Immersion or Pouring? What is the Right Way to Baptize?

Baptism Font
Baptismal Font

Catholics may be surprised to learn that certain other Christian denominations would declare their Baptism invalid if the baptized wasn’t totally immersed in the water.

In fact, it’s a common criticism of Catholics made by Christian fundamentalists. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult for a Catholic to rebuff.

To be clear, the Catholic Church allows the baptized person to either be immersed in water or have water poured over them by the priest.

“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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1239).

So, as a Catholic, it’s perfectly fine to be immersed or receive Baptism by pouring of water. The purpose of this article is to help you defend yourself against the claim made by some fundamentalists that you are not properly baptized (and therefore not saved) unless you are immersed in water.

The Case for Pouring

Fundamentalists often use circumstantial evidence as proof that you must be immersed during Baptism. For example, John the Baptist baptized people “in” the Jordan River, which implies immersion. But it doesn’t state that he definitely immersed people. That entire argument rests on inference and supposition.

Another popular argument for “immersion only” is that the Greek word “baptizo,” which is used in the New Testament, means immersion. However, “baptizo” doesn’t always mean “immersion.” Sometimes it merely means “washing up” in the Bible, depending on the context.

Christ's Baptism Painting
The Baptism of Christ. Painting by Antoine Coypel (circa 1690)

In fact, if immersion was so vital to the Sacrament of Baptism and ultimate salvation, it would stand to reason that Scripture would be one hundred percent precise on its necessity. Not to mention you would expect the early Church to practice only immersion. Neither is true.

The Bible never specifies that a person must be immersed to be baptized. There are many instances where immersion is implied, which is why the Catholic Church allows, and even prefers this method, but it is not the only way.

Documents from the period of the early Church, such as letters and a liturgical manual called the Didache, reveal that Baptism was permitted by pouring water on the candidate. Certain Christian mosaics from the first few centuries after Christ also seem to depict Baptism through pouring.

For further evidence of the legitimacy of pouring, one can look in the Old Testament where Ezekiel prophesies the Sacrament of Baptism.

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25).

If we are to view the New Testament as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies, then the word “sprinkling” much more closely resembles pouring than immersion.

Finally, Baptism with water goes hand-in-hand with Baptism with the Holy Spirit. “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is often described as being “poured out” rather than “immersing” someone. Since water and the Holy Spirit are inseparable during Baptism, it is appropriate to reason that either immersion or “pouring out” of the Sacrament is valid.

Ultimately, Catholics shouldn’t be discouraged by fundamentalist arguments about immersion. They certainly should never feel that their Baptism was invalid.

Again, we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, so the quantity of water used is not going to change the reality of the imposition of the Grace upon the baptized person and the washing of all actual and original sin.

Learn More: The Sacrament of Baptism

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