From the third installment of a series on the article "The Apostolic Origins of the Orthodox Church" published in the booklet "The Harvest", June, 2000, written by Archimandrite Damian, the abbot at the
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Of Water and The Spirit
Jesus answered, "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).
The Duality of Christian Baptism
"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire." (Matthew 3:11. Parallels in Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16. See also John 1:31-33).
"For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence." (Acts 1:5)
"And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a Dove, and lighting upon Him." (Matthew 3:16).
The distinction made today by a large number of Christians between Baptism with water and Baptism in the Spirit was also made in the pre-Nicene Church (before AD 330), but with some significant differences. The early Christian did believe that through sacramental Baptism in the Spirit, God grants real gifts with real effects. But it was generally understood that one might not necessarily experience emotionally the giving of those gifts. In other words, in the early Church it was not expected that the newly illumined have a spine-tingling, emotional reaction. Nor was it expected that the newly anointed manifest some immediate outward sign, such as speaking in tongues, in order to ratify that he had received the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
As we have seen, the early Christians knew from studying the Scriptures that it is quite typical of God to use physical manifestations of His love (outward and visible signs) to show forth His purposes. That fact is at the foundation of the strong early Christian sacramental orientation. Since in the early Church everything in Christian worship was thought of as mystical, that is, as having the dynamic and grace-conveying nature of a Mystery, the early Christians saw no contradiction between rites and Grace. They would not consider a rite celebrated in the Assembly of the Faithful to be a bare sign, because they believed that the Minister of such a mystical rite is none other than the Son of God Himself, and the inherent power of the rite nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
This is not to say that the early Christians believed that God imparts His Spirit and His Grace only through Church rites. Obviously, God can do whatever He will. For example, without Holy Baptism, the Lord said to Saint Dismas, the Penitent Thief: "Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43). The early Christians were well aware that God can and does act outside of His own specific ordinances. For that the early Christians had the witness of the Acts of the Holy Apostles 10, where the Holy Spirit fell on the centurion Cornelius and his friends while Saint Peter was preaching, even before they were baptized. The belief that God will act outside formal ecclesiastical Mysteries is manifest in the writings of many early Church leaders. Tertullian in his Treatise on Baptism 16:1 (dated about AD 200), Cyprian of Carthage in his Letter to Jubaianus 73:22 (dated about 254), and Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures 3:10 (dated 350), and many others teach that the unbaptized believer who dies a martyr's death is thereby baptized in his own blood. Baptism in one's own blood is a totally authentic form of Holy Baptism, without benfit of clergy or any formal Mystery.
The early Church, however, looked upon Cornelius's conversion and Holy Baptism in one's own blood as highly exceptional substitutes for the normal Mysteries of the Church. The Gift of the Holy Spirit imparted through regular liturgical rites was clearly the norm. Sacramental imparting of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was so regular, so much the norm, that Simon the Sorcerer tried to buy that mystical power in order "that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:14-25). Other verses hint that the Holy Spirit was also imparted through mystical anointing with oil. (See below).
The first complete description of Holy Baptism in the early Church is found in The Apostolic Tradition 21, by Hippolytus of Rome. That work is dated about AD 215, but we must keep ever in mind that the early Christians were not at all prone to be innovators. Hippolytus is describing what had been done, at least in Rome, for a very long time. The Baptismal Service which Hippolytus describes shows that Holy Baptism was normally done by immersion, for it contains the phrases, "Let no man take any foreign object into the water with him...," and, "When the one being baptized goes down into the water..." The Rite was conducted by the local bishop, assisted by his presbyters and deacons. After being baptized and coming up out of the water, the newly-baptized was taken to the bishop, who laid his hands on the person, anointing him with oil.
In passing, it might be well to note that these assisting ministers may well have included deaconesses. We know from The Constitutions Of The Holy Apostles, III, 2, dating from the mid-third century, that one of the main functions of a deaconess was to assist in the Baptism of women. Since, at that time, one was baptized nude, it was widely considered unseemly that a deacon baptize a woman.
