Thursday, July 26, 2012

Letter 23: St. Augustine the priest to Maximinus the Donatist bishop regarding re-baptism: A lesson in ecumenism

St. Augustine being baptized by St. Ambrose in St. Monica's
presence. Work by Joseph Briffa.

During the fourth and fifth century St. Augustine and the many others of the African Catholic Church were at great ends to put an end to a schism that had started around 303 AD (about sixty years before St. Augustine was born) regarding Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. The persecution involved either death or the handing over of the Scriptures, and those which had decided to hand over their church’s Scriptures were called traditores (those who handed over holy things). At one point in 311 AD a so-called traditor had ordained the new bishop of Carthage which started a controversy in which the Donatists formed a schism from the Catholic Church. The Donatists were somewhat like the Novationists in that they saw the Church as only for saints and not sinners, and in that regard they were rigorists with regards to sins and sins that excluded from Communion. This is a very brief account of the Donatists, but suffice to say they were the majority Christian sect at the time of St. Augustine’s being a priest, though by the end of his office as bishop the Catholic Church was a much greater force in the region. This article regards St. Augustine’s humility as a priest lovingly exhorting Maximinus the Donatist bishop to stop re-baptizing Catholics and to strive for peace and unity of Donatists and Catholics. Letter 23 was written in 392 AD.

The letter regards a controversy in which St. Augustine sends a letter to the Donatist bishop Maximinus (who later became Catholic) regarding their re-baptism of one of the deacons of St. Augustine’s church, named Mutugenna. St. Augustine repudiates re-baptism here as un-Christian but the manner of his letter is impressive in the degree of his humility and charity. One might say this regards how weak the Catholic Church was in 392 AD, when the letter was written, but considering St. Augustine’s Confessions which are from a close time period, I think it likely that this simply regards St. Augustine’s taking up the life of the Gospel of humility, obedience, and charity.

The Introductory remarks of Letter 23: The honor and dignity of man as he is

St. Augustine begins his letter:

Augustine, priest of the Catholic Church, sends greetings in the Lord to his most beloved lord and honorable brother, Maximinus

Before I come to the point of what I wanted to write your Benevolence, I shall give you a brief explanation of the inscription of this letter, which might disturb you or someone else. I have written ‘lord,’ because it is written: ‘For you, brethren, have been called unto liberty: only make not liberty an occasion of the flesh, but by the charity of the Spirit serve on another.’ (Galatians 5:13) 1. Since therefore, I serve you by the charity of this ministry of letters, it is not unreasonable for me to call you lord, because of our one and true Lord who gave us this precept. And I have written ‘most beloved’ because God knows that I love you as myself, and I am conscious of wishing you the same good that I wish for myself. I also added ‘honorable,’ but not out of respect to your position as bishop, because you are not my bishop. You must not take this amiss, because it comes from the heart, as our words should be: ‘Yea, yea, no, no’ (Matthew 5:37). You know, and so does everyone who knows us, that you are not my bishop, and I am not your priest. I willingly call you honorable, on the principle that I know you are a man, and a man made to the image and likeness of God, and placed in honor by that origin and that natural right. Let my act of recognition of this essential fact conduce to your honor. For it is written: ‘Man when he was in honor, did not understand: he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them.’ (Psalm 48:13) Why, then, should I not call you honorable, inasmuch as you are a man, and I may not despair of your salvation and correction as long as you are in this life? You are aware that I have a divine precept for calling you brother, and that even to those who refuse to be our brothers we say: you are our brethren. And this is a good addition to my reason for wishing to write you fraternity. Now that I have given you my reason for erecting such a gate to my letter, give a kindly ear to what follows.”

