Some Protestant churches, though not most, teach that baptism is valid only when someone submerges (“dunks”) a candidate in water. Consequently, some Protestants criticize the Catholic Church’s teaching that baptism is also valid when it is administered by affusion, which is baptism by pouring water over the candidate’s head.
Baptism Does Not Necessarily Mean Immersion
One criticism some Protestants level against the Catholic Church is that the word baptize means to submerge or immerse. However, Catholic apologist John Martignoni (Newsletter 260) points out that this is not always the case. He states,
…we see elsewhere that the Greek word ‘baptizo’ is not always referring to immersion. For example, Luke 11:38 states: ‘The Pharisee was astonished to see that He [Jesus] did not first wash [baptizo] before dinner.’ Was the Pharisee expecting Jesus to be totally immersed in water before eating dinner? Nope. We see from Mark 7:3-4, that the Pharisees had, as did all the Jews, a tradition of washing their hands before eating. Mark 7:3-4, ‘For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash [nipto] their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash [baptizo] themselves.’
Notice that Luke 11:38 does not specify what Jesus should have washed. Should he have washed his hands or his whole body? But Mark 7:3-4 tells us that he should have washed his hands according to Jewish custom. Martignoni’s point is that “baptizo” can simply mean to wash, which is what the synonym “nipto” is telling us in St. Mark’s gospel, without describing how a person should accomplish this washing.
I should point out that a Protestant might respond by asserting that the Jews always washed their hands by immersing them in water. However, I could find no support for this. In fact, I found the opposite.
The following websites, mostly Jewish, describe the ancient custom of ritual handwashing as holding a cup of water with one hand and pouring the water on the other hand while reciting a prayer: Torchweb.org, myjewishlearning.com, chabad.org, learnreligions.com, onetable.org, sefaria.org (I highly recommend this article), and jerusalempost.com. And 2 Kings 3:11 describes this ritual custom as pouring water over the hands: “Then one of the kings of Israel’s servants answered, ‘Eli′sha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Eli′jah.’”
Although “baptize” primarily means to immerse or submerge, it can also mean to wash without implying precisely how a person performs the washing. And according to Jewish custom, the Jews practiced ritual hand washing by pouring water over their hands.
Baptism Reflects Our Burial with Jesus and Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
The Bible indicates that baptism reflects our death to sin in Jesus, our burial with Him, and our rising with Him to eternal life. St. Paul writes,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 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 (Romans 6:3-4, RSVCE).
Notice that neither this passage nor any other passages command an immersion-only baptism. Rather, this passage is merely telling us what our baptism represents. It represents our burial in Christ and our rising with him. But is this all it represents?
John the Baptist states, “[Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11). And Jesus tells Nicodemus how one is born again (John 3:3): “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Peter writes, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). So, how does Scripture describe baptism in the Holy Spirit?
The Old Testament prophet Joel writes, “It will come about after this that I [God] will pour out my Spirit on all mankind” (2-28), and Acts 2:17-18 quotes this passage from Joel. The prophet Zechariah also describes this coming of the Holy Spirit as pouring. Acts 2:33 and 10:45, Romans 5:5, and Titus 3:5-6 use this same language. Titus 3:5-6 specifically ties the pouring of the Holy Spirit to the washing of regeneration (i.e., the washing of rebirth, baptism).
Pouring Is Just as Good as Dunking
So, we now see that the Holy Spirit pours Himself upon us at baptism, which is our rebirth by water and Spirit (John 3:5). Therefore, pouring water over a baptismal candidate’s head reflects the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon that person. Since the Bible never prescribes immersion-only baptism, and the Holy Spirit pours Himself upon us during baptism, then the Catholic Church accurately reflects the Holy Spirit’s actions when it administers baptism by pouring water over the candidate’s head.
Although the Catholic Church prefers immersion over affusion due to our dying and rising with Christ through baptism, it also teaches that affusion is valid because it reflects the Holy Spirit’s actions and signifies His cleansing. Therefore, the Protestant argument that only an immersion baptism is valid holds no water (pun intended).
This article first appeared at Catholic Stand,
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Follow-up Objection and Rebuttal
After Catholic Stand posted this article, one of the commentors wrote, “Clearly that verse [Mark 1:9-10] tells us that Jesus was baptized by immersion. Shouldn’t we then follow his example. He was also baptized as an adult, not as an infant.”
I replied, “Did Jesus command immersion-only and adult-only baptism? By your logic, baptisms should only occur in the Jordan River. Further, [according to your logic,] only 30-year-old male Jews should receive baptism.”
Protestants love to say that they follow Jesus’ example on baptism, but when one drills down, one finds that they lack consistency in doing so.