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Baptism and the Reception of Converts

In the last issue of Orthodox Tradition for 1996, you quoted St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite from The Rudder, in which this Saint of the universal Church points out that we Orthodox do not accept the Baptisms of Roman Catholics.... What about theologians like Thomas Hopko and Georges Florovsky, who argue that we accept, as Orthodox, Sacraments outside Orthodoxy? Just out of curiosity, did the writer, a convert to the Orthodox Church from Roman Catholicism who asked you to name just one Orthodox source for your correct practice of baptizing converts, follow your ad-vice and receive Orthodox baptism, on seeing what St. Nicodemos had to say about Roman Catholic baptisms? (J.K., MA)

To begin by satisfying your curiosity, the writer of the question which you cite made a similar inquiry in the past. His motivations are apparently not entirely upright, since he used our response, at that time, to demonstrate that we are "hateful fanatics." No doubt he will use our more recent answer to make similar accusations. Whatever the case, he has provided us with useful opportunities to address an important and much misunderstood subject. The issue at hand is, of course, not one of bigotry, but of canonical exactitude. We do not deny that, by "economy," the Church can endow empty heterodox sacraments with the Grace of the Orthodox Mysteries—and in describing heterodox sacraments as "empty," we are here speaking theologically and objectively and without any sense of disrespect for heterodox Christians and their practices. But this movement away from canonical exactitude should be only rarely applied, and then primarily in instances where the heterodox ritual of baptism is performed in the name of the Holy Trinity by threefold immersion: a circumstance which does not, in fact, apply to baptism as it is presently performed by the Latins. Our argument is with whole church congregations—including, in one jurisdiction, almost all of its Bishops—where reception by "economy" (by a confession of Faith, not simple confession, as some incorrectly think; or Chrismation, which is not, as others also wrongly argue, the Orthodox counterpart of Latin "Confirmation") has become the norm and Baptism, the canonical means of reception into Orthodoxy, the exception. The spiritual consequences of such a situation are ominous, indeed.

In order to justify innovation and this serious deviation from Orthodox teaching and Holy Tradition, a number of modernist Orthodox theologians, insufficiently grounded in the Fathers and in an organic understanding of the Holy Canons as they are integrated into traditional ecclesiastical life, have deceptively argued that the Church’s teachings on heterodox sacraments are not clear, when in fact they are. One such theologian, a colleague of Father Thomas Hopko, has gone so far as to suggest that the Church’s teaching on "economy" is not well defined and is thus open to varied interpretations, including those which lend credence to the notion that the Orthodox Church recognizes, through the exercise of "economy," a sacramental reality outside Her domain. This is not only a strange comment on a theological principle that itself intends to deal with what is not subject to literal definition, as we have pointed out in this column before, but it betrays a dependence on theological opinion and dispute over and against the Patristic consensus. And that consensus is clear in establishing that there exist no valid Mysteries outside Orthodoxy, leading any reasonable observer to understand that by "economy" the Church does, indeed, mean to endow empty heterodox rituals with the Grace of Orthodoxy, creating Grace where it was not. Moreover, even if this principle were not clear, in and of itself the contention that heterodox sacraments are valid does not justify the deviation from Orthodox canonical exactitude regarding the proper reception of converts that we have so justifiably called into question.

The deception lingering in modernist arguments favoring innovative Church practice in the name of "economy" is also obvious in the way that innovators argue their case. For example, they frequently use ancient ecclesiastical texts (the Didache or the Apostolic Constitutions, for example) to show that certain contemporary innovations in the Eucharistic life or that Baptism by pouring or aspersion (a perilous modern practice that is rampant in many Orthodox Churches) are, in fact, traditional practices. Such an appeal to documents describing Christian worship in its primitive form, as though, indeed, they could be separated from the Patristic witness and from Holy Tradition as we know it today, is un-Orthodox at its foundations. More to the point, as in the case of an argument against the clear Orthodox formula for Baptism (total threefold immersion in the name of the Holy Trinity), modernists too often argue on the basis of speculation, overstatement, and faulty translati ons of ecclesiastical terms that may have had quite a different meaning in the early Church. In any case, using selected elements of Christian tradition to argue against established Orthodox practice and to justify innovation is not a sober theological undertaking. Nor is it by any stretch of the imagination an Orthodox one.

We should note in conclusion, incidentally, that Father Georges Florovsky was not only unceremoniously "dumped" from the theological circles in which you have perhaps unwittingly included him, but was never by academic repute or theological bent a part of such circles—his scholarship was neither the product of an amateur pursuit of "recognition" nor that superficial commentary which now falsely claims academic dignity, but the fruit of sincere belief in Orthodoxy and of human genius—, despite the fact that they may now claim his allegiance and exploit his reputation. Admittedly, in a rather insignificant article on the thinking of the Blessed Augustine, written early in his career, Father Florovsky once unwisely suggested that Augustine’s wide notion of the sacramental boundaries of the Christian Church might serve the ecumenical movement, of which he was a supporter. (He was one of the founders of the World Council of Churches.) However, to use this suggestion, ignoring his clear defense of the absolute exclusivity and uniqueness of the Orthodox Mysteries, as support for the Orthodox acceptance of heterodox sacraments is misleading at best. Not only do his later writings demonstrate that Father Florovsky’s views in this respect matured and came to reflect more precisely the Patristic consensus (in this respect, see Constantine Cavarnos’ monograph, Father Georges Florovsky on Ecumenism [Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1992]), but he likewise came to repudiate the very ecumenical movement which had prompted his interest in Augustine’s sacramental views: views, once more, which deviated from the teachings of the Church Fathers and which represent a flaw in the theology of this great Saint and Bishop of the Church.

