Baptism: Single or Triple Immersion?
Baptism: single or triple immersion? You may think, “That is an interesting question!” But what does the Scriptures teach about this subject?
The question of whether baptism into Christ, the water baptism mentioned in the New Testament, consists of a single immersion or a triple immersion is seldom discussed in religious circles. Yet, there are certain smaller religious groups (Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ, etc.) that do look upon this matter in a serious way and contend that the only baptism that pleases God consists of an immersion of the subject three times in water. Is this a valid position? Is this what is taught in holy Scripture?
Before proceeding further, it should be firmly settled that the original term, baptizo, from which we derive baptize, does mean to immerse, to dip, to submerge, to sink, or to overwhelm. Standard Greek reference works make this clear. W.E. Vine, for example, says that baptism (baptisma) consists of the process of immersion, submersion and emergence (The Expanded Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 88). Other works substantiate this (see, for example, W.J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 66; Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pp. 94-95; The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 144; Liddell & Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 305). Trine immersionists, of course, fully concur with this fact.
Those who advocate trine (triple) immersion generally rely upon three lines of evidence. Let us briefly notice these.
(1) The baptismal formula. Generally the main argument for triple immersion rests upon Matthew 28:19 in the account of Christs great commission given to his apostles in Galilee (cf. vv. 18-20). Jesus commands, ”Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” First, it might be noted that technically this is not a formula. There is no indication that the one who baptizes another must literally, audibly, say, I baptize you into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is something that is to be done rather than necessarily said. It may be good and wise to say these words (and we recommend this), but Jesus does not say that these words must be stated. Second, there is no more indication that the baptism here is triple than there is that the baptism in Acts 8:16 is single: “. . . they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.” The phrase, “into the name” (eis to onoma) is the same in both cases (as well as Acts 19:5; cf. 1 Cor. 1:13). Third, the use of one preposition with the verb, into (eis), suggests that there is one action into the one name (onoma) of the three personalities.
As a side observation at this point, it is interesting to observe that nearly all (and maybe all) of those denominations which sprinkle or pour water on children (or adults) for baptism actually sprinkle or pour the subject three times. They use the Matthew 28:19 formula and sprinkle or pour water on the head of the child for each member of the “Holy Trinity” (to use their common terminology). This, of course, cannot be used as proof that baptism consists of three actions any more than it can be used to prove that baptism is sprinkling or pouring! Our final authority is Scripture itself–not church tradition or the common practice of religious bodies.
(2) Baptism means repeated dipping. This argument states that the term baptizo means to dip more than once. Thayer may be cited for this. Along with defining the term as immerse and submerge, he also says, “to dip repeatedly” (p. 94). Virgil Warren points out that the -izo verb element can have a frequentive force, but he also observes, ”By the time of the New Testament, however, the iterative, frequentative, intensive, and causative ideas formerly associated with this class of verbs had begun to disappear” (What the Bible Says about Salvation, p. 382). We might also point out that most authorities simply define the term as to dip, to immerse, to sink, to plunge without any repetitive idea at all.
It should be noted as well that the term was used in the secular world in a way to preclude any repetitive action. For instance, the Greeks could write that a ship had sunk (been baptized). Obviously, the ship had descended into the water only once. The Greeks could write that soldiers were immersed (baptized) in the river up to their chests. Did the soldiers get into the river several times? No, they walked across the river as a single action. The Greeks could write that a man was overwhelmed (baptized) with drunkenness or overwhelmed in debt. Does this refer to repeated times of debt or drunkenness–or does the author simply mean that the man is fully immersed in debt or overwhelmed with drink? Obviously, the latter. It is therefore wise to see baptizo as simply a reference to the act of dipping, immersion, sinking, or plunging–without regard to repeated action.
(3) Early Church History. Proponents of trine immersion often point out that early church history reflects their practice. The first reference that may be cited is the Didache (ca. AD 130). The unknown author, after stating that baptism (immersion) should be performed in running, cold water, gives an alternative if sufficient water cannot be found to immerse: ” . . . pour water on the head three times in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (Chap. 7). Although it has been suggested that this document could be dated as late as AD 170, even if it is dated earlier, it does reflect the fact that at this time the author felt as liberty to substitute immersion with pouring. Further, the author also makes a number of directives that cannot be substantiated at all by Scripture (immersion in running water rather than still, and immersion in cold water rather than hot). Scripture is silent about such requirements. If aberrations such as these are found in the document, can it be trusted to give us reliable information on the frequency of immersion? (This is assuming that the triple pouring is a substitute for triple immersion.) (See also our fuller study on baptism in the Didache.)
