I've been given the opportunity by my church to lead a small group study about the Church and the sacraments. We have been reading and discussing For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by the late Father Alexander Schmemann. If you are interested in issues relating to the sacraments, ecclesiology, and Christian mission in secular society, this is absolutely an essential read. It is, of course, about the liturgical tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy from the perspective of an Orthodox. This book would seem to serve as a good starting point for exploring Eastern Orthodoxy and the sacramental theology of that tradition. As far as the sacraments are concerned, this would also be an excellent introduction to the topic in general and not just the Eastern view of them.
We are into the fifth week of the study. The following represents an expanded transcript of my outline and notes for this morning's discussion on chapter 4 regarding baptism, confirmation, and penance. It has been expanded from my original to incorporate the various directions that our discussion ended up going. It sparked quite a lively discussion about the meaning and effects of baptism. Please note that the following does not represent an Orthodox view of baptism but my own engagement with the material and my response to this morning's discussion. I will be posting my outline from previous weeks as well.
Of Water and the Spirit: Eastern Orthodoxy, Reformed Protestantism, and Baptism
We went out of the usual order of discussion by looking at the Eucharist before we discussed baptism. When I first read this book, I thought that was a little odd, but I thought it was really, really strange when Schmemann jumped to the topic of sacramental time before even dealing with baptism. People usually start with baptism because that marks the beginning of the Christian life. They try to follow the chronological order in which we experience the sacraments. Well, there's a method to Schmemann's madness. He tells us he deals with the Eucharist and the sacrament of time before baptism so we can see the cosmic dimensions of what exactly we are baptized into.
He mentions how baptism is appropriately tied up with the Church. It's the entrance and integration into the Church. Well, what have we affirmed about the Church so far in our study? What is the Church in its full cosmic significance? It is the sacrament of the world, the means by which God is reclaiming fallen humanity and by which the world and time is being returned to the purpose for which it was created, to be a means of communion with God. When we are baptized, then, we are caught up in everything great, awesome, holy, and redemptive that God is doing in the world.
I just wondered if you all noticed that funny little word on the first paragraph of 68, it's kind of a made up word but it's important when we're talking about the Church. "Ecclesiolatry"- "thinking of the Church as a 'being in itself;' not thinking of the Church as the new relation of God, humanity, and the world; thinking of the Church as Savior rather than of Christ as Savior of the world and humanity through the Church." We need to be careful; I've come close a couple of times to going over this line, but we need to be careful not to blur the line between the human and the Divine. Remember what I said in the Orthodox tradition about the statement, "I have become God." Sometimes you'll hear something like that. That's a relative statement. If one meant that literally, that'd be blasphemy, but what an Orthodox would mean by that is simply that he or she is united with Christ, that this person is one with Jesus. Though this "I have become God" business is a really radical way of saying that, we kind of have the same idea in one of our metaphors for the Church. What's the metaphor we used when talking about the Church during our discussion of the Eucharist? The Body of Christ. As the Church, our connection to Jesus is so strong that He is our Head and we are called the parts of His Body. There are a couple of things I want to note about this. The first thing is that, as the Church, we are instruments in the hands of Jesus. He works in us and through us. This means that we should regard our corporate actions as the Church as those of Jesus. The second thing is that the Church is united with Jesus. If baptism incorporates us into Christ's Body, and if Christ's Body is united with Christ the Head, then what does baptism do? Baptism unites us with Christ. And put emphasis on the us, we are united with Christ together, not one by one. Our salvation is corporate.
I don't want to stay long on this issue; I don't want to narrow the discussion on baptism to matters of the salvation of the individual soul, but we need to have a brief talk about the Reformed view or views of baptism and its relation to individual salvation. As a former Baptist, my understanding of salvation had a very revivalistic tone to it. I'm still very much of an evangelical in the sense that I think in our natural state, we are dead in our sins and so need God's redeeming action in order to be saved, but I do not think that there should be a certain type of religious experience that people have to have before they are to be considered "saved." You must be born again, but that doesn't mean that you have to have a definite conversion experience. I've undergone a bit of a spiritual pilgrimage from where I once was, and in the course of that pilgrimage, I have come to see baptism as not just a symbol of being "born again" but as being itself an important part of the way that God washes our sins away and gives us spiritual life. I can now confidently affirm in Peter's words that "baptism now saves you." What do you guys think? Does baptism save us?
