Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Baptizo Battle

I recently had some interaction concerning modes of baptism at the blog of a fellow named James Attebury. I figured I would re-post my comments here.


Hi, James. Thanks for the interaction at Denny Burk’s blog. Here are some of my thoughts on what you’ve presented here. I’ve limited myself to responding only to things related to the mode of baptism. I agree wholeheartedly with much of what you said regarding the meaning of baptism, specifically as an act of repentance. Spot on. Very well articulated. Personally, I think 1 Pet. 3:21 is one of the strongest credobaptistic texts in Scripture. Though I do get the impression that you are far less comfortable with child baptism than I am. In any case . . .
The term ‘baptism’ comes from the Greek baptizo which means “to dip” or “to immerse.” There is no disagreement among reputable Greek scholars on this.
This is the kind of just-take-my-word-for-it approach that is so common amongst immersionists. You could at least mention a few names. Is Strong not a reputable scholar? He gave this sense: “to make whelmed (i.e. fully wet).” Is Thayer not a reputable scholar? He gave these senses: “to wash, to make clean with water” and metaphorically “to overwhelm.” Is J. W. Dale not a reputable scholar? His analysis of baptizo is the most exhaustive I’ve ever seen, and he emphatically disagrees with the immersionist position. Do bapto and baptizo very frequently denote dipping or immersion? Yes. But that isn’t the only thing the terms can denote (as I’ve labored to show in my own article:
You will not find a single Greek lexicon that defends “to pour” or “to sprinkle” as an acceptable translation of the term.
Because that would be a much too specific way to define or translate a term as general as baptizo. Nevertheless, there are clear instances where baptizo and its related words are used to refer to washings that are conducted via pouring or sprinkling. I mention a good number in my article, but I’ll reproduce a few examples here:

– The Septuagint uses bapto to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s being “bathed in the dew of heaven” (Dan. 5:21).
– The author of Sirach refers to the cleansing rituals of Numbers 19 (i.e. sprinklings) as baptisms (Sirach 34:20).
– The Noahic flood waters are described as a type of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21).
– The author of Hebrews describes various levitical sprinklings as baptisms (Heb. 9:9-14).

Now, none of this means that lexicons should start including “to pour” or “to sprinkle” as additional definitions of baptizo, because the sense of “washing” covers everything just fine; as long as we understand that the washings denoted by the bapto word group were very often conducted via modes other than immersion.
Even if we had no idea what “baptism” means, “to pour” or “to sprinkle” are impossible meanings here. Those who are being baptized are the subject of the verb. A person cannot be divided into parts or poured out like water can. Only a liquid can be sprinkled or poured, but a person can be immersed.
I think you’re confused about how the active and passive voices work. First off, those who are baptized are the object of the verb, not the subject. Now, baptizo often occurs in a passive form, in which case the subject is also the object. That’s how the passive voice works. When Acts records that the Philippian jailor “was baptized” (Acts 16:33), baptizo is in a passive form, which means that the jailor is both the subject and the object. (This does not mean he baptized himself.)

But when John says “I baptize you with water” (Matt 3:11), baptizo is in an active form, which means that John is the subject of the verb while “you” is the object. Syntactically, it would be entirely reasonable for John to say “I sprinkle you with water,” or for Acts to say of the Philippian jailor, “he was sprinkled.” I’m not saying these statements should be translated this way. I’m just pointing out that the syntactical argument you’re making is nonsensical.
The Jordan river is the indirect object of the verb.
No, it isn’t. “In the Jordan” is a prepositional phrase that describes where John was baptizing. It is not an indirect object.
The preposition en or ‘in’ only makes sense with immersion. Bible translation committees mistranslate en in Matthew 3:11 as ‘with’ because if it is accurately translated as ‘in water’ then this would exclude baptism by pouring and therefore not sell as many copies (Bible translations must be denominationally neutral).
This is way overblown. Prepositions are just diverse in the ideas they convey. That’s all there is to it. There’s no conspiracy here. I addressed arguments from prepositions in my article (footnote 16), but I’ll reproduce it here:

