Calvin on the Mode of Baptism

Calvin's InstitutesThere is no small amount of debate and disagreement regarding the manner or mode of baptism. Some argue that total immersion is the only proper, biblical way to baptize in accordance with the Lord’s institution of the sacrament, while others hold to sprinkling or pouring as the proper manner or mode.

What was Calvin’s position on this subject? It may surprise you to know that he appears to have viewed immersion as most clearly representing the practice as it is described in Scripture.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion he describes baptism in the following way:

“These things [i.e. washing away sins, sharing in Christ’s death, being united to Christ, etc.], I say, he performs for our soul within as truly as surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded by water.” (Book IV, Ch. XV.14, Italics added.)

So Calvin viewed baptism as involving the baptized person being “submerged” and “surrounded by water.”

Now, did Calvin view immersion as being somehow essential to baptism (i.e. as the only proper mode of baptism)? No. He goes on to write,

“But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water -these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.” (Book IV, Ch. XV.19)

Part of that last sentence is debatable, as the New Testament writers used the Greek words for “baptize” or “baptism” to describe things that could not be reasonably thought of as referring to anything approaching immersion. (See Mark 7:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:2, etc..) As John Murray  concludes,

” . . .though the word baptizw and its cognates can be used to denote an action performed by immersion yet they may also be used to denote an action that can be performed by a variety of modes. Consequently the word baptizw itself cannot be pleaded as an argument for the necessity of immersion as the mode of baptism.” (Christian Baptism, p.26)

But notice that both Calvin and John Murray are in agreement that the mode of baptism (whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling) is basically a matter of indifference. (Calvin above states that this is “of no importance.”) And this is also the stated position of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well, which puts the matter this way:

“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28.3)

So when it comes to the manner or mode of baptism, there is room for some disagreement and diversity of practice among the churches. On these things we may (as the saying goes) feel free to “agree to disagree.”

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