Saturday, February 20, 2010

From Immersion to Sprinkling

So how did the practice of the Church go from immersion to sprinkling or pouring? Or, more properly, how did the practice in the Western Church go to sprinkling and pouring? The rite of immersion persists in the Eastern Tradition, even of infants.

Basil the Great, according to Apostolic Canons, I, enjoins trine immersion, stating "if any bishop or presbyter shall administer baptism not by three dippings but by one, let him be punished with deprivation" (cited in Robinson, History of Baptism, 74). That immersion was the common practice in the fourth century can be seen by the design of the baptistry of St. Sophia, built by the Emperor Constantine. In Rome itself the baptistry of St. John Lateran had a depth of up to thirty-seven inches and was obviously suited to immersion. A. H. Strong cites Dean Stanley (March 1879), as stating that immersion remained the mode of baptism until at least the thirteenth century (1200s) in the West (Systematic Theology, 936). Some writers maintain that the immersion of infants (at least of Edward VI and Elizabeth I) continued in England into the sixteenth century (Robinson, 124). Even today the Catholic Catechism admits that the original and full sign of baptism was complete immersion (

According to Robinson sprinkling began as a pagan ritual that can be traced to Roman antiquity and was introduced into Christian practice as part of the act of exorcism in conjunction with the practice of baptism (in the Catholic tradition, Eastern and Western, an exorcism is performed prior to any baptism). From this beginning point the act of sprinkling eventually was confounded with the act of baptism and sprinkling supplanted immersion as the mode (Robinson, 137). As was shown in a previous blog, sprinkling or pouring was allowed as a substitute in extreme cases as early as the early second century (see the Didache cited in a previous blog). In 1311 the Synod of Ravenna set sprinkling and pouring on equal footing with immersion, and so from that point onward sprinkling or pouring became the dominant mode practiced on the European continent.

That immersion was not the practiced mode on the European Continent at the time of the Reformation is clearly evident by the fact that Martin Luther argued for its restoration in his 1519 Treatise on Baptism (Works of Luther, vol.1, 56), and by the fact that Calvin admitted that immersion was the primitive mode but in his opinion the mode was a matter of indifference and ought to be left ot local preference (Institutes, IV. xv. 19). I find it odd, given Calvin's emphasis on strictly biblical worship based on the Second Commandment, that he should so lightly set aside the explicit practice of the ancient Church for what was undoubtedly a human innovation of late origin. Furthermore, his detailed treatment of the significance of baptism as a Christian rite can only properly be answered by the baptism of adult believers. His defense of infant baptism at this point is most inconsistent with his theology of baptism.

Moving from immersion to sprinkling was a long, winding path for the Church. The first step involved extreme cases. Eventually infant baptism rose to prominence, and many other factors also came into play which resulted in the acceptance of infant sprinkling as a recognized form of "baptism". In all of this both the form and the true significance of baptism as an individual's profession of faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for salvation was lost and the gospel perverted. Scholars of all Christian denominations have been forced to admit that the Baptist claim to believer's immersion was the practice of the New Testament Christians. So why would someone who professes to follow Christ not follow him in the waters of baptism?

1 comment:

  1. Immersion/sprinking/pouring? Who cares as long as it is done?