Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Baptism - Part I

Why talk about Baptism? For all of us who were baptized, it happened in the past, and many of us, if we were baptized as infants, can’t even recall the event. Isn’t it enough to know that getting baptized was important to do, and move on to more relevant things? If this is our attitude toward Baptism, then we risk taking Baptism, and all that it means, for granted. Here are some questions to help us examine our attitude toward Baptism1:
  • Is Baptism just a necessary condition for church membership, or to be a member in good standing?
  • Is it just a formality in order to receive the rest of the Sacraments of the Church?
  • Do we think of it as a guarantee of salvation and eternal life?
  • Is it just a past event, or is it a permanent experience that permeates our lives and shapes our Christian worldview; our motivations, actions, and decisions?
In order to understand Baptism, let’s begin with Scripture. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”, and Romans 6:4 says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” From these Scriptures, we can recall how the Church refers to Baptism as the second birth, because in Baptism we identify with and participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. We are cleansed of and die to our sinful life, and are reborn into a new, spiritual, holy life, in which we put on a new nature. We put on Christ, are clothed with Christ, and participate in His divine nature.

In Exodus 14, Moses leads the Israelites, the chosen people of God, through the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land. The early Church Fathers viewed this event as a foreshadowing of Baptism, in that Baptism is a passage of God’s chosen people through the waters of sin and death to the promised land of freedom in Christ. Thus, Baptism is not only an individual event, but a communal event. In fact, Baptism was not originally a private event to be celebrated among family and friends. It was a community and public event to be shared with and among the Church. Either way, we are brought to the font as individuals by the community, and we leave the font as members of the community; members of the people of God; members of His Body, the Church.

This being said, what happens at Baptism, and what Baptism means is ultimately a Mystery. In fact, ‘Sacraments’ in the Armenian Orthodox Church are more aptly referred to as ‘Mysteries’, and because the Armenian Orthodox Church emphasizes Mystery, there is no obligation to analyze Baptism, explain what it means in every detail, or have a definitive answer to what is essentially mysterious. We do it out of obedience, following the apostolic teachings of the early Church, knowing that it is a Mystery ordained and established by Christ. Thus, within this framework of Mystery, we acknowledge Baptism as an expression of what has already been accomplished through Christ; the grace that is already available to us because of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Through Baptism, by faith, we lay claim to and receive this available saving grace.

1Alexander Schmemann – Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism, 8-9.

Picture above: St. Gregory the Illuminator baptizes Tiridates III, King of Armenia


mhebert00 said...

Vozz, I was with you up until the last statement "Through Baptism, we lay claim to and receive this available saving grace." Is that to say without baptism we cannot lay claim to and receive this grace?
Otherwise, I agree with you on the mystery of the sacrements that so often is neglected in the evangesmatic streams.
Marc H.

Unknown said...

I would say its:" Through faith, we lay claim to and receive this available saving grace" Not to say that baptism isn't important though.

vozz said...

un_verch - I have updated that statement to read, "Through Baptism, by faith, we lay claim to and receive this available saving grace". Thanks for reading!

vozz said...

Hey Marc! It's nice to hear from you. Your question, "Is that to say without baptism we cannot lay claim to and receive this grace?" is not a simple yes or no answer.

Does "we" refer to Evangelical-Charismatic Christians?... Does the Evangelical-Charismatic receive grace and salvation at Baptism? Having once been a part of the Evangelical-Charismatic tradition, I know they do not understand Baptism as a "Sacrament" or a "Mystery", but understand it as an "ordinance", in which it is only an outward symbol, with no recpetion of grace or salvation, and certainly does not come through the Church, via apostolic succession. So, my assumption is that they don't believe (or want) grace to be available at Baptism, let alone salvation (especially how they understand salvation), and I'm not sure they can just alter their theology in order for Baptism to become a Sacrament, at least in the Orthodox or Catholic sense. (Note: Within Protestantism, Lutherans and Anglicans take a sacramental view of Baptism).

Does "we" refer to Armenian Orthodox Christians?... At Baptism - grace, forgiveness, cleansing of sin, a new nature, participation in Christ, membership into the Church, and salvation, etc. are given to the baptized inidividual, and this does not happen merely because it is a believed theology among theologies, but because it comes from Christ, through the apostolic Church, via the bishops and priests. i.e. apostolic succession. Also, Armenian Orthodoxy has a much broader view of salvation in that it is a dynamic process; an ongoing experience by which we are 'being' saved, rather than a one-time momentary event. So, for Armenian Orthodox Christians, is Baptism the only way to receive grace and salvation? Well, it's the initial way, in that the grace imparted upon the baptized sets that person on the path to salvation, to be lived out within the Church, but wherever there is grace, there is salvation. Thus, we receive grace and salvation from all of the sacraments of the Church, as well as by living a penitential and prayerful life, working out our salvation. (Note: the 'sacramental life' is much broader than the 7 official Sacraments practiced in the Church).

