From the Catholic perspective, proper form, proper matter, and proper intent are required for any sacrament to be valid. With Baptism, the proper matter is water. The proper form is the Trinitarian formula given to us by Christ in Matthew 28:19 “(Name), I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and the water must be applied to the head of the person. The proper intent is the desire of the person to be baptized, and the intent of the minister of the Church to baptize. In the case of an infant or small child, the intent of the Church is sufficient. Baptisms are normally celebrated by a priest or deacon. In the case of an emergency, anyone can baptize and the Baptism is valid if they use proper form and matter.
There are some Christian faith traditions that teach that it is not sufficient that water be applied to the head, but that the only valid form of Baptism per Sacred Scripture is when the person is fully submersed in water. Catholics and many other Christian groups would disagree with that view.
The belief that a person must be fully submersed in order for the Baptism to be valid is generally based on three points. The first is that the Bible identifies Baptism as being buried with Christ which implies submersion. The second is that the Bible speaks about Baptism as “going down” into the water and “coming out” of the water. The third is that the Greek word “baptizó” means to “immerse, or dip into water.” I’ll take a look at each of these points and how they align with a Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture.
When we look at the earliest pictures of Baptism found in sacred art, they show people standing in running water like a river, and water being poured over their head. While sacred art is not doctrinal in nature, it does show us the reality of how the very early Church was experiencing Baptism. A couple of examples — this is a fresco of a Baptism from the Catacombs of San Callisto:
This is a fresco from the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy:
So within Sacred Scripture, is there anything that would indicate the Baptisms as presented in this artwork would not be valid? As Catholics we would say no, not at all.
I’ll start with the idea that because Sacred Scripture refers to people going down into the water this implies full submersion under the water. We see this for example in Acts 8:36-38 when Philip baptized the Ethopian eunuch. “And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” It is clear from this passage that both Phillip and the eunuch physically got into the water. What is not stated or clear at all is that the eunuch was fully submersed in the water when Phillip baptized him. If the words “went down into the water” and “came up out of the water” mean full submersion, then both Phillip and the eunuch were fully submersed since it says they did these things. These verses do not imply that the person to be baptized was fully submersed under water, and in no way contradict a view of Baptism as expressed in early Christian art where both people enter the water, and then water is poured over the person’s head to perform the Baptism.
We also see the idea that full submersion is required because it best symbolizes Christ’s burial and resurrection. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:4 that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” and in Colossians 2:12 “and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” In my opinion, this is an example where people have not read Scripture in the context of its time, but rather placed it in a different time and place and then interpreted it. Yes, people today are buried underground. But Christ was not. He was placed inside a tomb. The tomb was indeed sealed in order to prevent his disciples from stealing his body. But his burial is not one where he is submersed into the earth. That is placing a modern view of burial onto the text. Rather, Christ is surrounded by open air and when he is raised he simply walks out of the tomb, very similar to the way a person might walk out of a river.
When we speak of the symbolism from Sacred Scripture that can express Baptism, from the Catholic perspective one of the strongest expressions is to pour water. A lot of groups claim we “sprinkle.” I’m sure by now I’ve witnessed hundreds of Catholic Baptisms, and I have never seen anyone be sprinkled. But since we understand that Baptism is the way we are born again and receive the Holy Spirit, the action of pouring symbolizes the many times that the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit being “poured out” on us. These passages are seen as promises in the Old Testament, and as having been fulfilled in the New Testament. (Proverbs 1:23, Isaiah 29:10, Isaiah 32:15, Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 39:29, Zechariah 12:10, Acts 10:45, Romans 5:5, Titus 3:4-6). And on Pentecost we see St. Peter address the crowds with these words from the prophet Joel – “No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. Indeed, upon my servants and my handmaids I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:16-18). And when people ask how are they to respond to his message, he tells them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
So is full submersion a better symbolic expression than pouring? Not necessarily, and requires a modern day understanding of burial that didn’t apply to the burial of Christ.
The final point often made to prove Baptism requires full submersion is the definition of the Greek word “baptizó.” As with many theological terms, a normal word is used that is then infused with a theological, Christianized meaning. The Greek word baptizó does literally mean to “dip into water.” But does the usage of this word in Christian theology limit its meaning to require full submersion into water? We have a very clear example in Sacred Scripture that shows us it does not. In Luke 11:37-38, we read “After he had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.” While this is not translated into English as “baptized,” the Greek word used in the text for washing is “baptizó.” This clearly shows us from Sacred Scripture that used within the context of a religious ritual, the word “baptizó” does not have to imply full submersion.
From the Catholic perspective these Baptisms by submersion are definitely valid Baptisms. We just disagree that submersion is required in order for a Baptism to be valid, and it’s clear that the Bible does not require this as well. Baptism is a sacrament that can only be received once. This is why when the Church receives people from other Christian faith traditions we generally do not re-baptize them, unless it cannot be determined that their previous Baptism was administered with proper form, matter and intent.
And in the early Church there is some evidence of Baptism by immersion, especially for infants. But when that form is used, it is by triple immersion. This form is still used in the Orthodox churches for infants, and you can see examples of that on youtube if interested. The catechism notes how this form was used:
CCC1239 The essential rite of the sacrament follows: Baptism properly speaking. It signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ. Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head.
My next post will cover the question at what age should a person be baptized, and why the Catholic Church baptizes even infants and young children.