Abba Seraphim’s Question Box

The Baptism of Children

Question: A point that troubles me is the baptism of babies: I know that in some biblical references it says that the “whole house” of a new believer was baptised, and from these words one might conclude that babies were included. But from the whole context of the New Testament there came always first a true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and also a true repentance of sins before the water baptism. I cannot accept that the Old Testament’s habit of circumcision   is mentioned to justify infant baptism, because the Old Testament – as clearly stated in the Glastonbury Confession several times – was only a foreshadow of the real things to come in the New testament. Back then, becoming a member of God’s people was by being born Jewish and circumcised. But in the New Covenant, becoming a member in God’s family means becoming born again by water and spirit, which is only possible if this person has real faith in the Lord and also repents of his sin. I could not imagine to baptise an infant because in the scriptures it says something else. As far as I know, baptism of babes came not before the 2nd or 3rd century, so this practise seems not to be most ancient.

Answer: A candid examination of the Holy Scriptures leads us to admit that they contain neither an express command for Infant baptism nor than express prohibition of the same.  Absence of command, however, does not necessarily amount to prohibition. In fact in the second edition of the Glastonbury Confession (1960) my predecessor noted that the main addition was to add “words affirming the lawfulness of the baptism of children, a matter which had been overlooked, possibly because it had been taken for granted.” The New Testament’s almost complete silence on infant baptism instead of being an argument against it, is a strong argument for it, which shows that as the old principles were still in force there was no need for any allusion to the subject whilst some early documents show the practice of the church to have been the same as it is now and has been for ages, certainly among the historic churches.

There are also certain inferential deductions from the scriptures which may be adduced in support of the practice of infant baptism. Your reasons for not accepting the link between circumcision and baptism actually run counter to the apostolic witness in the scriptures. We know that the Jews were commanded to circumcise their young children and so bring them within the pale of the same covenant with themselves and had our Lord laid down a new law, shutting out children from the blessing of the New Covenant, we should surely have some mention of it.

If God’s dealings with men in the past contain light and guidance for later times they justify the inference that children were included with their parents in all covenants from the beginning. The covenant with Adam was not personal for himself alone, but for his posterity, for all who should come out of his loins. Again, the covenant of God with Noah, included not only his own immediate family but also “every living creature of all flesh”. In the dealings of God with nations or with families, as seen in the Old Testament, He does not ignore the children. He regards them – good or bad – as partakers of their parents’ actions and experiences; and as with the Law there is “no variableness neither shadow of turning”, so it seems impossible that He should depart from this principle of action in the New Covenant. Little children cannot be separated from their parents, under whom they stand, for the divine truth of Headship has always pervaded the dealings of God with men.

An analogy in favour of infant baptism may be deduced from the rite of circumcision. It does not prove the point, but it offers a strong presumptive analogy in confirmation of the same. St Paul (Col. II: 11-13) with special emphasis links circumcision and baptism in close relationship; when he speaks of baptism as “the circumcision made without hands”; thus suggesting that the obvious type and teachings of circumcision might have a primary application to the case of baptism. One lesson, which circumcision plainly teaches us, is that it was obligatory for children to be taken into covenant with God (Rom. III: 1-2), and if any spiritual benefit accrued – and we are told that it is the shadow of better things (Hebrews X:1) – why should that spiritual blessing which was granted under the Old Covenant be denied under the New ? Since circumcision was among the shadows “of good things to come” (Hebrews X:1), there must be some substance answering to this shadow. The only possible rite which can be the antitype of circumcision in the Christian Church, is the sacrament of holy baptism. Baptism is certainly a better covenant than circumcision and is established upon “better promises”. (Hebrews VIII: 6) Jewish parents were bound to bring any sons into covenant with God, on the eighth day, through the painful and bloody right of circumcision, and so stringent was God’s command to Abraham that he said, “the uncircumcised man child, whose flesh …. is uncircumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant,” though, as a helpless babe, he was powerless in the matter. These scriptural parallels establish a general truth: that it is the will of God that children should be taken into covenant with Him.

A further baptismal analogy may be found in the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, for Saint Paul applies the types of literal Israel to the Christian church and uses these figures for her warning. He speaks of Israel having been “baptised unto Moses in the cloud, and in the sea.” As there were thousands of children in the camp, who, with their parents, received this symbolical baptism unto Moses, the figures suggest more than an analogy or a mere type, rather a Divine purpose – that infants in the Christian church should share in the blessedness of holy baptism with their parents. It is written, “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed, belong unto us, and to our children for ever.”

