John Calvin On Correct Baptismal Usage

I was pressed on the proper mode of baptism recently by a Presbyterian brother.[1] I listened as he made his protestations and appeals to a myriad of proofs for the legitimacy of sprinkling over and against immersion. After a few minutes, I grabbed my copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.[2] I flipped through the pages of Calvin’s magisterial tome when I found the section I was looking for.[3] Then I began reading Calvin’s section on Erroneous and correct baptismal usage:

But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.[4]


  1. The three traditional modes of baptism: pouring, sprinkling, and immersion.  ↩

  2. Anecdote: A different Presbyterian brother once confessed that meeting a Baptist who had read through the Institutes was akin to “encountering a unicorn in the forest.”  ↩

  3. I have always been tickled by Barth’s description of Calvin in Karl Barth, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence 1914–1925, trans. James D. Smart (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), 101: “Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”  ↩

  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1320 emphasis added.  ↩