Copyright
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.

The development of the doctrine of infant salvation online

. (page 3 of 4)
Online LibraryBenjamin Breckinridge WarfieldThe development of the doctrine of infant salvation → online text (page 3 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of little children must be held to be one of
the fruits of redemption. . . ." 2. At
the opposite extreme a very few held that
the only sure sign of election is faith with
its fruits, and, therefore, we can have no
real ground of knowledge concerning the
fate of any infant ; as, however, God cer-
tainly has his elect among them too, each
man can cherish the hope that his children

mirable caution, to imply that he believed some infants dying
such to be lost. See, e.g., his comment on Rom. v. 17, and his
treatises against Pighius, Servetus, and Castellio. Dr. Schaff
repeatedly speaks of Bullinger as agreeing in this point with
Zwingli — on what grounds we know not unless the note in
Creeds of Christendom, i., 642, note 3, is intended to direct us to
the passages quoted by Laurence as such. But these passages
do not seem to support that opinion ; and in a diligent search in
Bullinger's works we find nothing to favor it and much to nega-
tive it.

* See reference ante, p. 129.

t The Works of, etc., new ed., 1837, p. 645.

% The Atonement, etc., 1861, pp. 183, 184.



40 THE DOCTRINE OF

are of the elect. Peter Martyr approaches
this sadly agnostic position (which was after-
ward condemned by the Synod of Dort),
writing : " Neither am I to be thought to
promise salvation to all the children of the
faithful which depart without the sacrament,
for if I should do so I might be counted
rash ; I leave them to be judged by the
mercy of God, seeing I have no certainty
concerning the secret election and predes-
tination ; but I only assert that those are
truly saved to whom the divine election ex-
tends, although baptism does not intervene.
Just so, I hope well concerning infants of
this kind, because I see them born from
faithful parents ; and this thing has prom-
ises that are uncommon ; and although they
may not be general, quoad ovmes, yet when
I see nothing to the contrary it is right to
hope well concerning the salvation of such
infants."* The great body of Calvinists,
however, previous to the present century,
took their position between these extremes.
3. Many held that faith and the promise
are sure signs of election, and accordingly
all believers and their children are certainly
saved ; but that the luck of faith and the
promise is an equally sure sign of reproba-
tion, so that all the children of unbelievers,

* Loci Communes, i., class 4, cap 5, § 1G (compare i\\, 100).



INFANT SALVATION. 41

dying such, are equally certaiuly lost. The
younger Spanheim, for example, writes :
" Confessedly, therefore, original sin is a
most just cause of positive reprobation.
Hence no one fails to see what we should
think concerning the children of pagans
dying in their childhood ; for unless we
acknowledge salvation outside of God's cov-
enant and Church (like the Pelagians of
old, and with them Tertullian, Epiphanius,
Clement of Alexandria, of the ancients, and
of the moderns, Andradius, Ludovicus
Vives, Erasmus, and not a few others,
against the whole Bible), and suppose that
all the children of the heathen, dying in in-
fancy, are saved, and that it would be a great
blessing to them if they should be smoth-
ered by the midwives or strangled in the
cradle, we should humbly believe that they
are justly reprobated by God on account of
the corruption (labes) and guilt (renins)
derived to them by natural propagation.
Hence, too, Paul testifies (Rom. v. 14) that
death has passed upon them which have not
sinned after the similitude of Adam's trans-
gression, and distinguishes and separates
(1 Cor. vii. 14) the children of the cove-
nanted as holy from the impure children of
unbelievers." * 4. More held that faith and



* Opera, iii., cols. 1173-74, § 22.



42 THE DOCTRINE OF

the promise are certain signs 01 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. Ac-
cordingly they held that all the infants of
believers, dying such, are saved, but that
some of the infants of unbelievers, dying
such, are lost. Probably no higher expres-
sion of this general view can be found than
John Owen's. He argues that there are two
ways in which God saves infants : " (1) by
interesting them in the covenant, if their
immediate or remote parents have been be-
lievers. He is a God of them and of their
seed, extending his mercy to a thousand
generations of them that fear him ;* (2) by
his grace of election which is most free and
not tied to any conditions, by which I make
no doubt but God taketh many unto him in
Christ whose parents never knew or had
been despisers of the Gospel." \ 5. Most
Calvinists of the past, however, have simply
held that faith and the promise are marks
by which we may know assuredly that all

* It is, perhaps, worth noting that this is the general Calvin-
istic view of what "children of believers 1 ' means. Compare
Calvin, Tracts, vol. Hi., p. 351.

t Works, x., 81 ; compare v., 137.



