We have seen evidence that some in the very early church may have baptized believers only. And we have seen that in the second through fourth centuries there was a mixture of practices, with both infant and believer’s baptism. At the beginning of the fifth century something happened that caused infant baptism to become the widespread practice of the church. That something was a someone—Augustine. Perhaps no single person except Jesus and Paul had a more powerful influence on the teachings of the church than did Augustine. Everyone who sought to be orthodox throughout the Medieval and Reformation periods called himself Augustinian. Though I am not an authority on Augustine and I have not read all that he wrote on baptism, I want to note a few things that might give pause to the acceptance of his thinking on baptism.
In Confessions (A.D. 398) Augustine tells of his formative experiences with baptism.
[A]s a child I was taken suddenly ill…on the point of death…. I appealed to the piety of my own mother…to give me the baptism of Christ…. [I]n the pure faith of her heart, she was in greater labour to ensure my eternal salvation than she had been at my birth. Had I not quickly recovered, she would have hastened to see that I was admitted to the sacraments of salvation and washed clean…. So my…baptism was postponed, in the surmise that…I should defile myself again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous.1
Monica, Augustine’s mother, a devout Christian, did not see fit to have him baptized as an infant. She considered an emergency baptism, but his recovery allowed her to delay. Augustine reflects on his mother’s choice.
I ask you, my God—for, if it is your will, I long to know—for what purpose was my baptism postponed at this time? Was it for my good that the reins which held me from sin were slackened? Or is it untrue that they were slackened? If not, why do we continually hear people say, even nowadays, ‘Leave him alone and let him do it. He is not yet baptized’?…It would, then, have been much better if I had been healed at once…. This surely would have been the better course.2
Augustine grew up in a Christian culture that delayed baptism. His own pious mother did so. He “continually” heard people say that unbaptized young people should be allowed to sin. Unbaptized young men were apparently common. Also, at the writing of Confessions, he equated baptism with salvation and washing from sin. Last, he considered baptism to be able to hold back the reins of sinful concupiscence.
Later Augustine tells a story about a very good friend of his:
I had found a very dear friend…. We had grown up together…. As a boy he had never held firmly or deeply to the true faith, and I had drawn him away from it…. [I]n a moment, before we had reached the end of the first year of a friendship that was sweeter to me than all the joys of life as I lived it then….
My friend fell gravely ill…. [H]e lingered in the sweat of death, and when all hope of saving him was lost, he was baptized as he lay unconscious…. New life came to him and he recovered…. [A]s soon as I could talk to him…I tried to chaff him about his baptism, thinking that he too would make fun of it, since he had received it when he was quite incapable of thought or feeling. But by this time he had been told of it. He looked at me in horror as though I were an enemy, and…he warned me that if I wished to be his friend, I must never speak to him like that again. I was astonished…. [A] few days after this, while I was away from him, the fever returned and he died.3
Augustine then goes on to mourn his friend for several pages:
My heart grew sombre with grief, and wherever I looked I saw only death. My own country became a torment…. All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him. My eyes searched…for him, but he was not there to be seen. I hated all the places we had known…. Tears alone were sweet to me, for in my heart’s desire they had taken the place of my friend.4
Augustine was deeply moved by his friend’s death. I include this story because I am aware that people can come to believe something because of an emotional experience.5 Surely it was later a great comfort to him to know that they would be reunited. He ends the section, “Blessed are those who love you, O God, and love their friends in you and their enemies for your sake. They alone will never lose those who are dear to them.”6
Augustine writes of the time just after his conversion: “I confess that I was terrified…. Deep within me I recognized the working of your will, and I praised your name, rejoicing in my faith. But my faith would not let me feel at ease over my past sins, for they had not yet been forgiven in your baptism.”7 Though he had faith and worshipped, he did not think his sins were forgiven because he had not been baptized. It is daunting to do so, but I disagree with Augustine. If he worshiped and had faith, then he was regenerated, even though he had not taken the sign. He continues, “When the time came for me to hand in my name for baptism, we…went back to Milan. It was Alypius’s wish to be reborn in you at the same time.”8 He considered baptism to be rebirth.
