Dr. Donald Westblade
6 Dec 2000
The Sovereignty of God, Original Sin, and Infant Soteriology
"To understand the theology of Jonathan Edwards, one must understand what it is to bow before the sovereign God. One must understand things such as holiness, justice, and sin. . . . Here is a man who loves the sovereignty of God."—James White
All theological notions can be traced back to one’s understanding of the character of God. Consider, for example, the conception of God in the Arminian system of theology. The God of Arminianism may be a holy God, yet he is not ultimately in control of the events of the world. The Calvinistic system of theology, on the other hand, conceives of a God who is supremely sovereign and at liberty to do as he pleases. At the heart of the theology of the great American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, lies the Calvinistic doctrine of the sovereignty of God. In a typical treatise, he expounds:
And he is essentially and invariably holy and righteous, and infinitely good; whereby he is qualified to judge the world in the best manner.—Therefore, when he acts as sovereign of the world, it is fit that we should be still, and willingly submit, and in no wise oppose his having the glory of his sovereignty; but should in a sense of his worthiness, cheerfully ascribe it to him, and say, "Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever."
Edwards’ theology overflows with the sovereignty of God. God is a self-sufficient Creator; man is only his creation, and God has every entitlement to do with man as he sees fit in accordance with his glory.
Edwards’ understanding of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is intimately connected to his view of the nature of man, that "all mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin." Edwards’ posthumously published treatise The Great Doctrine of Original Sin Defended describes man’s inherently wicked state, on account of the disobedience of his first father, Adam, in light of a just and righteous God. Although the matter is disputed, most would agree that the doctrine of original sin, or natural depravity, logically leads to the doctrine of election. While these doctrines affect many aspects of faith and life, special attention will be given in this essay to their implications on the soteriology of infant death. Although Edwards struggled with the question of infant salvation, he ultimately concluded that election is God’s method of dealing with infants, such as it is his method in dealing with all of his children.
Throughout history, excepting no one, Edwards claimed, mankind has proven to be wicked in the sight of God. This was not God’s original intention when he created man. God created the first man, rather, with "original righteousness." In other words, Adam was created with a virtuous disposition which enabled him to be fully obedient to God. Adam was created with both self-love and God-love. When the selfish appetite in Adam overtook his love for God, he ate from the forbidden tree in the garden. God, who can have nothing to do with unrighteousness, withdrew his Spirit from Adam; this left Adam with only corrupt and ungoverned self-love. This fall from grace respected not only Adam, but his entire posterity, as for them Adam stood as a federal head.
To be sure, Scripture repeatedly declares that no man is righteous. Edwards wants to make clear that the universality of wickedness is no mere coincidence; rather, all men are wicked on account of our covenant head’s fall from grace having been imputed to his seed. Man is born—or rather he is from conception--in a state of sinfulness. It is not a condition into which one grows. Were that the case, surely some men would have retained their original righteousness.
As it is, however, all have shown themselves to be wicked and deserving of hell. Edwards considers the universality of mortality to be proof of this. God, as a righteous judge, cannot leave sin unpunished. The necessary punishment of sin is death, which is not simply a "limiting of existence," but an eternal separation from God. The "greatest testimonies of God’s anger for the sins of men in this world, have been by inflicting death" on the sinner. God has other methods of punishing general disobedience, such as sending a plague or famine upon a wicked nation. Most evidential, however, of God’s anger against sin is that all men are fated to die. Such a fate does not exist for the righteous man; God does not slay the righteous. Furthermore, the natural world into which all mankind is born is depraved, and God, Edwards believed, would not place a righteous man in a wicked world. He placed unfallen Adam in a world upheld perfectly by grace; if any subsequent man were so deserving, he too would be placed in sinless surroundings.
As God would not bring the punishment of death on the perfectly innocent, Edwards finds the death of infants to be particularly convincing proof for the truth of original sin. Since it is the case that many die in infancy and childhood, God obviously does not exempt them from being held responsible for their unfaithfulness to God. The death of a newborn proves, at least to Edwards, that "men come sinful into the world." In Edwards’ understanding, an infant can certainly--but not necessarily--be saved from eternal damnation. Infant status obligates neither salvation nor damnation; an infant, just as in the case of an adult, must be chosen by God to receive faith. Again, Edwards understood that for man to obtain eternal life he has to be chosen by God to receive grace. Man in his fallen state would never (nor could he) come to God on his own volition. When God elects a man, the Spirit of God is infused in man and regenerates him, thus granting him a new disposition that is inclined toward God. This change in disposition must be sensible and accounted for tangibly. Regenerate man must confess his need for God and repent of his sin and be able to give an account of the evidence of God’s grace in his life. Moreover, for one to be deemed a true saint, he must show perseverance of faith over a significant amount of time. This understanding of soteriology appears to be problematic regarding the death of infants. One must ask, "Since infants can neither give account for their faith, nor evidence of intentional sin, how can one be certain of their election or damnation?"
