Monday, January 19, 2009

Salvation of small children

It is tempting sometimes, when defending a position, to sweep certain cases under the rug, saying they are exceptional, or that they are troublesome for the competing positions. This may sometimes be an appropriate thing to do, but it is something a philosopher or theologian should not feel too good about. If my semantic theory is incompatible with, say, some obvious fact about the Liar Paradox, my semantic theory is, well, false. Sometimes one may hope that some small tweak will get one out of the problem, or that one can add an exception clause. But that is a dangerous thought, for it might be that the problem does in fact show that a completely different approach is needed.

Take the bearing that cases of small children, as well as of those the severely mentally retarded, have for accounts of salvation. Let us suppose that one theologizes and concludes that belief that Jesus is Lord is necessary for salvation. But then one is faced with the case of small children who, as far as we can tell, lack the conceptual resources to have the belief that Jesus is Lord. What can one do? Well, one could bite the bullet, and say that no small children are saved. One could mitigate this, then, by invoking a doctrine of limbo. But in fact nobody that I know makes this move. Or one could say that God can miraculously make it possible for a small child that he foreknows will soon die to have such a belief. I have heard one or two people be friendly towards this answer—I myself think it is not that implausible.

But the usual thing to say is just to make an exception of the case, and say that the belief that Jesus is Lord is necessary for salvation, except in the case of children and mentally retarded individuals. This is not a solution one should feel good about, though. First of all, as soon as one starts introducing some exception clauses, one should start worrying whether there aren't more. Secondly, one worries about continuity between exceptional cases and non-exceptional one (intellectual maturation seems to be a continuous process). But, perhaps most importantly, one should look for a unified theory that takes care of the exceptional cases.

There are, in fact, unified theories for this problem. Here is one. What is necessary for salvation is that one believe the Christian teaching to an extent proportionate to one's capacities. One thing that appeals to me about this formulation is that it does not simply let infants off the hook. It lets them off the hook, while increasing the requirements for those whose capacities are greater than average. More is asked of those to whom more is given.

And this unified theory, then, very naturally leads to further questions. What if someone's lack of an ability to believe is not due to an internal gap, but due to an external one? Does it, after all, matter whether one is incapable of belief due to internal causes, such as lack of intellectual capacity, or due to external causes, such as brainwashing or not having heard the gospel from someone who wasn't distorting it through living a life incompatible with it? Thus, a unified theory has the advantage of raising further questions, and leading perhaps to the solution of other difficulties.


wrf3 said...

Another option is to take the Reform position that faith is solely the result of grace. We do not exhibit faith in order to be saved; we exhibit faith because we are saved. The capacity, or lack thereof, to have faith has no bearing on the grace of God who says, "'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy." Elect infants are saved by the same means that elect adults are saved -- by the sovereign choice of God who "has mercy on whomever he chooses."

Dan Johnson said...

I think the following argument is Calvin's (but I don't have a textual reference, so I may be totally off base in ascribing it to him):

Though we are born sinners (that is, born with original sin, an original disposition that ensures we will sin), we are judged and condemned for our actual sins, not our original sin. Infants who haven't had time to actually sin therefore cannot justly be condemned. So they are elect. And part of being elect is having original sin removed in heaven, so God will do that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This would seem to imply that some people are saved but not by the Cross, and maybe not even by Jesus (except as God). Moreover these people are saved if not exactly by their own action, then at least by the absence of action on their part. The position seems uncomfortably close to Pelagianism.
As we discussed in person, there is a dimension along which Catholic theology looks Pelagian to the Reformed, and a dimension along which Catholics can claim that Reformed theology is Pelagian--the Reformed seem to think those without personal sin don't need grace to be saved.

Matt said...


I wonder about modifying your position somewhat to be that one is saved by their response to the authentic revelation they are aware of. This makes sense of the salvation of people like Abraham and Job who did not know about Christ but had faith in the revelation they did receive. It makes sense of Pauls claims in Romans about people perceiving God through general revelation but rejecting it as the basis for his critique of gentile culture. And it would perhaps also resolve the problem about infant salvation.