Saint Augustine: are we babies or sons of God?

It’s popular in many circles to knock and caricature Augustine’s ideas – I used to be in that camp despite having never actually read any of his writings for myself! What follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount I have been able to engage with recently…

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Augustine, even at the best of times, is a fairly morose character. He’s perhaps at his most sanguine when reflecting upon human nature, which is perhaps nowhere more shocking than in his condemnation of un-baptised babies. Seen positively, particularly in passages in the Confessions, Augustine likens man’s relation to God as like that of a baby to its mother’s breast – a relationship of intimacy and stark dependence as a result of helplessness. In bleaker passages, Augustine would concede that un-baptised infants would be punished eternally for their inherited sin “albeit ‘lightly.’”1 The emotive language and implications of Augustine’s condemnation does have profound symbolic importance to the way he viewed the Christian’s position. The warm image of a baby at the mother’s breast is intended to be directly applicable to all Christians’ position as “reliant on the sustaining love of God.”2 Just as a baby cannot speak, act or believe for themselves, so every Christian is reliant from first to last upon the divine action of God at the point of baptism and beyond. Baptism, for Augustine, launched a “lifelong process of convalescence,”3 rather than a one-off break with the past and a victorious life free from all hint of sin. Makes you want to sing for joy doesn’t it?!

open quotesBaptism launched a lifelong process of convalescenceclose quotes

Standing in opposition to this view, the Pelagian4 would hold such an image of babies in contempt. Needless to say that for Pelagians, we are born with a capacity for good and evil and that “before the activity of the individual will there is nothing in humans other than what God has placed in them.”5 Pelagius was clear that our capacity for choice has always been intended to be used for good, and that the resources to do good was therefore within each human. For Pelagius, Caesestius and the so-called ‘Sicilian Anonymous’, there could be no sin that was not willed. It was their very different aetiology of sin that “accounts for their refusal to ascribe sin to infants, whose lack of an operative will is axiomatic.”6 A more helpful way of understanding man’s relation to God at baptism, they would argue, is that of becoming a ‘son of God’. Baptism, for the Pelagian, was emancipatus a deo: just as, in Roman law, a son was ‘released’ from parental dependence into adulthood, the Christian was capable, by his own power, to go out into the world “to uphold in heroic deeds the good name of their illustrious ancestry.”7

open quotesWe are reliant on the sustaining love of Godclose quotes

The Augustinian language of dislocation within the self was intended to be seen as a reflection of, and result of, “the dislocation in the primordial community between man and God.”8 For Augustine, Christ was the definition of what it means to be human, and the trinity was the lens through which we understand the nature of selfhood. In insisting that the human will could obtain perfection outside of the trinity and Christ’s mediation, Augustine’s claim that the Pelagian view of our position before God did no less than rupture the trinitarian and christological economy.

So, are we babies or are we ‘sons of God’? Big issues. Somewhere in between? 😉

  1. Casiday, A., and Norris, F., W. (2007), The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 2 Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 515  ↩

  2. Casiday and Norris (2007), p. 515  ↩

  3. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 54  ↩

  4. An amorphous grouping against whom Augustine spent the best years of his life trying to refute  ↩

  5. McGrath, A., E. (2005), The Christian Theology Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 404  ↩

  6. Casiday and Norris (2007), p. 514  ↩

  7. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 352  ↩

  8. Markus (1991), p. 61  ↩

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