Baptism and the Heated Debates Over Augustine’s Development

The heated debates over Augustine’s development have occupied the most eminent of interpreters, on both sides of the question. I quote just one such interpreter here, writing in advocacy of a strong continuity thesis:

If time permitted, it could be shown that there are many more parallels between the Confessions and early Dialogues, all of them militating against the notion that their respective accounts present us with two discordant portraits of the convert of Milan. The Dialogues do reflect virtually all those features which the “two Augustines” view would claim as unique to the Confessions: the tearful penitent, the need for prayer, the laborious process which can culminate in a conversion as sudden as the new day’s conquest of night, a suddenness which testifies equally to an inrush of grace and a simultaneous exertion of human will-power: to spot such features, I suggest, one needs only patience, close attention, and the willingness to decode Augustine’s imaged language.

Throughout the article quoted above, O’Connell takes aim at the views of Paula Fredriksen, who finds rather definitive developments in Augustine’s thinking. While I would not like to espouse the drastic discontinuity thesis associated with Fredriksen’s interpretation, I find O’Connell’s stark assessment of continuity equally discomfiting. Is it merely these few subjective experiences that mark the soteriology of Confessions and so also set the standard of comparison for the earlier writings? I believe I have shown there is a much more complex picture of Augustine’s growth as a thinker.

Perhaps O’Connell is right that what signals Augustine’s distinctive movement toward mature Christianity and away from whatever (pagan?) Neoplatonism he might have briefly inhabited before his conversion is his consistent recourse in these earliest writings to “the fact of Incarnation” and to the person of Christ. But is this what counts as a fully “incarnational” perspective? Surely, it is not nothing to find in Augustine’s early writings a clear emphasis on the fact that souls are saved through the Incarnate Christ. But this is a far cry from equating the rich network of sacramental, anthropological, and Christological views we see Augustine deploy in a work like Confessions with the mention of Christ in the early texts.

To show that this is so, I have structured my recent book in a manner that apes a contemporary cinematic gimmick. It starts at the end of the narrative—not the absolute end of Augustine’s theological development, but a proximate terminus, the text of Confessions. There, Augustine offers his own narrative of sin and salvation, about himself and about the humble Mediator who redeemed him. That story is crafted so as to achieve a range of goals pertaining to a variety of different readers.

On the reading I have given—by no means an exhaustive one—Augustine can be seen to emphasize the complex factors that contributed to his struggles and his ultimate deliverance from sin. More specifically, this means deliverance from the privatizing desire for temporal things, superbia. In one sense, Augustine’s narrative depicts a kind of progressive movement from lesser to greater understanding of God, of himself, and of the structure of reality, and of a heightened desire to enjoy the one true God. In another sense, it is precisely at the apparent apex of that progressive movement that Augustine finds himself most conflicted, most incapacitated. And there, what ultimately secures his deliverance is the same remedy that had rescued a friend (in book iv) who is not reported to have experienced any kind of fraught intellective and appetitive quest like Augustine—namely, baptism. Yes, he depicts himself as converted inwardly in some very real sense in a Milanese garden; but that conversion of his intentions hardly represents a complete arrival at salvation.

The ultimate remedy is that for which his mother repeatedly beseeched God and to which various other companions finally submitted. Entrance into the sacramental, ecclesial economy primarily through the initiating rite of baptism serves as the salve to Augustine’s dramatic struggle with knowledge and ignorance, his competing desires for God and for nihil—a drama in which he was implicated throughout his life, even after his conversion. This is because such sacramental initiation provides real forgiveness for his sins; it completes his submission to God in faith and obedience by allowing him to “put on”—to be taken up by and incorporated into—Christ. And in doing so, baptism inaugurates Augustine in a real and objective way into the process of perpetual healing through the sacred signs of ecclesial life. Sacramental participation in Christ provides him a more holistic means of coming to “know” God.

Ultimately, this is the answer to his query at the outset of the work: “Et quis locus est in me, quo ueniat in me deus meus . . . Aut unde uenias in me?” Since Christ has taken up humanity, he can be the one who takes up Augustine and becomes his susceptor; and so also he can be “in” Augustine through the sacraments that flow from that human mediation. This, in Augustine’s mature thought, is what it means to be saved by following the uia humilitatis, by becoming carried by and united to the one who is that uia.

That Augustine wants to tell his story in this way also suggests something about his audience and the purpose of his composition. We can discern at that “something” simply by looking at the internal evidence of Confessions. It has been my goal to provide further support to the well-documented claim that Augustine very much has in mind Manichaean readers, as well as those presently within the confines of Catholic Christianity but perhaps allured by the Manichaean worldview. For this reason, the story of his own salvation is crafted very carefully to foreground the importance of Christ’s humble human mediation, the efficacy of the sacramental economy, and the necessity of these soteriological factors in light of the soul’s frustrated pursuit of moral and intellectual success apart from sacramental incorporation into Christ and his Body. But we can also arrive at conclusions concerning why Augustine tells his story this way and concerning how he developed this perspective by considering external evidence.

