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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 98

Letter 98 (A.D. 408)

To Boniface, His Colleague in the Episcopal Office, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord.

1. You ask me to state whether parents do harm to their baptized infant children, when they attempt to heal them in time of sickness by sacrifices to the false gods of the heathen. Also, if they do thereby no harm to their children, how can any advantage come to these children at their baptism, through the faith of parents whose departure from the faith does them no harm? To which I reply, that in the holy union of the parts of the body of Christ, so great is the virtue of that sacrament, namely, of baptism, which brings salvation, that so soon as he who owed his first birth to others, acting under the impulse of natural instincts, has been made partaker of the second birth by others, acting under the impulse of spiritual desires, he cannot be thenceforward held under the bond of that sin in another to which he does not with his own will consent. Both the soul of the father is mine, says the Lord, and the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die; Ezekiel 18:4 but he does not sin on whose behalf his parents or any other one resort, without his knowledge, to the impiety of worshipping heathen deities. That bond of guilt which was to be cancelled by the grace of this sacrament he derived from Adam, for this reason, that at the time of Adam's sin he was not yet a soul having a separate life, i.e. another soul regarding which it could be said, both the soul of the father is mine, and the soul of the son is mine. Therefore now, when the man has a personal, separate existence, being thereby made distinct from his parents, he is not held responsible for that sin in another which is performed without his consent. In the former case, he derived guilt from another, because, at the time when the guilt which he has derived was incurred, he was one with the person from whom he derived it, and was in him. But one man does not derive guilt from another, when, through the fact that each has a separate life belonging to himself, the word may apply equally to both— The soul that sins, it shall die.

2. But the possibility of regeneration through the office rendered by the will of another, when the child is presented to receive the sacred rite, is the work exclusively of the Spirit by whom the child thus presented is regenerated. For it is not written, Unless a man be born again by the will of his parents, or by the faith of those presenting the child, or of those administering the ordinance, but, Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit. John 3:5 By the water, therefore, which holds forth the sacrament of grace in its outward form, and by the Spirit who bestows the benefit of grace in its inward power, cancelling the bond of guilt, and restoring natural goodness [reconcilians bonum naturæ;], the man deriving his first birth originally from Adam alone, is regenerated in Christ alone. Now the regenerating Spirit is possessed in common both by the parents who present the child, and by the infant that is presented and is born again; wherefore, in virtue of this participation in the same Spirit, the will of those who present the infant is useful to the child. But when the parents sin against the child by presenting him to the false gods of the heathen, and attempting to bring him under impious bonds unto these false gods, there is not such community of souls subsisting between the parents and the child, that the guilt of one party can be common to both alike. For we are not made partakers of guilt along with others through their will, in the same way as we are made partakers of grace along with others through the unity of the Holy Spirit; because the one Holy Spirit can be in two different persons without their knowing in respect to each other that by Him grace is the common possession of both, but the human spirit cannot so belong to two individuals as to make the blame common to both in a case in which one of the two sins, and the other does not sin. Therefore a child, having once received natural birth through his parents, can be made partaker of the second (or spiritual) birth by the Spirit of God, so that the bond of guilt which he inherited from his parents is cancelled; but he that has once received this second birth by the Spirit of God cannot be made again partaker of natural birth through his parents, so that the bond once cancelled should again bind him. And thus, when the grace of Christ has been once received, the child does not lose it otherwise than by his own impiety, if, when he becomes older, he turn out so ill. For by that time he will begin to have sins of his own, which cannot be removed by regeneration, but must be healed by other remedial measures.

