Platonic Signs and Sacramental Realities pt. 1

“It is as if theologians had difficulties in ‘holding together’ the various aspects of this act, as if human words and categories were not fully adequate to the totality of the baptismal mystery. There appeared a certain discrepancy between Baptism itself-its liturgy, its texts, rites and symbols-on the one hand, and the various theological explanations and definitions of Baptism on the other, between the act and its explanation, the sacrament and its comprehension…The most striking aspect of this discrepancy is the inability of modern or post-patristic theology to explain the relationship between Baptism and the Death and Resurrection of Christ…This clear affirmation [between Baptism and Pascha] did not remain central, however, when theology began to be understood and developed as a rational explanation and interpretation of the Christian faith. One continued to pay lip service to the baptismal ‘sybolism’ of death and resurrection but the real meaning of the sacrament shiftwed elsewhere…

Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, p. 54-56

The simplest way to state the early approach to the sacraments is to say that the Church ignored the dichotomy in them of ‘form’ and ‘essence.’ and thus ignored the problem which at a later date became the problem of sacramental theology.  In the early Church the terms ‘likeness’ and ‘pattern’ most obviously refer to the ‘form’ of Bpatism, i.e. to the immersion of the catechumen in water and his rising up from it. Yet it is this very form which manifests, communicates and fulfills the ‘essence,’ is its very ‘epiphany,’ so that the term ‘likeness,’ being the description of the form, is at the same time the revelation of the ‘essence..’ Baptism being performed ‘in the likeness’ and ‘after the pattern’ of death and resurrection therefore is death and resurrection.

One can say without any exageration that a new chapter began in the history of the Church when theology broke the ‘wholeness’ of this initial sacramental vision and experience, and broke it precisely by positing as the preliminary condition for the proper ‘understanding’ of sacraments the distinction in them between the ‘form’ and the ‘essence’ ; when, in other words, it decided that the ‘essence’ of a sacrament can and even must be known, determined, and defined apart from its ‘form.’

In this short essay we canot deal with the historical and spiritual factors which brought about this decisive change, this, in our eyes at least-‘original sin’ of all modern, post-patristic, westernized theology. What is important for us here is that this change progressively led to an entirely different understandingof the sacraments in general and Baptism in particular.

This new approach preserved, to be sure, the crucial different of the scaramental ‘form,’ yet for reasons quite different from those of the early Church. In the early Tradition the form is important because its very nature and function is ‘epiphianic,’ because it reveals the essence, truely is  and fulfills it. And being the epiphany of the essence, the form is the means of its knowledge and explanation.

In the new approach, the form is no longer an ‘epiphany’ but only the external sign and thus the gurantee that a particular ‘essence’ has been duly bestowed and communicated.  As to this ‘essence; itself, it can and must be known and defined apart from the ‘form’ and even prior to it, for otherwise one would not know what is being ‘signified’ and ‘guaranteed’ by means of the form. To use one of the key terms of this new sacramental theology, the form is that which makes the sacrament valid but not the revelation of that which is made valid in the sacrament.”

Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, p. 54-56

2 Responses to Platonic Signs and Sacramental Realities pt. 1

  1. acolyte says:

    Fr. Patrick,

    Please drop me an email.


    Perry acolyte4236 at

  2. Fr Patrick says:

    Along similar lines to Schmemann, I believe that the Church continues the Incarnate presence of Christ on earth. The Church and its Mysteries are Incarnate; the external form is as important and equally part of the Mystery as the spiritual (essence). To lose the essential aspects of the Mysteries in their incarnation leads one to forget that Christ is still incarnate and that His presence in the Church includes His whole incarnate presence, received in Baptism and through the Eucharist.

    The Church in Council produces statements of Faith and also Canons to complete and preserve the Incarnate presence of the Church. This I believe is one reason why the Council of Trullo was held to complete the Fifth and Sixth Councils with Canons. These Canons preserve the correct manner in which Christ’s life is to be “incarnate” in the life of the Church, which is His life on earth.

    Baptism, to include the whole man, body and soul, in Christ, requires the physical form that equates to Christ’s death, burial and resurrection which is immersion into water. It is done thrice because Christ was three days in the tomb and also because the baptised person now shares in the life of the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A single immersions fails to incarnate this Mystery and sprinkling fails to incarnate the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, so the person fails to die with Christ in His death and rise in His resurrection, so being united to Christ.

    The following (rather long) quote from St Basil, who is arguing for unwritten Tradition, I think is relevant to how the Mysteries are seen in context of form (emphasis mine):

    Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly
    enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from
    written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery”
    by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true
    religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; — no one, at
    all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church.
    For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written
    authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we
    should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather,
    should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more.
    instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has
    taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have
    trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us
    to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing
    the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist
    and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with
    what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and
    conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity
    of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover
    we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this
    the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we
    do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what
    written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the
    custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from
    what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? …
    Thus we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us
    know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God
    planted in Eden in the East. We pray standing, on the first day of the
    week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection
    (or “standing again”) we remind ourselves of the grace
    given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ,
    and are bound to “seek those things which are above,” but because the day
    seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect,
    wherefore, though it is the beginning of days, it is not called by Moses
    first, but one. For he says “There was evening, and there was morning, one
    day,” as though the same day often recurred. Now “one and “eighth” are
    the same, in itself distinctly indicating that really “one” and “eighth” of
    which the Psalmist makes mention in certain titles of the Psalms, the state
    which follows after this present time, the day which knows no waning or
    eventide, and no successor, that age which endeth not or groweth old. Of
    necessity, then, the church teaches her own foster children to offer their
    prayers on that day standing, to the end that through continual reminder of
    the endless life we may not neglect to make provision for our removal
    thither. Moreover all Pentecost is a reminder of the resurrection expected
    in the age to come. For that one and first day, if seven times multiplied by
    seven, completes the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost; for, beginning at
    the first, Pentecost ends with the same, making fifty revolutions through
    the like intervening days. And so it is a likeness of eternity, beginning as it
    does and ending, as in a circling course, at the same point. On this day the
    rules of the church have educated us to prefer the upright attitude of
    prayer, for by their plain reminder they, as It were, make our mind to
    dwell no longer in the present but in the future. Moreover every time we
    fall upon our knees and rise from off them we shew by the very deed that
    by our sin we fell down to earth, and by the loving kindness of our Creator
    were called hack to heaven.
    …While the unwritten traditions are so many,
    and their bearing on “the mystery of godliness is so important, can they
    refuse to allow us a single word which has come down to us from the
    Fathers; — which we found, derived from untutored custom, abiding in
    unperverted churches; — a word for which the arguments are strong, and
    which contributes in no small degree to the completeness of the force of
    the mystery?
    The Book of Basil on the Spirit Chapter 27 from The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2nd Series Volume 8

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