Luther: The Faith of Unbaptized Infants
Thus the spoken Word is indeed the word of a human being, but it has been instituted by divine authority for salvation. For God wants to govern the world through angels and through human beings, His creatures, as through His servants, just as He gives light through the sun, the moon, and even through fire and candles. Here, too, you could say: “No external thing profits. The sun is an external thing. Hence it profits nothing; that is, it does not give light, it does not warm, etc.” Who would put up with one who argues in such a silly way?
Therefore the rule of which I have also spoken above stands. It states that God no longer wants to act in accordance with His extraordinary or, as the scholastics express it, absolute power but wants to act through His creatures, whom He does not want to be idle. Thus He gives food, not as He did to the Jews in the desert, when He gave manna from heaven, but through labor, when we diligently perform the work of our calling. Furthermore, He no longer wants to form human beings from a clod, as He formed Adam, but He makes use of a union of a male and a female, on whom He bestows His blessing. This they call God’s “ordered” power, namely, when He makes use of the service either of angels or of human beings. Thus in the prophet Amos (3:7) there is the noteworthy statement that God does nothing that He does not first reveal to His prophets.
But if at times some things happen without the service either of angels or of human beings, you would be right in saying: “What is beyond us does not concern us.” We must keep the ordered power in mind and form our opinion on the basis of it. God is able to save without Baptism, just as we believe that infants who, as sometimes happens through the neglect of their parents or through some other mishap, do not receive Baptism are not damned on this account. But in the church we must judge and teach, in accordance with God’s ordered power, that without the outward Baptism no one is saved. Thus it is due to God’s ordered power that water makes wet, that fire burns, etc. But in Babylon Daniel’s companions continued to live unharmed in the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:25). This took place through God’s absolute power, in accordance with which He acted at that time; but He does not command us to act in accordance with this absolute power, for He wants us to act in accordance with the ordered power.
Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, AE 3:273-274
Because daily I see and hear with what carelessness and lack of solemnity—to say nothing of out-and-out levity—people treat the high, holy, and comforting sacrament of baptism for infants, in part caused, I believe, by the fact that those present understand nothing of what is being said and done, I have decided that it is not only helpful but necessary to conduct the service in the German language For this reason I have translated those portions that used to be said in Latin in order to begin baptizing in German, so that the sponsors and others present may be all the more aroused to faith and earnest devotion and so that the priests who baptize have to show more diligence for the sake of the listeners.
Out of a sense of Christian commitment, I appeal to all those who baptize, sponsor infants, or witness a baptism to take to heart the tremendous work and great solemnity present here For here in the words of these prayers you hear how plaintively and earnestly the Christian church brings the infant to God, confesses before him with such unchanging, undoubting words that the infant is possessed by the devil and a child of sin and wrath, and so diligently asks for help and grace through baptism, that the infant may become a child of God.
Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. Thus it is extremely necessary to stand by the poor child with all your heart and with a strong faith and to plead with great devotion that God, in accordance with these prayers, would not only free the child from the devil’s power but also strengthen the child, so that the child might resist him valiantly in life and in death. I fear that people turn out so badly after baptism because we have dealt with them in such a cold and casual way and have prayed for them at their baptism without any zeal at all.
…see to it that you are present there in true faith, that you listen to God’s Word, and that you pray along earnestly. For wherever the priest says, “Let us pray,” he is exhorting you to pray with him. Moreover, all sponsors and the others present ought to speak along with him the words of his prayer in their hearts to God For this reason, the priest should speak these prayers very clearly and slowly, so that the sponsors can hear and understand them and can also pray with the priest with one mind in their hearts, carrying before God the need of this little child with all earnestness, on the child’s behalf setting themselves against the devil with all their strength, and demonstrating that they take seriously what is no joke to the devil.
For this reason it is right and proper not to allow drunken and boorish priests to baptize nor to select good-for-nothings as godparents. Instead fine, moral, serious, upright priests and godparents ought to be chose, who can be expected to treat the matter with seriousness and true faith, lest this high sacrament be abandoned to the devil’s mockery and dishonor God, who in this sacrament showers upon us the vast and boundless riches of His grace…
Martin Luther, “Baptismal Booklet”, in The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, pp. 371-373.
Thus we do…with infant baptism. We bring the child with the intent and hope that it may believe, and we pray God to grant it faith But we do not baptize on this basis, but solely on the command of God…
Martin Luther, Large Catechism IV: 57. In The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, p. 464.
I keep finding more stuff that Luther had to say about the faith of unbaptized infants and about the role of the intercessory prayer of the Church or of Christians for unbelievers. The more I read, the more convinced I am that confessional Lutherans don’t have a good grasp of the place of prayer in Luther’s theology. It would probably be better to say–many confessional Lutheran pastors don’t have a good grasp of it. At any rate, I clearly did not.
As you see from the first quote from the Genesis lectures (I think this portion of the lectures was given between 1538 and 1542), Luther emphasizes: God no longer wants to act in His naked majesty. He did that when He gave the Israelites bread from heaven and when He preserved Shadrach and company in the furnace. But now God wants to act not in His “absolute power”: “Therefore the rule stands…God no longer wants to act in accordance with His…absolute power, but wants to act through His creatures, whom He does not want to be idle.”