With regard to the spiritual faculties of a child, we learn from Holy Scripture that the capacity for faith and hope, is a spiritual faculty, which the child may exercise. Children may possess more spiritual life and faith than is generally imagined, for the spirit is not identical with the intellect. Faith and Hope are spiritual, not intellectual faculties. The Psalmist (XXII: 9) when speaking prophetically for the Messiah, explains “thou didst make me hope, when I was upon my mother’s breasts.” Again, when the Holy Theotokos saluted Elisabeth, her unborn babe, John the Baptist, leaped in his mother’s womb for joy. If the Spirit of God can act, and did act, on an unborn child, can He not and might He not act also on a new-born infant ?

Whilst we know that the catechumenate was quite a thorough and lengthy process in the early church and that many of the saints and fathers were not baptised in infancy, that does not prove that it was always so. Origen, in his Epistle to the Romans, says: “The Church received it from the Apostles, that she should grant baptism to infants.” When Justin Martyr (AD 113-165) writes, “many who have been disciples of Christ from childhood” this is not to be interpreted, as proving the practice of his day, but rather the existence of the catechumenate: on the other hand, he informs us that in his time there were many Christians who had been “made disciples of Christ when they were infants.”  Saint Irenaeus, who lives some three decades after Justin, says: “He [Jesus Christ] came to save all persons by Himself; all, I say, who are regenerated by Him unto God; infants, and little ones, and children, and young men and old men.” Tertullian’s unfavourable judgement of infant baptism, not only proves its existence but that it was widespread at his time and indeed, in AD 256, St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, called together an assembly of sixty-six bishops, who unanimously concluded, that children could be baptised as soon as they were born, if their parents thought fit to do so.

As a child I grew up in what was still – at least nominally – a Christian society, where most people have some link, even if rather tenuous, with the church. The transformation in my lifetime has been very marked, so that now large numbers of people have no links whatsoever to organised Christianity. Even the social convention of having a baby “christened”, which prevailed after regular church-going began falling off, has become much less common. This has troubled me a lot and I have recently been planning a series of teachings on the importance of holy baptism, to highlight its real importance and to encourage those who have received baptism in infancy to renew the commitment made on their behalf by their godparents. I was baptised when one-month-old. My mother came from a family with a fairly strong religious connection but my father’s family had long lost any real practice of the faith, other than the social convention of christenings, marriages and funerals. Yet I believe that I was regenerated and incorporated into Christ as a-month-old babe and that coming to a deeper faith in my teens was something arising from the inner workings of God’s grace implanted at my baptism. How I love to see babies and children received the precious sacrament, because their parents desire to see them grow spiritually just as much as they care for their physical and intellectual up-bringing. I do not need the Glastonbury Confession to affirm my belief in the Sacrament of New Birth because through it, I have received the grace of God and the new life which has sustained me through all my seventy years.

The State & Christian Conscience

Question: Article 9, Chapter VII “Of the Relation of the Church’s Hierarchy to the State” in the Glastonbury Confession regarding the relationship between the State and the Church is fine in itself, and I’m glad that it is there, but some of its statements imply things regarding the relationship between the individual and the State. The article repeats common claims regarding secular authority being put in place by God. This suggests, of course, that a person has an obligation to submit to and obey secular authority. This position is by no means unique to the British Orthodox Church (assuming I’ve inferred correctly) but is common among most established Christian churches. It is also precisely where we run into difficulties and tensions.

Without going too far into the weeds, suffice it to say that I agree completely that every person has an obligation to follow the moral (or “natural”) law, and that government’s primary role is the articulation and implementation of this law. People acting in the name of government generally intend good and sometimes even do it. However, we both know that government also does a great many evils, often under the guise of having authority, even authority from God (or, more recently, from “the people”). Not only does it do evil to people in various ways, but it often fabricates “laws” which are, themselves, evil or authorise evil actions.

How does British Orthodoxy reconcile the principle that God establishes secular authorities (which seems to suggest that people have an obligation to obey them), with the reality of what governments often really do and demand? For my own part, I am of the opinion that a person is never obligated to follow an unjust law or directive (unless he has otherwise voluntarily committed himself to do so). Is this position compatible with the British Orthodox Church’s view regarding the authority of the State?