Beginning in 386, what we find is a much more optimistic Augustine—not only more optimistic about, for example, the possibility of perfection in this life, but also about the degree to which sheer intellectual apprehension of God and of the nature of reality might secure the soul’s saving embrace of the divine. Simultaneously, we find an Augustine much less capable of saying exactly how the human mediation of Christ, made available to the faithful through objectively efficacious signs, is necessary for that salvific process. This underdeveloped soteriology reveals itself in various ways, including the early Augustine’s failure to structure his soteriological (and Christological) views around the humilitas-superbia dialectic.

When, in the early 390s, Augustine begins to become comfortable with this terminology, he first appears to subordinate it, more or less, to the simplistic linear soteriology seen in his earliest writings. That is to say, at this point Augustine does not base his theology of humilitas on the sacramental economy grounded in Christ’s human mediation. He says little about why and how the sacraments represent a necessary means of human participation in Christ’s grace beyond their role of extending Christ’s demonstrative and instructional work. And this work—the revelation of immaterial reality, of truths about God and the soul, and about the value of a virtuous life—appears to be the sum total of how Augustine thinks Christ saves, at least until the mid-390s. And as the debate with Fortunatus shows, this may well be a soteriology he inherited, largely, from his time as a Manichaean auditor.

Augustine’s final movement toward the developed soteriological perspective found in Confessions is, to be sure, a function of his direct polemical engagement with Manichaean thought. However, a close reading of his texts during the mid- to late-390s shows just how much another factor is also exerting a great deal of pressure on his theology—namely, the Donatist controversy. This becomes evident when we find Augustine speaking of Donatist-related matters without naming that sect (as with the question of rebaptism in Epistolae ad Romanos inchoata expositio). In fact, it is in his most lengthy and strident critique of Manichaeism (Contra Faustum) that we discover an Augustine patently obsessed with ecclesial unity and sacramental efficacy. And there Augustine shows himself to have worked out some of the wrinkles in his earlier account. What we should say, then, about a text like Contra Faustum is perhaps what we should also say about Confessions itself. Composed around the same time, it, too reveals an Augustine balancing a host of theological concerns because he is addressing a range of readers. While Manichaean Christology and sacramental theology (or lack thereof) force him to rethink his own soteriological perspective, this happens while he is engaged on the anti-Donatist front in similar registers, and these diverse concerns become complementary when they simultaneously inform Augustine’s developing thought.

J. Patout Burns was right, then, in asserting that “Augustine’s early writings do not provide a developed theology of baptism or of the other sacraments and rituals of the church.” Augustine’s theology of humilitas took shape over time, just as his theology of sacramental efficacy slowly developed, until finally the two became intimately linked. But this does not mean Burns is correct to say that “even in the Confessions, the convert submits to the teaching authority and the rituals of the church as an act of humility, in reverence for the incarnation of the divine Word.” Rather, the intimate links between humilitas and the grace grounded in Christ’s humanity and mediated through the sacraments come powerfully to the fore in that text. To see this just once more we need to look no further than a sermon Augustine preached around the turn of the fifth century.

Delivered to the infantes, the newly baptized, the homily treats many familiar concepts, terms, and scriptural themes, as Augustine eventually addresses the Donatist question explicitly. He cites the familiar cases of Simon Magus and Cornelius. The former he mentions in order to show the distinction between those who through baptism have the forma of piety but who due to their lack of cooperation with the rite’s objective efficacy also lack the power of that same forma. “But there are some people who have put on [induerunt] Christ only in the sacrament, who remain naked in faith or morals.” These include those within the fold who fail to follow Christ in their lives, as well as those who fail to preserve the bond of peace on account of schism.

These last, Augustine states, are like deserters who carry “the sign [signum] of the good king in flesh doomed to damnation.” Once again, the possibility of a negative effect of the sacrament’s objective efficacy serves to drive home Augustine’s point, in conjunction with his trademark theology of the baptismal signum or character, as he indicates a few lines later. Augustine goes on to invoke Cornelius and other case studies in the Book of Acts in order to highlight the kinds of distinctions I outlined previously: “In this way God has taught us that the sign of salvation is one thing, salvation itself another; the form of godliness one thing, the power of godliness another.”

But perhaps most telling is the way Augustine introduces these themes to his newly baptized hearers at the outset of the sermon. There he quotes for them Romans 13:12–14, including the very phrase featured in the tolle, lege moment of conf. viii. “[B]ut clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ [induite Iesum Christum] . . . which means, clothe yourselves in your lives with the one you have clothed yourselves with in the sacrament.” Augustine then shifts from the text of Romans to the text of Galatians 3:27–28, the very text that, in the mid-390s, he had used to speak primarily of the faith of the baptizand but that in the course of the following years he had used to speak also (and firstly) of the power of the sacrament itself. Being baptized “into Christ” in a real way is an effect of “the very power of the sacrament; it’s the sacrament, you see, of the new life, which begins in this time with the forgiveness of all past sins, while it will be perfected in the resurrection of the dead.” This objective efficacy is accompanied and brought fully to fruition by faith, but is not itself dependent upon faith. So, the infantes, Augustine avers, walk by faith both toward Christ and in Christ, who “has become this very way for [them] as the man he was pleased to become for our sake.”

