Questions On Baptism

Friday, October 10, 2003



Initiation of a non-Christian into the Roman Catholic Church is celebrated in a Rite called "baptism". In this rite, a person is either immersed in water, or sprinkled with water by another Christian who says, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What makes a baptism valid?
Baptism is valid so long as water was used with the Trinitarian formula (See Mt 28:19 for the Trinitarian formula, and John 3:5 for the necessity of water). In an emergency, even tears or saliva could be used where running water is not present. Catholics believe that all people who have received water baptism in the Trinitarian formula are mysteriously united to the Church, and indwelt with the grace of Jesus Christ.

What is grace?
Grace is God's favor, and more than this, it is the very life of God within a person through the Holy Spirit. With grace, three dispositions, or virtues are infused in the soul: faith, hope and love. God cannot co-exist with sin, and when we turn away from God, we can sin so badly as to cut off this flow of divine life within us. Catholics call this "mortal sin", referring to the notion of deadly sin we find in 1 John 5:17. Yet, even when we sin mortally, the Council of Trent states that faith lingers in the soul to draw us back to Christ. Only blasphemy of the Holy Spirit - an ongoing and deliberate rejection of the free gift of grace - can damn us. We can trust teh one who started the work of salvation in us through baptism to bring it to completion.

Is Baptism necessary for salvation?
The Second Vatican Council affirms that the grace of baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet, the Council speaks of salvation outside, but not apart from the Church. Catholics believe that the grace of baptism is given through the rite itself, but is also provided to those who, through no fault of their own, have either never heard the Gospel, or heard the Gospel in a distorted manner so that they were unable to accept it. Many theologians (myself included) argue that anyone who has not actively rejected the Gospel as properly understood may be under the saving grace of baptismal grace.

The Church has always maintained that the Old Testament prophets are counted among the saints in heaven. The Council of Trent affirmed that even prior to baptism, a grace called prevenient grace draws a person to baptism. Furthermore, the Church always taught that there is such a thing as baptism by desire. Traditionally, baptism of desire was used to refer to martyrs who were murdered while preparing for the rite of baptism. These various doctrines have lead theologians to the conclusion that there is saving grace available without strictly receiving water baptism.

Yet, for a believer in Jesus Christ, it would make no sense to reject water baptism, since Christ himself was baptized and taught his disciples to baptize. In the early church, baptism was a public witness to becoming a Christian, and often a person was placing their life on the line by receiving the sacrament. To reject water baptism and claim to believe in Jesus is a contradiction, and in this sense, baptism is necessary for all believers.

However, knowing that prevenient grace draws the sinner to the sacrament, many theologians today argue that there are two types of saving faith, and one depends on the other. Primordial faith is a trust in a vague and fuzzy awareness of divine holy mystery and openess to transcendant experience that goes beyond language. This faith is what begins the salvation process in us, and it is this grace that is spoken of when we say the grace of baptism is necessary for salvation.

Many theologians since Karl Rahner argue that we are all born with the gift of such grace, even as we are all effected by original sin. If we respond to this grace, we seek language to describe the experience, and primordial faith is then translated into fiducial faith, which is the belief in a particular creed, doctrine, and set of religious practices. For the Catholic Christian, fiducial faith expresses itself and becomes actualized in cooperation with Christ through the sacraments. However, the non-Catholic may very well be saved by fiducial faith expressing primordial faith in a different cultural context.

Who performs a baptism?
Typically, a baptism is performed by a priests, but in an emergency, any Christian who has already received baptism can perform the rite. Catholics recognize the baptisms of other Christian demonimations as valid, so long as water was used, and the Trinitarian formula was followed.

Catholics consider the rite of baptism to be a sacrament. Sacraments are outward signs of internal grace instituted by Christ and preserved in the Apostolic tradition. Catholics believe that Christ, himself, acts in each sacrament, so that even if a sacramental rite is performed by the worst sinner, the sacrament is valid.

How often can baptism be received?
Because it is the first step of initiation, baptism is only received one time in life, and Catholics do not believe anyone who has received a valid baptism needs to repeat it, even if the rite was performed before a person was fully mature, or the rite was by an imperfect person, or in a manner that was hasty or sloppy. Indeed, Catholics see it as a lack of faith to repeat baptism. At the same time, Catholics do bless themselves with holy water as they enter a church as a constant reminder of baptism.

What are the effects of baptism?
Perhaps the effects of baptism are best understood by looking at the symbolic meaning of the rite. Water is a natural symbol of birth, life, and cleanliness. It symbolizes birth as a mother's water is broken. It symbolizes life as we need it for nourishment. It symbolizes cleanliness as we bathe daily with water. Water also symbolizes death, as we can drown in water.

