This might be a bit nerdy, but it is a pet peeve of mine: Is the proper mode of baptism by pouring, sprinkling, or full immersion? What follows is an example of how an arguably plausible theological doctrine can be improperly justified with a flawed piece of historical “evidence.” The actual history of baptism is far more interesting, and it makes for a good rallying point for discussing the Scriptural mode of baptism.
I recently listened to a YouTube sermon whereby the pastor claimed that King James, the early 17th century English king, who authorized the famous 1611 King James Version translation of the Bible, purposely sought to obscure the true meaning of baptism. King James “did not allow [his Bible] translators to translate [the word] ‘bapto’” into English. The Greek word “bapto” is where we get the English word “baptism,” which is basically a transliteration from Greek into English. Most concordances, such as Strong’s, will translate “bapto” as to “dip” or “immerse.”
So, why did King James steer his translators clear from actually translating this Greek word into English? The pastor went onto explain, “Because the Anglican Church did not practice what [baptism] means. The Anglican Church sprinkled.”
My ears perked up. But the pastor continued…
The problem with leaving “bapto,” or our “baptism,” untranslated is that it has encouraged people to interpret the word however we imagine it to mean. As a result, this ambiguity about “baptism” has led English-speaking Christians, since the time of King James, to be unsure as to how baptism should be practiced in the churches. Should we practice sprinkling, pouring, or full immersion? Readers of the King James Version of the Bible, the pastor concludes, are left in this state of confusion. What a tragedy.
Well, when I heard this, my fallacy-o-meter started to register near the red-zone. I will not link to his sermon, as this is pure bunk. Things like this just annoy me….
Obviously, this pastor rejects any form of baptism that is not full immersion, which would implicitly include most modern practices of infant baptism. My longtime pastor, Dick Woodward, from years ago, told the story of a Baptist kid, who had a cat that had gotten himself entangled in some pile of garbage, and the cat came out smelling just awful! The Baptist kid wanted to wash this cat, before letting him into the house. He tried to immerse the cat into a tub of water, but the cat resisted. He tried to pour water on the cat, but the cat kept dodging the water. Frustrated, to no end, and scratched up by the rebellious cat, the Baptist kid finally uttered, “Cat, you stink so much, that I will make a Presbyterian out of you, and just sprinkle you, and let you go to hell!“
The Mode of Baptism
Baptism is a frequently rehearsed discussion in the history of the church. I wrestled with this myself, as I was baptized as an infant, only coming to faith later as a teenager, unsure if it was permissible for me, or even necessary, to be baptized again as an adult. The growing trend, among evangelical believers today, only supports “believer’s baptism;” that is, baptism for believing adults, or older children, only. I get that. But my purpose here is not to argue one way or another regarding the proper timing of baptism. My point is this: There are some very strong evidences that one can cite to support believer’s baptism, by immersion alone. Unfortunately, this is not one of them.
This YouTube pastor’s particular argument, about the King James Version of the Bible, is sadly a prime example of using anachronism to make a case, that has no historical validity.
In the pastor’s defense, he might have read this particular argument, against infant baptism, by citing some source that claimed to be authentic. We can all thank the Internet for that.
But I have learned that it really pays to do your homework when you advance a particular claim like this, that has the ring of a conspiracy theory. Is there solid scholarship out there that confirms such a claim? Is there really any substance to the idea that King James purposely ordered the KJV translators, in 1611, to conceal the true meaning of baptism, in order to allow for the Anglican practice of sprinkling infants to go unchallenged?
Unfortunately for this pastor, the Church of England, otherwise known as the Anglican Church, did not think of baptism, nor practiced it, in the way that he supposed that it was done in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Here are some points of evidence, with links and/or references to the sources:
- An early church manual, the Didache, was written in either the 2nd century, or the even as early as the late 1st century. The Didache urged for the practice of full immersion, but allowed for pouring in certain cases. Whether or not infant baptism was known at this time is unspecified: “The procedure for baptizing is as follows. After repeating all that has been said, immerse in running water ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. If no running water is available, immerse in ordinary water. This should be cold if possible; otherwise warm. If neither is practicable, then pour water three times on the head ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’.”
- Baptism, by immersion, of infants was regularly practiced by the Church of England, from centuries prior to the 16th century, until towards the end of the Reformation era (see photo at top).
- The word “baptism” was in regular use, well before the era of King James, in the early 17th century. See this example of Acts 19, from John Wycliffe’s 14th century translation of the Bible into English. The King James’ use of “baptism,” instead of “immersion,” was part of a long-standing tradition.
- Most informed Baptists recognize that both King Edward and Queen Elizabeth were immersed as infants, for their baptism, in the 16th century.
- In the original preface to the King James Bible, in 1611, the translators had this note as to why they preserved the word “baptism” in their translation: “We have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put washing for Baptism, and Congregation instead of Church.” The King of England might have prescribed these instructions for his translators, but not necessarily for the reason cited in the sermon given by the pastor, whom I will not name.
- Several editions of the Book of Common Prayer, give detailed instructions as to how infant baptism was to be performed: “The priest shall dip him in the water, discreetly and warily; but if they certify that the child is weak, it shall suffice to pour water upon it.” Therefore, in some cases, the pouring of water was allowed for infants, as a substitute for full immersion. Heated plumbing was not available for churches in the cold climate of 16th century England. You can consult the second prayer book of King Edward, 1551, the first prayer book of Queen Elizabeth, 1559, and the prayer book of King James, 1604. Here is an example of the same instructions, as late as the 1786 version of the Book of Common Prayer, proposed by the Episcopal Church in the United States.
- If you want to know where the idea of sprinkling came from, as opposed to full immersion or pouring, you can blame the Westminster divines in 1648, long after James I of England died in 1625, long after the King James Bible was finished in 1611. Article III of chapter XXVIII of the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” The Confession cites Hebrews 9:10,19-22 for Scriptural support. Classically, Presbyterians affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith.
- The Westminster divines were heavily influenced by the French reformer, John Calvin. In Book IV, Chapter XV.19 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes: “But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water -these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.”
True, the Church of England did advocate infant baptism, as opposed to “believer’s baptism” alone, as practiced by the Anabaptists. But the standard had been to fully immerse infants, a practice that had been endorsed for centuries. The practice was moderated to allow for pouring, and eventually sprinkling, out of concern for the baby’s health, and not out of some desire to wiggle out of the supposed clear teaching of Scripture. Today, pouring or sprinkling might be preferred to avoid freaking out the parents.
If you really want to press the matter, you should blame the English Puritans, who followed John Calvin closely, for paving the way for the sprinkling of infants, and leave King James, who was not wholly enamored with John Calvin, out of it.
As mentioned above, this does not fully address the question of whether or not infant baptism is taught in the Bible, and space does not allow me to address this question. As to the mode of baptism, or how wet you get, it is of no consequence. There is no Scriptural source that indicates that certain persons will be barred from God’s heaven, simply because of a lack of water used at baptism. Immersion is preferred, but then, the baptismal pool in our church is fed with warm water, and I do not live near the Arctic Circle. Furthermore, I am not a “King-James-Only” person. Far from it.
My point is simply to say that if you are going to make a case for a particular doctrinal position, at least do your homework to make sure that the evidence you are trying to present has any verifiable substance to it. Otherwise, it makes your line of reasoning to support your larger argument sound foolish.
However, if you want to fault the Anglican Church, Presbyterians, or other traditions, that today rarely practice immersion and instead typically adopt either pouring or sprinkling for infants, go right ahead. The Eastern Orthodox, in comparison, are not so squeamish.