Take Away the Doctrine of Original Sin, and the Baptism of Infants Seems to be a Very Ridiculous Thing

Anyone familiar with Augustine’s writings against Pelagius will recognize when his methodology reappears in later writers. One of his more memorable proofs for original sin was infant baptism. The argument went something like this, “If they don’t have any sin, then why are we baptizing them for the remission of sins?” You can’t wash off something that isn’t there.

This was a simple but effective maneuver. Peter Brown argues in his biography on Augustine that it was the practice of infant baptism that secured popular support for Augustine. Just like with Athanasius, liturgical practice helped secure dogma, at least in the larger public arena.

Again, the argument works because the belief that baptism washes away sins is presumed. Baptismal Regeneration was a doctrine universally agreed on prior to similar agreement on the doctrine of original sin. Therefore it could serve as the ground of the argument for original sin.

I find it informative that Augustine could use the argument in the 4th century, but it is even more interesting to me that folks still used it in the 17th century. Edward Polhill did just that in England in 1678 (*Hint- This is about thirty years after the Westminster Assembly). Here’s his argument:

Our Saviour Christ instituted baptism, and that for infants; but if there be no original pollution in them, what need a washing ordinance for them? The washing of their bodies, whose pure, innocent, undefiled souls are incapable of spiritual washing, is but a shadow without substance, a sacrament without internal grace, a thing too insignificant for Christ the wisdom of God to institute. Hence, when the Pelagians on the one hand granted the baptism of infants, and on the other denied original sin, St. Austin saith, that hey spoke wonderful things. In sacramento salvatoris baptizantur, sed non salvantur, redimuntur sed non liberantur, lavantur sed non abluuntur; In our Saviour’s sacrament infants are baptized, but not saved; redeemed, but not delivered; washed but not cleansed. And a little after he asks, If they are saved, what was their sickness? If delivered, what their servitude? If cleansed, what their pollution? Take away the doctrine of original sin, and the baptism of infants seems to be a very ridiculous thing. To avoid this absurdity, the Pelagians asserted, That the baptism of infants was necessary, not because there was any original sin in them, but that they might be capable of the kingdom of heaven. But I answer, Where there is no defect, there is all due perfection. If infants are pure and free from all sin, then have they all their righteousness and rectitude which ought to be in them; and if they have so, they are, without baptism, capable of heaven; or if they were not, the baptismal washing, which imports pollution, seems to be a ceremony very unfit and incongruous to be applied to them who are without spot, or to render them apt for heaven.

~ A View of Some Divine Truths pg 58-59

So in a dramatic sort of irony, we could say that those who deny baptismal regeneration are the semi-Pelagians.

This entry was posted in baptism, church history, edward polhill by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

8 thoughts on “Take Away the Doctrine of Original Sin, and the Baptism of Infants Seems to be a Very Ridiculous Thing

  1. Right, they don’t, which is why this is a very good post for exposing their inconsistencies. They also pray for the dead, but don’t believe in Purgatory.

    Great post, Steve.

  2. “So in a dramatic sort of irony, we could say that those who deny baptismal regeneration are the semi-Pelagians.”

    Steve, that’s just silly. We all know that only those who believe in justification by faith alone can be saved. I don’t know any babies that believe that. Therefore, it is the babies who are the semi-Pelagians. : )

  3. I always found it ironic, every time I’ve read this in the past, that the view of infant baptism most defended in the Presbyterian Church today is the Pelagian one.


  4. Steven,

    Good post.


    I agree. Babies are semi-pelagians… that’s probably why we’ve excommunicated them. 😉


    I share your frustration there brother. Have often thought much the same thing myself.

  5. Steven,

    It’s been a while. Great post. I recently had a brother tell me that the FV understanding of the state of Christian infants at birth (namely, that they are born as covenant members and therefore ought to be baptized to seal and signify such) denies original sin. My response was something like this, that their conception in sin is what requires they be united with Christ. I’ll have to pass this link along.



  6. Actually, the Eastern Orthodox _do_ believe in original sin. We don’t believe in the same idea of it that Roman Catholics do, though.

    The Roman Catholic idea (near as I can tell, not being a Roman Catholic) is that original sin is a stain that passes into all of us at conception, making us all guilty of Adam’s sin.

    The Eastern Orthodox idea is rather that the ancestral sin fundamentally altered the world, making it a place where it was easier to do evil than good, a place where everything breaks down, from human relations to the earth itself. Sort of a theological version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

    So we don’t baptize babies to remove the stain of Adam’s sin from them; we baptize them to make them part of the new creation, working to reverse the effects of original sin.

    There’s more to it than this brief summary, of course, but Google can help you find it.

    (Incidentally, one of the best quotations on original sin I ever heard was from a preacher who declared: “Everyone is born selfish. And most people never grow out of it!” Ironically, he belonged to the Restoration Movement and didn’t believe in original sin. But that _propensity_ to be selfish rather than generous is the Orthodox idea of original sin.)

  7. David & Dave,

    Orthodox don’t believe in original sin? Since when? Non-acceptance of an Augustinian gloss of original sin as including transmitted guilt makes us Pelagian? I think not. I also don’t see how the mere practice of praying to the departed saints logically implicates adherence to the teaching that they are paying satisfaction for venial sins in preparation for the Beatific Vision, maybe someone could explain this to me…

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