How Is Baptism Defined in English Dictionaries?



Large dictionary in library

A modern English dictionary will define an English word according to its contemporary usage in the English-speaking world. For instance, the term “God” is defined in this way: (1) The Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe; (2) one of several deities; (3) any deified person or object (The Random House College Dictionary). We realize, of course, that there is only one true and living God who created all things and who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6). However, since people in the world worship and serve different real or imagined beings, an English dictionary will include in its definition anything unscriptural that people call “god.”

In the case of the term “baptism,” we find a similar practice. An English dictionary will define baptism according to its English usage regardless of whether the definition is Scriptural or not. Therefore, “baptize” is defined in this way: (1) To immerse in water, sprinkle, or pour water on, in the Christian rite of baptism; (2) to cleanse spiritually; initiate or dedicate by purifying; (3) to christen (The Random House College Dictionary). This is the way the term is used today in the religious and secular world. However, to arrive at the original meaning of the term, one must look under the entry for the meaning of the term in the original Greek. This is often found in parentheses or brackets after the English definition. A simple or brief dictionary may not have the origin of the word but the larger dictionaries will. Notice the statements of several secular dictionaries:

  • “Gr. Baptizein, to immerse, baptize, substituted for earlier baptein, to dip, used in post-classical Gr. Chiefly in sense ‘to dip in dye’” (New World Dictionary, Second College Edition).
  • “Greek baptizein dip, bathe baptein dip” (The World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary).
  • “Gk. baptizein to dip, baptize, fr. baptein to dip” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged).
  • “Gk. baptizein to immerse (bap [ein] [to] bathe + izein—ize)” (The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition).
  • “Gk baptizein to dip, baptize, fr. baptos dipped, fr. baptein to dip” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

Secular encyclopedias reveal the same duality. They sometimes define a word as it is used in the present age: “Baptism is a sacrament of the Christian church in which candidates are immersed in water or water is poured over them in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit” (Grolier Encyclopedia, 1997).

In other cases, both the Greek meaning and the English definition are given. Under “baptism” we read: “(Greek baptein, ‘to dip’) . . . . Orthodox and Baptist churches require baptism by total immersion. In other churches, pouring (affusion) and sprinkling (aspersion) are more common” (Encarta Encyclopedia, 1997). This secular work plainly states that the Greek term means “to dip” but then says that modern churches practice immersion (dipping), pouring, and sprinkling. Sometimes they merely refer to the original action: “Baptism, an immersion in water to represent the washing away of sin, was the initiating rite by which one became a member of the church” (Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, 1999).

The important point to notice as we examine secular dictionaries and encyclopedias is that we must go beyond the contemporary meaning of “baptism” and return to the meaning of the original Greek word, baptizo, which these authorities identify as immersion.

Richard Hollerman


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