By the time of Tertullian (ca. AD 200), triple immersion seems to have been the common practice (see Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, p. 40). He writes, “He commands them to baptize into the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, not into a unipersonal God. And indeed it is not once only, but three times, that we are immersed into the Three Persons, at each several mention of Their names” (Henry F. Brown, Baptism Through the Centuries, p. 17). But notice another of Tertullians references to trine immersion: ”We are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel.” His admission that the triple immersion is more than the Lord appointed is significant.
Yet it was generally practiced by all in the third century. Hippolytus writes, ”Then he enters the water, and the presbyter [elder], laying his hand on the candidates head, immerses him thrice, asking him at each immersion whether he believes in the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, successively, the presbyter repeating the formula of baptism at each immersion” (Ibid., p. 18; see Browns entire chapter: The Adoption of Trine Immersion (Chap. 3), Baptism Through the Centuries, pp. 17-22). Significantly, writers would appeal to tradition to justify their practice. Tertullian, for instance, after mentioning trine immersion and other customs in the church, writes, ”If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer” (Ibid., p. 20). Are we justified in observing a practice that rests upon tradition rather than express Scriptural command?
Evidence for Single Immersion
If triple immersion cannot be conclusively proven in Scripture, is there any evidence that would lead us to single immersion? The following points are worthy of study and consideration.
(1) Proselyte Baptism. This is not a Scriptural point, of course, yet it is an important consideration. Whether the baptism of Jewish proselytes preceded Johns baptism (which seems likely) or followed it, the fact that the Jews immersed Gentiles who wanted to become part of Israel is significant. One writer says that this Jewish baptism must have sufficient water to admit of total immersion, and it is equally essential that every part of the body shall reach the water (A. Gilmore, Jewish Antecedents, Christian Baptism, p. 69). If Jewish baptism was a single immersion in water, we would suppose that Christian baptism would also be.
(2) John’s Baptism. Nearly everyone admits that the baptism that John administered consisted of a single immersion in water–in this respect similar to Jewish baptism. The verb is baptizo (to immerse, cf. Matt. 3:11) and the noun is baptisma (immersion, cf. Mark 1:4). Significantly, the same terms in the Greek are used of baptism into Christ–both the verb, in the past tense (cf. Acts 8:12), as well as the noun (Eph. 4:5). In fact, in the very same context, John’s baptism is compared to Christian baptism (cf. Acts 19:3-5). There is no indication that the one consisted of a single action while the other involved a triple action. Luke simply says that the twelve men at Ephesus were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus (v. 5). If John’s baptism was a single immersion, we can assume that Christian baptism likewise is single immersion.
(3) Jesus Baptism of Disciples. Scripture says little about the baptism of Christ’s disciples (cf. John 3:22,26; 4:1-2). However, nearly all Bible students recognize this baptism as being similar to the baptism of John. If John’s baptism was a single immersion, then Christ’s baptism must also have been single immersion. If Christ’s immersion of disciples during His ministry was a single immersion, this would at least suggest that the baptism He commanded for His disciples after the resurrection was also a single immersion.
(4) Identification with Christs Death, Burial, and Resurrection. Paul writes of baptism in this way: ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). Paul adds this in Colossians 2:12: “. . . having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” As one is baptized, he is identified with the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is buried with Christ in baptism and he is raised up with Christ from baptism. Surely this experience is aptly demonstrated in a single immersion. Why? Christ died once. We die to sin once. Christ was buried once. We are buried in baptism once. Christ was resurrected once. We are raised up from baptism once. Being buried and raised twice or three times would seem to cause one to lose the symbolism of this meaningful act.
(5) Baptism and Our Own Experience. Very closely related to the previous point, we are not only identified with the experience of Jesus (His death, burial and resurrection), but in baptism we express our own experience. What do we mean? We personally die to sin. We personally are buried in baptism. We personally are raised to new life. We do not die to sin three times and we are not made alive three times. Surely, therefore, we are not buried or raised three times either. Our experience is a single experience of crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and new life (cf. Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:11-13, 3:1). This would argue for a single immersion.
