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Against Baptism By Pouring

An Epistle of Archbishop Nikiphor of Slovania and Kherson, 1754

Editor's Note: This epistle, although written two hundred years ago, has not lost significance for our own parishes today. Besides its clarity and well-grounded explanation of baptism by immersion, it also briefly cites a whole list of canonical and historical proofs of the importance and necessity of this type of baptism.

Because of my rank I am obligated to watch everything and see that everything be preserved fully and is not altered. Firstly, I draw your attention to Holy Baptism, which is the door to all the mysteries, the beginning of our salvation, the absolution of sins and reconciliation with God. It is the gift of adoption since in baptism we become the sons of God and the heirs of Christ, putting on Christ our Lord, by the word of Holy Apostle Paul: "As many of you that have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ." Without this, salvation is not possible. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God."(John 3:5)

Discussing the holy mystery, I must point out that:

1) The very word or name of this mystery, in the language initially used by the enlightened apostles to communicate the good news of the Gospel to us, actually means immersion, not pouring or sprinkling.

2) The first institutor of baptism—the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, entered the River Jordan, and, having immersed Himself, was baptized.

3) Apostle Philip went down to the water with the eunuch, in order to baptize him. "...and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him" (Acts 8,38).

4) The Orthodox Church, according to apostolic tradition, has always baptized through immersion. This is seen in the 7th canon of the 2nd Ecumenical Council, which speaks of immersion; in the second homily concerning the performance of mysteries by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, it clearly states: "Ye have confessed the salvific confession, and having immersed yourselves thrice in water, came forth out of it," and in the words of St. Basil the Great: "Through three immersions and the same number of invocations is the great mystery of Baptism performed."

5) The immersion into water, and specifically a triple immersion, and also a triple coming out of the water was not instituted arbitrarily or accidentally, but as the image of the Resurrection of Christ on the third day. "The water," says blessed Basil, "has the symbolic meaning of death, and accepts the body as into a coffin." How then, do we liken ourselves to the One Who descended into hell, imitating His burial through baptism? The bodies of those who are baptized in water are buried, in a certain sense. Consequently, baptism mystically represents the laying aside of bodily cares, by the word of the apostle: "In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ" (Col. 2: 11)." St. Cyril, in his commentary on the above words, says: "Thus, with the help of these signs you have represented the three-day burial of Christ because, as our Saviour was in the heart of the earth three days and three nights, so in the first coming up from the water you symbolized the first day of His sojourn under the earth, and through your immersion, you symbolized the night. For, as one who walks in the night sees nothing, and he who walks during the day does so in light, so you, having immersed yourself in water saw nothing, as if you saw nothing in the night, and having come forth from the water, you see everything as in daylight. You were both dead and then born. So the salvific water was for you both a coffin and a mother. Although we neither actually die, nor get buried, nor are we nailed to the cross, but only simulate this symbolically, we, however, do indeed achieve salvation. Christ was truly crucified, truly buried, and truly resurrected. He granted all this to us, so that we, in imitating His passions, would become partakers of them and indeed would achieve salvation.

6) The Orthodox Church the world over to the present time baptizes through three-fold immersion and bringing-forth out of the water. The Greek, Arabic, Bulgarian, and Serbian churches all baptize in this way. Thus it is done in the Russian Church. Each one of these churches has a vessel in which it immersed unclothed infants with the invocation of the name of the Holy Trinity. There is no doubt that this practice of baptizing infants was the same in all of Little Russia. Holy Prince Vladimir, who lived and reigned in Kiev, accepted the faith and all its church ritual from the Greeks, who, both then and now, baptize through immersion. Does it not seem strange that those who had Greeks as their teachers, and those who were baptized by the Greeks, now do not baptize through immersion?