That statement is fascinating in itself, and I want to return to it in a minute. But Luther goes on to say: Of course, God is able to save without using means. We don’t say that unbaptized infants are damned–and Luther specifically names infants who are unbaptized because their parents neglected baptism! But he says, yes, unbaptized infants are not damned, but it is still necessary for us to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. In other words, even though God can grant the Holy Spirit apart from means, it is necessary for us to point people to the appointed means and to adhere to the means of grace. God is not limited to the means of grace, but we are.
That is clearly what Luther is saying. The Augsburg Confession’s statement that “baptism is necessary for salvation,” along with Luther’s statement in the Smalcald Articles to the effect that “every spirit that is separated from the Word” is the devil–must be read in this light. It’s not that God is forced to damn all stillborn babies, all miscarriages, and all children of Lutheran parents who fail to baptize their babies the second they exit the womb, and whose babies are unlucky enough to die before baptism. It’s that we are not permitted to despise the appointed means.
Now, why is it that Luther says that God “no longer” wants to act in His absolute, unmediated power? Because “now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son,” I think is what Luther is getting at. Since God has become man, we are not to look apart from His flesh for God, since “all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily (Colossians 2).” Now that He has ascended and is not visible, He directs us to find Him in the means He has appointed to come to us and give us His Spirit–in His Word, in the sacrament of His body and blood, in Holy Absolution.
I’m not exactly sure of the details of this, but I know some Lutheran theologians believed or taught that Jesus’ body, since it is joined to the divine nature, is able to fill all places in creation. Luther writes about this in the confessions–the Large Catechism?–but simply presents it in explanation to the question, “How can Christ give His flesh and blood in numerous places at the same time?” He doesn’t say, “This is how it happens,” but simply provides it as a possible solution. That’s because saying that Christ fills all creation as both God and man could easily be turned into a theory that overthrows the Gospel. For instance, you could argue that since Christ now is exalted and fills all things, we could also eat His flesh and drink His blood not merely in the Lord’s Supper but in everything.
The same thing could happen with the idea that since we can pray for little children of Christians, that they will be saved, and have certainty about the answer to our prayers. We could say “We’ve prayed for all the children in the world, so they’re all saved, with or without Baptism.” That would have the consequence of undermining baptism. Instead we are bound to the means God has instituted.
On the other hand, what does Luther say? The reason so many baptized kids turn out so badly is: the sponsors don’t pray for the child from the heart–both that God would grant the child deliverance from Satan’s kingdom, and that the child would remain in the faith. Luther says the same thing in the Large CAtechism on baptism; we pray that the Lord would grant the child faith.
I think we tend to underestimate the power of the prayer of the church. When I first read Pieper or Walther saying that the gift of the Holy Spirit necessary for the ministry is not given through the laying on of hands but through the prayer of the church, I kind of thought that that was crazy. Why would it happen through the prayer of the church?
It turns out Pieper and Walther were just reproducing Luther’s theology here. Luther thinks that intercessory prayer is a mighty thing. He thinks that it can be relied on for the salvation of unbaptized infants. He says in the Large Catechism that the reason that the Lutheran Church and Germany hadn’t been destroyed was because of a handful of pious, belieivng Christians who prayed, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done.”
In its own way, this idea of Luther’s actually fits quite well with the earlier point that “God does not want to act in absolute power anymore” now that He has become incarnate. God, of course, doesn’t need our prayer to make a baptism effective. But God wants to work not according to His naked power, but through instruments (because He is incarnate), and so God teaches us to pray. By means of our prayer and in answer to them, God tells moutnains to be thrown into the sea; He causes the church to pray for peace int he world and then answers their prayer. Or he causes farmers to pray for rain and then grants it. God works by His ordinary power, which means that He wants to use angels and human beings to do work for Him. And that is the great privilege. God could have done all the work Himself. He didn’t need the angels, nor us. But He lets the angels and us participate in the work that He could just as easily do without us. He makes us learn to pray and intercede from the heart to Him; then He answers our prayer. God could give daily bread without the prayer of the Church, but instead He teaches the Chruch to pray for it and then He gives it. He makes us participants in His work.
This is why Jesus said, “whatever you ask in faith, you will receive.”
I’m trying to make some good points here but I keep falling asleep. So I’ll have to elaborate later. Hopefully if you’re reading this you understand what I’m trying to say.
Also, these quotes aren’t really supposed to prove anything. This is kind of like supporting information. But when you read this in after conjunction with Luther’s “Comfort to women who have had a misscarriage,” as well as the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany church postil, I think it is indisputable that Luther taught that unbaptized infants were given faith prior to baptism in response to the prayers of parents, christian sponsors, adn the congregation. Anyway, I’m done now.
- The Necessity of Baptism (archkckblog.wordpress.com)
- Dare We Hope for the Salvation of the Unborn? (deaconjohnspace.wordpress.com)
- How Babies In the Womb Are Saved According to Wittenberg Theology (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- Rite of Baptism (aework.wordpress.com)
- Prayer in Great Affliction and Danger. Luther (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- The Reformation (str.typepad.com)