3. Nevertheless, persons of more advanced fears, whether they be parents bringing their children, or others bringing any little ones, who attempt to place those who have been baptized under obligation to profane worship of heathen gods, are guilty of spiritual homicide. True, they do not actually kill the children's souls, but they go as far towards killing them as is in their power. The warning, Do not kill your little ones, may be with all propriety addressed to them; for the apostle says, Quench not the Spirit; 1 Thessalonians 5:19 not that He can be quenched, but that those who so act as if they wished to have Him quenched are deservedly spoken of as quenchers of the Spirit. In this sense also may be rightly understood the words which most blessed Cyprian wrote in his letter concerning the lapsed, when, rebuking those who in the time of persecution had sacrificed to idols, he says, And that nothing might be wanting to fill up the measure of their crime, their infant children, carried in arms, or led there by the hands of their parents, lost, while yet in their infancy, that which they had received as soon as life began. They lost it, he meant, so far at least as pertained to the guilt of the crime of those by whom they were compelled to incur the loss: they lost it, that is to say, in the purpose and wish of those who perpetrated on them such a wrong. For had they actually in their own persons lost it, they must have remained under the divine sentence of condemnation without any plea; but if holy Cyprian had been of this opinion, he would not have added in the immediate context a plea in their defence, saying, Shall not these say, when the judgment-day has come: 'We have done nothing; we have not of our own accord hastened to participate in profane rites, forsaking the bread and the cup of the Lord; the apostasy of others caused our destruction; we found our parents murderers, for they deprived us of our Mother the Church and of our Father the Lord, so that, through the wrong done by others, we were ensnared, because, while yet young and unable to think for ourselves, we were by the deed of others, and while wholly ignorant of such a crime, made partners in their sin'? This plea in their defence he would not have subjoined had he not believed it to be perfectly just, and one which would be of service to these infants at the bar of divine judgment. For if it is said by them with truth, We have done nothing, then the soul that sins, it shall die; and in the just dispensation of judgment by God, those shall not be doomed to perish whose souls their parents did, so far at least as concerns their own guilt in the transaction, bring to ruin.

4. As to the incident mentioned in the same letter, that a girl who was left as an infant in charge of her nurse, when her parents had escaped by sudden flight, and was made by that nurse to take part in the profane rites of idolatrous worship, had afterwards in the Church expelled from her mouth, by wonderful motions, the Eucharist when it was given to her, this seems to me to have been caused by divine interposition, in order that persons of riper years might not imagine that in this sin they do no wrong to the children, but rather might understand, by means of a bodily action of obvious significance on the part of those who were unable to speak, that a miraculous warning was given to themselves as to the course which would have been becoming in persons who, after so great a crime, rushed heedlessly to those sacraments from which they ought by all means, in proof of penitence, to have abstained. When Divine Providence does anything of this kind by means of infant children, we must not believe that they are acting under the guidance of knowledge and reason; just as we are not called upon to admire the wisdom of asses, because once God was pleased to rebuke the madness of a prophet by the voice of an ass. Numbers 22:28 If, therefore, a sound exactly like the human voice was uttered by an irrational animal, and this was to be ascribed to a divine miracle, not to faculties belonging to the ass, the Almighty could, in like manner, through the spirit of an infant (in which reason was not absent, but only slumbering undeveloped), make manifest by a motion of its body something to which those who had sinned against both their own souls and their children behooved to give heed. But since a child cannot return to become again a part of the author of his natural life, so as to be one with him and in him, but is a wholly distinct individual, having a body and a soul of his own, the soul that sins, it shall die.

