"Baptism" Defined by God's Law

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by Jay E. Adams

Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1976

Chapter 1

As one is constantly confronted with long discussions, essays, and even volumes concerning the meaning and use of the term baptizo, it will be well to begin with a serious consideration of this method of arriving at the meaning and mode of baptism. One is taken back through the classic and patristic works and there shown scores of passages cited to defend one view or the other. By the time he has waded through less than one half of the 163 pages of Conant’s Baptizein his eyes begin to swim, and he wonders what real value lies in all of this, for of what importance is it to know how Plato, Plutarch, Diodorus, Euripides, or Sophocles used the word? What he wants to know is how the writers of Scripture employed it. "But," someone will say, "if it can be demonstrated that in all of classical antiquity, in the Septuagint, in papyri of the day, and in all the patristic writers, the word never had any other meaning than immerse, then won’t you admit this carries much weight?" In reply two things must be said:

[1] Note, e.g., the etymology and present meaning of the word "cardinal" which originally signified a "hinge"! One would expect this to be true when Christian content is added to a formerly secular Greek term, especially when that term was adopted as the technical word to describe a Christian ordinance.

First, if this were actually so, though one might be inclined to accept the immersionist’s argument as valid, he still could not ipso facto do so, for often a word which in all outside connections means one thing, can, when adapted for use in a religious ceremony, take upon itself such new connotations and even denotations as to render its meaning quite different from its original significance.[1]

Accordingly, this pagan Greek work baptizo must have changed to some extent when appropriated as the word to describe a Christian Sacrament.

But it is not true that the word means "immerse" and only "immerse." Regardless of what else his massive volume, Classic Baptism, proves, R. W. Dale for all time has settled the question of the extra-biblical usage of baptizo. Though the word possibly can mean "immerse," he has clearly demonstrated that this is not usually true and certainly not the basic meaning of the term. In fact, the word is a rather "fluid" one (to use a bad pun) comprising such divergent concepts as "to plunge, to pour, to tinge, to sprinkle, to dye," and many others. In summarizing the results of his exhaustive study of Classic Baptism, he writes,

Usage, the accepted arbiter, has spoken freely, and, I think, has been faithful, as teaching --

(1) bapto, TINGO, and DIP, are words, which, in their respective languages, represent, for the most part, the same identical ideas.

(2) baptizo, MERGO, and MERSE, are words, which, in their respective languages, represent, for the most part, the same identical ideas.

(3) These two classes of words differ from each other essentially. They are not interchanged, nor interchangeable ordinarily, much less identical.

(4) bapto and baptizo exhibit a perfect parallelism in their development.

1. bapto; TO DIP.

1. baptizo; TO MERSE.

2. bapto; To dip into any coloring liquid for the sake of the effect; TO DYE.

2. baptizo; To merse into any liquid for the sake of its influence; TO DROWN.

3. bapto; To affect by the peculiar influence of coloring matter (without the act of dipping); e.g., to sprinkle blood; to squeeze a berry; to bruise by blows.

3. baptizo; To affect by any controlling influence (without the condition of mersion), e.g., to sprinkle poppyjuice; to pour water on hot iron; to drink intoxicating liquor.

The perfect parallelism of development thus exhibited, in these two words, goes far to show that the true interpretation of each has been secured.

(5) Baptism is a myriad-sided word, adjusting itself to the most diverse cases.

Agamemnon was baptized; Bacchus was baptized; Cupid was baptized; Cleinias was baptized; Alexander was baptized; Panthia was baptized; Otho was baptized; Charicles was baptized; and a host of others were baptized, each differing from the other in the nature or the mode of their baptism, or both.

A blind man could more readily select any demanded color from the spectrum, or a child could more readily thread the Cretan labyrinth, than could ‘the seven wise men of Greece’ declare the nature, or mode, of any given baptism by the naked help of baptizo.

