Calvin’s Mode of Baptism

Most Baptists seem oblivious of Calvin’s 20th April 1556 Sermon on Deuteronomy 30:6. There, he clearly declared:1 "In Baptism…the water is poured upon the head of a little child…. We indeed do baptize with water….   The Minister lays the water on the child’s head."

Baptists often quote from Calvin’s Commentary on John’s Gospel, where it says:  "John and Christ administered baptism by total immersion."2   Yet they neglect to add that such ‘im-mersion’ is not the same as sub-mersion.   For all Presbyterian Ministers ‘put in’ or ’im-merse’ their fingers, (but never totally sub-merse) them under the baptismal water before sprinkling babies therewith.     Such Baptists also neglect to complete Calvin’s above sentence.   For he then soon went on to say "we must not worry overmuch about the outward rite, so long as it accords with the spiritual truth and the Lord’s institution."   John 3:25f and 1:25-33 cf. First Kings 18:33f (q.v.).

Interestingly, Calvin clarified that such baptismal purifyings were always accomplished by sprinkling.   Thus, commenting on Hebrews 9:10-20, he explained:3 "When there was a sprinkling…, there is no doubt that this represented the mystical sprinkling that comes by the Spirit….   Christ uses His Spirit in place of sprinkling, to wash us with His blood."

Even in John chapters 1 to 4, we see the same teaching in respect of water baptism.   Thus, in his comment on the words of John the baptizer in John 1:31f — ‘I came baptizing with water’ and ‘I have beheld the Spirit de-scending as a dove, and [the Spirit] remained up-on Him [Jesus Christ]’ — Calvin said4 Christ was here "consecrated with a solemn ceremony….   He began with baptism….   And the Spirit de-scended."    Again, commenting on John 3:5, Calvin added:5 "We sometimes hear of Christ baptizing with the Holy Spirit….   This water is the Spirit Who cleanses us anew and Who, by His power poured upon us, imparts to us the energy of the heavenly life."

Calvin’s comment also on John 3:34, is relevant.   There he declared "that God, the inexhaustible Fount of all good, does not at all exhaust Himself when He bountifully and plentifully pours out His gifts on men."6

Also on John 4:2, Calvin commented:7 "Not only does Christ baptize inwardly by His Spirit.   But the very [baptismal] symbol that we receive from a mortal man — should be regarded in the same light as if Christ Himself had put forth His hand and stretched it out to us….   This suffices to refute the Anabaptists."  

Cf. too John Calvin’s comments on Acts 1:5 and 2:17,33,38f.   "Christ…will…baptize us…. ‘I will pour forth of My Spirit’….   This is signified by the words ‘ poured out’….   The promise was made first to the Jews, and then to their children, and finally…to the Gentiles….   This passage…refutes the Anabaptists who deny baptism to the children of the faithful while they are still infants, as though they were not members of the Church."

 Some Baptists like to cite Calvin’s Institutes.   There, they say he wrote:8 "It is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the ancient Church."

Such Baptists here neglect to quote Calvin’s original French words!   They run: "C’est une chose de nulle importance, si on baptise en plongeant du tout dans l’eau celui qui est baptisé, ou en repandant…de l’eau sur lui."   Namely "it is a matter of no importance whether one baptizes by immersing into the water, or by…sprinkling the water onto him."

Now here, Calvin’s word ‘immerse’ (French plonger) is not the same as the word ‘submerge’ (French submerger).   For Presbyterian Ministers indeed ‘immerse’ their fingers into the baptismal water — without ‘submerging’ either them or the candidate under that water.

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