The Baptism of Tears: The Two Baptisms of St. Symeon the New Theologian
by Gene Mills
One of the distinctives of the contemporary Pentecostal movement has been the understanding that there are two distinct baptisms. Many outside of the movement do not realize that this is not original, though. Beyond the biblical support for this understanding, one can find different personalities and movements throughout the recorded history of the church who attest to the same realization, not the least of which is St. Symeon the New Theologian of the late 10th and early 11th centuries. St. Symeon the New Theologian is one of three individuals honored with the title "theologian" by the Eastern Church: St. John the Evangelist, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Symeon. This in itself shows the high regard that this tradition has for his theological insight. Symeon was a theologian unlike most others, though. His interest was not in discussions concerning the nature of God, rather his concern was in how an individual may come to know God.
It is from the Eastern tradition of which Symeon is a part that we are given the foundational, theological concept of theosis. Theosis is the deification of an individual Christian by the grace of God.1 Deification, also known as divination, is the process by which humanity becomes assimilated, or united with God. This occurs through the energies of God by which God communicates. Deification is understood as a five stage process. The first stage was the deification of human nature that occurred in the Incarnation. As it is based upon the Incarnation, it is concurrently based upon the salvific work of the Christ who was incarnated. It is this salvific work which is the provision of the means for our divination and is the second stage in the process. Deification is, in fact, part of that redemptive work. It is in essence the recapitulation of humanity; that is, it provides for a new ontological reality of humanity.2 It is the τελοσ and culmination of salvation. The third stage is in the initial salvation of the believer which is understood as coming at baptism. The deification of the individual commences in principle at this point. The fourth stage is the process of growth that occurs in the individual believer's life, the process of emptying of the self and becoming in union with God. This stage is not unlike the concept of Christian perfection as found in Wesleyan thought. The final and full deification of the believer occurs in the reception of the individual into heaven, the beatific vision. For Symeon, deification is the highest possibility for humanity, for it is becoming a god by adoption, not that the creature becomes Creator, but the creature is allowed to share in the divine nature through the grace of God.
Integrally related to this process of deification in the thought of Symeon is his understanding of baptism(s). He is firmly rooted in the Eastern tradition, and Christianity as whole of this period, in his appreciation for infant baptism, yet what sets him apart from most of the contemporaneous theology is his understanding of what should occur subsequently. In Symeon's effort at re-vivifying the church, he came to several conclusions regarding the personal aspects of Christianity and its practices. Symeon emphasized the personal nature of religion and the validity of personal experience as theological source. He accentuated the need for personal, cognitive acceptance and appropriation of the grace that had been predestined in infant baptism. He accented the necessity of the known presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the minister for the validation of the ministry. Each of these are tied to his understanding of the "baptism in the Holy Spirit" or the "baptism of tears." Symeon's argument, and mine also, is that the "second baptism" is necessary for a vital Christian life. To live without it is to forfeit the efficacy of the first baptism.
In the Eastern tradition it is generally understood that the baptismal rite of initiation is integrally tied to Pentecost. This is in contrast to the Western tradition which places more emphasis on Easter. This process of water bath and anointing signifies the descending of the Spirit upon the baptized. "As He descended upon the disciples in tongues of fire, so the Holy Spirit descends invisibly upon the newly-baptized in the sacrament of the holy chrism."3 This integrity of the rite is based partially on the theological understanding that the Holy Spirit is active in both baptism and confirmation. It is understood that this is a re-creative act by the purification and the unification of humanity with Christ. This is the culmination and the commencement of the work of Christ. The Spirit confers the complete work of Christ in redemption and new birth upon the baptized. Yet this is only the beginning for the newly baptized infant, for her life from this point on is to be lived for Christ. Symeon goes on to attribute knowledge of God, predestination of salvation, grafting into the vine of Christ and freedom from the bondage to original sin to the work of baptism. The baptized are sealed by the cross and are adopted into the flock of the Shepherd4 All of these theological metaphors point toward one inescapable fact. For Symeon, baptism is salvific, even for the infant who is unable to consciously embrace that which occurs in baptism.5
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?
