Biblical literalism + magisterial inertia = sacramental Pelagianism?

Biblical literalism + magisterial inertia = sacramental Pelagianism? December 5, 2012

I’ve been reading through Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in which he spends a whole lot of time arguing emphatically why unbaptized infants deserve to go to hell because of Adam’s sin. It seems like the damnation of babies was a huge sticking point for Pelagius and his followers and part of why they were inclined to say that the doctrine of original sin was ridiculous. The core of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius rests upon a literal interpretation of John’s two verses describing the salvation of the two sacraments — 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and 6:53: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” Though I don’t have time to trace the historical development of this literal attribution of salvation to sacramental observance, I cannot help but wonder if Augustine’s Biblical literalism and the magisterial inertia of the church in following his claims uncritically led to the formulaic view of the sacraments which created the atmosphere of “Pelagian” salvation by works that triggered the Reformation. I realize I’m being mischievous, but the irony is too delicious.

Here is what Augustine wrote in context:

Now they take alarm from the statement of the Lord, when He says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God; because in His own explanation of the passage He affirms, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” And so they try to ascribe to unbaptized infants, by the merit of their innocence, the gift of salvation and eternal life, but at the same time, owing to their being unbaptized, to exclude them from the kingdom of heaven. But how novel and astonishing is such an assumption, as if there could possibly be salvation and eternal life without heirship with Christ, without the kingdom of heaven! Of course they have their refuge, whither to escape and hide themselves, because the Lord does not say, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot have life, but—“he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” If indeed He had said the other, there could have risen not a moment’s doubt. Well, then, let us remove the doubt; let us now listen to the Lord, and not to men’s notions and conjectures; let us, I say, hear what the Lord says—not indeed concerning the sacrament of the laver, but concerning the sacrament of His own holy table, to which none but a baptized person has a right to approach: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” What do we want more? What answer to this can be adduced, unless it be by that obstinacy which ever resists the constancy of manifest truth? [Augustine, A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants 26.20]

The Biblical literalists of Protestant fundamentalism often make fun of Catholics for thinking that sacramental practices are “magical.” That’s because they don’t read John 3:5 or 6:53 literally. Their Biblical literalism, insofar as it’s a practice and not just a slogan, is mostly applied to the book of Romans. Augustine’s message for us is that unless you’re a selective Biblical literalist, you’d better baptize your babies as soon as they pop out because without that water, they’re going to hell. It’s true that a literal interpretation of John 3:5 and 6:53 applied as Augustine applied it creates a conflict with Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” and the other sola fidei passages, because it makes salvation contingent on a work. Even if you say that God is the one who does the work that counts through the sacrament, we (or our parents) have to do work in order for us to receive God’s gift of grace.

So I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to speculate that Augustine may have laid the groundwork for “Pelagian” works-righteousness in his debate with Pelagius because of the combination of Biblical literalism and magisterial inertia, which are the two principal ways in which human knowledge is idolized at the expense of being able to receive God’s infinite wisdom through the testimony of His scripture. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not seized it” (John 1:5). That’s a verse I can take literally, because it captures the epistemological gap between our knowledge and God’s wisdom. When we try to seize His light for the sake of our power, we end up with a fistful of darkness, because no divinely inspired word of God can be reduced to a single univocal, “literal” meaning; each word is perpetually pregnant with new wisdom that it births for those who are patient and humble.

When I have more time, I’ll try to defend why I think a forensic account of original sin is ludicrous, 1600 years of Western Christian tradition notwithstanding. I just don’t see Augustine’s proof-texts (there seem to be only three verses) providing adequate justification for such a significant doctrine when “death” could have
“entered the world through Adam’s sin” in more than one way. Pelagius actually makes a whole lot more sense in his understanding of sin as a widespread contagion that infects us all inevitably rather than Augustine’s understanding of original sin as a hell-deserving offense against God that we supposedly committed through Adam and are rightly judged for, etc, because we were an infinitesimal part of Adam’s semen before we were born.

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