In response to “Augustine: Infant Baptism Is The Apostolic And Universal Practice Of The Church”

Recently, R Scott Clark posted a brief quote by Augustine in which he was making the argument that infant baptism was the apostolic and universal practice of the church. Clearly, when such a person as Augustine states that something was and is “apostolic” and “universal” we should take pause at that.

Here is the quote as Dr. Clark posted it:

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First of all, this post is not about the failure to cite the entire quote of Augustine. Dr. Clark not only did not put in an ellipses to show that there was more to the quote, but the additional portion that was left out amounts to an entire paragraph. The full paragraph from Augustine may be found here:

As you can see, there was much left out (I also find the translation below interesting as it states “when others take the vows for them (infants)”. This image highlights the part which was posted by Dr. Clark as two consecutive sentences in his post:

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However, that is not what I wish to focus upon in this post. I wish to focus on the intent (as I perceive it) of the original post – that the church today should practice the baptism of infants, in part, because such a great and revered theologian such as Augustine not only believed and practiced it, but further stated that it was of apostolic origin and with their authority being practiced in the universal church.

There are several paths from which we may approach this line of reasoning.

The first, and simplest, would be to take the path which merely states that this was a post in which agreement was given to a specific belief of a vitally important, though certainly uninspired, person from church history. This path would say that there isn’t agreement with everything else that Augustine would have written but that one feels this is an important statement. That’s certainly acceptable – we all do this constantly. I may have read more from Augustine (see my series here) at this point in my life than I have read from any other single theologian (ironically, I am currently reading the exact work of Augustine, On Baptism: Against the Donatists, that Dr. Clark cited from above), yet there are many things with which I have disagreement on from Augustine. However, this first path does not really address why one would consider this statement from Augustine to be so universally binding on believers today.

It is no great secret that Augustine believed that infant baptism was and should have been practiced in his day. As we see above, he believed that the practice as he would see it enforced and performed, was in line with the apostolic authority. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of the doctrines that he taught would have been things that he believed were Biblical and traced back to apostolic writings or traditions. But I would like to press this a bit further. For all of us, whether we agree with infant baptism or not, we must approach Augustine and the earlier church with caution. It cannot, and should not, be enough for us to say “infant baptism was practiced in the 5th Century when Augustine said that the practice was apostolic, so therefore infant baptism is indeed apostolic“. We must pursue this further. We cannot content ourselves with the pleasure of knowing that Augustine believed this to be apostolic. We must break away from this narrow mindset and ask ourselves “how was this seen as being practiced according to the apostolic tradition which Augustine believed and practiced?”

Let us now take a look at some examples from Augustine. We will look first at specific examples at the apostolic authority behind the practice of infant baptism. In this section below, we have another reference to the apostolic tradition that one must be baptized and partake of the Lord’s Supper in order to be saved and have everlasting life. This apostolic tradition influenced Augustine’s belief in paedo-communion (which is an “apostolic tradition” of Augustine’s that Dr. Clark rejects). Further, Augustine states here that part of that apostolic tradition is that the shed blood of Christ is applied to the infant in the sacrament.

Whence, however, was this derived, but from that primitive, as I suppose, and apostolic tradition, by which the Churches of Christ maintain it to be an inherent principle, that without baptism and partaking of the supper of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and everlasting life?

We therefore ought not to doubt that even for infants yet to be baptized was that precious blood shed, which previous to its actual effusion was so given, and applied in the sacrament, that it was said, “This is my blood, which shall be shed for many for the remission of sins.”

Augustine’s work Of the Merits and Remission of Sins, and of the Baptism of Infants.

Here we will see another belief regarding infant baptism which Augustine relates to us as being “apostolic declaration” and of “the universal Church” – that being that without baptism administered the child cannot be made alive in Christ and remains under the condemnation of the guilt of original sin. This is such a strong belief that Augustine relates how generally no time is wasted in administering baptism to the child. This is the tying together of the sign and that which is signified – something which, I believe, is another “apostolic tradition” regarding infant baptism which is rejected by Dr. Clark. I concur with the last statement that infants are born under original sin – but not with the belief that baptism cleanses one of original sin (and all past sins). More on that below.

Likewise, whosoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that sacrament shall be made alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration, and condemns the universal Church, in which it is the practice to lose no time and run in haste to administer baptism to infant children, because it is believed, as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive in Christ. Now he that is not made alive in Christ must necessarily remain under the condemnation, of which the apostle says, that by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation. Romans 5:18 That infants are born under the guilt of this offense is believed by the whole Church.

