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The Baptism of Tears: The Two Baptisms of St. Symeon the New Theologian

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the baptismal rite of initiation is integrally tied to Pentecost.

In these matters, Symeon shows little distinction from that which he has received from the tradition of the Eastern Church based on the testimony of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. The distinctions start to appear in what is said about the life after the rite of baptism. Symeon believes that while the baptism of infants is efficacious in regards to the removal of original sin, something must be said as to the effects of post-baptismal sin. Cremeens (p. J17) describes Symeon’s belief by saying that through “our continued sinful actions … we turn away from Christ and we are then in need of new purification.” To place baptismal salvation and the loss of this salvation in tension, Symeon says:

just as it is impossible for one to be saved who has not been baptized by water and the Spirit (John 3:5), neither is it for him who has sinned after Baptism, unless he be baptized from on high and be born again …If one is ignorant of the Baptism wherewith he was baptized as a child and does not even realize that he was baptized, but only accepts it by faith and then wipes it away with thousands upon thousands of sins, and if he denies the second Baptism—I mean, that which is through the Spirit, given from above by the loving-kindness of God to those seek it by penitence—by what other means can he ever obtain salvation? By no means!6

This is clearly a statement as to the validity of baptismal regeneration which has been passed to Symeon by tradition, but it is also an understanding that is based on his interpretation of both scripture and experience. Symeon sees in the Nicodemus story of the Fourth Gospel a statement regarding a personal accountability in one’s salvation. Without the birth7 one’s baptismal faith is lost. Without the living out of the salvation that is birthed and predestined in the baptismal rite, such salvation is lost through the rejection of the individual. Symeon continues in this same vein elsewhere: “If men give way to the wishes of the evil one after their baptism and put these decisions into effect, they cut themselves off from the holy womb of baptism in accordance with the saying of David.”8 And again:

We receive the remission of our sins at our divine baptism and we are freed from the ancient curse and sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit. But this is not yet that perfect grace of which the Scripture speaks …this applies only to those who are strong in faith and show it in their works, for if we fall back into evil and shameful deeds after our baptism, we completely throw away this very sanctification. It is in proportion to our repentance, confession, and tears that we receive the remission of our former sins, and as a consequence of this, sanctification and grace from on high.9

This is placed into context by the following statement by Symeon where he describes the actual effect of the first baptism and the need, therefore, for the second. “Baptism does not take away our self-determination or our free will; instead, it grants us freedom no longer to be held against our will in the devil’s tyranny. For after baptism it is up to us to decide to remain in the commandments of Christ …or else to deviate …and to run back to our adversary and enemy, the devil.”10 This deviation is something that everyone has done; we have all sinned in action and inaction, no one has escaped. So we all must turn to the second baptism.11 Krivocheine (p. 142) says that “Symeon exhorts us to tears and lamentation as the only means of returning to the house of God”:

Assemble, children, come, women,
hasten, fathers, before the end comes,
and, with me, all weep lament,
since after having received God in baptism as infants,
or rather, having become sons of God as little children,
soon, sinners, we have been expelled
from the House of David and that happened to us
without our realizing it! Let us hasten by penance
since it is by it that all the expelled return
and there is no other way …12

Approaching the second baptism, it must first be known what this second baptism is not. It is not the anointing with oil that occurs at confirmation. This rite takes place at baptism for the Eastern church and clearly is not what Symeon is describing. It is related, though. For Symeon, the first baptism is a type, or foreshadow, of the second baptism. The water prefigures tears and the oil prefigures the Holy Spirit. “In the first baptism, water symbolizes tears and the oil of chrismation prefigures the inner anointing of the Spirit. But the second baptism is no longer a type of the truth, but the truth itself.”13 What, then, is this second baptism and what are the results?

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2019

About the Author: Gene Mills, MDiv., ThM., (as of 2001) is a PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is Senior Assistant to the editors of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture and Senior Pastor of Words of Life Church of God in Tallahassee, Florida.

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