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What Does the Bible Say About the Proper Way to Baptize?

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Drawing on his book Meeting the Protestant Challenge, Karlo Broussard asks: How can the Church teach that non-immersion baptisms are valid when the Bible speaks only of baptisms that were done by immersion? And how can the Catholic Church baptize infants when Jesus makes it clear that one must believe first and then be baptized?


Answering some Protestant challenges on baptism with Karlo Broussard coming up.

Cy: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host and today we welcome apologist Karlo Broussard for a conversation drawn from his book, Meeting the Protestant Challenge: How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Belief. Hello Carlo.

Karlo: Hey Cy, how are you buddy?

Cy: I am very well. Could you just review for us again, these are very particular objections.

Karlo: Yep.

Cy: There’s a form to the objections, the 50 objections in the book. So what’s the form of the objections?

Karlo: How can the church teach X when the Bible says Y? That’s the distinct form that the 50 different challenges take, which is distinct from the older Protestant challenge of where’s that in the Bible, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Where’d the Pope? Where’s the saints? Where’s Mary, et cetera. This is a charge of incoherence, right? Because of saying, Hey, you Catholics, you believe the Bible’s the inspired word of God, but yet this belief you’re proposing to believe contradicts the word of God in this particular passage.

So what I do in each of those chapters is, we look at that passage that our Protestants think pose a challenge to the particular Catholic belief and we show how it doesn’t pose a challenge. And then also to provide some positive biblical evidence when necessary in order to establish the particular belief that we’re talking about.

Cy: All right. Well, it’s not uncommon, in fact, pretty common for Catholics to be challenged on the various sacraments.

Karlo: Amen.

Cy: And so today, some challenges regarding baptism.

Karlo: Okay.

Cy: All right?

Karlo: All right.

Cy: The first challenge, how can the church teach that non-immersion baptisms are valid when the Bible speaks only of baptisms that were done by immersion?

Karlo: Yes. And a couple of passages that our Protestant friends will appeal to in order to support their claim that baptisms are only done by immersion is for example, in Acts 8:36 through 39 where it talks about the eunuch right being taken by the deacon Philip, they go down into the water, right? In order to be baptized. Or, for example, in Mark 1:10 where it’s talking about Jesus’s baptism, it says he came up out of the water.

Cy: Yes.

Karlo: And so those are a couple of passages where they think it shows that baptism should be done by immersion alone, and thus any other form of baptism like pouring water or sprinkling would be invalid. And also too, they appeal to the Greek word used in scripture for baptism, baptiso, which literally means to immerse. So they’ll conclude from that as well that baptisms should only be done via immersion. So that’s the challenge.

Cy: That seems pretty convincing actually.

Karlo: Yeah, right.

Cy: Have we been doing this wrong?

Karlo: Have we been doing it wrong, right?

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: And the answer is no. So here’s how we can meet this challenge. First of all, the narratives concerning Jesus’s baptism and Mark 1 and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, don’t specify that immersion was the mode of baptism used. See, that’s the fundamental flawed assumption. The challenge assumes in these passages it’s immersion. But we can challenge that assumption.

Cy: Okay.

Karlo: So for example, just take Jesus, as Mark tells us, Jesus came up out of the water. Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was immersed and dunked and then came up in that sense, it could very well just mean they came to the shore.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: He’s John the Baptist in the Jordan, and then they came up out of the water in the sense that they came to the shore out of the water, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: And so that statement in and of itself doesn’t necessarily imply immersion. Now it’s even clearer in Acts chapter eight verse 38 specifically, it talks about how he commanded the chariot to stop. They both went down into the water, right? Notice that’s the preceding text-

Cy: Oh.

Karlo: Because in verse 39, that’s the passage that they’re appealing to saying that they came up out of the water, but notice it says they both went down into the water, not just the Ethiopian eunuch.

It says both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and then verse 38 then in verse 39 it says they both came up out of the water. So if we’re going to apply the logic of the challenge, we’re going to have to conclude that-

Cy: The minister and the receiver of the baptism have to dunk.

Karlo: That’s right. And that’s obviously not the case. So the more likely interpretation here is that they went down into the water. That is, they went into the water together, the eunuch was baptized and they came up out of the water together. That is, they came to the shore, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Out of the water. So these two passages do not show that immersion was the form being used, right? Or the mood or the manner in which baptism was being used. So that’s how we could appeal. That’s how we could address the challenge based on those passages.

Cy: You could say that’s a possible reading, but it’s not necessary to read it that way.

