The question of sacramental validity is a hot one in many Orthodox circles, and so I wanted to briefly cover my thoughts on it in this post. Essentially, I agree with the teachings of Sts. Basil and Augustine on this question. That said, I think that both of these saints’ positions often get falsely represented online, and so I wanted to take some time to unpack what they actually had to say about the topic of sacramental validity, how it relates to those “outside the Church,” and how their views can be harmonized with one another.
Starting with St. Basil, he spoke on this question in his Letter to Amphilochius, wherein he wrote,
As to your enquiry about the Cathari, a statement has already been made, and you have properly reminded me that it is right to follow the custom obtaining in each region, because those, who at the time gave decision on these points, held different opinions concerning their baptism. But the baptism of the Pepuzeni seems to me to have no authority; and I am astonished how this can have escaped Dionysius, acquainted as he was with the canons. The old authorities decided to accept that baptism which in nowise errs from the faith. Thus they used the names of heresies, of schisms, and of unlawful congregations. By heresies they meant men who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith; by schisms men who had separated for some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution; by unlawful congregations gatherings held by disorderly presbyters or bishops or by uninstructed laymen. As, for instance, if a man be convicted of crime, and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, and then refuses to submit to the canons, but arrogates to himself episcopal and ministerial rights, and persons leave the Catholic Church and join him, this is unlawful assembly. To disagree with members of the Church about repentance, is schism. Instances of heresy are those of the Manichaeans, of the Valentinians, of the Marcionites, and of these Pepuzenes; for with them there comes in at once their disagreement concerning the actual faith in God. So it seemed good to the ancient authorities to reject the baptism of heretics altogether, but to admit that of schismatics, on the ground that they still belonged to the Church. (Letter CLXXXVIII: [Canonica Prima] to Amphilochius)
The first thing to note here is that St. Basil recognizes that the question of what to do with converts from non-Orthodox, Christian sects is one that people in his own day had differing opinions on. He also states that the “old authorities” (by which he presumably means previous bishops and local Synods) had accepted as valid the baptisms of those outside the Church, which were performed in accordance with the faith.
Next, Basil begins to explicate the two different views that existed within the Church. The first is the view that distinguishes between heretics, schismatics, and unlawful assemblies. Of heretics, it is said that they must be rebaptized, however notice who St. Basil lists among the heretics: Manichaeans, Valentinians, Marcionites, and Pepuzenes. Although not much is known about the last of these groups, what they all seem to share in common is the core tenets of Gnosticism: the idea that the material world is evil, and the spiritual world is good. So according to St. Basil, these are the groups who are thought to be heretics. Notice who isn’t on that list: Arians and Eunomians, the very people against whom St. Basil wrote many of his famous works (given he was writing this at the height of the Arian crisis in the Church). And so what’s implied by this is that Gnosticism is detrimental to the faith to the point where it invalidates their sacraments, however this is not automatically the case with those who teach heresy about the Trinity.
The next group listed by St. Basil that we should pay attention to is schismatics. Who are schismatics? According to Basil’s understanding of the first school of thought, they are people who separated from the Church for “some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution.” As an example of this, he states that schismatics could be groups that disagree with the Church on the question of repentance (think, Donatism and Novationism), which implies that schismatics could be those who disagree with the Church on “minor” theological issues (whatever that means). The last point that Basil makes about this understanding of receiving non-Orthodox into the Church is that, on this view, schismatics “still belong to the Church.” How exactly? It’s not said, but this is the view presented by Basil that existed in his day, which “seemed good to the ancient authorities,” and allowed for these schismatic groups to be received into the Church through chrismation, thereby recognizing the validity of their baptisms.
