Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Elect Infants

A recent discussion turned to election, and the state of those who die while still in their infancy. This post results from a curiosity about the Reformed view of the matter. This topic seems horribly controversial, and I am no theologian. I warmly invite correction where I inevitably err.

A. Five Reformed Propositions on the Disposition of Dead Infants.

One seemingly wise Reformed blogger delineates no fewer than five alternative Reformed theories for the ultimate state of those who die in their infancy. I will note my own understanding, and some tensions I see surfacing in this area, below.
(Hat tip: Triabloque).

1. Death in infancy is a sign of election, so that all infants who die are saved.

2. We cannot know whether infants who die were elect, because there was no opportunity for them to manifest (or not) their election through faith. As with adults, some would be of the elect, and others not, so hope is appropriate for grieving parents.

3. All children of true believers are saved, but all who die as children of unbelievers are certainly lost. This is just because of their guilt of Original Sin (as that term of art is formulated by Calvin).

4. All children of true believers are saved according to God’s promise to their parents, but some of those who die as children of unbelievers are of the unelect.

5. All children of true believers are saved, and we have no grounds for drawing inferences about the ultimate disposition of those who die as children of unbelievers.

B. Tension with the Church Visible / Church Invisible Distinction.

The Reformed view the “church” as being composed of a “church visible” and a “church invisible”. These are like two concentric circles; while there is no salvation outside the church visible (the outer circle), only members of the church invisible (the inner) are elect, so saved. The church visible can be identified by other humans using our sense, but the composition of the church invisible is only known to God.

Here are some sources that I believe show this same understanding as being the normative “Reformed” teaching:

Antonius Walaeus was a Dutch Reformer who died in 1639. He wrote in his contriubution to Synopsis Purioris:

The visible Church is not strictly a different Church than the invisible Church, but it is only considered in a different way… For in the visible Church that invisible Church[ ] is being collected and formed. The invisible inheres and is contained in the visible.

The Westminster Confession seems to contain this teaching as well. It says of the church invisible, "The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect… (ch. XXV, sec. 1)” And regarding the church visible, it "consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children… out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (Ibid., Sec. 2)"

Finally, Robert Shaw, in his excellent exposition of the Westminster Confession, says of this portion:

This Church is said to be invisible, because it cannot be discovered by the eye. It is not separated from the world in respect of place, but of state. It lies hidden in the visible Church, from which it cannot be certainly distinguished. The qualifications of its members are internal, their faith and love are not the objects of sense…

The visible Church, according to our Confession, consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.… It is distinguishable, like any other society; and we can say, Here is the Church of Christ; but there is the Church of the Jews or of the Mohammedans. Nothing more is necessary to discover it than the use of our senses. Having learned, by the perusal of the Scriptures, what are the discriminating characters of the Church, wherever we perceive a society whose creed and observances are, upon the whole, conformable to this pattern, we are authorised to say, This is the Church, or rather, a part of the Church.

When we speak of the visible and invisible Church, this is not to be understood as if there were two Churches, or as if one part of the Church were visible and another invisible. The former includes the latter, but they are not co-extensive; the same individuals who constitute the Church considered as invisible, belong also to the Church considered as visible; but many who belong to the visible, are not comprehended in the invisible Church. (internal quotations omitted)"

C. Tensions with Reformed Original Sin & Paedobaptism.

The Reformed baptize their infants. They believe that their children are members of the Church, whereas the Baptists believe their children are sinners still in need of coming to saving faith (they call themselves “credo-Baptists” as opposed to the Reformed “paedo-Baptists”). Since infants who die to heathen homes are outside the church visible, it seems the Reformed position excludes the possibility that they are elect (though, as the above five views shows, my conclusion has not been common to Reformed thinkers). I do not know how the Reformed position would view the children of Baptists of who die young, who the Baptists themselves do not consider to be part of the church, but I imagine many would formulate some kind of equitable view that can be saved by God’s grace if it is His will (perhaps something akin to the Catholic “baptism by desire” idea).

Are they elect who have been Baptized? Baptism is, after all, the entrance right into the church visible (see WCOF, ch. XVIII, sec. 1, "Baptism is… the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church”), and for believers and their children (see ibid., sec. 4, “Not only those that do actually profess faith [ ] but also the infants of [ ] believing parents, are to be baptized."). Not so, says the Confession. Baptism does not have such efficacy: “Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (WCOF, ch. XVIII, sec. 5)." The principle here is telling, in a broader context. Form is not to be prerequisite in the Reformed system to God’s achieving what is in accordance with His sovereign Will. This fits well with a monergistic understanding of how God unfolds creation.

