Baptized into the Eschatological In-between

For in Christ Jesus the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2:9-12)

As noted in the first article of this series, Lucian Turcescu has proposed that Orthodoxy should explicitly integrate justification as the first step in its ordo salutis, with deification being the second and final step. I criticized Turcescu’s reduction of justification to forgive­ness. Justification must also be understood as regeneration into an eschatological mode of existence: forgiveness and theosis must be thought together. God forgives and justifies not by changing his mind toward us but by making us into new creatures in Christ. On multi­ple occasions in his essay, Turcescu references “the process of salvation.” This way of speaking, of course, is not unique to him. Just about everyone speaks this way. We speak of ascending to God, of growing in holiness and love, of being increasingly filled with the Holy Spirit, of becoming more and more like Christ. We picture redemption as a stepped movement away from sin toward the Creator. We compose ordines salutis to conceptualize how conversion, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification cohere in the divine plan of salvation. There’s nothing strange about any of this. We exist as temporal creatures in a cosmos of change and becoming. How can we not speak of a process of salvation? It is the language of Scripture and the Fathers, as well as the language of philosophy, psychology, and common­sense.

But read again the above citation from the Apostle Paul. Smack dab in the middle of the process of salvation is our death; and whatever else death is, it is the end of process. In baptism we are buried with Christ Jesus. The old Adam has been crucified. The font is our tomb. And from that tomb emerges a new person who has been reborn in the Holy Spirit and united in the most intimate way with the risen Lord. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The baptized have been given an eschatological mode of existence: they now live the life of the coming Kingdom. This existence is not yet ours as possession; it will become so only at the general resurrection. Now we live the in-between in the receptivity and openness, trust and expectation Christians call faith.

If in a baptismal moment we have been translated with Christ into eschatological life, if we have died to the world and raised into heaven, where is the process of salvation? At the very least we need to recognize the oddity of our language, as Robert W. Jenson explains:

What is this life that we propose to form and nurture in the Christian church? There can be only one possible answer—that life that emerges from the waters of baptism. That is the only answer that anybody has ever seriously given in the whole long history of the church. Now notice the language I used: “emerges.” For baptism is itself the casting of the old into the waters and the appearance of the new. Not just in Luther but in the whole tradition, baptism has never been understood as merely the beginning of new life. Baptism is that ending of the old and beginning of the new which is life, and which here is the specific new life we want to nurture.… So aware of this was the New Testament church and the ancient church, that the very occurrence of any time after baptism was a problem for them: Do we not emerge straight from the water into the kingdom of God? Why this sad waste of time in between? The old life ends when I submit myself to the waters, and the new self is an eschatological self, a self in the Spirit. And this ending and this beginning, this baptism, are the life of God’s saints. So how come all that space—for most of us anyway—between the bath and the kingdom? If there is a space there, it seems one ought to move on from baptism to something else to occupy it. But what would that something else be?

It is not too much to say that this question has been the tormenting question of western theological and liturgical history, the question upon which the geniuses of western civilization have beaten their heads until, as far as I am concerned, Luther answered it. What we do between baptism and the kingdom, said Luther, is not to march forward from baptism to something else but rather again and again to return to baptism—indeed, to “creep back into” it. Once it has been said, it is clear that this is the only answer Christi­an­ity can give. The only thing that one can say is to occupy the space between the bath and the kingdom, is that one lives in the bath, one returns to it.1

I do not know how Orthodox theologians might respond to Martin Luther’s construal of life as a continual return to baptism (Jenson’s “eschatological self” reminds me of Zizioulas’s “ecclesial hypostasis”); but it’s the only answer that has long made sense to me. The alternative is to think of baptism as a glorious event in the past whose transfor­mative benefits we have lost and must struggle to reacquire, if only in part. But for Luther and Jenson, every moment is a return to our baptism. We live in the liminal space between death and resurrection. When we celebrate sacramental confession, we dive back into the font and emerge a new creation; when we eat the Flesh of our Savior and drink his Blood, we are transfigured yet again as children of the Kingdom. “In baptism the eucharist begins,” writes Aidan Kavanagh, “and in the eucharist baptism is sustained. From this premier sacramental union flows all the Church’s life.”2 The content of baptism and Eucharist is identical—the dying and rising Christ. Note how Jenson’s proposal rhymes with St Paul’s use of baptism in Romans 6:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:1-4)

The Apostle invokes the one baptism to remind his readers that because they have died with Christ and been raised with him in the Spirit they can no longer entertain sin and disobedi­ence. Their eschatological identity excludes acting and doing “according to the flesh.” The baptized are creatures of the in-between, the living dead. Their only desire is for God and the happiness of his Kingdom. Again Kavanagh:

The Church is a blood-filled corps of those who have been plunged into Christ’s death and who live his eerie resurrection-life around a sacrificial table. To these nothing human or divine is alien. They are the living battle­field where heaven and earth, life and death, spirit and flesh slam together and fuse. Baptism is nothing less than Christ’s own passion, death, and resur­rec­tion thrown open to all: it is the Church’s constant birth, fresh and new.3

St Ambrose speaks of Holy Baptism as the “sacrament of justification.”4 Perhaps here is where we need to begin. For Ambrose baptism truly is for the remission of sins, a passing “from fault to grace” (Sacr. 4.12), yet not only this, as he explains to the recently baptized:

Yesterday we discussed the font, whose likeness is as a kind of sepulchre into which, believing in the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, we are received and dipped and rise, that is, are resuscitated. Moreover, you receive myrrh, that is, ointment upon the head. Why upon the head? Because ‘the eyes of a wise man are in his head,’ Solomon says. For wisdom without grace grows cold, but when wisdom has received grace, then its work begins to be perfect. This is called regeneration.

What is regeneration? You have it in the Acts of the Apostles, for that line which is mentioned in the second psalm, ‘Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee,’ seems to refer to the resurrection. For the holy Apostle Peter in the Acts of the Apostles thus interpreted, that at that time, when the Son rose from the dead, the voice of the Father resounded: ‘Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.’ Therefore, He is also called ‘the first-born from the dead.’ So, what is resurrection other than we rise from death unto life? Thus, then, even in baptism, since it is a likeness of death, undoubtedly, when you dip and rise again, it becomes a likeness of resurrection. Thus, according to the interpretation of the Apostle, just as that resurrection was a regenera­tion, so that resurrection from the font is a regeneration. (Sacr. 3.1-2)

Ambrose explicitly connects the regeneration bestowed in baptism with the resurrection of Christ on Easter morning. Note also how he mystagogically instructs the newly baptized in ways reminiscent of Luther and Jenson:

So the Apostle exclaims, as you heard in the reading of the Gospel today, that whoever is baptized is baptized in the death of Jesus. What is ‘in the death’? That, just as Christ died, so you also taste of death; just as Christ died to sin and lives unto God, so you, too, died to the former allurements of sins through the sacrament of baptism and rose again through the grace of Christ. So death is, but not in the reality of corporal death but in likeness. For when you dip, you take on the likeness of death and burial, you receive the sacrament of that cross, because Christ hung on the cross and His body was transfixed with nails. You then are crucified with Him; you cling to Christ, you cling to the nails of our Lord Jesus Christ, lest the Devil be able to take you from Him. Let the nail of Christ hold you, whom the weakness of human condition recalls. (Sacr. 2.23)

With Turcescu we may speak of justification as initiating the process of salvation; but this event of justification needs to be firmly anchored in the death enacted in baptism and the eschatological existence it bestows and grounds. When God justifies, he slays the living and raises the dead. When God justifies, he exalts us into into his trinitarian life and being— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  By baptism we continuously justified, continuously reborn and made new. Salvation is justification and justification is theosis. The ancient baptistery in the Lateran Basilica bears this inscription:

Here is born
in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood predestined to Another City,
begotten by God’s blowing
and borne upon this torrent
by the Church their Virgin Mother.
Reborn in these depths,
they reach for Heaven’s kingdom,
the born but once
unrecognizable by felicity.
This pool is life
that floods the world;
the wounds of Christ
its awesome source.
Sinner sink beneath
this sacred surf
That swallows age
and spits up youth.
Sinner here scour sin away
down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are
by one Font, one Spirit,
and one Faith made one.
Sinner shudder not
at sin’s kinds and number:
for those born here are holy.

Our baptismal life is a journey to the Kingdom, yet the Kingdom has rushed upon us and drawn us into its domain. We now live in the eschatological in-between.

(12 June 2013; rev.)


[1] Robert W. Jenson, “The Return to Baptism,” in Encounters with Luther: 1975-1979, pp. 217-218.

[2] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, p. 122.

[3] Aidan Kavanagh, “The True Believer,” The Sign (April 1978), 10.

[4] On St Ambrose’s theology of baptism and justification, see J. Warren Smith, Christian Grace and Pagan Virtue, chaps. 4-6. Ambrose’s two important works on the sacraments, The Mysteries and The Sacraments, are included in Theological and Dogmatic Works.

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