Did Augustine initially believe the unbaptized, if they perished, were saved? Recently I was sent an interesting passage written by Saint Augustine in about 385 AD in the third book of The Problem of Free Choice–making it one of his earliest Christian writings. In it, he gives his opinion on what the Church’s teaching is on the salvation of infants. He also gives an opinion on how God predestines people outside the context of the Pelagian controversy–but only in passing.

To understand the comments, we will need some context. In this book Augustine is engaging in “Theodicy,” or in other words, defending God against the charge He is the
author of evil.”

In doing this, Augustine gives his opinion on what makes a soul liable to judgement so as to exempt God from culpability for the wrong doing of people who work evil by their own free will. This is important for our our purposes for two reasons. First, it shows that Augustine does not view ignorance as something that makes us culpable at the judgement–which obviously applies to infants. Second, it appears Augustine was not transducianist at this point, which informs his view of infant salvation.

Augustine begins:

We see that souls pay the penalty of their sins. Sins, as we have already explained,  are to be attributed to nothing but their own wills, and we must look any further for a cause of sins (Book 3, Chap 64)

In short, we are damned for things we willfully do wrong. Augustine elsewhere in this book speculates about an age of accountability, so willfulness is the specific criteria.

Augustine then gives a scheme as to how a soul in accountable. No soul is accountable for ignorance. Souls that morally progress are saved. Souls that morally retrogress are condemned. He does not yet treat what is to be done with souls that do neither. He generally calls this “progress” towards “perfection:”

If of its [the soul’s] own will it neglects its progress in the study of higher things and in devotion, though the opportunity for this has not been denied it, it is justly precipitated into worse ignorance, and difficulty, which is already punishment…A soul is not held guilty if its ignorance and incapacity result from its nature, but only if does not attempt to acquire knowledge, and if it makes no sufficient effort to gain the power to act rightly. It is natural for a child to not know how to speak and to be unable to do so…[Someone] could be justly blamed if he fell back into childhood or remained in it. So too ignorance of the truth and difficulty in doing right are natural to man and if this is the condition in which he starts in his progress to the happiness of wisdom and the state of rest, no one has any right to blame happiness for its natural origin. Yet, if a man refuses to make progress, it is right and just that he should be punished.  (Book 3, Chap 63)

Shockingly (if one is a student of Augustine), we see his speculation that human nature is basically good. A soul is “not held guilty” for “ignorance and incapacity” due to this being the “result from its nature.” This “nature” includes “happiness of wisdom and the state of rest” that progressively increases through the right use of the will. It is extremely clear that Augustine, in his response to the Manichees, is arguing that human nature is basically good.

I have not read the entirety of his three books on the subject, so I am not going to go out on a limb and say that Augustine rejects that passions come from the fall. However, for the purposes of looking at the fate of the unbaptized infants, the logic we see is that being born with passions is not something which results in judgement–and hence there is no concept of inherited guilt in which would justify the condemnation of infants.

Soon afterwards, Augustine then says God is not to be impugned with the accusation of creating evil (as the Manichees claim) because He gives grace preceding anyone’s good work (not merely by making it possible to choose good) and justly condemning anyone who willfully sins. Augustine’s comments on God “helping” and “perfecting” human choices accords well with his later writings:

The Creator of the soul always deserves praise, for endowing it from its first beginning with the capacity of gaining the supreme good, for helping it to advance, for finishing and perfecting its progress–for justly condemning it according to its deserts when it sins, that is, when it refuses to raise itself from its original state to its perfection, or when it falls back again when it has made progress.  The fact that it was not as perfect as it received the power to become at a later stage does not mean it was created evil. (Book 3, Chap 65)

We can see another reference to human nature being basically good (“not as perfect as it received the power to become at a later stage,”) which contradicts his later thought on the topic.

