Those who practice ritualistic “sprinkling” as a substitute for water immersion commonly allege that “baptism,” from the very commencement of the Christian age, was implemented either by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. They claim that ancient literary sources, and even a few scriptural references, support this diversity. Will this assertion stand up under the test of critical scholarship? It absolutely will not.
First, it must be noted that the expression “baptismal sprinkling” is a contradiction. The Greek term baptizo means to “dip, submerge, immerse.”The Greek historian Polybius (ca. 203-123 B.C.) used the word to describe a sinking ship (1.51.6). In the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), the cognate form bapto clearly is distinguished from the terms “sprinkle” (rhantizo), and “pour” (cheo) (see Leviticus 14:15-16).
To speak of “baptismal sprinkling” would constitute a contradiction of terms. The verbs represent entirely different actions.
Second, there is not a solitary passage in the New Testament that lends any support to the idea that the act called “baptism” by the New Testament writers was administered by the sprinkling or pouring of water upon a person’s head.
Albert Barnes, the Presbyterian scholar, attempted to defend sprinkling as a mode of baptism. Regarding Matthew 3:16, he wrote:
“It literally means, ‘he [Jesus] went up directly FROM the water.’ The original does not imply that they had descended into the river, and it cannot be proved, therefore, from this passage, that his baptism was by immersion” (Commentary on Matthew, p. 30; emp. in original).
The argument is based upon the fact that the term “from” (ASV) is the Greek term apo, which generally means “away from,” and not “out of” (KJV), which normally is expressed by the word ek. But there are several things wrong with this argument.
Apo can be used in the sense of “out of,” as in the case of Luke 24:47, where the gospel was to go forth “from,” i.e., “out of,” Jerusalem. In fact, occasionally apo and ek are used interchangeably.
The Pharisees wanted Jesus to show them a sign “from” (apo) heaven (Matthew 16:1). However, in the parallel passages, in both Mark and Luke’s accounts, the preposition used is ek, instead of apo.
The reality is, in Mark’s Gospel, scripture represents Jesus as “coming up out of (ek) the water” (1:10). Barnes thus placed entirely too much weight upon the preposition apo in attempting to cast doubt upon the reality that the Lord was immersed in the Jordan.
But Mark also wrote that Jesus was “baptized of John in the Jordan” (1:9). Actually, the preposition, rendered “in” in our common versions (yet see ASVfn), is eis, which means “into.” S.T. Bloomfield (1790-1869), of the Church of England (a church that practices sprinkling as a substitute for immersion) was honest enough to admit that the expression eis ton Iordanen meant that Jesus was baptized “by being plunged into the water” (The Greek Testament With English Notes, Vol. I, p. 158).
Finally, the theological connection between “baptism,” and the burial and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), negates the notion that the rite may be performed by sprinkling or pouring. The prospective Christian is “buried” in the water of baptism “with” Christ. Just as Jesus was raised out of the tomb, so we also are raised from the liquid grave of baptism.
This analogy, among other matters, led John Henry Blunt (1823-1884), another Anglican scholar, to acknowledge (against his own church) that “the primitive mode of baptizing was by immersion” (Dictionary of Doctrinal and Historical Theology, p. 75).