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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Relationships that heal society

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

I’m finding it a fascinating time to be working in Local Government. Pressure on the public purse is releasing new creativity and asking fundamental questions around how to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable in society. I’ve been thinking about how these issues can be informed by my faith. What follows are some of my thoughts on how this links to relationships and, by extension, the role the church has to play in healing society.

Sir William Beveridge’s Welfare Settlement was remarkably successful at transforming society, attacking the five giant ills of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idelness.’ Yet in his third report on his developing thinking on the welfare state, Beveridge recognised that he had made a mistake in both missing and limiting the potential power of each citizen to play a part in social betterment. He felt that ‘room, opportunity and encouragement for voluntary action in seeking new ways of social advance… services of a kind which often money cannot buy’ were equally critical. He feared that his original reforms were encouraging individuals to focus passively on their needs – looking to the state to provide the answers – rather than to themselves and their immediate social networks. He was recognising that his original 1942 report missed a trick in emphasising services over voluntary action in the creation of a fairer and more socially cohesive society.

open quotes… people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships.close quotes

Before the welfare state, faith communities were the major delivery arm of health in the UK, operating many of the friendly societies that provided health services to the masses before the welfare state. Into the late 1940’s and beyond, this role as a ‘social net’ had been handed over to the state, never fully to return. Beveridge recognized that the government had been left holding the whole baby of the NHS and social protection, where previously the church and other social institutions had – albeit imperfectly – undertaken this role.

I’ve been reflecting on this analysis and on two challenges that emerge from this:

Challenge 1: The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens

open quotes… it is the quality of our relationships that, more than anything else, determines our happiness, fulfilment and the sense of a life well lived.close quotes

(Dr Jonathan Sachs)

The welfare state, as it has evolved, has continued to promote a reliance upon public services being delivered to and for people, not with them. Yet the biggest challenges to the public sector in health and social care in particular, are based not on the acute problems and illnesses that more ‘LEAN‘ and efficient processes can tackle, but in the realm of chronic issues related to dementia, diabetes, getting people to stop abusing alcohol, encouraging people to go walking more often or, in a different context, start recycling their waste. For these sorts of challenges, people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships. Broadly speaking – and I’m conscious of some successful counter-examples – people don’t change their behaviour because the state tells them to, but because they have found people they know and respect, through strong peer-to-peer networks, who have succeeded in, for example, giving up smoking.

If, in the public sector, we are to help people generate, rebuild and sustain relationships in society, rather than just deliver services to people, then we are not going to succeed alone. The church ought to be experts at this stuff!

open quotesYou’re worked to death, we’re bored to death.close quotes

I also think that this recognition of a need for a shift in thinking resonates with the wider issues that the current government’s approach to the public services has spawned. We do not want to be needy, with ‘things’ being done to us, we want to contribute and participate. Nor do we want to be atomised consumers, being told that it’s our responsibility to ‘get it’. We find that people want to be socially connected and to collectively make things happen. Everyone recognizes that the most important things can’t be measured by numbers and money. In Jenni Russell’s critique of New Labour, she emphasises that we judge the quality of public services not as dispassionate observers surveying cold statistics, but upon our experience and the experiences of those we know and trust. As members of society, we live what governments do to us:

Recognising that our children are bored and uninspired by rigid school curriculums that rob them of the joy of learning affects us far more profoundly than hearing that exam results are on the rise.

Whether the nurse “treats us with tenderness and a doctor with kindness and concern” (Jenni Russell, p. 82) matters far more to us than whether we lie in a hospital bed that is brand new. We aren’t automatons; we are human beings who want to be treated with respect and dignity.

The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens

Challenge 2: The Church needs rediscover its role in society

A couple of years ago I heard Steve Chalke sum up the challenge like this:

I think he’s spot on here. “You’re worked to death we’re bored to death.” The task of the church is to bring spiritual, social, physical, and emotional health to people. It’s the task of the church. What we need is a ‘health’ service, not a ‘making people better’ service and if we as a society have any chance of seeing that happen, it won’t only be because of re-imagined government. We have to stop looking to the state, who as Chalke puts it, are “worked to death” whilst the church has been “bored to death singing the same old songs” but not fully walking in its mission to bring God’s shalom to a world that needs it so badly.

We need a public sector that develops meaningful relationships with its citizens based on mutual accountability and trust.

We need a church that grapples with, and takes ownership of, issues of dysfunctionality in the community that it serves.

We need relationships that heal society.