The next view that St. Basil offers is the one upheld by the saintly bishops of Carthage, Sts. Firmilian and Cyprian. Basil explains the view pretty well:
The Cathari are schismatics; but it seemed good to the ancient authorities, I mean Cyprian and our own Firmilianus, to reject all these, Cathari, Encratites, and Hydroparastatae, by one common condemnation, because the origin of separation arose through schism, and those who had apostatized from the Church had no longer on them the grace of the Holy Spirit, for it ceased to be imparted when the continuity was broken. The first separatists had received their ordination from the Fathers, and possessed the spiritual gift by the laying on of their hands. But they who were broken off had become laymen, and, because they are no longer able to confer on others that grace of the Holy Spirit from which they themselves are fallen away, they had no authority either to baptize or to ordain. And therefore those who were from time to time baptized by them, were ordered, as though baptized by laymen, to come to the church to be purified by the Church’s true baptism. Nevertheless, since it has seemed to some of those of Asia that, for the sake of management of the majority, their baptism should be accepted, let it be accepted. We must, however, perceive the iniquitous action of the Encratites; who, in order to shut themselves out from being received back by the Church have endeavoured for the future to anticipate readmission by a peculiar baptism of their own, violating, in this manner even their own special practice. My opinion, therefore, is that nothing being distinctly laid down concerning them, it is our duty to reject their baptism, and that in the case of any one who has received baptism from them, we should, on his coming to the church, baptize him. If, however, there is any likelihood of this being detrimental to general discipline, we must fall back upon custom, and follow the fathers who have ordered what course we are to pursue. For I am under some apprehension lest, in our wish to discourage them from baptizing, we may, through the severity of our decision, be a hindrance to those who are being saved. If they accept our baptism, do not allow this to distress us. We are by no means bound to return them the same favour, but only strictly to obey canons. (Letter CLXXXVIII: [Canonica Prima] to Amphilochius)
While it seems that Basil himself favors this second view (strict “Cyprianic” ecclesiology), he nonetheless affirms the acceptability of the first view in stating that he will accept the baptisms of those outside the Church if they are accepted by his brother bishops. Moreover, Basil even goes so far as to say that, while he would prefer to rebaptize certain heretics coming into his churches, he himself will simply follow whatever the custom of the church he is in is, in order to prevent scandal. And Basil essentially ends this discussion by stating that, when making decisions about the question of receiving heretics and schismatics into the Church, we should “only obey the canons,” rather than rely on our own wisdom. So, when all is said and done, it would seem that St. Basil’s position on the topic of receiving non-Orthodox into the Church is that there is legitimate room for disagreement, because there were some bishops prior to himself that required rebaptism, and others that didn’t, and even in his own day there was a diversity of beliefs and practices, all of which should be tolerated so long as the canons and customs of local churches are upheld.
And it is this general principle, laid out by St. Basil, that was taken up by the Second Ecumenical Council of I Constantinople (convened just two years after Basil’s death), in its decree on how to receive various schismatic and heretical groups into the Church:
Those who embrace orthodoxy and join the number of those who are being saved from the heretics, we receive in the following regular and customary manner: Arians, Macedonians, Sabbatians, Novatians, those who call themselves Cathars and Aristae, Quartodeciman or Tetradites, Apollinarians-these we receive when they hand in statements and anathematise every heresy which is not of the same mind as the holy, catholic and apostolic church of God. They are first sealed or anointed with holy chrism on the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears. As we seal them we say: “Seal of the gift of the holy Spirit”. But Eunomians, who are baptised in a single immersion, Montanists (called Phrygians here), Sabellians, who teach the identity of Father and Son and make certain other difficulties, and all other sects — since there are many here, not least those who originate in the country of the Galatians — we receive all who wish to leave them and embrace orthodoxy as we do Greeks [pagans]. On the first day we make Christians of them, on the second catechumens, on the third we exorcise them by breathing three times into their faces and their ears, and thus we catechise them and make them spend time in the church and listen to the scriptures; and then we baptise them. (Council of I Constantinople, Canon 7)
What we see here is very interesting. The Council definitely seems to be implying the validity of the first school of thought laid out by St. Basil, given that the categories of “heretics and schismatics” seem to be at play; and what we find is that schismatics, i.e. those who can be received into the Church through repentance and chrismation alone, includes not just Novationists (whom we would expect given what was written above), but also Arians and Apollinarians! That’s right, the Arians who taught that Christ wasn’t fully God, and the Apollinarians who taught that Christ didn’t have a human soul, are both listed among those who are not to be rebaptized, implying that they are schismatics, and not heretics, according to the definitions given by St. Basil.