INFANT SALVATION. 43

those who believe and their children, dying
such, are elect and saved, while the absence
of sure marks of either election or reproba-
tion in infants, dying such outside the cov-
enant, leaves us without ground for inference
concerning them, and they must be left to
the judgment of God, which, however hid-
den from us, is assuredly just and holy and
good. This agnostic view of the fate of un-
covenanted infants has been held, of course,
in conjunction with every degree of hope or
the lack of hope concerning them, and thus
in the hands of the several theologians it
approaches each of the other views, except,
of course, the second, which separates itself
from the general Calvinistic attitude by
allowing a place for reprobation even among
believers' infants, dying such. Petrus de
Witte may stand for one example. He
says : "We must adore God's judgments
and not curiously inquire into them. Of
the children of believers it is not to be doubt-
ed but that they shall be saved, inasmuch as
they belong unto the covenant. But be-
cause we have no promise of the children of
unbelievers we leave them to the judgment
of God." * Matthew Henry f and our own
Jonathan Dickinson J may also stand as
types. It is this cautious, agnostic view

* Catechism, q. 37. t Works, ii., 940. % Sermons, 205.



44 THE DOCTRINE OF



which has the best historical right to be
called the general Calvinistic one. Van
Maastricht correctly says that while the Re-
formed hold that infants are liable to repro-
bation, yet " concerning believers' infants
. . . they judge better things. But
unbelievers 7 infants, because the Scriptures
determine nothing clearly on the subject,
they judge should be left to the divine dis-
cretion/' *

The Reformed Confessions with character-
istic caution refrain from all definition of
the negative side of the salvation of infants,
dying such, and thus confine themselves to
emphasizing the gracious doctrine common
to the whole body of Reformed thought.
The fundamental Reformed doctrine of the
Church is nowhere more beautifully stated
than in the sixteenth article of the Old
Scotch Confession, while the polemical ap-
pendix of 1580, in its protest against the
errors of " antichrist," specifically mentions
" his era ell judgement againis infants de-
parting Avithout the sacrament : his absolute
necessitie of baptisme. ' ' No synod probably
ever met which labored under greater
temptation to declare that some infants,
dying in infancy, are reprobate, than the
Synod of Dort. Possibly nearly every mem-

* Theoretico-Pract. Theol. (1724), p. 308.



INFANT SALVATION. 45

ber of it held as his private opinion that
there are such infants ; and the certainly-
very shrewd but scarcely sincere methods
of the Remonstrants in shifting the form
in which this question came before the
synod were very irritating. But the fa-
thers of Dort, with truly Reformed loyal-
ty to the positive declarations of Scrip-
ture, confined themselves to a clear testi-
mony to the positive doctrine of infant sal-
vation and a repudiation of the calumnies
of the Remonstrants, without a word of neg-
ative inference. " Since we are to judge
of the will of God from his Word/' they say,
" which testifies that the children of believ-
ers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of
the covenant of grace in which they to-
gether with their parents are comprehended,
godly parents have no reason to doubt of the
election and salvation of their children
whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life
in their infancy" (Art. XVII. ). Accord-
ingly they repel in the Conclusion the
calumny that the Reformed teach ' that
many children of the faithful are torn guilt-
less from their mothers' breasts and tyran-
nically plunged into hell." * It is easy to

* The language here used has a not uninteresting history.
It is Calvin's challenge to Castellio : " Put forth now thy viru-
lence against God, who hurls innocent babes torn from their
mothers' breasts into eternal death" (Be Occulta Bei Providen-



46 THE DOCTRINE OF

say that nothing is here said of the children
of any but the " godly" and of the " faith-
ful ;" this is true ; and therefore it is not
implied (as is so often thoughtlessly asserted)
that the contrary of what is here asserted
is true of the children of the ungodly ; but
nothing is taught of them at all. It is more
to the purpose to observe that it is asserted
that the children of believers, dying such, are
saved ; and that this assertion is an ines-
timable advance on that of the Council of
Trent and that of the Augsburg Confession
that baptism is necessary to salvation. It is
the confessional doctrine of the Keformed
churches and of the Reformed churches
alone, that all believers' infants, dying in in-
fancy, are saved.

