Baptism is a Christian ritual whereby a person demonstrates their faith and acceptance of the doctrines of the Christian religion. The immersing, pouring or sprinkling of water on the person is central to the baptismal ceremony. This act symbolizes purification of the soul as the baptized person acknowledges the teachings and resurrection of Christ. It is, in effect, an initiation into the Christian religion. This discussion examines the history of Baptism as referenced in the Bible, the various ways the ritual is practiced by differing sects of the Christian Church and provides an explanation of its significance in contemporary times. In addition, the paper analyses the differing nuances of its meaning within the Christian religion.
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The Old Testament does not specifically reference Baptism. The ritual is explicitly of New Testament origin. However, there are mentions of water being used in purification of soul ceremonies which became inserted in the Christian Baptism ceremony. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean” (Ezekiel 36:25). Baptism in the New Testament was introduced by John the Baptist who was an undetermined relative of Jesus. John practiced Baptism for people who wished to repent their sins and receive forgiveness by fully immersing them in the Jordan River. This practice of absolving sin by water would become the founding concept for the baptismal ritual and a significant, though not only, component of modern baptism. John baptized his relative Jesus in the Jordan River as he had many others even though, according to the Bible, Jesus was without sin. This act would become a principal aspect of Jesus’ ministry therefore a principal part of the Christian religion. This occurrence also marks the emergence of another aspect of the Christian religion, the Holy Trinity. The son, Christ, heard the Father’s (God’s) voice while the Holy Spirit “descend[ed] on him like a dove” (Mark 1:10).
There does not exist specific instructions on how Christians should practice baptism in The New Testament, but within its pages are insights regarding how Jesus and his disciples perceived the act. Christians may only utilize conjecture regarding the suitable method of procedure and connotation of the baptism ritual by examining the numerous Biblical verses which refer to this sacrament. The interpretation of the verses related to baptism, as do all other verses of the Bible, vary widely, person to person, and sect to sect and are subject to modification throughout the years and continue to be disputed. An early interpretation of the baptism ritual was penned by the Apostle Barnabas in the First century. “We indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear of God and trust in Jesus in our spirit” (Kleist, 1948). In the year 150, Justin Martyr depicts baptism as the method by which a person “may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone” (Schaff, 2001: 339).
In the Third Century, the book ‘The Shepherd of Hermas’ offers a description of baptism. “Before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead; but when he receives the seal he lays aside his deadness, and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they arise alive” (Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude IX, Ch. 16). The ‘Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,’ also written in the Third Century, speaks of the gravity of baptism as well as the possible penalties befalling a Christian who continues in their sinful, worldly ways after they have been accepted into the religion following the baptism ritual. “Beloved, be it known to you that those who are baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus are obliged to go on no longer in sin; for as those who are dead cannot work wickedness any longer, so those who are dead with Christ cannot practice wickedness. Now he who sins after his baptism, unless he repent and forsake his sins, shall be condemned to hell-fire” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 2:3).
In the Fourth Century and beyond, people were usually baptized just prior to death so that they could lead the bulk of their life in sin. In other words, baptism was used as a loophole to beat the system. The deathbed baptism of Roman Emperor Constantine, the person credited with legitimizing the Christian religion in the Western world and its subsequent expansion, is an example. “Thus was Constantine the first of all sovereigns who was regenerated and perfected in a church dedicated to the martyrs of Christ; thus gifted with the Divine seal of baptism” (Eusebuis, 4th Cent.: 811). Without the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, the first Roman emperor to do so, the religion may not have survived until today. Ironically, in addition to hypocritically, Constantine, the most important figure in Christianity other than Jesus and John, forced his religious values upon the citizens of the Roman Empire but did not live a ‘Christian life’ until just days before his mortal demise. The Fourth Century view regarding baptism by the Roman Catholic Church, propagated chiefly by St. Augustine, remained in effect until the 16th Century and the Protestant Reformation.
