The Mathematical Improbability of Baptism by Immersion

So the other day, someone asked about the difference between baptism by immersion and baptism by sprinkling. I responded with all of the typical arguments, but something struck me that I had never thought about before, Pentecost. In Luke's account of Pentecost (in Acts 2) we read of Holy Spirit descending in power on Apostles. From this they go out into the city preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. Peter stands before the crowds and preaches and incredible, bold sermon and then this happens:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

What a sermon! What an outpouring of Holy Spirit! But then it struck me. The Apostles baptized 3,000 people in a day! Unfortunately, many of our translations blunt the sense of the Greek text which makes the “baptizing” and “adding” parallel ideas. So that those who received the word were “baptized and added” on that day.

I have seen a number of megachurch baptisms and the logistics of mass immersions are staggering. I have watched on youtube (of course churches with mass baptisms would put them on youtube!) and been impressed at the administrative architecture that it takes to pull of several hundred baptisms in one day.

But several thousand…

And it got me thinking about the math. Let's assume that the selection of Matthias brought the number of Apostles back up to 12 (remember Judas is already dead). And let's assume that there is a pool of water large enough for 12 men to simultaneously be conducting baptisms, perhaps the Pool of Siloam. And let us also assume that surrounding this water is enough room for 3,000 people to cue up for a baptism. Let's assume all of that as a given.

On top of this, we must account for the time factor. Most immersionist also require a profession of faith prior to a baptism. This ends with the minister saying something like this, “Then on the basis of your profession of faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Even if everyone was brief, it isn't unreasonable to think that getting into the water, giving a credible profession of faith, and then proceeding out of the water would take around 5 minutes per person.

So we have 3,000 people being baptized by 12 Apostles, averaging 5 minutes per baptism. That means that each Apostle would have to baptize 250 people. At 5 minutes a piece, that would take 750 minutes if you were incredibly efficient and didn't take snack or potty breaks.

That's 12.5 hours! Can you imagine being at the end of this line?

Now we also know that the early church often had converts give their profession of faith by reciting a baptismal creed. And despite the name, we know that the Apostles didn't write the Apostles Creed. But even if we conjecture that they were able to repeat a formula, not give an off the cuff testimony, we are still looking at 3 minutes a person, which, at best, cuts our time down to 7.5 hours.

The logistics of a mass immersion at Pentecost push the boundaries of reasonableness. Could Holy Spirit have organized the orchestration of such an event? Sure, He absolutely could have. But is there another possible answer from the pages of scripture?

Yes, there is.

At Sinai when the people renewed the Covenant with God, Moses did something strange. He took the blood of the sacrifices and used half of it to baptize the people of Israel. Check it out in Exodus 24:8,

And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

It is certainly not a trump card for baptism by sprinkling, but the scriptural way to make sense of the massive baptism movement at Pentecost is to mirror the Old Covenant's mass baptism at Sinai.

Either that or the Apostles, not UPS, coined the phrase, “It's Logistics.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRAHa_Po0Kg&feature=youtube_gdata_player

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About futonreformer

I am a pastor in the PCA serving in Myrtle Beach, SC. I am a sixth generation Tampa native and I love the Rays and Bucs!

8 responses to “The Mathematical Improbability of Baptism by Immersion”

  1. Trey Medley says :

    Simply put, no one performs baptism the way it would have been done in the first century. There, baptism by immersion would have involved wading out into the water (most likely in groups (see John the Baptist)), and standing while someone said a few words, then essentially squatting yourself down (or walking forward to a deeper part of the river) until you were fully immersed before coming up. It’s not as simple a math equation as all that. And when Roman Catholics start admitting that baptism by immersion was the clear method preferred by the early church (and should likely hold a preference today according to most encyclicals, though they allow that paedo-baptism is still valid and common), then there might be something to it. Simply put the “math” argument is a bit disingenuous.

    • futonreformer says :

      Trey,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      I will readily admit that the Baptism event at Pentecost does not boil down to a simple math equation to disprove immersion.

      I will not however concede that first century Jewish and Christian baptism was strictly immersion. The Roman church may have made that concession, but there are those of us in the Reformed Church have not.

      I more wanted to point to an “Occam’s Razor” sort of scenario. Instead of reconstructing elaborate means to explain this event, we do have in scripture a covenant renewal service that included a mass baptism.

