baptismal Consecration: Nicholas Afanasiev’s Theology of Baptism and Universal Priesthood1
Presentation at the 4th Symposium of Romanian Spirituality, St. Paul University, Ottawa ON, March 5, 2011
Nicholas Afanasiev lived between 1893 and 1966. He is known primarily for his eucharistic ecclesiology, which affirms that the fullness of the Church is present In the eucharistic celebration centered around the bishop.2 John Zizioulas, Dumitru Staniloae, and Timothy (Kallistos) Ware have criticized rather harshly the inconsistencies inherent In Afanasiev’s pioneering work on eucharistic ecclesiology. However, they rarely—if ever—mention the book, The Church of the Holy Spirit, which provides a larger and truer picture of Afanasiev’s theological thought. Here, eucharistic theology is strengthened by his theology of Baptism and, In turn, eucharistic ecclesiology becomes the lens through which he reads the early history of the sacrament of Baptism. I would even venture to say that this book represents the most valuable treatise of Orthodox ecclesiology3 especially because of Afanasiev’s treatment of Baptism as entry into the charismatic community of the Church and consecration into universal priesthood, the subject of my presentation today.
I would like to bring this subject to your attention because only a handful of theologians have recognized the importance of Afanasiev’s thought. Such is the case of his colleague at St. Sergius Institute In Paris, Paul Evdokimov (the two also share a heightened appreciation of the priesthood of all the baptized), and some of his students, including John Meyendorff and especially Alexander Schmemann. The influence on the latter is most visible in the relationship between the clergy and the laity as concelebrants of the Liturgy; the historical analysis of liturgical developments, Afanasiev being generally more thorough than his student; and frequent communion. Moreover, as an official Orthodox observer at Vatican II, where the bishops were required to read some of his works, Afanasiev had a significant influence on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. He is certainly worth knowing.
Today I will not speak about Afanasiev’s eucharistic ecclesiology In detail, even though he is mostly famous (and criticized) for it. Instead, I will analyze his theological context, compare early Baptismal with Ordination rites, and conclude with the significance of Afanasiev’s theology for the life of the Church today.
Afanasiev responds to the general lack of participation In the Eucharist, at a time when most Christians received communion very rarely, some only once a year, and others even more rarely. The rules of fasting and Confession before Communion applied strictly to the laity, but not to their leader, the priest, who received Communion at every Liturgy, even after he ate meat on Saturday and did not go to Confession In a month. The faithful were at risk of becoming spectators or recipients of a ritual that, In fact, they were meant to celebrate. Moreover, he reacts against scholastic theology that separates the ordained and royal priesthood, where only the former is regarded as consecrated. (Afanasiev distinguishes between “lay persons” who are regarded by scholastic theology as non-consecrated and “laity,” a term he introduced In Russian to denote the consecrated understanding of all the baptized.) In response, Afanasiev contends that the entire Church is charismatic: “There can be no non-charismatic members In the Church, just as there can be no members who do not minister In it” (p. 16), he writes.
In this regard, he is faithful to his predecessors In the Slavophile movement, who emphasized the charismatic, mysterious, and eucharistic character of the Church, rejecting the juridical, organizational approach to ecclesiology that was characteristic of both scholastic theology and the post-apostolic Church. To the order of law, Afanasiev favors the order of grace that provides unity In Love. And yet, Afanasiev supports the need for charismatic order, structure, hierarchy, and authority as necessary elements that avoid both anarchy and relationships of power In the Church. A word of caution from the beginning: Afanasiev’s theology of Baptism as consecration should not be mistaken for a denial of the sacrament of Ordination. Today we would say that he calls for a theology of communion between the ordained and the laity. And he does that In the context of a reduced lay participation In the Eucharist, scholastic theology, the Slavophile movement, and the 1917-1918 Council of Moscow, which I address later on.
According to Afanasiev, all Christians are charismatic, forming the royal priesthood by virtue of their Baptism. He regards Baptism as both entrance into the Church and the ordination of the lay people. Afanasiev’s understanding of Baptism as entrance into the Church (p. 23, etc.) represents a much needed renewed perception of Baptism in contemporary Orthodoxy. Today, most Orthodox would define Baptism first as entry into the Church and only then as forgiveness of sins. This is probably a counter-reaction to the traditional Catholic understanding of Baptism as forgiveness of original sin. However, let’s be honest: the present-day Baptismal rite emphasizes primarily forgiveness of sins, while explicit references to Baptism as entry into the Church are rather scarce (if not entirely missing). At this point, please allow me to offer several considerations about Baptism, stemming from my pastoral and liturgical experience.
