It seems to be a basic rule of the universe that whenever something is simple the devil tries to complexificate it and whenever something is complex the devil is always insisting that it should be simple.
So it is only in keeping with this pattern that something as simple as baptism should have generated so much unbelievable complexity over so simple and powerful a rite.
It would appear at first glance that there is nothing to performing baptisms. All you need is sufficient water (just a few drops will do) to run on the skin and somebody (anyone will do) to say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could anybody mess that up?
You’d be surprised.
It turns out that questions abound almost from the beginning of the Church about who can baptize whom and how it should be done.
For instance, in both Acts 19 and (implicitly) in John’s Gospel, we find the Church confronting the problem of followers of John the Baptist who considered him, not Jesus, to be the main event and saw no need for any baptism beyond the one John offered. The problem is: John’s baptism was not sacramental. It was a baptism of repentance, not baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Part of the burden of both Luke and John is to make this distinction clear.
However, this leads to another problem for some Christians because Luke uses a sort of shorthand in referring to sacramental Christian baptism, referring to it in Acts as baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus” to distinguish from John’s rite. Because of this, some Christians (often holding a theory that rejects the revelation of the blessed Trinity) insist on baptizing, not as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28, but according to Luke’s shorthand.
So, for instance, Oneness Pentecostals baptize “in the name of Jesus.” In so doing, they depart from the universal Trinitarian practice of the Church since its inception, as well as from the clear command of Christ, something poor Luke never intended.
In addition, we find a cryptic reference (not an endorsement) in Paul’s letters to another rather mysterious practice: that of being baptized for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29).
There is enormous dispute about what Paul is even referring to in this passage.
Is he suggesting that if there is no resurrection then Christians are being baptized in the name of a dead Jesus? Does he mean that some Christians are having themselves baptized as proxies for the dead? Who knows? But that, of course, has not stopped some (notably Mormons) from building an entire theology of proxy baptism on this one dubious text.
Something similar was apparently attempted in the early centuries by some isolated groups because the Church forbade the practice in the fourth century.
Why? Because the sacraments can only be given to the living, not the dead.
Ah! But which living?
This question has also vexed the Church. Some, for instance, have insisted that it cannot be given to children or mentally disabled people incapable of reason since they cannot make an informed act of faith. What lies behind this idea is, at the end of the day, the notion that baptism is something we are doing for God, not something God is doing to us.
If you believe that baptism is simply a way of publicly flying your flag for God and Jesus, then yes, there’s no real point in baptizing infants or the mentally disabled. But that’s not what baptism is, according to Scripture.
Rather, it is the means by which we die with Christ and are born to new life in the blessed Trinity by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is God doing something to us, not us doing something for God, that constitutes the essence of the sacrament. And so, the attempt to deny the sacrament to certain people on the basis of their cleverness has, quite rightly, been rejected by the Church as tantamount to a claim of salvation by intellectual works.
Instead, the Church insists that the proper recipient of baptism is any unbaptized person (though, in the case of adults, the question of their free consent enters in).
For related reasons, though the normal minister of the sacrament is a priest or deacon in the context of the Church’s liturgy, anybody (even an atheist) can validly baptize since, in the end, it is not they, but Jesus working through them, who administers the sacrament when it is done as the Church intends.
So does that mean that the unbaptized are without hope? Let’s tackle that one next time.
Mark Shea is the content editor