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].
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.
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.
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.