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. 

Holy Communion: Remembering that Human Life is in Christ’s Blood

The late, John Webster, wasn’t just a Christian theologian par excellence; he was also a pastor. The following comes from part of a sermon he gave on Maundy Thursday. A major thrust of his sermon was to remind the parishioners that Holy Communion is not something that re-enacts or re-presents the death of Jesus Christ; indeed, as Webster presses, the Eucharist is a memorial event wherein we, as the Church, remember the already finished work (in the perfect tense: my insight) that Jesus alone accomplished once and for all in the givenness of His life for the world. As Webster presses this point, and rightfully so, he offers a beautiful description of what, in the history has been called: the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’). Here Webster is underscoring the idea that what God in Christ has done, has been done; indeed, what has been done God alone could accomplish on our behalf. I found Webster’s rendition of the ‘wonderful exchange’ edifying, and so I want to share it with you now. 

What was done there and then? What is it about the Lord’s death that the Eucharist proclaims or testifies? Isaiah, whose Servant Song provides the bass line of our thoughts this Holy Week, tells us that the wounding and bruising and chastising of the Servant is “for our transgressions” (53:5). The cross of Jesus, celebrated in Holy Communion, is the climactic event in which God acts to win the world back from the darkness and misery of sin. In some way, the death of this one changes the entire course of human history; it intercepts and breaks the whole course of human wickedness; henceforth, because of what this man does and suffers, nothing can be the same. Why not? Because in this little scrap of an event one Friday afternoon, this unremarkable bit of human evil, God takes our place. He enters without reserve into the reality of our situation—into our situation, that is, as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God. 

But God does not leave us in the hell we have made for ourselves. In the person of Jesus his Son and Servant, he comes to us; he takes on his own back the full weight of our alienation and estrangement; he freely submits to the whole curse of our sin. He takes our sin upon him, and in so doing he takes it away, fully, finally, and conclusively. And of all that—of that miracle of grace on Good Friday—this evening is a memorial, the memorial of that his precious death. 

That was what was done. It was done not by us, but by God himself in the person of his Servant and Son. And it was done by God alone. Because reconciliation is thus God’s work, God’s exclusive work, then this sacrament in which we remember the cross of Christ is also God’s work. Here, in this assembly at this table, God is at work. And God’s work here is to present to us, to make present to us, what took place on Good Friday. We don’t make Good Friday real by re-enacting it, or by thinking and feeling about it. God in this sacrament declares to us what Good Friday made true: that he is our reconciler; that sin is finished business; that we can repent because God has forgiven; that the promise acted out in the death of Jesus stands for all time and for each human person. In this memorial, God turns us backward; but he also makes present to us the limitless power of what the Son of God suffered. The God who was at work there and then is at work here and now, proclaiming to us his promise of cleansing, acceptance and peace.1 

The Apostle Paul describes the ‘wonderful exchange’ this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8.9). Webster brings out so many rich insights in his telling of what in fact unfolded in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following clause, in particular stands out to me: “as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God.” This is the depth dimension of the Evangel. What it genuinely means to be human is to be human before (in and from) God. To declare that ‘we’ can be human devoid of God, devoid of a coram Deo life, is indeed: Hell!  

Holy Communion is to remind us, moment by moment, that we are not our own; and that if we persist, indeed, perdure in the lie that we can be our “own man or woman,” that we will only dissolve into an abyss of hell. But Christ has entered into that deep abyss, and by the life which is in His blood, we can truly experience what it means to be human before God; indeed, to be human is to be in union and fellowship with God. This is who Jesus is for us, and what the Eucharist is to continuously remind us of until it is finally consummated in the eschaton as that finally comes in the Eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Maranatha  

1 John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 61-2, Kindle Edition.

A Low Protestant Churchman’s Reception of the Sacraments of the Church: Given Way by Calvin

I come from a low evangelical church context. This means that words like ‘sacrament’ are not used much, if ever. Nevertheless, many in the baptistic context do refer to the word: sacrament. For the longest time I had a real problem grasping what a sacrament is; even up until recently. People who use this language just typically use it, as if it’s an understood, in regard to what it entails. But in reality, I am not totally convinced that even people who use this language, and who are situated in ecclesial contexts that have high sacramentology, actually understand what it entails. At base, a sacrament of the Church is a physical sign that points the believer to Christ and the triune reality. But often, and even traditionally, it has come to be more than that. In contexts like Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, sacraments, like the eucharist, baptism, and other like components confer salvific grace upon those who partake of these sacraments. In fact, in these ecclesial contexts the sacraments are the only way for salvific grace to be dispensed for the seekers of God and His eternal life.

