Archive for the ‘baptism’ Category

Baptism: Initiating Christian Unity

I wanted to write a blog post exploring Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of baptism, partially in honor of today’s feast celebrating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, and partially because Thomas treats baptism in the Tertia Pars (third part) of the Summa, which hardly anyone reads.  Moreover, I have been very interested in the possibility of Christian unity recently, maybe because I am a Roman Catholic marrying a member of the Church of Christ, and a good place to start is baptism, which is the sacrament of Christian initiation.

The Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism, Aquinas says, is outward washing which is a sacramental sign of inward justification (III, Q. 66, art. 1).  It was initiated at Christ’s own baptism, because it was at Christ’s baptism that the act of washing received the power to impart grace.  John’s baptism was different because it only pointed at the fulfillment of the meaning of washing, but did not actually confer grace.  John’s baptism simply pointed to Christ, but when Jesus entered the Jordan to be baptized, the  heavens were ripped open and the Holy Spirit descended.

The opening of the heavens has a threefold significance for Aquinas.  First, it shows that heavenly power would sanctify the practice of baptism.  Second, baptism is a practice of faith, and faith is about “heavenly things which surpass the senses and human reason.”  Third, Jesus’ baptism opened up the gates of heaven which had been previously closed through sin.  The opening of the heavens showed that the heavens were now accessible to the baptized.

So baptism is important, but the sacrament alone is  not enough for the believer to gain heaven.  Thomas says, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that “Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened”: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (III, Q. 39, art. 5).

Form, Matter, and Accidents

Like all sacraments, baptism has form and matter.  The form is the essence of baptism, the principle that makes it what it is.  The form points to the principle cause of the sacrament, which is God, and specifically the God Christians know to be triune.  So the form of baptism is the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” which points to the source and purpose and end of baptism–the Trinity.  The matter is how the form is instantiated, and so the matter of baptism is water.  Matter alone is not enough to make a sacrament; the matter becomes something special when enlivened on the form.

There are lots of what Aquinas calls “accidents” attached to baptism.  These are the things that are not essential to the sacrament, though nevertheless important for some reason.  “Accidents do not diversify the essence of the sacrament,” Aquinas says.  This means that there are lots of things that one could do in the act of baptism that might vary, while not changing the essential nature of the act which is still baptism.

One of these accidents is how the water is conferred to the baptized, namely whether the baptized is immersed or sprinkled.  Catholics typically sprinkle water over the head, but they might be surprised that Aquinas thinks sprinkling is acceptable, but immersion is preferred because it more closely represents Christ’s burial and the idea that the baptized dies with Christ.  Thomas identifies a few circumstances where sprinkling would be acceptable.  These include a shortage of water, a huge number of baptismal candidates (we’re talking thousands) which would make immersion cumbersome, and the feebleness  of the candidate whose life might be endangered by immersion.  This last reason is why Catholics sprinkle, because they baptize infants, too small to be heartily dunked.  We’ll come back to this.

Another accident Aquinas addresses is whether the baptized need to be immersed or sprinkled three times.  I had never really thought about this question until the priest doing pre-Cana with my fiancé and me informed us that my fiancé had only been immersed once, which was not consistent with the form of baptism which requires trine immersion or sprinkling.  This meant we had to get a “disparity of cult” dispensation because the Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of his baptism.  Turns out, Aquinas would disagree “since the Trinity can be represented in the three immersions, and the unity of the Godhead in one immersion” (III, Q. 66, art. 8).  Moreover, the matter of washing is an accident, which does not change the validity of the sacrament, only its licitness.  He does say that trine baptism is now universally recognized by the Church, and baptisms conducted otherwise would not be consistent with the ritual of the church, though they would nevertheless remain valid.   As a good Thomist, I don’t think the “disparity of cult” dispensation was appropriate.

What about rebaptism?  Aquinas says that there is only one baptism for the remission of sins.  Here, because so many Christians practice rebaptism, it is worth quoting Aquinas in full.

First, because Baptism is a spiritual regeneration; inasmuch as a man dies to the old life, and begins to lead the new life. Whence it is written (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, He cannot see [Vulgate: ‘enter into’] the kingdom of God.” Now one man can be begotten but once. Wherefore Baptism cannot be reiterated, just as neither can carnal generation. . . Secondly, because “we are baptized in Christ’s death,” by which we die unto sin and rise again unto “newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:3-4). Now “Christ died” but “once” (Romans 6:10). Wherefore neither should Baptism be reiterated. For this reason (Hebrews 6:6) is it said against some who wished to be baptized again: “Crucifying again to themselves the Son of God”; on which the gloss observes: “Christ’s one death hallowed the one Baptism.”  Thirdly, because Baptism imprints a character, which is indelible, and is conferred with a certain consecration. Wherefore, just as other consecrations are not reiterated in the Church, so neither is Baptism. . . Fourthly, because Baptism is conferred principally as a remedy against original sin. Wherefore, just as original sin is not renewed, so neither is Baptism reiterated, for as it is written (Romans 5:18), “as by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation, so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life.”


