church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

One would not have guessed that the question of whether to receive a person into the Orthodox Church by baptism and chrismation or by chrismation alone would be a hot issue given the history of reception into the Church.  Both methods have been widely used in the ancient and recent past and continue to be used in the present.

This is not something in the order of magnitude of (for example) the existence of purgatory, the addition of the Filioque to the Creed, or even the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.  That is, it is hardly the liturgical hill to die on.  But it seems to have become a hot issue because some influential and loud people are now insisting that receiving a convert by chrismation alone is an “error” and one that must be “corrected” by re-baptizing the convert who was received by chrismation alone.  This re-baptism goes by the name of “corrective baptism” and is apparently widespread enough so that the term turns up on Google.  (I checked.)  We live in a strange world.

I have already written about the ecclesiastical significance of this movement.  I have also written of my personal preference for making baptism the normative way for receiving pretty much every convert to Orthodoxy.  The question to be examined here is the larger question of the importance of the method chosen.  That is, is it absolutely crucial that one method be chosen over another?  Granted for the sake of argument that a convert should ideally be received by baptism, what if that convert is received chrismation?  Is it necessary to be baptized again at a later date?  Does the phrase “should be received” actually mean “must be received”?  That is the question examined here.

We note first that in St. Basil’s day a number of methods of reception were used.  In his Letter 188, to Amphilochius, Concerning the Canons (which may be accessed here) St. Basil alludes to three of them.  In one section of the letter (preserved by posterity as “Canon 1”) he dealt with the issue of how different groups were to be received upon returning to Orthodoxy. He distinguished between 1. heresies; 2. schisms; 3. unlawful congregations.

By “heresies” he meant groups that had “altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith”. These were groups which required full baptism before they could be admitted to the Church.  By “schisms” he meant groups that “separated for some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution”—groups such those which “disagree with members of the Church about repentance”.  The Church could accept the baptism of these schismatics, so that they required only chrismation before being admitted.  By “unlawful congregations” he meant, a man “convicted of crime, and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, [who] then refuses to submit to the canons, but arrogates to himself episcopal and ministerial rights, and persons [who] leave the Catholic Church and join him”.  People from this group were readmitted to the Church “after they had been brought to a better state by proper repentance and rebuke”.

In examining the details of St. Basil’s advice (it was, after all, only his personal pastoral opinion, not a canon like the canons of the Second Ecumenical which were the consensus work of many bishops) we see some interesting things.

St. Basil mentions the example of St. Cyprian, who rejected the baptism of schismatic groups outside the Church.  But Basil goes on to say, “Nevertheless, since it has seemed to some of those of Asia that, for the sake of management of the majority, their baptism should be accepted, let it be accepted.”  That is, the peace of the Church based on the practice of the majority was the deciding factor, not that of canonical or theological precision.

In the same way, Basil preferred to reject the baptism of the rigorist Encratites of his day.  But he then says, “If, however, there is any likelihood of this being detrimental to general discipline, we must fall back upon custom, and follow the Fathers who have ordered what course we are to pursue.  For I am under some apprehension lest, in our wish to discourage them from baptizing, we may, through the severity of our decision, be a hindrance to those who are being saved.”  Doubtless it was because of this that, although he preferred to reject Encratite baptism, he admitted that he “received into episcopal rank Izois and Saturninus from the Encratite following”.

The theological rationale behind which method of reception was to be used is far from clear, and the decisions seemed to have been based upon the pastoral needs of the moment.  That was because there was no obvious apostolic precedent for resolving such a question, and was why bishops like Stephen of Rome (d. 257) and Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) and could use different methods while both appealing to antiquity and tradition.  Cyprian and North Africa followed one custom; Rome, Egypt, and Palestine followed another.  It seems that both customs could claim some antiquity.  This flexibility of usage served to keep the peace within the Church, and this peace took precedence over theological considerations about which method of reception was best.

It also produced what are, to us, some odd results.  According to Canon 95 of the Quinisext Council in 692, Arians were to be received by chrismation, while Paulianists had be baptized.  Moreover, Manichaeans, Valentinians, and Marcionites were to be received simply by renouncing their errors and receiving Holy Communion.  Given that the Arians famously denied the divinity of Christ and that Paulianists (i.e. followers of Paul of Samosata) were not much different in terms of Christological heterodoxy, and given that the Manichaeans and the Valentinians were arguably another religion entirely, it is all a bit surprising.  Apparently the pastoral needs of the day trumped almost everything.  And—here is the point—no one then saw much wrong with such an approach.  The theological and liturgical rigorism of those advocating “corrective baptism” were foreign to their worldview and liturgical praxis.

One also would want to know what the advocates of corrective baptism think happens during the chrismation of the convert.  It is, I am told, accepted that such a convert after his chrismation is within the Church.  Given that the Church is the Spirit-filled Body of Christ, what is then still lacking?  Is it suggested that the convert’s sins are not forgiven?  That the convert is not regenerated?  Or perhaps only partially regenerated?  (If so, what can a “partial regeneration” actually mean?)  Is it suggested that the convert does not possess the Holy Spirit?  If it is acknowledged that the chrismated convert has been forgiven, born again, and given the Holy Spirit, then what in the name of all the Seven Ecumenical Councils is experientially lacking?  Devout Protestants are (I suggest) saved and experience the Holy Spirit, but they are still in some sense outside the Church.  If the chrismated convert is inside the Church, what could still be missing in his conversion?

Corrective baptism is, I suggest, liturgical legalism on steroids.  It also brings up the question of what kind of God we think we are serving.  Is He a deity who refuses a full infusion of grace because a liturgical detail was missed?  Most clergy know of cases where trembling legalistic souls are worried and angsty because the baptized person’s scalp or back didn’t go entirely under the water during their baptismal immersion, and want the offending scalp or back to be correctively dunked later on.

To them we would ask the same question:  are they suggesting that God withholds His grace until the immersion meets the required specifications?  In such baptisms, do the angels wring their hands invisibly and say to each other, “Alas, alas!  He missed a spot”?  The question is not liturgical, but theological.  Is the God of grace a legalist?  Or does “the grace divine which always heals that which is weak and completes that which is wanting” make up for the un-immersed scalp and back?

The practice of “corrective baptism” is dangerous because it suggests an unworthy and legalistic view of God.  It verges on turning sacraments into magic, and liturgical words into verbal spells.  As said above, I would be quite happy to baptize pretty much everyone.  But the God whom we serve, in both baptism and chrismation, is no legalist, but the God of grace, the One who accepted the penitent thief into paradise without any ceremony, and One who wants all to be saved. Those promoting corrective baptism not only disturb the peace of the Church and seek to usurp the place of its bishops.  They also offer an unworthy picture of God.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.