The duality of Holy Baptism by water, followed by the Anointing, clearly apparent here in Hippolytus, is also quite apparent in several places in the New Testament, beginning with the accounts of the Baptism of Christ. Some scholars maintain that the New Testament's literary compositions concerning Holy Baptism, as well as Our Lord's Baptism, were patterned after very early Church practice. Thus we have in the accounts of Christ's Baptism in the Jordan a reflection of Holy Baptism in the early Church. Looking at this question from another angle, we can assume that the early Church's Baptismal practice was based on the story of Christ's Baptism as recounted by the Apostles. Both ideas are possibly correct; but no matter how one looks at the issue, there is a clear-cut duality of water and the Spirit in all the Scripture accounts of Jesus's Baptism, which duality is also universally seen in the Church's Baptismal Rite.
Just as the Spirit falls upon the Lord apart from His Baptism by water, so it was understood by the early Christians that Baptism by water and Baptism in the Spirit were two distinct, though intimately connected, Rites. But note well that the two Rites were distinct, not separated. Together they formed a whole mystical Service called in the early Church Baptisma. It is very important to Pre-Nicene Christianity, that the term Baptisma never means merely the actual moment of immersion (or, in cases of extreme need, pouring) itself. All early Christian writers have in mind the whole Baptismal Rite, with all its features, when they use the term.
This duality of Baptism by water and Baptism in the Spirit is foreshadowed in Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 22 includes a dual "water and anointing" theme. Psalm 50 also speaks of "washing" in verses 2 and 7, and then renewal in the Spirit, verses 10-12. Ezekiel 36:24-27 likewise speaks of a future cleansing with water, to be followed by this gift, "a new spirit will I put within you."
Indeed, this duality is even hinted at in the initial verses of Genesis. There we are told,
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (Genesis 1:1-2).
It is no exaggeration to say that this dual theme of "water and the Spirit" is found in the Scriptures from beginning to end. For in the very last chapter of the Holy Bible we read,
And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." (Revelation 22:17).
The fact that the duality of water and the Spirit, seen in prophecy and in the Baptism of Christ, is also expressed in the early Christian Rites of Initiation, explains the several references in the New Testament to Holy Baptism "by water and the Spirit." The duality of Holy Baptism is very apparent in the Acts of the Holy Apostles, where there is a clear distinction between Baptism by water and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17; 10:47; 19:5-6). This distinction is also apparent in several verses in both the Pauline and the Catholic Epistles, where we read of a sealing with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30) and an anointing (1 John 2:20, 27). The choice of words here (sphragis and chrisma) indicate some action through which the Spirit is imparted, other than Baptism by water itself.
There is no doubt, then, that the duality of Baptism by water and anointing with oil as practiced in the early Church totally squares with the witness of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Let us then move on to examine these two phases of early Church initiation in the light of the Scriptures and the writings of the early Church Fathers.
The Washing Of Regeneration
...according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
The close and direct connection between the Baptism of Christ by John and Christian Baptism is rather obvious. The connection is so clear that some have made the mistake of identifying the two. But they are not the same. Their connection is similar to that between the Passover and the Holy Eucharist. In both cases, a previous Jewish liturgical rite has been literally Christianized, transformed by Christ for the New Israel. Just as the Eucharist is not to be confused with the Passover meal, so Christian Baptism is not to be confused with the Baptism of John, for these new Rites in Christ move far beyond their antecedents in meaning, purpose, and effect.
There were a number of Old Testament rites of purification. In his account of the Wedding at Cana of Galilee, the Theologian makes a reference to one of these, "And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece." (John 2:6). We know also of Jewish handwashings, purification washings of vessels for eating, and various forms of ritual baptism. One such rite of purification is described in detail in Numbers 19. There was also a form of Jewish proselyte baptism (not mentioned in the Scriptures), which, before the advent of Christ, had been added to the rite for the circumcision of male converts. Apparently the proselyte baptism was added since the converts had not previously observed the rites of ceremonial purification; therefore, they were sacramentally washed in order to fulfill this deficiency.
The Forerunner's Baptism of Christ was definitely in the tradition of these Old Testament purification rites. Just as at the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Jewish Passover into the Christian Eucharist, so by His Baptism in the Jordan River, He transformed Jewish ritual baptism into Christian Baptism.
