Matter and Form of the Sacrament of Baptism

(1) Matter

In all sacraments, we treat of the matter and the form. It is also usual to distinguish the remote matter and the proximate matter. In the case of baptism, the remote matter is natural and true water. We shall consider this aspect of the question first.

(a) Remote matter

It is of faith (de fide) that true and natural water is the remote matter of baptism. In addition to the authorities already cited, we may also mention the Fourth Council of the Lateran (c. i).

Some of the early Fathers, as Tertullian (De Bapt., i) and St. Augustine (Adv. Hær., xlvi and lix) enumerate heretics who rejected water entirely as a constituent of baptism. Such were the Gaians, Manichians, Seleucians, and Hermians. In the Middle Ages, the Waldensians are said to have held the same tenet (Ewald, Contra Walden., vi). Some of the sixteenth century reformers, while accepting water as the ordinary matter of this sacrament, declared that when water could not be had, any liquid could be used in its place. So Luther (Tischr., xvii) and Beza (Ep., ii, ad Till.). It was in consequence of this teaching that certain of the Tridentine canons were framed. Calvin held that the water used in baptism was simply symbolic of the Blood of Christ (Instit., IV, xv).

As a rule, however, those sects which believe in baptism at the present time, recognize water as the necessary matter of the sacrament.

Scripture is so positive in its statements as to the use of true and natural water for baptism that it is difficult to see why it should ever be called in question. Not only have we the explicit words of Christ (John 3:5) “Unless a man be born again of water”, etc., but also in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul there are passages that preclude any metaphorical interpretation. Thus (Acts 10:47) St. Peter says “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized?” In the eighth chapter of the Acts is narrated the episode of Philip and the eunuch of Ethiopia, and in verse 36 we read: “They came to a certain water; and the eunuch said: See, here is water: what doth hinder me from being baptized?”

Equally positive is the testimony of Christian tradition. Tertullian (op. cit.) begins his treatise: “The happy sacrament of our water”. Justin Martyr (Apol., I) describes the ceremony of baptism and declares: Then they are led by us to where there is water . . . and then they are laved in the water”. St. Augustine positively declares that there is no baptism without water (Tr. xv in Joan.).

The remote matter of baptism, then, is water, and this taken in its usual meaning. Theologians tell us consequently that what men would ordinarily declare water is valid baptismal material, whether it be water of the sea, or fountain, or well, or marsh; whether it be clear or turbid; fresh or salty; hot or cold; colored or uncolored. Water derived from melted ice, snow, or hail is also valid. If, however, ice, snow, or hail be not melted, they do not come under the designation water. Dew, sulfur or mineral water, and that which is derived from steam are also valid matter for this sacrament. As to a mixture of water and some other material, it is held as proper matter, provided the water certainly predominates and the mixture would still be called water. Invalid matter is every liquid that is not usually designated true water. Such are oil, saliva, wine, tears, milk, sweat, beer, soup, the juice of fruits, and any mixture containing water which men would no longer call water. When it is doubtful whether a liquid could really be called water, it is not permissible to use it for baptism except in case of absolute necessity when no certainly valid matter can be obtained.

On the other hand, it is never allowable to baptize with an invalid liquid. There is a response of Pope Gregory IX to the Archbishop of Trondhjem in Norway where beer (or mead) had been employed for baptism. The pontiff says: “Since according to the Gospel teaching, a man must be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, those are not to be considered validly baptized who have been baptized with beer” (cervisia). It is true that a statement declaring wine to be valid matter of baptism is attributed to Pope Stephen II, but the document is void of all authority (Labbe, Conc., VI).

Those who have held that “water” in the Gospel text is to be taken metaphorically, appeal to the words of the Precursor (Matthew 3), “He shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire”. As “fire” must certainly be only a figure of speech here, so must “water” in the other texts. To this objection, it may be replied that the Christian Church, or at least the Apostles themselves, must have understood what was prescribed to be taken literally and what figuratively. The New Testament and church history prove that they never looked on fire as a material for baptism, while they certainly did require water. Outside of the insignificant sects of Seleucians and Hermians, not even heretics took the word “fire” in this text in its literal meaning. We may remark, however, that some of the Fathers, as St. John Damascene (Orth. Fid., IV, ix), concede this statement of the Baptist to have a literal fulfillment in the Pentecostal fiery tongues. They do not refer it, however, literally to baptism. That water alone is the necessary matter of this sacrament depends of course on the will of Him Who instituted it, although theologians discover many reasons why it should have been chosen in preference to other liquids. The most obvious of these is that water cleanses and purifies more perfectly than the others, and hence thesymbolism is more natural.

(b) Proximate matter

The proximate matter of baptism is the ablution performed with water. The very word “baptize”, as we have seen, means a washing.

