January 08, 2012 Q & A

Is sprinkling a proper mode of baptism?


I've seen the case for the Reformed view of the proper mode of baptism and find the article Is Immersion Necessary for Baptism? very helpful. I wonder about the validity of sprinkling if the water does not touch the skin/scalp of the person being baptized because of the thickness of his/her hair. A Roman Catholic website has this to say about such a situation.

It is to be noted that it is not sufficient for the water to merely touch the candidate; it must also flow, otherwise there would seem to be no real ablution. At best, such a baptism would be considered doubtful. If the water touches only the hair, the sacrament has probably been validly conferred, though in practice the safer course must be followed. If only the clothes of the person have received the aspersion, the baptism is undoubtedly void. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02258b.htm)

Do Roman Catholics view the administration of baptism in this way because they believe in baptismal regeneration? What is the Reformed response?


Thank you for submitting a most interesting question. I've never heard this Roman Catholic view before, and have never even thought about the issue. I consulted A Christian Directory, by the famous Puritan pastor Richard Baxter. It contains responses to hundreds of perplexing questions about what is right and wrong (or wise and unwise) in the Christian life (these are technically called "Cases of Conscience"), but there is no mention of this question. You may be the first to have asked it within the Protestant and Reformed community! Baptism, as our confessional standards (which are doctrinal formulations of what the Scriptures say) state, is:

  1. Is to be with water as the outward element, cf. WCF 28:2.
  2. "Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary" (i.e. the common Baptist view is that it is necessary), "but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person." (WCF 28:3).

The biblical basis for these is that

  1. Many biblical references to the act of baptism make specific reference to the use of water (e.g. Acts 8:36, 38; 10:47); and water, as an element, is perfectly suited to the symbolism of baptism as a cleansing or washing (e.g. Acts 22:16, Tit. 3:5).
  2. New Testament baptisms, like the various Old Testament washings or cleansings (which are called "baptisms," Mark 7:2-4, Luke 11:28, Heb. 9:10), were invariably done by sprinkling or pouring the ceremonial cleansing element (usually water or blood) on the person or object being "baptized," cf. Heb. 9:13, 19, 21. This is most clearly illustrated in Acts 16:33, in which the "washing away of the stripes" that Paul and Silas had received as punishment from the Philippian city magistrates (Acts 16:23) is coupled with the baptism of the newly converted Philippian jailer and his family. Water was applied to them by sprinkling (or, more likely, pouring) even as it was to Paul and Silas.

Now, in no case is water applied to the whole body of the person baptized, but the biblical texts are clear here and elsewhere that the whole person is baptized, i.e., "he and all his family were baptized" (Acts 16:33). In other words, the ceremonial cleansing (baptism) of a part of the person is taken as the baptism of the whole person. And the Bible in no place raises the very fine point made by the Roman Catholic website, i.e., whether a certain part of the body is actually touched by the water and whether the absence of such touching by water may invalidate the baptism. We must not be wiser than God. If the Scriptures do not even raise such an issue, neither should we raise it or be bothered by it. Hair is part of a person's body. In fact (and most interestingly, given your question), the Bible even speaks of a person's hair as part of the glory of the person (1 Cor. 11:2-16). So, there can be no doubt that even if only the hair is touched by the waters of baptism, because we (and the Bible) customarily speak in terms of "part for the whole," the person is truly baptized.

It is also interesting that in Psalm 133:2, the anointing of the head of Aaron (who, we assume, had hair) is clearly connected with the anointing of the whole person. While this anointing is not, technically, a baptism, the principle is the same: Blessings that flow from heaven begin with our heads (usually covered with hair) and proceed to the whole person.

So, don't let this question vex you. The Gospel liberates us from, among other things, the "doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to [God's] word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship" (WCF 20.2, in the chapter "Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience," a section I strongly urge you to study). I hope that you are looking, in faith, to Christ alone as your Savior and your Lord. That issue is infinitely more important than any particular questions about the administration or mode of baptism. If so, I also trust that you have been baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and by a Christian minister. I also trust that you have publicly professed your faith in Christ and are a member in good standing of a church that sincerely believes the Bible and faithfully ministers it as our final and sufficient authority for all faith and life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Under the ministry of a church like that, you will grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus and also be increasingly freed from unnecessary speculation about minor matters that in no way contribute to our godliness or usefulness in the service of Christ (1 Tim. 1:3-4).



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