Friday, December 08, 2006

The Roots of Sacramental Minimalism in the West

By putting together Augustine's responses to Donatism and Pelagianism one ends up with a baptismal rite and theology which is considerably narrow in its approach in comparison, at least, with the great mystagogues of the West Syrian East and even Ambrose himself. Here, unfortunately, even if his responses to these heretical movements were necessary, we see the beginnings of a minimalistic approach to rite, interpretation, candidate, minister, and Church and a loss of sacramental and liturgical richness in favor of a concern for sacramental validity. While he himself knew a full and rich rite for Christiain initiation there is no question but that: "If ever there was a man who held that the solemn paraphernalia of the actual rite was of little importance, but that the sacrament of baptism by water was indispensible for salvation, that man was Augustine" (Frederick van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop, 1961). This minimalism in rite, formula, and interpretation will continue to reinforce an unfortunate theology of baptism even today as almost a privatized "minute wash" to rid infants, as soon as possible after birth, of the inherited sin of Adam (not necessarily of Eve) and so to ensure their eternal beatific destiny "in case something should happen." On this issue, at least, Western Christianity not only learned its Augustinian theological foundations well but has been abundantly successful through the centuries in catechizing the faithful. Indeed, although the practice and custom of infant baptism comes long before any theological rationale for it is made, from Augustine on, infant baptism will become seen as necessary and expected, rather than permitted, in the life of the Church.

--Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (The Liturgical Press, 1999), 156-7.

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