As for those who are heretics, i.e. those who have to be rebaptzied, we see that this group includes Eunimoans, Monatists, Sabellians, and “all other sects.” What’s interesting about this is that the Council actually provides reasons for why several of the individual groups mentioned here are to be “received as pagans.” In the case of Eunomians, it’s because they baptize with a single immersion, and this would be a valid reason to not recognize their baptism according to St. Basil, because in refusing to do a triple immersion the Eunomians are performing a baptism which “errs in the faith.” Next, the Sabellians are said to be rebaptized because they confuse the Father and the Son as one person, and given similar logic is not applied to the Arians, this seems to imply that Sabellians denied the Trinity in a more severe way than the Arians, thus invalidating the baptisms of the former, and not the latter.
And although reasons for the why Monatists and “all other sects” are to be rebaptized aren’t given, what we should take note of is that none of these groups are said to be rebaptized simply because they are outside of the Church; and this once again implies what was stated above, that the Second Ecumenical Council seems to favor the first school of thought laid out by St. Basil (where some baptisms outside the Church are valid), and not the second school of thought (where none of the baptisms outside the Church are valid).
What’s most likely the case is that the Second Council was simply following the recommendation of St. Basil to “only obey the canons,” and thus it was not introducing anything new by setting up these categories of who is to be rebaptized and who isn’t, but rather was simply upholding and standardizing local customs that were already in place, because we know from St. Basil that both of these practices come from “ancient authorities,” and “we must fall back upon custom, and follow the fathers who have ordered what course we are to pursue.”
Now to many outside observers, especially Roman Catholics and Protestants, St. Basil’s logic may seem a bit flawed. How can it be that he, on the one hand, denies the reality of true baptisms outside the Church, but on the other, tolerates and accepts as valid those whom his brother bishops receive without a new baptism? This seems contradictory because many in the West reason that you are either baptized or you’re not, and so if you’re already baptized then to repeat it would be sacrilege because it denies the belief “in one baptism,” however if you’re not baptized, then it would be impossible to be received into the Church through chrismation alone because chrismation is not baptism, and baptism is necessary for salvation according to our Lord. So how do we resolve this conflict that exists within Basil’s ecclesiology? Especially given it seems to have been accepted by the Second Ecumenical Council, in addition to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which repeated the Second on this question, adding Monophysites to the list of schismatics who are to be received into the Church without a new baptism (see here for a good summary of the history of St. Basil’s canon and its reception by the Church).
