For a Believer’s Baptism: Against the Sacramentalized Infant Baptism of Augustine

Augustine took infant baptism to a level it hadn’t been theretofore prior to his development of a doctrine of original sin contra Pelagius’ theology. My friend (who I had a falling out with some years ago), W. Travis McMaken, offers a nice sketch of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and its necessary remedy through the Church’s sacraments, particularly through infant baptism. Travis writes the following in his published dissertation entitled: The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. For Augustine, 

Original sin brings with it the state of guilt because sin dwelling in our flesh ensures that the fruit of such a tainted sexual union is likewise tainted. This taint is not mere inclination toward sin but the actual condition of sin insofar as one is born with “disobedience of the flesh.” So Augustine, speaking of newborn infants: “the sinful flesh of those through whom they are born gives them a guilt which they have not yet contracted in their own life.” 

Thusly did Augustine joint original guilt to original sin by means of infant baptism. Infants are baptized, and this must be done for a reason. The only intelligible reason is that they are in need of the forgiveness from sin that baptism brings. But since infants have not yet committed any sins of volition, we must look elsewhere for the source of their guilt. This source is found in their birth and in the network of sexual reproduction that stretches from each person back to Adam and Eve. Given such an account of sin, Augustine was able to advance against the Pelagians a robust account of grace and predestination as that which rescues an individual from their hopelessly guilty state.  

Infant baptism was practiced in extremis in the early Christian centuries, but it was always something of a practice in search of a theology. By pressing into service in his dispute with the Pelagians, Augustine “provided the theology that led to infant baptism becoming general practice for the first time in the history of the church.” This was not his intent. In fact, he argued that it was already the church’s general practice, and had been since the time of the apostles. Other sources considered above belie this claim. Further, the logic of his argument moved away from the practice of infant baptism and toward the establishment of his doctrine of original sin and guilt. However, once “original sin was established as the basic framework for thinking, then it was natural for it to become the principal reason for infant baptism.” This resulted in infant baptism quickly becoming established as standard practice—and, indeed, the definitive form of baptism—rather than an in extremis concession. As Karen Spierling notes, “infant baptism was an established practice of the Christian church” within one hundred years of Augustine’s dispute with the Pelagians. 

In this way, Augustine provided Christian theology with the first of its two great arguments in support of infant baptism, namely, the sacramental argument: all humans are sinners in need of salvation, and the sacraments in general and baptism in particular are the appointed means for removing sin and securing salvation, therefore infants ought to receive baptism lest they die in their sins. This argument, and Barth’s rejection of it, is the subject of further consideration in chapter two.1 

In McMaken’s purview Augustine represents the paragon of a developed sacramental doctrine of infant baptism vis-a-vis original sin. Travis is not alone, and stands on the shoulders of others in this unremarkable understanding in regard to Augustine as the sacramental theologian par excellence. 

My own view, as a Baptist, follows Barth’s, and the New Testament’s teaching which entails a credobaptism (or believer’s baptism). Indeed, prior to Augustine’s development, believer’s baptism was the preferred method for baptism; particularly as people paid attention to the teaching of the NT, and the Apostolic practice. It wasn’t until later, like Augustine and following, wherein infant or paedobaptism took on an ecclesial life of its own. As McMaken will turn to next (in his section on a survey of the development of a doctrinal baptism), he identifies the Reformed ‘covenantal’ rationale for infant baptism. While there is some discontinuous theological rationale within the Reformed development of a paedobaptism, there clearly is some continuous overlap between the so-called covenantal and sacramental arguments for an infant baptism.  

As someone who follows the Protestant Scripture Principal though, I am compelled to reject the theological reasons for an infant baptism, and solely affirm believer’s baptism. Because of my commitment to a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, as funded by Barth’s and Torrance’s doctrine of election, respectively, I can appropriate certain themes from both the earlier developed sacramental and covenantal forms of infant baptism, without committing myself to infant baptism simpliciter. These things represent a complex that we will not have time to disentangle in this post, but suffice it to say that if we see Jesus’ vicarious humanity as the speculum (mirror) of our election and justification in general, then it follows as corollary, that we can posit His baptism, both in the Jordan, and at Golgotha, as both sufficient and efficient for fulfilling the conditions that a baptism entails (canonically). What the Christian does, in the wake of His baptism for us, is bear witness to the always already finished work of Christ, as we participate in and from His life for us. Indeed, Christ meets both the objective and subjective sides of baptism for us, just as He meets those more generally as the Electing and Elected Godman for us. As we come to recognize what He has already accomplished for us, as we come into a spiritual union with Him, it is in and from this participation that following Him into the waters of baptism find their gravitas; indeed, as we stand where He first stood first for us, that we might now bear witness to His always already finished work of redemption all the way down.   


