Baptism by Immersion Only?

by Art Sippo

On baptismo, the best treatments on the meaning of the word were done by mainline protestants in the 19th Century.  There is a book by Conant on the meaning of baptizma that is good for this.  It is clear that the word means "immersion", but not necessarily in a physical sense.  There is a Greek verb "Bapto" which refers to dipping into/under the water.  The verb that corresponds to "baptizma" is "baptitzo."  It means not merely to immerse but to totally penetrate something.  It is the difference between dipping a stone into water (bapto) and dipping a sponge into water (baptizo).  There is an idiom in Greek "to baptize in wine" which means to get drunk.  Obviously, you don't get dunked "all the way under your beer."

The Catholic tradition has always acknowledged that immersion is the primary mode of Baptism, but it has also recognized from the very beginning that there were two other valid modes.  For practical reasons we in the west have generally used effusion (pouring) as the normal mode in the last 1000 years or so.  Aspersion (sprinkling) was also used in the past especially for mass baptisms of catechumens in times of persecution, but it is not allowed today under Church law.

The Bible gives a very mixed witness about the mode of baptism.  On Pentecost thousands were baptized in downtown Jerusalem where there is no river or other body of water to permit immersion.  Paul baptized his Jailer "and his household" in his home where again there would have been no way to immerse them.  Also, in Luke 11:38 it says how the Pharisees were astonished that Jesus did not "wash" before dinner.  The actual Greek word translated as wash is "baptizo."  Since this is a ritual purification that guests do before dinner in someone's home, it obviously cannot mean immersion.  But it is intended to purify the whole person, not just the outside.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate