When did sprinkling become an acceptable mode of baptism, and what role did the council of Ravenna play in this shift?
Though the topic has continually been controversial, baptism is clearly linked to the forgiveness of sins and the joining of Christ’s covenant in the New Testament (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-7;1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 2:11-14). While there are many religious sects who disagree with the above sentiment, even those who do differ on how baptism ought to be administered.
Religious sects debate whether baptism ought to be administered via sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. However, biblically, this writer believes a strong case can be made that baptism was by immersion in the early church; and in every detailed inspired example we have (Mt. 3:16; Acts 8:36-39; Rom. 6:3-8; Col. 2:12). Baptism is described as a burial, which certainly requires more than a sprinkle or pour. Beyond the textual case, the Greek word transliterated as baptize (βαπτίζω) in the New Testament literally means to “dip, submerge, immerse” (Jackson). This definition is of course in direct contrast to pouring or sprinkling.
Likewise, historical evidence proves that baptism originally, and for quite some time, was exclusively done via immersion. The renowned Lutheran historian John Mosheim reported that “baptism was administered in this [the first] century, without public assemblies, in places appointed and prepared for that purpose, and was performed by an immersion of the whole body in the baptismal font” (quoted in Jackson). Even the Catholic adult catechism once admitted that “Baptism used to be given by placing the person to be baptized completely in the water: it was done in this way in the Catholic Church for 1200 years” (as quoted in Rudd).
So, onto answering our question. It is evident that sprinkling / pouring as a mode of baptism predates the Council of Ravenna. The practice of clinical baptism and the practice of baptizing infants (neither of these practices have precedent or command in the NT) introduced the notion of pouring or sprinkling in the fourth and fifth centuries (Mitchell).
Though immersion stood as the “safer” way to receive baptism according to Thomas Aquinas (as quoted in Jackson), the practice of sprinkling and pouring continually grew in popularity into the middle ages. This resulted in the Catholic Church officially acknowledging sprinkling as a valid mode of baptism at the council of Ravenna in 1311 (Jackson). The Catholic Church today stands by their decision to accept sprinkling as a mode of baptism, claiming that early literary and archaeological evidence shows that early Christians practiced baptism sine immersion.
However, the evidence Catholics allude to for this claim is spurious at best. The uninspired Didache permits pouring baptism only in emergency cases (as does the uninspired Cyprian in his Epistles). Likewise, the best archaeological evidence for the case of sprinkling is from an obviously pagan-influenced mosaic dating to the mid-fifth century (Jackson).
When all is examined, the words of Wayne Jackson serve as a fitting conclusion: “There simply is no proof, biblical or otherwise, that the original Christians — under the leadership of inspired men — practiced sprinkling as a form of baptism. Sprinkling is a digression from the New Testament pattern and ought to be abandoned by those who are interested doing God’s will correctly.”
Jackson, Wayne. “Does Archaeology Prove that Baptism May Be Administered by Sprinkling?” ChristianCourier.com. Accessed 20 October 2016.
Mitchell, Carl. “The History of How Sprinkling Replaced Immersion as a Baptismal Form.” SearchForBiblicalTruth.com. Accessed 20 October 2016.
Rudd, Steve. “Baptism: Changed from immersion to sprinkling in 1311 AD.” BibleCa.com. Accessed 20 October 2016.