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Baptism and Grace

by Fr. Gregory Telepneff, ThD

The late Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow, of blessed memory, was more than once in his lifetime quoted to the effect that the Grace of God was not totally absent from non-Orthodox Christians; yet, when pressed to accept inter-Communion with Anglicans or Catholics, he declared this to be impossible. Evidently, the issue is more complicated than it seems to be at first glance, and the Metropolitan felt that there were quite serious differences separating Orthodoxy from the Western confessions, nonetheless. In this century, however, much has been made of the apparent discrepancies between the consistent Russian practice of avoiding re-baptism, in contrast to the fairly consistent Greek propensity for re-baptism. Some twenty years ago, Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in a chapter from his book Eustratios Argenti: A Study of the Greek Church Under Turkish Rule, apparently quite logically explained that the variation in Russian and Greek practice was not based upon any theological differences, but, rather, merely upon different uses of oikonomia. Still, many Orthodox today are not satisfied with this position, and refer to the statements of recognized holy men, such as Metropolitan Philaret, in support of their contention that non-Orthodox Christians do indeed "have some grace." Moreover, one may say that the testimony of a holy man, though perhaps not always infallible, is formidable nonetheless. One may indeed contend that many times such holy men poetically sense certain matters of faith that defy totally "logical" verbal explanations [1]. Still, it does not seem to me that there is necessarily any theological difference between Greek and Russian thought with regard to grace and non-Orthodox baptisms. By reference to a few pertinent Patristic quotations, I hope to explain this.

Let us begin with a recent article by Mr. John Erickson [2], in which he writes several things of interest concerning this matter. I should like to make reference to two of his points in particular. First, it seems he misses one rather essential point in St. Basil when he endeavors to offer this Father as an example of a more "moderate" Orthodox Patristic voice. Erickson claims that St. Basil "accepts" the baptisms of certain Novationists (cf pp. 120-22). Now, St. Basil certainly understands in his statements that to baptize twice—that is, a second time "validly," as it were—is considered a sin in Orthodoxy. And yet St. Basil writes further, concerning Encratites (a dualistic gnostic group):

I deem therefore that since there is nothing definitely prescribed as regards them [Encratites] it was fitting that we should set their baptism aside and if any of them appears to have left, he shall be baptised upon entering the Church. If however this is to become an obstacle in the general economy of the Church, we must again follow the others who economically regulated thc Church [i.e., and not re-baptize]. (Canon 1)

Also, in his forty-seventh canon, St. Basil states that Encratites and Novationists (the latter being those, according to Mr. Erickson, whose baptism is "accepted") come "under the same rule"—so the parallel in these two cases is obvious. Would the Great Basil so lightly, as it seems, treat the possiblity of committing a grave sin in repeating this Holy Mystery, if he meant by the word "accept" that such baptisms were valid? Obviously not. He does not say that such baptisms are "valid"; in "accepting" them, he simply acknowledges their Orthodox form. And here is the mistake that Mr. Erickson makes—one which should not be made.

Yet elsewhere in his article, Erickson states that we Orthodox cannot totally deny the charismatic significance of non-Orthodox baptism—looking at it as if it were no different from a pagan act (except, of course, in the case of an extreme heretical sect). One might, in support of this, cite the words of Metropolitan Philaret. Although his interpretation of St. Basil's foregoing reference was certainly off the mark, and while one may say that not all of the conclusions that Erickson draws in his article are fully Orthodox, this latter statement of his does make sense and is compelling. We are, then, back to the issue of the Russian and Greek practices and the ostensible disparity between what makes sense to us, as supported by Metropolitan Philaret, and St. Basil's understanding that, while we may accept the "form" of some baptisms, this does not mean that we, as Orthodox, recognize them as valid. Mr. Erickson's approach does not solve this dilemma for us.

In order to reconcile these seemingly discordant views of non-Orthodox baptism, let us define what Orthodox baptism is and does. Then let us define what grace is and what it does. We shall cite here St. Diadochus of Photiki:

Before holy Baptism, grace encourages the soul from the outside, while Satan lurks in its depths, trying to block all the noetic faculty's ways of approaching the Divine. But from the moment that we are reborn through Baptism, the demon is outside, grace is within. Thus whereas before Baptism error ruled the soul, after Baptism truth rules it. Nevertheless, even after Baptism Satan (can) still act upon the soul....

If my reading of the Holy Fathers is correct, what the saving acts of Christ make possible is the appropriation of grace by man himself—making "grace his own," which in turn totally renews and transforms the entire person. That is to say, a real metaphysical, ontological change can now take place in the baptized person, if—as St. Gregory Nyssa tells us in his Catechetical Oration—he lives virtuously and makes his baptism effective in Faith and the spiritual life.

