner of baptism has a connection with the original meaning of baptism in the Bible, and with the practice of the early church. In Reformed Churches too there are examples of adult baptism by immersion.

But why should we not also — or perhaps even especially — baptize infants by means of immersion? What is more naturally related to the image of a baby being bathed? I can imagine there might be some practical objections: a large church interior offers less protection than a heated baby's room. But a baby can well bear his head being dipped under water. In the Reformed church in Zeist, a parental couple once requested baptism by immersion for their child. When it became clear that this could lead to weighty discussions, they abandoned the idea. What they did contribute to the baptism service, however, was very meaningful. Their baby son was dressed in normal clothes, and after the baptism (by generous sprinkling, three hands full) they departed for a moment to the consistory. When they returned into the church with their baptized son, he was dressed in the white baptismal robe: white as symbol of purity. It had been their intention to undress the child so that it could enter the water naked and be dressed in white afterward.

Especially Infants🔗

As opposed to the Catholic and Reformed churches, baptism by immersion is the practice among the Anabaptists and charismatic congregations. At the same time, immersion is (visually) exclusively the baptism of converted adults, whereas sprinkling seems to have become a synonym for infant baptism. Must we choose sprinkling in this doctrinal dispute?

  1. In my opinion we could illustrate especially that
  2. immersion is a good option also in the Netherlands and other Western countries
  3. immersion could add power to the meaning of baptism, including that of infants 

It takes the wind out of the sails of those who suggest that adult baptism (by immersion) is more biblical than the baptism of children (only by sprinkling).

It also underlines the necessity of baptism. That we must be baptized is because of our sins and God's judgment. Think of the first point made in the Form for baptism: "we and our children are conceived and born in sin." This is what we affirm together with David. We as parents pass our sin on to our children. What a disaster! We are unable to protect our children from the very worst.

You would expect that this realization might temper the carefree tone of our baptism services somewhat. All suffering seems to have ended when mother and child appear to be in good health. Aren't we then forgetting the grief that we have not been able to shield our children from the transmission of sin? 'We and our children, conceived and born in sin. Therefore by nature children of wrath ... This is what immersion in ... water teaches us'. Isn't that what we confess at every baptism?

In the Water Together🔗

I am aware that they belong together: baptism and conversion, baptism and faith. In this article I will make no attempt to sum up those arguments or strengthen them. A child is, in a way, baptized 'in his parents', together with the parents. That is how it was in the early church. As can be read, for example, in the so-called Traditio Apostolica (Apostolic Tradition), an early description of church practice:

When they come to the water, ... then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.

In this prescription it is noticeable how children and adults are spoken of alternately.

Can we visualize the fact that the child is baptized and that the faith of the parents counts? If immersion were to become the practice, a bath would be needed. In such a bath the parents could stand. With the child in their arms they would then share in the baptism, e.g. when the minister baptizing, after the submersion, hands the child back to the parents and the water also drips on them.

The motto heading this article comes from the lawyer Tertullian, who defended the Christian faith in North Africa. At the beginning of his work on baptism he wrote:

But we, little fishes, after the example of our ICHTHUS, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water.

The Greek word Ichthus means 'fish'. It is an acronym, formed out of the first letters of the names: lesous Christos, Theou huios, sooter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour). He was baptized in the river Jordan. Even though baptism is administered only once, we as fish must stay in the baptismal water in order to survive. A baby leaves the amniotic water after nine months. A child of man needs the water of baptism his whole life long. Water in which a human has been submerged and pulled out of brings this thought to mind very clearly.

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