The Catholics Church and most Christian religions teach that water is essential to the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism. But when it comes to the manner in which the water should be used, there is controversy. Should it be done by immersion, pouring or sprinkling?
In the Roman Catholic Church, most believers are baptized by pouring (also known as infusion). At the same time, Catholics know that immersion (also known as dunking) and sprinkling are valid ways of baptizing. Some Protestant and Evangelical Churches reject all form of baptism other than immersion. They claim that most Catholics are not validly baptized. Do they have a good argument?
According to these Protestant and Evangelical Churches, the rite of baptism was always by immersion until the Council of Ravenna in A.D. 1311, when the Catholic Church proclaimed “Baptism is to be administered by tribe immersion or aspersion.” (“Aspersion” means “sprinkling.”)
Was the rite of baptism always by immersion prior to A.D. 1311? To find the answer to this question, we turn to the Didache, a Syrian liturgical manual that was written around A.D. 70 and widely circulated among the churches in the first few centuries of Christianity. These are perhaps the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament. Although these writings are not considered inspired, they still bear witness to the sacramental practice of the Christians in the apostolic age.
In Chapter 7 of the Didache, we read, "Concerning baptism, baptize in this manner: Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water [that is, in running water, as in a river]. If there is no living water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
These instructions, representing an established custom four decades after the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, were authored while some of the apostles were still living. It is around the same time that “The Apocalypse of John” was written.
Turning to another source of Christian writings, Hippolytus of Rome said, "If water is scarce, whether as a constant condition or on occasion, then use whatever water is available" (The Apostolic Tradition, 21 [A.D. 215]).
Pope Cornelius I wrote that as Novatian was about to die, "he received baptism in the bed where he lay, by pouring" (Letter to Fabius of Antioch [A.D. 251]; cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:4311).
Cyprian advised that no one should be "disturbed because the sick are poured upon or sprinkled when they receive the Lord’s grace" (Letter to a Certain Magnus 69:12 [A.D. 255]).
Tertullian described baptism by saying that it is done "with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, and finally, without cost, a man is baptized in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner" (On Baptism, 2 [A.D. 203]). Obviously, Tertullian did not consider baptism by immersion the only valid form, since he says one is only sprinkled and thus comes up from the water "not much (or not at all) the cleaner."
It must be remembered that in the early days of the Catholic Church, many of the believers met in the catacombs. There was no rivers of flowing water in those tunnels. Furthermore, in view of the fact that the Christians were persecuted during the first four hundreds years, it would have been unwise for any believers to gather in groups by the rivers and lakes in order to be baptized.
As it is out of the question to practice immersion today when someone is on their death bed, so it was in the early days of the Church. There are many reasons as to why immersion was frequently inconvenient.
When members of the Protestant and Evangelical Churches claim that Catholic baptism of sprinkling is not valid, only the rite of immersion, they speak out of ignorance. If they would have thoroughly investigated the matter, they would have learned otherwise.