What’s the Right Way to Get Baptized?

September 17, 2013 | 1 comment

In the Protestant community, one of the main principles is sola scriptura—the idea that we should do theology “by Scripture alone.”

There are a number of problems with this idea, and we can illustrate some of them by asking a simple question: “What’s the right way to get baptized?”

This is a revealing question, because there is no place in the New Testament that directly addresses it.

As a result, different groups in the Protestant community have proposed different ways of administering baptism:

  • Some hold that one must be immersed—or dunked—in the water for a proper baptism.
  • Others hold that the water should be poured.
  • Some say that sprinkling it is okay.

Which of these is right?

Straining for Clues

Determining the proper mode of baptism from Scripture alone is quite difficult. Since there are no passages that directly address the question, people must strain to find clues in the text.

Books have been written with detailed arguments proposing that the few clues Scripture gives us point in a particular direction, but these books do not agree on what that direction is.

Why This Is the Case

The reason that these books are indecisive is that Scripture simply does not try to tell us the proper mode of baptism.

The documents of the New Testament were written for people who were already baptized Christians, so they knew how it was done. They had been baptized themselves.

As a result, the New Testament documents expect the reader to look to the practice of the Church to discover the proper mode of baptism.

They do not expect him to apply sola scriptura.

It Would Be Nice . . .

Still, it would be nice if we had first century evidence regarding how baptism was practice among the first Christians.

And we do. It’s just not in Scripture.

Instead, it’s in a document known as the Didache, which served as a kind of manual of Church discipline. It dates to the first century, and it covers a variety of questions. On the subject of baptism, it says:

And concerning baptism, baptize this way:

  • Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water.
  • But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm.
  • But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before [Didache 7].

Several Modes

One of the striking things about this passage is that it offers several different options for how baptism is to be performed.

It expresses a preference to baptize “in living water.” This means running water.

If that’s not possible, though, it is possible to baptize in standing water, though there is a preference for cold standing water over warm standing water.

If sufficient quantities of water aren’t available for the baptizer and the baptizand to stand in then simply pouring water over the head three times is sufficient.

Unanswered Questions

This passage does not answer every question we might want to ask about the mode of baptism.

It doesn’t, for example, tell us precisely what kind of baptism is envisioned in the first two cases. We know that the document prefers baptism in cold, running water, but how is that supposed to be done?

Should we envision people being immersed in such water? Or should we imagine them standing in it and having water poured on their heads three times?

The document does not tell us.

But it does reveal that baptism was done in more than one way and that pouring was one of those ways.

Learning More

This is one of the many interesting things you can learn by reading the writings of the early Church Fathers.

If you’d like to learn more from them, you should check out my book The Fathers Know Best.

It covers many fascinating questions and what the early Christians had to say about them.

Click here to get your copy at the Catholic Answers online store.


Jimmy Akin was born in Texas and grew up nominally Protestant. At age 20 he experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, Jimmy started an intensive study of the Bible, but the more he immersed himself in Scripture, the more he found it to...

The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church
The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church is a unique resource that introduces you to the teachings of the first Christians in a way no other work can. It is specially designed to make it easy for you to find the information you want and need.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  romas catholic - grosse point, Michigan

The writer of "The Epistle to the Messianic Hebrews" challenges the believers to leave behind the foundational principles of faith in Messiah, and to press on to maturity. Once the foundations of the faith have been laid firmly and the "milk" of the word has strengthened us, it is time for some real meat. One of the foundations of faith listed in Hebrews is "the doctrine of baptisms" (plural), yet in the Christian world very little is known about baptism. What is known is filtered through a Greek mind-set and ignorance of the Hebrew practice of the "mikveh" from which "baptism" is loosely translated.

John the Baptist was not a Baptist, nor was his name John—his name was Yohannan ben Zechariah, the son of an Aaronic priest. He did not invent some "new thing", but was performing that of which every Israelite was intimately familiar—yet of which the average Christian is clueless. He was "mikveh-ing" Israelites in the Jordan River when he first met the promised Messiah, Yahshua. Every Israelite understood what Yochannan was doing in the Jordan, but the religious leaders could not understand why he was performing the Mikveh outside of their authorized religious system.??

Join Michael Rood on the banks of the beautiful Jordan River near his home in Israel as he opens the believer's eyes to the depths of "The Mikveh - the Doctrine of Baptisms". Once this foundation of the faith is understood, we may then move on to maturity.

September 20, 2013 at 8:15 am PST

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