Once more we see coalescing themes, concepts, terms, and scriptural citations that are present in Confessions and other texts of the mid- to late-390s. Collecting and analyzing these parallels allows us to trace the development of Augustine’s early soteriology across his first decade and a half of writing. But it also allows us to see that, among everything else the text does, Confessions itself attempts to speak to the Donatist question, in large part through the view of sacramental efficacy presented subtly throughout. In arguing for this interpretation, I have provided further support for O’Donnell’s and Wundt’s assessments concerning the anti-Donatist subtext of Confessions. It was the latter’s claim that in order to understand the impetus behind the writing of the text, we must understand both the direct charges made against Augustine by his Donatist opponents as well as the broader ecclesial efforts to purify the presbyterate of the Catholic Church in moral and doctrinal matters.

Wundt notes that in Augustine’s ennarrationes of Psalm 36—which were preached in Carthage around the time of the composition of Confessions, perhaps during a synod of North African bishops—he explicitly airs out the charges made by Donatists against him concern­ing the validity of his baptism and ordination, as well as his sinful past. And Wundt is correct in noting that Confessions represents an extended version of the answer given briefly in the sermon: Augustine readily admits his sinful past (see conf. i–ix) and even his ongoing struggle with sin (see conf. x) while asserting the validity and verifiability of his baptism. He can exhort others to “put on Christ” in their lives as they had done in the sacrament precisely because in his own baptism he had “put on Christ” and thus had been empowered to continually aim to put on Christ in his own life, through the daily struggles against sin.

Thus the evidence marshaled here suggests that Confessions is not merely an extended reply claiming that his baptism and membership in the Church is genuine; rather, it is (among other things) also a subtle explanation as to how and why salvation must be worked out in this way. For it shows that whatever intellectual, moral, and even doctrinal progress or missteps Augustine made on his journey toward incorporation into Christ, it was the efficacy of baptism that overcame his past deficiencies in a definitive way, while also opening up for him the sacramental and ecclesial body of Christ, which would provide the ongoing remedy for his lifelong struggle with sin.

These, Augustine felt, were lessons that all readers needed to hear—Catholics, Mani­chaeans, pagans, and Donatists alike—for their own benefit and not merely for Augustine’s own personal defense. Thus, whatever the other protreptic and paraenetic purposes the text of Confessions may exhibit, these need not exclude the effort to lead Donatists (or would-be Dona­tists) back to the unity of Augustine’s own communion. Put parabolically, if Augustine’s own story in Confessions is the story of a prodigal son, perhaps it is then a story meant to be read both by other prodigals as well as those who (unwittingly) style themselves as the ostensibly faithful, upright older brother.

In any case, to learn a bit more about the factors that exerted their influence on the development of Augustine’s thought is also to learn more about what that thought entails. I hope that my study goes some small way toward painting a clearer picture of how Augustine’s Christology and soteriology came to intertwine and how this interaction took concrete shape in his developing sacramental thought. The portrait may also serve as both a postscript and a backstory. On the former count, it paints a more detailed picture of the developments some scholars already see in Augustine’s thought from the 390s concerning the work of grace. For while evidence has previously been advanced to suggest that Augustine came to explain his position on the operative and prevenient power of grace in general, the evidence here says a bit more about Augustine’s developing views concerning how that grace comes to impact the lives of persons, both in the beginning of their conversion and throughout their lives. On the latter count, it is possible to see even more clearly the arsenal ready to hand for Augustine when the Pelagian controversy strikes with full force but a decade later.

Of course, one need not agree with all of the conclusions at which Augustine himself arrived as he approached this more realist understanding of salvation through sacramental grace. That is, one need not think it entails the perdition of many of those one currently takes to be schismatic, let alone the damnation of infants who pass away before arriving at the font, precisely because of a willingness on God’s part to elect others instead of them. Absit.

Indeed, one can avoid such theological abysses and yet remain grateful for Augustine’s tenacious pursuit of a Christologically and ecclesially rich soteriology. One can be glad that Augustine came to recognize and emphasize that whatever one says about the work of grace in the human person, it depends primarily on the benevolence of the most holy Trinity, and not ultimately upon the shifting dispositions of the very subjects who administer or require that grace. Rather, such persons “put on” Christ precisely because he first “put on” them by means of his humble humanity and so also wills to be available to them wondrously by means of simple corporeal rites. In this, Christ remedies the damaged soul with a variety of ways of knowing and becoming formed by and into himself.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from Putting on Christ: Augustine’s Early Theology of Salvation and the Sacraments. Used by permission of The Catholic University of America Press, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.