What has been said of the Synod of
Dort may be repeated of the Westmin-
ster Assembly. The Westminster divines
were generally at one iu the matter of
infant salvation with the doctors of Dort,



tia, in Opp. ed., Amst, viii., pp. 644-45). The underlying con-
ception that God condemns infants to eternal death seems to be
Calvin's ; but the mode of expression is Calvin's reducfio ad
absurdum (or rather ad blasphemiam) of Castellio's opinions.
Nevertheless the Remonstrants allowed themselves in their
polemic zeal to apply the whole sentiment to the orthodox,
and that, even in a still more sharpened form — viz., with
reference to believers' 1 children. This very gross calumny the
Synod repels. Its deliverance is subjected to a very sharp
and not very candid criticism by Episcopius {Operal., i., p.
176, and specially II., p. 28).



INFANT SALVATION. 47

but, like them, they retrained from any de-
liverance as to its negative side. That death
in infancy does not prejudice the salvation
of God's elect they asserted in the chapter
of their Confession which treats of the ap-
plication of Christ's redemption to his
people : " All those whom God hath pre-
destined unto life, and those only, he is
pleased, in his appointed and accepted time,
effectually to call, by his word and Spirit,
. . . so as they come most freely, being
made willing by his grace. . . . Elect
infants dying in infancy are regenerated and
saved by Christ, through the Spirit who
worketh when, and where, and how he
pleaseth." * With this declaration of their
faith that such of God's elect as die in in-
fancy are saved by his own mysterious work-
ing in their hearts, although incapable of
the response of faith, they were content.

; h'tstminster Confessionof Faith,~K.., i. and iii. The opinion
that a body of non-elect infants dying in infancy and not saved is
implied in this passage, although often controversially asserted,
is not only a wholly unreasonable opinion exegetically, but is ab-
solutely negatived by the history of the formation of this clause
in the Assembly as recorded in the Minutes, and has never found
favor among the expositors of the Confession. David Dick-
son's (1684) treatment of the section shows that he understands
it to be directed against the Anabaptists ; and all careful stu-
dents of the Confession understand it as above, including Shaw,
Hodge, Macpherson and Mitchell. The same is true of all
schools of adherents to the Confession. See, e.g., Lyman Beech-
er (SjArit of the Pilgrims, i., pp. 49, 81) ; cf. also Philip
Schapf {Creeds of Christendom, i., 795).



48 THE DOCTRINE OF

Whether these elect comprehend all infants,
dying such, or some only — whether there is
such a class as non-elect infants, dying in
infancy, their words neither say nor sug-
gest. No Eeformed confession enters into
this question ; no word is said by any one of
them which either asserts or implies either
that some infants are reprobated or that all
are saved. What has been held in common
by the whole body of Reformed theologians
on this subject is asserted in these confes-
sions ; of what has been disputed among
them the confessions are silent. And
silence is as favorable to one type as to an-
other.

Although the cautious agnostic position
as to the fate of uncovenanted infants dying
in infancy may fairly claim to be the his-
torical Calvinistic view, it is perfectly obvi-
ous that it is not per se any more Calvinistic
than any of the others. The adherents of
all the types enumerated above are clearly
within the limits of the system, and hold
with the same firmness to the fundamental
position that salvation is suspended on no
earthly cause, but ultimately rests on
God's electing grace alone, while our knowl-
edge of who are saved depends on our view
of what are the signs of election and of the
clearness with which they may be inter-



INFANT SALVATION. 49



preted. As these several types diif er only in
the replies they offer to the subordinate ques-
tion, there is no " revolution" involved in
passing from one to the other ; and as in the
lapse of time the balance between them
swings this way or that, it can only be truly
said that there is advance or retrogression,
not in fundamental conception, but in the
clearness with which details are read and
with which the outline of the doctrine is
filled up. In the course of time the agnostic
view of the fate of uncovenanted infants,
dying such, has given place to an ever-grow-
ing universality of conviction that these in-
fants too are included in the election of
grace ; so that to day few Calvinists can be
found who do not hold with Toplady, and
Doddridge, and Thomas Scott, and John
Newton, and James P. Wilson, and Nathan
L. Rice, and Robert J. Breckinridge, and
Robert S. Candlish, and Charles Hodge, 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
glory — not because original sin alone is not
deserving of eternal punishment (for all are
born children of wrath), nor because they
are less guilty than others (for relative in-
nocence would merit only relatively light



