"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Original Sin, Pastoral Care, and the Courage to Speak Truth

I've met a similar scene multiple times: I enter a room where a mother is holding a small, blanket-wrapped package. The room is thick with grief; the mother crying and the husband with a look of stress on his face. I am there to talk about what they want to do with the remains of their miscarried child. It was in those moments that some of the discussions I had earlier in some seminary classrooms came back to mind, much to my displeasure and a bit to my anger.

In two theology classes, two different professors brought up the subject of infant death and salvation. In both professors, the doctrine of Original Sin loomed large, sufficient to damn from the moment of birth. When asked about infants that die, one replied, “I know you won't like it, but you have to have the courage to say that they are sinful, without faith, and therefore, under any criteria we can measure, condemned.” The argument was that if you allow for one instance of salvation without faith, you are soon on the road to universalism, then atheism, all over the question of if infants that die are damned.

The question I asked then was about 2 Samuel 12, where David's son dies at seven days old (a day before circumcision). When informed of the death, David replies “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23) I was then informed that was a bad text to use, partly because the son died for David's sin and David was merely talking about the place of the dead, and judgment occurs later, where we would assume they will be parted again with David heading heavenward and the infant, towards damnation. The answer seemed at the time a poor one, for it seemed to dismiss rather than explain the reaction of David. Who would be happy to briefly see their child again before they are ushered off to hell? Was that David's relief?

Here, I stood before a woman and father who had just lost a child, even before seven days. They did not care to hear about my former professor's “courage” in declaring the probable damnation of their child or dismissal of David's source of hope. The pastoral comment I often told believers was, with that most inappropriate text rolling around my mind, was something along the lines of: "though he won't return to be with you, know you will go to meet him someday."

My first professor may not be happy that I used the very text he warned us not to use, but he wasn't in the room. I do remember the same discussion in another class with a bit of a different answer from my other professor. He said faith seems to be what the Scripture always tells us we ought to have to be assured of salvation. Yet, salvation also involves God's election/choice and his grace. This other professor ended the question by saying he wouldn't answer the question definitively, because it wasn't his decision to make. Original Sin is sufficient to damn, God's grace is sufficient to save.

The question seems not to be between “courage” and "weakness" but between presumption and humility. The second seems much more appropriate for pastoral care. It is also where the Westminster Confession comes out where in Ch 10.3 it states: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth:” No observable faith is mentioned and I don't think the Westminster Confession is an inclusivist document or on the road to universalism because it allows for salvation without observable faith. God needs no permission or logical justification from us to save whom he will, whether we see faith, or give the child the sign of the covenant.

Indeed, Jesus often seems to welcome children and especially the children of believers well before they have an observable faith by which to respond. Mothers bring, carry even, babies to Jesus to touch/bless (Luke 18:15-17). Fascinating to me is that Jesus did not reject these little heathens. He did not ask the mothers to delay until they had faith and could be proven disciples, but just blessed the babies as these mothers wanted. Would we wish to say that Jesus lacked the courage to correct these mothers in their ignorant theology which valued the children of believers as blessable and valuable, and as belonging to the kingdom of heaven?

David's words about going to his son were spoken before his son was circumcised, before his son had observable faith, and with a hope that was unexplainable if he thought his son to be damned. The same man who declared his culpability from conception (Psalm 51) also declares his hope for his son (2 Samuel 12). And when walking into a room of grieving parents, when being a pastor to those parents that lose children, I can't say that God saves all children. But I can't say God damns them either. I can say: David had a hope, Christ welcomed the children of believers and we are called to trust God's goodness and election. These together give me a strong inclination to share David's hope for the reunion of believers and their departed infant children.


Andrew said...

"the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth" I like this phrase alot.

I would say infants like mentally disabled people are saved through their baptism, or their parents desire for it.

Either way, as the Westminster divines rightly said, it is up to the Spirit who he will regenerate.

Matthew Bradley said...

Well said, Jared.

I think you are missing a key component, however: Covenant.

It is true that all people are deserving of judgment, and so God is just in damning even infants.

It is also true that elect infants will certainly not be damned, and the Spirit works in the appointed time to regenerate each person.

So some will be saved and some won't. This is where I had to stop until I encountered covenant theology. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 7 that the children of a believing parent is holy. We treat our covenant children as though they are regenerate until they prove otherwise through apostasy (me genoito!).

So, while I am hesitant to argue dogmatically in particular instances, I think it is appropriate for me to give believers a strong sense of assurance that their dead infant is with Christ. The infant was a member of the covenant and never even had the opportunity to abandon the faith.

For unbelieving parents, I will have to cast about and find some meager comfort for them in another place. Their child may have been elect, but I can have no way of knowing this, and therefore cannot assure them that it is true.

I've actually been working on a post for my blog on this very subject (it came up with a parishioner recently). I'll let you know when it's posted.

Also, I'm not sure if you're aware, but I moved my blog:



Matthew Bradley said...

PS - Covenant is why David had assurance about his child and why Christ welcomed the little children.

Jared Nelson said...


On Covenant I would agree. Covenant realities are my unspoken assumption. Notice I always say "the children of believers." That is because David's son is in the covenant. Jesus welcomed children whose parents were believers and in the covenant. Thus, the picture is of Christ welcoming covenant children. Both those pictures have an unspoken covenant theology under-girding them.

I didn't mention covenant because I originally wrote this for a non-Reformed audience that I would have to interpret that theology to, and perhaps they would have been hung up on it. Perhaps I should have made that more explicit here.

Matthew Bradley said...

Ah...I didn't realize it had a different original audience. Well written all the same. Thanks for the provocation of thought.