What Augustine’s Baptism Can Teach Our Churches
I just finished reading a remarkable little book, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism, by Garry Wills (Oxford University Press). I’ll admit that I started the book with a bit of misplaced Baptist triumphalism, and ended it with a bit of a chastened longing.
First, for my confession of bravado. Wills, a liberal Catholic, spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the baptistry in Milan where Augustine was baptized, and the means by which the man from Africa and others were baptized into the Christian faith. The baptistry, now known to scholars, was a pool, and the candidates were, Wills offers nonchalantly, immersed fully into the water.
I say nonchalantly because, of course, Wills as a Roman Catholic isn’t trying to defend infant baptism or sprinkling or any such thing, and because there’s really no dispute about immersion as an ancient pattern of baptism. The Roman church has never denied such a thing, and Luther and Calvin (among many others) acknowledged it. They simply dispute that immersion is of the essence of baptism and thus normative for believers in all places and at all times. That debate goes on, and will for the foreseeable future.
But, as a Southern Baptist, there’s something genetic in me that wants to see Augustine’s immersion, claim him as one of ours, sign him up for Centrifuge, and so on.
Once that spell was lifted, though, I found myself rejoicing in the care with which Ambrose took in preparing candidates for baptism. Wills, pooling together the primary sources, demonstrates the Bishop’s exhaustive preparatory training of his candidates for baptism. This wasn’t a “new members’ class” or some set of hurdles to jump. Instead, Ambrose initiated them into the secrets of the faith as they moved toward the baptistry. Ambrose expected the candidates to memorize the Creed, not to show that they “meant business” but in order to show that they were now entrusted with a glorious mystery of the faith, expected to preserve this for the next generation.
Moreover, Ambrose took the moment of baptism as itself a teaching exercise, showing how in baptism the whole of redemptive history centers on Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. He showed them the typological themes of redemption through judgment in the Flood, in the Red Sea Exodus, in the crossing of Jordan, and, of course, in the baptism of the Lord Jesus himself. This way of reading the Bible, Wills argues, formed the core of Augustine’s own method of biblical interpretation. He learned it, Wills contends, not in a classroom but in a baptistry.
In a day when, at least in my circles, baptism has become reduced to merely the person’s individual testimony, we ought to recover the drama of baptism as placing us in the story of Christ, a story told ahead of time in countless canonical life-stories and told, in the water, in our own life-story: death, burial, and resurrection as we are joined to the life of Another. And, of this Other, the voice of God himself once thundered over his wet head (and, yes I would argue, his entirely wet body, but, again, that’s another debate): “You are my beloved Son, and with you I am well-pleased.”
For years, I’ve urged people to properly interpret the Scripture the way the prophets and apostles do: first in light of Christ, and only then applied to those who are found in him. I wonder whether we miss this first in the baptismal waters, even before we miss it in our Sunday School classes and Lord’s Day sermons.
Wills argues that Augustine kept Ambrose’s biblical typology, but altered baptism to a more sacerdotal, and less pedagogical, matter, in light of his controversies with the Pelagians and the Donatists. That’s highly debatable and questionable. But, even apart from that, I wonder if even we Baptists ought to reflect on that pool in Milan and give thanks to God for giving us the perilous, watery drama of baptism. And, as we do so, we ought to protect this gift, this sign of the kingdom, for future generations.
The gospel speaks, yes. The gospel sings. But the gospel splashes too.