As part of my research for the chapter on baptism in a recent book written by the faculty of Southern Seminary, one of the questions that I wanted to answer was, “When did churches leave behind the New Testament practice of immersion?” The answer is, “Far later than you probably think.”
Most of the students I teach seem to assume that the practice of immersion was already long-forgotten by the time of the Reformation—but this assumption doesn’t fit the historical facts. The facts are considerably more complex, but this much is clear: baptism by immersion was far from forgotten in the Western church in the era of the Reformation.
Baptism by Immersion in the New Testament
The strongest argument for baptism by immersion is the word itself. Outside the New Testament, the Greek verb translated “baptize” described everything from the submerging of seaweeds and the sinking of a ship to the fate of an ape who was drowned by a dolphin—all of which required immersion. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word translated “baptize” in the New Testament described Naaman’s sevenfold immersion in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:14).
New Testament descriptions of baptism also suggest immersion as the original mode of baptism. John the Baptist chose to baptize in a particular location because water was plentiful in that place (John 3:23)—a concern that would have been irrelevant if John had considered pouring to be sufficient. In Christian baptism, believers are “buried … by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4; see also Colossians 2:11-12). This metaphorical connection between death and baptism makes the sense only if the mode of baptism meaningfully symbolizes the drowning of the believer’s old self.
Baptism by Immersion in Ancient and Medieval Churches
An ancient document known as the Didache provides us with the earliest surviving baptismal instructions outside the New Testament. According to this text, believers were to be plunged in flowing water after a period of instruction and fasting. The Didache did make a concession that allowed water to be poured over the head three times—but only if immersion was impossible (Didache 7:1). This concession may have been made for the purpose of allowing for the possibility of deathbed baptisms.
So how long did the practice of immersion persist?
One of John Chrysostom’s sermons from the late fourth century suggests that threefold dipping of the head may have been accepted in the Eastern churches as a valid mode of baptism for those who had confessed faith in Christ: “When we immerse our heads in the water, the old humanity is buried as in a tomb below and wholly submerged forever. … This is done three times so that you may learn the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Homilies on John 25:2). Even though this was not an immersion of the whole body, baptism was still understood to require dipping in the water, not merely pouring or sprinkling. Still today, Eastern Orthodox churches baptize infants by immersion.
In Western churches, full immersion seems to have remained the most common mode of baptism well into the Middle Ages, even for the baptism of infants. Clear evidence of this pattern can be found in the thirteenth century. In that era, baptism by full immersion was still—according to Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas—”the more common practice” (Summa theologica, p. 3; q. 66; art. 7). Other modes of baptism were known, but immersion predominated.
Even in the mid-sixteenth century, the Book of Common Prayer prescribed immersion for infants and allowed pouring only if the child was sickly. This immersion clearly involved the whole body, not merely the head:
The prieste … naming the childe, shall dyppe it in the water thryse. First dypping the ryght syde: Seconde the left syde: The thryd tyme dippyng the face towards the fonte. … If the childe be weake, it shall suffice to powre water upon it.
In the seventeenth century, Puritan pastor Charles Chauncy was removed from his pulpit for requiring immersion of infants. It is clear from the discussions of Chauncy’s practices that, by this point, immersion was a less common practice in England. The primary concern was not, however, the mode itself but the perceived danger to the health of the children.
And so, when seventeenth-century Baptists described baptism as being “dipped for dead in the water,” immersion was not a long-lost relic from the distant past. Immersion had been the practice of the earliest Christians, and this mode had still been practiced—albeit with infants instead of believers—well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Three Points to Teach Your Church about Baptism
(1) The meaning matters. Contemporary churches have, in many cases, tended toward one of two unhealthy perspectives on baptism. Some devalue baptism by treating the ordinance as an optional add-on for Christians who want to become church members. Other churches misvalue baptism by seeing it as either the initiation or the culmination of an individual’s salvation. Both approaches misconstrue the biblical understanding of baptism. From the giving of the Great Commission forward, the New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized believer. Baptism was never optional; to be a follower of Jesus Christ was to be baptized into the community of Christ’s people (1 Corinthians 12:13). Yet the reason that baptism is obligatory is not because anyone’s justification depends on the proper performance of this ordinance. Baptism is obligatory because it is the divinely-ordained sign of the believer’s union with Christ and with his people, commanded by Christ himself.
(2) The mode matters. The terms translated “baptize” and “baptism” in the New Testament implied immersion. Baptism signifies a drowning of the believer’s old life, after which believers are—in the words of the apostle Paul—lifted up “to live and walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Other modes of baptism dilute the deep symbolism that Scripture ascribes to the sacrament of baptism.
(3) Incorporation precedes participation. Through baptism, the church identifies the new believer as a member of the new covenant community. Because baptism is the visible sign of union with the body of Christ, it is prerequisite to church fellowship, and to participation in the Lord’s Supper. This limitation of the Lord’s Supper to those who have been baptized was not an invention of the Roman Catholic Church or the Reformation, nor is this practice unique to Baptists. Less than a century after the last words of the New Testament were written, the church manual known as the Didache limited the Lord’s Supper to the baptized and cited the words of Jesus forbidding his followers to “give what is holy to dogs” to support this limitation (Matthew 7:6). This limitation provides the church with a regular reminder that no one drifts inadvertently into the kingdom of Christ. The gospel demands a personal and particular response from every person, and baptism stands as the God-ordained sign of this response.
At a time when some church leaders have urged the practice of “belonging before believing”—encouraging unbelievers to participate fully in Christian community before trusting in Jesus—this requirement of baptism prior to participation is radically counter-cultural. To be sure, every church should be an outpost of God’s kingdom that practices hospitality toward unbelievers and seeks the flourishing of communities–but the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper mark the church itself as a place that is at once inclusive and exclusive. The church is inclusive because the church is the community that offers the gospel freely and indiscriminately to everyone. The church is at the same time exclusive, because faith in Christ and incorporation into the body of Christ must precede participation in the benefits and blessings of this community. Baptism is the God-ordained sign of grace that marks our incorporation into this glorious body.
Carefully study Romans 6:3-4. What does this passage teach us about the meaning of baptism?