The 1200 year-old theological doctrines regarding baptism, as well as other basic tenets of Christian dogma, began to be challenged and reformed in the early 1500s by John Calvin’s Reform Church. These changes included the necessity of baptism so as to gain acceptance into the Kingdom of Heaven. During this time, the method by which baptism was performed, by the total immersion or sprinkling of water was challenged by the Baptist Church as was the baptizing of infants. The Reform Church also challenged the concept of infants who died without being baptized would end up in hell. Martin Luther is widely credited with initiating the Reformation in 1517 when he nailed his thesis on the Wittenberg Castle door. However, he continued to support the traditional views regarding baptism, for example, that the ritual was necessary in order to achieve salvation, even among infants. “Baptism is no human trifle, but instituted by God Himself, moreover, that it is most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved, lest any one regard it as a trifling matter, like putting on a new red coat” (Martin Luther, 1528: 100). Contrarily, Calvin, regarded as one of history’s foremost theologians and one of the significant founders of the Reformed Church, sided with the Roman Catholic position on baptism.
The Christian Church of today has branched out into numerous sects. Three types of water baptism are practiced: pouring, sprinkling and immersion. Catholics either pour water on the head or allow partial immersion of the person being baptized. The method by which water is administered is merely semantics and not at great issue among the various Christian sects. The important differences revolve around the symbolism of baptism. Varying Christian Churches offer broadly different concepts regarding the benefits of baptism. Some perceive the ritual as a symbolic method of openly declaring their devotion to Jesus and His church while others view it as essential to attain salvation. They also differ regarding whether or not baptism is obligatory for Church membership. Baptists and several other Christian churches believe baptism to be more of an ordinance or ceremony rather than or a sacrament. Various churches will only perform the baptism ritual for adults who are fully cognizant of the ceremony’s implications. Others, such as the Catholic Church, routinely perform baptisms on infants. Those who oppose infant baptisms are concerned that it is meaningless to them therefore a meaningless ceremony. They assert that baptism was intended as a public profession of a person’s beliefs which includes a commitment to Jesus and the Christian Church. An infant or young child cannot possibly make this decision independent of outside influence which negates the precepts of the ritual (“Baptism”, 2007).
Baptism is a rebirth of sorts, a professed intention to leave behind former sinful, secular behaviors and to embrace the doctrines of the Church. It is a public acknowledgment in the belief of the resurrection of Jesus and an agreement to freely submit to His teachings. Jesus demonstrated this submissive, obedient role of identification when He was baptized by John. Jesus showed his “willingness to take on the servant’s role, entailing his identification with the people” (Bradshaw, 1990). Baptism is probably best described as identifying with Jesus, an outward display of an inner dedication. The ritual represents a purification of the soul from sin and the acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus and Holy salvation. According to the Catholic Church, baptism removes the tarnish to the soul brought by sin and postulates that non-baptized infants who die go to a place called ‘Limbo’ which is neither Hell nor Heaven. This controversial opinion is an upgrade from the pre-Reformation days when non-baptized infants went to Hell. (“How can limbo”, 2006).
The practices, meaning and peripheral issues surrounding baptism have been debated since the First Century because the ritual was not spelled out in specific language in the Bible. The one unifying aspect of baptism in all faiths is that it is a ceremony that publicly establishes a connection of faith with the Christian Church and subservience to Jesus Christ. The ritual was of great significance to the most important people of the New Testament, the Apostle John and Jesus Christ. Therefore it is an important function of those of the Christian faith since that time. It is a cleansing of the old sins and an affirmation of the new spirit which is the very center of the Christian religion.
“Baptism.” Religion Newswriter’s Foundation. (2007). Web.
Bradshaw, Robert I. “The Significance of the Baptism of Jesus for the Person of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.” (1990). 2008. Web.
“Constitutions of the Holy Apostles.” Book 2, Section 3. 2008. Web.
Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: Eusebius of Caesarea: The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine.” (1997). 2008. Web.
“How can limbo just be abolished?” BBC News. (2006). Web.
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Kleist, J.A. “The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle and Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papius, the Epistle of Diogentus. Ancient Christian Writers.” Vol. 6. New York: Paulist Press. (1948).
Luther, Martin. “The Large Catechism.” Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau. Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House). (1523; reprnt 1921). 2008. Web.
Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James (Eds.). “The Ante-Nicene Fathers Translations Of The Writings of the Fathers down to a.d. 325.” 2008. Web.
Schaff, Philip. “The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.” Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. (2001). Web.
Biblical references: New King James Version. Thomas Nelson Publishers (1984).