D. Tensions with Works-Righteous.

Does a “true believer” receive Salvation as a reward for his faith (and if so, are infants out of luck for not having the ability to possess such faith)? Or contrarily, do infants receive Salvation because of their innocence and absence of actual sin?

The Reformed position is that those whom God has elected to Salvation from before all time are, through the unfailingly efficacious Grace of the Holy Spirit, brought to True Faith. By that Faith, the Elect enjoy Christ’s righteousness at the day of judgment because he takes our sins upon Himself (cf. WCOF, ch. XI, secs. 2 and 3). In any understanding of faith, though, it cannot be equated with a work. The Reformed do not see that the one work (or duty) of believing has replaced all the works of the Old Covenant. Faith is a sign of election bearing fruit within the believer.

So what of those who are unable to attain such Faith? “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. (ch. X, sec. 3)” This section does not explain which dying infants are elect, but I understand this to be an intentional omission to match what Scripture has (in the eyes of the Westminster Divines) also omitted.

The late Reformed Rev. Boettner quotes approvingly Dr. R.A. Webb to show that Calvin never explicitly stated that a dead infant may have been damned (here):

Calvin teaches that all the reprobate 'procure'—(that is his own word)—'procure' their own destruction; and they procure their destruction by their own personal and conscious acts of 'impiety,' 'wickedness,' and 'rebellion.' Now reprobate infants, though guilty of original sin and under condemnation, cannot, while they are infants, thus 'procure' their own destruction by their personal acts of impiety, wickedness, and rebellion. They must, therefore, live to the years of moral responsibility in order to perpetrate the acts of impiety, wickedness and rebellion which Calvin defines as the mode through which they procure their destruction.

This quote fascinates me, and stands certain “Calvinist” understandings I had on their head. Boettner and Webb suggest that Calvin believed all “reprobate” infants will live until an age of discrimination so that they can procure their own destruction through actual sin. This seems flawed in that it detracts from the Reformed belief in the justice of damning people on account of their Original Sin (the Reformed version of Original Sin, that is) alone. It also seems to lead to a skewed view upon the death of a child: would we congratulate mourning parents for the validating sign of the child’s election that also just took him away?

E. Conclusion.

I remain confused on the matter, and that’s okay.

The formulation of church visible / church invisible coupled with the Reformed views on Predestination and sola Fide, seems to exclude the possibility of salvation for infants who die outside the church (for they are outside the outer of the two concentric circles), and may or may not leave open the possibility of salvation for infants inside the church, depending on how one views the “faith” requirement. Since faith like a child is presented by Christ as an archetype, I believe that the infant could, at some level, have the preeminent faith in Christ and love for Him. Therefore, my Reformed synapses believe that Christian infants are saved.


Gil Garza said...

A fascinating post. As someone not immersed in Reformed theology, many questions arise.

So children of the elect are saved? Why? By what means? Is there some genetic process at work whereby salvation is somehow conveyed or apportioned from parent to child?

Do these children have some inward desire for Christ that other children don't? Is Christ closer to these children than others?

If the elect are invisible, unknowable, undetectable, what consolation would it be saying that the children of the elect are saved? How would one know which parents to console and which to congratulate (so to speak)?

Perhaps a kind Reformed theologian might unwind this issue?

Thos said...

I too would enjoy the input of a Reformed theologian. I think they would say what I hope was underlying my post tough: there is no answer given by the Reformed system of theology (though much is permissible speculation).

I am frustrated by this in part because it seems that a predestinarian system should have these answers. Or, rather, the absence of answers seems to speak about the validity of predestinarianism. The reluctance to confess "many children are damned as a just outcome of God's wrath for (our version of) Original Sin" seems to belie a reluctance of the greater claim (of wrathfulness, etc.).

When we lost a child in pregnancy, our Pastor believed he was in Heaven, but we discussed that the by-the-book Reformed answer was that we could have hope that the child was of the elect, though that was ultimately up to God's divine and gracious judgment. I am inclined to see that as the only conclusion that doesn't upset the rest of the Reformed system.

You inquire about "means", and I think it's important to remember how decidedly different a Reformed perspective is in regards to human cooperation with God's plans (i.e., the monergist position). God decreed that human X is to be saved. Therefore X will be saved. If certain means were not achieved (like membership in the church visible), we can say either that God's decree overcomes the deficiency, or that the deficiency evidences that God never made the decree to begin with.

