church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

The practice of baptism is a complicated one, with questions being asked about the legitimacy of infant baptism, about what is accomplished in baptism, and about how converts to Orthodoxy should be received—i.e. must all be received by baptism or is reception by chrismation alone allowed?

Here I would like to focus upon a different and much simpler question, one which has not often been asked.  The question is this:  what do we mean by “baptism”? That is, I am asking “What action is performed in baptism?”  and specifically, “Is baptism by pouring (sometimes called “affusion”) really baptism?”

The question is obscured somewhat by our routine translation of the Greek βάπτισμα/ baptisma as “baptism”.  Strictly speaking this is a transliteration rather than a translation.  A translation would be “submersion” or perhaps “a soaking”.  The word was used in this latter and metaphorical sense by Christ when He referred to His suffering as a baptism in Luke 12:50, arguably drawing upon images from the Psalter in which suffering is described in terms of drowning (see Psalms 42:7 and 69:1-2).  The verb baptizo is also used in the sense of overwhelming something, such as a sunken ship.  Common to all these uses of the word is the idea of something being totally submerged.

This is clearer still when we reflect that Christian baptisma was derived from John the Baptist’s baptisma and that this in turn was (I suggest) his adaptation of Jewish proselyte baptisma.  Proselyte baptism involved a complete submersion.  Jews regularly immersed themselves (usually in a pool called a “mikveh”) to wash away ritual impurity, and it was this ritual that formed the basis for the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism in proselyte baptism.  Jewish converts were fully immersed, and if this indeed formed the basis for John’s baptism, it is not surprising that Christian baptism usually involved immersion.

Translating the term instead of merely transliterating it makes the question read, “Is immersion by pouring really immersion?”  That is, is pouring water over the candidate an acceptable substitute in the regular practice of baptism?

Most Orthodox acknowledge that although submersion or immersion is the norm, substituting pouring for immersion is acceptable in certain situations.  One thinks of so-called “clinical baptism”—i.e. baptism of a candidate when he lies upon a sickbed and cannot be immersed.  Sometimes a suitable means of immersion is not available—a situation envisaged in the Didache (a church manual of sorts, dating from about 100 A.D.), part of which reads:  “Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water.  But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water [i.e. in standing water, such as in a pool], and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm.  But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit”.

We note that since baptizo means “to soak” or “submerge” the amount of water used in such exceptional pourings over the head would probably, I suggest, be considerable, and would not involve just a few ounces of water.  The candidate would not be immersed, but would still be soaked.

My question of course concerns regular occasions for baptism, not extraordinary situations such a clinical baptism or places where a river or pool is somehow not available.  In other words, it permissible to make what is allowed as a concession into the norm?  Or, in more scholastic terms, what is the matter of the sacrament and how is it to be used?

The word “matter” here is a technical term used in western scholastic sacramental theology.  For example, in the sacrament of ordination “the matter” is the laying on of hands.  My question is:  how much can one alter the matter and it still be regarded as sacramental?  If, for example, the ordaining bishop instead of laying his hands on the candidate simply suspends his hands over the candidate’s head or waves his hands over the head, is the matter unaffected by the change?  Is it still the laying on of hands if hands are not actually laid on?  Is the candidate thereby actually ordained?

To take a baptismal example, one I have seen in real life:  in a United Church an adult candidate once was “baptized” in the following way:  the Minister dipped her fingers into the font, and then laid her wet fingers on his head three times.  This was hardly baptisma or immersion.  It was not even pouring.  It was simply three damp fingers touching the otherwise dry head of the candidate.  Did this count as a true baptism?  Or did the extreme alteration of the matter of the sacrament deprive the act of sacramental significance and power?  Was he actually baptized or not?

We see this in other sacramental actions as well, with some groups substituting donuts and coffee (or other things) for the bread and wine in the Eucharist.  If the matter of the sacrament is dramatically altered in the Eucharist, is it still the Eucharist?

The question therefore is:  How much can one alter the actual action of the sacrament before it ceases to be that sacrament?  To repeat the earlier question:  In situations where immersion is possible, is baptisma by affusion still really baptisma?  Does the use of a few ounces of water (or the use of wet fingers) conform to what was allowed by the Didache?  Can the practice allowed by the author of the Didache in exceptional circumstances be allowed to stand as the norm?

Here we may recall that for the longest time in the West as in the East, the baptism even of infants was by immersion—hence those large fonts still found in some Anglican cathedrals.  We see this too in the first Anglican Prayerbook of King Edward VI published in 1549 where the baptism of infants was still by “dypping”.  Infant baptism by affusion as the norm came comparatively late in the West.

If this was a wrong turn, how wrong was it?  Is a baptism involving a minute amount of water valid but irregular?—assuming that such legal terms have any meaning in a sacramental discussion.  And how much does sacramental intention to baptize count?

Here I am not proffering answers to these questions, but merely suggesting the questions should be addressed—and that on the merits of the case and not predetermined by any foreseen ecumenical consequences.  Admittedly the question is hardly the most pressing one facing Orthodox here in the West.  But it may form part of the larger discussion of just how converts to Orthodoxy are to be received.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.