I did my reading from several sources in the Reformed tradition the other night to confirm that I didn't just dream it up, and, yeah, this view has a lot of support historically in Reformed and Presbyterian theology. It depends on who you read, though. Calvin, Francis Turretin, most of the Westminster Divines, the Mercersburg theologians Philip Schaff and John Nevin, the great Dutch Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper, and contemporaries like Peter Leithart and his "Federal Vision" friends have maintained the biblical teaching on baptism. Unfortunately, most Presbyterians are strangers to their own tradition and are more likely to Gnosticize baptism away according to the fashion of the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, the Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, and contemporary mainstream evangelical Presbyterians like R.C. Sproul. What many of these folks would sneer at and call heresy in regard to baptism is really historic Calvinist orthodoxy and the teaching of Scripture and the ancient tradition of the Church. Though you might find it surprising, the Westminster Confession and the catechisms affirm God's saving action in baptism. For instance, take this from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Let's also consider 1 Peter 3:21: "And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Now, we can't just use this as a proof text; we have to be much more sophisticated in our scriptural exegesis than just to pick passages pell-mell from the Bible to support our doctrinal positions. We have to look at the context of this passage. Peter is speaking of how Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood, which prefigures baptism. Just as Noah and his family passed through the waters in the ark and were saved, so are those in the Church saved by passing through the waters of baptism. Notice how baptism doesn't work like "a removal of dirt from the body" but "as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." We appeal to God, but God is the prime actor in baptism. It is He who saves us through baptism and not the waters themselves.
Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.
This even goes for little children who cannot yet confess their faith. The French Reformed Church baptismal liturgy says it this way:
“Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry ‘it is finished.’ For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, ‘We love him because he first loved us.’”
Of course, we must affirm that God can and does save without baptism. Calvin says this in the Institutes: "We must utterly reject the fiction of those who consign all the unbaptized to eternal death. . . . Baptism is not so necessary that one from whom the capacity to obtain it has been taken away should straightway be counted as lost."
We must also keep in mind that baptism inaugurates us into what is a conditional covenant. It is not guaranteed that all of those who were baptized will persevere and be finally saved. People must have faith in Jesus and persevere in that faith or they will forfeit the benefit of their baptism. There is definitely the idea in Reformed thought that our relationship with God must grow as we do. Baptized children are definitely "saved," at least for the time being, but a small child's faith in Jesus must grow. Faith must be age-appropriate if we are to affirm that it is saving faith.
There is also the fact that God gives many ways of nurturing the seed of regeneration that is sown in our hearts. Baptism can plant that seed, or it can water that seed if that seed has already been planted in our hearts by the Word. The other means of grace are required to make sure that the seed of grace, regardless of how it initially got planted, flourishes and does not wither; that it blooms into the fullness of grace and perseverance. To assure that the seed reaches the end of lasting justification, it must be watered by Scripture, by preaching, by prayer, and by taking the Lord's Supper.
Well, I need to get us back on track. On 68 and 69, Schmemann talks about how much of the life of the Church arose surrounding the baptismal rite and also how the Church finds much of its meaning and significance in baptism. Baptism delivers us from slavery to sin and evil and puts us into a cosmic fight against evil. He talks about the exorcisms that are part of the Orthodox rite. The paragraph that starts on 69 and goes over on to 70 really grabs me. Does the idea of real evil, especially real personal evil, belong in our modern thought? Can those of us who use electricity get ready for the idea of demonology? Schmemann makes reference to the Holocaust, that a civilized nation "used electricity" to murder 6 million people, and, during the time that he wrote this, the Soviet Union had a vast system of prisons and work camps holding tens of millions of people going; he says that in a world where these things go on, "demonic" reality is not a myth. This is what we're up against:
"It is this reality that the Church has in mind . . . when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of the priest, it lays hold upon a new human being who has just entered life, and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood someday of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary, or at best, the maddening boredom of a universal suburbia. The world from which the human being has received his life, and which will determine this life, is a prison."