In saying what we have about grace and baptism, we have not said that non-Orthodox are totally without grace, indistinguishable from pagans. No indeed. If I understand St. Maximos correctly, Christ (and hence grace) can be found in virtue itself. A virtuous man takes on grace by virtue of virtue, since virtue proceeds from spiritual reality. Of course, without the radical ontological transformation that takes place in the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, such grace cannot be appropriated and cannot be made "one's own." Nevertheless, as we see in the words of St. Diadochus, grace is still present—though acting from without, rather than from within. And so, it is this internal-external distinction which separates Orthodox baptism from non-Orthodox baptism: the Orthodox baptism does what Christ, the Apostles, and the Church always intended it to do—it transforms man from within, totally renewing the true human nature and opening the way for potential communion with the divine.

Thus, Metropolitan Philaret was not wholly mistaken in his desire to attribute some "charismatic" significance to non-Orthodox baptism. If, in the theological climate of Latin influence on the Russian Orthodox Church at the time, his words are a bit overstated, what he could not express with perfect theological precision he nonetheless knew intuitively and poetically. While he knew that a non-Orthodox baptism itself was not efficacious (since he would not allow intercommunion with the heterodox), he knew fully well that the virtuous act of faith in Christ which we see in non-Orthodox baptisms was something in the eyes of God. What that something is, he perhaps was too quick to say. It is not the renewing, metaphysically-transforming thing that Orthodox baptism is, but it is powerful enough that even Roman actors, mocking the Christian Mysteries, were often converted to Christ by simply enacting the ritual of baptism.

It is Orthodox baptism—and Orthodox baptism alone—which begins to fulfill the saving work of our Lord in the human person in the fullest sense. Whereas a believer can be led to repentance (even St. John the Forerunner baptized a baptism of repentance), only in the baptized Orthodox Christian can there be restoration to the true self and recovery from a state of corruption and stain—only an Orthodox baptism can restore the ontological integrity of man (cf St. Athanasios On the Incarnation).

We may note that several of the great Fathers of the Church (including Sts. Basil, Augustine, and Gregory the Theologian) have implied that the "charismatic," as distinct from the "sacramental," boundaries of the Church may not completely coincide with the canonical ones. There may be aspects and dimensions of the Church which have not been revealed to us by God. Indeed, we see a parallel between these implications and our Christian understanding that the Church in "embryo" existed among God's chosen people, the Israelites. One may also cite, as part of these "shady" areas, St. Basil's contention that some schismatics are not to be considered wholly outside the Church (Canon 1). And the late Father Georges Florovsky notes that the Church has categories of people, such as catechumens and penitents,[3] who are perhaps not full members of the Church, and yet certainly are not regarded as heathens. We are not simply being polite when we insist that non-Orthodox Christians be called Christians.

When the Russians receive non-Orthodox by Chrisimation, then, they are doing so with a keen eye toward the charismatic grace outside Orthodoxy, but not with a view of accepting "sacramental" grace in the non-Orthodox. Greeks, when they practice baptism, are not denying this charismatic grace, but are emphasizing that it is not the grace of the Mysteries. In essence, we see oikonomia differently exercised in these instances. There is no discrepancy in these two traditions. The only discrepancy arises when we mistakenly try to attribute to the Fathers—St. Basil, for example— views which they do not have (the Fathers cannot really be understood as "moderate" or "extreme" with regard to matters such as baptism), or when we try to make the difficult question of where grace, of whatever kind, is or is not a simple one.

We are not, in the end, preserving the purity of the Holy Faith when we attempt to prove that the fullness of grace and true baptism exist outside the Orthodox Church. That this is being done increasingly by converts to Orthodoxy should prompt us to think about whether we are conveying to those who come to Orthodoxy the fullness of the Church's teaching. Creating of Orthodoxy an ecumenical religion that it is not is ultimately the most harmful thing for converts. They are building their own stones from the crumbs that they are offered in these hard days. On the other hand, we do disservice to the Providence of God when we do not understand the depth and subtle nature of Orthodox Patristic thought. The Fathers have a deep and profound unity to their witness, but it must be studied and understood with care and charity. It does not compromise our stand for the uniqueness and primacy of Orthodoxy to admit that there are many non-Orthodox confessors of Christ who shame us. The Royal Path demands that we have great zeal for the Faith, yet not limit the workings of Divine Providence.

For those who find in our views the proverbial "closet ecumenism," we would only stress that ecumenism, as we have pointed out, is a total distortion of Orthodox teaching. For those who would claim that we believe that salvation is relative, we would cite the words of the Fathers above and our own belief that the fullness of life in Christ can only be found in Orthodoxy—and that fullness is the very nature of Christianity. And to those who would wish that the Orthodox Church were not what she must always be —the very criterion of Truth and the Church of the Apostles, the only Church of Christ—, we would only say that they have yet a long way to go before they are truly Orthodox.


1. When Greek and Russian holy men seem to disagree on matters, we must seek beyond the inadequacies of language and see the noetic unity of their thoughts. Only then do we see the profundity of theological truths at a higher level, in which discrepancies and opposites become the same.

2. St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, No. 2, 1985.

3. It is interesting to note, too, that Sts. Chyrsostomos and Gregory the Theologian both tell us that the unbaptized infants are saved, but that they are not on the same level as those who have striven and suffered for the Faith.

From Orthodox Tradition, III, 1986