Monday, February 20, 2017

Infant salvation: a brief survey of the early Patristic period, and reflections on the Reformed tradition, via B. B. Warfield


This is the third installment of my series on Infant salvation. This post will focus on the Reformed tradition, but will also include a brief survey of the early Patristic period, as related by B. B. Warfield in his extended essay, The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation.

Two online PDF versions are available: one is the 1891 booklet - link; the second is from the 1897 book, Two Studies in the History of Doctrine (pp.141-239) - link. The 1897 edition is, "considerably enlarged and in some parts rewritten" (p. iii); all subsequent quotes will be from the latter edition. [Note: footnotes not provided in the following quotations; see PDF version for those references.]

Warfield's treatment begins with a survey of "The Patristic Doctrine" (pp. 144-151), wherein he writes:

The first Christians had no difficulty in understanding and confessing that Christ had come into a world lost in sin to establish a kingdom of righteousness, citizenship in which is the condition of salvation. That infants were admitted into this citizenship they did not question. When the Apologist Aristides, for example, would make known to the heathen how Christians looked upon death, he did not confine himself to saying that "if any righteous person of their number passes away from the world, they rejoice and give thanks to God and follow his body as if he were moving from one place to another," but adds of the infant, for whose birth they (unlike many of the heathen) praised God, "if, again, it chance to die in its infancy, they praise God mightily, as for one who has passed through the world without sins." Nor did those early Christians doubt that the sole gateway into this heavenly citizenship, for infants too, was not the natural birth of the flesh, but the new birth of the Spirit. Communion with God and the inheritance of life had been lost for all alike, and to infants too were restored only in Christ. (p. 144 - bold emphasis mine.)

This is followed with:

The kingdom which Jesus came to found was not of this world, and was not, in its primary idea, an external organization. But it was inevitable that it should soon be identified with the visible Church, and the regeneration which was its door with the baptism by which entrance into the Church was accomplished. Already in Justin and Irenaeus the word " regeneration" means " baptism ;" and the language of John iii. 5, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," was from a very early period uniformly understood to suspend salvation upon water-baptism. How early this doctrine of the necessity of baptism for salvation became the settled doctrine of the Church it is difficult to trace in the paucity of very early witnesses. Tertullian already defends it from objection. The reply of Cyprian and his fellow-bishops to Fidus on the duty of early baptism, and especially his whole argument to Jubianus against the validity of heretical baptism, plainly presuppose it. By this date clearly it was the accepted Church-doctrine ; and although its stringency was mitigated in the case of adults by the admission not only of the baptism of blood, but also of that of intention, the latter mitigation was not allowed in the case of infants. The watchword of the Church—first spoken in these exact words, perhaps, by Cyprian in his strenuous opposition to the validity of heretical baptismExtra ecclesiam salus non est, hardened in this sense into an undisputed maxim. The whole Patristic Church thus came to agree that, martyrs excepted, no infant dying unbaptized could enter the kingdom of heaven. (pp. 147, 148 - bold emphasis mine)

Next up on Warfield's Patristic survey is Augustine, of whom he writes:

Augustine expressed the church-doctrine moderately, teaching, of course, that infants dying unbaptized would be found on Christ's left hand and be condemned to eternal punishment, but also not forgetting to add that their punishment would be the mildest of all, and indeed that they were to be beaten with so few stripes that he could not say that it would have been better for them not to be born. His zeal in the matter turned on his deepest convictions, and the essence of his argument may be exhibited by putting together two or three sentences from one of his polemic writings against the Pelagians. "We must by no means doubt," he says, "that all men are under sin, which came into the world by one man and has passed through unto all men, and from which nothing frees us but the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ." "For inasmuch as infants are only able to become His sheep by baptism, it must needs come to pass that they perish if they are not baptized, because they will not have that eternal life which He gives to His sheep." "Let then there be no eternal salvation promised to infants out of our own opinion, without Christ's baptism ; for none is promised in that Holy Scripture which is to be preferred to all human authority and opinion.'' (pp. 148, 149 - bold emphasis mine)

And from the final paragraph of his Patristic survey we read:

There were some outside Pelagian circles, like Gregory of Nazianzus, who sought for those who die in infancy unbaptized an intermediate place, neither salvation nor retribution. But probably, with the exception of Gregory of Nyssa, only such anonymous objectors as those whom Tertullian confutes, or such obscure and erratic individuals as Vincentius Victor whom Augustine convicts, in the whole patristic age, doubted that the kingdom of heaven was closed to all infants departing this life without the sacrament of baptism. (p. 151)

Warfield then explores the Catholic doctrine of infant salvation during the Middles Ages and Renaissance periods, up to the Reformation (pp. 151-165).  This is followed by sections on "The Lutheran Teaching" (pp. 165-174) and "The Anglican Position" (pp. 174-195). Next up is, "The Reformed Doctrine" (pp. 195-220); the rest of this post will concern this section.

