I read something this morning that got me thinking again about the question of original sin. (See here and here for my previous thoughts.) The “question of original sin,” in my case, is the question of whether that phrase is a good and biblical way to talk about what went wrong when Adam sinned. I don’t doubt that Adam’s sin was the first or “original” human sin, but the term usually means more than that. It usually refers to “humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man,” and it often includes the idea that humans are born with a “sinful nature.” It is these latter concepts with which I am wrestling. The biblical data on such topics has been shrouded in encrusted layers of theological language for so long (to use rather negative language) that it is difficult for us to hear what Scripture itself has to say.
What I read this morning was something Louis McBride posted today over on the Baker Book House Church Connection blog, something about Augustine, infant baptism, and original sin. (A blog worth following for biblical interpreters and theologians.) His post summarizes an essay by Peter Sanlon entitled “Original Sin in Patristic Theology.”
Here is part of McBride’s summary:
[Sanlon] demonstrates that it was vitally important to Augustine to show that his views [about the doctrine of original sin] were not original with him but reflected the historic position of the church. Augustine offered “citations from Scripture, church fathers, and councils” in his defense and he “coined an epithet for the Pelagians who denied original sin. They were the novi hereticic, ‘new heretics.’” (91) An important doctrine tied to this was infant baptism. Augustine agreed with the Pelagians that babies had committed no actual sin. “Unable to commit any actual sins, the sin babies needed rescuing from had to be original sin.” (93) The antiquity of infant baptism was evidence, Augustine claimed, that the church had long accepted original sin.
Now, I have not read Sanlon’s full essay, nor have I read Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, so I can’t weigh all Augustine’s evidence well. But what caught my attention was how Augustine (AD 354-430) relied on infant baptism as strong evidence for the correctness of his views on original sin. His thinking went something like this: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true.
McBride’s summary of Sanlon’s summary of Augustine reminded me of something else I’ve read. The following is from Everett Ferguson, in his magisterial volume entitled Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (see here):
There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century. This fact does not mean that it did not occur, but it does mean that supporters of the practice [such as Augustine?] have a considerable chronological gap to account for. Many replace the historical silence by appeal to theological or sociological considerations.
Arguments against the originality of baby baptism, in addition to its lack of early attestation, include: the essential nature ascribed to verbal confession and repentance; the liturgy designed for persons of responsible age; size of baptistries; and the lack of an agreed theology to support it (Chrysostom and the eastern churches vs. Augustine).
The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of the practice of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It because the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries. (856-57)
Okay, that was all background to prepare for this quote:
In the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy infant baptism was a principle support for the doctrine of original sin, rather than the other way around, since baptism was universally recognized as for forgiveness of sins. With the victory of Augustine’s arguments original sin became the reason for infant baptism in the western church. (857)
With Ferguson’s input, we can now update our flow chart of the logic of original sin and infant baptism: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true, (5) therefore infant baptism is necessary.
Does anyone else see any problems with this logic? I see at least two:
- The last point introduces circular logic. To believe infant baptism for the reasons given is about as logical as saying “We need a good speaker for our fall meetings, and we’ve asked Dwight to be our speaker, therefore Dwight must be a good speaker.” Sorry, you just might be disappointed.
- The premise is faulty. As Ferguson shows, there is “no firm evidence” that infant baptism was a practice with any “antiquity” (to use Sanlon’s term) older than about AD 150 or later. Since infant baptism is shaky, it is also shaky evidence for original sin.
Neither of these logical flaws proves that original sin is not a biblical doctrine. But our historical survey does show that the doctrine of original sin has been defended from early days in questionable ways. If original sin is a valid doctrine, it certainly is not valid because of infant baptism, contra Augustine.
So, to answer the title of this post, which came first–the doctrine of original sin or the practice of infant baptism? I still don’t know, but I’m still waiting for evidence that clearly shows that either belonged to the New Testament church.
One good place to look for such evidence is in Gregg R. Allison’s book Historical Theology (see here). His chapter on “Sin” summarizes the development of the church’s beliefs about, among other things, original sin. Perhaps I can do a follow-up post summarizing Allison’s evidence. For now, let this summary of Justin Martyr, one of the very earliest Christian writers (c. AD 100–165) whet your curiosity:
Justin Martyr focused on individual responsibility for sin, affirming that people “become subject to punishment by their own fault.” Although Justin linked humanity to Adam, the relationship is one of ancestor to descendants, each of whom sins individually. Thus, sinful people become “like Adam and Eve,” but they do so when they “work out death for themselves.” (343)
And in Justin’s own words:
The human race… from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile [deceit] of the serpent, and each one had committed personal transgression. — Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 88, in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Schaff/Hendrickson, 1994), 1:243
Does this sound like original sin to you? Share your thoughts below.