Is Acts 8:38 an airtight case for immersion baptism?

Baptism is a sacrament of the Christian faith. As such, people can feel rather strongly about how the rite is carried out. While for some there is only one acceptable mode, immersion, for others of us there are three: sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. I, myself, am one of those people who is fine with any of the three modes.

I recently had an exchange with someone who believes that immersion is the only acceptable mode. One of the proof texts presented to me, and one that is frequently used to defend the immersion only view, was Acts 8:38, “And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.” (NASB)

The idea is that since Philip and the Eunuch “went down into the water,” it somehow proves that an immersion baptism took place. There are some difficulties with this, however. First, the context states that these events took place on a desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. This is an area that is remarkably arid – hence the mention of the “desert road.” As a consequence, it is doubtful they came across a substantial body of water – unless the argument is going to be made that a Jewish ritual bath was used in a town somewhere along the way, but this has its own difficulties.

Second, “went down into the water” is not an indicator of depth. The text does not state that they were under the water, only that they went into the water. The same language can be equally applied to deep and shallow water. A person can get drenched in water up to their ankles. Water can be dipped from a shallow water source.

Third, if the statement that they “went down into the water” in and of itself makes it necessary that the Eunuch was immersed, we should turn around and ask if Philip was also under water when this happened. After all, it was both of them that “went down into the water.” If that phrase alone necessarily puts one under the water, then it should put both of them under the water, or very close to under the water.

I will stop there.

Let me make myself abundantly clear: I have no issues with baptism by immersion. I have baptized people by immersion. At the same time, I also believe that a person can be baptized with substantially smaller amounts of water.

The point of this post is simply to point out that Acts 8:38 does not present the airtight case for immersion baptism that some might suppose.

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