I prefer to approach Baptism through a relational, communitarian prism. That is because the fall was primarily an interruption or impoverishing of the paradisiacal communion between God and humankind. This communion was objectively reestablished In Christ through the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures. We appropriate subjectively this communion through Baptism, when we die with Christ and resurrect with Christ, when we are clothed with Christ (cf. Rom 6:3-5, Gal 3:27), meaning that we unite ourselves with the divine-human Christ, as members of his Body. In the Church we become children of the Father and receive the Spirit who rested on the Son, thus living in communion with God. If original (or ancestral) sin is indeed an impoverishment of communion, then that sin is undone In Baptism as it provides entry into the Church.
This communitarian understanding of Baptism has the advantage of explaining infant Baptism – a reality that was not emphasized enough In early patristic literature, when most people were baptized as adults. At that time, it was easier to explain Baptism as forgiveness of sins, meaning primarily personal sins. The contemporary Orthodox service of Baptism is reflective of this perspective. But today infant Baptism is the norm, rather than the exception (most people are baptized as infants), which makes it more difficult to explain all the references to forgiveness of sins. A separate study should address the abundance of references to the devil acting In the catechumens’ lives prior to Baptism. Are we talking about personal sins? In the case of infants that is obviously not the case. So what is the meaning of exorcisms in the case of infant Baptisms? An easy way out would be to explain it as forgiveness of original sin, which traditional Catholic theology and then Orthodox scholastic theology understood In terms of guilt: we are born deserving eternal punishment (hence the fear that babies who die un-baptized might go to hell). Both Catholics and Orthodox today have a different understanding of original or ancestral sin.
The East, at its best, did not speak of Baptism as forgiveness of original sin In the sense of guilt and deserving eternal punishment. It understood ancestral sin as a predisposition with which we are born: as a consequence of Adam’s sin, we are born into a world In which it is easier to do evil than good and our will is weakened by desire.4 But babies have obviously not acted upon that predisposition. Moreover, as shown above, emphasis on forgiveness of personal sins is irrelevant In the case of infant Baptism. Describing Baptism as a change In our moral character In the case of infants is neither verifiable nor—as the father of three wonderful children I am inclined to say—realistic. In the case of adults, the moral change most likely takes place before Baptism. This change is, of course, fulfilled by the grace of Baptism and needs to be continually renewed by a constant commitment to a life in Christ.
Thus, In my humble opinion, most references to forgiveness of sins In the service of Baptism should be read from the perspective of reestablishing communion with God. Baptism is primarily union with Christ In his Body – the Church, which is obviously the case when infants also receive Chrismation (Confirmation In Western parlance) and their first Communion. Infants are full members of the Church even from a sacramental perspective. Baptism is primarily churching or incorporation into Christ, receiving of the Spirit, placing into a filial relationship with the Father, or reentering into communion with God, as we were before the Fall and even more. This means undoing the ancestral sin of Adam and Eve, which resulted In the interruption of our communion with God. Baptism and the other sacraments of initiation makes one a member of the Church and join him or her to the Body of Christ.
These affirmations are very much In line with Afanasiev’s contention that Baptism represents our entrance into the Church; and they are meant to shift our focus from the evil one to Christ, from sin to communion. They are not intended to challenge our liturgical practices today, which carry with them a long history of additions and subtractions. We need to be aware of the evil that exists In the world, and this is the reason why we have so many references to the demons that are hidden In the waters, for example, as we have transferred the prayers of the blessing of waters from Epiphany to the Baptismal service. This should also remind us that, initially, all Baptisms happened during important feast days, primarily Epiphany and Easter, during the Divine Liturgy. In thirteen years of priesthood, I have only celebrated one Baptismal liturgy, like In the early Church, but I gained a significant insight: the new member of the Church becomes a celebrant of the Divine Liturgy, together with the rest of the community and the clergy. Let me explain this aspect of Baptism by returning to Afanasiev.
Afanasiev also understands Baptism as consecration into the royal priesthood. He presents several liturgical elements that express clearly the similarities between the early celebrations of Baptism and Ordination, showing Baptism as priestly and kingly consecration:
- laying on of the bishop’s hands (p. 25ff.): today the priest puts his hand on the head of the catechumen right at the beginning of the service as a sign of blessing, but not as consecration, which is the case In Ordination by the bishop who puts both hands on the head of the candidate. Later on In the service of Baptism, at the moment of tonsure, the priest puts one hand on the head of the neophyte (that is, the person just baptized), prays for a long life and invokes the same blessing with which the prophet Samuel blessed King David. Does this mean that a person is consecrated as king (or queen) in Baptism? Both Afanasiev and I think so, but, I must admit, the prayer remains unclear.
- the use of the verb “to serve” In ancient baptismal rites, but less so today.
