Baptism and the ideal of unity and universality of the Church in St. Augustine's ecclesiology: An exposition of his theology of baptism in light of Donatist controversy

Victor N Mbanisi, Fordham University


Contemporary scholars and commentators on the baptismal controversy between Augustine and the Donatists had credited the Augustinian essential distinction between the sacrament as a sacred sign, sacramentum, and its corresponding efficacy or reality of grace, res, as one of the significant theological contributions of Augustine in countering the doctrinal errors of the Donatists on baptism. None of these scholars, however, described the distinction between the sign of baptism and the reality of grace in the Augustinian theological language of the sacramentum and res in the way that Cutrone and Fete did in their respective works even though the two distinguished scholars stopped short of relating these more or less sacramental terms to Augustine's ecclesiology. This dissertation tries to fill this theological loophole by reexamining in a more inclusive way Augustine's classical lucid and pragmatic distinction between sacramental sign, sacramentum, from the reality of grace of the sacrament, res, and relating and integrating them with his ecclesiology to reach a more profound understanding of the unity and universality of the Church. First, this dissertation investigates into the historical background that led to Donatists' controversy, and also pointed out that the disciplinary problem of apostatized Christians in the early Church had evidently both sacramental and ecclesiastical underpinnings. This is followed up with the exploration and analysis of Augustine's doctrinal teachings on baptism. Augustine taught and established the objective validity of baptism as well as the inviolate character imprinted by every baptism administered both within the unity of the Church and outside of its frontiers. Against the popular traditional position of the North African Church fathers, Augustine held that Catholics and the heretics possess the same baptism, which is a gift of Christ. While only baptism administered within the Catholic unity gives grace, baptism given by the heretical Donatists outside the Church even though valid fails to profit the recipient because of the perfidy of schism and heresy. Finally, Augustine identified the Catholic Church as the societas sanctorum where perfect unity between the sacramentum of baptism and the res of baptism is achieved. On the other hand, the Donatists because they lacked charity of unity remained on the level of communio sacramentorum where baptism does not produce fruits of grace.

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Recommended Citation

Mbanisi, Victor N, "Baptism and the ideal of unity and universality of the Church in St. Augustine's ecclesiology: An exposition of his theology of baptism in light of Donatist controversy" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3310420.