Greg Gilbert writes about a professor repeatedly using “what may be the all-time worst argument for immersion.”

It goes like this: In the story of Philip and the eunuch, the text uses the Greek words for “to go down [into]” and “to come up [out of]” water. Going down into the water and coming back up—that’s immersion.

Well, no. That’s a bad argument. Here’s what the text says (Acts 8:38-39):

And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Now if “went down into the water” and “came up out of the water” refer to the baptism itself, are we to understand that both Philip and the eunuch were baptized? The text, after all, says that “they both went down into the water” and that they both came back up. Surely the text is not saying that both were baptized. Also, look carefully at the text’s sequence; it’s very precise. They went down into the water, he baptized him, then they came up. If “went down” and “came up” refer to the immersion itself, then we’re left with the ridiculous picture of Philip pushing the eunuch under (presumably going under himself, too), then immersing him while they’re both under water, and then both of them coming up together out of the water. What sense does that make? It’s much easier to understand “went down into the water” as referring not to immersion, but to stepping down into whatever body of water the eunuch saw. Then Philip baptized him, and then they both stepped out of the body of water.

Update: To clarify, I (and Greg) hold to credobaptism by immersion as biblical.

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13 thoughts on “Bad Arguments for Baptism by Immersion”

  1. Casey says:

    I see his point, but the fact that they did go down into the water says something, does it not? Granted, the going down in and coming back up do not seem to be referring to immersion itself, but they do seem to imply that the likely mode of baptism was immersion. If they were merely practicing pouring or sprinkling, what would have been the purpose in their going down into the water together? It seems more likely that one of them would have simply gone down and filled up a container of water.

  2. HomeBuilding Team says:

    I actually had this conversation with my father, who was using this argument, and I pointed out its error (and I definitely prefer immersion if resources allow for it).

    Also agree that while the 'going down' and 'coming up', while not specifically refer to immersion, logically indicate that immersion was the method (as I also understand 'baptizmo' to literally mean).

  3. Josh Gelatt says:

    Casey,

    Very true. The statement certainly does not imply immersion, but it describes a context that certainly points that direction.

    Plus, does anyone really argue that the main mode of baptism in the New Testament period was something other than immersion? Even my die-hard Presbyterian scholar-friends wouldn't try denying that (though they do try to maintain that this fact is irrelevant).

  4. JT says:

    Yes, I do think immersion is what took place here and what is implied. So, in my view, the scholar has the right conclusion but gets the details of the argument wrong.

    JT

  5. MSC says:

    This is why exegesis must drive our theology. We must always be careful not to let a text say more than it really does. Good corrective.

  6. Pablo says:

    I actually heard this argument made while a student at Southwestern Baptist. A few years later while reading Matthew Henry, I chuckled that he concludes that they went down to the edge of the water, where Phillip must have dipped his hand to sprinkle the eunuch. I thought it was funny that both sides (immersion and non-immersion) used the passage to support their case.

    Thanks for the helpful post.

  7. Ken Stewart says:

    I am surprised at what readers claim to find in this text while arguing from pronouns. This was a desert scene, some kind of an oasis perhaps. Has anyone on this list ever gone swimming in such a venue? All the text requires is that there be water to stand in. But whether this was ankle deep or knee deep we do not know. Churches which treat the amount of water used in baptism as a secondary or indifferent question seem not to have to worry about such things; happy are they!
    The real usefulness of this passage for hard-line Baptists was given a real set-back when verse 37 was demoted to the textual apparatus at the foot of the page :)
    A similar weak argument of this kind used to be commonly made from John 3.23 on the basis of 'udata polla'. The NIV translates it as 'plenty of water'. No indication of depth there either.

  8. Frank Turk says:

    I think that the Ethopian believed.

    That's a lot more telling than whether all his head went under the water: his head certainly went under the power of the Spirit. That's a credo case if ever there was one.

  9. Mike Garner says:

    I honestly don't see how anyone thinks Immersion is definitely what is taking place here. That is simply reading your view back into the text. I don't care if you're a Baptist or a Presbyterian, this text does not solve the debate or even shed light on it.

    It does, however, as stated previously, shed some light on the Credo-Baptism case.

  10. Josh Gelatt says:

    Mike,

    It does shed some light, but certainly the light is not bright enough to see immersion.

    All it tells us is that a baptism took place inside a bunch of water. Was it ankle deep? Waist deep? Was he immersed? (though the term itself does help here) Or did they take a bowl and dip it in the water with the man kneeling?

    Yet, when we look at the meaning of the term, the standard practice of the time, and how they did go into a somewhat large body of water (comparative to their persons) is seem hard to make a case for something other than immersion.

    But then again I'm not one of those baptists who really gets too hung up on the immersion issue. Though I am convinced that was NT practice, the essence of NT teaching points not towards immersion, but rather towards expressed faith in Christ. So, whether the Ethiopian was dipped, dunked, sprinkled, or dry-cleaned doesn't really seem to make a difference.

  11. Jake says:

    Frank:
    Everybody agrees we should baptize converts. Nobody says the Ethiopian was the infant child of believers. He's not a "credo case;" somebody in his situation would have been baptized at a Presbyterian church too.

    I understand there are good arguments for credo over paedo; I have used them. But if we conclude from this passage that only converts are to be baptized, then we must also conclude from that Jesus only wants us to eat fish for breakfast.

  12. Jake says:

    Sorry, some kind of HTML weirdness in my last comment. I'm referring to John 21, where Jesus cooks the disciples fish for breakfast.

  13. Jeff says:

    Actually the "arguement" is an imprecise version of an historic argument often used by Baptists for immersion. Probably someone heard the correct version but missed the real point. Philip went INTO the water for immersion. If pouring or sprinkling were in view, why go INTO the water? (as Casey argues)

    As for Mike's comment that immersion necessarily follows going into or that the oassi water would likely have been deep engouh for immersion, the answer is "Of course not" and "perhaps not." The point that Baptists have made historically is that immersion is the only mode that necessitates going into water. One can sprinkle and pour without entering. So as a stand alone argument it is weak. The evidence for immersion rests on the Greek word itself, plus a host of other minor supporting arguments.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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