- the pouring of holy oil. Afanasiev believes that the early ritual of anointing has been preserved today In the rite of Chrismation, when a person receives “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” meaning that we are sealed for God, we are part of his holy ones, set aside for Him. He also reminds us that, In the Old Testament, priests and kings were anointed, so here we become priests and kings, through the receiving of the Holy Spirit.
- white garments, which Afanasiev associates with clerical vestments. Historians have established that the white robe received at Baptism corresponds to the sticharion, a vestment worn by all clerics.
- the cap (mitra) was present In most ancient baptismal rites, but it is not a liturgical element of Baptism anymore. It was associated with the coronation of the king since, as a reminder, the neophyte receives the same blessing as King David.
- the tonsure is understood as a sacrifice In Baptism – we dedicate our lives to God, and it is exactly the same ritual as in Ordination, when one becomes the vessel of God dedicated to Christ’s ministry.
- the kiss of peace was lost In Baptism, but it corresponded to the rite of episcopal Ordination. Today we are witnessing a slow recovery of this beautiful ancient custom In the Divine Liturgy, when not only the concelebrant clergy offer each other the kiss of peace, but also the faithful In the pews.
- leading of the neophyte around the altar: today people process In a circular fashion at 40-day blessings, Baptisms, Weddings, and Ordinations. I find it most interesting that In the Wedding procession we sing the same hymns as at Ordination, because the new couple has a priestly function: they lead each other to salvation, lead each other In prayer, and they teach the word of God to each other, their children, their neighbors, co-workers. Yes, all of you here who are married, please know that you received a sacrament very similar to that of Ordination. It is true now that we take the newly-wed couple around a sacramental table, the newly-baptized around the font, and not around the altar. Afanasiev implies that, early on, neophytes were actually taken around the altar. This should not surprise us: today, at the 40-day blessing, we take the child around the altar table. In some places, that is the case only for boys. In other places, both girls and boys are taken around the altar, because, through Baptism, both men and women will be part of a holy nation, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9, quoting Ex. 19).…
I promised to return to Afanasiev, and I did, by going through this list of liturgical elements, but the comments were mine – Afanasiev only provides the list. I am afraid that my paper begins to fit the saying: “your paper is both original and good; unfortunately, where it is good it is not original, and where it is original it is not good.” With due apologies, let me return completely to Afanasiev who concluded, based on this historical analysis, that the clergy and the laity are united because all ministries are charismatic. Afanasiev considers that this unity has been shattered by scholastic theology and, closer to his context, the 1917-18 Council of Moscow, which did not ascribe a priestly and prophetic role to the laity, as if they were not consecrated, but entrusted them with the administration of the Church, regarded as a secular, profane activity. Each of these three offices deserves special attention.
Providing very convincing liturgical arguments, Afanasiev affirms that it is the entire Church that celebrates the sacraments, that is, the whole people of God, “without separation or division” between clergy and laity, as well as “without confusion” between the different ministries In the Church. Apparently true to his principle, Afanasiev writes that, In the apostolic Church, the administrative task of the presbyter had a charismatic character and was also pastoral In the sense that it led people to salvation, adding that the ministry of administration cannot belong to all the people, but cannot be exercised without the people, either. In fact, Afanasiev separates the clergy and the laity when he reacts polemically against the decision of the Moscow Church to entrust the laity with administrative duties. He considers that such a decision turns the laity into “lay people” deprived of charisms, ultimately resulting In their diminished liturgical presence compensated by an augmented administrative role. Afanasiev affirms clearly that the latter belongs exclusively to the ordained, a weak point in his theology that otherwise encourages the participation of the laity In the Church. And yet, his words are prophetic for the situation of some Orthodox parishes In the West. These are confronted sometimes with business-like attitudes that ignore the spiritual aspect of every facet of Church life, including its practical aspects, and forget Afanasiev’s premise that Church administration is a charismatic and pastoral endeavor.
Afanasiev’s treatment of the prophetic ministry of the laity is similar to their kingly office. On the one hand, he considers those who preside as guardians of the faith, their ministry being exercised together with the rest of the people, since faith is entrusted to the entire Church. Moreover, his analysis of biblical and post-apostolic Church leads one to believe that the laity were allowed to exercise their prophetic ministry In public worship and especially In the process of reception understood as discernment of doctrine. They have the charism to discern whether or not their pastors preach according to the will of God. When this is the case, they give their “Amen” (as I remember growing up In Romania, that we used to say after the sermon). Other times, this is not the case: the councils of Lyons II (1274) and Ferarra-Florence (1438-45) had the approval of most participating bishops, but they are not considered ecumenical In the East because the Orthodox faithful did not agree with their decisions. This is why not only the hierarchy, but the entire Church has to agree on a certain teaching, In order for it to be accepted as normative. 5
On the other hand, Afanasiev chooses to concentrate primarily on the ministry of proclamation during public worship, designating it exclusively to the clergy. He does not provide sufficient biblical and patristic support for the exclusion of the laity from the prophetic aspect of the Church. Their ministry is rather devoid of content, particularly with regard to their prophetic ministry In the family, society, or theological research. Afanasiev leaves unanswered a very important question: when do lay people teach? When do they exercise their prophetic ministry?