This second baptism of tears is the point that gave his opponents the most to speak about for it is the real point of departure from the mainline of Byzantine theology.14 This baptism, which is the "baptism of the Spirit", is most commonly imaged as the "baptism of tears". As the "baptism of tears", this second baptism is the real, spiritual cleansing of the individual from their post-baptismal sin. In the Discourses (p. 160), Symeon says that "Repentance gives rise to the tear from the depths of the soul; the tear cleanses the heart and wipes away great sins. When these have been blotted out through tears the soul finds itself in the comfort of the Spirit of God and is watered by streams of sweetest compunction." Here we notice the catalyst to the tears—repentance. This is, for Symeon, the real cause of salvation. For, as he states earlier in The Discourses (pp. 81-82), "No one will ever prove the divine Scripture that any person ever was cleansed without tears and constant compunction."
This is not merely a one-time event, though. There must be a lifetime of penitence, a permanent disposition of the soul. Penthos is the word used to describe this disposition and it is the sign that the purification of the heart has been given by the Spirit as a result of the faithfulness of the believer. It is repentance, a sorrow for sin that leads to further purification. "Let no one say that it is impossible to weep daily! …For if you say that it is impossible daily to weep and shed tears, then how can you say that it is possible for men who are subject to corruption ever to attain a …heart that is pure from all kinds of passions and evil thoughts so that one may see God?"15 This "baptism of tears" is fundamentally tied to holiness and sanctification. It is necessary to attain penthos in order to see God, which for Symeon was a very legitimate, mystical experience of the Light. In addition to this mystical bent, it is also a prerequisite to actualizing the private and public lifestyle that is pleasing to God. Symeon recognized what might be seen as the negative and positive aspects of the presence of tears; that is, sorrow and joy. When someone recognizes their unworthiness of salvation, they are sorrowful, but the tears become tears of joy at the recognition of grace.16
The way of penitence includes the acceptance of whatever may come your way. As negative events bombard your life, the tears that are cried in prayer cleanse the soul: "The afflicted soul is moved to tears through trials; as the tears cleanse the heart they make it into a temple and a resting place for the Holy Spirit …so when the garment of the soul has been defiled with the mud and dung of sinful passions it cannot be washed clean except through many tears and endurance of trials and tribulations."17 These statements lead to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, this lived theology is contextual and secondly, this is a God-directed spirituality.
The lived reality of the individual is not denied or white-washed. It is felt and realized by the individual. This spirituality is in all practicality based on the personal experience of the individual Christian as they are living in the community of saints where they are being taught, encouraged and challenged. Personal experience was a valid source of theology for Symeon. In essence it was the only source for theology because abstract ideas are meaningless outside of personal contact with God. J. A. McGuckin says in his article on Symeon's vision of theology (p. 211) that "theology is solely the experience of the Spirit of God who initiates us into truth."18 This experience of the Spirit of God may come in various shapes and with multitudinous contours, both positive and seemingly negative, but what all of the occurrences do is point us toward a life centered upon God; that is, they point us toward initiation "into truth". Symeon insisted upon the need for direct experience and relationship with the Holy Spirit.19 One of the preeminent statements from Symeon in Chapters and Discourses (p. 58) concerning the role of experience is:
If a man has not achieved impassibility, he does not know what impassibility is, and cannot believe that anyone on earth could posses is …it is the same with a man who thinks he possesses the Holy Spirit but really does not. When he hears about the energies of the Holy Spirit working in those who truly possess him, he never believes that there is someone in the generation who is equal to the apostles of Christ and the saints of old, who is inspired and moved by the Spirit, and who sees him intuitively and perceptibly. For when a man judges the affairs of his fellows for good or evil, he can do so only on the basis of his personal condition.