As a Protestant I am going to clearly have problems with the sectarian way that Catholics and the Orthodox view the sacraments of the Church. But I am wondering if there is a way that as a radical Protestant, I can constructively receive a sacramentology that has been properly denuded and reified by a concretization in Christ alone? In my view, John Calvin offers a way forward for a healthy Protestant understanding of the sacraments (I am referring to the eucharist and baptism, in the main, and I’ll add in the Word of God aka as Holy Scripture). Let us read along with Calvin as he critiques the Catholic understanding of the sacraments, and offers his alternative Christ concentrated perspective instead (a long quote):

Now in the sacraments this ought to be the chief consideration, that they are to serve our faith toward God. The second consideration is that they are to testify our confession before people. In accordance with this last reason, the analogies noted above are good and indeed suitable.

On the other hand, we must be warned that as these of whom we have been speaking destroy the efficaciousness of the sacraments and abolish their use, there are also on the other hand those who ascribe to the sacraments some secret powers which one never reads were given to them by God. By this error the simple and the ignorant are deceived and tricked when they are taught to seek God’s gifts and graces where they can never find them, and bit by bit are turned and drawn away from Him to follow purely vain things.

For the schools of the sophists have determined with one accord that the sacraments of the new law, that is, those which the Christian church uses now, justify and confer grace, if we do not put any obstacles of mortal sin in the way. We cannot adequately declare how dangerous this opinion is; and it is even more so because for so many long years it has been accepted, to the great detriment of the church, and it still continues in a quite large part of the world. Certainly it is obviously diabolic. For since it promises righteousness without faith it casts consciences into confusion and damnation. Moreover, setting the sacrament as the cause of righteousness, it ties and entangles the human mind in the superstition that righteousness rests on a corporeal thing rather than on God, since the human understanding is naturally very much more inclined toward the earth than it ought to be. It would be desirable if we did not have such great experience of these two vices — much less do we need great proof of them!

What is a sacrament taken without faith, except the destruction of the church? Nothing should be expected except in virtue of the promise which announces God’s wrath to the unbelievers no less than it presents His grace to the faithful, therefore the one who thinks he can receive from the sacraments a different good than that which he receives by faith as it is presented to him in the word, greatly deceives himself. From this also the rest can be inferred: confidence of salvation does not depend on participation in the sacraments, as if righteousness were established there. We known righteousness is located in Jesus Christ alone, and communicated to us not less by the preaching of the gospel than by the testimony of the sacraments, and it can exist entirely without that sacramental testimony. In this way what St. Augustine says is trustworthy: “The visible sign often appears without the invisible sanctification, and the sanctification without the visible sign.”

Therefore let us be certain that the sacraments have no other office than God’s word, which is to offer and present Jesus Christ to us, and in Him the treasures of His heavenly grace. They do not serve or profit at all except to those who take and receive them by faith. Besides, we must be on guard not to fall into another error close to this one from reading that the early church fathers, in order to increase the value of the sacraments, have spoken of them with such honor that we may think that some secret power is annexed and affixed to them — to the point that imagining that the graces of the Holy Spirit are distributed and administered in them as the wine is given in a cup or glass. Instead the whole office of the sacraments is only to testify to us and confirm for us God’s good will and favor to us, and they profit nothing beyond that it the Holy Spirit does not come — the Spirit who opens our minds and hearts and makes us able to receive the testimony. In this also God’s different and distinct graces clearly appear.[1]

We could tail off into a discussion of substance metaphysics, and how Calvin is ostensibly critiquing that when he refers to ‘wine of the glass or cup,’ but we won’t. For our purposes it is good to simply focus on how Calvin thinks of the sacraments as helpful witnesses to the risen Christ who stands beyond and behind them. To think of sacraments as salvific gateways, according to Calvin, is to distort them by artificially elevating them to levels that Christ alone, should, and does indeed have.

If we think of the sacraments from a Christ concentrated frame, as Calvin does, then we can have an expansive understanding of sacramentology in the main. If we think of creation as finding its res or reality, indeed, its telos or purpose in and from Christ alone, we can have a sacramental view of all of reality. Indeed, we ought to see an intensification of the sacraments that Christ ordained for His Church, but this shouldn’t diminish the fact that even the elementary parts of the sacraments, juice and water, are indeed part of the created order. And this is the point, these ‘signs’ are creaturely redeemed elements that bear witness to the greater reality that stands behind them: the blood and water of Jesus’s broken, baptized, and raised body. These signs bear witness to the fact of new creation, of the recreation that apocalyptically obtained in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. As we look at, as we taste, as we feel, as we smell, as we partake of these elementary pieces, we are pushed to do these things ‘in remembrance of Him, until He comes.’

This is the way I can operate with a sacramentology: only if the sacraments are properly and orderly situated in the reality they have been given by the risen Christ. It is when they are elevated to an altitude they shouldn’t have, because of an ecclesiology that hasn’t been prescribed (by Christ), that the language of ‘sacrament’ becomes something of an anathema for the low churchman’s Protestant ears. But this need not be the case.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 502-04 [emphasis mine].