ASK BISHOP BONSU
Question by Kwame:
“Why does the Catholic Church baptize by pouring water but not by immersion or by sprinkling?”
Baptism is administered in one of three ways in Christian churches today. It can be done by immersion, by infusion or affusion (that is, by pouring water on the person), and by aspersion (sprinkling water on the person). The Catholic view on how baptism is to be administered is stated in Canon 854 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring, the prescriptions of the conference of bishops being observed”. It is interesting to note that immersion is mentioned before pouring, even though in practice baptism by infusion (or pouring) is more common. What is the biblical evidence for these different modes of administering baptism?
The English word “baptize” is derived from the Greek word baptizo. This word can mean to “dip” or “immerse”. For example, the Greek version of the Old Testament tells us that Naaman, at Elisha’s direction, “went down and dipped himself [the Greek word here is baptizo] seven times in the Jordan” (2 Kgs. 5:14, Septuagint). Baptism is specifically stated in the New Testament to represent the Christian’s spiritual union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7), which is remarkably and dramatically pictured in immersion.
Whenever the act of baptism is described in the New Testament (which is rarely), the one who is baptized actually goes into the water. Thus, after Jesus was baptized, he “came up out of the water” (Mark 1:10), and when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, “they both went down into the water” (Acts 8:38). These descriptions do not quite prove complete immersion, however, since they could have stood, let us say, ankle-deep in water while one of them scooped up some water and poured it over the other’s head.
Talking about baptism as immersion, we should point out that there are a couple of cases in which it is unlikely that baptism was administered by immersion. The baptism of Paul seems to have taken place in a house, in which case it would not have been by immersion in a river, but by pouring. Following the appearance of Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus, Ananias is told in Acts 9:11‑19, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul … So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’. And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened”.
The baptism of the jailer in Acts 16:23‑33 does not seem to have been by immersion but by pouring. Following the spectacular miracle and the conversion of the jailer in prison, the latter says to Paul and Silas, “‘Men, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family”.
But immersion is not the only meaning of baptizo. Sometimes it just means washing up. Thus, Luke 11:38 reports that, when Jesus ate at a Pharisee’s house, “the Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash [baptizo] before dinner”. In this context, the word baptizo cannot refer to immersion. Here it simply refers to washing. Again, according to Mark, the Pharisees “do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash themselves [baptizo]” (Mark 7:3-4a). So baptizo can mean cleansing or ritual washing as well as immersion.
The word baptizo can also be used metaphorically. For example, speaking of his future suffering and death, Jesus said, “I have a baptism [baptisma] to be baptized [baptizo] with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50) This might suggest that Christ would be “immersed” in suffering.
Relevant in this connection is idea of being “baptized with the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 1:4-5 Jesus says that disciples “shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. Did this mean they would be “immersed” in the Spirit? This is unlikely because three times the Acts of the Apostles states that the Holy Spirit was poured out on disciples when Pentecost came (2:17, 18, 33). Later Peter referred to the Spirit falling upon them, and also on others after Pentecost, explicitly identifying these events with the promise of being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:15-17). These passages demonstrate that the meaning of baptizo is broad enough to include “pouring”.
From the foregoing it is clear that baptism by immersion or by pouring can be justified on biblical grounds. What about baptism by aspersion or sprinkling? The practice of baptism by sprinkling was unheard of until A.D. 253. Sometimes those who defend the practice of sprinkling claim that it is authorized in Leviticus 14:15-16: “And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord”. However, we should note that Leviticus 14:15-16 was written about the process of purification of lepers after they recovered from their disease and is totally unrelated to New Testament baptism and thus cannot be used to justify sprinkling as an appropriate mode of baptism.
Some people also justify sprinkling by appealing to Isaiah 52:15, “So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider”. However, there is nothing in Isaiah 52:15 that has any connection to New Testament baptism, so it cannot be used to justify the modern baptism. Appeal is also sometimes made to Ezekiel 36:25 in support of sprinkling as a mode of baptism.
Those who suggest that sprinkling is a legitimate mode of baptism sometimes also appeal to Ezekiel 36:25, “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols”. This verse, however, is not in a context concerning baptism. A study of Ezekiel 35 reveals that the language about “washing” is metaphorical. Appeal is also made to Hebrews 10:22 which says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”. In this passage, the author of Hebrews illustrates the need to have our hearts sprinkled, so obviously the meaning is not literal, but must be understood as figurative or metaphorical. The hearts of Christians are figuratively sprinkled with the blood of Christ, but their bodies are washed (they are buried in water for the forgiveness of their sins; see Acts 22:16; Mark 16:16). The modern practice of sprinkling for baptism is not authorized by Hebrews 10:22.
The mode used by the early Church in the first few centuries was most likely immersion, with infusion (or affusion) reserved for occasions when immersion was impossible due to lack of sufficient water, and aspersion used for individuals too sick or weak for either immersion or infusion. That the early Church permitted pouring instead of immersion is demonstrated by the Didache, a Syrian liturgical manual dates from either the middle of the first century or the early part of the second century. In its seventh chapter, the Didache reads, “Baptize in running water …. And if you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times” (7:1-3). Immersion in running water was the ideal; but if this was not possible, other actions and other kinds of water could be employed. In other words, when you cannot do what you would prefer, do what you must. The rite is valid even if it varies in the way it is done.
The testimony of the Didache is supported by other early 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]). 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]). Obviously, Tertullian did not consider baptism by immersion the only valid form, since he says one is only sprinkled and thus comes up from the water “not much (or not at all) the cleaner”. Thus, immersion was the norm and the other two modes were substitutes in exceptional circumstances.
In connection with baptism by immersion, we should point out that there must have been some physical difficulties in carrying it out. This is obvious from the Didache cited above. Even today practical difficulties can render immersion nearly or entirely impossible for some individuals: for example, people with certain medical conditions – the bedridden; severely crippled people, those who have recently undergone certain procedures (such as open-heart surgery). Such people cannot be immersed, and may not wish to defer baptism until their recovery (for example, if they are to undergo further procedures). Other difficulties arise in certain environments. For example, immersion may be nearly or entirely impossible for desert nomads or Eskimos. We may also want to consider those in prison in hostile settings where baptisms must be done in secret, without adequate water for immersion. What are we to do in these and similar cases? Shall we deny people the sacrament because immersion is impractical or impossible for them?
As indicated above, the Catholic Church approves of both baptism by immersion and baptism by infusion. Baptism by sprinkling which, as we have seen, does not have biblical support, to my knowledge, does not enjoy any official endorsement in the Catholic Church, even though it is referred to by some Church Fathers, as we have seen above. No matter what form is used, it seems that what matters in baptism is that the body of the person being baptized should come into contact with water, an action that symbolizes the spiritual cleansing that takes place in the sacrament. This should be done to the accompaniment of the words used for baptism, i.e., “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Thus, there is no need for the person being baptized to be soaked from head to toe. No matter what mode is chosen, the rite should take into account the significance of baptism as a cleansing bath which expresses entrance into the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom. 6:3-5).