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:: The Sacrament of Baptism in Roman Catholic Theology ::

Baptism is efficacious—it removes the guilt of original sin and regenerates the soul, freeing one from the slavery of sin and conferring justifying grace, leaving an indelible mark on the baptized which can never be removed (not even by mortal sin) and marks the believer with the “seal.”[1]  It actually accomplishes that which it symbolizes—death to sin and the new birth of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is therefore the Gateway to the Christian life—to justifying grace, to membership in the Catholic Church, to communion with Christ, his sufferings and baptism, to the common priesthood of all believers, etc.  Baptism is thus also necessary—for salvation, justification, sanctification, etc., and since children are born with original sin, they too must be baptized.  Christian Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of Jordan into the promise land, in Noah’s ark as a symbol of salvation, and above all in the Exodus as a symbol of liberation from bondage.  Water has always been a symbol of life and fruitfulness, yet the water of the sea is a symbol of death, and thus represents the death of Christ and consequently the death of the believer who dies with Christ through Baptism. 

Yet, although “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism … he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”[2]  Therefore, exceptions include 1) baptism of desire (those who die with the intention to be baptized, such as a catechumen who dies before he/she is baptized), 2) baptism of blood (those who die in martyrdom for their faith before they are able to be baptized), 3) those who seek the truth and do the will of God in accordance with his or her understanding of it (for such persons “would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity”),[3] and 4) probably unbaptized infants, since God’s mercy is so great, and since Jesus had a tender heart toward children.   

The Roman Catholic celebration of Baptism is extensive and detailed.  Although only a bishop, priest, or (in the Latin Church) a deacon ordinarily administers baptism, in case of necessity, anyone who sincerely wished to truly perform the celebration may do so.[4]  All not yet baptized are subject to baptism, but since baptism can never be repeated, only those not yet baptized can be candidates.[5]  For the celebration of baptism, many rituals must be performed—exorcisms, the consecration of the baptismal waters, confession of faith, triple immersion (or triple pouring) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the post-baptismal anointing which symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the white garment which symbolizes the putting on of Christ, the candle which symbolizes the enlightened neophyte and the transformation of this one from darkness to light (even the light of the world), and finally, the solemn blessing which concludes the celebration.          

Texts which on the surface seem to support Baptismal regeneration—which is directly tied to salvation—are used in support of the Roman Catholic understanding of Baptism as efficacious for purification and regeneration.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).[6]  In addition to baptism being central to the Great Commission, Jesus explicitly says, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16).  The apostles carried out their preaching in the same way.  The Chief Apostle Peter preached this way: “Repent, and each of you be baptized 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).  Thus, it is no surprise that Paul would also strongly connect Baptism with dying to sin and being liberated from its bondage (Rom 6:4-7, cf. Col 2:12).  The Catechism suffers no shortage of proof texts for Baptismal Regeneration (see also Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 3:20; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Eph 5:26).  For infant baptism, the Catechism first recognizes that infants are born with a sin nature which leaves them in need of salvation.  Secondly, it harkens to Jesus words, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14).  Thirdly, it appeals to the “explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on.”[7]  Lastly, the Catechism appeals to “household” baptism of the NT (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).  A frequent theme in defense of the inclusivistic widening of baptismal grace is an appeal to the desire of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:6).  This verse is reference more than once in the section on baptism.

