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