Rev. Keith M. Watkins
Part 1 – N.T. Greek, N.T. Baptisms, Reformed Teaching
THE Free Presbyterian 1996 Youth Conference paper on the Mode of Baptism, published last year in The Free Presbyterian Magazine,1 led to a reply by Mr B.A. Ramsbottom in The Gospel Standard (hereafter referred to as G.S.) magazine, in which he insists on immersion as the only valid form of baptism. Over the years our Church has strongly resisted the claims of immersionism, earnestly contending for sprinkling (or pouring), and now a number of brethren have urged a defence. The issues involved are so important that we must respond to the G.S. article. Echoing Rev. John Colquhoun in 1941, when G.S. objections constrained him “in the spirit of love” to defend an article on the Free Offer of the Gospel, our desire now is not to reopen wounds, but to heal with the mollifying balm of Scripture truth, the only remedy for doctrinal schism.
Free Presbyterian ministers vow to “assert, maintain, and defend” the “whole doctrine” of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In the paper we asserted and maintained the Confession’s doctrine that “dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.” Now it is our inescapable duty to defend it.
This debate concerns the very existence of baptism among us. The G.S. article argues that immersion is essential for a valid baptism. If this were true, then in more than a century, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has never dispensed a valid baptism. Further, the Gospel Standard Article of Faith No. 15 states, “Those only can scripturally sit down to the Lord’s Supper who, upon their profession of faith, have been baptized by immersion.” The Rev. J. P. MacQueen complained in 1957 that this would mean that “no Free Presbyterian member, office-bearer, or minister, ever sat by Scriptural right at the Lord’s Table.” Gospel Standard immersionism denies that our Church has ever administered a scriptural communion. It would rob us of both sacraments!
New Testament Greek
Our Youth Conference paper showed that the Greek word baptizo, used for the ordinance of baptism in the New Testament, does not always mean immersion. Therefore, its use lends no support to the immersionist cause. Predictably, the G.S. response nevertheless insists: “baptizo means to dip.” Its ploy to explain away the non-immersion uses of baptizo as metaphorical fails. Nothing can alter the fact that in Hebrews 9:10 for instance, the Holy Spirit uses baptizo(in its plural noun form, translated as “washings”) to refer to the literal, not metaphorical, sprinklings of the Mosaic law. Thomas Witherow wrote very perceptively against immersionists who “have no means of escaping from the proof, except by taking refuge in the thicket of figure, which is often a place of convenient retreat for those who find it more easy to evade than to answer an argument.”
The G.S. argues for immersion on the ground that it is the “primary” and “normal everyday meaning” of baptizo. However, immersionists do not insist that the Lord’s Supper has to be a full evening meal even though that is the “primary” and “normal everyday meaning” of the Greek word deipnon used for that sacrament. This inconsistency raises the question, “If the literal meaning of the word is not to regulate our observance of the Supper, why should it regulate our observance of Baptism?” The triumphant contention that baptizo “certainly does not mean to sprinkle’ or pour'” is irrelevant. Like deipnon, it is used sacramentally in the New Testament. As the sacramental deipnon speaks of eating and drinking whatever the mode, so the sacramental baptizo speaks of washing with water whatever the mode. Immersionists are mistaken to see in baptizo“mode and nothing but mode.”
New Testament baptisms
Our paper went on to prove that the baptisms recorded in Scripture do not point to immersion. Not once did we say that the Authorised Version is wrongly translated, although we are accused of this repeatedly. This misrepresentation is regrettable. Rather, it is the G.S. that charges our excellent version with error when it endorses J. C. Philpot’s assertion about baptizo, “The chief pity is that our translators did not render it, as they ought to have done, dip.”
In 1953, The Young People’s Magazine carried an article by Joseph Irons, in which he proved that translating baptizoas dip “would make the language of Scripture preposterously absurd.” He explained: “Notice one text among many, I indeed baptise you with water, but He shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’ Now read this text with the word dip instead of baptise: I indeed dip you with water, but He shall dip you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’ Common sense is insulted with such a change and I am grieved that such a perversion of the word should ever be attempted, since its obvious sense is to wash, which we know is done by applying water to the person or thing washed.”
Rev. Donald MacLean, when he was editor of The Young People’s Magazine, described the idea of a soul being dipped or immersed in the Holy Spirit as “so grotesque and unscriptural that it can only be viewed with abhorrence by anyone with a spiritual mind.”
Mr Ramsbottom confesses that he has never studied Greek, even though it is the language in which the New Testament was originally inspired by the Holy Spirit. He is concerned about its use in this controversy, because “the vast majority of the Lord’s people cannot understand Greek.” On the contrary, we maintain with the Westminster divines that although “the original tongues are not known to all the people of God,” yet “in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal to them.” Able ministers of the New Testament ought to use Greek to determine the Bible’s mode of baptism. We believe that Robert Dabney’s forceful arguments for gospel ministers to be acquainted with Greek and Hebrew cannot be refuted.
