Recently, Dr. James White has been interacting quite a bit with Dr. Ken Wilson’s book (and dissertation) regarding Augustine’s “conversion” to a predestinarian. As I have been reading much of Augustine’s work lately as well as other Church Fathers, I felt that I should enter this discussion with a layman’s perspective. Since Dr. Wilson’s dissertation is available to freely view most of it on Google Books, as linked above, I will use that as my source.
AD 412 and the Infant Baptism Controversy?
On page 9, Dr. Wilson starts a section “Tracing the Innovator’s Progress” through various steps such as Gnosticism, Judaism, and Manichaeism (among other -isms with which Augustine was not directly associated. Though prior Church Fathers may have been in direct contact with some of them, apparently they were not tainted as much as Augustine was). As part of Wilson’s theory, the year 412 is a pivotal time in not only Augustine’s life but the history of the church. Wilson states the following about the first usage of “damnable reatus [guilt]” first being assigned to original sin in the year 411 and Augustine beginning to use the terminology in 412.
In general, there is some validity to his statement about Augustine doing this. He stated that the shift was in relation to “the polemical context of the paedobaptismal tradition in North Africa.” Again, there is some validity there. But it is quite a bit more complicated than that.
From the document that I use to track my reading of Augustine, you can see below that from 412-419 Augustine had a focus on Sin, Infant Baptism, Original Sin, and Grace. (The ones in bold are the works that I have read completely – there are 10 in that timeframe that I’ve read.) I say that to take umbrage with his statement that Augustine was formulating his language on original sin primarily in relation to infant baptism. Yes, the first work from 412 was On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism, but that was not his primary concern. Many of his works during this time, even including the work on Infant Baptism, were in direct response to the Pelagian controversy that was erupting.
While I do plan on a future post to deal with the Pelagian controversy as it relates to Wilson’s assertions, I would like to direct you to 3 passages from Book IV of On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism. I would ask you, the reader, to judge for yourself if Augustine thought that he was introducing a novel concept with regards to original sin.
In this first section, Augustine relates that there was a novel opinion which he had read in Pelagius’s writings about Romans 5:12 – that infants were not “burdened” with original sin. He hadn’t treated this up to this point in this work, but he would set out to do so.
I have at all events prepared something in the shape of a firm ground on which those who defend the faith delivered to us by our fathers, against the novel opinions of its opponents, may at any time take their stand, not unarmed for the contest. However, within the last few days I have read some writings by Pelagius, — a holy man, as I am told, who has made no small progress in the Christian life — containing some very brief expository notes on the epistles of the Apostle Paul; and therein I found, on coming to the passage where the apostle says, “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so it passed upon all men,” Romans 5:12 an argument which is used by those who say that infants are not burdened with original sin. Now I confess that I have not refuted this argument in my lengthy treatise, because it did not indeed once occur to me that anybody was capable of thinking such sentiments. Being, however, unwilling to add to that work, which I had concluded, I have thought it right to insert in this epistle both the argument itself in the very words in which I read it, and the answer which it seems to me proper to give to it.
Augustine, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism, IV.1
Continuing this, he related that he had heard others discussing this novel opinion – that when infants are baptized that it is not for the remission of [original] sin, but for sanctification. When he first heard this he didn’t think that it was worth discussing (since, obviously, the faith handed down in the church would have understood otherwise!), but now he has seen it in writing by Pelagius and it was being used against the Church. Even other brethren were consulting Augustine because of how distracting the novel opinion was becoming.
From what quarter this question has suddenly come upon us I know not. 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.
Augustine, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism, IV.12
Finally, here is further proof that what Augustine would continue to defend over the next decade was handed down “from the beginning” regarding the doctrine of original sin that he knew about – which was “guarded with the utmost constancy as a part of the Church’s faith” and “vigorously asserted” in Scripture!
I have not quoted these words as if we might rely upon the opinions of every disputant as on canonical authority; but I have done it, that it may be seen how, from the beginning down to the present age, which has given birth to this novel opinion, the doctrine of original sin has been guarded with the utmost constancy as a part of the Church’s faith, so that it is usually adduced as most certain ground whereon to refute other opinions when false, instead of being itself exposed to refutation by any one as false. Moreover, in the sacred books of the canon, the authority of this doctrine is vigorously asserted in the clearest and fullest way. The apostle exclaims: By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so it passed upon all men, in which all have sinned. Romans 5:12 Now from these words it cannot certainly be said, that Adam’s sin has injured even those who commit no sin, for the Scripture says, ” In which all have sinned.” Nor, indeed, are those sins of infancy so said to be another’s, as if they did not belong to the infants at all, inasmuch as all then sinned in Adam, when in his nature, by virtue of that innate power whereby he was able to produce them, they were all as yet the one Adam; but they are called another’s, because as yet they were not living their own lives, but the life of the one man contained whatsoever was in his future posterity.
Augustine, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism, IV.14
I hope that you did not miss that last underlined section. For the infant, Augustine understood that their sins were called “another’s” sin because “the life of the one man contained whatsoever was in his future posterity.” In other words, the sin of the infant requiring baptism was another’s sin – that of Adam – and the infant was living the life of “another” (i.e. Adam).
So, what is the point of these quotes as they relate to Dr. Wilson’s work? The detractor will say “But Chris, you’ve only cited a document from the year 412 – you’re proving their point.” From just what I’ve cited in this post, that could be granted on the most basic level.
However, I would respond by stating something like this:
Upon hearing that infants should be baptized not to remit original sin but just to sanctify them, Augustine (being one of the greatest Christian scholars of all time) realized that this was not part of what he understood as the Christian faith handed down through the ages. He understood that the Church “guarded with utmost constancy” the doctrine that children were sinners due to their inheriting original sin from Adam. Therefore, his immediate argument was that the Church was against this novel doctrine of Pelagius and that infants should have always been baptized to cleanse them of their sin. If there was a side that Augustine would have understood as “traditional”, it was that side guarded by the Church that believed the transmission of original sin from Adam needed to be washed away in infants so that they could be clean and free from sin until such a time as they committed their own personal sin.