One of the ironies of being a Baptist is that my tradition puts much less weight on baptism than most others. As my friend Dave Lamb said recently, we spend so much time saying what the sacraments/ordinances aren’t that we end up with very little when we’re done. Dave had a word for that, which I now forget, so Dave if you’re out there, please comment below.
For the other extreme, I read this today in Augustine’s Sermon 142, “On the Burial of Catechumens” (AD 406). The catechumens in North Africa were folks who remained on the fringes of the church until they became competentes—students who learned the church’s mysteries during the month of Lent, culminating in their baptism on Easter morning. Since Augustine believed in baptismal regeneration, he believed that catechumen who died without expressing a wish for baptism (becoming competentes) went to hell. I admire Augustine’s muscular refusal to compromise his beliefs, but this is a pretty severe view of the gospel.
Augustine said: “Still, you all ought to know, dearly beloved, what most of you and in fact almost all of you do know, that according to the Church’s custom and discipline the bodies of catechumens who have died ought not to be buried among the bodies of the faithful, and that such a concession should not be granted to anyone. Otherwise it would be nothing but culpable respect of persons. I mean, why should such a concession be made to a wealthier person, and not to a poor person—if indeed there can be any comfort to the dead in it? The merits of the dead, after all, do not depend on the places their bodies are laid in, but on the dispositions of their souls….it’s because of the sacraments that bodies cannot be laid to rest where it is not right for them to be laid.”
“All the same, we do mourn the passing of a catechumen from this world, and we grieve for the one over whom the question arose in the first place. And on this score I must seriously remind you, brothers and sisters, that none of you should take it for granted that you are going to be alive tomorrow. Run quickly to grace, change your habits; may this sad event serve you as a salutary warning.”
“…Well after all, my brothers and sisters, what am I to say? Am I going to pander to human feelings, and say that catechumens too go where the faithful go? Are we to treat human grief with such kid gloves that we argue against the gospel?”