The Continuity of the Catholic Church
The methods of baptizing, frequently called into question, permit another illustration. There are three methods, and I state them in the traditional order: immersing, pouring, and sprinkling. The Catholic Church teaches and has always taught that baptism may be validly administered by any one of the three methods. In sharp disapproval is the insistence by a few others that immersion is the only valid and approved method.
Again I ask: Who is best qualified to understand what the Catholic Church taught and did in the first century? Who is the better judge of a record than those who made the record?
The critics make much of the baptism of our Lord by St. John the Baptist. The text states that after being baptized our Lord came out of the water. Without doubt these words could indicate baptism by immersion, but they could indicate the method of pouring also. There is nothing conclusive for either.
As a matter of fact, the earliest Christians may have believed that our Lord was baptized by the method of pouring. At least they drew pictures of that method which are still preserved in the Catacombs. These show our Lord and St. John standing in the water, with St. John's hand over our Lord's head and pouring water. One of these representations goes back to within seventy-five years of the baptism.
In further references to the methods of baptism as known and used in the early Church, I quote a paragraph from a pamphlet published by the Rev. Matthew Poetzl, O.F.M.: "There are many representations of baptism left on monuments of various kinds, but not one of them indicates immersion. In mosaics of early churches, in ordinary pictures, on domestic objects such as dishes, immersion is never depicted. It is never sculptured or engraved on marble. Invariably the person being baptized is represented as standing, with his feet only in water, while water is poured on his head with the hand or a vase. Is it not strange, I ask, is it not wholly incomprehensible, if immersion were regarded as the only valid form in early Christianity, that all the early representations of baptism indicate the method of infusion?"
Let me pose a question to critics who would appraise such facts. Would you suggest that the Catholic Church commanded her people to paint pictures and draw sketches of early baptism in order to show the method of pouring? Is it reasonable to judge that the church forbade her people to represent baptism by immersion? The simple truth is that the representations of baptism were the spontaneous and undirected expressions of the beliefs of the Christian people.
It may be contended that this testimony, despite its universality, is not sufficient to establish that our Lord was baptized by pouring. Very well. But does it not establish something else equally important? Does it not demonstrate conclusively that the early Christians, all of them, believed that baptism by pouring was a valid and correct method? If they had known, as modern critics maintain, that there was only one method of baptizing, that by immersion, would they have indicated in every possible representation that our Lord was baptized by infusion? To accuse them of such distortion is to make them appear sacrilegious and contemptuous.
What becomes, I ask, of the claim that in recent centuries the Gospel of Christ has been restored to its original purity? If those persons who lived in the first years of the Christian era are disqualified from giving testimony, how are critics to learn the characteristics of the early Church? If, on the other hand, the testimony of early Christians is accepted, as it should be, then the doctrines of the Catholic Church are confirmed. Of this assurance, the methods of baptizing give one illustration.
A text from St. Paul is frequently quoted by critics of the Church, a text in which the Apostle compares baptism with our Lord's death and resurrection, stating that there is a burial in each. Does not this comparison refer to immersion? Obviously it does. The explanation is that immersion was a commonly used form of baptizing, the most commonly used, in fact. No doubt, many of St. Paul's readers had been baptized by immersion and so understood at once the figure of speech which he had used.
But, and here is the one pertinent fact, it does not follow that immersion was the only method of baptizing. In another text, the same writer, St. Paul, used another figure of speech about baptism, in which he indicated the method of sprinkling. In his Epistle to the Hebrews, he wrote: "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" (Hebrews 10:22). This latter statement refers to baptism no less than the former, and it indicates the method of sprinkling. The fact is that in each text St. Paul uses figurative language, referring to a method of baptizing with which his readers were familiar, in order to teach them a spiritual lesson.
All doubts about the subject are resolved by referring to a few events in early Church history. The narrative about the conversion of the first Gentiles, for instance, clearly implies that they were baptized either by pouring or sprinkling (The Acts 10:47). Then there was the baptism of three thousand persons in Jerusalem on Pentecost day. Can it be imagined that so many persons were immersed in one day in Jerusalem, where there was a notorious scarcity of water? Even more conclusive is St. Paul's baptism of his jailer in prison in the middle of the night (The Acts 16:33).