5. Some, indeed, bring their little ones for baptism, not in the believing expectation that they shall be regenerated unto life eternal by spiritual grace, but because they think that by this as a remedy the children may recover or retain bodily health; but let not this disquiet your mind, because their regeneration is not prevented by the fact that this blessing has no place in the intention of those by whom they are presented for baptism. For by these persons the ministerial actions which are necessary are performed, and the sacramental words are pronounced, without which the infant cannot be consecrated to God. But the Holy Spirit who dwells in the saints, in those, namely, whom the glowing flame of love has fused together into the one Dove whose wings are covered with silver, accomplishes His work even by the ministry of bond-servants, of persons who are sometimes not only ignorant through simplicity, but even culpably unworthy to be employed by Him. The presentation of the little ones to receive the spiritual grace is the act not so much of those by whose hands they are borne up (although it is theirs also in part, if they themselves are good believers) as of the whole society of saints and believers. For it is proper to regard the infants as presented by all who take pleasure in their baptism, and through whose holy and perfectly-united love they are assisted in receiving the communion of the Holy Spirit. Therefore this is done by the whole mother Church, which is in the saints, because the whole Church is the parent of all the saints, and the whole Church is the parent of each one of them. For if the sacrament of Christian baptism, being always one and the same, is of value even when administered by heretics, and though not in that case sufficing to secure to the baptized person participation in eternal life, does suffice to seal his consecration to God; and if this consecration makes him who, having the mark of the Lord, remains outside of the Lord's flock, guilty as a heretic, but reminds us at the same time that he is to be corrected by sound doctrine, but not to be a second time consecrated by repetition of the ordinance—if this be the case even in the baptism of heretics, how much more credible is it that within the Catholic Church that which is only straw should be of service in bearing the grain to the floor in which it is to be winnowed, and by means of which it is to be prepared for being added to the heap of good grain!

6. I would, moreover, wish you not to remain under the mistake of supposing that the bond of guilt which is inherited from Adam cannot be cancelled in any other way than by the parents themselves presenting their little ones to receive the grace of Christ; for you write: As the parents have been the authors of the life which makes them liable to condemnation, the children should receive justification through the same channel, through the faith of the same parents; whereas you see that many are not presented by parents, but also by any strangers whatever, as sometimes the infant children of slaves are presented by their masters. Sometimes also, when their parents are deceased, little orphans are baptized, being presented by those who had it in their power to manifest their compassion in this way. Again, sometimes foundlings which heartless parents have exposed in order to their being cared for by any passer-by, are picked up by holy virgins, and are presented for baptism by these persons, who neither have nor desire to have children of their own: and in this you behold precisely what was done in the case mentioned in the Gospel of the man wounded by thieves, and left half dead on the way, regarding whom the Lord asked who was neighbour to him, and received for answer: He that showed mercy on him. Luke 10:37

7. That which you have placed at the end of your series of questions you have judged to be the most difficult, because of the jealous care with which you are wont to avoid whatever is false. You state it thus: If I place before you an infant, and ask, 'Will this child when he grows up be chaste?' or 'Will he not be a thief?' you will reply, 'I know not.' If I ask, 'Is he in his present infantile condition thinking what is good or thinking what is evil?' you will reply, 'I know not.' If, therefore, you do not venture to take the responsibility of making any positive statement concerning either his conduct in after life or his thoughts at the time, what is that which parents do, when, in presenting their children for baptism, they as sureties (or sponsors) answer for the children, and say that they do that which at that age they are incapable even of understanding, or, at least, in regard to which their thoughts (if they can think) are hidden from us? For we ask those by whom the child is presented, 'Does he believe in God.' and though at that age the child does not so much as know that there is a God, the sponsors reply, 'He believes;' and in like manner answer is returned by them to each of the other questions. Now I am surprised that parents can in these things answer so confidently on the child's behalf as to say, at the time when they are answering the questions of the persons administering baptism, that the infant is doing what is so remarkable and so excellent; and yet if at the same hour I were to add such questions as, 'Will the child who is now being baptized be chaste when he grows up? Will he not be a thief?' probably no one would presume to answer, 'He will?' or 'He will not,' although there is no hesitation in giving the answer that the child believes in God, and turns himself to God. Thereafter you add this sentence in conclusion: To these questions I pray you to condescend to give me a short reply, not silencing me by the traditional authority of custom, but satisfying me by arguments addressed to my reason.