This is why the Bible says we must be born again, or born from above, so that we can begin to be freed from the prison that sin has made of the fallen world. Well, there is a society in our world that has been born from above and to which we can flee from the evil and the banality of the fallen world. The good news is that "the Church knows that the gates of this hell have been broken and that another Power has entered the world and claimed it for its true Owner. And that claim is not on souls alone, but on the totality of life, on the whole world."
Baptism brings us into the battle against evil on the winning side. It's not just against fear, frustration, and anxiety we are fighting. It is for the destiny of the world and humanity that we are fighting. It's not comfortable and pleasing, but we are called to war, and that requires discipline. That's why at baptism, we renounce the devil and all of his ways and we confess the Lord Jesus, bowing before the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He says something interesting on the bottom of 71 and 72 about it being hard "to convince modern Christians that to be the life of the world, the Church must not 'keep smiling' at the world, putting the 'All Welcome' signs on the churches and adjusting its language to that of the latest bestseller." Is this how it should be, or do we need to risk becoming unpopular so that we can stay true to our mission?
From baptism so far, then, we've learned that the Church is the society of liberation from evil and that it is a warrior society against evil in all of its forms. When we stop to consider the significance of the water, though, we see that the Church is not just a spiritual solution to the problem of evil in the fallen world, but, that through the Church, the physical world too is caught up in God's plan of redemption. Through the Church, the material world is being returned to the purpose for which it was created, to be a means of communion with God. Just like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the water of baptism represents the whole world, which we offer to God and he returns to us as the instrumental means of our life in Him.
As we've talked about ad nauseum, there are certain worldviews that have a problem with this kind of stuff. It sounds impractical; it sounds magical that God would use things to save us. This kind of thought is reflected in the Baptist view of baptism; I don't think it's for any biblical reason that they don't believe baptism saves but because of that darned dualism we keep running into; spirit is spirit and matter is matter; they don't really have any relationship to each other; we need to keep them separate. Schmemann talks about the "demythologizers" who have a hard time with this kind of stuff too, the "spooky stuff," as one of my Religious Studies professors would call it. I really think it's a failure of imagination on their part. Life is just so much more interesting and exciting when reality points beyond itself to something bigger and better, when we think about things in a cosmic perspective. Otherwise, as Schmemann has been showing us all along, things as ends in themselves only just end up in death.
There are several important meanings for water in the biblical worldview. What does water represent? Life- there is no life without water, just as we have no spiritual life without God's Spirit. This is why the Bible says we must be born of water and Spirit. Water also means cleansing and purifying. It's the most powerful solvent and cleaner on the planet. What else would God use to wash away our guilty stains and carve a place for himself in our rock-hard hearts? Water also means death and destruction. The water of baptism indicates that we die with Christ, that we are "baptized into His death." We die to sin, to death, to ourselves. And it is in this death to self that we find life, because it is only in sharing God's gifts with Him and with others that we find the meaning of life. After all, it is because Jesus surrendered His life for us to His Father that He lives again and that we live again in Him. Water also means chaos, the disorganized stuff out of which God creates something new. Remember the Creation story, how God "moved over the face of the waters" and how He liberated the dry land from the waters. In the same way, in our descent into the baptismal waters, God remakes us into a new creation, where old things are gone and all is clean and brand-new again. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come." This is what the Orthodox symbolize when they clothe a newly baptized person in a white robe.
