Augustine and Challenges From the Dead

Over the course of my last two years in Seminary at Western I have been struck by the importance of knowing and being anchored to church history.  Being intimately acquainted with what those who have run the race before us have said and written develops a more sound and robust theology, and helps guard against making similar gaffes in thinking.  We learn from their strengths as well as their weaknesses.  This past semester I had the privilege of studying Augustine.  Three primary lessons stand out to me.  1) Augustine helped me to appreciate further the tie that the church today has with gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is exciting for me to read a statement about Jesus by a man who lived seventeen hundred years ago, and know that I make the same claim of Christ today when I preach and teach.  The gospel of salvation alone in Christ has not changed.  We live in a day when Pluralists, Inclusivists, and Universalists demand that all theologies bow to the standard of political correctness and affirmation of all.  Augustine reminds us, however, that “our heart is unquiet until is rests in [Jesus].”  2) Augustine points to the great depravity of man and the unfathomable grace of God.   I am convinced that a man will not cherish the grace he has received in Christ until he comes to terms with the utter despair and helplessness of his state in sin without him.  Augustine understood the depravity of his heart.  He thought about it often, wrote about it in his Confessions, and constantly encouraged all men to look away from any good or merit in themselves (which would never be found) and to trust only in the grace of God.  Indeed, Augustine attributed even this turning towards grace to the gracious enablement of God.  In this he helped me to see afresh the great mercy of God and the sweetness of worshipping him.  3) Augustine challenged my theology in the area of baptism.  I am a Baptist….a Southern Baptist to get specific.  I affirm believer’s baptism as the most appropriate and biblical mode of baptism in the church.  Augustine, however, was a staunch advocate of infant baptism and the notion that baptism was a requirement for salvation.  I believe he goes too far here, but my concern has been how I account for the rich history of infant baptism in the church.  I know the early church was not infallible, but when the church suddenly stops a fifteen hundred year practice (stopping after the Reformation), you better have a good answer.  This has led to a question that nags me, and research paper to be written this semester (I’ll let you know what I decide.  All my Presbyterian friends don’t get too excited yet!).

If you have never studied Augustine, please do.  I highly recommend Peter Brown’s biography, Augustine of Hippo, for a great introduction and overview of his life and significant works.  Writings by Augustine that are greatly worth the read are: Confessions (Augustine’s autobiography of his conversion and struggle with sin), On the Free Choice of the Will (Augustine’s early discussion on the nature of freedom of the will and God’s responsibility for evil), Enchiridion (A type of systematic theology of what Augustine affirmed the church to teach), and The City of God (specifically the last ten Chapters…a Masterpiece!).  You won’t be disappointed.

Posted on January 8, 2011, in Early Church, Salvation, Th.M. Program, The Modern Church, Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Nice Marc,

    I have spent most of my Christian and intellectual life therein as an Augustinian. I would somewhat classify my conversion Augustinian (over 40 years now). But, for the most part, I have followed the “Catholic” idea of Augustine. Though I have had time too within the Reformed and Reformational ideas of Augustine (Luther, Calvin), but as an Anglican.

    But now, I have finally turned the corner and with Orthodoxy, I see the better Augustine, who is actually the Church Father (if I can call him that) of both Prevenient Grace, and also Free-Will… but in again the grace of God. I will not over simplify this, for Augustine was/is a profound intellect and soul. But, I see now some of the profound errors that he made in the area of grace and nature. For God wants to truly change the sinful being of man, but this takes a lifetime of both “penthos” (deep & vigorous sorrow for sin), and “metanoia” repentance.. that literal transformation of the mind, the work of “theosis” that process in which God transforms us…”Christ in you, the hope of glory or glorification”. (Col. 1: 27) But also note St. Paul’s words in Col. 1:28 & 29. We need theology that strives and labors to produce Christ in us, and not just give us mere information! But again, I am sharing years of this…my own search and revelation, by the grace of God. So I walk and speak softly! 🙂

  2. Let me know, Billy, when you finish that paper and we can talk about you coming into the PCA! You won’t even have to be “re-baptized” to join:-)

  3. When you say, “I know the early church was not infallible, but when the church suddenly stops a fifteen hundred year practice (stopping after the Reformation), you better have a good answer.” What exactly do you mean by “stop”?

    I am right there with you buddy. The other question that has been bothering me is the belief in baptism as a regenerative work. It doesn’t bother me because I see NO biblical merit, but because that perspective was completely left out in my up bringing. I would love to read this paper if it happens.

