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

Another question that can be raised for us Pentecostals is that concerning infant baptism. John Wesley echoes the position held by Symeon, that infant baptism is efficacious, but can be lost. What can be said of the possibility that this can be valid? In Scripture we see that believers’ baptism is definitely the norm, yet there is record of whole households being baptized. I would suggest that there may be occasion for infants, who have been born into families firmly grounded in the faith, to be legitimately baptized. This must be qualified by saying that any indiscriminant baptism, regardless of the age of the baptized, is useless, and worse, counterproductive. Nevertheless, those who come to be baptized and possess qualities, either personal or familial/communal, that point toward the ability to live out their baptismal covenant, can and should be baptized; that is, marked by God, predestined to salvation and welcomed into the faith community through the cleansing and illuminating power and presence of the Holy Spirit.




This article reprinted with permission of Quodlibet Journal 3:3 (Summer 2001).



1. Deification, especially from stage three onward, is an intensely individual experience based on its mystical nature. This does not deny that there is a need for a vital community in the life of this individual, though. Symeon was working in the context of a monastic community and held a very intense view of the role of the spiritual father who was to teach and guide his disciple. This was based on his own experience with Symeon the Studite (also known as the Pious) who was born in 917 CE and initiated the younger Symeon into the monastic life. Symeon himself was a leader of monasteries, but his understanding of community was built upon the intensely personal experience of the Holy Spirit.

2. The concept of recapitulation was generally introduced by Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century CE. In essence it proclaims that the Incarnation “summed up” that which was the intention of humanity with the effect that humanity was raised to a new level of being. This view emphasizes the humanity of Christ and the positive effects this has had upon the entire human race. For Symeon, this means that humanity now is able to be deified, even in this life.

3. Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), p. 170.

4. Krivocheine, Basil, In the Light of Christ: Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022): Life-Spirituality-Doctrine, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), pp. 141-42.

5. Infant baptism is not made valid because of the faith of the baptized, but the faith of Christ and the faith of the church, which is something that Reformed Protestantism has lost. It is in this rite that, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the child is initiated into the body of faith. See Cremeens, Timothy, “St. Symeon the New Theologian: An Eastern Orthodox Model for Charismatic Spirituality” (Paper presented at the Society for Pentecostal Studies Conference, 1992), p. J18.

6. Symeon, The Discourses, trans. C.J. deCatanzaro (New York: Paulist, 1980), pp. 336-37.

7. Symeon apparently drew on the double meaning, “from above” and “again”, in the same manner as the Fourth Evangelist.

8. Symeon, The Practical and Theological Chapters and the Three Theological Discourses, trans. Paul McGuckin (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982), p. 100. This saying of David which is referred to is Psalm 58:3 (RSV): “The wicked go astray from the womb, they err from their birth, speaking lies.”

9. Ibid., p. 85.

10. Ibid., pp. 99-100.

11. Cf. Krivocheine, p. 42.

12. Symeon quoted in Cremeens, pp. J17-18.

13. Symeon, Chapters and Discourses, p. 42.

14. Cf. Krivocheine, p. 38. It must be noted, though, that Symeon did not see himself as an innovator, but as one who was faithful to the heart of the tradition that he had been given. This baptism of tears was not original to Symeon, though he is perhaps the most prolific. Isaac the Syrian, John Climacus, Diadochus the Photice and Evagrius were also strong proponents of similar doctrines.

15. Symeon, Discourses, p. 83.

16. Symeon, Chapters and Discourses, p. 74.

17. Symeon, Discourses, p. 159.

18. McGuckin, John A., “Symeon the New Theologian: His Vision of Theology” Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (3 1984), pp. 208-14.

19. Cf. Ware, Kallistos, “Tradition and Personal Experience in Later Byzantine Theology” Eastern Churches Review 3 (Aut 1970), p. 137.

20. An interesting parallel can be found in the experience of Søren Kierkegaard and the presentation of Kierkegaard’s experience by James E. Loder in The Transforming Moment, 2d ed. (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), pp. 5-6:

The transparency relationship of the human self to the Divine Presence temporarily bursts the limits of the imagination, but imagination recoils and images rush like a torrent into the pure light of the transparency as one shields one’s eyes when surprised by a sudden burst of sunlight. Imagination, Kierkegaard later wrote, is the faculty instar omnium … but it never supercedes transparency. What the imagination does accomplish, however, is illuminating …Clearly, this experience is not a product of Kierkegaard’s imagination: it is an ineffable experience for which his imagination tries to provide a cognitive shape that will unite conscious and unconscious in a new horizon of meaning for a radically transformed personal existence.

21. See also Rose, Seraphim, “The Teaching of St. Symeon the New Theologian” Epiphany 6 (3 1986), p. 8.

22. The goal of this article has been to highlight those episodic, crisis moments of transformation. What needs to be done now is to deepen this discussion of the affective transformation that occurs through time, especially in the relation to the two baptisms.

23. Although I still recognize the validity of tongues as the initial evidence of Holy Spirit baptism, a clearer and simpler scriptural basis is that something empirical took place at these occurrences, even though glossolalia is not always mentioned in the scriptural record.

24. See Lossky, p. 209 and Krivocheine, pp. 147-48.

25. See also the following for perspectives on Symeon relevant to this discussion. Englezans, B., “Note on Tradition and Personal Experience in Symeon the New Theologian” Eastern Churches Review 6 (Spr 1974), pp. 88-89; and Sylvia Mary, “Symeon the New Theologian and the Way of Tears” in One Yet Two, ed. M. B. Pennington (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1976).

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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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