Augustine continues on the topic of God assisting us in our progress towards “perfection:”

[D]ifficulty itself urges the soul to pray for help in the work of perfection from Him, who it realizes, caused the work to begin with. Thus it loves Him more, since not by its own strength  but by the mercy of Him whose goodness gave it existence, it is raised to enjoy happiness. The more it loves the author of its being, the more firmly it rests in Him, and the more plentifully it enjoys eternity. (Book 3, Chap 65)

In Rectractations Augustine reflects on similar passages and explains this has always been his doctrine vis a vis the Pelagians:

Unless, therefore, the will is set free by the grace of God from the slavery it has been made a servant of sin, and unless it is given help to overcome vices, mortal men cannot live upright and devout lives. If this gift of God, by which we will be set free, did not precede the act of the will, it would be given in accordance with the will’s merits and would not be grace…Even in this book, The Problem of Free Choice, I was not entirely silent about this grace of God. (Retractations 1.9, Par 5)

Ironically, Augustine would not have us to believe this in Predestination of the Saints, where he comments:

I was in a similar error, thinking that faith whereby we believe in God is not God’s gift, but that it is in us from ourselves, and that by it we obtain the gifts of God, whereby we may live temperately and righteously and piously in this world. For I did not think that faith was preceded by God’s grace, so that by its means…God prepares the will…For we read in the apostle’s words: ‘I obtained mercy to be a believer.’ 1 Corinthians 7:25 He does not say, ‘Because I was a believer.’ Therefore although it is given to the believer, yet it has been given also that he may be a believer (On Predestination of the Saints, Chap 7).

What accounts for Augustine’s inconsistency? In The Problem of Free Choice he affirms God’s grace preceding and perfecting good works (“[God] caused the work to begin with.”) The Retractations asserts that he was in fact in agreement with his earlier self and that the Pelagians were accusing him falsely of espousing their doctrine. Yet, in On Predestination of the Saints in response to Saint John Cassian and other “semi-Pelagians,” Augustine does a 180 and even denies that he believed that “faith was preceded by God’s grace” and that “God prepares the will?”

Perhaps Augustine’s memory was incorrect. Maybe he always had some notion that grace precedes believing, but this later became a hardened “cage stage” Calvinist sort of belief where he viewed his own lack of assertiveness on this point as bordering on failing to affirm the predestination doctrine.

Most likely, Augustine took the tact that served him best against his opposition. God giving grace to believe would be non-controversial to Manichees (who did not oppose God giving assistance to believers) and it contradicted the Pelagians–who he was intent on showing misquoted him. However, John Cassian’s position was more nuanced, permitting for free will to believe (seemingly) but also, explicitly, permitting God to act upon a well-disposed will–God being sovereign over all choices and subsequent graces.

Being that this sounds like Augustine’s position in The Problem of Free Choice, by denying that he once believed in grace preceding belief, he is in fact accusing John Cassian of believing this. Ironically, this only shows that the position of Cassian was the pre-Pelagian controversy position of the Church–as Augustine implies it was his own position and (clearly) it is not the same as the Pelagian position, which he claims to reject in The Problem of Free Choice.

I will leave it to others, with a firmer background in soteriology, to comment more thoroughly on Augustine’s system vis a vis Cassian’s.

Nevertheless, the preceding sets the stage for the question of infant salvation. The question is addressed in response to Manichee detractors:

Those who do not understand these matters like to bring forward the deaths of young children and the bodily suffering with which we frequently see them afflicted…What needs was there of a child being born, they ask, since it has departed from life before it could gain any merit in life? How is it to be counted in the judgement to come, seeing it neither finds a place among the just…nor among the wicked…? (Book 3, Chap 66)

As we can see, the detractors are asking, “If God is not the author of evil, why do babies suffer and die? And, on that note, how does God judge them?”

Augustine’s gives what he believes is the response of the Church. From this, we can glean Church tradition pertaining to the question at hand:

We reply as follows…all creation in space and time–no one whatever can be created without a purpose. Not even the leaf of a tree is created without a purpose. It is, however, purposeless [of my detractors] to ask about the merits of one who has gained no merit. We need not fear that there may be a life halfway between virtue and vice, a sentence of the Judge halfway between reward and punishment. (Book 3, Chap 66)

His response is simply that “everything happens for a reason” and that we are not to worry about the judgement for children, because they have neither virtue nor vice. The detractors respond:

[P]eople will raise the question: What benefit do children gain from the sacrament of Christ’s baptism, since they often die after receiving it and before they can derive any knowledge from it [and therefore attain to the aforementioned process of perfection]?  (Book 3, Chap 67)

Their response presupposes Augustine’s system of progressive perfection (or moral retrogression) detailed beforehand. They are saying, “If the unbaptized do not have to worry about judgement, why bother baptizing children who have not progressed towards virtue?” This implies another question: “If judgement won’t condemn those without virtue or vice, then how does baptism save an infant with neither?”

