Monday, 8 November 2010

Baptism in Confessions - Part 1

Augustine was brought up by a devout Christian mother, but his father was only baptized on his deathbed in 372. As a boy Augustine therefore took part in the life of the church. At birth he was signed with the sign of the cross and seasoned with salt. These rituals sanctified and exorcised people and marked them as catechumens preparing for baptism, trainees in the life of the church. It is interesting to note that Martin Luther retained these symbols in his baptismal service. Catechumens were entitled to call themselves ‘Christian’ but they were not full church members until baptism and their first participation in the eucharist.

Augustine recounts his experience of illness in childhood. He writes about begging for baptism, and he attributes this to faith. But although preparations were made for baptism, Augustine recovered from his illness. Baptism was postponed on the assumption that Augustine would be sure to commit post-baptismal sins. After the ‘solemn washing’ of baptism such guilt would be ‘greater and more dangerous’. Even though he was not baptized Augustine considered himself, and was considered to be, a believer at this stage in his life. Given the narrative of Confessions it is not clear how Augustine understands this statement. Was he merely a believer in some formal sense? Or does Augustine mean us to understand that his childhood faith was genuine, to be fulfilled after years of faithless living?

Confessions, Book I, paragraph 18, suggests that although Augustine acknowledged God’s faithful oversight, he did not fully understand the human reasoning in deferring his baptism. There was confusion inherent within the common assumptions and beliefs about baptism. Augustine himself wrestled with the practice and doctrine of baptism as a bishop, shaping the Catholic tradition forever with special reference to original sin and the salvation of infants.

The meaning and value of baptism in relation to God’s grace are seriously undermined if both the baptized and the unbaptized remain in peril. Baptized people were in peril of sinning their way beyond salvation, so they must have been liable to living a life of fear. Through deferring baptism people ran the risk of missing out on grace and favour, to what exact end no-one seems to know. It appears Augustine’s mother feared for her son in his unbaptized state as much as she feared the consequences of post-baptismal sin (Book II, para 6,7).

Early chapters in Confessions present an unsatisfactory view of baptism. To remain unbaptized was to remain unsaved. But baptism did not guarantee salvation. In the event of certain post-baptismal sins, baptism actually heightened the prospect of damnation and eternal loss.

Augustine would reform the Catholic view of baptism. The next post on baptism in Confessions will continue looking at references in the text. Subsequent posts will discuss Augustine's views on baptism. A final post will evaluate these views in relation to the nature of salvation and Baptist understandings of baptism.

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