In Judaism, ritual baths and purifications symbolized that we were making ourselves presentable to God, the most high and most holy and pure being of all.

According to the New Testament, the baptism of John, who preceded Jesus was a baptism of repentance. The word for repentance in Greek means conversion, and is rooted in the notion of turning a stiff neck. John seemed to use water baptism as a symbolic action to convey the notion of the hope to one day be immersed in the Spirit to be cleansed from sin to live a new life. John's preaching was eschatological and forward looking, and painted a picture of cosmic conflict between good and evil. John's baptism looked for the day when the Spirit would be poured forth like a river on the people to produce a change of heart.

Jesus received the baptism of John, and many Bible scholars point to this incidence as evidence of a historical person named Jesus. According to the criteria of embarrassment, the early church would have no reason to invent this encounter, since the action implies John is greater than Jesus and that Jesus needed to repent.

Many believers in Christianity are raised to believe that Jesus was baptized by John in order to provide us an example. However, this oversimplifies the issue, and implies that Jesus was play acting. Even a perfect person can and would have turning points in life if that person is fully human. A conversion experience does not always involve turning from sin to virtue. Rather, like a moth becoming a butterfly, a conversion experience can be growth from one stage of human development to another. The New Testament is clear that Jesus grew as a human person (See Luke 2:40).

By receiving the baptism of John, Jesus reveals that he has fully entered the human condition. Like us, in his humanity, he longed to be immersed in the Holy Spirit and to grow and change.

John preached that there would be one who come after him who would baptize with fire and Spirit. Having received the baptism of John, the growth or conversion that Jesus displayed was to begin to live as though the fullness of God's reign was breaking into our world here and now, already present, but not fully present yet!

There is some evidence in the New Testament that Jesus continued the ministry of baptism after John, and may have even rivaled John for a period (See John 4:1). However, where John was an ascetic preaching hell-fire and brimstone, Jesus preached that the reign of God was breaking in through mercy upon the marignalized. It is not that Jesus made no mention of hell. However, when he does mention hell, it is always in the context of the rigidly unforgiving, or those who commit heinous sins that hurt other people.

For Jesus, it appears that baptism was transformed from a symbolic act that looked forward to a day of immersion in the Spirit, to a symbolic rite that made the Spirit present. In Jesus and his disciples, baptism truly became a rite of initiation for those who choose in the here and now to live in the reign of god breaking into our reality. By accepting the baptism of Jesus, one was chosing to live here and now as though God is your only king, and to strive for perfection.

After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, baptism took on new meaning. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul called baptism an immersion in the death and resurrection of the Lord (See Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12). The author of 1 Peter refers to baptism as a cleansing.

With Saint Augustine int he fourth century, the emphasis on the notion of baptism as cleansing became critical in his debates with a monk named Pelegius. Pelegius believed that Christ saved us by offerring an example of perfection that we chose to follow by our own inherent goodness. Those who rejected Christ and refuse to imitate him are simply evil. Pelegius taught a crass works righteousness.

Augustine, profoundly aware of his own sinfulness, countered that he could not even want to follow Christ if God had not given him the gift to desire Christ. Augustine, relying on Saint Paul, believed that we are saved by grace, and that grace enables us to imitate Christ. Augustine developed the concept of original sin to explain what he felt Paul was saying when Paul says all people are sinners due to Adam's sin (see Romans 5:12). Augustine argued that grace is a completely free gift given to us while we are sinners, and through the gift, we are made righteous, with baptism symbolizing cleanliness and new birth.

As a demonstration that he was interpreting the Scriptures correctly, Augustine wrote to Pelegius appealing to common tradition asking if what he was saying were not true, why does the Church baptize infants?

So, the effect of baptism is that we die to our sinful selves to rise with him. Grace, the very life of Christ, is infused in the soul by the one who lives today! This new life is experienced as rebirth in water and Spirit. We are immersed int eh Holy Spirit so that live as sons of daughters of the great King of the universe, whose reign of peace and justice is breaking into the world through Christ acting in us.

Why do Catholics baptize infants?
Acts 10 speaks of the entire family of Cornelius, and the whole household, including his servants, receiving Peter and the Apostles to eventually become baptized. Catholics believe that the episode indicates the possibility that children were baptized within the New Testament period, since it is likely that Cornelius had children.

Yet, there is no direct and unquestionable proof that infants were baptized in the New Testament. Many Protestant Christians argue that the symbolism of conversion and change is lost by performing baptism on infants, and that such batisms should be considered invalid.

Catholics believe that in the early church, adult baptism was the norm as the Church reached out to new members. However, we saw above that Saint Augustine argued against the works righteousness of Pelegius by appealing to the already wide-spread and ancient tradition of infant baptism.