Schmemann next moves on in this chapter to talk about the sacraments of confirmation, or what they call chrismation, and penance. As Presbyterians we don't have these two sacraments. We do something called confirmation but we don't consider it a sacrament. Nor do we consider penance a sacrament. We have something like penance that's called absolution but that's not a sacrament. Even though I disagree with the Orthodox on these two things, I think Schmemann is correct to treat confirmation and penance in their connections to baptism. As Presbyterians, we can follow him here in his discussion, but we should apply everything he says about these two things directly to baptism itself. He speaks about chrismation as the fulfillment of baptism, its "confirmation" by the Holy Spirit. The Reformed tradition would say that baptism itself is the "confirmation" of God's forgiveness toward us and that we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism itself. This is where the language in the Westminster Shorter Catechism of baptism as "sign and seal" of our "ingrafting into Christ," our "partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace," and "our engagement to be the Lord's" comes into play. Baptism is the "confirmation" and "seal" of our forgiveness. We also see the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus' baptism,
Matthew 3:16-17: "And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’"
I've also got 1 Corinthians 12:13: "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free."
Now, what we call confirmation, when young people learn the catechism and make profession of faith to assume full membership, is not the same as what Schmemann is calling confirmation. For the Orthodox, confirmation is when they anoint a newly baptized person with oil, that's why it's also called chrismation, the baptizand is anointed with chrism. We do that too as part of the baptism rite but it isn't considered a distinct sacrament the way it is in Roman Catholicism and, to a lesser extent, in Eastern Orthodoxy. But, the application of the oil is significant. It indicates that we have received the Holy Spirit and that God has commissioned, anointed us, if you will, for Kingdom work. Notice how this doesn't just apply to the soul but to the whole person. It sounds like the Orthodox basically cover a person with oil from head to toe to symbolize the fact that the Holy Spirit touches and transforms every part of our lives. Schmemann talks about how in this commissioning by the Spirit, we truly become ourselves. We truly become what God from all of eternity intended us to be. We don't have to take up a cookie-cutter "good Christian" role but we get to be who we truly are. The Spirit frees us from all need to pretend. How often do we fail to live in this kind of freedom when the Spirit freely offers us such fullness. Where the Spirit is, there's freedom.
And finally, we come to penance. There is a problem with this doctrine, I think. Schmemann mentioned how in a certain theological tradition baptism has been limited to removing Original Sin. Well, I'm not sure if that's the Orthodox position, but the Roman Catholic Church teaches that in baptism God only forgives Original Sin and any sins we committed before baptism but that the sacrament of penance is required to deal with all the sins we commit after baptism. John Calvin and the Reformers had something else to say, though, and I think it was the biblical teaching on post-baptismal sin. Calvin said:
"We must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life. Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins. For, though baptism, administered only once, seemed to have passed, it was still not destroyed by subsequent sins. For Christ’s purity has been offered us in it; his purity ever flourishes; it is defiled by no spots, but buries and cleanses away all our defilements."
Sin isn't dead in us, but, as often as we sin, we can remember our baptism and know that God forgives us.
This isn't permission though because baptism means that we've been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit won't let us comfortably go on sinning. Schmemann talks about the Christians on 78 and 79 who have dramatic, revivalistic conversion experiences and never know what it is after that to feel the sadness of being a sinner. Well, if that's their experience when it comes to post-conversion sin, then they ain't the real deal. I think we can affirm that we should be confident that God loves us and that he has saved us, but, we also need to always have that sense of sorrow for sin and of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I believe it was Martin Luther who said that a Christian is always aware of three things: "A Christian is always sinning; a Christian is always repenting; and a Christian is always forgiven." When we sin, let us always run back to the baptismal fount. We were washed and forgiven once and for all there and the life that we were given there always enables us to do better and will one day deliver us into God's presence without spot or blemish.
To remind us of this, we have a word of absolution in our weekly liturgy after our corporate confession of sin. When we hear that word of absolution on the Lord's Day, the baptized can count it as the Lord's word and so be sure that it is true. I believe we also have absolution in the context of pastoral counseling, where the pastor can declare a personal word of absolution. And this is not a new word; it is simply a restatement of the message that we first heard in baptism: "My child, your sins are forgiven."