The proper mode of Baptism is an issue that is much debated in the Church. While I don’t believe that most of these debates have any bearing on the validity of the sacrament, this does not mean that the debates are unimportant. Unlike many, I am not sure that etymology can help us that much in answering this question. I am not at all convinced by the Baptist arguments that full submersion is necessarily in view wherever the term ‘baptism’ is used. The ‘baptisms’ of the OT (cf. Hebrews 9:10) were not usually by full submersion, but were generally by partial dipping, pouring, sprinkling and bathing, etc. Generally a ‘baptism’ is a washing, without clearly stipulating the precise mode. Just as I can completely bathe my body in water without submersing my whole body in water, so the full body washings of the OT seldom if ever entail the submersion of the whole body.
In his book, The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart has argued that the priestly baptism of Exodus 40:12-15 provides background that the NT draws upon when speaking about Christian Baptism (e.g. Luke 3:21-23; Galatians 3:27; Hebrews 10:19-22). However, this Baptism was clearly not by submersion, being performed at the ‘door of the tabernacle of meeting’ (Exodus 40:12). There was no water to go down into there, but there was the water of the raised bronze laver which would presumably have been sprinkled or poured on them for their initiation rite and would have been used to wash their hands and feet with thereafter (Exodus 30:17-21; 40:30-32). This provides possible background for John 13:10 — God bathes us in Baptism, and after Baptism He only needs to wash our feet and hands.
I believe that, when the NT speaks about Baptism, it does generally have a full body washing in view (Hebrews 10:22), rather than just a few drops of water on the forehead. Thus far I stand with the Baptists. However, it is not immediately clear that this full body washing was necessarily one of full body submersion, nor do I believe that full body washing precludes sprinkling. I am convinced that when the Bible speaks about ‘sprinkling’ it refers to a far more liberal administration of water than a couple of drops: Scriptural ‘sprinkling’ is more like a raining down of water from above, wetting the whole body. Nebuchadnezzar was ‘wet (bapto LXX) with the dew of heaven’ and the baptizand should be wet with the water of Baptism in much the same way. Sprinkling is a very biblical mode of Baptism, but it really should be a very liberal sprinkling to maintain the biblical symbolism. Water is poured over the head of the baptizand in much the same way as the clouds pour out the blessing of rain. The heavens are opened and the whole body is drenched with the baptismal rains.
On a number of occasions in the NT (e.g. Acts 10:47; 16:33) it seems most likely that water was brought to the baptizand and poured over him, rather than the baptizand being brought to a body of water deep enough to submerge himself in. When the NT clearly speaks of a mode of washing in connection with Baptism, it is of the Spirit’s being ‘poured out’ onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:17-18, 33; 10:44-45). In Titus 3:5-6 we see a connection between our washing of regeneration (i.e. Baptism) and the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit.
If the point of a ‘baptism’ is merely the cleansing of the whole body with water then there are a number of different modes by which such a result could be achieved — pouring, liberal sprinkling, full submersion, the manual application of water to the body with a flannel, etc. Full submersion is probably not actually the most natural way in which to cleanse the whole body. When I wash my whole body, I usually do it by standing under a shower, which liberally sprinkles my whole body with water. On other occasions I might partially submerge myself in a bath and pour water over the upper half of my body and my head. When I do completely submerge my body in water it is not usually for the purpose of washing.
However, many Baptists (and some others) argue that the point of Baptism is not merely whole body washing, but whole body submersion. In support of their understanding they usually appeal to the meaning of the verb baptizo, which fails, to my mind, to prove their position. They also often fail to do justice to the symbolic connection between Baptism and the reception of the Spirit, and the fact that the gift of the Spirit is almost everywhere spoken of in terms of the modes of sprinkling or pouring (Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zechariah 12:10; Acts 2:33; 10:44-45; Titus 3:5-6).
The appeal to the imagery of burial with Christ in Romans 6:3-6, upon which many Baptist arguments for the proper mode of Baptism rest is also problematic. Christ was laid in a tomb; He was not lowered into a grave. Besides, submerging the body in water does not look remotely like the act of laying a body on a slab in a tomb (or lowering a body into a tomb for that matter). If this imagery is fundamental to Baptism then it is surprising that water Baptism is the rite that Christ instituted, rather than some variety of symbolic burial rite. Some argue that full submersion is Baptism ‘in the likeness of [Christ's] death’ (Romans 6:5). The problem with all such arguments is that they draw attention to the visual mode of Baptism, where the focus of the text of Romans 6 is elsewhere: on the union with Christ in His death that Baptism effects. The point of verse 5 is that if we have been united to the form of — ‘conformed to’ — Christ’s death, we can also expect to be united to the the form of — ‘conformed to’ — His resurrection (cf. Philippians 3:10-11). The point throughout is not that Baptism looks like burial, but that it really effects a union with Christ in His death.
When thinking about the proper mode of Baptism I think that most approaches leave much to be desired. Little attention is given to the rich biblical theology that should inform our doctrine of Baptism. If we are to begin to understand the meaning of and appropriate practice of Baptism we really have to do better than founding our arguments upon some rather wooden treatments of etymology and some tenuous readings of certain biblical prooftexts. Lest my Baptist readers think that I am trying to get at them, I will say in their favour that they have made an attempt to think seriously about the appropriate mode of Baptism, which is exactly what we ought to do. Furthermore, many Baptist approaches have a lot more biblical weight to them (as we shall soon see). The same cannot be said of most paedobaptists, for whom arguments about the mode of Baptism have more to do with maintaining the status quo, rather than with taking seriously the importance of biblical symbolism. At least Baptists do not treat the symbolism of the rite with such casual indifference.