. . . Over against the Baptist answers:

1. Baptizing is dipping and dipping is baptizing. Baptist Confession of Faith.

2. To dip and nothing but dip through all Greek literature. Alexander Carson, LL.D., Baptist Board of Publication.

3. To immerse, immerge, submerge, to dip, to plunge, to imbathe, to whelm. T. J. Conant, DD., Baptist Bible Union.

I would place this answer:


[2] James W. Dale, Classic Baptism, (Perkenpine & Higgins: Philadelphia 1867) pp.352-354.

[3] Not from this summary, of course, but from reading the evidence in his book, upon which these conclusions are based.

[4] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, (Eerdman’s: Grand Rapids, 1946) pp.526, 527.

[5] Any who do not are directed to read Dale’s book. It would be a work of supererogation to reproduce here what he has already so fully and convincingly set forth.

[6] The author has frequently spoken with many immersionist friends who always assume that he adheres to affusion (or aspersion) merely as a consequence of tradition, supposing this to be a remnant of superstition which the Reformation failed to lop off. Nearly all expect me to defend my views on the basis of history, or the extra-biblical usage of the word baptizo. When I declare that all this is entirely wrong, and that my convictions and arguments are grounded solely upon biblical exegesis, they are usually astounded. In a very real sense, this first chapter is not strictly necessary to the discussion; it but attempts to clear away the specious arguments which immersionists themselves frequently raise. The outcome of the debate hangs entirely upon the teaching of the Scriptures, and nothing more. It has been both interesting and most instructive to notice that in discussing the question biblically, immersionists seem unprepared for this sort of discussion as though they never expected anyone to argue for sprinkling from the Scriptures. After much discussion, it is my studied conclusion that immersion is propagated as a biblical mode more by repetition and assertion than from conviction stemming from careful Bible study.

[7] The sources are of the post-Christian period. But if it could be demonstrated that they were immersed for initiation, this would but prove the two are entirely unrelated, since, as it will be shown, immersion is totally distinct from scriptural baptism.

[8] John 1:25.

[9] "the prophet" obviously refers to the One predicted in Deut. 18:15-19. As there is nothing specifically mentioned in this reference to the prophet baptizing by either mode, it may be asked why the Jews expected the coming prophet to do so. Since Moses declared that the prophet would be like himself it was probably assumed that he would perform like functions. It is clear, by abundant proof, that Moses was constantly engaged in "sprinkling"; but we never hear of him performing an immersion. That the Old Testament sprinklings are to be considered baptisms will be proved presently.

[10] See Appendix I.

[11] John Scott Johnson, Baptism, (Reprint from Southern Presbyterian Journal: Weaverville, 1942) p.4.

[12] See Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah, Vol. II, Appendix XII, (Longman’s and Green: N. Y., 1896) pp.745-747.

The reader is left to judge for himself[3] whether Dale has warrant for these conclusions. In my opinion, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that he has satisfactorily destroyed the oft-alleged idea that the word means "immerse" first, last, and always. Charles Hodge says "... the words bapto, baptizo, and their cognates, are used with such latitude of meaning, as to prove the assertion that the command to baptize is a command to immerse, to be utterly unauthorized and unreasonable."[4] Assuming this much to be fact,[5] the entire discussion of extra-biblical usage of the term confidently may be laid aside, and the limits of this study confined to the Scriptures themselves. Here, alone will one discover the true meaning and mode of Christian baptism.[6]

All would probably agree that it is proper to begin a study of baptism at the point of its inception. Strangely enough, most books dealing with the subject never do this. If there was a time when baptism was not practiced, there was also a time when it was begun. Is there scriptural reference to the institution of the rite? Fortunately, yes.

Some say baptism was introduced by John the Baptist. Others (on the basis of insufficient evidence[7]) maintain it was a Jewish custom to initiate gentile converts by a rite of immersion, and that Christian baptism is an outgrowth of this custom.