50 THE DOCTRINE OF



punishment, not freedom from all punish-
ment), 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 founda-
tion of the world, by a loving foreordination
of them unto adoption as sons in Jesus
Christ. Thus, as they hold, the Eeformed
theology has followed the light of the Word
until its brightness has illuminated all its
corners, and the darkness has fled away.

7. The most serious peril which the
orderly development of the Christian doc-
trine of the salvation of infants has had to
encounter, as men strove, age after age,
more purely and thoroughly to apprehend
it, has arisen from the intrusion into Chris-
tian thought of what we may, without lack
of charity, call the unchristian conception
of man's natural innocence. For the task
which was set to Christian thinking was to
obtain a clear understanding of God's re-
vealed purpose of mercy to the infants of a
guilty and wrath-deserving race. And the
Pelagianizing conception of the innocence
of human infancy, in however subtle a form
presented, put the solution of the problem
in jeopardy by suggesting that it needed no
solution. We have seen how some Greek



INFANT SALVATION. 51



Fathers cut the knot with the facile formula
that infantile innocence, while not deserving
of supernatural reward, was yet in no dan-
ger of being adjudged to punishment. We
have seen how in the more active hands of
Pelagius and his companions, as part of a
great unchristian scheme, it menaced Chris-
tianity itself, and was repelled only by the
vigor and greatness of an Augustine. We
have seen how the same conception, creep-
ing gradually into the Latin Church in the
milder form of semi-Pelagianism, lulled her
heart to sleep with suggestions of less and
less ill- desert for original sin, until she neg-
lected the problem of infant salvation
altogether and comforted herself with a con-
stantly attenuating doctrine of infant pun-
ishment. If infants are so well off without
Christ, there is little impulse to consider
whether they may not be in Christ.

The Eeformed churches could not hope
to work out the problem free from menace
from the perennial enemy. The crisis came
in the form of the Remonstrant controversy.
The anthropology of the Remonstrants was
distinctly semi- Pelagian, and on that basis
no solid advance was possible. Nor was the
matter helped by their postulation of a uni-
versal atonement which lost in intention as
much as it gained in extension. Infants



52 THE DOCTRINE OF



may have very little to be saved from, but
their salvation from even it cannot be
wrought by an atonement which only pur-
chases for them the opportunity for salva-
tion — an opportunity of which they cannot
avail themselves, however much the natural
power of free choice is uninjured by the fall,
for the simple reason that they die infants ;
while God cannot be held to make them,
without their free choice, partakers of this
atonement without an admission of that
sovereign discrimination among men which
it was the very object of the whole Remon-
strant theory to exclude. It is not strange
that the Remonstrants looked with some
favor on the Romish theory of pcena damni.
Though the doctrine of the salvation of all
infants dying in infancy became one of their
characteristic tenets, it had no logical basis
in their scheme of faith, and their proclama-
tion of it could have no direct eifect in
working out the problem. Indirectly it
had a twofold effect. On the one hand, it
retarded the true course of the development
of doctrine, by leading those who held fast
to biblical teaching on original sin and par-
ticular election, to oppose the doctrine of the
salvation of all dying in infancy, as if it were
necessarily inconsistent with these teach-
ings. Probably Calvinists were never so



INFANT SALVATION. 53



united in affirming that some infants, dying
such, are reprobated, as in the height of the
Remonstrant controversy. On the other
hand, so far as the doctrine of the salvation
of all infants, dying such, was accepted by
the anti-Remonstrants, it tended to bring in
with it, in more or less measure, the other
tenets with which it was associated in their
teaching, and thus to lead men away from
the direct path along which alone the solu-
tion was to be found. Wesleyan Arminian-
ism brought only an amelioration, not a
thoroughgoing correction of the faults of
Remonstrantism. The theoretical postu-
lation of original sin and natural inability,
corrected by the gift to all men of a
gracious ability on the basis of universal
atonement in Christ, was a great advance.
But it left the salvation of infants dying
in infancy logically as unaccounted for
as original Remonstrantism. Ex liypothesi,
the universal atonement could bring to these
infants only what it brought to all others,
and this was something short of salvation —
viz., an ability to improve the grace given
alike to all. But infants, dying such, can-
not improve grace ; and therefore, it would
seem, cannot be saved, unless we suppose a
special gift to them over and above what is
given to other men — a supposition subversive