“Men are bound to that without which they cannot obtain salvation. Now it is manifest that no one can obtain salvation but through Christ; wherefore the Apostle says (Romans 5:18): “As by the offense of one unto all men unto condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men unto justification of life.” But for this end is Baptism conferred on a man, that being regenerated thereby, he may be incorporated in Christ, by becoming His member: wherefore it is written (Galatians 3:27): “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.” Consequently it is manifest that all are bound to be baptized: and that without Baptism there is no salvation for men.”

The Christian tradition and the Scriptural witness are clear, as this above quote makes clear, that baptism is an essential part of the Christian faith.  No interior change of heart suffices–you must be baptized.  Doesn’t mean that God can’t save  a person without baptism, but perfect conversion to God belongs to those who are regenerated in Christ, by baptism.  Thomas relies heavily on the example of Christ to back up this point.  If Jesus, who had no sin, saw it fit to be baptized and it was at this event that the heavens opened up to him, so too should we see it fit to be baptized.

What about children?  This seems to me a big sticking point in the practice of baptism between different Christian churches who disapprove of the practice of baptizing infants, as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some others do.  Aquinas justifies this practice first with the words of Paul: “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.  In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all.”

When Paul says that condemnation came to all, Aquinas takes him to mean everyone, regardless of age.  Infants come into this world marked with the sin of Adam.  Infants come into this world burdened with the punishment for sin, which is death.  Infants come into this world already needing salvation.  And when Paul says that acquittal and life come to all through the one righteous act of Jesus, Aquinas takes him mean that everyone can gain new life through baptism into Christ, regardless of age.  “Our Lord Himself said (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Consequently it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation through Adam so in a second birth they might obtain salvation through Christ” (III, Q. 68, art. 9).

More generally, Aquinas thinks that the saving act that happens in baptism is an act of God, not an act of the believer.  Baptism is necessary because human beings on their own cannot achieve salvation, but rely exclusively on God.  In light of this, it makes no sense to Aquinas to say that only believers should be baptized.  Aquinas doesn’t think that we even can believe, apart from grace.  Faith is a gift, not an achievement.  In order to make it more likely, therefore, that children grow up in faith, baptism is necessary.  He says “it was fitting that children should receive Baptism, in order that being reared from childhood in things pertaining to the Christian mode of life, they may the more easily persevere therein; according to Proverbs 22:5: “A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (ibid.).  For the same reason, Aquinas thinks that baptism should be offered to the mentally ill, those lacking in reason who cannot make a rational statement of faith.  “The little child is made a believer, not as yet by that faith which depends on the will of the believer, but by the sacrament of faith itself,” which causes the habit of faith” (III, Q. 69, art. 6).

The Effect of Baptism

Baptism takes away sin, both original and actual.  It is the initiation of a new life, a life of faith.  Baptism also frees the believer from the punishment of sin, which is death, because just as we die to Christ, so too do we rise with him.  Baptism also confers grace  and the virtues of faith, hope, and love onto the baptized.  This means that the baptized have a diminished concupiscence (proclivity to sin) so as to no longer be enslaved by sin.  In other words, Aquinas thinks that baptism makes it easier to be good, because baptism unites us into the body of Christ, and so we become part of Christ’s good works.  He writes, “so from their spiritual Head, i.e. Christ, do His members derive spiritual sense consisting in the knowledge Of truth, and spiritual movement which results from the instinct of grace. Hence it is written (John 1:14-16): “We have seen Him . . . full of grace and truth; and of His fullness we all have received.” And it follows from this that the baptized are enlightened by Christ as to the knowledge of truth, and made fruitful by Him with the fruitfulness of good works by the infusion of grace.”

Most importantly, as so many Christians heard in the reading from Mark 1 today, baptism rips open the heavens.  The gates of heaven, once closed to human beings because of sin, are now opened through Christ’s baptism and his passion, death, and resurrection.  This is why it is so clear that baptism is the work of God, not man, because man could never open those gates on his own.  We depend on Christ for our salvation, not our own efforts.  And we accept the great grace of baptism in obedience in order gain the grace necessary to join him in eternal life.  All Christians are called to be baptized, and I see no better place than this sacrament of Christian initiation to lay the foundation for Christian unity.