Christian Baptism by Water
As in the case of all Christian Mysteries, the early Christian recognized Christ, our Great High Priest, in cooperation with His Holy Spirit, as the true Minister of Baptism. The power of Baptism, being nothing less than the present and active energy of Christ and the Holy Spirit, was understood to be always effective. In the early Church it was believed that since Holy Baptism is a basic part of the New Covenant, it is therefore a covenanted act. That necessarily implies that Holy Baptism has guaranteed, convenanted, effects. But that does not imply that the early Christians thought of Holy Baptism as some sort of magic spell. Nor did they believe that once baptized one was "always saved." For them, Holy Baptism marked the beginning of the Christian life. It was assumed that a living Christian had to live the Christian life, or else he or she would turn his back on the Grace that had been imparted in Holy Baptism, "and the last state of that man is worse than the first." (Matthew 12:45).
Around AD 200, Tertullian summed up the early Christian view in an unforgettable way: "We are little fishes that are born in water after the manner of 'ICHTHYS,' Jesus Christ; how can we be otherwise saved except by abiding permanently in the water?"
As many know, the letters of the Greek word for "fish," ichthys, from an acronym for the Greek phrase, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour." Tertullian is saying that in order to abide in the Grace of Holy Baptism, we must, as it were, remain in the baptismal waters. In other words, we must continue to live the Christian life. For Tertullian and his Christian contemporaries, living the Christian life implied not only right conduct, but also and equally it implied regular participation in the corporate worship of the Faithful, with continual and full participation in the Church's mystical life.
The early Christians were clearly very far from seeing Holy Baptism as constituting an automatic guarantee that one will be saved. Quite the contrary, the obligations of Holy Baptism were seen in the early Church to be so awesome and demanding, that some put off their Baptism for years, sometimes to the very end of their lives. They feared that if they were baptized and failed to live up to the high calling of God in Jesus Christ, they would be eternally lost. One famous person who put off his Baptism was the Emperor Constantine, who was not baptized until he lay on his death bed, where he was baptized by emergency pouring.
There are very many references to Holy Baptism in the New Testament. Obviously, Holy Baptism was a very important topic in the New Testament period, and it continued to be important in the succeeding generations of the Church. Holy Baptism was so visibly central in the life of the early Church that special buildings for the administration of the Mystery were often erected next to churches. Some of them still stand, such as the Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, a converted Roman bath, dated back to AD 449.
The early Christians believed that one is spiritually, but quite literally, born again in Holy Baptism. That doctrine is clearly taught in the New Testament. In our own time, there are those who equate being born again with having a conversion experience, that is, a form of emotional spiritual experience. The early Christians most definitely believed such an emotional experience could be valuable, though Elders through the centuries have suggested extreme caution lest that emotional experience be of satanic origin. The early Christians also believed that God acts in our hearts and in our lives even when we do not feel any particularly great emotional surge. And nowhere in the New Testament could the early Christian find any text equating being born again with an emotional experience.
The theme of being born again in Holy Baptism is found clearly in two places in the New Testament writings, John 3 and Titus 3. When one carefully reads the first half of the third chapter of the Holy Gospel according to John, which records the Lord's discourse with Nicodemus, one does not find a single word referring to having an emotional experience. Anyone who sees an emotional conversion experience in John 3 has to read it into that chapter.
The key to the meaning of John 3 is in verses 3 and 5:
"Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God....Jesus answered, 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." (N.B.: The definite article "the" does not appear in the Greek: "of water and of Spirit").
There, once again, is that key expression "of water and the Spirit." In every other place in the New Testament, it plainly has to do with Holy Baptism. The Lord is clearly speaking about Christian Baptism in the third chapter of the Holy Gospel according to John.
In his letter to Titus, Saint Paul puts forth rather straightforward teaching about being born again in Holy Baptism:
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit; Which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour." (Titus 3:5-6).
The Greek word translated in Titus 3 as "regeneration" is palingenesia, a Greek word which means precisely "birth-again". The teaching could not be clearer. What else can the "washing of regeneration" be other than Christian Baptism? The fact that the term is connected in this verse with the "renewing of the Holy Spirit," the second phase, if you will, of early Christian Baptisma, only underscores the meaning of the verse.