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Later comments in response to some issues raised in an email forum and forwarded to Archbishop Chrysostomos:

As Father George Metallinos has well demonstrated in his excellent book, Homologo hen Baptisma [I Confess One Baptism], which is certainly not a novel work or the first scholarly effort to discuss the reception of converts into Orthodoxy from an historical perspective, this subject is a complex one. That it is being discussed by second-rate scholars and by those with a specifically ecumenical agenda is obvious from the kinds of responses that one sees to the points which Father George and other well-trained Patristic scholars make about the reception of converts into Orthodoxy, which generally support the notion that Baptism has served as a standard and that, in various circumstances, reception by Chrismation has been implemented "kat' oikonomia."

Not only has the Greek world seen the application of "economy," in specific circumstances, as a reaction to historical events and with specific pastoral concerns in mind, but so has Russia, and this for centuries. The Great Schism, the lingering Orthodox sensitivities of Westerners immediately following that sad event; the response of the Orthodox world to the largely foreign issues raised for it by the Protestant Reformation; the Uniate problem in Eastern Europe; and, of course, the degradation of Orthodox theology, from time to time, under the influence of heterodox and Western thought—all of these things impinge on any valid historical account of the method for receiving converts into the Church. None of these things, however, changes the Patristic consensus, which also survives in our Hesychastic witness to this day. That witness, along with Scripture, a good knowledge of Greek, and a careful, and not superficial, interpretation of documentation and archaeological evidence from the Early Church, cannot be questioned: Baptism by threefold immersion in the name of the Trinity is the proper manner of reception into Orthodoxy. Only by "economy," in specific circumstances (and rarely so today, at a time when "economy" can be expolited by the unscrupulous to support the relativism of ecumenism), converts can also be received by Chrismation.

It is only now that we see Orthodox ecumenists, exploiting a diversity in practice in the past and embarrassed by the wholeness of the primacy of Orthodoxy (which applies to all of Her Mysteries, including Baptism), arguing, from their self-proclaimed academic eminence in various Orthodox theological schools, that ancient Baptismal fonts were too small to Baptize adults, that Chrismation, the exception for receiving converts, has always been the historical standard, and that some imagined "Trinitarian formula," precipitated out of St. Basil's writings on the subject of heresy—as though his observations exist in an historical vacuum (and this, despite the fact that he addresses specific heresies in a specific period in Church history)—, somehow dictates how non-Orthodox are received into the Church. To a thinking individual, it is obvious that one-to-one parallels between historical circumstances in the undivided Early Church hardly apply, without careful analysis, to the world of Christian pluralism that we see before us today. And if one falls to thinking (an admittedly rare pursuit today), he is quickly drawn to the consensus view to which I have referred, not to an innovative idea that does nothing but support and perpetuate the ecclesiological relativism which underlies the ecumenical movement and which Orthodox ecumenists do everything to obfuscate.

Father Georges Florovsky, who is now, after his death, supposedly a great supporter of those who hold forth with the kind of conjecture that spawns the theories about the reception of converts that you so rightly criticize, was not their friend. He not only criticized the quality of the kind of "scholarship" that they now champion, but, at the end of his life, came to believe that his correct vision of ecumenism, as a witness to the primacy of Orthodoxy, was becoming frightfully distorted. The present inane arguments against reception by Baptism is evidence of the fact that he was quite right. And those whom he opposed, who once treated him to shameful epithets, have not changed. Their successors follow the same course. Thus, all that I have said will be met with condemnation of the "fanatics," "half-wits," or, as our eminently ecumenical and gracious Patriarch in Constantinople has said, through the voice of his official publications at the Patriarchal ecumenical center in Geneva, "peasants in ecclesiastical garb."

Poor scholarship, insults, and a re-writing of history and the Patristic witness are prevalent today. But there are three things that they cannot accomplish, even if those who exploit them should slander and revile those of us who expose these weaknesses: They cannot overcome good scholarship, Christian generosity, and the accurate witness of history and the Fathers preserved, not in Western-styled seminaries, but in the Hesychastic tradition of our better monasteries and among our more sober spiritual Fathers. Therein, one will find no support for the innovation of the Orthodox modernists, who, like it or not, are under the sway of ecumenical thinking, which thinking is certainly heretical, when it leads to the slightest denial of the primacy of Orthodoxy and of Her mysteriological life.

From the Q&A section of Orthodox Tradition, vol. XIV, no. 2-3 [1997]). See also: Father Georges Florovsky on Ecumenism, by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos (Etna, CA: The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1992).