Chapter 7.21 here –

Following are several quotes from various sections of Augustine’s work Of the Merits and Remission of Sins, and of the Baptism of Infants. I will not link to each section, but if you have trouble locating the source, let me know (I have already cited this book once above). Augustine argued vociferously (against Pelagius, for one) that infant baptism cleanses the child from original sin and the guilt which we receive from Adam. His belief in this is what would drive Augustine and those before and after him, up until the Reformers, to concur that this is the primary reason that a child should be baptized. This is, most certainly, an apostolic tradition of the universal Church cited by Augustine with which Dr. Clark would disagree sharply.

If, however, the infant departs from the present life after he has received baptism, the guilt in which he was involved by original sin being done away, he shall be made perfect in that light of truth, which, remaining unchangeable for evermore, illumines the justified in the presence of their Creator.

The latter class, indeed, by examining the Scriptures, and considering the authority of the whole Church as well as the form of the sacrament itself, have clearly seen that by baptism remission of sins accrues to infants; but they are either unwilling or unable to allow that the sin which infants have is original sin.

All the rest, however, of the passage in which these doubtful words occur, if its statements are carefully examined and treated, as I have tried my best to do in the first book of this treatise, will not (in spite of the obscurity of style necessarily engendered by the subject itself) fail to show the incompatibility of any other meaning than that which has secured the adhesion of the universal Church from the earliest times—that believing infants have obtained through the baptism of Christ the remission of original sin.

Here is one last quote from the book cited above, Of the Merits and Remission of Sins, and of the Baptism of Infants. In my reading this book last year, I found this statement from Augustine rather intriguing in light of the fact that he was offended by the shock of hearing that infants were not baptized for the purpose of receiving remission of sin (which is against the belief of the post-Reformation Presbyterians and Reformed – it’s noteworthy that Calvin completely ignored Augustine’s beliefs on infant baptism in his chapter on the subject in Institutes…) but for the purpose of being sanctified in Christ. Dr. Clark has stated that the Reformed belief is that “Baptism is a means of sanctifying grace and a gospel ministry to the people of God.” and that “we all believe Paul’s teaching that the children of believers are sanctified (i.e. in this instance, made externally clean) by virtue of their covenantal relations.” In other words, the modern Reformed belief as to why a child should be baptized would offend Augustine’s ears because it goes against his understanding of the apostolic tradition of infant baptism, namely, that original sin would be remitted in the child (or any recipient of baptism). This modern view outlining the basis of infant baptism is a new development and novel opinion, and would have no apostolic or scriptural basis in his mind.

A short time ago, in a passing conversation with certain persons while we were at Carthage, my ears were suddenly offended with such a proposition as this: “That infants are not baptized for the purpose of receiving remission of sin, but that they may be sanctified in Christ.” Although I was much disturbed by so novel an opinion, still, as there was no opportunity afforded me for gainsaying it, and as its propounders were not persons whose influence gave me anxiety, I readily let the subject slip into neglect and oblivion. And lo! it is now maintained with burning zeal against the Church; lo! it is committed to our permanent notice by writing; nay, the matter is brought to such a pitch of distracting influence, that we are even consulted on it by our brethren; and we are actually obliged to oppose its progress both by disputation and by writing.

As we have clearly seen up to this point, Augustine and the earlier church believed that not only the “what” of infant baptism was apostolic but also that the “why” had its foundation in the apostolic practice of the universal church. This included, but was not limited to, the belief that infant baptism was given for the remission of sins (original sin and the guilt associated with it) so that it would cause the child to be “made alive in Christ” and, in the event of his or her death, would mark such a child as being saved to receive eternal life. The participation of the baptized child in the Supper was also seen as a necessity. The child should also see no delay in being baptized.

At this point, it is clear that the Presbyterian and Reformed believers today have strayed from the “Apostolic authority” and practices of the “universal Church” with regards to infant baptism. It would seem that they are happy enough just to know that there is a precedent for baptizing a baby regardless of the reasons given by the patristics.

I would like to now take a moment to point to a couple of other things that Augustine believed to be practiced with Apostolic authority and in the universal Church.

The first example is twofold for the purposes of this post. In the first instance, it teaches that the office of Bishop was an apostolic practice. Not only that, but there were regional bishops with certain spheres of influence. Furthermore, these were united to the Roman Church in which was “the supremacy of an apostolic chair” which had “always flourished.” One of the first debates of the Westminster Assembly was whether or not the office of Bishop (which, of course, has a more ancient history than infant baptism in church history) was a valid church office. It was determined to not be – much less is a supremacy of a Roman apostolic see valid! Yet we can read often where Augustine (and many other fathers) cite the apostolic authority and universal practice in the church of not only a bishopric, but also a Roman “supremacy.” With that in mind, we must ask ourselves why there is not a post-Reformation practice of the bishopric which has 2nd (if not 1st) Century church history behind its practice. This is ignoring that we read about the office in the New Testament – though of course I understand that there was an attempt to “recover” or “reform” the New Testament office to be more in line with New Testament practice. But the general shape of the office from the end of the 1st Century was already in place. We have no specific documentation that this is true of infant baptism – the earliest mention is around 200 by Tertullian and he actually questions the practice (see my post on Hippolytus linked below).