This experience with the Spirit is an overwhelming experience which has outward manifestations. The entire person is spiritually consumed by the presence of the divine Light. This experience causes an overflow of the emotions and a collapse of physical ability of control. Symeon describes this experience in the Chapters and Discourses (pp. 77-78):
When a man has within him the light of the all-holy Spirit, he cannot bear the sight and so he falls prostrate on the ground. He cries out and shouts, driven out of his senses by immense fear. He is like someone who sees or feels something beyond nature, reason, and understanding. It is as if his entrails were touched by fire and scorched with flames. He cannot bear this burning and becomes like someone outside himself, and because he does not have the strength [to endure], he pours out an endless flood of tears which refreshes him and rouses up the flame of his desire. His tears become more abundant and, when he is purified in their flood, he shines with greater brilliance. Then, entirely on fire, he becomes like light and fulfills the saying: "God is made one with the gods and becomes known."20
There are at least three more aspects of Symeon's second baptism that need to be discussed. Firstly, the question can be asked as to why Symeon pressed this issue. As Cremeens has stated (p. 14), during "this period of time the general spiritual condition of the Orthodox Church had fallen into a dead formalism. Many attended the Church's worship and received its sacramental ministrations in a mechanical way, not attaching personal faith to the actions."21 What was needed at this time was a revival of the affective nature of the personal relationship with God, especially as seen in the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, with this baptism of the Spirit a transformation in the nature of the believer would occur.22 This was an affective transformation that involved the continual state of the individual and their relationship with the world that surrounded them. This is most clearly stated by Symeon in regards to love. In Chapters and Discourses (p. 60), Symeon speaks of being able to live according to the virtues of love that we recognize as being found in 1 Corinthians 13, most specifically, of being able to overlook the wrongs which have been done to you. And thirdly, what is the role of the second baptism in the life of the church? Symeon did not place as high an emphasis on ecclesiastical ordination as on the ordination that comes through the personal presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual. Therefore, as Kallistos Ware shows us (p. 135), Symeon recognized that even lay monks could perform tasks that had previously been reserved for the clergy if there was evidence that they were in fact baptized in the Spirit. Ware subsequently shares (p. 136) the reasoning, "(w)hat matters to St. Symeon is not the visible laying on of hands by men, but the invisible ordination by 'the hand of God'." This giftedness and ordination came through the baptism of tears and the Holy Spirit.
What then is the relationship between the theology of Symeon, especially as seen in his understanding of the second baptism, and the contemporary Pentecostal movement? First there is an undeniable parallelism between the understandings of spiritual experience. There is a moment, for Pentecostals, that transcends time and space. Being caught up into the very presence of the Lord is an event that is beyond the rational faculties, yet it impacts the rational thought of the one who has experienced it. This experiential knowing is more intuitional than rational, yet it is not irrational. This experience occurs at salvation, Spirit baptism and countless other times.
James Loder refers to any crisis moment with which the Christian is faced as a "transforming moment." It is the basis for a different way of knowing referred to as convictional knowing. Loder (p. 14) uses this term, convictional, in the sense of the original Latin, "to overcome, to conquer, to refute." In other words, there is a knowledge that conquers our faculties and irrefutably convinces us of the validity of the knowledge. A common testimony in Pentecostalism is that one knows that she/he is saved simply because she/he knows it. For the Pentecostal, the source of this conviction is the Spiritus Creator, the transforming and re-creating Holy Spirit. This, then, is an epistemology that is from above, yet from within. It is experienced within the believer not outside as a theology from below would be. It is, therefore, integrally related to the theological enterprise and it is almost a mirror of the experience of the second baptism as found in the thought of Symeon.
Not only does the experiential nature of Symeon's second baptism have a corollary in Pentecostal theology, but more obvious is the existence of the second baptism in the first place. For both Symeon and Pentecostals, the existence of a second baptism does not deny the efficacy of the first baptism or original salvation, it only recognizes the need for a deeper relationship with God that is, paradoxically, quite mystical, yet existentially based. The overall emphasis of the baptisms are not identical. Symeon has much more emphasis on penthos. Yet there is similarity in the aspects of giftedness and sanctification resulting from this second baptism. And though the initial evidence of the second baptism is not the same, since it is tears for Symeon and glossolalia for classical Pentecostals, there is the existence of physically manifested evidence.23
What can be said in critique of St. Symeon the New Theologian? Or what can he say again to the church? Symeon was inescapably bound to his context, and as such, he found holiness only in the extreme asceticism of the monastic life. This is neither practical, nor desirable, for most Christians of today. Yet can this also be one of the loudest clarion calls Symeon has for us? Could it be that we have complicated our lives to the point that we have made any concept of theosis an impossibility without such a radical change in lifestyle? For those of us who claim to have the Spirit baptism, are we now living in a state of penthos as Symeon has called us? Symeon believed that the ecstatic experiences are for the new mystic, while the mature, those who live in the constant presence of the Spirit, are not awestruck by that presence.24 In light of this, have we Pentecostals achieved some sense of maturity or are we still caught up in the ecstatic experiences of the novice? Let us hear the voice of the Spirit, even as it comes through the mouth of past reform and speaks to our current experience.25
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.
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).
Gene Mills, MDiv., ThM., is a PhD candidate (American Religious History/Philosophy of Religion) 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.
© Gene Mills. This article reprinted with permission of Quodlibet Journal 3:3 (Summer 2001). http://www.quodlibet.net/mills-symeon.shtml
Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by Todd H.