Rites of passage are important for all members of a community. For the Christian community, baptism is one of the most important rites of passage, symbolizing an individual's acceptance of and belief in Jesus' value system. Popularly, Christians administer baptism in one of three ways: immersion, aspersion or affusion.
The English word "baptism" is a derivative of the Greek word "baptisma," which was a term used for a ritual washing. In the Old Testament, the term describes the ritual cleansing practices priests were supposed to perform for the congregation of Israel. In the Gospels, baptism was practiced as a symbol of initiation into the belief system of Israel. The term is used frequently In Acts by the Christian community to mark entrance into Jesus' community.
Baptism performed by submerging an individual in water is called baptism by immersion. Eastern Orthodox churches and some Protestant denominations practice this method of baptism. They conduct baptism in this way to imitate early church practice, which many theologians believe predominately practiced baptism by submerging individuals in moving bodies of water.
A baptism conducted by sprinkling holy water onto someone's head is called baptism by aspersion. The method of baptism is practiced by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. Proponents of the method argue that the Greek word "baptizo" can mean "to put an element or liquid on or above." Though theologians recognize that baptism by immersion is the typical way baptism was administered, historical practice recognizes aspersion as a common alternative for sick people, children and individuals in prison. People who practice this type of baptism do not deny the validity of baptism by immersion. Instead, they view their practice as also valid and more practical in modern circumstances.
Baptism performed by pouring water onto someone's head is called baptism by affusion. About the 10th century, affusion became the predominant method of baptism. Today, the Roman Catholic Church believes that baptism is valid only if the water that a person touches is moving. Thus, immersion in stagnant bodies of water and sprinkling water onto someone's head do not adequately demonstrate an individual's old life being washed away and are considered invalid practices by the Roman Catholic Church.
- Tufts University: Perseus Digital Library -- Greek Word Study Tool
- "Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms"; Donald K. McKim; 1996
- New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia -- Baptism
- "Encyclopaedia Britannica"; Baptistery
- Catholic Apologetics Information: The Question of Baptism by Sprinkling or Pouring