Karlo: It’s not necessary.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: And that’s all we have to do is a Catholic-

Cy: Yeah, right.

Karlo: Say, “Hey”-

Cy: Then we’re not obligated.

Karlo: We’re not, yeah. This passage poses no threat because you can very plausibly read it in another way.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: So it’s not necessary that this is evidence of baptism via immersion. It could be simply pouring or just going down, pouring on the head and then coming up. And that’s all we have to do to diffuse the challenge. And in fact, in Acts 8, I think Acts 8 actually not only shows it could be read in another way, but I think the context gives us good reason to think it’s not immersion, right?

Cy: Okay.

Karlo: Because they both went down.

Cy: Oh, that part. Yeah, yeah, right.

Karlo: They both came up out of the water. That seems to imply that it’s just talking about they went into the water, he was baptized, they came up out of the water without any sort of implication as the mode or the manner.

Cy: What about the meaning of the word baptism to Jewish people?

Karlo: Yes.

Cy: Would that have-

Karlo: Yes. That’s actually, that’s an argument that I think has a little bit more traction, right?

Cy: Okay.

Karlo: And because the word means to immerse, right? So you would think, hey, baptisos use baptisms, so they were immersing in water. But not necessarily. Consider, for example, in Mark chapter seven verses two through four, we read about how the Pharisees and the scribes were appalled at how Jesus’s disciples ate with their hands defiled. That is unwashed, right?

Cy: Yes.

Karlo: And then in verses three through four, it starts talking about how they do not eat unless they purify. The Greek word there is baptisonte. They don’t purify themselves. And there are many other traditions where they observe the washing baptismos moves of cups and pots and vessels of bronze, right?

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: Notice the Greek word baptiso is being used here in reference to the purifying waters, the washing, the ritual washings-

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: That the Jews would undergo, as well as the ritual washings of the cups and the pots and the vessels right? Now, here’s what’s what’s interesting Cy. Now somebody might say, “Well yeah, that means their hands were immersed in the water, in the cups and the pots and the vessels were immersed in the water.

Cy: Right.

Karlo: So that doesn’t seem to help us. But watch this, the Jewish encyclopedia and its section on baptismal washings, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Actually talks about how these sorts of baptismal washing, particularly of the hands may be performed either by pouring or immersion, right?

Cy: Oh, okay.

Karlo: And it actually uses a scriptural text in the Old Testament where it talks about Elisha pouring water over Elijah’s hands. And the Jewish encyclopedia uses that as an Old Testament example of these baptismal washings. So these baptismal ritual washings could be administered by pouring. So what that shows us is at least we have in Mark, in light of this Jewish background, the word baptiso, yes, literally means to immerse, but can be associated with the pouring of water.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: So it’s not necessary for us to conclude immersion because baptiso is used.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: Why? Because the word baptiso can be associated with pouring of water as well in these forms of ritual washings.

Cy: You mentioned the Jewish encyclopedia, but was there any use of the word baptiso in the Hebrew scriptures or in the Old Testament? What I mean is, were there models of baptism before Christ that we could draw on?

Karlo: Yeah, that’s a good question whether baptiso is used in the Greek septuagint, and I’d have to do a little bit more research on that in order to see whether or not it’s used in, if there’s any evidence, whether it can be used with regard to pouring. But we do have an Old Testament scriptural text, a prophecy that according, once again, to the Jewish encyclopedia, the Jews understood to be pointing to a form of baptism that would be applied in the Messianic Age. So for example, in Ezekiel chapter 36 verses 24 through 25, it’s a prophecy about the time of the Messiah and God says through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, from all your idols. I will cleanse you. I will give you the new heart.” Right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Notice the sprinkling of water for the sake of cleansing. Well, according to the Jewish encyclopedia, Ezekiel is talking about baptism in the Messianic Age, right?

Cy: Right. Okay, so we have a prophecy.

Karlo: That’s right. We have a prophecy that talks about the sprinkling of water for the cleansing of God’s people, which according to the Jewish encyclopedia is associated with baptism in the Messianic Age.

Cy: I have to say, as a Christian, it just looks so obviously like a prophecy of baptism.

Karlo: And then what’s even more interesting is notice you have water there and within the context is giving a heart of flesh, giving you a new heart. And then also, further in the context, it talks about God giving his spirit so you have water and spirit within this context. Even the Jewish encyclopedia recognizes this, a prophecy of a Messianic baptism and what does Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 three through five, “You must be born again of water and spirit.”

