This is the first in a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We conceive of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. A general introduction to the series is available here—Ed.
A sacrament, derived from the Latin word sacrare, meaning “to consecrate,” is not so much something one receives but a symbolic ritual in which one participates. Each sacrament dramatizes and points to something that is happening in the lives of people who belong to the Christian community. They live in the spirit of Jesus because they have been graced and have become a cause of grace in others. They grow in their understanding of what Jesus meant when he said: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Grace is a quality of life, not a spiritual property that one acquires and builds up like an investment portfolio.
The word baptism is derived from Latin and Greek words meaning “to immerse” or “to plunge”, as in water. Historically people have participated in baptism by being dipped or immersed in water, having water poured on their heads, or even just splashing water on the head of the person being baptized.
John the Baptizer was an itinerant Hebrew preacher active in the area of the Jordan River. John used baptism as the central symbol of his pre-messianic movement. In its first chapter, the fourth Gospel describes John the Baptizer as “a man sent from God” who “was not the light,” but “came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe.” Most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus, and that certainly some of Jesus’s disciples had been participants in John the Baptizer’s religious movement. John acknowledged that Jesus, the one who would come after him, would not baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). Around 30 CE, John the Baptizer was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas, who officially ruled Galilee.
The ritual performed by John the Baptizer is mentioned in each of the four Gospels. Being baptized by John demonstrated a desire to refocus one’s life and make a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. The ritual is never described in detail because it was commonly performed in a river or nearby pool and entailed full or partial immersion.
For Jesus, his baptism marked a moment of personal discernment and preparation for his own public ministry, which was far greater than the ministry of John the Baptizer. Mark, Matthew, and Luke depict the baptism in parallel passages. In all three Synoptic Gospels the Holy Spirit is depicted as descending upon Jesus immediately after his baptism accompanied by a voice from heaven. Mark and Luke record the voice as addressing Jesus by saying, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In Matthew the voice states, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23; Matt. 3:13–17). After his baptism, Jesus withdrew to the Judean desert to fast and pray for 40 days.
That a ritual immersion in water was important in the earliest decades of the Jesus movement is clear from the many references to it in the New Testament. When Paul speaks of being “immersed in one spirit” and “into one body,” he is talking about the ritual’s marking an entrance into the community and sharing a communal spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). But for Paul, the body into which one has been immersed is not just a group or social body. It is also the Body of Christ, for it is united and animated by the spirit of the risen Lord (1 Cor. 12:12–27). Paul did not develop an elaborate theology of baptism. Borrowing from the Hebrew ideas with which he was familiar, he saw it as a symbolic immersion and an initiation not only into the community of believers but into the very way of life that Jesus himself had lived.
The understanding and practice of baptism developed greatly in the third century. By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, baptism had become a several-weeks-long exercise involving prayer, instruction, and learning the creed, all leading up to the actual baptismal washing on Easter. The ceremony was usually conducted by the overseer, the bishop, of the Christian community. The word “overseer,” episcopus in Latin, comes from the Greek words epí, meaning “over,” and skopós, meaning “watcher.” The Latin episcopus evolved into the English word bishop.
Those to be baptized at Easter disrobed, were anointed with oil, renounced the devil, confessed their faith in the Trinity, and were immersed in water. They were then anointed by the overseer (bishop) with special holy oil (chrism), received the laying on of hands by the bishop, and were dressed in white. After this they were led to join the congregation for the Easter Eucharist celebration.
Although some infants were baptized in the third and fourth centuries, infant baptism did not really become widespread until the fifth century, thanks to the introduction of the concept of “original sin” by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE). Augustine was a theologian and the bishop of Hippo Regius, the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, Algeria. As a young man, he had an active, hedonistic lifestyle. He had at least one child born out of wedlock; the mother was a concubine with whom he lived for more than 15 years. He never married. In 386 at the age of 31, however, he became strongly anti-sex, embraced Platonism, and converted to Christianity. He and his son, Adeodatus (372–388 CE), which means “gift from God,” were baptized in 387 by Bishop Aurelius Ambrose of Milan (c. 339–c. 397 CE).
For many traditionalist Christians, the doctrine of original sin is firm and definite. In fact, there are neither biblical nor historical indications that Jesus knew of or believed this doctrine. Neither did the early church. Augustine was the first theological author to use the Latin phrase peccatum originale, rendered in English as “original sin.”