“Prepositions can and often do take a variety of different meanings. En frequently denotes instrumentality: “Shall I come to you with [en] a rod” (1 Cor. 4:21); “Greet one another with [en] a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20); “God . . . comforted us by [en] the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:6). . . . It was for good reasons that my Greek professor often warned against theologizing from prepositions.”
If baptizo can mean “to pour” we could translate the Bible like this: ‘were being poured by him in the river Jordan’ (Mark 1:5).
The weirdness is only due to the nature of the English verb pour. An additional helping word is required in order to convey it passively. You would just say “being poured upon by him.” The verb sprinkle, on the other hand, would not require an additional helping word: “being sprinkled by him.” These are just English quirks. It has no bearing whatsoever on the Greek verb baptizo.
It is not the “removal of dirt from the body” – the physical action of being immersed in water (how does pouring a little water remove dirt from the body?) . . .
1. Who said it has to be a little water? A profuse pouring could remove just as much dirt as an immersion. Don’t force immersion into the text. Just take “baptism” here in the more general sense of washing. Washing can be achieved in various ways.

2. You’re not giving adequate space for symbolism in the ordinance. Sprinkling a small amount of water may not amount to a literal baptism, but it does sufficiently represent one. The same applies to the way we commonly practice the Lord’s supper. A bite of bread and a shot of grape juice does not amount to a literal supper, but it does sufficiently represent one.

Hope this is helpful.


Postscript: I said the passive voice means that the subject is also the object, but that may be an inaccurate or confusing way to put it. A better way to describe it is that the subject receives or undergoes the action of the verb.


Hey, James. This will likely be my last rejoinder. I’m happy to give you the final word from here. Thanks for the discussion.
The reason why they practiced pouring is because they had no knowledge of Greek and just followed established custom.
Can you demonstrate that the Anabaptists had no knowledge of Greek? Also, the Anabaptists were radical reformers. What makes you think they were inclined to just follow custom?
The Greek Orthodox who practice infant baptism always use immersion because they know Greek.
This is overblown. Lots of people in my camp know Greek, and plenty of Greek Orthodox don’t know Greek any better than you and I. Besides, the Greek Orthodox are ultra-traditional, so if anyone’s inclined to “just follow custom,” it’s them.

For example, take a look at this little epistle by an 18th century Orthodox Archbishop: Compare how much space he devotes to making the sort of lexical arguments you make with the amount of space he devotes to establishing immersion on the basis of tradition. Here was an Archbishop who gave no indication of knowing Greek any better than your average seminary student.
If your understanding of baptism is correct, then you are the first person to have a correct understanding of baptism since the Anabaptists.
First, there have always been credobaptists who hold my view. Sure, they’re not as common as immersionist credobaptists anymore, but they’ve always been around. Yet even if your assertion were correct, so what? I could attribute the same kind of absurdity to your own camp. If the immersionist understanding of baptism is correct, then immersionists were the first Christians to have a correct understanding of baptism since the patristic era.
The two beliefs don’t go together because baptism pictures our death and burial with Christ (Rom 6:3-5). If baptism is not regenerative, then infants have not been buried and raised with Christ.
And the same sort of argument can be made with respect to other modes. Sprinkling pictures the cleansing of sins by the blood of Christ, which is a spiritual blessing that infants presumably have not yet received. Likewise, effusion pictures the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is another spiritual blessing that infants presumably have not yet received. Pouring and sprinkling are just as friendly to credobaptism as immersion.
Hence this is why immersion was the way baptism was practiced in the first century (Acts 8:36-39).
There is nothing in Acts 8:36-39 that proves the eunuch was immersed. He could have been, but it’s not clearly stated.
This is an exaggerated use of the term bapto to describe Nebuchadnezzar’s entire body being covered by water as he slept on the ground. Pouring or sprinkling are impossible meanings here since his entire body was wet because of condensation whereas ‘baptism’ by pouring only wets part of the body.
1. If anything is an impossible meaning here, it’s immersion. No translation of the LXX that I’m aware of translates Dan. 5:21 with immersion language, because Nebuchadnezzar was not “dipped” or “immersed” in the dew of heaven. He was bathed in it. He was covered in it. He was bapto-ed in it. And in the phenomenology of the biblical authors, the dew would be conceived as falling down upon Nebuchadnezzar.

