Verbum Dei in utero part 1

Dr. Heidenreich has done me the honor of debating me about the place of prayer in the salvation of unbaptized infants.  This has been helpful to me in helping me not to go too far in what I’m saying and in helping me to think about the issue.  Earlier this week I started another post in response to some of his comments on this blog, but didn’t finish it.  Below is a comment of his from my facebook page, where Dr. Heidenreich is responding to me after I asked him, “Does it matter whether an infant in the womb hears God’s Word preached in English or Japanese [or Latin]?”  I was trying to make a point that I spell out below.

What matters when we are speaking of the faith of infants is not what language the Word is spoken in. What matters is what the speaker means by the words. Does a baby “understand” or “comprehend” the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”? Is it a valid baptism if the infant does not yet speak the language the words are being spoken in? Is it a valid baptism if it is done by a Roman Catholic priest in Latin? You know the answers to these questions. The Word, in and with the water, does great things. It does seemingly impossible things. God gives any necessary “understanding” to the hearer. However, even if the baptism uses English words for English speaking persons, yet the English words are spoken with the intended meaning a Mormon gives them, it is not a valid baptism and does not give the hearer faith and salvation. What matters is the fact that God works through the external Word and grants the hearer the supernatural gift of faith through such simple and virtually inexplicable means. The fact that a few words can instil faith in the hearer is, indeed, an extraordinary event. It defies all academic, linguistic, scientific, and neurological explanations. It is a supernatural event, and we simply place our faith in the power of the Word that is so clearly testified to by so many miraculous events in Scripture. The natural workings of the means of grace don’t have to make sense to our doubting minds. “If they have not heard the Word, by which faith comes, as adults hear it, they nevertheless hear it like little children. Adults take it up with their ears and reason, often without faith; but they hear it with their ears, without reason and with faith. And faith is nearer in proportion as reason is less, and he is stronger who brings them than the will of adults who come of themselves.” [Luther’s Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany; Matthew 8:1-13; from his Church Postil of 1525, as translated in The Sermons of Martin Luther, volume II, page 90,¶42, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI] As for things Luther taught repeatedly and publicly that might conflict with the way I have applied the Confessional statements I have quoted, it is only right and proper to interpret the Confessions in light of the orthodox doctrine confessed by the subscribers and later orthodox dogmaticians. Lutheranism does not agree with Luther on every point, including on things he repeatedly and publicly taught. The most public and well-known source material for your contention is Luther’s Baptismal Booklet. As I already pointed out on your blog, that booklet is definitely NOT part of the Book of Concord to which our pastors and churches subscribe. Despite pleas from Jakob Andreae, several princes (including Ludwig VI of the Palatinate) and their theologians specifically objected to its inclusion in the Book of Concord. [Kolb p 346-347]

Why is it different for a baby to hear the Word in the womb—so that they can hear it in any language—yet it is necessary for adults to hear it and understand it?

I certainly grant that God works faith through the spoken word in infants, who as far as we can tell, do not understand or have the capacity of using language.  Luther says that very thing in the sermon from the Church postil you quoted, where he explains how prayer for the infant gains for them the gift of faith.  He says, “The church prays, and God grants faith to the child through the Word in Baptism.”  It may well be that it is by means of the external word which the baby hears that God gives the Holy Spirit to them while still in the womb.  I’m not denying that.  I don’t think that Luther was saying dogmatically that God has to give faith apart from means to unbaptized babies.

I have several problems with the theory that God gives faith to babies in the womb through the preached or read word.  This is what I used to believe.  I think my pastor taught it to me when I was a kid.

The first is that we don’t make the external word cease to be words, performing a sort of Lutheran transubstantiation on preaching.  The divine Word comes in human words, just as the Son came in human flesh.  When Christ appeared in human flesh, he did not swallow up his humanity in his divinity, nor did He display the splendor of His majesty; and when the Word of the Lord comes to us on Sunday morning, it comes in human language, and therefore we receive it like other human words, in that we hear it in our own language and we read it so that it can be heard.  Then the pastor comes and preaches it, explaining it, applying it.  But if the word and faith have nothing to do with understanding all of that is a waste of energy.  The pastor could mumble the words inaudibly and as quickly as possible, skip the sermon, and everyone could be home in 45 minutes.

Understanding and faith are not to be divorced so radically.  Otherwise we eliminate the means from the means of grace, which is where Rome developed the practice of adoring the sacrament more than eating and drinking it.  Bread normally is to be eaten and words are normally to be heard and understood.  This is the teaching of Scripture:

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says, ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive…lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’…Hear then the parable of the sower: when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart… Matthew 13:13-15, 18-19

…Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.  For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to

We have, then, two strong promises from Christ which we cannot deny, but in which we can firmly trust. One is that He has called us to pray and has graciously promised to hear us. And to this He has sworn: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name, so it will be.” John 16. The other is the promise concerning the children: “Such is the kingdom of heaven. Let them come to Me.” Here we Christians should understand that whether we carry the little children to Christ in Baptism or with our prayers, we carry them to Christ in person, here and now, and He is also present and takes them up and accepts them here and now. Because Christ is in His Word and promises, in His Sacrament, and in our prayers which have been commanded us.* Yes, truly, in us ourselves—effectually, presently, and substantially.** Oh, what an unspeakable grace of God!
–Johannes Bugenhagen Pomeranus, 1551

men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.  On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation…the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, so that the church may be built up.  Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?  If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played?  And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?  So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?  For you will be speaking into the air.  There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.  So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.  Therefore one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.  For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful…You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.  I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  Nevertheless, I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, then ten thousand words in a tongue.  1 Cor. 14:1-3, 5-14, 17-19

Paul is making this point: one can speak by the Holy Spirit in language that is unintelligible to others, but others are not edified by it.  Why?  Because they can’t understand it.  He writes in Romans 8 that the Spirit groans to the Father with sighs that words cannot express.  That is truly prayer, but it edifies no one else, because they can’t understand it. 

Which teaches two things: normally the Holy Spirit is given through the Word together with understanding of the word.  Secondly it teaches that the Holy Spirit can be present or operative where the understanding is not engaged.  Apparently when people speak in tongues they themselves did not necessarily know what they were saying, which is why it was necessary for them to “pray for the power to interpret.”  Paul does not condemn them for praying in tongues without understanding, but says that that does not build up the church.

The application of this to the present discussion is that the preached word normally works through the understanding.  A second application is that the Holy Spirit is able to speak within and through a person without that person or anyone else understanding him, but we should not expect that the Holy Spirit will edify the Church through words that are not understood.


Related Links:


Verbum Dei in utero part 2:

Verbum Dei in utero part 3:

  1. November 2, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks for your thorough and respectful dialog on this (all three parts). I think we are pretty close to being on the same page now. I wish I had more time at present to respond to those things I still might still have some disagreement with. Perhaps another day.

    • November 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Good! Part of the difficulty is that I have been working through this as I read and write about it. I note that Luther wants to avoid talking about the giving of the Spirit apart from the appointed means and doesn’t want to speculate where we don’t have a clear word from God. At the same time I think that in the US we are missing high estimation Luther has of prayer. And that’s linked to the loss of Lutheran piety, which it seems like we’re only now starting to become familiar with again after the Missouri Synod stopped speaking German.

      Yes, this conversation has been time consuming. When you get more time, please do respond with your caveats. It has helped me to study and clarify this, and I’m glad that someone reacted to it, because I know when I first started reading some of the things from Luther that I’ve been quoting here, it rubbed me the wrong way.

  1. October 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm
  2. October 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm
  3. November 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm
  4. December 23, 2012 at 10:55 pm
  5. May 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm

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