Baptism in Eastern Orthodoxy

Introduction 

In this paper, I will consider the Orthodox Christian understanding and practice of water baptism. The sacramental act of baptism in the life of most believers plays an important role in the individuals personal commitment towards Christ. However, as we will see, the Orthodox Church lays claim to both a unique pattern and worldview that reveals several distinctions when compared to its western counterparts. 

The purpose statement of this paper is to briefly analyze the ontology, theology and actual practice of water baptism within the Orthodox Church. By way of comparison to western practice, I will occasionally draw on my own personal experience as a baptized Protestant. 

Ontology of Baptism

Essential to perceiving the differences in the baptism ritual itself, a westerner must first grapple with the way in which the Orthodox perceive the world. As a westerner myself, I’ve been shaped in a dualistic worldview. The material world around me is altogether different in substance and reality from the immaterial. The properties of matter for example are, for the westerner, measurable, predictable, and understood. The invisible world, if a westerner believes in such a thing, is its own distinct reality, immeasurable, unpredictable, and mysterious. 

Although the concept of worldview itself is a western one, it’s a helpful term in describing the paradigm from which the Orthodox view baptism, but more essentially, worship itself.  For the Orthodox, the material world is simultaneously material and immaterial in that God, who is the infuser of all things created, is in all things by nature of his divine energies. This panentheistic worldview sets the backdrop for a holistic, even cosmic approach to the Church’s worship. The Church, in it’s sacraments, operates as a divinely designated process whereby the individual in each generation joins in the historical material, and eternal immaterial chorus of praise as two coexisting realities. “This double character, at once outward and inward, is the distinctive feature of a sacrament: the sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible; in every sacrament there is the combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace” (Ware 2015, Loc. 267).

This ontological approach differs substantially from the western evolved views of worship which tends to focus on the individual’s unique participation spiritually, through faith. For the westerner, the material world is both passing away, and pointing towards an eternal, uniquely spiritual, and better reality. Sacramental elements such as bread, wine and water then have distinctly different ontological realities within the Protestant church than the Eastern Orthodox. In the Eucharist, for example, consuming the bread and wine is not a symbol alone, but “the sacrament of [our] participation in the Pascha of the Kingdom” (Schmemann 1973, 79). 

In baptism, water is not only the symbol of a grave or of washing away of sins, “baptism is the joining of the material world, to the immaterial, the celebration of the ‘world to come’” (68) and the “Church’s ascension to the Kingdom” (68). “The Church takes material things – water, bread, wine, oil – and makes them a vehicle of the Spirit” (Ware 2015, Loc. 267). This unification and non-dualistic approach to time, space, and matter aid the western perspective of Orthodox sacramentality. What the Western believer sees as a symbol representing a ontological different reality, the Orthodox experience as reality. 

This is why they can boldly state, “We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him” (Schmemann 1973, Loc. 123). The elements of material matter then becomes both process and package, ritual and experience. Western approaches to worship, including baptism, place much less intrinsic value on the symbols because of the dualistic framework. For the Orthodox, however, it’s ontologically impossible to participate in the real presence of God without the body, words, darkness, light, movement, and through the sacraments “all these expressions of man in his relation to the world are given their ultimate ‘term’ of reference, revealed in their highest and deepest meaning” (Schmemann 1973, 123).

Baptism for the Orthodox, then, is not a private, individual experience pointing towards another future, or separate heavenly reality, but “an act of the whole Church, involving the whole cosmos” (67). Just as the incarnation reveals one ontological reality in the material form of Christ, so too baptism as an “existential root” (69) for the Church represents the gateway for receiving and actualizing the free gift of salvation. While the West would look through the elements of water and ritual itself, ontologically speaking the East makes no such distinction, and celebrates the sacrament as one glorious reality for the individual and the Church throughout time. “The whole life of the Church is, in a way, the explication and the manifestation of baptism” (Schmemann 1973, 69). 

Theology of Baptism 

To understand the theological nuances of baptism from the Orthodox perspective, we need to survey briefly the nature of humanity and the result of the fall. The Orthodox believe that humanity is suffering the effects of our first parents, but do not subscribe to Augustine’s formulations of the sinful nature, nor the Reformer’s narrative of total depravity. Orthodox theology suggests that Adam’s guilt is not imputed or shared upon all of humanity, but rather humanity has been greatly diminished in its image bearing capacity. Humanity is dead in sin, in that we now suffer under the consequences of sin, “caught up in death” (Payton 2007, 146). 