Answer: This article in the Glastonbury Confession essentially tackles church-state relations, but I take it that your question is more extensive as it is concerned about how the individual responds to a government’s actions and behaviour in the light of his own Christian conscience. As with most issues other than revealed doctrine, the issue of the individual Christian’s conscience in matters relating to the state is quite complex and I would prefer you to regard my answer as a personal opinion rather than a dogmatic judgement. As a church we generally avoid adopting a corporate response to political and social issues because it is possible for the two of us to hold quite strong contrary opinions, but still to be faithful to our Christian commitment. The scriptures tell us that the powers that be are ordained of God and that we should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. The early church grew up during the height of the power and prestige of the Roman Empire and many of the early emperors adopted a hostile attitude towards the church, hence the large number of martyrs who resisted. We know that some Christians actually submitted by offering incense at the shrines worshipping the Emperor; whilst others, like St.Polycarp, preferred death rather than compromise. When eventually the persecutions subsided, Christians were faced with how to deal with those who had lapsed under pressure and the Church of Rome had the Novation schism and other groups like the Montanists, who followed a very strict régime against the lapsed, which endured for several hundred years.

Personally, I am a staunch monarchist and believe that the monarchical system we have here in Britain is a model for good government; but I also recognise that it is something that can and has been corrupt and the source of much evil. The role of Henry VIII in the Reformation shows us many evils against the Church of God committed – under the guise of religion – for the sake of one very selfish, self-indulgent, avaricious and unstable character. The current regime in North Korea may be Communist in origin but has actually adopted a form of hereditary monarchy. There is no such thing as a perfect system of government and all systems, because they are subject to the role of frail humanity, can be corrupted. I would not want to see the Church identified with either Republicans or Democrats or Conservatives and Labour parties or that we should adopt a partisan view. However, as individuals we have a responsibility of citizenship and to express our views either vocally or simply by means of the ballot box, if we are fortunate enough to live in a society where such things still prevail.

There is, of course, a huge difference between a government enacting a law which permits something with which we do not necessarily agree, but nevertheless does not force us to follow such a course. Our government here regards grey squirrels as vermin and permits individuals to trap and shoot them. Whilst, personally I find it difficult even to slaughter snails in my garden and the sight of a gun makes me cringe, so long as I am not obliged to kill squirrels, my hostility to the law is merely passive. 

The tradition of the Church through the centuries has also been to include the monarch or chief magistrate in its liturgical prayers; so were we living in Imperial Rome we would still be praying for the Emperor Nero, even though he was torturing and murdering our brethren. Prayers should not be seen as approval of whoever is exercising power, but the reality of them being the source of authority and our desire that they may be put to work righteously and justly for the common good.

However, you are quite right in highlighting the fact that governments often adopt policies with which we as Christians may have serious concerns and reservations. Here, indeed we have a responsibility to express our concerns and to avoid, as much as possible, being partakers in unrighteousness. I have in my time led peaceful and prayerful public protests outside the Eritrean embassy here in London, because of the oppression of Christians in that country, of unjust governmental interference in the affairs of the church and the unlawful detention of my brother-in-Christ, Patriarch Antonius. Each committed Christian must act in the way that their conscience directs them and if they are drawing upon Scripture, Holy Tradition or even the promptings of a generous and open heart we should respect their views, even if we do not share them.

Clergy and Marriage

Question: Yesterday and today I read some paragraphs in the Confession and got very excited by what I read. I also had surprises: for example, that persons within ALL three orders (bishops included) are free to marry. This is also a point I refused to accept within most of the Orthodox world that bishops are prohibited to join in holy matrimony, because the scriptures tell us something different. The Confession also states that a marriage cannot get dissolved as long as the partners are both alive. This is another point that is different to “mainstream” Orthodoxy because there divorce and remarriage is allowed. And I have to admit that I’m a divorced and remarried man.

Answer: I am glad that you are finding points in the Confession to which you can respond positively. Our aim is to be faithful to the Gospels and the tradition of the Undivided Church. We know that married bishops were the norm in the early church and that the monastic monopoly of the episcopate came much later. Equally, the prohibition on clergy marrying is a later development, which may have been introduced with the intention of maintaining good order among the clergy, but actually seems to fit St. Paul’s strictures about “forbidding to marry”. (1 Tim IV: 3)

The article on marriage in the Glastonbury Confession actually says, “A true marriage is an indissoluble union ending only in the death of one of the parties, after which the other is free to remarry.”  We cannot ignore our Lord’s directions, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matthew XIX:6 & Mark X: 9) However, in her role as “steward of the divine mysteries” the Church may determine what is a “true marriage”, i.e. a sacramental marriage. There may be a number of grounds on which a marriage may not be deemed to be such (i.e. a civil marriage or some other prior impediment), at which the Church may make a declaration of nullity. These things involve personal tragedies and where the church is involved in marital problems, she will always try to support and sustain true and loving relationships, but when marriages do break down the cause is often the result of a flaw in the initial nature of the marriage and by determining this the church seeks to support the spiritual life and growth of those trapped in a loveless relationship. It is a complex and torturous process, but part of the church’s role of being a loving and caring mother.