[My comments] Can you imagine yourself as perhaps whatever flavor of Christian you, the reader are, addressing this to another Christian of a sect that you find not only heretical but has been stealing your parishioners and clergymen by putting down your own church and calling them sinners? Now I do not know the specifics of Maximinus the Donatist bishops’ demeanor or intentions, but the Donatists were well known for putting Catholics down for their admittance of so many sinners and allowing them to do penance to restore them to the ability to take Communion. What would it be like for a Catholic priest to speak to an Orthodox bishop and call him lord or to call him Your Benevolence, or Your Excellency? Would we not think him to be mad and heretical? Or, what if an Orthodox priest addressed a Catholic bishop in the same manner? How many of us would heckle the man and call him a traitor to his faith? But here St. Augustine has the audacity to put his own pride down. At this moment of his life St. Augustine is a newly ordained priest and abbot of his monastery, but the degree of charity and humility expressed in this introduction is quite telling of the aspirations of the man to try and set his life right after so many earlier failures. But St. Augustine does not betray his orthodoxy, as you can note by, ‘you are not my bishop, I am not your priest’, but in the same manner the full tie of humility is there, and it is impressive, especially understanding the tensions these two groups were likely under with respect to each other.

To re-baptize is un-Christian and to re-baptize a Catholic is monstrous. St. Augustine questions whether Maximinus truly did re-baptize

“When I was in that part of the world, I noticed a horrible and lamentable custom, whereby men who boasted of the name of Christian did not shrink from re-baptizing Christians, and with what words I could I showed my detestation.” St. Augustine now discusses his hopes that Maximinus was not among those who re-baptize and how he gave him the benefit of the doubt for a time, but he had heard a few days earlier to this letter that Maximinus had in fact re-baptized Mutugenna, one of the deacons at St. Augustine’s church. “I felt very deeply both his wretched lapse and, my brother, your unexpected backsliding. I know, indeed, what the Catholic Church is. The nations are the inheritance of Christ, and the ends of the earth are His possession (Psalm 2:8). You know this, or if you do not know it, take heed to it: it can easily be learned by those who wish to learn. To re-baptize a heretic, who has received this sign of salvation, according to the Christian custom, is certainly a sin, but to re-baptize a Catholic is a monstrous crime.” St. Augustine discusses not being able to believe the rumors he had heard until he spoke with Mutugenna’s parents. “In spite of this, I thought so well of you that I could not believe that he had been re-baptized”

Exhortation to keep the Divine precepts, even if others pressure us otherwise
“Therefore, I beseech you, most beloved brother, by the divinity and the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be so kind as to write me what was done, and to write such a statement as you know I will be willing to read to the brethren in the church.” To which St. Augustine follows by asking that Maximinus write to him so as to “avoid wounding charity”, as well as exhorting Maximinus if others are pressuring to re-baptize that he ought not. “If you do not baptize, then, brother Maximinus, lay hold on Christian liberty, lay hold on it, I beg you, and do not fear the reproach of any man, as you contemplate Christ, nor shrink from any one’s power. The glory of this world passes, ambition passes. In the future judgment of Christ, neither the steps of the coir, nor the tapestries of the chair, nor the bands of singing nuns coming to meet you will avail to your defense, when conscience begins to accuse and the arbiter of conscience to judge.”

