In my previous blog piece I examined the question of how converts to Orthodoxy should be received. One set of criteria which suggested that non-Chalcedonians should be received by confession alone, that those “who previously have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity in a manner recognized as authentic” should be received by chrismation alone, and that those “from non-Christian religions who do not believe in the Holy Trinity, or those that do not baptize with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” should be received by baptism. Those in this third group were said to include “Baptists, Buddhists, and Jews”. I suggested that this set of criteria was inadequate given current ecclesiastical complexities, and that the counsel of St. Basil might be of help in addressing our current situation.
This counsel is found in Basil’s letter to a friend in which he offered his opinion about a number of canonical questions. In one section of the letter (preserved by posterity as “Canon 1”) St. Basil 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 all these decisions, Basil’s rationale seemed to be the degree to which the group had become “alienated in matters relating to the actual faith”. In Basil’s words, “The old authorities decided to accept that baptism which in nowise errs from the faith”. He did not focus narrowly upon their theology of baptism or whether or not they offered a verbal confession of the Holy Trinity, for the Encratites of his day were orthodox in their Trinitarian theology (Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies, VIII, xiii refers to them as “acknowledging what concerns God and Christ in like manner with the Church”) and yet Basil still advised that their baptisms be rejected. It seems that he examined the group’s faith and life as a whole and not simply one aspect of it. (Scholars, feel free to weigh in.)
Note too: what counted was the faith of the group in which the candidate had been baptized, not the candidate’s own personal views. A candidate might dissent from the erroneous views of his former church, but what counted was that church’s faith itself. Obviously economia was required in some cases (Basil himself cited the example of the followers of Izois and Saturninus whom he received without rebaptism), but the akribeia or norm looked at the views of the baptizing church, not the idiosyncratic views of the individual who had been baptized by them.
I suggest that this ought to guide our approach as well. We should consider the faith and life of a group taken as a whole and not simply their stated understanding of baptism or their confession of the Trinity. The Orthodox Church would therefore look to the dissident group and try to discern whether or not it can recognize its own Faith there. Obviously that faith will not be identical with that of Orthodoxy in all respects, but the important and broad outline of the Orthodox Faith should be the focus, and not simply the group’s baptismal theology and practice. Thus the fact that Bishop Spong’s Episcopal Church baptizes with water in the name of the Trinity and confesses that this baptism is sacramentally transformative cannot be the deciding factor if that Church has been so marred by liberalism so as to effectively be another religion. If we make this patristic approach our own, certain conclusions follow.
Firstly, our Evangelical Protestant friends must be received by baptism, since Orthodoxy cannot recognize its own faith among them. It is happily true that they share our acceptance of the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity (apart of course from the issue of the Filioque), and much of our moral praxis and standards as well. That is cause for celebration and allows us to regard them as brethren in Christ who partake of His salvation and His Holy Spirit (whether from or apart from their sacraments I here offer no opinion).
Please note: I emphatically believe that these Protestant evangelicals are saved and are therefore our brothers and sisters in Christ. Receiving them into Orthodoxy by baptism does not, to my mind, imply that they were not born again prior to their Orthodox baptism any more than receiving them by chrismation implies that they had not received the Holy Spirit. All it means is that their previous spiritual experiences were received in schism, and that baptism or chrismation is the door into the historical Church and the way out of schism. What is undeniable from the patristic perspective at least is that they reject so much of the Orthodox Faith that it cannot be said that (in St. Basil’s words) they “in nowise err from the faith”. Given their sometimes heated and emphatic rejection of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ there, their rejection of the regenerative power of baptism, of the necessary place of asceticism within the life of the Christian, of the role of clergy and of sacramental confession, of prayers to the Theotokos and the saints, of veneration of their icons and relics, and (in many cases) the total transformation of liturgical worship into religious entertainment, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we have here in many ways a different religion.
