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Were the Anabaptists Right on Immersionism?

Brian Crossett


The Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and onwards took exception to the word “Anabaptist” that was used by their theological opponents to refer to them as those who “baptize again.” Their position was that the name “Anabaptist” did not properly belong to them and that they were simply “baptists” in the true sense of the word. They reckoned that they did not baptize again because those whom they baptized were now baptized for the first time, since baptism of covenant children is invalid.

As time went on, many of the Anabaptists also thought that the baptisms performed in the name of the Triune God in the Protestant churches by sprinkling or pouring water over people, even professing adults, were not baptisms at all, since baptism is only performed by immersion in water. Given that the Protestants do not baptize by immersion, they do not, in fact, baptize!

The Anabaptists and Baptists wished to portray a “like figure” in applying the sign of baptism (cf. I Pet. 3:21) and, since all of them were Arminian in their theology, they needed something to exhibit that in their mode of baptism. They intuited that their water baptism should portray their (false) doctrine of salvation according to the free will of man and not according to God's eternal election in Christ (Rom. 8:30; Eph. 1:4). Their rite of baptism highlighted the choice of the sinner in salvation, for in the Anabaptist sign the sinner actively goes down into, and comes up from, the water (picturing salvation by the choice of fallen man), rather than the water coming upon the passive sinner (picturing salvation by God's sovereign will, and His act of cleansing us from our sins through the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ).

The sign of baptism by pouring or sprinkling did not portray what the Anabaptists wanted. So, instead, they found in immersionism the antitype or “like figure.” It is this idea that I will address: the mode of baptism used by the Anabaptists and Baptists, focusing on their interpretation of the sign as a “like figure.”

The Anabaptists claimed, as do the Baptists of today, that the Greek noun for baptism means immersion and the Greek verb means to immerse. I have asked many Baptists if they need to qualify this definition in any way and their answer has always been: “No. Baptism means immersion!”

I ask them, “Why, if the word means immersion, do they not practise immersion in conducting baptism?” Bewildered at such a question, they reply, “But we do.” I respond, “No, you do not. What you practise is submersion, which is different from immersion. Immerse means to put into water and submerse means to put under water.” I tell them that Baptists indicate this when they qualify the word “immersion” with the adjective “total.” Baptists speak of “total immersion,” because immersion on its own does not require or indicate that the whole body of the immersed person is completely enveloped in water. One immerses flowers in a vase of water without covering the flower heads. One would have to put all the parts of the flowers under water to totally immerse them. Thus the Baptists do not practice immersion.

The Baptist reaction to this argument is that immersion and submersion mean the same thing. In fact, they are saying that immersion, total immersion and submersion all mean the same thing. Accordingly, I test this with them by turning to the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38-39:

And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.

“Look,” they say, “here is the very thing that we are speaking of! There is no sprinkling and no pouring here, for clearly they went down into the water.” Let us see if they were submersed, by applying essential Baptist reasoning that submersion and immersion are the same thing.

First, notice what the key part in the text says: “they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.”

Second, notice the necessary change in the prepositions if immersion really is the same thing as submersion: “they went down both under the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up from under the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.”

Third, notice who is said to go down under the water and come up from under the water (keeping the prepositions necessary for submersion): “they went down both under the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up from under the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.”

The obvious question is, What was Philip (the baptizer) doing under the water (as is required by the Baptist exegesis of this text)? After all, what is said regarding going down into (or under) the water and coming up out of (or from under) the water is expressly said of both.

However, Philip did not go under the water. According to Baptist exegesis, the baptism took place in the going under and coming out of the water. But Acts 8 does not say that. Any possibility of submersion here is ruled out by the narrative.

That Philip and the eunuch stood in the water makes good sense. At this point, we could say the two men were immersed but not totally immersed or submersed. Subsequently, the baptism took place. How this happened we are not told. After this, they came up out of the water.

Since Baptists say immersion is baptism, and Philip and the eunuch were already immersed before the baptismal rite, what did Philip need to do to baptize the eunuch? He could have poured water over him or he could have sprinkled water over him but he could not immerse him as they were already immersed though not submersed.

Since something has to be done at this point to effect a water baptism, the Baptists add the idea of submersion. As we have shown, it makes no sense for Philip to go under the water. Therefore, immersion and submersion are not the same thing.

The Anabaptists and Baptists do not practise what they say the Greek word for baptism means. They practise submersion because the person to be baptized is already standing immersed in water. To make their baptismal rite performable, he or she is then submersed in addition to his or her immersion. Nothing to do with Scripture, this is a mere accommodation to make it fit with man's theory of the meaning of the word baptism and of salvation by man's supposed free will.

Finally, does this immersion/submersion idea picture for us a “like figure” of salvation? We have at least three highly significant submersions mentioned in the Bible: the submersion of the wicked world in the flood, wherein the rebellious were not baptized, though righteous Noah and his family were baptized (I Pet. 3:20-21); the submersion of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea, wherein the ungodly were not baptized, though God's people were baptized (I Cor. 10:2); and the final immersion in the lake of fire of the Devil, Antichrist and all of the reprobate wicked (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 15), an immersion from which we have been delivered by Christ's substitutionary death. Does immersion/submersion, therefore, picture for us salvation or damnation? I think the answer is obvious.