This is very much in play with the various infant salvation theories. I would not say that the Reformed teaching is that all children of the elect are saved (though I do think it's permissible to be Reformed and hold that hope). But I think your question about means is just as valid if I agree that children of the elect are in a better position than those of the non-elect. Why? I don't think I know, Gil. We would say that our children are brought into the Covenant, and that God loves his Covenant children. But I'm not sure how that relates to His ultimate election. It is not a genetic transmission (again, because means are unimportant). If anything, the child's relationship with elect parents is evidence that God may have elected the child as well. If we hold to the membership in church visible requirement (for salvation), the evidentiary function becomes more apparent. One could say that if God elected infant X, he would not have had him born into a "heathen" home. So the Christian home or parentage has not effect on the child, but is evidence of what God may have infallibly decreed.

We would not say that some inward desire of the child is at play, any more than we would say it was foreseen merits. Why? Because that all looks like works-righteousness. We cannot hold that a child, any more than an adult, earns Heaven by being attractive to Christ. The child is saved because of Christ's attractiveness (i.e., His perfect righteousness).

For Christian parents, I believe (as I sort of said above) that we don't congratulate any, but tell them all to have Hope, and trust in God's divine judgment.

This may all seem senseless to you, and maybe it is senseless. But I try to remember what Romans 8 and 9 say about man being unable to resist God, and yet still justly condemned for wickedness, what they say about the mystery of all this. Those passages from St. Paul remind me that my own understanding of what is divinely just is completely inadequate for the task. God is Just, that I believe. If something seems unjust, I must not understand justice.

Peace in Christ,

Canadian said...

Here's an interesting article on the topic.

However, what they end up concluding is that infant salvation is universal based on the fact that they will be judged on what was done in the body--or personal sin. This seems like an inconsistency on their part as they believe infants inherit guilt from Adam. On one hand sin is associated with "nature" on the other it is associated with "person".
Do natures sin, or do persons sin? Is a "sin nature" even scriptural? The East maintains inherited corruption and death which of course are results of being in Adam, we all share in Adam's punishment but not his guilt because guilt results from personal sin.
So is our guilt personal or natural? The West (I think) says natural the East says personal.
This could allow for belief in universal infant salvation but not based on closing ones eyes to their supposed inherited guilt, but by denying that guilt in the first place. This is also why the East finds no need for Mary to be immaculately conceived.

Hypothetically, could Christ have died as an infant? He assumed a full human nature from Mary that could die at any time of the Father's choosing. This capability of dying was not from inherited guilt or any personal sin but was assumed in a nature that needed healing of the Adamic corruption which He provided by conquering death through death and His resurrection.
So does ONLY personal sin bring damnation?
Ok, now my mind is starting to spin. Much to ponder.

Gil Garza said...

The forensic view of salvation does, indeed, play an important role here. My interest in the means by which an unjustified infant is made just by God is concerned with signal means. I certainly understand that the elect are not made just but rather declared so juridically.

The baptism would normally be the means by which the person is declared just before God. Baptism is a sign of a sovereign act of God in heaven. God moves the person over a column on His heavenly spreadsheet of naughty and nice.

Since the infant isn't baptized and there is no sign and no profession of faith, how does one know whether or not the infant person has been justified? What signal does the Church have that the infant is elect? Is there any evidence that God has moved at all? I'm searching for such evidence but I haven't been able to find any.

Thos said...


Excellent discussion, thanks. I think this will qualify is my shortest reply to you, but don’t take it as my thinking there’s not much to say.

I want to be clear that, to the Reformed, the elect are *not* equal to the baptized. Some baptized are elect, some are not. You said “Baptism is a sign of a sovereign act of God in heaven”. I don’t think that’s wrong, but for our discussion, this may be a better way to say what I think is going on, “Baptism is a sign and seal of the graces promised to the child under the new covenant of Grace.”

The Reformed would not say that with the act of baptism, God moves the person (child) over a column in the heavenly books. To the contrary, I think we are capturing in terms of temporal recognition which column God placed the child before that child’s existence. And to your “how does one know?” question, I believe the Reformed position is “one doesn’t know whether the infant has been justified.”

Westminster Confession, Ch. XI states in part, “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. / God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified;…” So justification may not occur until a long time after baptism, even though it was long foreordained, but once it occurs, it can’t be undone (that is, we don’t go between a state of salvation and damnation, back and forth throughout life).

