Infant Salvation in Evangelical Theology, pt. 1: The Reformed Consensus

I have been conversing with Cody Rudisill, a poster here at DC, recently. He approached me with an argument he has been working on as a student at Ligonier Academy (headed by R.C Sproul). I think it is pretty fatal for the Reformed Theologian (Calvinist) who adheres to infant salvation with regards to young children escaping eternal damnation upon their untimely, early deaths. See what you think.

Reformed theology, commonly known as Calvinism—though there can be a sharp distinction that for the purposes of this post are irrelevant—has been experiencing something of a revival in the past few years in what is coming to be called the New Calvinism. Now, whether you’re a new Calvinist or old, what is important are the key doctrines they all share that have implications on their understanding of the salvation of infants who, well, die in their infancy. So what actually happens when an infant dies? Do all of them go to heaven? Or only some of them? Does God grant them cognitive faculties and ask them if they’d like to accept Jesus as their savior? Or does God use his divine foreknowledge to weed out the ones he knows would have never made a faith-decision? If you were to open up any systematic treatment of biblical theology you would be won’t to find any extended discussion of these questions. Brevity aside, in my opinion, Reformed theologians have provided some of the best arguments for their understanding of infant salvation. In a desire to make their doctrine of infant salvation cohere with their overarching theological agenda, however, I believe they have damned every infant on the planet. How? Their doctrine of sin (hamartiology) and system of salvation (soteriology) have barred babies from God’s grace.

In a nutshell I am going to state and expound the specific Calvinist doctrines relating to infant salvation:

Original sin: humans are born into a fallen context/society and are born with a human spirit (nature, or psyche) that is guilty of Adamic sin and, therefore, humans cannot avoid acts of sin. When Adam sinned in his perfect state in the Garden of Eden he acquired a sin nature that was transferred to all his posterity (ie, the human race). Every human is born with the guilt of Adam’s sin. In theological parlance guilt is not a subjective emotional state one feels; it is, rather, an objective state before the creator God. To explain, biblical guilt is analogous to one who is found guilty in the court of law. This is all important to remember.

Election: In Reformed circles we can speak of either single or double predestination. The former is the positive act of God wherein he has chosen a people (believers) unto salvation and left the rest to their whim. The latter, double predestination, agrees that God has elected a people unto salvation (believers), but takes it a step further by stating that God has also elected a people unto damnation (non-believers).

Regeneration, faith, and justification: Regeneration (ie, the new birth or “being born again”) is the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of one elected unto salvation. The Spirit gives said person the ability to exercise faith by changing their moral disposition. To explain this concept using biblical imagery, if we once had hearts of stone set against God and his ways, the Spirit gives us a heart of flesh that can be responsive to his work in our lives. In Calvinism, regeneration inevitably leads to saving faith wherein a person understands and trusts in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Saving faith is both cognitive and psychological—that is, you must understand who Christ is and what he has done for you before you can put your trust in him. Following this order of salvation is justification: God looks upon the faith of a believer and accepts Christ’s sacrifice in his stead now that the moral and legal hindrances have been removed. In these three doctrines Reformed theology distinguishes itself.

How do these doctrines operate in a discussion of infant salvation? Or to put it more pointedly, if faith is required for salvation how are infants justified before God if they are born in guilt and cannot exercise saving faith? To begin, Calvinist’s disagree over the number of infants actually saved. Though theologians of Reformed persuasion all agree over their understanding of election, when it comes to infants the term can be meant differently numerically than it does with adults. With adults only a select group will be saved—they are the elect of God. With infants, depending on the Calvinist you are talking to, election can mean the same as with adults or it can include every infant who dies in infancy. In this instance, every infant who dies is of the elect of God. It’s good to know of this even though neither understanding will avoid my argument since they both believe that at least some infants are actually being justified by God.

Most all Calvinists do agree over the three reasons infants are granted salvation: (1) they were elected by God, (2) regenerated before dying, and (3) had not yet committed any actual sin. Because I have already sufficiently explained the concept of election and its nuances in Reformed thought, I will proceed to how Calvinists understand regeneration to work in infants. Once again, they disagree over the details, but for brevity’s sake it’s only important to know that infants are regenerated before death for one reason or another—typically because of their election by God in eternity past or the infant’s relation to the covenant community. Some theologians add that infants have not committed any actual sin. In other words, though they’ve been tainted by Adamic sin (ie, original sin) they have not sinned otherwise so when God regenerates their old nature he can accept them into heaven.

