Baptismal Theology by Professor Andreas Theodorou, University of Athens
Updated: Jun 1
It is a novel ecclesiological theory. According to it, wherever baptism is administered in the name of the Holy Trinity, there also is the true Church, and includes the heterodox. It is obvious that through this theory, which has ecumenist overtones, the boundaries of the Catholic Church are extended, under the umbrella of which many Christians can find shelter, irrespective of their more general theology, I believe, and their particular ecclesiological physiognomy. Something analogous occurs with the notorious Branch Theory of the Protestants concerning the interpretation of the Church. According to it, and of course vaguely, this theory is correct. Indeed, the confession of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of the Faith is essential both for the foundation of the Church and for the salvation of humanity. But which doctrine? Of course, the true one, as it is taught purely and intact in the bosom of the Orthodox Catholic Church of Christ. But is this also valid for heterodoxy? Surely not.
Professor Andreas Theodorou
Let us look at this matter in some detail. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity of the Orthodox Faith focuses on three basic and fundamental points: essence, hypostases and divine energies. Essence is absolutely transcendental, indescribable, and indiscernible. Hypostases are theological distinctions of divinity, persons themselves, expressing the manner of the eternal existence of the divine, the hypostatic attributes of which are personal, unconfused, and incommunicable. And the divine energies are likewise theological distinctions of the divine, which do not constitute the simple nature of God, from which they eternally originate, as the innate riches of it, they are transmitters and communicators, through which the transcendent divine nature is expressed in its various external references and manifestations, creation, revelation and redemption. And they are uncreated energies, just as divine grace is uncreated, with which they are identified.
With the confession of these three points the true doctrine of the Holy Trinity of the Faith is constituted, the confession of which is necessary for salvation. And it is easily understandable that the slightest falsification of one or even several of these points deprives man of salvation. But what is happening with the heterodox? Do they rightly accept the chief doctrine of the Faith? Certainly not. Both the Papists and the more basic offshoots of Protestantism distort it on two key points: the hypostatic relation of the persons, and the divine energies, falling into a dreadful heresy, which cuts them off from the body of the true Church of the Lord.
The first point on which they distort the Trinitarian faith is the Filioque. It mentions the order and hypostatic relations of the Triune Godhead. According to the Orthodox Faith, the Father is unborn, the Divine Source, from which eternally originate the other two Persons of the Trinity, the Son by birth and the Holy Spirit by emanation. According to the Filioque (and from the Son) the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son. In this way the principle of the Father as the only Divine Source of the Trinity is abolished, duality is introduced, the order and the hypostatic attributes of the Persons are confused, and the truth and the work of the third Person of the Holy Trinity are downgraded.
The second point is the uncreated divine energies. The heterodox reject this. According to the Papists, one such distinction destroys the simplicity of the divine nature, bringing synthesis into it. Wrongly, however. Because, just as the hypostases are divine distinctions that do not violate the simplicity of the divine nature, in equal measure the distinctions of the uncreated divine energies also do not. The Papists indeed accept divine energies, however created ones, but not uncreated ones. According to them, the Holy Divine Light was created, just as grace is created, which God creates in order to communicate with the external world and to sanctify man. But with such perceptions can the heterodox be included in the catholic aspect of the Church, as embodied and expressed by the Orthodox Catholic Church? Baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, in order to have validity and power, presupposes the true confession of the Trinitarian Faith; otherwise, it is simply an irrelevant phrase.
The same applies to Holy Baptism. It also must be authentic and genuine, if it is to define the true Church of Christ. Indeed, according to the Orthodox Faith, baptism defines the Church. Through it man sheds the dirt of ancestral transgression (the original sin), is purified from sin and is spiritually reborn. And automatically, he becomes an authentic member of the Church, is joined to the mystical Body of Christ and obtains the right to participate also in the rest of the sacraments, the ministers of the redemptive divine grace. However, in order for baptism to be able to define the Church, it must fulfill basic defined presuppositions:
a) it must be administered on the grounds of the Catholic [Orthodox] Church of
b) it must be administered in the name of the Most Holy Trinity through a triple
immersion and emersion in sanctified water, and
c) it must be administered by a canonical minister, bishop or priest.