…inasmuch as Carthage was a great and famous city, from which any evil originating there might extend, as from the head of the body, throughout all Africa. Carthage was also near to the countries beyond the sea, and distinguished by illustrious renown, so that it had a bishop of more than ordinary influence, who could afford to disregard even a number of enemies conspiring against him, because he saw himself united by letters of communion both to the Roman Church, in which the supremacy of an apostolic chair has always flourished, and to all other lands from which Africa itself received the gospel, and was prepared to defend himself before these Churches if his adversaries attempted to cause an alienation of them from him.

Letter 43 (A.D. 397) To Glorius, Eleusius, the Two Felixes, Grammaticus, and All Others to Whom This May Be Acceptable, My Lords Most Beloved and Worthy of Praise, Augustine Sends Greeting.

A final belief that was held in apostolic authority, though possibly not stated specifically as such (see the final quote below on that) was the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is just one of the examples which I recall from my reading. Augustine would believe that Jesus had no brothers or sisters by Mary because of her perpetual virginity. I know that this is also a doctrine which Dr. Clark would disagree with.

Moreover, when that burial is made an object of belief, there enters also the recollection of the new tomb, which was meant to present a testimony to Him in His destiny to rise again to newness of life, even as the Virgin’s womb did the same to Him in His appointment to be born. For just as in that sepulchre no other dead person was buried, whether before or after Him; so neither in that womb, whether before or after, was anything mortal conceived.

Augustine, Of Faith and the Creed (393). Augustine would discuss the “brothers” of Christ (John 2:12) at a later point in a tractate on John 2 where he questions whether it has to mean “brothers” from the same mother – it could be other children of Joseph or even used to speak of cousins.

As a quick general note, here is a final quote from the book which Dr. Clark cited in his post. It speaks to the fact that Augustine, admittedly, believed in extra-Biblical traditions within the universal Church which are apostolic but may not have been mentioned by them in their writings (in the New Testament). We must ask ourselves, are the apostolic traditions which we hold so near and dear are actually apostolic or if they are rather continued church tradition without mention in their writings?

Cyprian writes also to Pompeius about this selfsame matter, and clearly shows in that letter that Stephen, who, as we learn, was then bishop of the Roman Church, not only did not agree with him upon the points before us, but even wrote and taught the opposite views. But Stephen certainly did not “communicate with heretics,” merely because he did not dare to impugn the baptism of Christ, which he knew remained perfect in the midst of their perversity. For if none have baptism who entertain false views about God, it has been proved sufficiently, in my opinion, that this may happen even within the Church. “The apostles,” indeed, “gave no injunctions on the point;” but the custom, which is opposed to Cyprian, may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings.

Augustine, On Baptism: Against the Donatists Book V.23.13

For further reading, see my post on Hippolytus and his thoughts on what the apostolic tradition of a baptism ceremony would have looked like. For the sake of brevity here, Hippolytus would cite at least 23 separate things that would be done in an “apostolic tradition” baptism service. I can safely say that the modern Presbyterian and Reformed person would only practice 4 of these things (those four being that children (1), men (2), and women (3) would be baptized with water(4)). The other 19 things must either be said to be not apostolic (including the mode) or else the Presbyterian and Reformed today must be going against some of the earliest known “apostolic traditions” in church history.

7 thoughts on “In response to “Augustine: Infant Baptism Is The Apostolic And Universal Practice Of The Church”

  1. Pingback: R.Scott Clark, Augustine, and the Infant Baptism Tradition… – RRuiz1689

    1. I would tend to say that it’s the view of the one universal church and I’m not certain that I would attach more to it than the baptism pointing to the forgiveness of sins.

      If we are considering what one would call “baptismal regeneration”, then this could take a longer response. 😀


  2. Pingback: The Didache (~150): Baptism is by Immersion and for Converts | Chris Whisonant

  3. Pingback: Tertullian on Traditions Which Are Not In Scripture | Chris Whisonant

  4. Pingback: Was Calvin’s Doctrine of Baptism In Line With The Early Church Fathers? A Response to The New Geneva Podcast – Chris Whisonant

  5. Pingback: The Laymen’s Cup Interviewed Me About Baptism in the Early Church – Chris Whisonant

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