Most contemporary biblical scholars consider Adam and Eve mythic figures in the Hebrew Bible’s creation myth. Augustine, however, considered Adam and Eve real historical people who were responsible for what he called the “original sin” by which all humans, through sexual intercourse, inherited a tainted nature. Augustine identified male semen as the means by which original sin was inherited and passed on. He stressed, however, that the historic Jesus of Nazareth was free of original sin because he was conceived without any semen.
Augustine believed that sexual desire itself was a consequence of original sin. Most importantly for its impact on baptism, Augustine held that unbaptized infants went straight to hell as a consequence of original sin. He therefore became a strong advocate of infant baptism. Thanks to Augustine, infant baptism would become the norm for baptisms in the church.
Quite honestly, Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality and his introduction of the doctrine of original sin were problematic theological aberrations. Some post-Reformation Christian traditions strongly rejected infant baptism. The Anabaptists, a movement begun in 1527 by Michael Sattler, believe that baptism is valid only when candidates freely confess their faith in Christ and request to be baptized. (The word Anabaptist comes from the Greek word ana, meaning “again” as in “baptized again.”) Anabaptist groups still present today are mainly the Amish, the Brethren, and the Mennonites.
Other contemporary Christian traditions, of course, stress the importance of adult believer’s baptism. “Baptists” form a major branch of Evangelical Christianity distinguished by baptizing adult professing Christian believers and doing so by immersion. The earliest “Baptist” church was started in 1609 in Amsterdam with the English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In 1638, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies.
In many ways I can resonate with the stress on adult baptism but doubt very much that infant baptism will disappear. Regardless, baptism is an initiation into the community of faith. The community of believers, therefore, has a major responsibility to support and promote the healthy Christian development of all of its members. Just as parents, family, and friends promote the physical, mental, and intellectual development of babies and children, so too parents, family, and Christian communities bear a heavy responsibility to promote and support the Christian faith and values development of their babies and children.
As a former catechetical teacher, parish religious education director, and professor of historical theology for many years, I have always considered confirmation a sacrament in search of its identity. In many Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed traditions, confirmation is a rite that often includes a profession of faith by an already baptized person. In the Catholic tradition, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.” Confirmation is not practiced in Baptist, Anabaptist, and other Christian traditions that stress the importance of believer’s adult baptism.
Confirmation as a separate sacramental ritual in Western Christianity did not exist before the third century. And it did not become a regular practice in Europe until after the fifth century. What was originally a bishop’s blessing administered after baptism later became separated from the water ritual.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, there were, rather quickly, more baptisms than a single bishop in each city could handle. Presbyters (priests) were then allowed to do the baptizing, but only the bishop was allowed to “confirm” the baptisms. Many people really did not see the necessity of this confirmation, and for the most part it fell into disuse.
In the ninth century, however, reform-minded French bishops made an attempt to revive confirmation, suggesting that it bestowed the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, by the 12th century, confirmation was mostly received by those who wanted to enter clerical orders.
In 1563 the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent stressed the importance of the sacrament of confirmation because the bishops believed it was established by the historical Jesus and had the following effects on the confirmed person: (1) an increase of sanctifying grace which makes the recipient a “perfect Christian”; (2) a special sacramental grace consisting in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and (3) an indelible character by reason of which the sacrament cannot be received again by the same person. Trent and later regulations made confirmation a requirement before entering into marriage or holy orders.
Over the centuries, confirmation has gone through a number of changes in understanding and ceremonial form. Some bishops say it should be received very close to baptism; others say close to one’s first communion; and still others advocate for it as an adolescent “faith commitment” ritual, like a Christian bar or bat mitzvah—a coming-of-age ceremony for boys and girls when they turn 12 or 13. As my sacramental theologian friend Joseph Martos often said, “Theologians today are hard put to say which is the meaning of the sacrament.”
Meaningful sacraments are not those that just celebrate beliefs, but those that truly celebrate lived realities. If confirmation is truly a rite of passage, it needs to facilitate or at least to celebrate a genuine change in a person’s life. A dynamic and meaningful confirmation should connect people, whatever their age, with an experienced spiritual reality: an experience of the sacred in the depth of our human lives and in the natural world. Such an experience gives people what we so desperately need today: faith, hope, courage, optimism, truthfulness, patience, reliability, and trust. Perhaps we all need to spend more time studying and reflecting on Christian spirituality. ♦
John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at foranothervoice.com.