First, here’s the text of John 3:5 for us to consider.
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
John 3:5 refers to Christian baptism. For almost the entire history of the Church, that has been its universal interpretation across traditions. Recently, of course, some sects of Protestantism (and much of what is typically labeled today as “evangelicalism”) have interpreted the verse to refer to physical birth (water) and some sort of inner, spiritual rebirth (Spirit). But if we’re discussing St. Augustine or almost anything recorded throughout the history of Christianity, then we must read the ‘water’ as the waters of baptism and ‘Spirit’ as the Holy Spirit. The waters of Baptism, accompanied by the seal of the Holy Spirit mark our entrance into the kingdom of God as manifested on earth in the Church.
As an aside, this even impacts the architecture of our churches today. Those of you who are “evangelical” are probably accustomed to seeing the baptistry at the front of the sanctuary, so that all those seated within the church are facing it. Traditionally, however, baptisms were performed at the back of the nave or in the narthex before the entrance of the nave. This was done because baptism marked the entrance of person into the Church. One was baptized and then one entered. Churches built in a traditional manner still reflect that design.
St. Augustine used John 3:5 to say essentially that if one had to be baptized to enter the kingdom, then there had to be something in the nature of the unbaptized — even infants who had committed no willful sin — that kept them out of the Kingdom. He, of course, defined that something as the inherited guilt of original sin. Both his exegesis of the verse and his assertion that unbaptized infants are condemned run contrary to the predominant interpretation of the ancient Church.
To illustrate that, I would point to St. Gregory of Nyssa in On Infants’ Early Deaths. It’s only one example, but a good one. He first takes the time to pose the question well, pointing out the flaws in quick or easy answers. He then constructs an analogy of life around the choices available to two men with a degenerative disease of their eyes. One follows the advice and way of the doctors and purgation, however painful that might be, and is eventually healed and able to enjoy the fullness of light. The other chooses to follow what seems to be a broad path of ease and comfort, declining the necessary treatments and spending his time in comfort in the baths and eventually ends up blind, unable to perceive the light at all. From that, he says the following of infants.
Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all. Further, the present life appears to me to offer a sort of analogy to the future life we hope for, and to be intimately connected with it, thus; the tenderest infancy is suckled and reared with milk from the breast; then another sort of food appropriate to the subject of this fostering, and intimately adapted to his needs, succeeds, until at last he arrives at full growth. And so I think, in quantities continually adapted to it, in a sort of regular progress, the soul partakes of that truly natural life; according to its capacity and its power it receives a measure of the delights of the Blessed state; indeed we learn as much from Paul, who had a different sort of food for him who was already grown in virtue and for the imperfect “babe.” For to the last he says, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it.” But to those who have grown to the full measure of intellectual maturity he says, “But strong meat belongeth to those that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised…” Now it is not right to say that the man and the infant are in a similar state however free both may be from any contact of disease (for how can those who do not partake of exactly the same things be in an equal state of enjoyment?); on the contrary, though the absence of any affliction from disease may be predicated of both alike as long as both are out of the reach of its influence, yet, when we come to the matter of delights, there is no likeness in the enjoyment, though the percipients are in the same condition. For the man there is a natural delight in discussions, and in the management of affairs, and in the honourable discharge of the duties of an office, and in being distinguished for acts of help to the needy; in living, it may be, with a wife whom he loves, and ruling his household; and in all those amusements to be found in this life in the way of pastime, in musical pieces and theatrical spectacles, in the chase, in bathing, in gymnastics, in the mirth of banquets, and anything else of that sort. For the infant, on the contrary, there is a natural delight in its milk, and in its nurse’s arms, and in gentle rocking that induces and then sweetens its slumber. Any happiness beyond this the tenderness of its years naturally prevents it from feeling. In the same manner those who in their life here have nourished the forces of their souls by a course of virtue, and have, to use the Apostle’s words, had the “senses” of their minds “exercised,” will, if they are translated to that life beyond, which is out of the body, proportionately to the condition and the powers they have attained participate in that divine delight; they will have more or they will have less of its riches according to the capacity acquired. But the soul that has never felt the taste of virtue, while it may indeed remain perfectly free from the sufferings which flow from wickedness having never caught the disease of evil at all, does nevertheless in the first instance partake only so far in that life beyond (which consists, according to our previous definition, in the knowing and being in God) as this nursling can receive; until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.
Yes, I know that’s quite a bit to digest, but it captures more of the essence of the common patristic view than St. Augustine did. St. Gregory also admits his ignorance.
Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.
Ultimately we don’t know all the answers, but we trust that God is good and that he loves us. This is what Jesus showed us in his life and it is what he taught us about God. Death is not good, but we trust that God is working to transform all things, even the evil things, into good. (Romans 8:28) And that certain applies when we face the deaths of innocent infants, baptized or not. They are safe in the hand of God and I reject any teaching and any teacher who says differently.