Q1 In the Acts of the Apostles, thousands of baptisms are described.  At no time does the sacred text indicate what words (if any) were used to administer the rite.  Must we then doubt the validity of these baptisms (as the CDF proposes)? 


A1 By no means. The CDF cannot responsibly make a ruling that has the effect of invalidating the baptisms described in the Acts of the Apostles.


Q2 In the Acts of the Apostles, baptism was being administered by immersion in water.  The repeated use of the Greek term, baptizein, means “to immerse in water.”  What does this illustrate?

A2 This demonstrates that, in the primitive church, immersion in water was the normative mode of administrating baptism.   Today, however, we have become accustomed to forget this because 98% of Catholic baptisms involve pouring small amounts of water over the head.   Baptist and Orthodox Churches, for example, have maintained this requirement even today.  That is why it is not uncommon to see YouTube sites that argue that their faith is more authentic because they are actual in harmony with what the primitive church practiced.  Chick here, to see an example of this.

Q3 When did the early churches begin to baptize without full immersion in water?

A3. There is no evidence of this in the New Testament texts.  In the Didache, however, we find the first evidence that there were valid baptisms without full immersion.   Here is how the text reads:

7:1       (And) concerning baptism, bäptize thus:

            Having said all these things beforehand,

            ïmmerse in the name of the Father

                             and of the Son

                             and of the holy Spirit

            in flowing water‑‑

7:2       [1] if, on_the_other_hand, you should not have flowing water,

                 immerse in other water [that is available];

            [2] (and) if you are not able in cold,

                 [immerse] in warm [water];

7:3       [3] (and) if you should not have either,

                 pour out water onto the head three times

                        in the name of [the] Father

                                    and [the] Son

                                    and [the] holy Spirit.

The Didache puts forward the general rule that the immersion should take place “in living water” (en hydati zônti)–an expression that means  “in flowing/moving water.”  The preference for flowing water most probably hearkens back to an early period when natural rivers were used for baptizing.  Recall that John the Baptist made use of the Jordan River for his baptisms (Matt 3:6 and par.).

Q4 Do the Gospels then recognize that Jesus himself was baptized with full immersion?

A4 Absolutely!  There can be no doubt of this.

Immersion baptism today in living water

Q5 Does the Catholic Church allow baptisms by immersion?

A5 It not only allows them, it encourages them as the preferred form for administering baptism.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the triple immersion in water “as the most expressive way” to perform a baptism:

1239 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.

The last line makes reference to the Didache.

Q6 What do we learn about early baptisms from the Didache?

A6 When read as a whole, the overriding norm was to give preference to “living” water (Did. 7:1)‑-flowing and cold in natural rivers.  When this was lacking, then non-flowing cold water (Did. 7:2)‑-as in a pond or lake‑-was permitted.  Such cold water had the natural temperature of “living” water but was inferior since it was not flowing (Niederwimmer 1998:127).  Finally, when cold water was lacking, warm water was permitted.  Vööbus surmises that “warm water” refers to “the kind to be found in cisterns, pools and reservoirs” exposed to the Mediterranean sun (Vööbus 1968:24). 

If none of these kinds of water were available, then it was permitted to pour water over the head of the one being baptized.   One can imagine that three ceramic jars filled with water were used.  Pouring “three times” was by way of insuring a complete soaking.  Parts of the body still dry would become the natural target of the second and third jars of water.  Dousing the person in water would have been a near equivalent to immersion.

Q7 When was the Didache composed?  And by whom?

A7 The Didache bears the title, The Training of the Twelve Apostles.  Based on the content of this document, however, we can be certain that the twelve apostles did not actually write this text.  However, those who did use the Didache regarded it as  containing the way of training used by the twelve apostles.  Scholars are not in agreement as to the date when this text was composed.  Since I am a specialist in this text, I have concluded, on the basis of internal evidence, that the Didache was composed between 50 and 70 CE.  Not everyone agrees with me, however.  The majority place the time of composition late in the first century.