The theory that John initiated the rite is preposterous. Nothing could be more positively incongruous with the tenor of the entire gospel narrative. His title, "the baptist," should not be construed to mean he was the originator of baptism, but that he was a man primarily engaged in that work. There is not one hint in the New Testament concerning the institution of this supposedly "new" practice. Rather, the Jewish people most naturally assume that John is a prophet from God, because he is baptizing. Notice the question asked by the representatives of the Pharisees (those eagle-eyed heresy hunters would have instantly pounced upon John for teaching new rites, had they not already been acquainted with and accepted baptism). After John denied he was the Messiah or Elijah returned to the earth, they asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"[8] By this statement, the Jewish leaders clearly indicate that the Old Testament predicted the coming of someone who would baptize and that this activity would be one of his distinguishing characteristics. This interesting observation leads to some important considerations. For example, if baptism was known to the Old Testament prophets, the question may be asked, "Where is it predicted that ‘the Christ,’ or ‘the prophet,’[9] or ‘Elijah’ would immerse anyone?" No such passage can be found. But there are explicit prophecies where sprinkling or pouring is clearly and closely associated either with the coming Messiah or the Messianic age. Isaiah 52:15, reads, "So shall he sprinkle[10] many nations." In Ezekiel 36:25 God declares "Then [in the messianic age] will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean." Here it is sufficient to note that the Old Testament Jew not only knew about but expected baptizing activities in connection with the coming Messiah. This expectation and acceptance also shows that he was sufficiently familiar with it to recognize it when it appeared. It would also seem certain John did not originate the ceremony. Secondly, in answer to those who maintain that baptism by immersion began as an introductory rite for converts to Judaism. John Scott Johnson says,

There is no assured evidence available that John or any other Jew of that time, knew anything of immersion as a Bible rite. It is stated that Jews in those days immersed proselytes, but this statement lacks historical proof. God told Moses how to receive proselytes (it was by circumcision -- ’When a stranger. . . will keep the passover. . . let all his males be circumcised’ -- Ex. 12:48,) and there is no adequate historical evidence that the Jews in Christ’s time added anything to God’s direction. If sufficient evidence ever appears that the Essenes (it is held that they immersed) or any other body of Jews practiced such an anomaly as immersion, such a repudiation of every Bible command and example relating to purifying, it would show only how far the Chosen People had retrograded, had fallen away from obedience to God. It would not prove that John -- "filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb" (Luke 1:15) -- followed a procedure so entirely without Bible precedent, and with not a word of explanation or justification. He alleged no revelation calling for such a departure from all the related commands and practices of the Old Testament. But if John was ever guilty of such an irregularity, and if he was able to "put across" to the Pharisees and Sadducees such an oddity and that the Lord Jesus, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, in fulfilling "all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15) -- which is obedience to law -- would have submitted to a proceeding which was not commanded, was not prefigured, and utterly disregarded His own detailed instructions to Moses. Immersion is foreign to Bible usage, is not in the Bible picture anywhere.[11]

Dr. Johnson has pointed out that "it is stated that Jews in those days immersed proselytes, but this statement lacks historical proof." He is quite accurate in this assertion. He does not say Jews never required baptism as a rite of admission for Gentile converts, but that Jews of Christ’s day (and before) knew nothing of it. Furthermore he asserts that they knew nothing of immersion. He does not say they did not practice "baptism." True, there is evidence[12] that at a later period the Jews laid down three requirements for the admission of proselytes: circumcision, a sacrifice, and baptism. But the sources for this are late, and by their time Jewish thought itself possibly may have been influenced by John the Baptist or even Christian practice. Notice that although immersion as a pre-Johannine, pre-Christian practice must be discounted for lack of sufficient evidence, Johnson also shows that, even if it were pre-Christian, it would prove to be a custom not only lacking scriptural support, but completely out of accord with the scriptural mode of baptism. So much then for these two objections.

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