The controversy surrounding the mode of believers' baptism is almost inextricably linked to the controversy surrounding infant Baptism (paedobaptism). I believe that without this link the arguments against baptism by immersion would almost immediately vaporize. In composing this paper I have sought out arguments in favor of non-immersion baptism and have analyzed the hermeneutic employed. My purpose in what follows is not particularly to argue for or against a particular method of baptism but instead to outline the particular mode of Biblical interpretation that is required in order to generate any controversy here at all.
The text I am working from that outlines the arguments in favor of non-immersion Baptism is located at http://www.mbrem.com/baptism/aabap.htm. This is a reformed school website and the paper is produced by A. A. Hodge. It may immediately be noted that although the paper is ostensibly about the mode of Baptism the battle lines are immediately drawn between the paedobaptists and the immersionists. In fact, of the six articles the site has about baptism five are specifically about infant baptism; only this one even begins to discuss the mode of baptism.
The next point to note that there is actually no disagreement from either side as to the normal meaning of the Greek word 'baptizo' from which we get the word baptism. Mr Hodge allows for four different potential shades of meaning:
(1) dip, submerge, sink; (2) to wet thoroughly; (3) to pour upon, to drench; (4) to overwhelm
He then however proceeds to state that it is common for a word in biblical usage to have a meaning that is very different from its' classical usage. He proceeds to outline three reasons why he believes this is so; the gist however is that the concepts were beyond the language available at the time.
This is an extremely important point that one must have made a personal decision upon. If agreed to then it essentially asserts that a lay person reading a particular part of the biblical text in the early period of the Christian church would have had no chance to understand what the words actually meant. Note it is not simply suggesting that a word is used primarily in one of a range of meanings or even that the range of meanings is slanted in a particular direction. It states that the New Testament meaning of a given word can have a fundamentally different meaning to the meaning of the word in the language in which the text appeared to be written.
The extremity of the difference in meaning that Mr Hodge requires is most readily seen by looking at the word in usage. As he himself identifies one use of 'baptizo' was to 'baptizo' your hands before eating or to 'baptizo' the pots and pans for a meal. He then asserts that this was purely a ritualistic show of purification and had no implication of mode. One has to ask how effective the symbolic ritual would be if someone came to the dinner table with hands 'purified' but still covered with the crud and grime of the days labors?
It is interesting to note too that a central plank of Mr. Hodge's argument is the severity of the problem if he is wrong. He essentially asserts that so many people have accepted paedobaptism for so long and that the potential of accepting that these people are unsaved is so great that one must allow the non-immersion interpretation to stand. Two things are to be noted from this: firstly one must distinguish between whether or not a given interpretation is in error; the other is the severity of the error. It is one thing to assert the plain meaning of a given biblical text, it is another to pronounce sentence upon those that view it differently. However it is equally important that one does not reverse the process and assert that by not pronouncing judgment upon others we must also accept that all interpretations are equally valid.
Returning momentarily to the matter of immersion however we should note too that the full immersionist cannot completely justify their position from the meaning of the word 'baptizo'. The word 'baptizo' in all of its' shades of meaning really means to wash thoroughly. This most commonly would involve immersion because that is the most natural, effective and practical way to wash things.
However there would be occasions when certain objects or people due to size, fragility or lack of water could not be picked up and fully submerged into water. The natural behavior of anyone at the time told to 'baptizo' something would be to implement whatever practical process was available to achieve the desired effect. It may be noted that the early Christian church document the DIDACHE does suggest practical alternatives for those instances where submersion is not really an option.
In conclusion: I do not really believe there is any scope at all for genuine controversy regarding the actual meaning of baptism and the implicit normative mode of baptism. The question is whether or not non-immersion baptism is allowable for those with strong historic, denominational or personal reasons to prefer a different mode of baptism. I personally feel that this is not an issue over which huge fuss should be made. Notwithstanding the question is closely tied to the subject of infant baptism which is of far more serious import.