Liturgical Hermeneutics, Part 2: From Baptismal Experience to a Theology of Trinitarian Deification

Feast of St Meletius, Archbishop of Antioch


PATRISTICS PROFESSOR Basil Studer notes that in both of Irenaeus’ extant works—Against Heresies and On the Apostolic Preaching—salvation is a work “accomplished by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.” The attentive reader of both works, Studer continues, “will not fail to notice how consistently [Irenaeus] refers to the action of Father, Son and Spirit in the history of salvation.” Where does this emphasis on the Trinitarian nature of salvation originate for Irenaeus?

Continuing Part 1 on Liturgical Hermeneutics, Fr. Jeremy Driscoll's article on the baptismal theology of St. Irenaeus of Lyons notes that from the very beginning it is in baptism that a Trinitarian pattern is most explicit. As he points out, “the formula from Matthew 28:19, used repeatedly in baptism and thus marking the consciousness of the church, exercises a decisive role in bringing the implicit pattern of the New Testament to explicit expression in a lex credenda [law of belief].”

Although Irenaeus appeals to the Eucharist as a defense for the Church’s theology—“our way of thinking is in accord with the Eucharist”—it is within the context of his examination of the baptismal experience that he begins to develop a Trinitarian doctrine. Since God is the leading actor in the act of baptism, the One who accomplishes the salvation of the one being baptized, and since Christ’s command to baptize imprinted an explicit Trinitarian shape onto the liturgical act of baptism, “the saving act of the Trinity,” concludes Studer, “is chiefly performed in baptism.” Irenaeus is thus compelled to speak about the Trinity within the context of baptism.              

In contrast to his earlier polemical work against the Gnostics, On the Apostolic Preaching is the earliest extant non-polemical summary of the Christian faith. Although its organization may be disappointing to modern ears—it does not present the type of systematic theology one would expect in the twenty-first century—it does provide a window into the teaching of a second-century bishop who claimed to have known the disciples of the apostles (i.e. St. Polycarp). Explained by Irenaeus as “a summary memorandum” written “to demonstrate, by means of a summary, the preaching of the truth,” On the Apostolic Preaching is essentially a catechetical work. And as Driscoll notes, it is in this work that Irenaeus “expresses himself most clearly in Trinitarian terms derived from baptism.”    

Following his introductory comments, which encourage his audience (i.e. Marcianus) to “preserve the faith intact,” to “keep the rule of faith unswervingly,” and to “take great care of it” so as to “have a true comprehension of what is,” Irenaeus opens his catechetical summary by immediately focusing on baptism. According to Irenaeus, that faith which has been handed down from Christ to the apostles, from the apostles to their disciples, and from the apostles’ disciples to Irenaeus               

exhorts us to remember that we have received baptism for the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, [who was] incarnate, and died, and was raised, and in the Holy Spirit of God; and that this baptism is the seal of eternal life and rebirth unto God, that we may no longer be sons of moral men, but of the eternal and everlasting God.

Reflection on the liturgical experience of baptism, according to Irenaeus, reminds one of what is received through the act of baptismal initiation: Who it is received from, the nature of the Giver  (i.e. God as Father, incarnate and resurrected Son of God, and Holy Spirit), and the nature of the act itself (i.e. the seal of eternal life, rebirth unto God to make men sons of the eternal God).        

In the next two sections, Irenaeus begins by insisting that there is “One God, [the] Father, uncreated, invisible, above whom there is no other God, and after whom there is no other God Creator of all.” He then proceeds to employ the Trinitarian formula used for baptism in his interpretation of the apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians: “One God, the Father, who is above all, and through all and in us all” (Eph 4:6). According to Irenaeus, “above all” indicates the Father, “through all” indicates the Son “since through Him everything was made by the Father,” and “in us all” indicates the Holy Spirit “who cries ‘Abba, Father,’ and forms man to the likeness of God.”