    • Daniel, I should have been more specific there. What I mean is that for Credobaptists to insist that infant baptism is illegitimate after the practice had been accepted for so long, they need solid reasoning to do so. I personally think Anabaptists and other Credobaptist groups have solid reasoning in their strong appeal to Scripture. I”m somewhat surprised that Luther didn’t join them since his cry during the Reformation was “sola scriptura.” I know certain Paedobaptists appeal to Scripture in the sense of covenantal ties, but even this seems to be an obstacle for them, because if you read older church historians (Augustine, Basil, Gregory, etc….) baptism was more than covenantal, it was sacramental. If this is the case, then it seems that even covenant infant baptism doesn’t enjoy the rich tie to church history as much as they would like (and that to me is a major problem for them.)

      Again, all of these thoughts are just now forming and the research is just now beginning. The paper I’m writing now will address the historical question: Did the the early church (1st and 2nd Century) practice infant baptism? From preliminary research it seems that historians can’t agree, and I’m not sure if this is because the evidence is inconclusive, or if they are already slanted towards a particular view and an unwanted answer opens up Pandora’s box for them.

      • But Billy, Luther was crying “Sola Scriptura” and wondering why the Anabaptists were practicing Credobaptism! It wasn’t that they “found” verses that the Church had missed for over a thousand years. It was a new way of reading Scripture.

        The early church doesn’t talk about covenant in the same ways that the Reformation federal theologians do, but I don’t think that makes it a problem for the latter if you can assume development. There is also not a division between being covenantal and sacramental for Paedobaptists in the Reformed tradition, either. Even the Westminster Standards speak of the sacraments of baptism and the LS, and the giving of Christ Himself in these.

        Barth and Aland had a feisty debate about infant baptism in the mid-20th century that might be interesting for you to check out as you scroll through this issue.

      • Pat, I’m really looking forward to talking with you some about this. The issue for me is that I don’t see infant baptism in Scripture anywhere. I’m actually not convince that the Credobaptists view was a “new way of reading Scripture.” I think it is possible that it was faithful to the early church view (which I believe is why they turned to it in the first place). I am fully aware, however, that this might be a result of growing up in a credobaptist tradition, and I’m curious as to whether or not that will change as I study some covenant aspects of infant baptism. Nevertheless, at this point I’m not convinced of the covenantal ties between circumcision in the OT and baptism in the NT. Maybe you can help me out with this, but isn’t there a difference made between an ethnic and a spiritual covenant? Who they applied to was different. The means of entrance into the new, spiritual covenant is different! It’s a matter of faith not birth. I know you agree with that, but for me the practice of infant baptism is inconsistent then. Maybe its because I don’t understand the intention or underlying reason for baptizing infants. Could you explain?

        Furthermore, Augustine and the early church Fathers would have been perplexed by Luther’s view of infant baptism, since for them it was a necessary requirement for salvation. That seems to be more than just development, it was an aspect of the gospel.

        I understand that within the Reformed tradition there is no division among Paedobaptists. I was referring to the division between Reformed and Catholic as the two differing views among Paedobaptists. Sorry I didn’t make that more clear.

      • Yep, lets get together. I am less interested in persuading you of infant baptism than in the bigger hermeneutical issues, which will be helpful to me.

        Quick comment: You say you don’t “see” infant baptism in Scripture. Granted: It might not be there! But it is also a perspective issue (which you noted, cf. growing up a Baptist – I grew up Lutheran, but can assure you I didn’t think about these things growing up. I can’t remember reading the Bible at all until I was a junior in high school). I likewise could say that I don’t “see” credo-baptism in Scripture, e.g. there are no examples of the children of Christians coming forward for baptism as teenagers, or adults, etc.

      • I see. Thanks for filling that gap for me.

  4. The practice of Baptism within the Patristic era is a very interesting topic, and one that does not necessarily have easy categorical distinctions between infant baptism and believers baptism. Both were practiced even on people who ostensibly grew up within the church. One of the more interesting aspects of this is how those who were baptized as believers, like Augustine, supported the practice of infant baptism

    • JohnMark,
      That’s what I’m wanting to figure out. Are there any good patristic resources you could point me towards that might help?

  5. JohnMark, I’m very interested to see where Billy’s research goes on this and I’ve encouraged him to keep us updated throughout the semester. So, feel free to chime in with your background in patristics and keep him honest!

  6. Billy,

    There are a lot of patristic sources on baptism. the short list off the top of my head is as follows:
    Didache
    Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to the Smyrneans (the roel fo the bishop in baptism)
    Justin Martyr First Apology 61 (How baptism was practiced)
    Tertuallian’s tract on baptism (questioning infant baptism)
    Cyprian and the council of Carthage in 251 (affirming infant baptism)
    Cyril of Jerusalem’s Cathecetical Lectures
    Ambrose of Milan On the Sacraments and On Abraham
    Augustine’s Confessions (hoe baptism was practiced and perceived)
    Clement of Alexandria discusses it in a couple of his works (Strom. and Paed.)
    Origen deals with baptism in some of his commentaries/homilies
    I hope this helps/ seems overwhelming

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