Enter, St. Augustine of Hippo. Although he tends to get a bad rap in Orthodox circles, I think that Augustine provides the best theological explanation of the Orthodox practice of receiving heretics into the Church without rebaptism in his work Against the Donatists:
Further, if any one fails to understand how it can be that we assert that the sacrament is not rightly conferred among the Donatists, while we confess that it exists among them, let him observe that we also deny that it exists rightly among them, just as they deny that it exists rightly among those who quit their communion. Let him also consider the analogy of the military mark, which, though it can both be retained, as by deserters, and, also be received by those who are not in the army, yet ought not to be either received or retained outside its ranks; and, at the same time, it is not changed or renewed when a man is enlisted or brought back to his service. However, we must distinguish between the case of those who unwittingly join the ranks of these heretics, under the impression that they are entering the true Church of Christ, and those who know that there is no other Catholic Church save that which, according to the promise, is spread abroad throughout the whole world, and extends even to the utmost limits of the earth. (The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, p. 497)
I think this “analogy of the military mark” is the best explanation for what receiving heretics without baptism means. It does not mean that we recognize heretics as members of the Church, just as civilians receiving the military mark outside of the army does not make them members of the army, however, just as is the case with such people who were to later join the actual army, if heretics join the Church having already received the mark of baptism, it is not going to be repeated by the Church, but rather reconciliation with the Church will “fulfill” that baptism by making it correspond to the actual ecclesial status of the person who has received it. Augustine further explains this by writing,
It appeared to some even eminent men who were bishops of Christ, among whom the blessed Cyprian was specially conspicuous, that the baptism of Christ could not exist among heretics or schismatics, this simply arose from their not distinguishing the sacrament from the effect or use of the sacrament; and because its effect and use were not found among heretics in freeing them from their sins and setting their hearts right, the sacrament itself was also thought to be wanting among them. But if we turn our eyes to the multitude of chaff within the Church, since these also who are perverse and lead an abandoned life in unity itself appear to have no power either of giving or retaining remission of sins, seeing that it is not to the wicked but the good sons that it was said, “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained,” yet that such persons both have, and give, and receive the sacrament of baptism, was sufficiently manifest to the pastors of the Catholic Church dispersed over the whole world, through whom the original custom was afterwards confirmed by the authority of a plenary Council; so that even the sheep which was straying outside, and had received the mark of the Lord from false plunderers outside, if it seek the salvation of Christian unity, is purified from error, is freed from captivity, is healed of its wound, and yet the mark of the Lord is recognized rather than rejected in it; since the mark itself is often impressed both by wolves and on wolves, who seem indeed to be within the fold, but yet are proved by the fruits of their conduct, in which they persevere even to the end, not to belong to that sheep which is one in many; because, according to the foreknowledge of God, as many sheep wander outside, so many wolves lurk treacherously within, among whom the Lord yet knoweth them that are His, which hear only the voice of the Shepherd, even when He calls by the voice of men like the Pharisees, of whom it was said, “Whatsoever they bid you observe that observe and do. (The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, p. 589)
Here, St. Augustine directly addresses the strict “Cyprianic” view of the Church, and while he expresses some agreement with this view, he says that it’s not sufficiently adequate because it fails to distinguish “the sacrament from the effect or use of the sacrament.” When this is done, so Augustine reasons, we see that, just as sinners (who are cut off from the Church in a certain sense) can validly confer baptisms, so too can heretics and schismatics. The only difference being that when sacraments are done outside the Church, they do not confer salvific grace, but rather the grace which is implied by the form of the sacrament is only “activated” when the individual “seeks the salvation of Christian unity,” i.e. is reconciled to the Church. What’s also interesting to note is that Augustine cites “the authority of a plenary Council” to support his view. Now, I couldn’t figure out when exactly Augustine was writing this, however it’s very likely he was not referring to the Second Ecumenical Council, but rather to the local Council of Arles in 314, which condemned the Donatists, but regardless, the fact is that the 7th canon of the Second Council, which was cited above, does indeed disprove the point of the Donatists that baptism can never be accepted when done outside the Church. And it is for this reason that Augustine is able to write the following to the Donatists,
And if you ask why I, who call you schismatics and heretics, desire to receive you, it is because you are brethren; because you have the baptism of Christ; because I want you to have salvation: one can have everything outside the Church except salvation; he can have honor, he can have the sacraments, he can sing Allelulia, he can respond Amen, he can hold to the gospels, he can have faith in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and can preach, [but he cannot have salvation]. (The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, p. 484)
What we see is that St. Augustine pretty much repeats what was said above in stating that the Donatists (who are schismatics and heretics) “have the baptism of Christ” and “have the sacraments,” but they don’t have salvation, because “one can have everything outside the Church except salvation.”
Now obviously Sts. Basil and Augustine do not 100% agree on this topic. Basil seems to not accept the existence of sacraments outside the Church, whereas Augustine does, however Basil does allow for the view of St. Augustine in his first canon, and, as described above, the 2nd Ecumenical Council seems to be implementing the first canon, and not the second.