            Compared to many other doctrines of Roman Catholicism which find not even a shadow of support from the NT, Rome’s support for her views on Baptism seems at first impressive.  Whereas much of the Catechism’s footnotes and quotes hearken more to Tradition, the majority of arguments in this section come straight from scripture.  Much of Protestant Evangelical Theology will differ immensely from the views summarized above.  There is no way to give a substantive critique of the mountain of biblical passages appealed to in the above mentioned summary, so I must only give a hint as to how certain Protestant Evangelicals would critique the Roman Catholic arguments employed in defense of their views.  Although on the surface the passages cited are very persuasive, in the end, the conclusions Rome draws from these verses violate her own canons about biblical interpretation—namely, to “be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture,'” and to “be attentive to the analogy of faith.”[8]  Passages in Scripture which teach that salvation comes at the moment of faith—not the moment of baptism—are overwhelming in number, and more didactic in nature.  Therefore, in spite of the plethora of proof texts, Rome falls short of her own standards of hermeneutics.  Rome’s arguments for Inclusivism, which are based on the general concepts of the mercy and compassion of God are in need of more exegetical input.  We should not assume God’s mercy extends beyond the explicit ways revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.  Finally, as the most frequently quoted verse in Rome’s whole defense for Baptismal Regeneration, John 3:5, the concept of being born of water and Spirit is drawn from OT imagery about the New Covenant.  Therefore, Jesus language of the necessity of being born of water and Spirit is tantamount to speaking of the necessity of being a part of the New Covenant (Ezek 36:25-26).  One should not, then, read water baptism into this apocalyptic symbolism.          

From an evangelical Baptist perspective, Jesus’ words about children are just that—words about children, not infants.  Jesus referred to children who were at least old enough to “come” to him (physically, not spiritually).  The passages about “household” baptisms are presumptuous in that they must assume that the households referred to include infants (which is not explicitly in the text), but also it seems clear from comparing parallel accounts of baptisms that when a household was baptized it was because the household also believed (Acts 16:34; 18:8).[9]  Beyond the fact that Protestants do not accept arguments from church history on equal grounds with Scripture, the evidence from church history can also be interpreted in a way which actually creates an argument against infant baptism.

Rome’s doctrine of baptism is not all bad.  Adult baptisms are likely to be handed with greater care than in Protestant churches by emphasizing the need for catechesis.[10]  Also, she emphasizes the importance of the responsibility of the church to help nourish those who join the church through baptism, as well as the responsibility of those who are baptized to respect church authority.[11]  She rightly sees a connection between faith and baptism.  She rightly sees baptism as central to the great commission, and as symbolizing our death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As is common with all sacraments and doctrines of Rome, she sees the mystery of the sacrament summed up in Christ: “In Christ’s death ‘is the whole mystery.'”[12]  However, while getting these less important details right, Rome has indeed presented quite a different way of salvation than that which so many evangelical protestants believe to be the biblical doctrine of salvation by her teaching of the efficacy of regeneration and forgiveness of sins through baptism. This leads many evangelicals to conclude that Rome’s doctrine of baptism, with her understanding of its efficacy, with her inclusive tendencies, with her practice of infant baptism, violently distorts the biblical gospel.  I would remind such Protestants that Jesus himself (his incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection) is the essential part of the kerygmatic gospel in the NT (1 Cor 15:3-4) not a specific view about baptism.  Plenty of Protestants also believe in the efficacy of water baptism for salvation.  In fact, Martin Luther himself believed this and taught it with a passion.  If we accuse Rome of distorting the very gospel of Jesus Christ on account of her beliefs about baptism, we will get more than we bargained for and end up condemning almost the whole pre-reformation church, including the early martyrs, the apostolic and patristic fathers, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther himself, and several Protestant denominations.  Perhaps Rome is wrong on her doctrine of baptism, but this does not mean Catholics deny the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s not make too little of the gospel and too much of our different views of baptism.        


[1] Although the idea of “seal” seems to communicate that one is sealed for eternal salvation, if one does not “keep” the seal he or she receives then that person will lose his or her status in the state of grace, make shipwreck of their faith and go to hell—even though they would still have a permanent “mark” on their soul.  In other words, neither the seal, nor the indelible mark are any guarantee of salvation, just guarantee of a “mark” and a losable “seal.”  Catechism, par 1274.

[2] Catechism, par 1257.

[3] Catechism, par 1260.

[4] After all, it is better that a layman perform the sacrament unlawfully than that the one desiring baptism lose out on salvation.

[5] The church is only willing to baptize anyone who has never been baptized.

