What is Baptism?:
In Christianity, baptism is a religious sacrament which is marked by the symbolic use of water and results in admission to the community of believers. The practice of baptism is based upon the story of John the Baptists practice of baptizing people, including Jesus and his immediate followers. Later Christian beliefs seem to have included the idea that baptism effectively created a unity between the individual believer and Christ.
Origins of the Word Baptism:
The word baptism comes from the Greek baptein, which literally means to plunge, to immerse, to dip, or to wash. From the time of Homer on it also acquired the meaning of an immersion ritual designed to purify or sanctify.
Procedure for Baptism:
Normally, baptisms must be performed by authorized clerics. During a baptism, water is poured on on the subjects head, or the subject is fully immersed in water, and the following words are recited: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Quite a few debates have occurred in Christianity over whether baptism should be done with full immersion or if merely sprinkling water is adequate.
Spiritual vs. Physical Baptism:
Christianity developed a dual understanding of the nature of baptism: spiritual and physical. A physical baptism occurs when water is used to ritually purify a person, symbolizing the cleansing nature of their conversion to Christianity. In the book of Acts, however, this is supposed to be followed by receiving the Holy Spirit, which represents a spiritual baptism performed by God. Some passages in Acts makes it clear that these two stages are distinct and separate.
Adult vs. Infant Baptism:
In the New Testament, baptism is reserved for adults who make a voluntary decision to join the Christian Church. From the 6th century on, infant baptism was permitted. This may have been due partly to the general Christiainization of society (leading to few, if any, adults who could convert) and concern with Original Sin. One of the issues driving some Protestants was the question of whether infants should be baptized and some founded churches on the belief that baptism is for adults only.
Under Roman Catholic law, a lay baptism is any baptism performed by a member of the laity rather than a member of the clergy provided that:
- the baptized person is near death
- no clergy can be found in time
- it is done with the same intention as the church has in baptisms
This can only be done in cases of extreme emergency, but it may be done to children, adults, Christians, Jews, or anyone. In fact, there have been serious controversies surrounding lay baptisms of children.
Controversies Around Baptism:
The most serious baptismal controversies occurred in the Middle Ages when done to Jews. Under the laws at the time, a Jewish infant baptized as a Christian, even in a lay baptism, could be removed from its home and raised by Christians. Some malicious Christians did this deliberately and there cases of children forcibly removed from Jewish homes even as late as the 19th century following some form of baptism.
Baptisms for the Dead:
There also exists the practice of people accepting baptisms on behalf of the dead. It appears that Paul reports this practice occurring in at least one place in 1 Corinthians 15:29, and it was followed by both Marcionites and Monatists in the second century. Today, only the Mormons engage in it, sometimes with great objection by followers of other religions who regard it as a desecration of the memories of their loved ones and a trivialization of their faith. Mormons dont seem to care, however.
Baptism Outside Christianity:
Baptism also occurs outside of Christianity, most notably in the various mystery religions which were common in the Middle East before Christianity. It was used for the purpose of washing away sins so that an initiate could enter the community of believers in a state of purity. Baptism also symbolized the death of a persons old life and their rebirth into a new one. In Judaism, cleansing with water was an important part of purification rituals.