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: Hearkening back or alluding to this prophecy about water and spirit and a new heart regeneration, new creation, et cetera.

Cy: It would be kind of nice to have some historical evidence of how the apostles did it, however. To have some kind of extra biblical evidence.

Karlo: Well, we actually have extra biblical evidence indeed from the Didache, which dates to the first century, right? Anywhere from AD 50 to 70. And in the Didache, it gives explicit instruction on how to baptize. Number one, it says it uses the Trinitarian formula, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, right? It says, if you don’t have living water, baptize in other water, and if you can’t baptize in cold, then in warm. But if you have not either, pour water three times on the head in the name of the Father and of the Fon or the Holy Spirit. So even those first century Christians, right?

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: And this Christian teaching manual, the Didache, at the time the Apostles were alive, were pouring water as a valid form of baptism.

Cy: Okay. So this is probably not the most common challenge to the Catholic idea of baptism. However, more common is infant baptism. So-

Karlo: That’s a biggie.

Cy: So how can the Catholic Church baptize infants when Jesus makes clear you have to first believe and then be baptized?

Karlo: That’s right. And this is coming from Mark 16:16 where Jesus says he who believes and is baptized will be saved, right? So one way we can meet this challenge is notice Jesus doesn’t say belief precedes baptism. He simply makes belief a condition for salvation along with baptism. So from the Catholic perspective, our understanding of infant baptism fits Jesus’s teaching here, right? Because as Saint Thomas Aquinas beautifully articulates in the Summa Theologiae, as the church has constantly taught, it’s the faith of the parents and the church that suffices for the faith condition to lead the child to the waters of baptism.

Okay? And we see this principle found within scripture. The idea that blessings can be administered based upon the faith of others. So for example, in Matthew 19:14, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” Well, it’s highly unlikely those children, and we know from Mark’s version, he took them into his arms, right? Implying that they were young children, little children, and I doubt they were professing faith in Jesus as Messiah-

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Before they could be brought to him. So because of the faith of the parents bringing their children to Jesus, Jesus embraces them. You have the example of Jairus’s daughter, right? And Mark chapter five when Jesus raises his daughter from the dead and she didn’t express any sort of belief in Jesus, but yet Jesus raises her from the dead, right? So it’s based upon the faith of the parent in order for Jesus to administer this blessing, in this case, a physical blessing, physical life, right?

We also have Mark 9, where Jesus exercises a demon possessed boy in response to his father’s request. And the text makes it clear in the context there verses 14 through 27, that it’s because the father believed that Jesus performed this miracle of exercising the demon, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Out of the boy. And then of course you have the household baptisms. I’m not saying that proves infant baptism, but the point being is that you have a blessing being administered upon the whole household based upon the faith of the parent or the head of the household. So this Catholic motif or principle that the blessings of baptism could be administered to the child on behalf of the faith of the parents and the church as a whole, that’s biblical. That coheres perfectly with the Bible and what we see in the Bible-

Cy: About how Jesus himself treated children.

Karlo: And how Jesus himself treated children.

Cy: Right.

Karlo: Amen. So the idea that the faith condition is met in infant baptism is the faith of the parent and the church that meets that condition. So you have faith and of course baptism. Now this is not to say that later on, the child does not have to profess faith in Jesus. No, we’re not saying that. We are affirming that once the child comes to the age of reason, he or she is going to have to profess faith in Jesus Christ and hold fast to that faith, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: In order to finally persevere into the end and be saved.

Cy: So the child and the Catholic view then does have to do both things. I mean, maybe not as a child, but does, in the course of their life, have to do both things, has to express their belief in Jesus and be baptized.

Karlo: Well, they would have already been baptized.

Cy: Right.

Karlo: But when they come to the age of the reason, they’re going to have to assent and commit to, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: The gift that their parents and the church gave them without their consent, without their cooperation at the beginning of their lives.

Cy: So there’s a way in which baptism isn’t just the, I’ll probably say this wrong, but you can clarify. It isn’t just the individual salvation of the person, but it’s also the incorporating of the person into a community.

Karlo: Amen.

Cy: And so the Catholic view is saying the child is welcome fully into the community.

Karlo: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. Because the church is the mystical body of Christ, St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that baptism incorporates us into the mystical body of Christ. We become members of Christ’s mystical body via baptism.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: All right? So what does that imply? Prior to baptism, you’re not a member of the mystical body of Christ.

Cy: Right.

Karlo: So prior to baptism, that child, a day old, however old, is not a member of the mystical body of Christ.

