Baptism and Christian Identity: Part 4

Mikoski engages Gregory of Nyssa in a chapter entitled: “Baptism, Trinity, and Ecclesial Pedagogy in the Work of Gregory of Nyssa.” Mikoski claims that while Gregory did not offer any unique contributions to the liturgical framework of his time and place, “His unique contributions to the complex rites of Christian initiation came in the form of insightful interpretations of the meaning of baptism” (83). Mikoski believes that his understanding of baptism contributed to his development of trinitarian doctrine.

First, Mikoski compares the Eastern and Western baptismal rites. For the East, there was a renunciation (facing West) and then an act of adherence (facing East), followed by a pre-baptismal anointing, first by the minister on the forehead and then by someone else to the whole body. The baptism was accompanied by the form, “I baptize you in the name…” The Western rite had a renunciation, followed by the baptism accompanied by “triple interrogation of the faith,” but no baptism form. This was followed by a post-baptism ceremony of prayer for the Holy Spirit, anointing of forehead and imposition of the hands (84). Mikoski offers interpretation:

In general terms, the baptismal rite in the East contained three major sections: renunciation, pre-baptismal anointing, and baptism. The renunciation portion of the rite contained two subsections. First the baptizand would face the west (where light dies) and renounce all allegiances to the devil, sin, and the ways of darkness (apotaxis). Next the baptismal candidate would turn to the east (where light arises) in order to profess adherence to the Triune God (syntaxis). After this dual action of renunciation and profession, the liturgical leader would then anoint the baptizand with oil. The final phase of the Eastern rite called for the application of water to the baptizand with the formula ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (84).

Mikoski, channeling Maxwell Johnson, notes further aspects of the Eastern rite: the final preparations for baptism would take place during the forty days of Lent, and would have included daily catechesis and daily exorcism; in the East, the Easter vigil became the prime time for the baptismal rites; the pre-baptismal rites had a exorcistic emphasis; and the explicit reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit became associated with the post-baptismal anointing rather than with pre-baptism (86). Likewise, the Eucharist would often be had immediately after the baptism. This is a key element for Mikoski. He notes, “Whereas baptism addresses the body and its need for transformation, the Eucharist heals the soul. For him, baptism and the Eucharist made up a complex rite through which the Triune God addressed and transformed both body and soul” (88). Gregory, dealing in the Eastern tradition, was working within an image-rich liturgy and ritual which, even without the catechesis, was catechetical.

Along with a turning away from evil through death, baptism is a mystical washing marking the beginning of illumination and the process of regeneration. In Gregory’s words,

Although we were darkened through sin, God made us bright and loving through his resplendent grace. When everything is shrouded by the prevailing gloom of night, even if things happen to be light by nature, with the coming of light, the comparison to darkness does not apply to things previously obscured by gloom. The soul is thus led over from error to truth, and the dark form of its life is changed to resplendent grace…”

Mikoski offers a gloss on Gregory’s view, “The Trinity acted to bring into being a creature that would be able to see the light of Triune splendor and serve as witness to it. Humanity, then, was created specifically for the purpose of recognizing, sharing in, and enjoying the goodness and love that is God” (91).

Mikoski emphasizes that Gregory was no “crypto-Gnosticp;” and Gregory himself aquainted the idea that piety consists solely in doctrine with paganism. Instead, Gregory offered concrete practices of triune redemption. Mikoski glosses Gregory’s view: “Gregory did not think that the pedagogical process of preparation for baptism entailed only attending lectures and getting one’s theological perspective in line with ecclesial orthodoxy. He believed that the catechetical process also called for an intentional process of moral transformation. The goal of the transformation process involved not only greater insight into the Trinity, but also becoming like the Triune God in perfection of virtue. Thus, to become like the Triune God one had to become more and more virtuous, according to the archetype of virtue, Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Spirit of all true virtue” (118).

In summary, Gregory understood that baptism was the beginning step of participation in the Trinity, a journey which continues through death into glorification. Baptism, as dying and rising, is the pattern of Christian existence, an existence which is formed by contemplative prayer and a struggle for moral purity. Gregory tried to tie the baptismal liturgy and practice into a concrete act of dying and rising to a life of increasing light, the light of God, known in Christ and enlightened by the Spirit. The practice of the church pedagogically, is to help form this in its catechism.

We will turn next to Calvin.

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