We do not know, in the Reformed circle, whether or not an infant has been, or will be, justified. There is no sign of their election until they reach an age where they can manifest ‘true faith’. That’s why you find no evidence to this end. Keep going – I sense a conclusion coming, but you have yet to reveal it.

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

So, if I have it right, baptism is a sign and seal of the graces that may or may not be promised to the child under the new covenant of Grace.

These graces that may or may not be promised will not be known until they are manifested. They may or may not be manifested anytime up to the time of death. So this assurance thing is only an assurance of doubt.

What is the point of having a sign that may or may not mean anything?

So baptism is only a sign when an elect person is baptized. Otherwise it is a lie and falsehood. That is nice.

So what Reformed parents should really be asking is: was my baby elect? Am I?

Thos said...


I can’t say what you have or have not right in your understanding of the Reformed view, because, as I noted in my post, there is a variety of Reformed views on the matter. I tried to explain what I think is most consistent with the remainder of the corpus of Reformed teaching, so I’ll reply from that perspective.

I understand that we say real graces are conferred, but, be they real or not, they are not enough to independently effect salvation. The child, be he elect or not, is still a member of the covenant community (the church). We just don’t presume that baptism effects the grace of (I think you call it) ultimate perseverance. Remember we can only view things as on or off. So we can’t say the child is right with God at Baptism (as you would) because we couldn’t then explain why some fall away (because we say once saved-always saved, which you don’t).

I don’t understand your statement that “this assurance thing is only an assurance of doubt.” I hope I have not presented the Reformed view of Baptism as being an assurance of salvation, because it’s not. We have a general assurance that God is just, and that His election is just. I do not doubt that God is just. I am not assured that my baptized children are saved, but I have no reason to doubt that the son I lost (in utero) is any worse for the wear than would be my baptized sons if they were to die. In all cases, God is just and His sovereign will is supreme.

I hope from this, you see that baptism is not only a sign where the person being baptized was first elect. That is so because it’s not a sign of salvation, but a sign and seal of the grace of entering the covenant community (the church) which does not equal the community of the elect. In Confession terms, baptism enters us into the Church Visible, but gives no guarantee about the Church Invisible (i.e., the elect).

“What is the point of having a sign that may or may not mean anything?” This question is closer to the mark for me. I hope you don’t take my above statements the wrong way. I harbor a great deal of skepticism about the Reformed system, but want to make sure I paint it in a fair light, and that if we can agree on criticism, they are properly made. That said, I don’t think Reformed Baptism is a “may or may not mean anything”, vis a vis salvation. I think it means something every time in terms of the grace of being a member of the covenant community (real grace transferred), and it means nothing even in terms of guaranteeing election (because God predestines apart from baptism). [This is not to say that the elect are not called to be baptized on the way.] Maybe I can reformulate your question to fit my own doubt or misunderstanding: “what’s the point of receiving the grace of entrance into the covenant community, if one has already been predestined to perdition?”

I’ll have to think about that. A more pleasant journey on the way to hell doesn’t seem like a good answer. Nor does the fact that being within the Church and still failing to ultimately persevere would seem to earn one a harsher day of judgment than the person who lived outside the church…

“Was my baby elect… Am I…?”

To the former, under some versions of the Reformed view I articulated in my post, including the view that seems most coherent with the whole, I agree with you. Was my baby elect? It’s a hard question, and one that influenced my wife and I in a deep way. I take more comfort in God’s merciful nature than in the Reformed system of theology, I can assure you. “Am I?” I think that’s a valid question too, but the Reformed would say that those of us with “True Faith” can be assured that we are.

I appreciate your patience in this discussion. I’m in my final exam period for two weeks, so am a bit side-tracked during the week.

Peace in Christ,

Principium unitatis said...


but the Reformed would say that those of us with “True Faith” can be assured that we are.

Right. But that only backs up the question. How do I know I have "True Faith"? How do I know that my "faith" is not the sort that will fade away before my death? Every Reformed answer I have seen to that question only backs up the question. See, for example, my discussion here.

The Catholic position, as you might know, is that we are [ordinarily] not granted knowledge of our [decretal] election status until the life to come.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Gil Garza said...

Thanks for the reply. By affirming that Baptism is only a signal of being made a member of the Church visible but not the Church invisible, the Reformed view begs the question.

It makes no difference whether a non-elect person is baptized and is a member of the Church visible. Baptism and the visible Church are irrelevant to salvation to those who aren't chosen for salvation. Furthermore, they become false signs, pointing the person away from his destination.