Cy: Right.

Karlo: And so through baptism, that child becomes a member of the mystical body of Christ, becomes a member of that mystical community we call the church, right?

Cy: Then we’re following the command. Let the children come unto me then.

Karlo: Let the children come unto to me. And this actually leads us to one of the ways in which we can meet the challenge further. And I articulate this in the book, and that is to look at baptism as the new circumcision, right? Paul clearly explains and teaches to us in Colossians 2 verses 11 through 12 that baptism is the circumcision of Christ. It’s not the circumcision of [han 00:17:31] as in the O, but it is the circumcision of Christ. So apparently Paul sees baptism in light of circumcision, right?

Cy: Right.

Karlo: In the Old Testament. Now think about that in the Old Testament, children did not have to profess faith in Yahweh in order to become members of God’s covenantal family.

Cy: Right.

Karlo: They were incorporated into God’s covenantal family through the faith of the parents, right? And the family and the sign, the visible sign of that membership for the males was circumcision, all right? Well, if we’re going to say infants can’t become members of God’s covenantal family in the new Testament, then we’re saying it was better for the children in the old covenant than it is for the new covenant, right?

Cy: Right, right.

Karlo: That’s absurd. We can’t say the old is better than the new, so like in the O, so too in the new, children are able to become members of God’s covenantal family. We don’t acquire that status and that membership by natural birth. Natural birth does not incorporate us into the mystical body of Christ.

St. Paul says baptism does. And this is why Jesus teaches in John 3 three through five, getting back to that text I mentioned earlier, we must be born from above, born anew by water in spirit. Why? Because there’s a life that we didn’t get in our first birth, we only got a natural life. Membership of a natural family. We need membership of the supernatural family of God. So we’ve got to be reborn. We’ve got to be born a new, we got to receive a new life. How do we do that? Through water and spirit. According to Saint Paul, that’s baptism.

Cy: So I know this is slightly off topic, but this would then apply also to the disabled person who can never make an act of faith. That person, by the same logic, they’re a member of the family and they can be welcomed to the family by baptism, even though they won’t be able to make the act of faith-

Karlo: Full, conscious act of faith. Right.

Cy: That someone else kind of makes that act for them.

Karlo: Correct. If they don’t have use of their, the actual use, I mean, obviously the powers of intellect and will are there, but if they were so physically disabled to where they can’t use those powers and actualize those powers, well then the faith of the church would suffice as a condition of faith along with baptism and the effects of baptism be administered. Amen.

Cy: So I feel like we have met the challenges. The fact that you can baptize in a variety of ways.

Karlo: And that those Bible passages-

Cy: Does not contradict-

Karlo: -does not contradict that.

Cy: And that baptizing infants doesn’t contradict. And also you gave good support for both. So this is how you kind of do this in the book. You establish that there is not a contradiction, first of all.

Karlo: The challenge loses its force.

Cy: Right. And then in many cases you also will give the support for it.

Karlo: That’s right.

Cy: Yeah.

Karlo: Yeah. So for example, in the case of the proper mode of baptism, we show that those passages don’t prove immersion baptism alone, right?

Cy: Yep.

Karlo: But then we can give some evidence like for example, from the early church, that other modes of baptism are proper, we look to the prophecy of Ezekiel and saw how that was connected with baptism and the Messianic Age. So that gives us a biblical precedence of an alternative mode of baptism beyond immersion, right? In that case, it was sprinkling, right? In Ezekiel 36. And then in a case with infant baptism, we show that the text of Mark 16:16, “Believe and be baptized to be saved.” Does not conflict with the church’s understanding of infant baptism. But yet we go and provide some positive evidence and show in light of Saint Paul’s teaching in Colossians 2 11 through 12, I think we have good biblical grounds for the Catholic ancient practice, right?

Cy: Yes.

Karlo: Of infant baptism.

Cy: Karlo Broussard has been our guest, his latest book Meeting the Protestant Challenge: How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Belief is just chock-full of similar arguments and explanations of how various kind of challenges to the Catholic faith about, “hey, the Bible says this, but you do that.” Can be overcome and often, quite the contrary can be demonstrated. So I highly recommend it to you Meeting the Protestant Challenge, How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Belief. It’s available now from Catholic Answers Press. Thank you, Karlo.

Karlo: Thank you, Cy.

Cy: And please spread the word about Catholic Answers Focus by giving us a light comment wherever you get your podcast. We’ll see you next time, god willing. A Catholic Answers Focus.

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