Orthodox believe that humanity is “surrounded by corruption and, inevitably, influenced by it” (Payton 112). In the end, both Western and Eastern theology embraces humanity as being out of fellowship with God, needing reconciliation, and new life which is found in Jesus Christ. This sets the groundwork for the need for salvation, initiated through baptism. 

While both Protestants and Orthodox would agree that humanity is indeed imprisoned and in need of salvation, just how and when salvation is actualized differs. For the West, new life is found when faith, a gift from God, enlivens the heart to believe. Baptism for the Protestant is an outward sign of an inward reality that has already been consummated. The water, whether through full or partial immersion, or even through sprinkling, is simply pointing to the reality that has already taken place. Baptism then, for Protestants, is primarily a public confession and witness of faith. 

In the East, baptism itself, however, actualizes the transformation, “Life in Christ is communicated to us in baptism” (Payton 2007, Loc. 146). Through the instrumentation of water [basic element of the world, the prima materia], Christ, who first created the world through His divine energies, moves again through water to restore and renew His creation at baptism (Schmemann 1973, 75). This is how baptism theologically can become the “transition from death to life” (146), and thus the entry point for the believer’s participation in the sacramental life of the church. Not just spirit-less matter, “through Baptism we receive a full forgiveness of all sin”  – through the immersion of water baptism a believer becomes a member of the Church (Ware 2015, Loc. 271). For the Orthodox, water has a truly “cosmic and redemptive significance” (Schmemann 1973, 74). For the Protestant, the significance is in the spiritual water, and the water is just water. 

Once again, we see the ontological difference being revealed. Because the water is more than a symbol, and a present eternal reality connected to the spiritual world, the waters become the means of spiritual regeneration in combination with the believing heart. The Orthdox view baptism, as well as the eucharist, not as mere symbols, but “a means of deification – through baptism, Eastern Christianity teaches, humans are initially united to Christ” (Payton 2007, Loc. 146).  In baptism we are “cleansed from sin and clothed with Christ” (Payton 2007, Loc. 147) and “both repentance and forgiveness find their fulfillment” (Schmemann 1973, 80).

The Orthodox Church doesn’t believe baptism itself cleanses any particular sins, but is “representative of the fullness of Christ’s life and death offered by means of baptism ‘into Christ Himself, who is the Forgiveness’” (Schmemann 1973, 80). Both Orthodox and Protestants would agree that “Baptism signifies a mystical burial and resurrection with Christ” (Ware 2015, Loc. 271). Many Protestants however would take issue with the Orthodox understanding of the literal remission of sins through baptism. Interestingly, the Orthodox confess that, “Baptism is forgiveness of sins, not their removal” (Schmemann 1973, 81). Through baptism, “God adopts the recipient as his son or daughter and makes the baptized one his heir (Gal 4:5; 3:29)” (Payton 2007, Loc. 146), but the Orthodox recognize that the believer will continue to struggle with the results of the fall, and personal sin will never be completely eliminated in this life.

Viewing baptism as both symbol and reality, the Orthodox view the believers’ journey as “the life constantly transformed into the liturgy-the work of Christ.” (Schmemann 1973, 79). Baptism then becomes the material moment in time when the believer transitions from death to life, and experiences the forgiveness of sin. 

Act of Baptism 

Baptism has remained part of the historic contextual liturgy in the Orthodox Church, and not an independent act. “Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion – are linked closely together”  (Ware 2015, Loc. 270). The historical act of baptism in the Orthodox church has varied little since the third century, citing from Tertulian (200 AD) as well as the Didache. It is performed by a bishop or priest. In Orthodox tradition, everyone who desires baptism is welcome, including the children from Orthodox families.  

For converts, after religious instruction, baptism is preceded by a fast, then renunciation, also known as the catechumenate, “the exorcisms, the renunciation of Satan and the confession of faith” (Schmemann 1973, 71). The renunciation is “to announce the forthcoming baptism as an act of victory” (73), which reveals another distinction from that of the Protestant’s individualistic approach to baptism. The Orthodox cosmic and present material realities offer the Western believer some important insight! Truly, there are more witnesses to the baptism than just those we humans can discern with the eye. 

After the confession of faith, and bowing three times before the Father, Son and Spirit, the believer is then anointed with oil (chrism) from the head to the foot. Subsequently, full body immersion into the water takes place three times. “There are two essential elements in the act of Baptism: the invocation of the Name of the Trinity, and the threefold immersion in water” (Ware 2015, Loc, 270). For the Orthodox, immersion is essential. Without full water immersion, “the correspondence between outwards sign, and inward meaning is lost, and the symbolism of the sacrament is overthrown” (Ware 2015, Loc. 270). After the immersion, a second anointing of oil takes place, concluding with the believer being dressed in garments of white as that of a king. 