Baptism and Circumcision as the Figure of Baptism: Why it is wrong to Re-Baptize.
“What you do with so good and religious an intention, if you do it- that you do not repeat the baptism of the Catholic Church, but you approve the baptism of the one most true Mother, who opens her arms to all nations to save them , and offers her breasts to the saved as the unique possession of Christ, reaching to the ends of the earth- if you truly do this, why do you not break out into a free and rejoicing cry? Why do you hide this valuable splendor of your light under a bushel (Matthew 5:15)? Why do you not tear off those wretched animal skins, the sign of cowardly slavery, and put on Christian confidence and come out and say: ‘I know one baptism, consecrated and signed with the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. When I find it in this form, I must perforce accept it. I do not destroy, when I recognize the banner of the Lord my King, I do not blow it away.’ Those who saw divided the garments of Christ did not dishonor Him, because they saw Him dying and did not believe that He would rise again. If the garment of the One hanging on the cross was not torn by His persecutors, why is the sacrament of the One reigning in heaven destroyed by Christians?” St. Augustine discusses that if he were a Jew in ancient times that he would accept circumcision, that St. Paul called the ‘seal of the justice of the faith’ (Romans 4:11), though void now, how much more does the sacrament of baptism which is the new circumcision (though of the heart) be repeated or trampled over in dignity? “This sacrament [of circumcision] even tamed the River Jordan and reduced it to a brook. The Lord Himself received this sacrament after birth, although on the cross He made it void. These observances were not condemned, but gave place to later and more timely ones; for, as the first coming of the Lord abolished circumcision, so His second coming will do away with baptism.” And he says also that having taken off the yoke of slavery in the liberty of faith that no Christian is circumcised but rather, “when the just are reigning with their Lord and the wicked have been condemned, no on will be baptized, but that which they prefigure- the circumcision of the heart and the cleaning of conscience- will remain forever.” St. Augustine continues to argue that if one were to become a Jew and was circumcised by the Samaritans that there would be no bold call for a repetition of the circumcision when the Jew returned to his people. In fact it couldn’t be done says St. Augustine, “But, if in the flesh of a circumcised man I could find no place to repeat circumcision, because there is only one such member, much less could a place be found in one heart, where the baptism of Christ could be repeated. You, therefore, who wish to baptize again, certainly need two hearts.”

 Ending remarks and call to Peace, the desire for Christ’s Truth:

St. Augustine calls Maximinus to seek the Truth in Christ and the Scriptures. He just as well tells him not to make this an opportunity to see any arrogance in him or to reply to him with callous remarks about the Macarian persecution (where the emissary of the Emperor strived to bribe the Donatists back into communion with the Catholic Church, but failed and resorted to force and Donatist martyrdom) on the note that he will not talk of the cruelty of the Circumcellions (who persecuted Catholics in Africa). He writes that there will be no call to the use of temporal (Imperial) power against Donatists, with the hope that the bands of Circumcellions will be exhorted to stop persecuting Catholics. The final remarks:

“My bishop would probably have preferred himself to write to your Benevolence, if he had been here, or I should have written by his order or permission. In his absence, since this re-baptism of the deacon is or is said to be something new, I could not let the matter grow cold by delay, and I was moreover deeply moved by bitter grief over the true death of a brother. Perhaps by the mercy and providence of the Lord of peace there will be some comfort to outweigh my sorrow. May the Lord our God deign to inspire peace to your heart, my lord and most beloved brother.”

Final Remarks and Conclusion:

I know this is a long article of me mostly talking about a letter that St. Augustine wrote as a priest to a Donatist bishop but I think the sort of apologetics and ecumenism that St. Augustine puts forth at the end of the fourth century is especially telling for us in the twenty-first century as we strive to bring men and women and children into the love of God through the Church. Primarily, we must be firm and direct about what practices trouble us, giving the one who is unsightly to our faith the benefit of the doubt because we cannot judge hearts, only God can. Secondarily, we must treat each other as brothers and fellow human beings who are worthy of respect on account of the image of God which they bear in their hearts, souls, and bodies. The call back to Tradition and to the Scriptures is always telling and important.

A secondary point to make in this letter is the remarks on the mark of baptism upon our souls which is unrepeatable as accounted by St. Augustine in his remarks on tradition and his understanding of the Bible. I understand that this is a point of dispute among Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, but perhaps this one comment of St. Augustine might show that re-baptism of those baptized in the correct form was not seen as acceptable to the fourth century African and Roman Church. On account of my being Catholic I admit that I find St. Augustine’s short defense of one baptism to be a valid one. If anyone wanted to offer a constructive criticism, analysis, or comment on this article, I fully welcome it.