Some have held that since a child cannot specifically name the name of Christ, nor sensibly exercise his faith, he is by necessity damned to hell. The Church Fathers Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux exemplify this paradigm. Others have denied the possibility of salvation apart from baptism. Edwards’ treatment of the issue is broader and more sensitive. Whereas the aforementioned Church Fathers fit into the reductionist paradigm, Edwards could be labeled as inclusivist. While Edwards insisted that the elect must visibly and verbally account for their faith, he also recognized that a child is naturally and physically incapable of doing so. There is no excuse for the adult who fails to put his faith into practice, as he is naturally and physically capable. The natural and physical inability, according to Edwards, exempts the child from having to give evidence of his faith. This does not mean that a child cannot have faith; he is simply incapable of proving itto the world. God alone knows the heart of man. Though Edwards could examine a man and make a reasonable judgment on the state of his soul, he recognized that man can never be certain whether or not another is the recipient of truly saving grace or not. Thus, a child may possibly be God’s elect, though he has not given evidence of that to the world.
He further justifies this apparent problem by fleshing out the doctrine of faith. Faith is defined much differently by Edwards than the modern notion of "belief" or simple mental assent; faith is, rather, a disposition of "unition" with Christ. It is a sign of the relationship that exists between man and God in the flesh. It is a gift given freely of God, with no regard for work performed by man. A man can be—and by necessity always is—in a state of grace before he performs his first act of faith. Consider, for example, the paralytic who was forgiven his sins even before he had faith to ask of Christ. Likewise regenerate infants can be "saved on account of a disposition that is yet unexercised." This does not necessitate an infant’s salvation, but it certainly opens the door for such a possibility.
Anri Morimoto, who treats the subject of Edwards’ soteriology in a book entitled Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation, likens infant salvation to the salvation of men who died before the time of Christ. They could not specifically name the name of Christ, and therefore were rendered physically and naturally incapable, but they could trust in the promises of God. Thus they were "pre-Christians." Morimoto would not deny that Christ’s is the only name that can be named for salvation, but one can be a member of the elect and granted faith before he is aware of his salvation. When a Christian examines his past, he can typically recall a time when he was unaware of his election. Though he is saved now, he was previously ignorant of it. It is not the faith itself, but the infused disposition toward God—which precedes even the first act of faith—that is necessary for salvation.
Clearly Edwards struggled in reaching the conclusion that some infants are elect and others are not. There certainly, from a human standpoint, seemed to be a difference in the wickedness of a child in comparison with the wickedness of an adult. Regarding this, Edwards allows that though a child is sinful, his heart is less hardened than an adult. He is in a state "more open to grace." He expounds a similar notion in Original Sin when he states that the tendency to sin does not diminish but increases with time. Thus, the "dispositions to evil are commonly much stronger in adult persons, than in children." Due to this comparatively lesser—though certainly not non-existent—propensity toward sin, infants have a better chance "for being really God’s chosen people."
A well-known poem among the Puritans was Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom. "To memorize" the "sulphurous verses" of this lengthy work "became an act of Puritan devotion." It was considered by some to be a "theological guide" and a "delicious confirmation of Puritan dogma." This poem imagines various groups of people before the throne of God at the Last Judgment. The last assembly of pleaders are those who died in infancy. They cry in desperation:
If for our own transgression, or disobedience,
We here did stand at Thy left hand, just were the recompense:
But Adam’s guilt our souls hath spilt, his fault is charged on us;
And that alone hath overthrown, and utterly undone us.
Not we, but he, ate of the tree, whose fruit was interdicted;
Yet on us all of his sad fall, the punishment’s inflicted.
How could we sin that had not been, or how is his sin our,
Without consent, which to prevent, we never had a power?
The poem continues on with the infants pleading of God and questioning the justness of the imputation of Adam’s sin and their own condemnation. God responds:
But what you call old Adam’s fall, and only his trespass
You call amiss to call it his, both his and yours it was.
Will you demand grace at My hand, and challenge what is Mine?
Will you teach Me whom to set free, and thus my grace confine?
You sinners are, and such a share as sinners may expect,
Such you shall have; for I do save none but my own elect.
Yet to compare your sin with their, who have lived a longer time,
I do confess yours is much less, thou every sin’s a crime.
This famous early Puritan poem covers many of the same tenants that are found in Edwards’ theology, specifically the sovereignty of God and the natural depravity of man. In regard to the death of infants, Wigglesworth stressed that there was no guarantee that a deceased infant was bound for heaven. Likewise, Edwards stressed that, as all men are born odious to God, they rightly deserve condemnation. Yet simultaneously Edwards would also stress that infants are very possibly the recipients of God’s grace.
More importantly than answering whether or not infants will go to heaven or hell—for one can never be certain, anyway--is the question of the nature of God and the nature of man. Ultimately God elects without any influence from a person’s moral characteristics, as no sinful person can merit the favor of this holy, righteous, and just God. The fact that God is at liberty to choose some as his children and others as his enemies shows his supremacy over all things. In other words, questions of soteriology show that man is a means to the glory of God, and not an end in himself.