Concluding the baptism is a procession, either around the baptismal font, or an interior section of the church. In the Orthodox Church, newly baptized believers are confirmed through the sacrament of Chrismation where they are introduced and welcomed into the Church. Chrismation is the fulfillment of baptism. (Schmemann 1973, 77). They are then served their first communion immediately following baptism.

Summary 

As I consider the Orthodox ontology and holistic approach to worship, I begin to catch glimpses of the Orthodox Christian vision of the world and Christ’s continued mystery within it. Baptism for me, was a very personal decision. I was a young teenager making a bold claim to reject the world and follow my Savior. I wasn’t necessarily aware of people there, the pastor performing the ceremony, nor the invisible and spiritual realities in play.

Over the past few years, I’ve begun to embrace a panthentheistic worldview (God being IN all things, as opposed to pantheism that supposes God IS all things). This belief is rooted in the relational Trinity. As I reviewed the sacrament of baptism, I found myself encouraged by the Orthodox ontological approach, and attempt to preserve the grand, cosmic event that took place over 2,000 years ago as something very real for us in this moment through preserved, consecrated, Christ-centered ritual which points us all towards “the life constantly transformed into the liturgy-the work of Christ” (Schmemann 1973, 79). 

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The Individual and the Church – Eastern Orthodox Perspectives

*the following is a post I wrote in Fuller studies this past week.

The Orthodox individual views church through the lens of being. They seem to ask what the Church is intrinsically before moving to what it might do. As a concurrent physical and immaterial reality, the Church throughout history is one big family. “Whenever a congregation engages in worship, that congregation is not alone in the presence of God, but is included with the whole church” (Payton 2007, 174) which includes “Christians of past ages who have departed this life and live in God’s presence” (174). 

As a westerner, I’ve been taught that the church, though God’s family, is ultimately defined by its capacity to make disciples, to participate in missio Dei, and to serve in ushering in Jesus reign on earth. Basically, it’s what we do, more than what we already are. When a westerner worships, we can be aware of the heavenly realities, but less emphasis is placed on the Church at worship; reflecting Hebrews 12:18-24 as a central ongoing activity that defines us corporately. 

For the Orthodox, because the nature of the Church is in it’s familial relatedness, “Salvation is social and communal, not isolated and individualistic” (170). “One is a Christian only in concert with other Christians” (169). I found this connection between worshiping alongside the invisible Bride of Christ and the nature of communal salvation an important distinction from Protestant theology. Perhaps this is how the Orthodox can pray for, and request prayer from Saints? If salvation is viewed as an ongoing process or means of God’s past/present/future victory in Jesus, then believers past/present are all caught up in this divine movement?

Dr. Tibbs, our Eastern Orthodox professor, replied to my post with: Generally, Orthodox ecclesiology is a “realized eschatology” (which is often cited as a criticism.) Not only the already/not yet idea, but more: participation in eternity in the here and now. So the saints may be invisible to us, but having entered eternity themselves they are participating in the eternal worship of Christ in a new way. The Orthodox ask for the prayer of saints because they are somehow still active in Christ (consider the “activity” of Elijah and Moses in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor). In other words, the saints are dead from an earthly perspective, but they are alive in Christ and worshiping together with the Church on earth.

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A new hobby!

I’ve been wanting a drone for several years. I love photography and video, but never have the time. There’s something about moving light, panning and horizons. I’ve always been musical, I think, always a humming in my head of a tune, I used to drive my friends as a kids a little crazy on the school bus because I would make up my own little silly songs. I learned to play the piano by myself, then played in church for years, eventually learning the drums, a little bass guitar. Anyway, my point is that as much as I find myself in study, running business or doing non-creative type things, my soul finds life in art.

As I get older, I’m learning to find discipline myself to do things that in fact, bring life. The western ‘productivity’ engine that I was shaped in wants me to stay focused. The hamster wheel just keeps running faster until we forget who we are, we’re breathing, but we’re not aware of the gift of life and living into this present moment. So, back to the drone!

