by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, October 26, 2012 at 4:36pm

QUESTION: I have heard that some churches baptize their new converts by immersing them three times. They call this “trine” (or “triune”) immersion. Where does this idea come from?

ANSWER: Today practically all Orthodox Churches (e.g., Greek Orthodox) immerse both infants and adult converts three times as their form of baptism. They are simply continuing a practice that began in the early church around the beginning of the third century. Also, the Church of the Brethren practices believers’ baptism by immersing three times, face forward in a kneeling position. This is followed by the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit. (This church, influenced by Pietism and Anabaptism, began in Germany in 1708 and moved to the U.S. over the next 30 years. Its first U.S. congregation was in Germantown, PA.)

It should be emphasized from the beginning that there is absolutely no mention of or allusion to trine immersion, or any kind of three-fold baptism, anywhere in the NT. Also, neither is there any reference to trine immersion in any Christian writings in the second century A.D.

How did this practice begin? There is little doubt that it arose as someone’s inference from Jesus’ command to baptize into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Somewhere along the way, maybe near the end of the second century, someone began to teach that this text required not just immersion, but three immersions: once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Spirit. Later, the triple immersion also came to be related to Jesus’ three days in the tomb—an idea drawn from baptism as dying, being buried, and being resurrected with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12).

What shall we say about this practice? Here we shall consider the three main arguments for it, and evaluate them.

First, it is said that Jesus’ command to baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, implies and even requires triple immersion. In response we must simply remind ourselves that neither this text nor any other in the Bible states or implies that the required baptism involves any kind of three-fold action. The natural understanding of the imperative verb is that it requires a single act of immersion. The fact that the single immersion is into the ONE NAME of the Father, Son, and Spirit also indicates a single act. Jesus does not say to baptize first into the name of the Father, and then into the name of the Son, and then into the name of the Holy Spirit. There is just ONE name, and this corresponds to the single immersion.

Second, it is sometimes said that the very Greek word for “immerse,” namely, baptizo, actually includes multiple baptisms as a part of its meaning. This is inferred from the fact that the major secular Greek-English lexicon, edited by Liddell and Scott [LS], gives the definition of baptizo, the Greek word used most often in the NT (as distinct from bapto), as “to dip repeatedly.” Some lexicons of NT Greek (e.g., Thayer’s) have echoed this meaning for baptizo, i.e., “to dip repeatedly.” From this it is inferred that the word “to baptize” means “continued, repeated action.” Thus it is concluded that the Greek word in itself requires trine immersion.

This conclusion is false for a number of reasons. First, not all editions of the LS lexicon contain this meaning of baptizo (“to dip repeatedly”). My copy is of the 7th (revised) edition of 1882, and it does not include this meaning. Its main definition of baptizo is “to dip in or under water” (pp. 274-275). Two later editions have appeared (1897 and 1925). One or both of these may contain the “dip repeatedly” definition; I do not have access to them. If they do, it would be interesting to know why this has been added.

I found no such meaning for baptizo in my 1957 edition of the Arndt and Gingrich lexicon, or in Kittle’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

We should also point out that in the LS lexicon and in the Thayer lexicon, the meaning of “dip repeatedly” is just one of several meanings. (Thayer cites only two examples of this meaning, from two pre-Christian Greek historians.) I.e., this is not what it would mean every time it appears. Also, we should point out that “repeatedly” is not the same as “three times.” Finally, in no translation of the NT is the Greek word baptizo ever translated “dip/immerse/baptize repeatedly). This idea is simply not associated with the word in actual use.

Something else should be pointed out. In the NT, the word baptizo is used for other events (sometimes figuratively) besides Christian baptism. And in none of these events does the word imply a repeated immersion or the meaning “to dip repeatedly.” E.g., the word is used often for John’s baptism, which had no Trinitarian significance. It is also used for being baptized in the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13; etc.), to be baptized in suffering on the cross (Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50); and being baptized into Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). Why then should we insist that it has such a meaning for Christian baptism, when it does not apply to these other circumstances?

Third and finally, it is said that the early church fathers show us that trine immersion was the practice of all the churches for several centuries. But this simply is not true. There is no reference to trine immersion at all in the second century, though it is often simply inferred by trine immersion sympathizers from any reference to baptism in the name of the Trinity, as in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, ch. 61 (c. A.D. 150). But we have already seen that such references to baptism into the name of the Trinity do not imply trine immersion.

The first actual reference to trine immersion is from a third-century writing by Tertullian called De Corona, ch. 3 (A.D. 204). Here Tertullian says that when we enter the water for baptism, “we are thrice immersed.” However, the rest of his sentence, which is usually not quoted, actually shows that this is a relatively new practice. His complete sentence is this: “Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel.” I.e., it is his understanding that Jesus never commanded triple immersion.

From this time on numerous references to trine immersion can be found in the writings of the church fathers, but the practice was by no means universal. As one modern researcher says regarding the early centuries of the church, “Triple immersion was not universally practiced” (Robin Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity [Baker 2012], 166).

In any case we must always be cautious about drawing dogmatic conclusions about Biblical teaching from the interpretations of the early church fathers. They did not always get it right. E.g., on baptism itself, a common teaching in the second century A.D. was that baptism was for the forgiveness of past sins only, and that a convert’s one baptism was the only time such forgiveness was available. There was no forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. Tertullian himself in the early third century said that this view was too harsh; you actually get one more chance after baptism to repent and be forgiven again—but just once more! From this sort of wrong thinking came the entire Roman Catholic sacrament of penance (now called reconciliation).

The conclusion is that there is simply no credible evidence that the Bible itself requires or warrants trine immersion. Such a practice is neither necessary nor expected. This is not to say that it is wrong to be immersed three times if one feels the need for it. But one must be careful not be judgmental toward those who disagree, and should not encourage others to accept this practice based on faulty arguments.

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