8. While reading this letter of yours over and over again, and pondering its contents so far as my limited time permitted, memory recalled to me my friend Nebridius, who, while he was a most diligent and eager student of difficult problems, especially in the department of Christian doctrine, had an extreme aversion to the giving of a short answer to a great question. If any one insisted upon this, he was exceedingly displeased; and if he was not prevented by respect for the age or rank of the person, he indignantly rebuked such a questioner by stern looks and words; for he considered him unworthy to be investigating matters such as these, who did not know how much both might be said and behooved to be said on a subject of great importance. But I do not lose patience with you, as he was wont to do when one asked a brief reply; for you are, as I am, a bishop engrossed with many cares, and therefore have not leisure for reading any more than I have leisure for writing any prolix communication. He was then a young man, who was not satisfied with short statements on subjects of this kind, and being then himself at leisure, addressed his questions concerning the many topics discussed in our conversations to one who was also at leisure; whereas you, having regard to the circumstances both of yourself the questioner, and of me from whom you demand the reply, insist upon my giving you a short answer to the weighty question which you propound. Well, I shall do my best to satisfy you; the Lord help me to accomplish what you require.

9. You know that in ordinary parlance we often say, when Easter is approaching, Tomorrow or the day after is the Lord's Passion, although He suffered so many years ago, and His passion was endured once for all time. In like manner, on Easter Sunday, we say, This day the Lord rose from the dead, although so many years have passed since His resurrection. But no one is so foolish as to accuse us of falsehood when we use these phrases, for this reason, that we give such names to these days on the ground of a likeness between them and the days on which the events referred to actually transpired, the day being called the day of that event, although it is not the very day on which the event took place, but one corresponding to it by the revolution of the same time of the year, and the event itself being said to take place on that day, because, although it really took place long before, it is on that day sacramentally celebrated. Was not Christ once for all offered up in His own person as a sacrifice? And yet, is He not likewise offered up in the sacrament as a sacrifice, not only in the special solemnities of Easter, but also daily among our congregations; so that the man who, being questioned, answers that He is offered as a sacrifice in that ordinance, declares what is strictly true? For if sacraments had not some points of real resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all. In most cases, moreover, they do in virtue of this likeness bear the names of the realities which they resemble. As, therefore, in a certain manner the sacrament of Christ's body is Christ's body, and the sacrament of Christ's blood is Christ's blood, in the same manner the sacrament of faith is faith. Now believing is nothing else than having faith; and accordingly, when, on behalf of an infant as yet incapable of exercising faith, the answer is given that he believes, this answer means that he has faith because of the sacrament of faith, and in like manner the answer is made that he turns himself to God because of the sacrament of conversion, since the answer itself belongs to the celebration of the sacrament. Thus the apostle says, in regard to this sacrament of Baptism: We are buried with Christ by baptism into death. Romans 6:4 He does not say, We have signified our being buried with Him, but We have been buried with Him. He has therefore given to the sacrament pertaining to so great a transaction no other name than the word describing the transaction itself.

10. Therefore an infant, although he is not yet a believer in the sense of having that faith which includes the consenting will of those who exercise it, nevertheless becomes a believer through the sacrament of that faith. For as it is answered that he believes, so also he is called a believer, not because he assents to the truth by an act of his own judgment, but because he receives the sacrament of that truth. When, however, he begins to have the discretion of manhood, he will not repeat the sacrament, but understand its meaning, and become conformed to the truth which it contains, with his will also consenting. During the time in which he is by reason of youth unable to do this, the sacrament will avail for his protection against adverse powers, and will avail so much on his behalf, that if before he arrives at the use of reason he depart from this life, he is delivered by Christian help, namely, by the love of the Church commending him through this sacrament unto God, from that condemnation which by one man entered into the world. Romans 5:12 He who does not believe this, and thinks that it is impossible, is assuredly an unbeliever, although he may have received the sacrament of faith; and far before him in merit is the infant which, though not yet possessing a faith helped by the understanding, is not obstructing faith by any antagonism of the understanding, and therefore receives with profit the sacrament of faith.

I have answered your questions, as it seems to me, in a manner which, if I were dealing with persons of weaker capacity and disposed to gainsaying, would be inadequate, but which is perhaps more than sufficient to satisfy peaceable and sensible persons. Moreover, I have not urged in my defence the mere fact that the custom is thoroughly established, but have to the best of my ability advanced reasons in support of it as fraught with very abundant blessing.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102098.htm>.

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