There are two dimensions to the water symbolism in Baptism, corresponding to the two symbolic bodies of water in Genesis 1: the waters below and the waters above, the chaotic waters of the abyss and the heavenly waters. The waters below can represent death (e.g. Psalm 18:4-5; 42:7; 69:1-2, 14-15; Isaiah 43:2; Jonah 2), the Gentile nations, etc. In Genesis 1 God brings up the land out from the sea and, in much the same way, God brings up his people out from the (Red) Sea (Isaiah 63:11; cf. Hebrews 13:20).
The world is framed and formed by bodies of water (2 Peter 3:5). When the world is destroyed it returns to its basic state of undivided chaotic waters (Genesis 7; 2 Peter 3:6; cf. Genesis 1:2). We see the same imagery being appealed to when the Gentile nations (the seas) completely flood the land of Israel.
New worlds are formed by the division of waters, by deliverance through waters, etc. Examples of such world-forming events include the initial division of the two bodies of water in Genesis 1:6-8 and the bringing of the dry land up from the sea in 1:9-10, the deliverance of Noah through the waters of the Great Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), the deliverance of Moses through the waters of the Nile, the bringing of Israel through the Red Sea and the Jordan, and John the Baptist’s baptism in the Jordan. To be brought through or out of the waters is to be rescued through or from death.
It seems to me that it is the ‘coming out of’ or being ‘brought through’ the water that is the most significant aspect of our relationship to the waters below. Pharaoh and the evil men in the time of Noah all went under the water, but only the righteous were brought ‘through’ or ‘out of’ the water. Both the Ark and the Red Sea Crossing are types of NT Baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2; 1 Peter 3:20-21). The righteous pass through the waters (Psalm 66:6) without being ultimately overwhelmed.
This is the important dimension of the symbolism that Baptists and others retain with their practice of full submersion. In full submersion we undergo a watery trial, going down into the symbolic realm of death, a realm from which we are then brought out in ‘resurrection’, sharing in the ‘baptism’ that Christ underwent in His death (Luke 12:50). In bringing Gentiles out of the waters God is also creating something new, ‘calling those things which do not exist as though they did’, overcoming the formlessness and emptiness of the world by establishing a new kingdom.
However, full submersionists can easily miss the other dimension of the symbolism that the NT draws our attention to. The other dimension of the symbolism is that God brings us through the firmament and into his heavenly realm. The waters from above are the waters of blessing. As these waters rain down upon us — or we pass through them — we have access to God’s very presence (Hebrews 10:19-22). The baptismal rain of the Spirit is the dimension of the symbolism that many paedobaptist churches have maintained. Post-Pentecost, this dimension of the symbolism is very important.
So there are two movements: we come up out of the water and the Spirit comes down upon us. We see this in Christ’s Baptism: He comes out of the water and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The connection between this and the account of Genesis 8:1-12 is significant, especially considering the fact that the NT connects the ark and Baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. The dove of the Spirit descends upon that which has come out of the water. Perhaps the same thing is in view in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 — there is a ‘bringing through’ or ‘bringing out of’ (Moses pre-capitulates the experience of Israel in Exodus 14 in Exodus 2:10) and then a coming ‘under’ the cloud (which represents the Spirit). Isaiah 63:11 also manifests this pattern to some extent.
The waters above are the waters of blessing. They are the waters of the cloud with the rainbow of God’s promise to bless and never to utterly destroy (Genesis 9:11-17). They are the waters of the cloud that lead the people of God to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21-22; cf. Romans 8:14). They are the healing waters that rain down in blessing on the people of God (see Joel 2:23, which is connected with the promise of the Spirit in Joel 2:27-28, a passage alluded to in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2). They are the waters of the cloud through which we ascend to sit with Christ at God’s right hand (Ephesians 2:6; cf. Acts 1:9). They are the waters of the Spirit that descend upon the Church on the Day of Pentecost.
Ideally, Baptism should retain both dimensions of this symbolism. Eastern Orthodox Baptism (which follows a pattern not too dissimilar to that of Exodus 40) does it by having chrismation as part of the baptismal rite, following triple immersion in the divine name (the rite is thus called ‘Baptism’ by synecdoche, much as the Eucharist can be referred to as the ‘breaking of bread’). The symbolism could also be retained in other ways, for instance by having full or partial submersion coupled with the pouring or sprinkling of water from above.
Whatever mode we adopt, the point is that Baptism brings us through the realm of condemnation and death and washes us with the healing rain of the Spirit. In the waters of Baptism an old creation dies. The old Pharaoh is drowned and our flesh, once ravaged by the leprosy of sin, is cleansed as we become like newborn children (cf. 2 Kings 5:14). The old world perishes and we become new creations, created out of the waters, standing in the waters below and receiving the waters from above. We are those who have been brought through the waters into the Promised Land, under the cloud of God’s guidance, promise and blessing. As Marilynne Robinson observed, ‘water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash.’ It is in the event of Baptism that this truth is seen most clearly.