Chapter 28.2, 3
July 26, 2013
ii. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto.
iii. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.
The Westminster Confession's third concern pertaining to baptism is its mode. Since this sacrament was instituted by Christ, it must be administered in accordance with his instructions and with relevant biblical examples. According to the Confession, a valid Christian baptism involves three elements: water, the name of the Triune God, and a validly ordained Christian minister.
It is obvious from biblical examples that baptism is performed with water. Peter urged the baptism of the centurion Cornelius and his believing friends, saying, "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:47; see also Acts 8:36, 38). Jesus' own teaching makes clear that Christians are baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). Third, it is clear from the New Testament examples that baptism is not administered by just any believer but by an ordained minister. The vital question, "Does this person have the right to receive baptism?" can only be answered by the elders, who therefore administer the sacrament. Moreover, Presbyterian polity notes the integral relationship between the sacraments and the ministry of the Word, which means that baptism should only be administered by teaching elders, that is, by ordained ministers.
Most Christians are settled on the three basic features of baptism. The burning question pertains to how the water is administered: by immersion or by sprinkling or pouring? Before answering the question, it is worth noting that the Westminster Confession does not place this question in the first rank when it comes to the mode of baptism. The three clear essentials are water, the Triune name, and a minister. Only in a follow-on paragraph does immersion vs. sprinkling come up. This is entirely appropriate, for the simple reason that the Bible does not expressly prescribe how the water is to be administered. Unlike the Lord's Supper, which receives procedural specificity, this question is going to be answered by inference from other passages. For this reason, the Westminster Confession recognizes and accepts dipping, while arguing that the right administration involves "pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person." Following this example, we should accept that thoughtful and faithful Christians may differ on this matter.
Most Baptists will argue that the Bible does specify dipping as the mode of baptism. They will point to the passages that speak of persons going into the water. Matthew 3:16 says that when Jesus had been baptized "he went up from the water." Likewise, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch "went down into the water" and then "came up out of the water" (Acts 8:38-39). Does this not prove immersion? The answer is no, for the simple reason that these passages might very well be saying that they went into the river (both clearly involved rivers, since water was needed), whether baptism was administered there by pouring or by immersion. In this matter, Paul's baptism is very instructive. Ananias entered the house where Paul was staying, laying hands on him. Paul then regained his sight, "Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food he was strengthened" (Acts 9:17-19). A straightforward reading of this passage states that Paul was baptized while still inside the house, which would make immersion virtually impossible in his case. But does not the Greek word bapto mean "immersion?" The answer is not necessarily. The Jewish practice of ceremonial washing involved both the immersion of hands and the pouring of water. If anything, in fact, the Jewish background for baptism favors pouring.
There is undoubted ambiguity in these texts, although I do believe the data leans heavily on the side of sprinkling/pouring. Most potent is the connection between the covenant ceremonies of the Old Testament and their analogy in the New Testament. A good example is seen in Exodus 24, the worship service to institute the Mosaic Covenant. There, Moses applied the blood of the covenant by sprinkling it on the altar and then on the people: "Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, 'This is the blood of the covenant'" (Ex. 24:8). Hebrews 9:13-14 says that this symbolism was fulfilled when Christ, having died for atonement, went into the heavenly tabernacle and there sprinkled his blood. Just as Moses sprinkled the blood on the people, Christ also sprinkles his people in baptism, not in blood but in water, since his presentation of the atonement in heaven has put an end to blood for sin. This perfectly fulfills the new covenant promise given in Ezekiel 36:25, which strongly supports sprinkling as the biblical mode of covenant baptism for the people of God: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you."
Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.