Warfield begins his section on, "The Reformed Doctrine", with the following, unsubstantiated, assertions:

It was among the Reformed alone that the newly recovered scriptural apprehension of the Church to which the promises were given, as essentially not an external organization but the true Body of Christ, membership in which is mediated not by the external act of baptism but by the internal regeneration of the Holy Spirit, bore its full fruit in rectifying the doctrine of the application of redemption. This great truth was taught alike, to be sure, by both branches of Protestantism, Lutheran as well as Reformed. But it was limited in its application in the one line of teaching by a very high doctrine of the means of grace ; while in the other, wherever the purity of the Reformed doctrine was not corrupted by a large infusion of Romish inheritance, it became itself constitutive of the doctrine of the means of grace. (p. 195)

Interestingly enough, immediately following the above assessments, Warfield admits that some Reformed theologians held to the necessity of baptism for salvation. He summarizes the reflections of Hermann Witsius concerning the French Reformed theologian Peter Jurieu with the following:

This famous writer [Peter Jurieu], to whom Witsius somewhat rashly promised the grateful veneration of posterity, taught that even elect infants, children of covenanted parents, are children of wrath until they are baptized, and up to that time have not received their complete reconciliation, nor have been washed from the stains with which they are born, nor are the objects of God's love of complacency ; that baptism is as necessary to salvation as eating is to living or taking the remedy is to recovery from disease ; that therefore infants properly baptized and dying in infancy are certainly saved, and their baptism is an indubitable proof of their election, while of the salvation of those who die before baptism we can have no certainty, but only a judgment of charity; that God no doubt does save some infants without baptism, but this is done in an extraordinary, and, so to speak, miraculous way, and so that the death of the infant may be supposed to supply the defect of baptism, as martyrdom does for adults in the Romish teaching. (pp. 195, 196)

Warfield clearly believes that the above view is a minority position within the Reformed paradigm, for he then writes:

Such opinions, however, were not characteristic of the Reformed churches, the distinguishing doctrine of which, rather, by suspending salvation on membership in the invisible instead of in the visible Church, transformed baptism from a necessity into a duty, and left men dependent for salvation on nothing but the infinite love and free grace of God. (p. 196)

Warfield follows the above with a summary of his take on what constitutes the basic Reformed position on reprobation and infant salvation:

...the absolutely free and loving election of God alone is determinative of the saved. How many are saved, and who they are, can therefore be known absolutely to God alone; to us, only so far forth as may be inferred from the presence of the marks and signs of election revealed to us in the Word. Faith and its fruits are the chief signs in the case of adults ; and accordingly he that believes may know that he is of the elect and be certain of his salvation. In the case of infants dying in infancy, birth within the bounds of the covenant is a sure sign, since the promise is "unto us and our children." But present unbelief is not a sure sign of reprobation in the case of adults ; for who knows but that unbelief may yet give place to faith? Nor in the case of infants, dying such, is birth outside the covenant a trustworthy sign of reprobation ; for the election of God is free. Accordingly there are manyadults and infantsof whose salvation we may be sure: but Of reprobation we can never be sure; a judgment to that effect is necessarily unsafe even as to such adults as are apparently living in sin, while as to infants who "die and give no sign," it is presumptuous and rash in the extreme. (p. 196)

Warfield states that the above, "is practically an outline of the teaching of Zwingli" (p. 196), and that Zwingli takes the this "outline" and "worked it out in its logical completeness", teaching the following:

1. All believers are elect and hence are saved; though we cannot know infallibly who are true believers, except each man in his own case. 2. All children of believers dying in infancy are elect, and hence are saved ; their inclusion in the covenant of salvation rests on God's immutable promise, and their death in infancy must be taken as a sign of election.3. It is probable, from the superabundance of the gift of grace over the offence, that all infants dying such are elect and saved; there is, indeed, no sure promise of their salvation, which must, therefore, be left with God, but it is certainly rash and even impious to affirm their damnation. 4. All who are saved, whether adult or infant, are saved only by the free grace of God's election and through the redemption of Christ. (pp. 196-198)