Does "we" refer to a Christian of any tradition (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox)?... If your question is, "without Baptism, is there salvation?", the Armenian Orthodox Church does not claim to know this. We practice what we believe Christ established and gave us regarding the Sacraments, and passed down to the Apostles through the Church. At the same time, we believe God is able to work outside of the Armenian Orthodox Church in ways we may never know. We only know what has been revealed to us. (Note: the Orthdox Church, as well as the Catholic Church, recognize the Baptism of other traditions, as long as it is done in the name of the Trinity, but they will still chrismate new members into their tradition).

I hope that helps, and is not overwhlemingly lengthy. I wanted to make it brief, but more importantly, I wanted to thoroughly answer your question and any underlying ideas. Let me know what you think...

mhebert00 said...

Thanks for the thoughtful answer Vozz and for underscoring the differences between the traditions. The “we” I refer to are those who, by grace, through faith are working out their salvation. So more accurately then, my question is; does the Armenian Orthodox Church believe that baptism is a requirement for Salvation? Yes I understand and agree that salvation is a process and that we are being saved daily but without baptism can we be “in process”?
How does the Armenian Orthodox theology differ from reformed that would say requiring baptism for salvation is contrary to the “by grace alone” position?
As far as the Evangelical/Charismatic tradition, there is a broad spectrum of belief but I think if pressed, most church leaders would agree in a pseudo sacramental view (that is to say a grace imparting work though not received through the Church) but those words would scare a lot of the former Catholics that make up so much of this tradition.

vozz said...

Part I

Hey Marc. Thanks for clarifying your question(s). Hopefully, in the very lengthy essay below, I have answered or re-answered your question(s). Thank you for taking interest. I love having this discussion.

"Does the Armenian Orthodox Church believe that baptism is a requirement for Salvation...without baptism can we be “in process"?"

Christ commanded Baptism, and so Baptism is a requirement for the salvation process, as the beginning of salvation. This is what the early Church believed and practiced, and stated in the Nicene Creed as "one baptism for the remission of sins". So to answer your question...yes, the Armenian Orthodox Church believes that baptism is a requirement for salvation. Having said that, we do not believe salvation is fully attained at Baptism, nor at any time during this life. That is why we do not claim to "be saved". Rather, we are "being saved", and Baptism is what points us in the direction of salvation. (Keep in mind that Baptism entails much more than the remission of sins. I talked about its broader significance in the original blog post.)

"How does Armenian Orthodox theology differ from reformed that would say 'requiring baptism for salvation is contrary to the "by grace alone" position'?"

For the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, salvation in its entirety is a process. There is no sharp distinction between Justification and Sanctification. This is a big difference between Orthodoxy and any form of Protestant theology, such as "grace alone" and "faith alone". For Orthodox Christians, salvation is not just Justification or forgiveness of sins, or a merely a legal declaration of an unrighteous person as righteous before God, but a renewing and restoration of God's image in man. According to the Orthodox Church, we are saved by faith, through grace, and the source is Christ. The life of faith comes through the Church, as she is our mother and teacher. Are we saved by grace alone? Yes, ultimately salvation is only by God’s mercy and grace, which is why in the Armenian Orthodox Church we constantly pray, "Der Voghormya" ("Lord, Have Mercy"), and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the 'Jesus Prayer' (as you have seen in the movie "Ostrov") is their prayer of salvation – "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." When it comes to salvation, what else can we possibly pray?

That being said, salvation is a gift of grace, not earned, but how do we open ourselves up to receive that gift? saying yes to it; by saying yes to Him; by living a life of faith worked out – in thought, word, and deed. It is not by faith alone, but by a faith expressed through love, where faith is concrete; where faith without works is dead. We’re not saved by our works, but we will be judged by how these works have changed our heart toward Him. "Our works don’t earn merit, but are a grateful response and feeble attempt on our part to show appreciation to God for what He has done for us. They are how we open ourselves up and respond to His gift of salvation." (Anthony Coniaris)

vozz said...

Part II

"The 'we' I refer to are those who, by grace, through faith are working out their salvation."

Is grace imparted to the 'we' you are referring to? Does Protestant Baptism impart salvation? Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but you are looking for the Armenian Orthodox Church to answer for all who refer to themselves as Christians.

The Armenian Orthodox Church believes that Christianity has been revealed by Christ, to the Apostles, and passed down through the visible Church via Holy Tradition. So, in one sense we believe that the true universal form or expression of Christianity is found in the Person of Jesus Christ, and is fully expressed in the Apostolic Churches, i.e. Orthodox and Catholic. (Even though there are doctrinal differences within these Churches, what they share is Apostolic Succession; i.e. visible authority where the Church itself is the pillar of truth – I Timothy 3:15).

