“Fr. Petros, how should baptism be administered: by immersion or pouring?” Please help – Geoffrey Mujwahuke, KENYA.
Dear Geoffrey, the Catholic Church and most Christian religions teach that water is essential to the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism (CCC 1212-1213). But when it comes to the manner in which the water should be used, there is controversy. Should it be done by immersion, pouring or sprinkling?
TOWARDS THE SOLUTION
In the Catholic Church, most believers are baptized by pouring (also known as infusion). At the same time, Catholics know that immersion (also known as dunking) and sprinkling are valid ways of baptizing. Some Protestant and Evangelical Churches reject all form of baptism other than immersion. They claim that most Catholics are not validly baptized. Do they have a good argument?
THE PRACTICE IN HISTORY:
a. THE COUNCIL OF RAVENNA ~ 1311
According to these Protestant and Evangelical Churches, the rite of baptism was always by immersion until the Council of Ravenna in A.D. 1311, when the Catholic Church proclaimed “Baptism is to be administered by immersion or aspersion.” Aspersion means sprinkling.
WAS THE RITE OF BAPTISM ALWAYS BY IMMERSION PRIOR TO A.D. 1311?
b. THE PRACTICE BEFORE RAVENNA
To find the answer to the question posed in (a), we turn to the following sacred writings:
c. THE DIDACHE
Didache, a Syrian liturgical manual that was written around A.D. 70 and widely circulated among the Churches in the first few centuries of Christianity. These are perhaps the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament. Although these writings are not considered inspired, they still bear witness to the sacramental practice of the Christians in the apostolic age.
In Chapter 7 of the Didache, we read, “Concerning baptism, baptize in this manner: Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water (that is, in running water, as in a river). If there is no living water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
These instructions, representing an established custom four decades after the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, were authored while some of the apostles were still living. It is around the same time that “The Apocalypse of John” was written.
d. HIPPOLYTUS OF ROME
Turning to another source of Christian writings, Hippolytus of Rome said, “If water is scarce, whether as a constant condition or on occasion, then use whatever water is available” (The Apostolic Tradition, 21 ~ A.D. 215).
e. POPE CORNELIUS I
Pope Cornelius I, wrote that as Novatian was about to die, “he received baptism in the bed where he lay, by pouring” (Letter to Fabius of Antioch ~ A.D. 251; cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:4311).
Cyprian advised that no one should be “disturbed because the sick are poured upon or sprinkled when they receive the Lord’s grace” (Letter to a Certain Magnus 69:12 ~ A.D. 255).
Tertullian described baptism by saying that it is done “with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, and finally, without cost, a man is baptized in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner” (On Baptism, 2 ~ A.D. 203). Tertullian did not consider baptism by immersion the only valid form.
In the Septuagint (also known as the LXX – is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language) these terms primarily refer to cleansing and not to the mode used to effect it.
Daniel 4:33, uses the terms in question for wetting in general and not for immersion. Eventually, baptizo (βᾰπτῐ́ζω) could refer to Jewish ritual washings in general (used in Mark 7:4), which reveals a main emphasis on making something clean.
Many say the references to John the Baptist doing his work in the Jordan River prove immersion was favored in the first century (Matthew 3:1-17). But given the evidence from the Septuagint, it is just as likely that the person stood in the river and had water poured on his head without being fully immersed. In fact, early Christian art depicts John doing this, possibly revealing that pouring was his actual practice.
Finally, if a person in the desert wanted to be baptized, the Church would not have waited until there was enough water for immersion. Pouring or sprinkling with the available water would have sufficed.
It must be remembered that in the early days of the Catholic Church, many of the believers met in the catacombs. There was no rivers of flowing water in those tunnels. Furthermore, in view of the fact that the Christians were persecuted during the first four hundred years, it would have been unwise for any believers to gather in groups by the rivers and lakes in order to be baptized. As it is out of the question to practice immersion today when someone is on their death bed, so it was in the early days of the Church. There are many reasons as to why immersion was frequently inconvenient.
If immersion was the only mode of baptism, many people in the icy regions of the North and deserts like the Sahara where sufficient water could not be secured could not be baptized and God would have commanded an impossibility (Matthew 28:19-20).
In baptism, it is the cleansing aspect that is the emphasis and not the way in which water is applied. Whether immersed, sprinkled, or poured upon, we are to see a picture of the cleansing the Holy Spirit provides to all of those who believe and trust in Christ.
Receive my Priestly Blessings from St. Cecilia Catholic Parish (Mzuzu Diocese – Mpherembe)
Rev. Fr. Petros Mwale – Feedback: +265884150185 (WhatsApp only)
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000
Draper, Jonathan A. “The Didache.” In The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Edited by Paul Foster, London: T&T Clark, 2007.
Grenz, Guretzki & Nordling (eds.), Baptism: “The practice of sprinkling with, pouring on or immersing in water as an act of Christian initiation and obedience to Christ’s own command, Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999.
Porter, Bruce Douglas, Gift of the Holy Spirit, New York: Macmillan Publishing (2000)