Driscoll makes an important observation about this Irenaean reading of Paul. He notes that this Trinitarian reading is not merely an abstract, philosophical exercise of “speculation about eternal relations among the members of the Trinity.” Irenaeus is first and foremost a bishop. Consequently, he is thinking like a pastor, not as an academic. Eternal life, rebirth unto God, and forming man to the likeness of God through baptism are all wonderful gifts that must be protected from all that is foreign to the Church, i.e. false knowledge advocated by the Gnostics which includes an incorrect understanding of the Triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He thus draws concrete conclusions from Paul based on the baptismal experience regarding the members of the Trinity and their role in the cosmos from its creation to the baptism of fallen man, all of which have pastoral implications for his flock. Irenaeus’ conclusions are two-fold: 1) everything is created by the Father through the Word; and 2) “in us all” indicates the Holy Spirit which, through baptism, enables man to call God “Abba, Father” and forms man to the likeness of God.          

Irenaeus next presents a creed-like statement of “three articles” about the nature of God. According to Irenaeus, “the foundation of the edifice” of the faith, “the support of our conduct,” has a particular order that he also draws from the Trinitarian formula of baptism:          

God, the Father, uncreated, uncontainable, invisible, one God, the Creator of all: this is the first article of our faith. And the second article: the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets . . . by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man. And the third article: the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, throughout the world, to God.

Irenaeus has now come full circle. After opening his summary with an exhortation to remember the remission of sins received from baptism in the name of the Trinity, he now turns from his creed-like description of the Trinity (his lex credendi) that was drawn from the liturgical experience of baptism (i.e. the lex orandi) and reconnects the two by describing what takes place in baptism: “For this reason the baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles, granting us regeneration unto God the Father through His Son by the Holy Spirit.” And finally, he explains how this happens.            

Baptism for Irenaeus, as Studer noted, is primarily about salvation that is accomplished by the Triune God: by the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Driscoll notes that this is far more than mere “recitation of formulas” for Irenaeus: “Here is a rebirth in which each member of the Trinity plays a distinct role in this divine economy.” According to Irenaeus, “those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents [them] to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility.” While the end of salvation—incorruptibility—is provided by the Father, Irenaeus offers an ascending order for man to traverse in his path to incorruptibility: from the Spirit received at baptism to the incarnate Son who presents humanity to the Father. Irenaeus thus concludes:

without the Spirit it is not [possible] to see the Word of God, and without the Son one is not able to approach the Father; for the knowledge of the Father [is] the Son, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit, while the Spirit, according to the good-pleasure of the Father, the Son administers, to whom the Father wills and as He wills.

While the Trinitarian order of ascent presented is typical for Irenaeus, it is only half of the equation. Studer offers a key to understanding Irenaeus’ theology by reducing it to a simple scheme: “Father—Son—Spirit—Son—Father.” Studer goes on to suggest that regardless of Irenaeus’ focus, be it on the universal history of salvation or an individual’s experience of baptism, Irenaeus consistently “proceeds in accordance with a double Trinitarian movement: a line of descent which leads from the Father through the Son to the Spirit which is imparted to us, and a line of ascent which leads back from the Spirit in us through the Son to the Father.” This double movement of descent and ascent will become the basis of the extremely important doctrine of deification, as developed by the Greek Fathers (made famous by St. Athanasius: “God became man so that man might become god.”). Moreover, as Studer concludes,

This pattern of theological thought in Irenaeus is entirely shaped by the liturgical experience of baptism. The clue which leads Irenaeus to uncover the Trinitarian pattern in the history of salvation—a lex credendi for him—comes from the pattern that he discovers in baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, a lex orandi.

This is precisely what Fr Alexander Schmemann means by an “Orthodox hermeneutic.” Our lex credendi, what we believe, is shaped by our lex orandi, our life of prayer and worship. That is to say, in Schmemann’s words, our lex orandi is “the epiphany and the experience by the Church of herself and of her faith” and thus also “the sui generis hermeneutical foundation.”


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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  • pauly hart
    commented 2016-02-14 07:46:03 -0600
    I will concur with this, and, it sounds good. What of the other two baptisms referenced by John and Christ, specifically: Fire and the Holy Spirit?