Infant baptism may or may not not perfectly allow the recipient to experience grace as conversion. Yet, Catholics accept in faith that conversion is occurring even in the infant. For many Catholics, infant baptism is a response of gratitude to God for a child, and a celebration of birth. Parents naturally want to share their faith and culture with their children. As a rite of intitiation, baptism knits a person into that web of relationships that forms the Church - the Body of Christ. What Christian parent would not seek to have their child knit into this web of relationships?

On a deeper theological level, Catholics speak of a real transformation taking place in the infant where all guilt of original sin is removed, and grace is infused in the soul conforming the child to Christ. Through baptism, a person is born again, and the effects of the sacraments last eternally! By offering the rite to an infant, we are emphasizing that grace is an absolutely free gift, not even earned by our desire for conversion or our intellectual undertsanding of what we receive.

This may confuse many Protestants, who believe that Catholics teach works righteousness. The Catholic Church holds as infallible, according to Scripture, the local council of Orange, and the Ecumenical Council of Trent that salvation is by grace alone. However, Catholics believe that with new birth comes growth, and that with baptism, Christ's life life is infused inthe soul to produce faith and works. Faith without works cannot save, and works without faith cannot save. Yet, the whole process of salvation is initiated as a free gift of Christ. See my essay Justification: Protestant or Catholic for more detail on this subject.

In the New Testament, Paul speaks of laying hands on people after baptism, and James speaks of annointing people. The word "Christ" literally means "annointed". Catholics generally believe that in the sacrament of confirmation (laying on of hands and annointing), a person is confirmed in the faith. This second sacrament completes initiation in the Catholic Church and is closely connected theologically to baptism, though separated by years in time for many Catholics. Adult converts receive the two sacraments together. This is usually done in young adulthood, and provides an opportunity for a similar experience to Protestant young adult conversion at baptism.

Why do Catholics use the Trinitarian formula, and not the name of Jesus
Personally, I am not sure that God considers the name of Jesus alone as an invalid baptism. However, there are denominations and churches separated from Rome who baptize in the name of Jesus only because they reject the doctrine of the Trinity. We saw above that the Trinitarian formula for baptism is Scriptural in Matthew 28:19. We know from early Church writings that the Trinitarian formula was used from most ancient times, and the doctrine was accepted as the correct interpretation of scripture by the world-wide Church at several Ecumneical Councils.

Thus, Catholics believe that the Trinitarian formula is revealed through Scripture and Sacred Tradition to be a if not the correct way to do baptism. Since the issue arose late historically, and was clear attempt to break the unity of the Church, Catholics do require a new baptism for those who join us from a community that did not use the Trinitarian formula.

Why do Catholics sprinkle instead of immersing?
Immersion is the proper way to do baptism to convey the full symbolism of the sacrament. Sprinkling in the early church was only used for emergencies, such as impending death. As the Church expanded into Northern Europe, it is highly probable that cold weather caused Christians to turn more often to sprinkling. Irish missionaries may have carried the practice back southward. The Church defends that baptism by sprinkling is valid. At teh same time, Vatican II called for a renewal and retrieval of the meaning of sacramental gestures so that the fullness of what was conveyed in the New Testament is mediated in the signs. I have seen more and more Catholic churches building baptismal fonts large enought to immerse an adult. In the future, I expect immersion to once again become the norm.

One final point
When John began baptizing, he warned his Jewish siblings that God could make children of Abraham from the stones. Receiving his baptism of repentence was useless if one was not changed by it. God always respects our freedom, and we are always free to reject and act against the grace that is given us. We do this when we sin.

Catholics believe that God initiates the salvation as an absolutely free and unmerited gift that can start in an infant. Catholics believe that Christ acts in the sacrament, so that we can never say that baptism does not have an effect. Christ promised to act in every valid baptism. Even Adolf Hitler (who was baptized Catholic) was changed by the sacrament. (Think how much worse he may have been if his life were never touched by grace!)

Yet, knowing that every baptism has an effect on the recipient, and trusting individually that the One who died for me and began a work for me in baptism wants to bring it to completion, I must respond to him!

John's warning to the children of Abraham is still true for Christians. We must, by God's continued outpouring of grace, receive the Lordship of Christ and allow his will to shape our lives and continually change us. While baptism always has an effect, not everyone who has been bapized is absolutely assured slavation.

Catholics do not seek absolute assurance of salvation, since this may be the sin of presumption. We humbly leave judgement in the hands of a perfectly just and infinitely loving and infinitely merciful God. Baptism is a promise that this God has started something and has called us to conformity with Christ. Our response must be to permit this conforming to Christ to occur by his grace within us throughout our lives.

Peace and Blessings!

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posted by Jcecil3 3:56 PM

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