Three forms of ablution have prevailed among Christians, and the Church holds them all to be valid because they fulfill the requisite signification of the baptismal laving. These forms are immersion, infusion, and aspersion.

The most ancient form usually employed was unquestionably immersion. This is not only evident from the writings of the Fathers and the early rituals of both the Latin and Oriental Churches, but it can also be gathered from the Epistles of St. Paul, who speaks of baptism as a bath (Ephesians 5:26; Romans 6:4; Titus 3:5). In the Latin Church, immersion seems to have prevailed until the twelfth century. After that time it is found in some places even as late as the sixteenth century. Infusion and aspersion, however, were growing common in the thirteenth century and gradually prevailed in the Western Church. The Oriental Churches have retained immersion, though not always in the sense of plunging the candidate’s entire body below the water. Billuart (De Bapt., I, iii) says that commonly the catechumen is placed in the font, and then water is poured upon the head. He cites the authority of Goar for this statement.

Although, as we have said, immersion was the form of baptism that generally prevailed in the early ages, it must not thereby be inferred that the other forms of infusion and aspersion were not also employed and held to be valid. In the case of the sick or dying, immersion was impossible and the sacrament was then conferred by one of the other forms. This was so well recognized that infusion or aspersion received the name of the baptism of the sick (baptismus clinicorum). St. Cyprian (Epistle 75) declares this form to be valid. From the canons of various early councils we know that candidates for Holy orders who had been baptized by this method seem to have been regarded as irregular, but this was on account of the culpable negligence supposed to be manifested in delaying baptism until sick or dying. That such persons, however, were not to be rebaptized is an evidence that the Church held their baptism to be valid. It is also pointed out that the circumstances under which St. Paul (Acts 16) baptized his jailer and all his household seem to preclude the use of immersion. Moreover, the acts of the early martyrs frequently refer to baptizing in prisons where infusion or aspersion was certainly employed.

By the present authorized ritual of the Latin Church, baptism must be performed by a laving of the head of the candidate. Moralists, however, state that in case of necessity, the baptism would probably be valid if the water were applied to any other principal part of the body, as the breast or shoulder. In this case, however, conditional baptism would have to be administered if the person survived (St. Alphonsus, no. 107). In like manner they consider as probably valid the baptism of an infant in its mother’s womb, provided the water, by means of an instrument, would actually flow upon the child. Such baptism is, however, later to be repeated conditionally, if the child survives its birth (Lehmkuhl, n. 61).

It is to be noted that it is not sufficient for the water to merely touch the candidate; it must also flow, otherwise there would seem to be no real ablution. At best, such a baptism would be considered doubtful. If the water touches only the hair, the sacrament has probably been validly conferred, though in practice the safer course must be followed. If only the clothes of the person have received the aspersion, the baptism is undoubtedly void.

The water to be employed in solemn baptism should also be consecrated for the purpose, but of this we shall treat in another section of this article. It is necessary in baptizing to make use of a threefold ablution in conferring this sacrament, by reason of the prescription of the Roman ritual. This necessarily refers, however, to the liceity, not to the validity of the ceremony, as St. Thomas (III:66:8) and other theologians expressly state.

The threefold immersion is unquestionably very ancient in the Church and apparently of Apostolic origin. It is mentioned by Tertullian (De cor. milit., iii), St. Basil (De Sp. S., xxvii), St. Jerome (Dial. Contra Luc., viii), and many other early writers. Its object is, of course, to honor the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in whose name it is conferred. That this threefold ablution was not considered necessary to the validity of the sacrament, however, is plain. In the seventh century, the Fourth Council of Toledo (633) approved the use of a single ablution in baptism, as a protest against the false trinitarian theories of the Arians, who seem to have given to the threefold immersion a significance which made it imply three natures in the Holy Trinity. To insist on the unity and consubstantiality of the three Divine Persons, the Spanish Catholics adopted the single ablution and this method had the approval of Pope Gregory the Great (I, Ep. xliii). The Eunomian heretics used only one immersion and their baptism was held invalid by the First Council of Constantinople (can. vii); but this was not on account of the single ablution, but apparently because they baptized in the death of Christ. The authority of this canon is, moreover, doubtful at best.

(2) Form

The requisite and sole valid form of baptism is: “I baptize thee (or This person is baptized) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” This was the form given by Christ to His Disciples in the twenty-eighth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, as far, at least, as there is question of the invocation of the separate Persons of the Trinity and the expression of the nature of the action performed. For the Latin usage: “I baptize thee”, etc., we have the authority of the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. iv) and of the Council of Florence in the Decree of Union. In addition, we have the constant practice of the whole Western Church. The Latins also recognize as valid the form used by the Greeks: “This servant of Christ is baptized”, etc. The Florentine decree acknowledges the validity of this form and it is moreover recognized by the Bull of Leo X, “Accepimus nuper”, and of Clement VII, “Provisionis nostrae.” Substantially, the Latin and Greek forms are the same, and the Latin Church has never rebaptized Orientals on their return to unity.