I am advised that at least a few persons are ready to quarrel with me about the method of the jailer's baptism. They believe, it would appear, that despite all the forbidding circumstances St. Paul and the jailer left the prison in the middle of the night and went outside for the presumed immersion. The conjecture is supposedly drawn from verse 30, which states that the jailer "brought them out (St. Paul and Silas), and said 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'"
There are three different places mentioned or referred to in the narrative. The first was the inner prison, where Paul and his companion were shackled and confined. This is mentioned in an earlier verse which reads that "the jailer having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison..."
Inasmuch as there was an "inner prison" there must have been an outer prison also. This was the second place referred to. It could not have been out of doors. For one thing, the jailer would not have been so careless in the performance of duty as to give the prisoners a golden opportunity to escape, such as the cover of darkness would afford. For another thing, the purpose for which the jailer brought out the prisoners was not to be baptized; rather, it was to receive instructions. For this purpose, out of doors would have been most unreasonable. The third place mentioned was the jailer's house.
The sequence of events is clearly outlined. St. Paul and companion were put in the "inner prison", verse 24. They were brought into the outer prison, verse 30, where they preached to the jailer and converted him, verses 31 and 32. Then, verse 33, the jailer "took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway." Finally, verse 34, "And when he had brought them into his house, he sat meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house." Wherein, I ask, do the facts contain even the slightest hint of immersion? The only reasonable interpretation is that baptism was by sprinkling or pouring, which the presence of water, verse 33, made immediately possible.
If testimony of the various methods is asked for, I refer to the "Didache", a document dating from near the year one hundred. It contains explicit instructions by the officials of the Church for the guidance of clergy and laity. As evidence about the doctrines and practices of early Christianity, its value cannot be over- estimated. And it states explicitly that baptism can be administered by pouring. Further from Tradition I quote two statements. In the third century St. Cyprian wrote: "Let no one be afraid that the sick do not acquire the grace of our Lord because they are seen to be sprinkled or infused, since the Sacred Scriptures say through the prophet Ezekial, 'I will pour upon you clean water.'" In the same century Tertullian described baptism as "a sprinkling with any kind of water."
Let me add that even if there were no documents to quote, the memory of the Church would give conclusive testimony. She knows in each generation what she did in the preceding one; in this century, what she did last century. In other words, at every moment of time the Church recalls what her practices and doctrines were in the preceding moment. She recalls what she had taught, day by day, from the beginning; and this is what she has received from the Apostles.
In the studied effort to discredit the Catholic Church in respect to her method of baptizing, a few critics have visited the baptisteries of venerable churches in Europe, looking for evidence and even taking pictures of what they saw. From these they have learned, and have publicised, that at one time the Catholic Church used immersion as a method of baptizing. They could have saved themselves the trouble merely by consulting a Catholic history book, from which they would have learned everything that their cameras disclosed and more. The Church has consistently stated that in the beginning of the Christian era and for several centuries she used immersion as the more common method of baptizing. Concerning this fact there is no dispute.
It is when the critics take their next step, and for them the all-important one, that a wholly unnecessary dispute is created. Their reasoning is: From the early practice of the Catholic Church, as well as from the testimony of the Scriptures, it is evident that immersion was originally accepted as a valid method of baptizing; therefore, it is the only method. Comment is hardly necessary.
Is it not true that the Catholic Church has made a change from one method to another? What the Catholic Church did was to discontinue immersion as the usual method of baptizing and to replace it by the method of pouring. This did not mean the slightest change in doctrine. The reasoning of the Church may be stated very briefly: Inasmuch as pouring is a valid method of baptizing, as demonstrated both in the Scriptures and the early history of Christianity, and inasmuch as it is more convenient and far more universally usable then immersion, it is adopted as the customary method. Let me add that at no time has the Church denied the validity of baptizing by immersion.
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