In any case, we demonstrated that even in our English translation of the New Testament, as well as in the underlying Greek, the language recording baptisms in the Bible never demands immersion. If a child at the seaside “went down into the water” and “came up out of it” again, this could as easily refer to paddling as to swimming, and if to swimming, then not necessarily to immersion. Every unprejudiced mind reviewing the Bible record must conclude with The Free Presbyterian Magazine in 1957, “So far as the New Testament is concerned, there is not a single case where baptism necessarily implies immersion.”
The G.S. article defends the eunuch’s baptism in Acts 8 “as one of the clearest passages” for immersion, because he went down into and came up out of the water. Immersionists insist that these phrases prove their mode. The eunuch, they say, went down into and came up out of the water, so he must have been immersed. But precisely the same phrases are used about Philip, who was definitely not immersed! They “went down both into the water” and “they were come up out of the water” (Acts 8:38,39). So a man can go down into and come up out of water and not be immersed! This is all we contend for. These phrases do not describe the mode of baptism; rather, they describe the place where baptism occurred. Both men were in the water, but whether Philip immersed or poured, the passage does not say. For the same reason, immersion cannot be forced into the account of the Saviour’s baptism on the ground that He “went up straightway out of the water” (Matt. 3:16).
Our paper explained some of the practical reasons why various New Testament baptisms could not have been by immersion. First, the numbers were sometimes so large that they could not have been immersed by so few. For instance, it has been calculated that John the Baptist did not have sufficient time to immerse the many thousands who came to his baptism. However, this presents no difficulty to the G.S., which contends that a monk once immersed 10,000 in one day, single-handedly! Apart from the superhuman strength required to lower and lift so many bodies, continuous dipping, even for twelve hours, would have left less than five seconds for each immersion. Secondly, climate and culture preclude the possibility of some New Testament baptisms being by immersion. For example, in Jerusalem at Pentecost, there was “no place that opposing and dominant Jews would permit to be used for immersion,” especially at the beginning of the driest season of the year. The G.S. contention that sufficient water would have been available to immerse the 3,000 is ably and fully refuted by William MacIntyre in his Token of the Covenant, published by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Thomas McCrie stated, “There is not a single instance of baptism as now practised by the Baptists in the whole of the New Testament.” We read nothing in the G.S. to question this “reasoned, judicious and Scriptural conclusion,” as Rev. William MacLean described it in 1953.
The Teaching of the Reformed Divines
The G.S. claim, that “most of the old paedobaptist divines confessed that baptism in Scripture was by immersion,” cannot be sustained. The divines at the Westminster Assembly represented the best paedobaptist theology. Accordingly, they believed that the worship of God, including baptism, is to be regulated strictly by His own Word. If they really thought that the examples of baptism in Scripture were by immersion, they could never have asserted baptism to be “rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling.”
Our stand against immersionism is not weakened at all by the G.S. article’s unreferenced quotations from various paedobaptist sources. Few have any connection with Reformed paedobaptism in its biblical purity. Thus the opinions of Luther and Wesley on the subject are vitiated by the fact that neither believed that worship should be strictly in accordance with God’s Word. Even Chalmers did not hold fully to the Westminster Confession, rejecting six day creation for example. And it is not surprising that material apparently favourable to immersion can be gleaned from anglican and papist sources, since the elaborate ceremony of immersion would appeal to their notorious propensity to glory in worship’s outward appearance.
The G.S. appeal to Calvin falls under Witherow’s reproach against immersionists who “extract sentences from the works of paedobaptist writers, in which they speak favourably of immersion . . . They seek to convey to the unwary and ignorant . . . that the whole of the Christian world is on their side, only that from some unworthy motives they did not act up to their conviction. Whereas, the truth is, that perhaps not a single man of all those whose opinions are thus quoted, held the Anabaptist [immersionist] doctrine that dipping is essential to baptism. In the same passage quoted from Calvin by the G.S., Calvin also wrote that immersion is “of no importance.”
We are staggered to find Dr. Owen listed as believing that Scripture baptisms were by immersion. On the contrary, Owen vigorously opposed immersionism, declaring that “to urge [immersion] as necessary overthrows the nature of the sacrament.” We allow that he wrote, “In the primitive times they did use to baptize both grown persons and children oftentimes by dipping.” However, he certainly did not mean apostolic times, for he continued: “but they affirmed it necessary to dip them stark naked, and that three times.” He was demonstrating how quickly the early, or “primitive”, New Testament church departed from gospel simplicity, by introducing naked, triple dipping. It is plain that Owen was not asserting that Scripture baptism was by immersion.
Continued next month