Immersion, Pouring, And Sprinkling: A History
An examination of historical documents which appear after the New Testament period is extremely helpful in understanding the development of certain practical and doctrinal trends characterizing the apostasy from the inspired message of the apostles. The writings of the men commonly called the “apostolic fathers” pinpoint for us the flow of thought which led to the many innovations that fill denominations today. These writings are searched and examined not for their authoritative value; the New Testament alone can be our standard for faith and practice, for it alone bears the Divine sanction of inspiration. Rather we consult such documents for their historical insight into post-apostolic Christianity.
Substitutions for Immersion
On an eventful day circa 253 A.D., a man named Novatian lay in illness, apparently upon his death-bed. Believing in the necessity of immersion for salvation, but unable to leave his bed, he was permitted by a local “bishop” to substitute the pouring of water all about him in its place. This episode, reported by the famous church historian, Eusebius (Church History VI. xliii. 14, 17), constituted the first known historical substitution of another action in the place of immersion. Another author, Cyprian, writing close to the time of the Novatian incident, suggested that the substitution was appropriate in the case of “emergencies” clearly stating, however, that this was an “accommodation” and that “everything else must be in order” (Epistle 75:12). Since pouring was administered to those bed-fast with infirmities, the practice came to be known as “clinical baptism” after the Greek word for bed, kline. In reference to these exceptional substitutions and others which begin to appear infrequently following this period, we observe that to these writers, “baptism” still meant immersion and to describe another action (such as pouring or sprinkling) another word was used. Clearly, the origin of a substitute for immersion occurred in the context of extraordinary situations (either the lack of sufficient depth of water or the circumstances of the candidate for baptism).
That “real” baptism was still considered immersion before and during this period can be shown from the testimony of such writers as Tertullian (“Baptism itself is a bodily act, because we are immersed in water . . . On Baptism, 7), Origen (who in commenting upon the crossing of the Red Sea mentions New Testament baptism: “the evil spirits seek to overtake you, but you descend into the water and you escape safely;” Homilies on Exodus, V:5), Basil of Caesarea (“We imitate the burial of Christ through baptism. For the bodies of those being baptized are as it were buried in water” – On the Holy Spirit, XV:35), and Cyril of Jerusalem (“For as he who plunges into the waters and is baptized is surrounded on all sides by the waters, so were they also baptized completely” – Catechetical Lectures, XVII:14).
Though strongly opposed soon after its appearance, even as an “exceptional” measure, pouring and then sprinkling continued to gain more and more acceptance as adequate substitutes for immersion. It was inevitable that these alternative modes would ultimately become acceptable even in “normal” circumstances. The first “official” approval of such occurred in 753 A.D., when Pope Stephen declared the alternative modes acceptable in “cases of necessity.” It was not until 1311 A.D., by the council of Ravenna, that the practice of baptism by modes other than immersion was officially legislated as a matter of indifference in any circumstances of conversion. The words of Alexander Campbell are particularly pertinent here: “In the history of Christianity, the whole world, Eastern and Western Christendom, with the exception of a few sick and dying persons practiced immersion during the long space of thirteen hundred years. Since that time, license was granted first to the Pope, in 1311, to practice affusion (pouring) with the authority of the church. Calvin next gave a law to his branch of the church, authorizing affusion. This was carried first into Scotland, and then into England . . . and finally imposed upon the people, much against their own conviction and inclination at first. Time, however, reconciled them to it;” (Christian Baptism, p. 153). (To be continued)
Bruce Edwards, Jr.