Augustine confidently taught infant baptism. When those who baptize infants look to historical theological figures, Augustine is prominent as a friend of their position. But there are a few factors that I think should give us pause when we look to Augustine on this issue.
First, his own history with regard to baptism suggests a highly emotional element in his thinking. His friend who died in his young adulthood was important. This friend had joined with Augustine in mocking Christianity. During his brief recovery, Augustine expected that his friend would join him in mocking the baptism his friend had been given while dulled with sickness. But his friend instead demonstrated a remarkable change and made it clear that he honored Christianity and his baptism. Later, when he wrote Confessions, Augustine found great comfort in this faith on the part of his friend. To reconsider and contemplate believer’s baptism would have meant going back and questioning the value of his friend’s baptism. Concluding this would not be easy. It would mean that since his friend was baptized before he became a believer, he was never really baptized.
Augustine’s experience with his own baptism was also significant. He was convinced that his baptism was a means of grace that helped to regenerate his soul and free him from his sexual sin. A credo-baptist would agree that because it was a test and demonstration of faith, it was exactly as Augustine said. But Augustine also lamented that he was not baptized as a child or infant. He believed that if he had been, perhaps, his sexual sin might have been averted altogether. This would be denied by protestant paedo-baptists and credo-baptists alike. It is likely that these occurrences powerfully influenced Augustine in favor of infant baptism, but the church does not accept the reasoning behind their impact.
Augustine had a second reason to cling to infant baptism. He used infant baptism as evidence for the sinfulness of infants. Thus, it was a weapon in his fight against the Pelagians. He uses infant baptism as a device against them again and again.9 Infant baptism gained a state of legitimacy because he used it repeatedly as a weapon against these heretics. Neither this consideration nor the biographical considerations constitute an argument that Augustine was incorrect in his understanding of baptism. They only offer a perspective on why he might have been unlikely to want to consider that he was incorrect.
Augustine coupled two teachings with infant baptism that the church rejects today. These were infant damnation for those not baptized and infant communion. Though I feel inadequate to sit in judgment of Augustine’s writings, I note that the church has rejected both the damnation of unbaptized infants and infant communion.10, 11
Respect for Augustine’s contribution to theology makes us inclined to look to him with respect. But I think that there are sufficient reasons for excusing ourselves from the need to be Augustinian in the matter of baptism if other Biblical and historical arguments push us in other directions.
This paper proves nothing. It only offers non-theological and non-historical reasons that could explain why Augustine held the position he did. Augustine has been a tower of theological authority. I suggest that some portions of the church may have followed his conclusion without particular attention to his reasons. In other words, gifted as he was, Augustine was still able to err. And gifted as he was, his errors tended to be followed.
1 Saint Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin Books, 1961. Book 1.11, p. 31-32.
2 Ibid, p. 32.
3 Ibid, (Book 4.4), p. 75-76.
4 Ibid, (Book 4.4-9) p. 76-79.
5 My mother was baptized as an infant on an emergency basis. Late one night in a terrible snowstorm in South Dakota, she was on the brink of death and the pastor was called. After the dangerous trip on foot he baptized my mother, who within half an hour had an astounding recovery. My grandmother credited this to be a miracle.
6 Ibid, (Book 4.9) p. 79.
7 Ibid, (Book 9.4), p. 189.
8 Ibid, (Book 9.6) p. 190.
9 Ibid, Chapter 5 [V.], Chapter 10 [IX.], Chapter 21 [XIX.], Chapter 22 [XIII.], Chapter 22 [XIII.], Chapter 22 [XX.], Chapter 24 [XIX.], Chapter 35., Chapter 40 [XXII.], Chapter 7., Chapter 25., Chapter 27., Chapter 28., Chapter 58 [XXX.], Chapter 64., Chapter 43 [XXVII.], Chapter 34 [XXIV.], Chapter 10., Chapter 61 [XXXII.], Chapter 23 [XI.].
10 Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 29:1,7 [Online] Available from http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html. Accessed 5 July 2010.
11 Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 170-177, July 2, 1648 [Online] Available from http://www.reformed.org/documents/wlc_w_proofs/index.html. Accessed 5 July 2010.