Augustine responds with the voice of the Church:

About this there is a good and pious belief that the child is benefited by the faith of those who bring it for baptism. This belief is supported by the salutatory authority of the Church…What benefit did the widow’s son gain from his own faith, since, being dead he had none? [1 Kings 17:17-24] Yet the faith of his mother helped bring about his resurrection. How much more probable is it that the faith of another can help a child, whose lack of faith cannot be imputed to it? (Book 3, Chap 67)

He teaches the same doctrine as found later by Saint Peter Mogila–that the faith of others is imputed upon those who cannot believe. Of course, this sounds completely counter to Romans 4, but we are not treating that topic here!

Having answered how Christian children, who are baptized, can be saved if they die, the detractors change their tact. They ask why do any children suffer when they have not done nothing good nor evil before being born. In other words, “Why do children, who never did anything wrong, experience evil?”

A more serious objection on the ground of cruelty is often raised concerning the bodily sufferings of children who have never committed sin during their lives. If the souls which animate them had no existence prior to them becoming human beings, the question is asked, what evil they have done to deserve suffering? (Book 3, Chap 68)

As we can see, inherent to their objection is that souls have “no existence prior” to being born. Augustine does not dispute this and in fact, by calling the objection “serious,” appears to concede that this is a correct premise.

Yet, during the Pelagian controversy Augustine explicitly rejects this when exegeting Ezek 18:20 that “the soul that sins shall die:”

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 (Augustine, Letter 98, Chapter 1).

As we can see, Augustine’s later transducianism demands each person having two souls! There is the infant who literally in Adam “was not yet a soul having a separate life,” meaning he was literally Adam’s soul. Only later, when the infant is actually born does he become “another soul.” Clearly, this contradicts infants’ souls “having no existence prior to becoming human beings.” While one may infer that Augustine may have had this categorization in mind, we have evidence mitigating against this as we go on.

Before we into get to this, let’s cover the response of Augustine and the Church (doing their impersonation of Pangloss for Candide) to the previous point that “God is the author of evil because he allows children to suffer:”

But God does good in correcting adults when their children whom they love suffer pain and death. Why should this not be done, since, when the suffering is past it is as nothing to those who endured it? Those…for whose sake this has happened will either be better men if they make use of the temporal ills and choose to live better lives [according to the aforementioned process of perfection] or they will have no excuse when they are punished at the future judgement, if in spite of the sufferings of this life they refuse to turn their hearts to eternal life? (Book 3, Chap 68)

As we can see, the suffering and death of children is considered “good” because they potentially make other people “better men.” Even those who do not repent! Everyone is given the chance of feeling “pity,” discerning God’s “unity” (we shall see in a bit), reflecting on their own mortality, or whatever–thanks to the death of children.

The fact that Augustine Augustine addresses “pain and death” implies he is addressing the concerns of the baptized and unbaptized. Why? For one, the children who were neither good nor bad in Chap 66 implicitly included the unbaptized, because the detractors only invoked baptism afterwards. Second, the idea we have parents here who benefit from the death of children who are not saved means that the death and suffering of the unbaptized is also ordained for good purposes by God for unbelieving families. After all, it is the teaching of the Church that the faith of the baptized children’s parents saves them. Third, the example of the innocents (themselves unbaptized, whose parents’ faith is unknown to us) lends credibility to this view:

[W]hen the hearts of parents are softened by the sufferings of children, or when their faith is stirred, or their pity aroused, who knows what ample compensation God reserves for these children in the secrets of His judgments? They have not, it is true, performed right actions, yet they have suffered without having sinned. Nor is it to no purpose the Church urges us to honor as martyrs the children who were slain when Herod sought the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Book 3, Chap 68)

This speculation is interesting for several reasons. For one, it shows continuity in Church practice that 16 centuries later we still venerate the innocents who were murdered. Second, it corroborates the idea that a child’s suffering or death merely inciting “pity” in an adult is meritorious. So, in effect, infants and children who suffer and/or die are actually not morally neutral, but progressing toward “perfection” as they have actually merited something on behalf of those who have (potentially) benefited from their misfortune.