Per St. Basil, we know that both practices of rebaptizing heretics, and not rebaptizing heretics were present from the very beginning of the Church. And while there was a diversity of opinion on this question, Basil’s position is that he personally would prefer if everyone rebaptizes certain heretics, but insofar as any Orthodox bishops allow heretics to come into the Church without being rebaptized, “let it be accepted,” with the most important thing being that we “uphold the customs of the Fathers” and “strictly obey the canons.”
Per the Second and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, we know that principles of St. Basil’s first canon was used to canonically determine which heretical and schismatic groups were to be admitted to the Church with rebaptism, and which ones weren’t. Given that Arians, Apollonarians, Monophysites, and Nestorians were all considered to have “valid baptisms” (meaning they did not have to be repeated), despite them all teaching what we today consider grievous heresies, we can presume that the acceptance of baptisms from major non-Orthodox sects is the canonical norm in the Orthodox Church. And so given St. Basil’s command that we are to “strictly obey the canons,” and given the fact that “the canons” (specifically canon 7 of I Const. and canon 95 of III Const.) specify that there are certain groups who we are not to rebaptize (Monophysites and Nestorians still exist today), we know that simply rebaptizing any and all heterodox Christians who come into the Church not only wouldn’t be an example of “strictly applying the canons,” but indeed would be a violation of the canons, and the rule of St. Basil who told us to uphold the customs given to us by our fathers.
The problem gets worse for “traditionalists” who uphold the strict “economic” view of sacramental validity today, when it’s seen that not only do the Ecumenical Councils not line up with such a view, but the pan-Orthodox Synods that were held in the 17th Century (which are authoritative) also seem to not be so favorable to such a view. According to the 1642 Moldovan Synod (which has pan-Orthodox acceptance):
[T]his mystery [of baptism] once received is not again to be repeated, provided the person who provided the baptism believed orthodoxly in three Persons in one God and accurately, without alteration, pronounced the aformentioned words:namely, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Likewise, the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem (which also has pan-Orthodox acceptance) once again upheld this teaching:
For heretics who renounce their heresy and join the Catholic Church are received by the Church; although they received their valid Baptism with weakness of faith. Wherefore, when they afterwards become possessed of the perfect faith, they are not again baptized. (Decree XV)
Now if we consider these two canonical prescriptions in light of the words of St. Basil to “strictly obey the canons” and “uphold the customs of the fathers,” this further solidifies the point made above that receiving most heretics into the Church without rebaptism is the canonical norm, and so anything else is an exception, and not the rule.
With all of that said, I still think St. Augustine provides the best theological explanation for what’s happening here, and so now I will finally get to my attempt at harmonizing Sts. Basil and Augustine.
Per St. Augustine, we know that receiving baptism outside the Church does indeed have some objective impact on your soul. If this were not the case, then the Church would either have to never allow reception of heretics by chrismation, or we would have to explain how it is that baptism isn’t actually necessary for salvation. However, the mark that is left on the soul isn’t baptism in the fullest sense (the same way that receiving a military mark outside of the army isn’t actually a real military mark), in that it is still lacking sacramental grace. However, just as generals would allow people with a military mark into the army without repeating it, so too does the Church allow people with the form of baptism to enter Her without it being repeated.
What I hope you can take away from this is that, contrary to what many “traditionalist” Orthodox today will tell you, accepting heretics into the Church via repentance and chrismation alone is not a “modernist innovation,” and it is not “an exception to the rule,” but rather this has not only been an acceptable practice since the very beginning of the Church, but indeed it has been the norm throughout most of her history. Thus, there is a sense in which we can say heretical baptisms are “valid” (per the Synod of Jerusalem), and there is also a sense in which we say that they are not fully complete (per Sts. Basil and even Augustine to an extent), and we must obey the prescription of St. Basil to uphold canonical norms.