The question of re-baptism will come up again especially in the question by Donatists as to why St. Cyprian is considered a saint if he re-baptized. St. Augustine concedes eventually that St. Cyprian may have failed in this regard, but because of his desire for God’s love and his willingness to hold on to fraternal charity, unity of the Church, and the like, that he ought to be considered orthodox even if erring in a few areas.

May we continue to find that unending joy of the presence of the Holy Spirit and grow in His seven holy gifts. May we continue to hope and pray for those who were newly baptized this past Easter, and any other time that they may have been baptized during the year.

1.      Note: St. Augustine completes a commentary on Galatians around 394/395 AD according to Eric Plumer, a certain scholar who recently wrote an English-Latin translation of the Commentary.


  1. Dear Steven,

    Laudetur Jesus Christus!

    Thank you for posting this wonderful note on St. Augustine's letters. I want to especially thank you from an Orthodox ecumenist, that this means a lot.

    A note of clarification: there are differing opinions on the re-baptism issue among the Orthodox. Some say that we should rebaptize (notably the Greeks), and others (Russia, Antioch) accept the baptism of non-Orthodox. However, there is also a dispute about the "acceptance" of non-Orthodox baptism. Some say that this is merely by canonical "economy" - that is, a loosenly of canonical norms whereby the Church gives life to a previously lifeless sacrament (by way of Confirmation/Chrismation), correct only in form but containing no sacramental effecacy. This concept is a new one however, and came about from St. Nectarios the Athonite in the early 19th century.

    However, there are others who criticize this idea of "economy" (notably Georgos Florovsky) and see in this a great perversion of sacramental theology.

    I would like to point out, finally, that our two churches (in the North American official dialogue) came out with an official statement regarding re-baptism and argued that the practice was wrong. Their document is a challenge to Greek Orthodox and others who consider this to be the patristic norm, but the North American dialogue argues convincingly that this is not the case. This document can be found here:

    I offer these thoughts to you, my brother in Christ Steven, beseeching your prayers for my own soul and the Church and her unity.

    with profound respect,

    Timothy Flanders

    1. Dear Tim,

      Thank you for your cordial note! I admit I am not too aware of the Orthodox's views on some of these matters, and so I appreciate your comment. As a Catholic I think I tend to side with the argument that re-baptism isn't necessary when coming from other Christians as long as the form is correct, especially on the account that the Apostle James asked Jesus if they should stop others from baptizing when they were not with Jesus' band of disciples, and Jesus said no, those who are not against you are for you. Or so I recall from my readings. All in regard, I pray that one day we will be able to settle these things. I think the argument of economy is a careful step to take, which even our Church does with regards to baptisms that may not have an orthodox faith in the Trinity.

      May our two Churches be united in love and faith and may God grant you brother a holy life to offer up to Him. Thank you for your efforts in ecumenism, they are greatly appreciated.

      God bless,
      Steven Reyes

  2. I hope to write an article about St. Augustine's letters (written during his early episcopacy) to a certain Januarius (not the saint who died under Diocletian as that's way too early for St. Augustine) who asks questions about the Eucharistic fast and the customs of the many Churches in the Catholic Church about how and when to fast. It will be another interesting two letters to investigate concerning the Catholic faith regarding the Eucharist and how St. Augustine explains the plurality in expression of the one true Faith.

  3. The problem that some of us Orthodox have is that the current trend in Protestant baptism is using formulae that have never been used and that are downright heretical. Baptism in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, (because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are considered "sexist terms" by a woman minister) is simply not acceptable.

    My second point is that there is a difference of an act of a heretic within the Church and that of a schismatic from the Church.

    1. Thanks Anonymous for your comment. I think St. Augustine would agree that baptism in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is not an acceptable form to baptize in (because all of the Persons act in these processes and because they are not the proper names of the Persons).

      I hope you can elaborate on your second point. I am somewhat confused about what you mean in that comment. Thank you for your comment however. I'm glad to have had your correspondence here!

      God bless,
      Steven Reyes