(6) We are United with Christ in Baptism. In the passage above that we just noticed, we read, “. . . all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:3). We further read, ”All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). We would suggest that one can only be baptized [immersed] into Christ one time–not three. A single immersion would be very understandable in this regard, for we can only be united to Christ one–and only one–time.
(7) Relationship to Spirit Baptism. Paul writes, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13a). This may also be translated, ”In one Spirit we were all baptized. . . .” There has been much discussion on this verse, especially as it relates to the baptism in the Spirit promised by John the immerser (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33) and Jesus (Acts 1:5; cf. 11:16). If, indeed, there is ”one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) that consists of a physical element (water) and a spiritual element (the Holy Spirit), we may observe an interesting point. Just as one would be immersed in (or into) the Spirit once (and not three times), so it would seem that one would be immersed in (or into) water only once. Further, the passage says that we are baptized into one body. If one is immersed three times, we might well ask which immersion does God actually place the person in the body of Christ. But the important point here is that just as Spirit baptism consists of one (not three) actions, so water baptism would seem to consist of one action alone.
(8) The New Birth. The early church consistently believed that Christ made reference to baptism in John 3:5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Ferguson says, ”The language of new birth or regeneration appears to have been the favorite conception of the second-century church about baptism. John 3:5, or the language from the same tradition, laid hold on the imagination of the early church and shaped much of its thinking about baptism” (Early Christians Speak, p. 38).
Of course, we must not think of this passage as a reference to baptism because of the second or third century church (which early became apostate), but because of what Jesus Himself stated. While we may not be able to prove that He had reference to baptism in John 3:5, if in fact He did, we must look upon baptism’s relationship to the new birth–a birth of water and Spirit. This is one birth, not two. Just as one is spiritually born only once and this is reflected in baptism itself, it would appear that the emergence from the water is the symbolism that is involved. That is, one emerges from the water as a new creature in Christ, a person born of water and the Holy Spirit. The one birth, therefore, testifies to the one immersion.
(9) The Baptism of Israel. While this point is not nearly as weighty as the earlier ones, it is worthy of consideration. Paul writes, ”Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:1-2). This metaphorical baptism into Moses is described by Paul when he says that all of the Israelites were under the cloud and passed through the sea (v. 1). The Israelite nation departed from Egypt, walked through the Red Sea, and arrived on the opposite shore that led to Sinai (see Exodus 14). Obviously, their baptism was a single event–not a triple event. While it is not clear, perhaps Paul is suggesting here that just as all Israel began with baptism, yet God was displeased with most of them (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-5, 6-11), so Christians who begin with baptism must also beware of displeasing the Lord by falling into sin (vv. 11-13). While this point is not conclusive in our discussion, it does suggest a single immersion.
(10) Tertullians Comment. The comment of Tertullian (ca. AD 200) that we noticed earlier is worthy of note: ”Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel” (Brown, Baptism Through the Centuries, p. 17). This suggests that the writer recognizes that single immersion is all that Scripture calls for but admits that the current practice was trine immersion. It was “an ampler pledge” than that which was required by the Lord. At least this understanding is worthy of consideration.
The subject of this short article generally is not much discussed in our day, although it was in Brethren circles in the past couple of centuries. The evidence above (mostly drawn from the Scriptures) would seem to be sufficient to point to single immersion as the Biblical meaning of baptism into Christ, sometimes called Christian baptism or the great commission baptism. Baptism that preceded great commission baptism (the baptism of John, the baptism of Christ, and Jewish proselyte baptism) involved single immersion. The relationship of baptism with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ would point to single immersion. Our own spiritual experience in conversion and our single union with Christ would also point to a single immersion. The connection between single baptism into the Holy Spirit and water baptism would lead us to think of single immersion. Our single spiritual birth of water and Spirit would also lead us to single immersion. Even the metaphorical baptism of Israel suggests single immersion.
We commend this Scriptural discussion to your careful study. If anyone should have further information that would help to clarify this issue to this writer, we would be pleased to consider it.