54 THE DOCTRINE OF



at once of the whole Arminian contention.
The assertion of the salvation of all infants
dying in infancy, although a specially dear
tenet of Wesleyau Arminianism, remains
therefore, as with the earlier Remonstrants,
unconformable to the system. The Arminian
difficulty, indeed, lies one step further back ;
it does not make clear how any infant dying
in infancy is to be saved.*

The truth seems to be that there is but
one logical outlet for any system of doctrine
which suspends the determination of who are
to be saved upon any action of man's own will,
whether in the use of gracious or natural
ability (that is, of course, if it is unwilling
to declare infants, dying such, incapable of
salvation); and that lies in the extension of
" the day of grace" for such into the other
world. Otherwise, there will inevitably be
brought in covertly, in the salvation of in-
fants, that very sovereignty of God, " irre-



* The prevailing view in the Methodist Episcopal Church is
probably that infants are all born justified. The difficulties of
this view are hinted by a not unfriendly hand in The Cumber-
land Presbyterian Review for January, 18!)0, p. 113. The best
that can be said toward placing the dying infant " in the same
essential gracious position as that into which the justified
and regenerate adult is brought by voluntary faith, 11 may
be read from Dr. D. D. Whedon's pen in The Methodist
Quarterly Review for 1883, p. 757. It is inconsequent ; and
its consequences are portentous to Arminianism — or shall
we say that God does not determine who are to die in in-
fancy ?



INFANT SALVATION. 55



sistible" grace and passive receptivity, to deny
which is the whole raison d'etre of these
schemes. There are indications that this is
being increasingly felt among those who are
most concerned ; we have noted it most re-
cently among the Cumberland Presbyte-
rians,* who, perhaps alone of Christian de-
nominations, have embodied in their confes-
sion their conviction that all infants, dying
such, are saved. The theory of a probation
in the other world for such as have had in
this no such probation as to secure from
them a decisive choice has come to us from
Germany, and bears accordingly a later
Lutheran coloring. Its roots are, however,
planted in the earliest Lutheran thinking, f
and are equally visible in the writings of the
early Remonstrants ; its seeds are present, in
fact, wherever man's salvation is causally
suspended on any act of his own. But the
outcome offered by it certainly affords no
good reason for affirming that all infants,
dying such, are saved. It is not uncommon,
indeed, for the advocates of this theory to
suppose the present life to be a more favor-
able opportunity for moral renewal in Christ



* Cumberland Presbyterian Review, July, 1890, p. 369 : cf.
January, 1890, p. 113.

t Cf . e.g., Andre -e, Actis Oolloq. Montisbelligart, p. 447,
448 ; and note Beza*s crushing reply.



56 THE DOCTRINE OF



than the next.* Some, no doubt, think
otherwise. Bat in either event what can as-
sure us that all will be so reneAved ? We are
ready to accept the subtle argument in Dr.
Kedney's valuable work, Christian Doctrine
Harmonized, \ as the best that can be said in
the premises ; for although Dr. Kedney de-
nies the theory of "future probation" in
general, he shares the general " ethical" view
on which it is founded, and projects the sal-
vation of infants dying in infancy into the
next world on the express ground that they
are incapable of choice here. He assures us
that they will surely welcome the knowl-
edge of God's love in Christ there. But we
miss the grounds of assurance, on the funda-
mental postulates of the scheme. If the
choice of these infants, while it remains free,
can be made thus certain there, why not the
same for all men here f And if their choice
is thus made certain, is their destiny deter-
mined by their choice, or by God who makes
that choice certain ? Assuredly no thor-
oughfare is open along this path for a con-
sistent doctrine of the salvation of all those
that die in infancy. But this seems the
only pathway that is consistently open to


1 3

Online LibraryBenjamin Breckinridge WarfieldThe development of the doctrine of infant salvation → online text (page 3 of 4)