In another sense, I'm only speaking on behalf of what the Armenian Orthodox Church believes about Christianity, realizing that God can and does work outside of the Armenian Orthodox Church. I can't speak for all of Christianity, because everyone defines Christianity, and what it means to be a Christian differently, especially Protestants. Again, many people claim to be Christian, but there are many opposing views regarding how Christianity is to be lived out. The Armenian Orthodox Church believes that to be a Christian is to be united with His Body, the Church. The first step in uniting to His Body is Baptism, and this is understood and lived out within a specific understanding of salvation. Many denominations and individuals within the 'we' you refer to explicitly deny this, but according to the Apostolic Churches, any view that opposes this is seen as a departure from the Church established by Christ.

The reason I previously brought attention to the differences between the traditions is because, in a way, the answer to your question(s) can only be answered from within a specific tradition. Within Evangelical/Charismatic/Protestant theology salvation as a whole is not a process. Salvation is an individual matter, and occurs at the moment of Justification (sinner's prayer, altar call, moment of conversion, etc.), and Sanctification is the process that takes place afterward. For the Orthodox, salvation is not merely personal, but shared among the Body; the Church, via Baptism. Due to these differing views of salvation, the views about Baptism, as well as the Church, will be different.

Can the Armenian Orthodox Church answer with confidence that the unbaptized will or will not be saved? Again, we only claim what has been revealed to the visible Apostolic Church. We know of no other way to be saved then to become a member of His Body through Baptism, and work out our salvation in the context of His Church, partaking of the Sacraments, and living a penitential life. If God saves those who have not been baptized, that is up to Him, but we believe that He has not revealed salvation apart from Baptism or the Church. Ecclesiology (The Church) and Soteriology (Salvation) – and for that matter any western category of systematic theology – are not separated or understood apart from each other. To understand Soteriology is to directly understand Ecclesiology, and to tamper with one, is to affect the other, and so on. The Church, salvation, and eschatology are united.

...But the question still remains – "is Baptism salvific and efficacious regardless of a certain Protestant sect’s or individual’s denial?" We don’t fully know, and (I) choose not to answer on behalf of how God saves people outside of what He has already revealed to the Church. The Apostolic Churches do acknowledge the Baptism of a Protestant as valid, if it has been done in the name of the Trinity. If not, (i.e. it has only been performed in the name of Jesus), then they don’t recognize it as valid (maybe with some exception).

Unknown said...

vozz: thanks for the clarity.
vozzman dad

vozz said...

Part III

Believe it or not Marc, I'm not satisfied with my answer. Allow me to say 2 more things:

1) I know I referred mostly to Evangelical and Charismatic traditions and how they deny the sacramental-ness of Baptism, so I want to be fair and mention that Lutherans and Anglicans (and perhaps a couple more mainline Protestant denominations) affirm Baptism as a Sacrament, and will tie salvation and Church membership to it in some way. To a Protestant seeking out the Sacraments and wanting to align with the early Church, the Catholic Church, and/or the Orthodox Church, this may seem like a valid option. BUT...although these denominations associate soteriological and ecclesiological language to Baptism, what they mean by "Church" is entirely different than what the Catholic and Orthodox Churches mean. For the Protestant, the Church is not visible, not authoritative, and there is no Apostolic Succession as the Orthodox and Catholic Churches teach it. Thus, Baptism into the Church, as believed by some Protestants, is still not what the early Church taught, and what the Catholic and Orthodox Churches continue to teach.

2) I want to make sure I answer your question clearly...yes, according to Armenian Orthodoxy, Baptism is necessary for salvation. Does that apply to all Christians outside of the Armenian Orthodox Church? For example, are those who are not baptized, and belong to non-denominational Evangelical Churches unable to be "in process", or unable to be saved? To put it directly, we don't know, and can't know. The Armenian Orthodox Church does not claim that its teachings are authoritative for all Christians, but it does claim to be Apostolic, and has not departed from what the early Church taught about Baptism, and the rest of the Sacraments. Thus, anyone outside of the Apostolic Church (Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic) is outside of the Church Christ has established, and thus, we cannot definitively answer questions of salvation regarding them. We only know what God has revealed about His Church through Holy Tradition, which includes Scripture, Oral tradition, the Church fathers, the Councils, Creeds, Liturgy...etc.

Hopefully, after all of this I have answered your questions. I apologize for the redundancy.

vozz said...

You're welcome dad (vozzman)!

vozz said...

Here is a quote that may help us understand the relationship between grace and works as related to salvation and Baptism.

“Everyone baptized in the orthodox manner has received mystically the fullness of grace; but he becomes conscious of this grace only to the extent that he actively observes the commandments.” - St. Mark the Ascetic