mode of baptism
Were it not for the fact that some Baptists regard baptism by any mode other than submersion as invalid, the question of the mode of baptism would be a somewhat peripheral issue, given the weightier questions of the meaning and efficacy of the sacrament.
Still, some remarks on the matter may be in order. I have very little expertise in the details of ancient Christian architecture (baptistries, fonts) and usage. But here are a couple of casual observations on which I would be happy to be corrected.
First, though the Greek term "baptizo
" can mean "to dip or immerse or submerge," various studies have indicated that this need not be taken in a woodenly literal sense and thus could be applied to various sorts of situations in which a person or object was soaked with liquid.
It is also possible that, within the religious context of Judaism, the term had begun to take on specialized ritual meanings that applied it more broadly than merely submersion into water. Such meanings would likely have carried over into Christian usage.
Thus, it seems to me that the issue of the mode of baptism is not decidable on a purely etymological basis.
Second, early evidence seems to indicate that the symbolism of baptism is rather strongly tied to the notion of "living water" (that is, flowing water), more so than the particular way in which such water would be applied. In the case of water flowing downstream, the symbolism of being plunged into the water ("buried with Christ in baptism" and insertion into the name of the Trinity) would intersect nicely with the symbolism of living water being poured out from above (the baptism of the outpoured Spirit).
We have indications from the New Testament, in the few places where the geography of baptism is given in any kind of detail, that baptism did take place in a stream or river of water (e.g., John's baptizing in the Jordan; Lydia and her household by the river outside of Philippi, Acts 16:13-15).
The question would then be how the earliest church would have handled situations in which such flowing, living water was not available in adequate quantities. Would the symbolism of burial and insertion trump that of outpoured life or vice versa
or was there a way of properly preserving both?
We read in the Didache
(which is often quoted in this connection),Concerning baptism, baptize in this way: Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water. If there is no living water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Several different scenarios seem to present themselves here. Ideally, the Didache
envisions plunging a person into a (presumably chilly) flowing river. If that isn't available, "baptism" is done in a pool of cold water and, if that isn't available, warm water. I suspect cold water here was seen as more akin to that of a flowing stream. And if none of those options is available, then triple pouring is to be used apart from any kind of pool.
The ambiguity that remains (since the rubrics are minimal), is what exactly it meant to "baptize" in a pool of cold or warm water. Given the flowing water in the first case of the river and the flowing water in the last case of pouring, it seems unlikely that the cases of the cold or warm pool would involve simply submerging the baptizand apart from flowing water.
What little that has survived from the earliest depictions of Christian baptism often pictures the baptizand as kneeling (or standing) in a pool (or even a stream) with water being poured over him from the pool. Such an action would involve liberal amounts of water and the baptizand would become thoroughly drenched, thus preserving the symbolism of burial and insertion, along with that of outpouring. This perhaps is what the Didache
is assuming, though we cannot know for certain. We do know, at least, that it reflects the practices of the pre-Constaninian church, which carried over also into a later time.
In addition, it is fairly certain is that this practice of pouring copious amounts of water over a person kneeling in a pool is described in terms of "immersion" (immersum
) in Latin texts. This is confirmed by the shape and size of baptismal fonts and artistic depictions in an era when the terminology of immersion was still widely in use. As such, "immersion" is broader than "submersion."
Third, even in a era in church history when "immersion" in this sense was typically practiced, it was not seen as absolutely necessary to the valid administration of the sacrament. Cyprian, Tertullian, Hippolytus and others speaks of pouring smaller amounts of water in order to baptize in extraordinary cases (those ill or confined to bed). In such a case, the symbolism of living, poured water seems to have taken precedence over that of burial and insertion, given the circumstances.
With this background, I think I would like to see baptisms in churches involving more generous amounts of water, particularly in the case of older converts. Such liberal use of water would not only better symbolize the riches of God's grace in Christ, but also bring together the outpouring of the Spirit with insertion into the death and resurrection of Christ and the name and life of the Trinity.
Of course, this would also involve changes in church architecture to accomodate the larger font and the water. Some interesting examples of this can be viewed over at WaterStructures Baptismals
. Many of these designs draw upon ancient Christian traditions and symbolism (eight sides, cruciform, etc.). They also, for the most part, incoporate a smaller pool for use with infants, along with a larger pool for adults, often with water flowing in between. I'm not sure I care for all of these architectural innovations, but I find some of them rather intriguing.