Almost all of Christianity agrees baptism is one of the most important steps in the faith of believers. This is true because the Biblical authors, including Jesus closely tie baptism with salvation. However, there is not wide agreement on the way to perform it. In this article, we examine the methods of baptism (specifically water baptism) and how they became adopted in Christianity. Furthermore, we will determine which method of baptism is the truest to the commands and examples found in the Bible.
What are the different methods of baptism?
There are three main methods of baptism: immersion, affusion, and aspersion. These three methods deal only with how water is used in baptism. This is opposed to the subject of the baptism (such as infants or adults) or various non-water types of baptism (i.e. fire, Holy Spirit, etc.).
Immersion baptism is a method of baptism where the recipient is completely submerged in water. This is typically done only once, but some churches practice triple immersion as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Immersion baptism is less common than the other two types baptism, but it is still practiced by many Christians.
Affusion baptism is a method of baptism where water is poured over the head of the person being baptized. Some orthodox churches practice doing this three times to “complete” the baptism.
Aspersion baptism is a method of baptism where water is sprinkled over the person being baptized. This is typically done with a spray bottle or a bucket.
What is the most common method of baptism?
The most common method of baptism is probably affusion, which is when water is poured over the head of the person being baptized. This is attributable mostly to orthodox denominations, such as the Catholic church.
The History of Each Method of Baptism
It is helpful to understand the history of the various methods of baptism when determining which, if any, were intended by the Biblical authors for the practice.
Initial Practices of Immersion Affusion and Aspersion
The vast majority of baptisms in the early centuries were immersion. However, when someone couldn’t be immersed, baptism by aspersion (sprinkling) or affusion (pouring) was used instead. Apparently, prisoners and those who were bedridden due to some kind of illness were “aspersed” or “affused” with water even in the early centuries.
This practice was expedient and not the norm in the early church. Moving a person on their death bed to a body of water to be immersed was incredibly difficult during that time. Consider that running water was not invented until the 19th century! We also have modern medical devices that help transport and stabilize fragile patients. Even today, many baptisms by immersion for terminal patients are difficult or impossible.
Performing a sprinkling or pouring baptism was so commonly associated with bedridden ill people that it became known as “baptism of the sick”. That name indicates the early church’s normal practice of baptism was immersion.
The Introduction of Aspersion and Affusion Into Common Practice
By the 12th century, the incredibly rare practice of sprinkling or pouring as a mode of baptism became the more common practice with the Catholic church’s acceptance. Historical accounts and writings of prominent Catholic church “fathers” indicate that immersion was the dominant church practice and still preferred.
Many publications place the wide acceptance of pouring or sprinkling in 1311 when the council of Ravenna officially canonized the practice. One such publication referenced by other conservative publications includes a book entitled “Our Faith and the Facts”. This work is a compilation of various Catholic doctrines and their defenses, including the practice of baptism by sprinkling.
In my research, I could not locate baptism references attributable to the council of Ravenna. Only that it was a council that met on occasion throughout the centuries and included prominent Catholic headship such as pope John VIII. During the 1311 meeting, there were 32 canons allegedly enacted by the church.
Why I Practice Immersion
I practice baptism by immersion for one simple reason: the command by Jesus was to immerse. Not only Jesus but his apostles also commanded immersion.
Why do I believe the command was to immerse?
I believe the command was to immerse because the chosen word was baptízō which means to submerge. In fact, the English word “baptize” is the transliteration of the greek baptízō and has no other English use or meaning.
Some point to the Anglican church to thank for the creation of the English word “baptize”. The allegation suggests that because sprinkling was the accepted mode of baptism at the time, the church could not translate baptízō to its true meaning (to immerse). This would cause trouble with the Church of England, so they transliterated the word baptize instead.
Jesus’ Command to Immerse Is Exclusive
Regardless of the validity of that claim, Jesus’ command to immerse is exclusive. By that I mean when Jesus commanded immersion, he excluded the use of any other kind of liquid (oil, Dr. Pepper, grape juice). The same exclusion exists for any other practice such as sprinkling, or pouring.
Yet, almost no one (that I am aware of) advocates for baptism in oil. All Christian denominations use water as the medium for baptism. However, when it comes to how we use water, debate ensues among the Christian churches. Interestingly, the arguments for these two are the same, yet the orthodox church and Roman Catholic church do not advocate for baptism by oil. Why not?
Just as all of Christianity agrees that baptism must include water, we should also agree that it must include immersion. Jesus did not leave room for baptism by imagining water in your mind, drinking water, looking at water, or carrying water. Jesus commanded immersion because he said, “baptízō”.
When Affusion or Aspersion Might Be Acceptable
As in the early church, I accept affusion (pouring) and aspersion (sprinkling) when no other method of baptism is conceivable. Often referenced in Christian groups on the topic are the early (very early) writings found in the Didache.
The Didache, likely from the first-generation church in the first century included an exception to immersion by pouring on the head three times (Didache 7:1). However, this exception was only accepted if immersion was impossible. This matches the points from earlier in this article about bedridden baptism practices of sprinkling as the “baptism of the sick”.
Whatever the origin, I don’t think it’s our place to deny baptism just because a person can’t physically go underwater, or there is no access to a body of water. While exceedingly rare, these circumstances do exist.
In my article answering the question “can you baptize yourself“, I briefly discussed a disabled brother’s baptism, in which part of his stomach could not come in contact with water. In another place, I saw a story about a man in Africa who was so near death he couldn’t even stand up. Being hundreds of miles away from any body of water big enough to immerse, and almost no water to even drink, the brethren asked the man to commit to Christ by crossing a line drawn in the sand. It took every last ounce of strength the man had to even stand up (with the help of the brethren).
What are we to say to these circumstances? Shall we forbid doing the best we can? I think not.
What is your circumstance?
Chances are, your circumstance is not like any of those. You probably have access to water, and nothing hinders you from being baptized. This is the same question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch to his teacher, Phillip. They both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him (Acts 8:26-40).
Likewise, you may have been sprinkled as your form of “baptism”. If that is the case for you, then you might want to consider being re-baptized, following the New Testament command which was to “immerse”.
Baptism without a commitment to Christ and life-changing repentance is useless though. One must crucify their former life of sin, and live as a totally new person in service to Christ and therefore everyone else (Romans 6).
Still unsure? Check out the other resources on baptism.