Though Zwingli's developed assessment most likely, "stood alone among the Reformers in his extension of salvation to all infants dying in infancy", it became one of "five distinguishable classes" (p. 202) within the early Reformed paradigm. The following are those "five distinguishable classes":

1. There were a few, from the very beginning, who held with Zwingli that death in infancy is one of the signs of election, and hence that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into glory. After Zwingli it is probable that Bishop Hooper was the first to embrace this view. (p. 203)

2. At the opposite extreme a very few Reformed theologians taught that the only sure sign of election is faith with its fruits, and, therefore, that we can have no real ground of conviction concerning the fate of any infant. (p. 205)

3. Many held that faith and the promise are sure signs of election, and accordingly that all believers and their children are certainly saved ; but that the lack of faith and the promise is an equally sure sign of reprobation, so that all the children of unbelievers dying such are equally certainly lost. (p. 209)

4. More held that faith and the promise are certain signs of election, so that the salvation of believers' children is certain, while the lack of the promise only leaves us in ignorance of God's purpose ; nevertheless that there is good ground for asserting that both election
and reprobation have place in this unknown sphere. Accordingly they held that all the infants of believers, dying such, are saved, but that some of the infants of unbelievers, dying such, are lost. (p. 210)

5. Most Calvinists of the past, however, have held that faith and the promise are marks by which we may know assuredly that all those who believe and their children, dying such, are elect and saved ; while the absence of sure marks of either election or reprobation in infants, dying such outside the covenant, leaves us without ground for inference concerning them, and they must therefore be left to the judgment of God, which, however hidden from us, is assuredly just and holy and good. (p. 211)

A few pages later, Warfield provides the following assessment:

Although, thus, the cautious agnostic position as to the fate of uncovenanted infants dying in infancy may fairly claim to be historically the Calvinistic view, it is perfectly obvious that it is not per se more Calvinistic than the others. The adherents of all the types enumerated above are clearly within the limits of the Reformed system, and hold with the same firmness to the fundamental Reformed position that salvation is absolutely suspended on no earthly condition, but ultimately rests on God's electing grace alone, while our knowledge of who are saved depends on our view of what are the signs of election and of the clearness with which they may be interpreted. (p. 217)

A bit later we read:

...to-day few English-speaking Calvinists can be found who do not hold with Toplady, and Thomas Scott, and John Newton, and J. H. A. Bomberger, and Nathan L. Rice, and Robert J. Breckinridge, and Robert S. Candlish, and Thomas Hamilton, and Charles Hodge, and William G. T. Shedd, and the whole body of those of recent years whom the Calvinistic churches delight to honor, that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into His glorynot because original sin alone is not deserving of eternal punishment (for all are born children of wrath), nor because those that die in infancy are less guilty than others (for relative innocence would merit only relatively light punishment, not freedom from all punishment), nor because they die in infancy (for that they die in infancy is not the cause but the effect of God's mercy toward them), but simply because God in His infinite love has chosen them in Christ, before the foundation of the world, by a loving foreordination of them unto adoption as sons in Jesus Christ. (pp. 219, 220 - bold emphasis mine)

Warfield concludes his treatment with the following:

If all infants dying in infancy are saved, it is certain that they are not saved by or through the ordinances of the visible Church; for they have not received them. It is equally certain that they are not saved through their own improvement of a grace common to all men; for, just because they die in infancy, they are incapable of personal activity. It is equally certain that they are not saved through the granting to them of a bare opportunity of salvation in the next world ; for a bare opportunity indubitably falls short of salvation. If all that die in infancy are saved, it can only be through the almighty operation of the Holy Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases, through whose ineffable grace the Father gathers these little ones to the home He has prepared for them. If, then, the salvation of all that die in infancy be held to be a certain or probable fact, this fact will powerfully react on the whole complex of our theological conceptions, and no system of theological thought can live in which it cannot find a natural and logical place. It can find such a place in the Reformed theology. It can find such a place in no other system of theological thought. (pp. 238, 239)

I shall reserve my own reflections on the Calvinistic doctrine of the salvation of infants for a future post that will compare and summarize all the various systems in this ongoing series; up next, the Lutheran tradition (the Lord willing).


Grace and peace,

David