I have obvious discrepancies against the conclusion Calvinists draw. It seems to me inconsistent to conclude that infants receive salvation when you grant the doctrine of original sin. Syllogistically my argument looks like this:

1. All infant perfection is marred by Adamic sin.
2. All infants who are marred by Adamic sin are either:
i. acquitted of positive and/or negative guilt before God by faith in Jesus Christ. or
ii. rejected by God as guilty for failure to exercise faith in Jesus Christ.
3. All in category (i) are accepted by God.
4. All in category (ii) are rejected by God.
5. Infants cannot exercise faith in Jesus Christ.
6. Therefore, infants do not exercise faith in Jesus Christ.
7. Therefore, infants are rejected by God.

This argument assumes the premises Calvinists accept as biblical but draws it to what is, I believe, the logical conclusion.

Before discussing the argument it is important to know what it does and does not prove. To begin, there is a logical way to avoid my argument: by simply denying infant-salvation and appealing to a “greater-good” theodicy. So you see the scope of my argument isn’t against Christianity itself, but rather limited in focus to this particular doctrine. As long as a believer affirms the salvation of at least one infant while granting original sin, they’re being disingenuous. It’s not to be read to say that the problem cannot be avoided by believers logically. On the other hand, in avoiding my dilemma in such a fashion one is confronted with an emotional issue: God condemns every infant to eternal damnation!? That’s some heavy burden to bear as a Christian. Worse yet, try preaching that from the pulpit or “comforting” parents with deceased infants with such a message.

With that said, premise (1) begins by assuming original sin’s effect on infants. Premises (2-4) go on to show the ramifications of (1). Thus far we’re all in agreement. However, with premise (5) and the conclusions (6-7) do I draw out the logical consequences that Calvinists will take issue with. Most will take issue with premise (5) believing that because God regenerates infants before death they are therefore saved. My question is: how does this work? This, in essence, gives regeneration in infants the salvific power of justification in adults. In other words, there is no distinguishable difference between what theologians call justification and the nature of regeneration when applied to infants. This is nothing more than a theological category mistake! Moreover, one can easily ask why regeneration works differently with infants than it does with adults. With adults, regeneration does not bring about salvation. Remember that in Reformed theology regeneration only gives one the moral ability to make a faith decision; with that faith decision it follows that said individual becomes justified before God. Regeneration does not, by itself, bring about salvation with people capable of making such a cognitive commitment, why then does it bring about salvation with someone not capable of making such a decision, like infants? Only by special pleading. Let’s take the other tactic used by Calvinist thinkers: infants receive salvation because they have not committed any actual sin. But why? In Reformed theology one is guilty before God of Adamic sin (ie, original sin) just like one becomes equally guilty before God of any sins committed after reaching cognitive maturation. You’re no better even if you couple regeneration and the lack of any actual sin like some Calvinists do. Regeneration only makes one morally capable of exercising faith—it does not remove the guilt of Adamic sin without faith in Jesus Christ. But if you do not have the cognitive maturity to make such a faith-decision, then you cannot place faith in the Savior. Therefore, your guilt condemns you to eternal hell!

To conclude, I’ll state the major failure of this doctrine within a Reformed framework. It presupposes that faith is not necessary for salvation. Sola fide (faith alone) has been the battle cry of Calvinists since the Reformation. In claiming that regeneration brings the effects of salvation without having had exercised faith is to deny that salvation is by faith alone. Infants do not have the cognitive maturity necessary to retain the propositional content of the gospel, let alone place trusting faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ; Calvinists can deny that infants are saved or they can deny essential doctrines of the Reformed faith and in doing so “demote” themselves from Calvinist to Semi-Pelagian.

As you can see, Cody seems to have covered the essential bases here with a clear piece of logical argumentation. The only idea I would add is that, as far as regeneration, salvation or even the term 'infant' we have an issue. In the event of a seemingly entirely dichotomous outcome (hell or heaven) based on an entirely dichotomous field of subjects (infant and adult) we have a poor representation of reality,a s far as Calvinists are concerned. You see, in reality, we don't have (other than for legal reasons) adult and child cut off in such an arbitrary fashion. This is somewhat similar to the sotires paradox. Where do we define when and how one becomes an adult? Can one really be defined as a child one minute and an adult the next? Of course not. Growing into an adult is a gradual process: one that is different for every individual. And I know many adults who have the comparative cognitive faculties of an infant still. To have such a black and white, absolute idea of human growth and cognitive function is naive at best. But that is what you get with Reformed theology, it would seem.The whole idea is fraught with problems. Is a five year-old capable of cognitively understanding and accepting Jesus for purposes of regeneration? Ten? Twelve? Fifteen? Seventeen and a half? Twenty?

As with judgement as to who gets into hell in your everyday notion of Christianity, we have this same problem of God effectively having a matrix, a set of algorithms that apply to each and every one of us in our infinite variety. But only two places to cover that variety: heaven and hell. It's a tough sell.

Big thanks for Cody Rudishill for his work here.