All in all, I think there is basis to the assumption that the practice of baptizing through pouring on of water began in Kiev, and then spread throughout Little Russia. Such departure came from the time when the Uniates gained power over the Kievan metropolia. In the Roman Church, up to the 12th century, or better said, to the end of the 13th century, baptism through immersion was practiced. But then they began to baptize not only by pouring, but also by sprinkling. As a result, the Little Russians are the only Orthodox people who set aside immersion in favor of pouring. This has given schismatics reason to accuse us of neglecting apostolic tradition, which is preserved without change in the whole of the Orthodox Church. They accuse us of following the example of the papists who, along with various incorrect deletions, had the audacity to change Holy Baptism as well. The divine apostle Paul praised the Corinthians highly for their preservation of tradition with the following words: "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the Ordinances, as I delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2). He entreats the Thessalonians to hold fast to traditions: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15).

The method of baptism by triple immersion is indeed apostolic tradition, which the Orthodox Church firmly and unswervingly adheres to from apostolic times to this day. St. Basil rather clearly points out the danger which lies in excluding anything that has been passed down to us from the mystery of Holy Baptism: "There is tribulation when someone dies without baptism, or when something in the mystery of baptism as it has been handed down to us is omitted."

Why is it that we make omissions in something of such great importance? Why do we not keep this holy and apostolic tradition (i.e. baptism through immersion), as it is kept by the entire Orthodox Church? What reason, what excuse can we give to explain why this mystery is performed differently by us? Why is it not performed the way it was handed down by the holy apostles, the way the holy fathers taught, the way the whole Orthodox Church always performed it and performs it even now? Perhaps someone will say that it is dangerous to immerse infants in water? But this excuse can be likened to one of which the royal prophet prayed about thus: "Do not incline my heart into words of evil, to make excuse for excuses in sins." The lives of His Imperial Highness, the Emperor and Great Prince Paul Petrovich and his royal children are very precious. They, however, without any hesitation and by the grace of God, were baptized by triple immersion in quite a deep vessel, which I saw with my own eyes in the imperial church. If such an example is not enough, then the example of the countless infants around the whole world, which the Church baptizes every day, or better said, every hour, by triple immersion with no danger to their lives, should suffice. Finally, if someone would say that cold water in the winter time could be dangerous for an infant's health, he must know that there is no law which states that the water used in baptism must be cold or near freezing. It is possible to use water at room temperature, which is not as cold as that which is found outside.

Enough has been said, my beloved children in Christ, and honorable priests. Enough has been said for you not to baptize through pouring, but through immersion. Thus you will be among the first in Little Russia to set a holy example, and to achieve glory by preserving apostolic tradition. Likewise, by serving and keeping ancient traditions of the Church, you will be deserving of a reward from God. Having said all this, so that no one ignores this edict under the pretext that there were no concise directives, by our archpastoral authority we decree that all those under our spiritual rule:

1) Strive that in every church there be a silver or copper vessel (or one made out of some other appropriate metal) which would have the shape of a bell or tub: narrow at the bottom, and as deep as it is wide, practical for use.

2) Instruct priests everywhere that over the said vessel containing water the appropriate prayers be pronounced, and that infants be baptized in this holy water through triple immersion with the invocation of one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity with each immersion. In a word—that all be done in the same manner as the baptisms which take place in Great Russia.

3) Strictly insist that the holy water after baptism not be disposed of in some unclean place, but poured out carefully, with due respect, into the basin where the priest washes his hands. The baptismal vessel should not be used for any other purpose, and should be kept in the church among the holy vessels.

Besides this we decree that in every church there should be two smaller vessels made of silver, copper, or brass—one to hold holy chrism, which must always be stored in the church in an appropriate place, and another to hold holy oil, which is used during baptism. This vessel, along with a pair of scissors must be kept in a clean box, which must be decorated appropriately, so that those who are outside the faith would not have cause to accuse.

For those who are obedient and are willing to comply with this edict, we promise God's blessings, eternal glory and our pastoral blessing.

Translated by Maria Naumendco from Church Life, No. 1-2, 1959. Reprinted from Orthodox Life, Jan-Feb, 1990, pp. 16-19.