Last summer I was in Canada, and my brother Trevor, and his daughter Alexa (yes, I know two Alexa’s that aren’t from Amazon!) graciously blessed my with a broken Phantom 4 drone. These drone’s are quite expensive, and I was convinced that in Ukraine, I could get it fixed.. Ukrainians have never met something broken and called it a day. Anyway, we brought it back, Covid hit, and it lie dormant for 9 months. I eventually found a place in Kyiv to look at it, took it, and a few days later, with a $400 bill, it was good as new! I then had to figure a way to get it, as I’m rarely in Kyiv with all these lock down rules. Deb, however, was off with a group serving in another town with the widow’s team – they ended up getting rerouted through Kyiv, which is a massive City.. and she calls me the other day, “Hey, we’re in front of the drone repair place I think..” Sure enough, she was, and a couple hrs later I had the drone.

I share that because honestly I was still on the fence about the whole thing. I really don’t have a lot of time, I’m buried in school, reading literally 8 books at once at the moment, and any extra time is for family and Lighthouse.. and this crazy Marathon! But I felt the joy of the Spirit, God blessed me with the drone, then fixed it, then picked it up for me – it’s like He was saying, “play with this you goose.”

So, I’ve begun playing. Each night I go out, fly it up to ranges I’m not sure I’m allowed to – I need to research this more. It can go 5km, and up to 500 meters high! It’s super fun, but all the batteries are dead and only one works, lasting 15 minutes.. so I have to be careful how far I fly. I’ve crashed it twice, once because of the dog (it thinks its a bird and tries to bit it during landing) and once because I was exceedingly stupid and tried to land it on my 2nd story deck, on a small, with a drink on it.

I have uploaded some footage to Shutterstock, and going to start trying to master some short clips, using Final Cut to color correct and such. I have a lot to learn.. and I hope my next post isn’t about it landed in the Dnepr River.. but it’s sure fun flying the friendly skies. I hope my neighbors don’t complain.. I must be sensitive to their gardening 🙂

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I see the light!

After three solid years of learning in an academic structure, I’m down to my final 3 courses. I’m currently taking two, Eastern Orthodox Theology, and Power Dynamics and Gender. Surprisingly, they are both quite similar so far as we march through the history and cultural formations of Patriarchy and other social constructs. I am learning so much, and beginning to feel a certain sadness in my heart that this journey is nearing its end.

After this semester, I’ll have one course remaining in the summer and then complete! Because of Covid and the virtual graduation reality, at least in California, I’ll be skipping the ceremonies. Too bad! It would have been nice to see some friends again, and have that sense of completion, plus the cool robe and hat!

Only some of this semesters reading requirement – I had to order several on Kindle.. I prefer hard copies when I can.

This week I’m learning about the Desert Fathers. I’ve read a little on them in previous courses, especially related to the early writings of the martyrs during the persecution of Dionysus. The church really suffered 30-40yrs prior the Edict of Milan in 313AD, when Christians could come out from hiding. Incredible what humanity has suffered under the oppression of fellow broken image bearers. Interestingly, these monks, before there were monks, developed a sort of monastic living in part out of the driving persecution, in part to enter the suffering of Christ. This ‘white’ persecution (‘red’ meaning bloodshed on the parts of the Roman authorities) drove not only these monks out to caves and mountains, but those seeking spiritual answers and meaning as well as hungry hearts began to recognize these men were on to something. Anyway, it’s been difficult to keep up with all the writing, discussions and weekly reading and lectures for two classes, I’ll be really glad to finish this journey with just one class.

As I type this, we’re plowing under our backyard, leveling it out and preparing to make a nice backyard for playing soccer for the kids, little playground etc. We’ve wanted to this for years, but been so focused on the Cafe and other projects – this past Spring we’ve painted, and been doing a number of upgrades on our house. It feels nice. We hope to finally insulate the exterior, we got one wall done many years ago, and it worked so well we just stopped the project.. and never continued it. I like that Ukraine doesn’t put much emphasis on exterior beauty when it comes to homes in our town.. it’s what’s inside that counts.. but slowly I see our town and neighbors beautifying and improving, so it’s inspired me to do a better job. We still don’t have a garden, after our initial failings, so we’ll try and have pretty yard and grass.. we’ll see!

The Lighthouse building is now back moving, the garage replacement turned into a little bit larger of a project, which I’m excited about. We have too many emerging leaders, and friends with great ideas and missional hearts that could use space for collaboration and piloting new stuff. Walls going up shortly, and a roof hopefully finished by mid summer –

I’ll finish with a question, one that I think strikes at the heart of the Christian message and our rootedness in God; What makes you ‘in?’ Where do you find your sense of belonging? How do you keep it, mature it?

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