Q8 Does the Didache use the formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

A8 No, it does not.   In fact, however, the Didache presents us with very different words that were to be recited prior to the baptism.  These words summarize the intensive training that was given prior to the baptism.  It takes about ten minutes to recite this summary of “the Way of Life” (Did 1:1-4:14). Then the candidate was warned to keep far away from “the Way of Death”  which also gets spelled out in clear details (Did 5:1).  It takes a little more than one minute to recite this.   

Q8 Does the decision of the CDF and of Bishop O to declare all baptisms that do not use the standard formula as invalid run into some trouble here?

A8 Assuredly.  By affirming that only one formula must be used, the CDF not only invalidates early baptisms reported in the Acts of the Apostles, it invalidates all other baptisms (as in the Didache) where this one formula is not used.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

1240 In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister’s words: “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In the Eastern liturgies the catechumen turns toward the East and the priest says: “The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” At the invocation of each person of the Most Holy Trinity, the priest immerses the candidate in the water and raises him up again.

By presenting the usual form used in the Latin Church next to the usual form used in the Eastern Liturgies, the intent of the Catechism is to demonstrate that valid baptisms have been celebrated using two different forms.  This has the effect of demonstrating that the inability to honor the form used in the Catholic Easter Liturgies has the effect of calling into question the clear intention of the Catholic Church to honor various formulations of the words used.  In 1999, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches agreed to  honor the legitimacy of their respective rites:

The Orthodox and Catholic members of our Consultation acknowledge, in both of our traditions, a common teaching and a common faith in one baptism, despite some variations in practice which, we believe, do not affect the substance of the mystery.

This agreement is very important.  There is one common teaching and one baptism even when the rites used for administrating baptism are not uniform.  This is what the CDF and Bishop Olmsted should have said: “The Catholic Church has always acknowledged a legitimate diversity in the words used to administer baptism.  Hence, the variation used by Fr. R can be understood as valid even when it deviated from the usual sacramental form used by Catholics.”

Q9 Is there any reason to believe that the Catholic Church always and everywhere administered baptisms using the formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father . . .”?

A9 None whatsoever.  No where in the Christian Scriptures does one find “the exact words” that must be used in every valid baptism.  If there were such words and there was also an absolute command to use these and no other words, then the CDF would have made its point. 

Even when it comes to the gestures and words used by Jesus at the Last Supper, each of the three Synoptic Gospels has a variant telling.  Here again, we would have to insist that “absolute uniformity” is not requirement for a valid Eucharist.  The Didache, for example, offers us a very rich Eucharist without needing to repeat what Jesus did.  John’s Gospel, in like fashion, presents us with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as a symbolic metaphor of the hidden message of the Last Supper. 

Relative to the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew provides one variation; Luke provides another; and the Didache provides a third variant.  No one in the church sought to remove these variants and to mandate a single formulation to be used to edit out of existence the variants.

When I was attending Holy Cross Grade School in Euclid, Ohio, as an impressionable youth, Sister Margaret told us children that the Our Father printed in our Catechism was the only valid version that we, as Catholics, were permitted to use.  More especially, Sister Margaret told us that the Protestant version was an “invalid prayer” and should “never be used.”   The implication here was that God heard our prayers because they were approved.   Protestants, on the other hand, used unapproved versions of the Our Father and it was very unlikely that God would smile upon them when this did so.

If you go to the internet, you will find some Christians saying that “God gives us no warrant for infant baptism.” or “Only full immersion baptisms are valid.”  Those who do these things are misled and are misleading.  They are another version of Sister Margaret who wanted us children to take pride in our version of the Our Father and to despise anyone who uses a variation.

Q10 But is that not what the CDF is doing today–namely trying to impose on all Catholics one version while, at the same time, invalidating all variations?

A10 Some might think so.  In any case, to the degree that the CDF is doing what Sister Margaret did when I was in the fifth grade, they are to be opposed “in the name of Jesus.” 




Total Page Visits: 1044 - Today Page Visits: 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.