At one time some Western theologians disputed the Greek form, because they doubted the validity of the imperative or deprecatory formula: “Let this person be baptized” (baptizetur). As a matter of fact, however, the Greeks use the indicative, or enuntiative, formula: “This person is baptized” (baptizetai, baptizetur). This is unquestionable from their Euchologies, and from the testimony of Arcudius (apud Cat., tit. ii, cap. i), of Goar (Rit. Græc. Illust.), of Martène (De Ant. Eccl. Rit., I) and of the theological compendium of the schismatical Russians (St. Petersburg, 1799). It is true that in the decree for the Armenians, Pope Eugene IV uses baptizetur, according to the ordinary version of this decree, but Labbe, in his edition of the Council of Florence seems to consider it a corrupt reading, for in the margin he prints baptizatur. It has been suggested by Goar that the resemblance between baptizetai and baptizetur is responsible for the mistake. The correct translation is, of course, baptizatur.

In administering this sacrament, it is absolutely necessary to use the word “baptize” or its equivalent (Alex. VIII, Prop. damn., xxvii), otherwise the ceremony is invalid. This had already been decreed by Alexander III (Cap. Si quis, I, x, De Bapt.), and it is confirmed by the Florentine decree. It has been the constant practice of both the Latin and Greek Churches to make use of words expressing the act performed. St. Thomas (III:66:5) says that since an ablution may be employed for many purposes, it is necessary that in baptism the meaning of the ablution be determined by the words of the form. However, the words: “In the name of the Father”, etc., would not be sufficient by themselves to determine the sacramental nature of the ablution. St. Paul (Colossians 3) exhorts us to do all things in the name of God, and consequently an ablution could be performed in the name of the Trinity to obtain restoration of health. Therefore, it is that in the form of this sacrament, the act of baptism must be expressed, and the matter and form be united to leave no doubt of the meaning of the ceremony.

In addition to the necessary word “baptize”, or its equivalent, it is also obligatory to mention the separate Persons of the Holy Trinity. This is the command of Christ to His Disciples, and as the sacrament has its efficacy from Him Who instituted it, we cannot omit anything that He has prescribed. Nothing is more certain than that this has been the general understanding and practice of the Church. Tertullian tells us (De Bapt., xiii): “The law of baptism (tingendi) has been imposed and the form prescribed: Go, teach the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” St. Justin Martyr (Apol., I) testifies to the practice in his time. St. Ambrose (De Myst., IV) declares: “Unless a person has been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, he cannot obtain the remission of his sins,” St. Cyprian (Ad Jubaian.), rejecting the validity of baptism given in the name of Christ only, affirms that the naming of all the Persons of the Trinity was commanded by the Lord (in plena et adunata Trinitate). The same is declared by many other primitive writers, as St. Jerome (IV, in Matt.), Origen (De Princ., i, ii), St. Athanasius (Or. iv, Contr. Ar.), St. Augustine (De Bapt., vi, 25). It is not, of course, absolutely necessary that the common names Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be used, provided the Persons be expressed by words that are equivalent or synonymous. But a distinct naming of the Divine Persons is required and theform: “I baptize thee in the name of the Holy Trinity”, would be of more than doubtful validity.

The singular form “In the name”, not “names”, is also to be employed, as it expresses the unity of the Divine nature. When, through ignorance, an accidental, not substantial, change has been made in the form (as In nomine patriâ for Patris), the baptism is to be held valid.

The mind of the Church as to the necessity of serving the trinitarian formula in this sacrament has been clearly shown by her treatment of baptism conferred by heretics. Any ceremony that did not observe this form has been declared invalid. The Montanists baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and Montanus and Priscilla (St. Basil, Ep. i, Ad Amphil.). As a consequence, the Council of Laodicea ordered their rebaptism. The Arians at the time of the Council of Nicæa do not seem to have tampered with the baptismal formula, for that Council does not order their rebaptism. When, then, St. Athanasius (Or. ii, Contr. Ar.) and St. Jerome (Contra Lucif.) declare the Arians to have baptized in the name of the Creator and creatures, they must either refer to their doctrine or to a later changing of the sacramental form. It is well known that the latter was the case with the Spanish Arians and that consequently converts from the sect were rebaptized. The Anomæans, a branch of the Arians, baptized with the formula: “In the name of the uncreated God and in the name of the created Son, and in the name of the Sanctifying Spirit, procreated by the created Son” (Epiphanius, Hær., lxxvii).