Church going then becomes an investigation on the part of the members to discover the signs of election in themselves and one another. These signs of election may not appear until the time of death. Having become a Christian, baptized and loyal member of the Church visible, my assurance of salvation goes only so far as I am able to detect the signs of election. Is my detection infallible? What if I'm not able to detect these signs? There are many more reasons to doubt my election than to be assured.

Thos said...


“But that only backs up the question. How do I know I have "True Faith"?”

Uh huh. I wonder when the word “true” was inserted into the Reformed discourse, but I suspect it was fairly early, when “faith” didn’t cut the mustard all on its own. This is probably off topic, but my church “fences” the communion table to those who are members in good standing at an evangelic church. So we have (arbitrarily) identified those who describe themselves as evangelical (even though some PCA members don’t so self-describe) as eligible to commune with us. I wonder this morning if “evangelical” is our definition of “true faith”. It would be an odd claim in many ways.

I don’t now know how one knows whether or not they have true faith. I know many people who certainly truly believe that Jesus was real, that he miraculously rose for the forgiveness of sins, etc. But then they conduct their lives in a way that puzzles me, and I wonder if the admonitions of James 2 have not been given seriously short shrift.

[Aside: how do you ever keep track of all of your writings and discussions in other posts?]

Do you subscribe to the Dominican position on predestination? Is this the decretal election to which you refer? I like the position of Fr. Corapi of EWTN fame regarding his former cocaine habit. He notes that if his audience thinks for a minute that he couldn’t wind up back in the gutter tomorrow, they are badly mistaken about him and about sin. It seems that stressing my assurance of salvation would lead me to lower my guard about the efficient dispatch of Satan’s agents.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


It’s an interesting point you raise (i.e., “what’s the point?”). On the one hand, I agree and think I’m on the ropes in my effort to give the Reformed position an honest shake here (I really truly want, if ultimately critical of it, to have given it the best effort I can).

On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve painted the Reformed position in the fairest light. I want to remind you and myself that there isn’t a Reformed position. I gave FIVE positions, and believe that my own position (the one I was taught in my upbringing, and that seems consistent with the rest of the body of Reformed teaching) is distinct enough to constitute a sixth position.

So what is the point? Of course, if we are not elect, and are baptized, then the baptism did nothing toward salvation. You’re taking Reformed theology to a level that some describe as “hyper-Calvinism”. I see this dichotomy: hyper-Calvinism is either the natural conclusion of Calvinism, or it fails to grasp a more nuanced grace-oriented view of proper Calvinism. I’m not sure which is right.

The hyper-Calvinist will have what appear to be fatalistic views, I think. There is one nearly defunct, but not very young group of Calvinists that refuse to witness to people (i.e., share the gospel) unless they first see a positive sign of “effectual calling”. It’s an interesting approach. The opposite view might say “well, we’ll do our part to the nines, and if God hasn’t predestined this or that person at the end of the day, so be it.” If I take that view, I could counter your position this way: the point is that we need to play our part out of obedience to God, as membership in the church visible is prerequisite to church invisible. If one is not in the church invisible because I have refused to admit them first to the church visible, more’s the shame on my own head, but then I was unwittingly only a part of divine election anyway.”

I know, it’s confused. As for false signs of visible membership, if we’re talking in predestinarian terms, then it doesn’t matter, because anyone deceived by the false sign was not elect to salvation anyway.

And as for feeling assurances: I agree with where you’re going. I was raised to know that the point of predestination theology was to liberate us; to know that we were assured that God was with us. It was to counter the (inherently wrong, as the view went) Catholic position that you have to constantly worry about whether you’ve been good enough to get into heaven. This was a treasure, our peace in knowing that Christ had made satisfaction for our sins. The assurance wasn’t a 100% I’m going to heaven so much as a 100% God is good and just, so stick with the program, and you’ll know you are well.

[If this makes no sense, please excuse me. I’ll be done finals, and back in my right mind, in about a week.]

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


I think I never replied to you. I would like to add support to your view, that for the Reformed to say all early-deceased infants were elect is badly inconsistent. This hesitency to admit that God could damn an infant on account of Adam's sin seems to bely a deeper doubt about the whole system. If we rest on the book of Romans and the probing question "for who can resist the will of God", we should carry that to its end - the infant is no better or worse than an adult on account of his own merits or demerits. He (in a Reformed view of original sin) equally merits damnation apart from God's grace.

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

So at this point in our conversation I feel like we're both getting into the old car on cinder blocks parked in the yard and going, "vrooom, vrooom!"

I'm sure it was a nice car at one time, but it sure don't run, now.

A nice conversation.