Experience of Orthodoxy

Question: Your Eminence is truly in a world-wide unique position, led there by God Himself and our dear Lord Jesus Christ. Your Eminence has lived within the spiritual life of holy Orthodoxy for many decades. You have ascended through God’s grace to the very heights of the ancient Othodox Light of faith. To the very office of Metropolitan Bishop! One wonders how Glastonbury is meant to contain such a blessing! The world is extant with numerous independent Bishops and many synods but very, very, very few men who have been consecrated Metropolitan and have the Orthodox spiritual experience that Your Eminence has!  God allowed this dear Eminence for a purpose! 

Answer: You are right in what to say about my experience of the Orthodox Church, which is considerable. However it has left me with no illusions about Orthodoxy, which at times behaves in an almost sectarian and discreditable manner. Having seen the reality from the inside I am certainly not starry-eyed, but my commitment to the Orthodox Faith and Tradition does not depend on human frailty, but on the transmission of the apostolic truth and witness committed to us by our Lord. Despite its failings, it contains wonderful souls who live and bear witness to the fundamental truths which comprise the Orthodox faith. While the Lord still gives me strength I will endeavour to witness to those truths and so draw souls to God. I set my hand to the plough in my youth and have received many blessings from God and his Saints. I have seen how lives have been changed by those who have turned to Christ and the manner in which our loving Saviour has brought peace and salvation too many. I can never regret that decision which I made as a youth.

Healing Ministries

Question:  If someone is truly healed of some illness or infirmity as the result of some alternative spiritual healing, rather than orthodox medicine or the ministry of the Church, should we rejoice in their healing or not?

Answer: People sometimes ask whether it really matters where healing comes from so long as the person is healed. Christian healing is only one of the many forms on offer today. Many others practice healing through shrines, divinations and rituals whilst there is no end to New Age remedies, from self-help, positive thinking, meditation or even crystals. Healing within the tradition of the Christian church recognises only one healer, God himself, although through the prayers and intercessions of the saints and holy people, the healing power of God can be manifested and received.

I am not prepared to label all forms of alternative healing as demonic. That would be to emulate the Pharisees. You may recall that the Apostle John told our Lord that they had seen one “casting out Devils in thy name and we forbad him, because he followed not with us”, to which our Lord replied, “forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke IX 49-50). When asked to expound upon this text, our father among the Saints, Cyril of Alexandria, drew an analogy with Moses and the 70 elders of Israel. You may remember that those who were chosen assembled in the first tabernacle, except for only two men who remained in the camp. When the spirit of prophecy descended on those in the tabernacle, those who remained in the camp prophesied also. Joshua asked Moses to forbid them but Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!” St. Cyril uses this to explain Christ’s words, “All who wish to act to his glory on the side of us who love Christ and are crowned by his grace.” He instructs his listeners, “This is a law to the churches continuing even to this day. We honour only those who lift up holy hands purely and without fault or blame. In Christ’s name, they rebuke unclean spirits and deliver multitudes from various diseases. We know that it is Christ who works in them.” He understands the needs of those who suffer and He can infuse all things with His power.

Those who attribute healing to some other deity; who seek to glorify themselves rather than God; whose true purpose is to gain riches and power or who act from other unworthy motives, lay themselves and those who come to them, open to the very spirits they would seek to cast out. Almighty God, Who sees into the hearts and minds of all men, knows our true intentions.

As Christians, however, such means are not for us. We have the fullness of God’s blessing available to us through His divine ordinances so why should we look elsewhere ? If we have offered heart-felt prayers for ourselves and for others, they will have not gone unheard. If the outcome is not what we would wish or hope for, we might feel that God has failed to hear us but, if we are faithful to our beliefs, we know that will not be true. The problem for us is putting our faith totally in His hands and accepting His providential plan for each one of us, even if it is quite contrary to what we ourselves desire.

We all know that there are times when we pray for healing and it does not happen. The apostle Paul prayed fervently to God that He might remove the ‘thorn’ in his flesh (2 Corinthians XII: 7-10), which so troubled him throughout his life. No one knows exactly what form this thorn took, although many writers suggest it was some bodily infirmity. Paul besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from him but the Lord’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

As compassionate human beings we hate to see others suffer, but we live in a fallen world where cruelty, hatred and selfishness are dominant. Much of the time we are totally powerless and for all the practical help we can offer we are no better than spectators. However, as Christians, believing in the power of God to overcome all trials, we hold such concerns before God in prayer, knowing Him to be truly compassionate and merciful. Like the Apostle Paul we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.” (1 Timothy IV: 10).

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