      Justin

      • Trey Medley says :

        It’s not an elaborate scenario I’ve constructed. We actually have evidence of this (immersion in the manner I described) being the primary method of baptism from the writings of non-Christian and extra-biblical Christian sources. Besides the whole language of being “buried and raised” just fits best with immersion. We know that Jesus was immersed (he came up out of the water) and we know that the Jewish method of baptism for new converts (likely what John the Baptist was doing) involved (and still does today) an immersion in water (incidentally it is also a se-baptism, in that people go down into the water, no one does it for them; the rabbi just says some words over them).

        Incidentally, not all reformed are so hard. I know several from the “reformed” tradition (including some individual PCA members, plus the British Anglican Church only performs immersion baptism for adult converts) who readily admit that the original preferred method was by immersion. Now, I will admit that other methods were used at least as early as the third century (evidence form the Didache), but even then these were only “acceptable” methods, and not the preferred ones. I could get into a long argument about the history of baptism and why the reluctance to accept immersion can be traced to certain reformers holding onto the old methods of liturgy (in contrast to the contemporary “radical reformers” such as the anabaptists, particularly Zwingli). Or I could get into a word study about how the greek word transliterated baptism never means anything other than immersion outside of Christian literature (and so this would be an odd rendering), but I’ll spare the details. I’m not saying that sprinkling isn’t valid, I’m just saying you’ve got a pretty big case to show it’s the primary or preferred method (or that it wasn’t the primary method in the first two centuries of the Church).

      • futonreformer says :

        Trey,

        Thanks for your interest in this topic. However, I am sure with all of your academic credentials you are well aware of the impossibility of simple refutations in an argument like this. The “blogosphere” is certainly not the best place to debate of the meaning of greek words and whether or not Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker were wrong in not defining “baptizo” simply as “immerse”.

        Godspeed.

      • Trey Medley says :

        Except its not just BDAG. Lidell-Scott (and later Jones) also define it that way. If you read extra-biblical literature (non-christian secular literature of the time) the word always and only means immerse.

        As far as the “blogosphere” being an appropriate place to debate that, I would tend to disagree, but I’m also not the one who opened that door. I’m sorry you don’t want to pursue it further, but I don’t think it can that easily dismissed.

  2. Onan Coca says :

    Can you maybe point me to something that might break the passage down a bit more for me? I read through… and while the impression I got was that the baptisms happened on the same day, I had three other thoughts….
    a) first, the verses immediately following seem to indicate that they stay together for sometime after – so these baptisms could take place over a period of time.
    b) secondly, are the 3,00 souls added upon conversion or baptism? In this light, aren’t the souls added to the family upon conversion – so the baptisms could of course occur any time in the future?
    c) thirdly, as a boy raised in a fundamentalist, independent, Baptist church… (and only moved toward a reformed theology over the last couple of years) isn’t this where my Pastor would have said “This use of the word baptism in the Greek here, specifically means baptism by immersion.” I think the word they used was baptizo? I don’t know for sure so don’t beat me up…
    I am not a padeobaptist, but I am truly interested in a deeper understanding of why my Presbyterian brothers practice this.

    • futonreformer says :

      Onan,

      I’m in an Elders meeting tonight, let me get back with you in a couple of days! Miss you man.

    • futonreformer says :

      Onan,

      Great to hear from you! Sorry it has taken a couple of days to get back with you, I have been slammed.

      As far as your specific questions go, the construction uses parallel tense verbs, which points to simultaneous actions.

      Your second question is related to the first. The text of Acts 2 indicates that the baptisms all took place on the day of Pentecost. If you want to look deeper into the Acts 2 text to see more specifics, I would suggest “The Acts of the Apostles – Greek Text Introduction and Commentary” by F.F. Bruce.

      As far as your third question goes, it is very common, and unfortunately incorrect to make a direct line association from the greek word “baptizo” and immersion. Even the New Testament doesn’t always use that word to mean immerse. Check our Mark 7:1-5. Every occurrence of the word “wash” here is “baptizo”. I doubt the Pharisees had enough water to immerse their couches between meals!

      As far as good texts to help understanding this more, I would reccommend Jay Adams “The Meaning and Mode of Baptism” as well as “William the Baptist” by James M. Chaney. The second is a dialogue between a pastor and a parishoner.

      If you have any other questions, let me know, as another former fundy, I’d be happy to let you know.

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