While being less satisfied with Afanasiev’s description of the kingly and prophetic offices of the laity, readers will cherish his account of the priestly office, which is based on the fundamental contention that all Christians are consecrated In Baptism, and so they are all con-celebrants of the Eucharist, again, while entrusting the leadership of the eucharistic assembly to the bishop. Since this affirmation is more about the Liturgy than about Baptism and since Schmemann wrote quite a bit on this subject, I will not insist on the role of the faithful during the Liturgy. But I would like to point out that this affirmation is based on Afanasiev’s contention that the difference between clergy and laity is functional, not ontological. Let me explain his position, and then show where I prefer a different approach.
Afanasiev rightly affirms that, although distinct, clergy and laity are not separate, since they share In the same priesthood of Christ and belong to the one priesthood of the Church marked by a diversity of ministries. He provides an excellent analysis of various ministries In the early Church, including those of Apostle, evangelist, prophet, and teacher. These members of the Church have received various gifts resulting In various ministries, which are all equal because they originate In the same Spirit and are based on the same Baptism. The great merit of such an approach is that it places the ordained within the larger ministry of the Church, In communion with the laity. Today, this communion is not as clear as In apostolic times. According to Afanasiev, the transformation of the distinction between clergy and laity into their separation was an unfortunate historical development, perpetuated by modern scholastic theology. This transformation was caused by the creeping of Roman law into theology during the post-Apostolic era, as well as Byzantine theology that regarded Ordination, and not Baptism, as the sacrament of consecration. (This statement is very significant, so let me repeat: Byzantine theology regarded Ordination, and not Baptism, as the sacrament of consecration, meaning that the laity are not consecrated, they are worldly or profane, as opposed to the clergy who alone belong to the realm of holiness.) This separation was even more accentuated when certain liturgical practices were introduced: the iconostasis, the forbiddance of the faithful to enter inside the altar, and the different ways for the clergy and the people to receive Communion. However, Afanasiev continued, the core of the Liturgy could not be changed, so the priestly function of the people is still reflected In elements such as the plural used In eucharistic prayers (“we thank You also for this Liturgy which you have pleased to accept from our hands…” “we offer to You…” and “send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon the gifts here presented”, just to give some examples), or the “Amen” of the faithful during the epiclesis. Thus, In response to this newer understanding of the clergy as the only consecrated members of the Church, Afanasiev proposed a return to the apostolic sources that regarded both laity and clergy as consecrated In Baptism, even though the sacrament of Ordination represents a further commission of the ordained within the larger priesthood of the Church.
In conclusion, Afanasiev’s theology provides an unmatched account of an Orthodox theology of the laity
based on his understanding of Baptism. Orthodox theologians need to appreciate,
appropriate, and develop Afanasiev’s historical analysis of primitive Christianity from the perspective of his
eucharistic ecclesiology. He is very convincing In affirming that Baptism
represents both entry into the Church and consecration into the royal
priesthood, shared by all Christians, while also maintaining the distinctive
(though not separate) role of the Ordained priesthood In the Church.
Fr. Radu Bordeianu, Ph.D.
1 This presentation contains passages from the author’s following works: Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology, Ecclesiological Investigations Series. New York: Continuum, 2011; “Natural, Universal, and Ordained Priesthood: The Contribution of Dumitru Staniloae’s Communion Ecclesiology.” Pro Ecclesia 19, no. 4 (2010): 405-33; “Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit. Translated by Vitaly Permiakov, edited with an Introduction by Michael Plekon, foreword by Rowan Williams (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007). Pp. XX + 327 [Review Essay].” Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 54, no. 2 (2010): 245-54.
2 See “Una Sancta” and “The Eucharist: Principal Link between the Catholics and the Orthodox” In Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life In Our Time: Readings from the Eastern Church, edited by Michael Plekon, 3-30, 47-49. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2003.
3 Since the Fathers did not write comprehensively on the Church and contemporary Orthodox theologians produce either historical analyses or shorter works of ecclesiology, Afanasiev’s book stands out among Orthodox writings on the Church. And yet, he intended it merely as the first part of a larger series of treatises, which was left unfinished.
4 Timothy (Kallistos) Ware. The Orthodox Church. New ed. London, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 223.
5 The famous Encyclical Letter of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to the Orthodox Christians of All lands states that hierarchy and the people collaborate In the preservation of the truth, which is “entrusted to the whole people of the Church.” Quoted In Alexander Schmemann. The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988, 79.