As we can see, Augustine’s Theodicy here is similar to the “best of all possible worlds” of Liebniz. In short, everything that is bad leads to some moral good–thereby making it good.

This is implicit in Augustine’s comments on the suffering of animals:

..the pain of beasts makes us realize the striving for unity in the lower living creatures…constituted by that supreme, sublime, ineffable unity of the Creator. (Book 3, Chap 69) 

Hence it is clear that everything, whether it inflicts harm or suffers harm, whether it causes pleasure or is given pleasure, suggests and proclaims the unity of the Creator…Now I think I have sufficiently discussed this subject. (Book 3, Chap 70) 

The reason I add this context is because we now can see why Augustine invokes the judgement of children–its all about God permitting evil to bring about good. “For He judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist.” (Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chap 27)

Conclusion. Why does Augustine invoke the issue of how children are judged by God in The Problem of Free Choice? Clearly, Augustine is defending God from attacks of Manichees, who accuse Him of being the author of evil. By justifying that everything which is evil is in fact a cause of good–even the free will of those who choose evil but in effect help the good–God is defended against all charges of evil. This is why, as the conversation progresses, Augustine even gives an explanation of the fall of Adam and Satan himself (spoiler: free will is to blame!)

This shows us why the Manichees would object, “What good is it that infants die and suffer? They do not learn anything morally profound by their free will–what purpose can this serve? This disproves your Theodicy, Augustine!”

To this, Augustine’s reply is that they, like the animals, assist morally (and theologically) those who can by their own free will be progressively perfected (and thereby save their souls) by observing the evils that befall them.

In order to counter any charges that this sort of scheme may be fair to those who are fully rational but not to children or infants, Augustine appears to conclude that the judgement will not be harsh on infants so that its not unfair. In fact, he also asserts that they accrue merit for their suffering.

For the baptized, heaven is guaranteed. For the unbaptized, the logic appears to demand the same (if we follow Augustine’s argument,) as merit demands reward and progress towards perfection had occurred.

Yet, Augustine never says this. What are we to make of this?

  1. The early Church seems not have a teaching on the unbaptized, but it should be pointed out that Orthodox ought not believe this. Decree 16 of the Council of Dositheus states, “And, therefore, baptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission.” However, looking at Augustine in isolation, it sure seems that an explicit teaching like the Dositheus’ did not exist, or surely the Manichees would have accused Augustine of this. While my own sympathies are with the explicit statements of so many saints as well as the council’s that unbaptized are damned, I am merely making the preceding historical observation. The fact Augustine did not say this was the teaching of the Church shows the issue was not settled, but it also shows that the damnation of all infants at this time was seemingly not known to him to be universal, either.
  2. Augustine is in his writings is sometimes disingenuous and he is at heart a rhetorician. In his Confessions (Book IX) he even bewails that he continued in this profession (rhetoricians were essentially professional liars–we call them “lawyers” today). If we take him at face value, we cannot make sense of the fact that he did a “180” on the origin of the soul, that he clearly misinterpreted the letters of Cyprian and the Carthaginian Council in his fight against the Donatists, his explanation of his own earlier soteriology, etcetera. Augustine appears to take positions which serve him during the occasion, but in doing so contradicts his own earlier stated views–making it tough for us interpreters to piece together what’s the “real” view.
  3. The preceding leads me to conclude that Augustine himself probably did not have a serious belief in the salvation of the unbaptized (which explains why he later takes the opposite view). Rather, for rhetorical reasons, he simply implied such because it was not rejected and it made his argument sound more convincing.

All my conclusions here are tentative. I have not read volumes of Augustine. Also, I lack the sanctity to be convinced of the absolute veracity of my conclusions. Nevertheless, historically speaking, I believe what is presented here persuasively shows we have a document from Augustine which implies that the unbaptized can be saved. The significance of this is that, as a matter of history, it appears that the condemnation of the unbaptized was not explicitly taught by the Church at this early a stage.

As for my own personal opinion, I find other saints’ and Augustine’s later teachings on the fate of the unbaptized being some sort of damnation easier to understand theologically and the clearest teaching. I state this to add credibility to my historical interpretation above. It is not my intent to rehabilitate Augustine on this point.

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