1 W. Travis McMakenThe Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), loc. 379, 386, 395. 

10 thoughts on “For a Believer’s Baptism: Against the Sacramentalized Infant Baptism of Augustine

  1. Hey Bobby,
    Since salvation is accomplished and established once and for all in Jesus in his Baptism on our behalf, and it is he who does the work, wouldn’t it be legitimate to baptise an infant on that basis and for them later to come into an affirmation that they have been apprehended by that reality in their own experience?
    (BTW I did not baptise my children but i am sympathetic to infant baptism now only on the basis of Christ’s vicarious humanity actually).


  2. That is for sure. This presentation is more formulaic though than it is theological. (I’m not saying it is wrong btw). It seems evident that this order is expressed in a context where there were no second generation believers and so it would not have been expressed in another way. (I’m not personally familiar with the way the various denominations have come to this position i just wonder whether there is a way of accepting this way through the vicarious humanity of our Lord and preserving the unity of the faith which is in him and is undivided – again not that these things are unimportant). I’m revisiting this at the moment which is why i my interest was piqued by your blog as you are always “thoroughgoingly Christophoric” and wish to refine my own thinking.


  3. Richard, I see Scriptures teaching as normative, and post scriptural formulations as non-normative; unless of course the latter developments are in fact making bare what is in fact in the text (like the doctrine of the Trinity). I don’t understand the need for infant baptism per scripture. It is clear why it was developed from Aug and following, but his whole construct was based on an understanding of baptism that has no purchase in Scripture itself. Baptism neither saves nor washes away “original sin.”


  4. And then… Paul broadens the horizon, encompassing both Moses and Christ by all who “went out and crossed… being baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea” and ” partaking in the same spiritual food and spiritual drink” that Paul identifies Christologically. (And it is at junctures like these in the testimony of Scripture that I wonder what may have been Moses’ thoughts as he viewed the vista that lay before him from Nebo.)


  5. Yes, RB, there is definitely a ‘vicarious’ component present in that. This would be the objectified status that we come to spiritually participate in as we, by the faith of Christ, say Yes. Not someone else, but each one of us according to the pattern of the NT in particular.

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  6. I’ll give more thought to it thanks Bobby. As i said i am not at all interested in the way distortions of the humanity of Jesus have reshaped the formulations to suit / fund certain philosophical or theological objectives. What i am more interested in is how we are to appropriate what has objectively been given in Jesus. It seems to me that a distinction between normative and non-normative may not adequately take into account the redemptive historical context of the book of Acts in this instance. That notwithstanding, it is certainly without doubt that infant baptism does not save. Viewed through the lens of the objective accomplishment of God’s saving in Christ however I think one could argue (which Anglicans and others probably do) that the act of baptising and infant does not save them it simply acknowledges what God has done in forgiving sins. The person will have to come into a revelation of that in their lives to apprehend it. This to me does not seem to threaten or diminish baptism which does not save the adult either actually. Christ saves and he baptises us into his body through the eternal Spirit. Baptism is then a participation in re-imaging of what Jesus has done and the trajectory of our own lives in him. Into death and upward into resurrection. Happy to hear your further thoughts if you have the energy given the demands on your time brother. Thanks R

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  7. RS, I mean I have no problem with doing a baptism for a baby as a type of baby dedication or something. But none of that changes the NT pattern of a believer’s baptism. As an Evangelical Calvinist, or more pointedly, Barthian, particularly in this area, Jesus’ vicarious action for us represents an objective or ‘carnal’ action, we still must subjectively or spiritually follow Him by His faith for us, particularly. It is that movement that water baptism comes to bear witness to, personally, as a personal confession and witness to the church catholic, and world, that indeed, I now identify with the One who was first buried/baptized for me; who was first resurrected/recreated for me. That doesn’t change no matter what theological paradigm we adopt; unless of course we allow said paradigm to retextualize Scripture itself.

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