Here one may pose an historical question: if St. Basil could arise today and walk into an Evangelical Protestant church service and familiarize himself with their doctrine, praxis, and spirituality, does anyone deny he would have trouble recognizing their spirituality and life as the Christianity with which he was familiar? Would he say that this church does “in nowise errs from the faith”? Would he not rather reluctantly conclude that it erred from the faith in practically everything, so that people coming from this church to Orthodoxy must be received by baptism?
Secondly, I suggest that mainline Protestants should be received by baptism as well. It is true that much of their historical teaching and morality was consistent with traditional Orthodoxy—which is perhaps why Orthodox bishops in the past had been willing to receive converts from them by chrismation alone. But that was then; this is now, and most of the Protestants of today look nothing like their ancestors. Orthodox churches receiving those converts in the past (were there ever very many of them?) made a number of assumptions which no longer hold. Formerly they believed (perhaps a little naively) that these denominations were strictly confessionally based, so that if their Confession or Statement of Faith made a pronouncement regarding the faith, then everyone in that denomination regarded the pronouncement as binding and they therefore believed it. The bishops also believed that these churches were untouched by a liberalism of theology and morality so that they looked a lot like the Orthodox. These things might have been true at the time those Confessions were drafted, but it hasn’t been true for some time now.
The Anglicans have not formerly repudiated their Thirty-Nine Articles, but any member of the Church of England appealing to them as a binding authority now would be laughed out of court. Their Creed may state that they believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ” who is “light from light, true God from God, of one essence from the Father”, but that never stopped Bishop Spong from denying it long and loudly—or, come to that, bishops like Christopher Pike (d. 1969) before him. My own former United Church of Canada has been overwhelmingly and effectively Unitarian for at least a generation, despite the fact that it still formally subscribes to the Creed. Such formal subscription is easy and costs nothing—and therefore tells you nothing. One can tell whether or not the subscription possesses reality by what the church does when someone openly denies the teaching. For example, if a clergyman openly expresses a view denying the divinity of Christ, is he or she disciplined or deposed? If a layman does so, is he or she excommunicated? If not, then the verbal and historical subscription to the divinity of Christ in the Creed is worthless. A Church’s discipline is everywhere a test of its true views. The actual state of a denomination can be gauged by this, and not simply by what is written on a piece of paper somewhere.
The truth is that most of the mainline Protestant churches have been so liberal as to allow its people to deny practically anything they like with no ecclesiastical consequences whatsoever. Indeed, adherence to the older traditional faith is more likely to be an impediment to promotion. This overwhelming surrender to theological liberalism is the elephant in the ecumenical room. Many if not most of these churches have accepted women clergy and blessed homosexual practice, and are now in the throes of accepting transgenderism as well. This in itself disqualifies them from being considered anything that St. Basil would recognize as remotely Christian. Individuals from these denominations may not agree with their churches when the churches embrace such liberal heresy, but a person’s reception into the Orthodox Church must depend upon their former church’s life and praxis, not the (happily orthodox) idiosyncratic views of individuals within her. There is always room for economia to deal with such situations, of course, such as in cases wherein their former church bears a great resemblance to Orthodoxy or when other pastoral considerations arise. But our normative akribeia must base itself upon the actual state of the other churches themselves and not upon individuals within them. Please note that I am her referring to Protestant denominations that are liberal enough in their theology to embrace gay marriage, not to conservative denominations which are holding the line against the rising tide of liberalism.
What then of our Roman Catholic friends and our non-Chalcedonian neighbours? I suggest that the latter be received by chrismation, and be treated as schismatics, for I agree with the theologians who regard the differences between our respective Christologies as merely verbal. As for the former, it all depends upon how one answers two questions: 1) Are the differences between liberal and conservative Roman Catholics sufficient for us to say that we cannot recognize our faith among them? And 2) Should the mode of baptism by affusion rather than by immersion be regarded as an impediment to accepting their baptism? These are good questions, which unfortunately cannot be dealt with in this already overlong essay. But a beginning must be made somewhere since the drift of these churches away from Orthodoxy continues to escalate. The praxis of the past cannot provide a precedent for our present action so that it is no good citing it as if it now should have binding force. Too much has changed.