2. Pouring and sprinkling are perfectly capable of wetting the entire body. It happens every time I take a shower.

3. But I think your main problem is that you’re far too concerned about how much water gets on the body. You’re incredulous toward the idea that a simple pouring or sprinkling is sufficient to cleanse a person, but that’s only because you aren’t letting Scripture set your categories: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ez. 36:25).

4. You’re also not giving due place to symbolic representation. A simple pouring or sprinkling symbolizes a baptism just as well as a bite of bread and a shot of grape juice symbolize a supper.
The point is he was just as wet as if he had been immersed in water.
And here is a good example of the unfalsifiable nature of immersionism. No amount of counter-evidence can shake the immersionist’s lexical commitment. He will find a way to make immersion fit.

Advocates of the eclectic position, however, aren’t obligated to force anything. They’re perfectly comfortable acknowledging that some usages of the word denote immersion, while others don’t. Because they understand that the term is as general as the word wash. If someone wants to wash by sitting in a tub full of water, that’s one way to do it. If others want to wash by standing under an effusing shower head, that’s another way to do it.
The focus is on the effect of the condensation (being drenched), not how he got wet.
Which sounds strangely similar to something I said myself in the conclusion of the lexical section in my article: “The important part is the end result, and not so much how it got that way.” The word itself does not demand a specific mode.
Sirach 34:25 is describing the ritual immersion of Numbers 19:19. The person must “bathe himself in water” and this was done by immersion.
How do you know that the “bathings” of Numbers 19 were immersions?
Noah’s flood immersed the whole earth in water. The entire world was covered over with water and that is why it is a type of immersion.
Except Peter says that baptism corresponds to the safety that Noah and his family experienced inside the ark. Baptism does not correspond to the world’s experience of the flood, but to Noah’s.
Hebrews 9:10 is describing the ritual immersions in water mentioned in places like Lev 11:32; 14:9; 15:5-13; Num 19:7-8, 19. These are distinguished from the ritual sprinklings in 9:13 by the verb rantizo.
1. Again, I’m not sure how you know that the “bathings” mentioned in those texts were immersions.

2. You’re not following the logical flow of the passage. The baptisms of verse 10 are the sprinklings of verse 13. I spelled this out in my article, so I’ll just reproduce what I said:

“The old ceremonial system featured the sprinkling of the blood of goats, the blood of bulls, and the ashes of a heifer. Thus, various sprinklings are itemized, which correspond to the ‘various baptisms’ in verse 10. Additionally, these sprinklings are said to be administered for the purification of the flesh, which again mirrors the baptisms in verse 10, described there as ‘regulations for the body.’ In short, it is very difficult to get around the fact that the writer of Hebrews has no problem speaking of sprinklings as baptisms.”
The reason why Dale’s work needs to be 4 volumes long is because whereas Conant can just cite the occurrences of baptizo in Greek literature and let the evidence speak for itself, Dale has to engage in obfuscation to hold on to his traditions.
Well, I suppose your opinion is your opinion. And for what it’s worth, I actually don’t always agree with Dale myself. Sometimes it seems he wants baptizo to mean just one thing (which is a fault that immersionists are likewise guilty of). Be that as it may, of the recommendations you’ve given, so far I’ve read through Conant’s work, and here are some initial thoughts:

1. Before writing my article, I looked at a vast number of extrabiblical usages of the bapto word group using the Perseus Digital Library, and this was before I ever knew that old writers like Conant and Dale had already compiled them. So a lot of this is material I’ve already seen.

2. I don’t understand why writers like Conant insist that baptizo means “to immerse” while acknowledging that it can also mean “to whelm,” which is a verb that doesn’t require a specific mode.

3. Conant consistently chooses the translations that are friendly to his cause. But two can play that game. Here is an appendix I’m putting together that I plan to include in a future revision of my initial article: I compile a number of instances where bapto and baptizo are used or rendered in ways that immersionists may find surprising. And it’s by no means an exhaustive list.