Does Baptism *Really* Change Us, or is it Purely Symbolic?
Often, protestants argue that baptism is purely symbolic, that the graces given from God at baptism are solely based on faith, and that the ceremonial baptism, water and all, is simply figurative. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the Catholic understanding of baptism, which views the ritual of baptism as an essential part of the Sacrament. The whole practice, again, water and all, serves as a holistic expression of God's grace and respects the real Tradition of the Church Christ founded. In this non-exhaustive response to the protestant objection, we examine some reasons for the Catholic understanding of the wholly literal, symbolic, physical, and metaphysical understanding of the Sacrament of Baptism, the first of the Sacraments of Initiation; submitted to Holy Apostles College and Seminary November 16, 2017 with corrections and additions made:
The saving power of baptism was understood even by the patristic fathers of the early Church. Take St. Gregory of Nazianus, a 4th century Church Father, who reminds us that in baptism, “sin is buried in the water,” or Hilary of Poitiers, of the same century, who writes, “[b]ut what is more possible for the power of God than to…regenerate through water.” While Gregory illustrates the metaphysical effects of baptism against sin as it drowns in saving water, Hilary inquires his audience about their reasons for doubt, suggesting that it is no more beyond God to use water for regeneration than for him to save us by our faith or to “raise to life what was dead through resurrection.” Protestants are by no means unaware of Scripture—at least to the extent that they will defend their position using it. Unfortunately, oftentimes the discussion is born of half-truths and cherry-picked Scripture verses that appear to defend their position although only ostensibly. Thus, it is not usually compelling to hear arguments from fragmented Scriptural references, arguments taken out of context in order to fit a narrative that simply isn't there. An irresponsible reading--and understanding--of Scripture will always lead to subsequent error, heresy, and confusion, which accounts for the errant conclusions to which so many protestants have come regarding baptism. For example, although it is indeed true that faith saves us (the basis of the argument for Sola Fide, another popular protestant ideal), it must be equally true that good works are necessary for salvation. What other purpose do we have for Scripture than to consider it as an integrated whole? To that end, when Peter says, “baptism…now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), he isn’t simply suggesting that baptism is a nice sentiment, he meant exactly what he said: that baptism now saves you. To emphasize this, he precedes those words with a reminder that Noah was also saved by water--real water. The defense of the need for, and the efficacy of, a material and a spiritual baptism isn’t limited to the New Testament. Although it has already been established that Noah and his family were saved through water, there are two other Old Testament foretokens of Christian baptism: the crossing of the Red Sea, symbolizing the “liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt”; and the crossing of the river Jordan, which prefigured baptism when “the People of God received the gift of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants.” Finally, Baptism is a sacrament which Christ himself freely received. If the example of Christ is something to be followed, then it certainly makes sense that, even in baptism, he did nothing in his ministry that could be considered unnecessary. It’s no coincidence, then, that Jesus “begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan.” Since even Christ found it necessary to begin his ministry with baptism, it can hardly be suggested it was useless or ineffective by any measure. It seems that in keeping with the Christian tradition, many Protestants who deny the physical and metaphysical efficacy of the Sacrament of Baptism still perform the act themselves, often immersing themselves in water during their baptismal ceremony. To conclude, it would be reasonable to question why any protestant group would perform such an empty, meaningless ritual with no substantial implication for the soul. Perhaps because baptism “[c]onstitutes the sacramental bond of unity” among all Christians who are baptized, and because “the person baptized is configured to Christ,” the desire for baptism cannot be quelled in the hearts of any Christian person.  CCC 1261  Hilary of Poitiers. Commentary on Matthew. Edited by David G. Hunter. Translated by D. H. Williams. Vol. 125. The Fathers of the Church. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012, 20.3.  Ibid.  See Ga. 2:16; Lk. 7:50; See also, Jn. 6:28-29.  See Mt. 25:34-46; Jas. 2:22, 24; See also, Eph. 2:10.  1 Peter 2:18-20; See also, CCC 1219.  CCC 1221  CCC 1222  See Mt. 3:13-17_See also,_ Lk. 3:21; Mk. 1:9-11; and CCC 1224.  CCC 1223  CCC 1271  CCC 1272