[6] This text, John 3:5, is appealed to more than any other verse in the section on Baptism—5 times total.  See footnotes 24, 25, 40, 59, and 64.

[7] Catechism, par 1252.

[8] Catechism, par 112 & 114.

[9] It should be noted that Rome seems hesitant to use these verses as prove her case, since she holds out the “possibility” that they may not refer to infant baptisms.  Catechism, par 1252.   

[10] Catechism, par 1216, 1233, 1248.

[11] Catechism, par 1255, 1269, 1271.

[12] Catechism, par 1225. 

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6 Comments

  1. Rhirhok says:

    A few points:

    (1) I am not sure connecting John 3:5 to Ezekiel 36 overturns baptismal regeneration. In Ezekiel 36:25 it talks about being sprinkled with water and being cleansed from sin. But isn’t baptism in some way related to the washing away of sin (Acts 22:16)? Also, regeneration is tied to washing (Titus 3:5), and baptism is tied to regeneration (Romans 6).

    (2) Jesus’ discussion of children does include “infants” according to Luke 18:15.

    (3) The household baptism argument does not rely on the presumption of infants being in the house. It is tied to the idea that every covenantal administration prior to the new covenant has included households. In the creation covenant, the covenant was made with Adam and his household (seen from the fact that when he fell, all his posterity fell with him). The Noahic covenant is made with Noah and his house. The Abrahamic covenant is made with Abraham and his house. The Mosaic covenant includes households as well. Therefore, when the book of Acts speaks of household baptisms, it confirms the fact that the household principle is still in place.

    If the new covenant is radically different from the previous covenants in this respect, then why would Luke be so concerned to mention entire households being baptized, if in fact covenant membership is now an individualistic thing? Seems like it would create confusion.

  2. theophilogue says:

    Thanks for the input Rhirhok.

    (1) Water Baptism is definitely intended to symbolize regeneration, and thus they are connected. But weaving the imagery of water baptism with regeneration doesn’t necessarily imply a causal relationship. Symbolism symbolizes.

    (2) Good point. I never saw that. I stand, on Luke’s account, corrected. But I still think that concluding from Jesus’ permitting parents to bring their babies to him that infant baptism is therefore taught in these passages is an unnecessary leap in my estimation.

    (3) “when the book of Acts speaks of household baptisms, it confirms the fact that the household principle is still in place.” … This may be your best point. I will have to think about that. Paul seems to completely redefine the basis of covenant membership in his discussion in Rom 9-11 more towards an individualistic understanding. There is much discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. Nevertheless, the way you just put your point is more persuasive than the way the Catholic Catechism puts it.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to help me better understand the weight of this position.

    Bradley

  3. Rhirhok says:

    Bradley,

    (1) In reference Matt. 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, and Luke 18:15-17, the kingdom belongs to those children, including infants, and those like them. How does this lead to baptism? If these children are kingdom members, then why would they not receive the initiation sign of membership?

    Any answer you give has to take into account the fact that the kingdom belongs to them.

    (2) No one is denying that salvation has an individualistic component to it. This was true in the OT as well. And if it does not refute the household principle in the OT, then how can it refute the household principle in the NT?

  4. jeff miller says:

    Not only infant baptism but all sacramental theology came tumbling down for me while I was in an anglican seminary and began asking not “what can men appropriately teach from scripture?” but rather “what in scripture is explicitly taught?”
    -Jeff

  5. Hi! My name is Allan Boyd and I just want too say thank-you for have this on-line!

  6. Glad you found it helpful Allan. I can tell you’ve been studying this lately from your facebook wall. You will notice that I am very sympathetic to the Catholic view on infant baptism, even though I wish there was a more “slam dunk” (no pun intended) argument than the argument from the use of the word “household” in Acts. Both baptismal regeneration and infant baptism have early historical precedent, which makes the case stronger for the Catholic view (in my opinion), although some Sola Scriptura Protestants will discount it.

    Pax,

    Bradley

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