Dunking, Sprinkling, Or Pouring (Or Does It Matter)?

Le Ann Trees, publisher of Beautiful Christian Life and friend of the HB, wrote to ask for resources on the mode of baptism. So, I thought it would be useful to explain how the Reformed think about this matter generally and why I ended up where I did on the mode of baptism. To be sure, the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches take no official position on the mode of baptism. Effusion or sprinkling are the dominant modes in our churches but it is regarded as a matter adiaphora (morally indifferent).


Our English word mode is derived from the Latin noun modus, which meant “measure” or, derivatively, a kind. Our English word refers to manner or the way something occurs. In the context of baptism, mode refers to the manner of administration. There are three modes: immersion (dunking),  effusion (pouring), and emulsion (sprinkling).

For most of Christian history, the dominant practice was either effusion or emulsion. The supposition, based upon the size of early baptismal fonts, that the ancient church immersed is ill founded. The earliest baptismal fonts were large enough for the minister and the baptismal candidate to stand. It was a symbolic representation of the Jordan but the mode was effusion. Over the centuries, the fonts became smaller but effusion or emulsion remained the dominant modes. According to B. B. Warfield, even the early Anabaptists practiced pouring or sprinkling.

The history of Christian practice is not decisive but it lends weight to effusion and sprinkling.


It is widely assumed among Baptists that the biblical mode of baptism was immersion. Most cannot think of John the Baptist or of our Lord’s baptism without thinking of immersion. Consider Matthew 3:13–17:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (ESV)

For many, the phrase “up from the water” necessarily means “Jesus was immersed and he came out of the water.” That, however, is an assumption. What the text says is “after being baptized, immediately Jesus went up from the water” (βαπτισθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ⸉εὐθὺς ἀνέβη⸊ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος; NA28). Go look at a stream or a river. Is it on the exact same geometric plane as the ground around it? Ordinarily one goes down to a stream or a river. One comes back up from the stream. Were one to go fishing (not fly fishing), one would go down to the stream. When one is down fishing, one comes back up from the stream. Is the fisherman necessarily immersed in the stream? Only if things go very badly. So, the case for the Baptist presumption is not as strong as is typically assumed.

“Going down” does not necessarily refer to immersion. I know of two places where one goes up to arrive and down to leave without geographically going up or down. One is “up at Oxford” (or, if things go badly in school, one is “sent down”). The same is roughly true of Jerusalem. One always goes up to Jerusalem and when one leaves one does down. So, going up or down does not, in those cases, refer to immersion.

We should read the narrative surrounding the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:39) in the same way. It says “and when they went up from the water” (ὅτε δὲ ἀνέβησαν ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος, πνεῦμα). Just as John the Baptist and our Lord stood in water so that the Baptizer could ritually pour water over Jesus’ head, so too Philip and the Eunuch stood in water. They came up away from or out of the water when they were done. We may not assume immersion.

One of the things that helped me see that immersion was probably not the biblical mode of baptism are the two great baptisms in the Old Testament. First, consider the Noahic flood. The church was saved in the midst of the flood waters (1 Pet 3:20,21), which were a judgment against the world, by God, through the ark. Who was immersed? The reprobate world. Scripture says:

The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark (Gen 7:18–23; ESV).

Were Noah and the church immersed? No, they were not.

Consider the second great, mass baptism in the Old Testament, i.e., the Exodus.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left (Ex 14:21–29; ESV).

The Israelites went through the Red Sea “on dry ground.” Who was immersed? Pharaoh and his army. Again, as in the Noahic flood, immersion is a judgment not a blessing. Nevertheless, according to the Apostle Paul, the Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10:2; ESV). According to Paul, it was the Israelites who were baptized and yet they were not immersed, at least not in the Red Sea. One might contend that they were immersed “in the cloud” but that would not seem to be the case. In his indictment of the Israelites for their unbelief, Moses charged the Israelites with not believing in the God “who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go” (Deut 1:33; ESV). The Israelites were not immersed by the cloud that went before them during the day yet Paul says that they were baptized “in the cloud.”

Then there is the matter of the various ceremonial washings in the Old Testament, which form the conceptual and practical background for the mode of baptism. Aaron and the Levites were sprinkled with blood (Ex 29:21). The priests sprinkled blood in front of the veil of the temple (Lev 4:6, 17) and in other religious rituals (Lev 5:9; 14;7, 16, 27, 51; 16:14, 19).

One of the passages that has most influenced me, however, is the remarkable scene in Exodus 24, in which the Israelites were re-consecrated after they had broken the covenant even before Moses made it down the mountain with the tablets.

Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 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” (ESV).

Moses did not immerse the people in the blood of bulls and goats. He effused blood on them. Most likely he hit the first three rows, nevertheless, the whole assembly (most of whom were never hit with blood) were included. In the ancient world, by the way, the only people to be immersed in blood were those pagans who were immersed in the blood of a bull in the taurobolium.

To the best of my knowledge, the rabbis in the inter-testamental period and in the first century sprinkled things to cleanse them ritually. They did not immerse them.


Some Christians have never seen any other mode of baptism except immersion. It is nearly impossible for them to imagine any other mode. For them, baptism and immersion are synonymous. That identity, however, is not in the things themselves as much as it is in the mind and experience of those Baptists, who, historically considered, represent the minority position among Christians.

The biblical evidence for immersion is rather thin. The prevailing mode of the administration of ritual washing or cleansing is effusion or emulsion. Indeed, as I tried to show, there are weighty biblical considerations against immersion as a mode. It certainly may not be assumed to be correct.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Could Psalm 133:2 also have an application to the mode of baptism?
    It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes.

    I’ve also heard Ligon Duncan once describe our mode of baptism as representing how the Holy Spirit is poured into us.

    This topic comes up regularly with American Evangelicals. This will be an excellent reference. Thank you.

  2. The words I’ve heard all my life during baptism are: “buried with Him by baptism into death; raised to walk in newness of life.” Taken from Romans 6:4.

    This is the best argument for immersion in my opinion. Immersion is a more accurate picture.

    That said, I do find it very interesting that sprinkling was the custom in the early church. Certainly it would make more practical sense in some contexts, and if Scripture neither commands nor forbids that mode, neither should we dyed in the wool Baptists. Thank you for a thought provoking article.

  3. Extremely helpful! Thank you for also responding to the question about Romans 6:4, which is bound to come up in any robust discussion about baptism. Bookmarking this article for future reference (or at least until I have memorized the facts well enough to wield them myself).

  4. Dr. Clark, WCF 28.3 says, regarding baptism, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.”

    Can we take from this that, while immersion (i.e. “dipping”) is not an invalid mode of baptism, it is an inferior one?

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