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.
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).