Other Arian sects, such as the Eunomians and Aetians, baptized “in the death of Christ”. Converts from Sabellianism were ordered by the First Council of Constantinople (can. vii) to be rebaptized because the doctrine of Sabellius that there was but one person in the Trinity had infected their baptismal form. The two sects sprung from Paul of Samosata, who denied Christ’s Divinity, likewise conferred invalid baptism. They were the Paulianists and Photinians. Pope Innocent I (Ad. Episc. Maced., vi) declares that these sectaries did not distinguish the Persons of the Trinity when baptizing. The Council of Nicæa (can. xix) ordered the rebaptism of Paulianists, and the Council of Arles (can. xvi and xvii) decreed the same for both Paulianists and Photinians.

There has been a theological controversy over the question as to whether baptism in the name of Christ only was ever held valid. Certain texts in the New Testament have given rise to this difficulty. Thus St. Paul (Acts 19) commands some disciples at Ephesus to be baptized in Christ’s name: “They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In Acts 10, we read that St. Peter ordered others to be baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Those who were converted by Philip. (Acts 8) “were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”, and above all we have the explicit command of the Prince of the Apostles: “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins (Acts 2).

Owing to these texts some theologians have held that the Apostles baptized in the name of Christ only. St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Albertus Magnus are invoked as authorities for this opinion, they declaring that the Apostles so acted by special dispensation. Other writers, as Peter Lombard and Hugh of St. Victor, hold also that such baptism would be valid, but say nothing of a dispensation for the Apostles. The most probable opinion, however, seems to be that the terms “in the name of Jesus”, “in the name of Christ”, either refer to baptism in the faith taught by Christ, or are employed to distinguish Christian baptism from that of John the Precursor. It seems altogether unlikely that immediately after Christ had solemnly promulgated the trinitarian formula of baptism, the Apostles themselves would have substituted another. In fact, the words of St. Paul (Acts 19) imply quite plainly that they did not. For, when some Christians at Ephesus declared that they had never heard of the Holy Ghost, the Apostle asks: “In whom then were you baptized?” This text certainly seems to declare that St. Paul took it for granted that the Ephesians must have heard the name of the Holy Ghost when the sacramental formula of baptism was pronounced over them.

The authority of Pope Stephen I has been alleged for the validity of baptism given in the name of Christ only. St. Cyprian says (Ep. ad Jubaian.) that this pontiff declared all baptism valid provided it was given in the name of Jesus Christ. It must be noted that the same explanation applies to Stephen’s words as to the Scriptural texts above given. Moreover, Firmilian, in his letter to St. Cyprian, implies that Pope Stephen required an explicit mention of the Trinity in baptism, for he quotes the pontiff as declaring that the sacramental grace is conferred because a person has been baptized “with the invocation of the names of the Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost”.

A passage that is very difficult of explanation is found in the works of St. Ambrose (Lib. I, De Sp. S., iii), where he declares that if a person names one of the Trinity, he names all of them: “If you say Christ, you have designated God the Father, by whom the Son was anointed, and Him Who was anointed Son, and the Holy Ghost in whom He was anointed.” This passage has been generally interpreted as referring to the faith of the catechumen, but not to the baptismal form. More difficult is the explanation of the response of Pope Nicholas I to the Bulgarians (cap. civ; Labbe, VIII), in which he states that a person is not to be rebaptized who has already been baptized “in the name of the Holy Trinity or in the name of Christ only, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles (for it is one and the same thing, as St. Ambrose has explained)”. As in the passage to which the pope alludes, St. Ambrose was speaking of the faith of the recipient of baptism, as we have already stated, it has been held probable that this is also the meaning that Pope Nicholas intended his words to convey (see another explanation in Pesch, Prælect. Dogm., VI, no. 389). What seems to confirm this is the same pontiff’s reply to the Bulgarians (Resp. 15) on another occasion when they consulted him on a practical case. They inquired whether certain persons are to be rebaptized on whom a man, pretending to be a Greek priest, had conferred baptism? Pope Nicholas replies that the baptism is to be held valid “if they were baptized, in the name of the supreme and undivided Trinity”. Here the pope does not give baptism in the name of Christ only as an alternative. Moralists raise the question of the validity of a baptism in whose administration something else had been added to the prescribed form as “and in the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. They reply that such baptism would be invalid, if the minister intended thereby to attribute the same efficacy to the added name as to the names of the Three Divine Persons. If, however, it was done through a mistaken piety only, it would not interfere with the validity (S. Alph., n. 111).

Written by William H.W. Fanning. Transcribed by Charles Sweeney, S.J..

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

BACK: Institution of the Sacrament of Baptism  >>  NEXT: Conditional Baptism

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