And one may reasonably ask, does the baptism of the heterodox fulfill the above presuppositions? Of course not. First and foremost, it does not take place on the grounds of the Church, which the Lord founded, as in general both heterodox "churches" and Christian confessional communities do not belong to it. According to exact doctrine, the baptism of heretics is invalid and unsubstantial. This last characterization is of course not absolute. Under definite presuppositions (the most important of which is that it be administered in the name of the Holy Trinity), this baptism has some basis. With this basis and by dispensation, the baptism of heretics can be accepted in principle, and only in cases of heretics coming into the bosom of the Orthodox Catholic Church. But from this point to the point where the baptism of heterodox people is considered a priori valid, and even defines the Church, there is a great distance.
Then, heterodox baptism also suffers from another very important reason. While for us, baptism, in order to be valid, must be administered by a triple immersion and emersion in sanctified water, an act which symbolizes the burial and resurrection of the Lord, the heterodox (Papists and Protestants) have violated this condition, baptizing by pouring over and sprinkling. This type of baptism was of course also practiced in the ancient Church. But it was extraordinary, administered in instances of necessity, when it was not easy to immerse in a baptismal font (baptism on a sickbed, those who were bedridden due to illness). It was also a baptism of dispensation. But the introduction of this as a canonical law of the Church is impermissible, as it would damage the completeness of the holy sacrament.
Baptismal Theology, consistent with what we have stated above, is not objectionable if the baptism that defines the Church is a canonical baptism, administered on the grounds of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ. And as canonical baptism defines the Church, which is established by the historical flesh (its human members), so also the holy sacrament of Holy Communion, when properly administered, similarly defines the Church as a Eucharistic community around the bishop, expressing the indissoluble connection of the Body of Christ, faith, love and its divine dynamism.
Baptismal theology becomes suspicious and rejectable, when, surmounting the doctrinal barriers, it tends to accept, on the grounds of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, heretics and heterodox as canonical members, simply and only because they perform baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, regardless of the rest of their ecclesiological identity, and the misbelief, heresy and error that plague them. Really, how can Papism, with its multitude of heretical trinitarian and ecclesiological heterodoxies (Filioque, denial of uncreated divine energies, Papal infallibility and primacy) - not to mention its more general ecclesiastical ethos, its propensity for novelty, arrogance, its secular spirit - define the true Church, which Christ established on earth? Or how can Protestantism, with its unbridled individualism, its lack of the concept of Catholic doctrine, its absence of ecclesiastical authority and coherence, with its doctrines of an invisible and Imaginary Church, with both its division and its profile, find authentic accommodation in the Holy Church of Christ, by the mere fact that it may administer baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity? But are these things serious?
We Orthodox honor the doctrine of the great faith of the Church. And that is why, at the point in the sacred Creed where it is confessed: "in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church", we make the sign of the cross. This expresses our extreme sensitivity and our living faith in the Church which Christ established on earth to save man from sin, which Orthodoxy embodies absolutely. We proclaim this faith of ours everywhere and always. Those who hide it or refuse to confess it are not Orthodox.
Unfortunately, this sad phenomenon, that a segment of the Orthodox do not boldly and completely express their ecclesiological identity, is observed today in the ecumenist circles of the inter-Christian world, where there is a minimization of the importance of doctrines, a relaxation of ecclesiastical traditions and an untimely and careless haste to unite the churches. I wonder how many of the Orthodox who participate in ecumenist philanthropic conferences boldly express their ecclesiological identity, rejecting the basic Protestant principle of the Branch theory, which constitutes the soul of the "World Council of Churches" ecclesiology? But much caution is also required regarding the newly emerging theory of baptismal theology. That this theory also comes from Protestant ecclesiology is obvious. The trend toward the enlargement of the historic Church is aimed at sheltering in it Christians who have been cut off from it.
If this indeed happens, the matter is very dangerous for Orthodoxy, which believes that it is the only true Church of Christ on earth. And it is dangerous for another very serious reason. If it is going to be a commonly accepted basis, that is, if baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, no matter who it comes from, defines the Church, the doctrinal barriers separating the Churches are automatically removed, intercommunion is now an actuality, and the union of the Churches absolutely becomes a reality. But can we accept such things?
About the Author
Andreas Theodorou, a well-known professor at the Theological School of the University of Athens, who held the Chair of the History of Dogma and Symbolic Theology, recently reposed at the age of eighty-two (he was born in Larnaka, Cyprus in 1922). The ever-memorable professor, aside from his prolific literary activity on the subjects in which he specialized, was particularly renowned for his zeal for Orthodoxy, which he repeatedly expressed in a vigorous way through his distinctive speeches and articles against Papism and Ecumenism.