The early Church definitely continued in this Scriptural teaching. They believed that in Holy Baptism Christ and the Holy Spirit truly grant a new birth to the person baptized. That teaching is repeated again and again in one way or another in the writings of the early Christians, both in the Scriptures, and in later documents.
The early Church also believed in a number of other effects of Baptism which are witnessed to in the New Testament. These other effects, and the effect of new birth itself, all ultimately derive from the fact that in Holy Baptism we are united to Christ in the most intimate way; we become members of His Body: "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,...Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." (1 Corinthians 12:13, 27).
The early Christians knew Saint Paul's teaching that we die and rise in Christ: "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection." (Romans 6:3-5). And again, "...(ye were) buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead." (Colossians 2:12).
The early Christians saw that the New Testament teaches that Holy Baptism cleanses one from sin: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38). And later on: "And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." (Acts 22:16). And again: "...even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." (Ephesians 5:25-27).
It was evident to the early Christians that the New Testament teaches that Christians have been grafted into Israel: "And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; boast not against the branches." (Romans 11:17-18).
Clearly the means by which we have been grafted into Israel is through our having been made one with Christ in the waters of Baptism. Thus we can rightly say that Holy Baptism grafts us into Christ. "I am the vine, ye are the branches." (John 15:5). That is similar to the teaching that we are made members of His Body. In Galatians 3:27, the early Christians read, "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." And in the New Testament period, the early Christians began to employ one of the favorite terms for Holy Baptism. As we have seen in Hebrews 6:4, Holy Baptism is referred to as "enlightenment", photismos.
It is obvious, of course, that to be baptized into Christ and to be made a member of His Body, to be grafted into Christ and to put on Christ are all metaphors. They are not merely metaphors. The early Christians quite clearly did not think so. They understood all these expressions to have God-given and profound spiritual meaning. These are, therefore, mystical metaphors, if you will, metaphors expressing mystical and spiritual realities of the most fundamental importance to Christian Faith, worship, and life.
In the rite of Holy Baptism, the early Christians truly believed that something real happens, that a reality is made manifest, because Christ and His Holy Spirit are at work in that Mystery. The reality in Holy Baptism is that one becomes, at the deepest supernatural level, intimately joined to Christ, without losing one's individuality. It is a union whose most vivid natural manifestation, according to Saint Paul, is Holy Matrimony. (Ephesians 5). While a man and his wife are not visibly one flesh, in reality they are in fact one flesh, i.e., their particular human natures have become united. While remaining distinct persons, they have become one flesh spiritually, psychologically, functionally, and indeed, physically. The early Christians universally taught that, at the same and even deeper, invisible level of reality, we are joined to Christ and become members of His Body in Baptism. To become one with Christ at such a deep supernatural level is to enter into His Salvation. And the early Church, consonant with the Bible, did not hesitate to teach us that Holy Baptism saves: "...according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5); "...eight souls were saved by water. The like figure (antitype) whereunto Baptism doth also now save us" (1 Peter 3:20-21); and finally, "he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." (Mark 16:16).
The early Church teaching enshrined in the pages of the New Testament is that Baptism is both an objective act of God, and the subjective act of the believer. Objectively, the convenanted action of Christ and the Holy Spirit guarantees that Baptism conveys the Grace it signifies. But the other side of the coin is our God-given freedom to accept the Grace given, or to reject it. We can allow that gift of Salvation to bear fruit, or as Tertullian taught, we can freely reject the gift and become "fishes out of water". Holy Baptism has the effect of initiating one into the New Covenant of Salvation, but it does not enslave the believer. Terrifying as the fact should be, we are free to break the Covenant and to reject the Grace imparted in the Baptismal Mysteries. Stated overly simply, Holy Baptism gives us the opportunity to become Christian, the Mystieries themselves do not make us Christian.
According to New Testament and early Christian teachers in the second and third centuries, Holy Baptism is the covenanted and normal means by which Salvation is granted to the individual Christian. And yet, Holy Baptism alone in no wise guarantees one ultimate salvation, if one chooses not to live the life in Christ. Tertullian is so correct when he teaches that we "little fish" must "remain in water", that is, in the Grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit, if we are to survive as Christians.