Verbum Dei in Utero part 2


The second problem I have with the dogmatic assertion that God works faith in infants through their hearing the preached word is the way that it often goes along with making “no Spirit apart from the Word” into a hermeneutical axiom, or an inviolable law for theology.  The problem is that I think that that section of the Smalcald Articles (Part III, Article VIII) is being misinterpreted. 

“We must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one except through or with the preceding outward Word [Gal. 3:2, 5].  This protects us from the enthusiasts (i.e., souls who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word.)  They judge Scripture or the spoken Word and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did.  Many still do this today, wanting to be sharp judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet they do not know what they are saying [2 Cor. 3:6]….Therefore we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments.  Whatever is praised as from the Spirit—without the Word and Sacraments—is the devil himself.  God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word [Exodus 3:2-15].  No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments .  John the Baptist was not conceived without the word of Gabriel coming first, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without Mary’s voice [Luke 1:11-20, 41].  Peter says, ‘For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ [2 Peter 1:21].  Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy.  Much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak while they were still unholy.  They were holy, says he, since the Holy Spirit spoke through them.”  [SA III:8:3, 10-13]

This passage has been interpreted to mean that it is impossible for anyone to ever receive the Holy Spirit without the external word and sacraments.  In addition, you would get the impression from confessional Lutherans that this also means that the Holy Spirit never speaks to us or comforts us except when we are actually engaged in hearing or reading the external word and receiving the sacraments. 

Neither is supported by the text, if we read carefully.  First of all Luther addresses two questions in the quotation—whether a person receives the Spirit apart from the “outward word”,  and whether one may distinguish between “the Spirit and the letter” in the interpretation of Scripture.  His concern in the first question is to point out not that the Holy Spirit never teaches or inspires things without there being an external word at the exact same time.  His point is that the Holy Spirit does not come to people utterly without the Word.  We should not look for the Holy Spirit to teach us via mystical experiences or introspection.  But Luther affirms that a person may hear the Word and then ten years later believe it.  Elijah and Elisha received the Spirit through the spoken Word, but the words they were given to say and the miracles they were given to do were not external words.  The quotation from Peter shows the same thing.  The prophets had the Holy Spirit, who then carried them along to write their prophecies.

But we say that children are conceived and born in sin and cannot be saved without Christ, to Whom we carry them in baptism. Here we have a gracious judgment, secure and certain: “Let the little children come to me…etc.” This we won’t allow to be taken away from us; it does not mean a secret counsel of God or a dark illusion, but instead God’s gracious promise that the kingdom of heaven belongs to our children. Thus they are brought to Christ, because without Christ there is no salvation. For that reason the children of Turks [Muslims] and Jews are not saved—because they are not brought to Christ.
Johannes Bugenhagen Pomeranus, 1551

There is a preceding, outward Word regarding the salvation of the children of Christians.  It is not word that you speak directly to the child, but it is nonetheless a promise about them.  These promises are frankly ignored and despised by everyone who has argued with me about this.  They are simply dismissed and never addressed. 

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you and your offspring the land…and I will be their God.” (Gen. 17:7-8)  Since we are the offspring of Abraham, the promise applies to us.  God wants to be the God of our children.  By what means He gives them the Holy Spirit we aren’t told, but we are told unequivocally that God wants to be our children’s God.  That is why Peter says in Acts 2: “The promise is for you and your children…” Now if Baptism and the Holy Spirit is for me and my children, then if my child dies prior to baptism it would be unbelieving for me to think that God who promised me that it belonged to my child would now snatch it away because my child died prior to Baptism.

Even more important is the oft cited “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 18:16)  Clearly there is a preceding word here.  The promise is “to the children belong the kingdom of God.”  The instruction is that we are not to get in the way of people bringing their infants to God. 

The only question is whether a Christian bringing a child in prayer to Jesus constitutes “bringing them to Jesus.”  Or whether when Jesus says, “to such belongs the kingdom of God,” He means only certain babies. 

Little babies are utterly passive.  Like the elderly at the end of their lives, they have no reason and really can’t be communicated with by us.  That is what Jesus means when He says that “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Their reason and will can put up no resistance to Jesus. 

But how does Jesus bless the little children?  Through preaching?  Through baptism?  None of the above.  He puts His hands on them and blesses them.  What was the external word that the children heard?  They didn’t hear any, except maybe the blessing.  But their parents had an external word.  They had heard about Jesus and believed that He would give blessing to their babies.  But He says that the kingdom of God belongs to them.  Similarly, the paralyzed man did not appear to have any faith in Jesus.  He was simply brought.  And Jesus gave him not just blessing or healing but the forgiveness of sins. 

Now if Jesus says: let them come to me, the kingdom of God belongs to such as these—we are supposed to doubt that that promise applies to babies who died prior to baptism?

No, it can’t be, because when you bring someone to Christ in prayer, you truly bring them to Christ.  That’s why Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matthew 18:19-20).”  When the church prays, Christ is truly present, and we truly bring the person for whom we pray before Him. 

If we doubt that the little babies of Christians are saved who die before baptism, we are actually doing what Luther accused Muenzer of doing—dividing between the Spirit and the letter, in a perverse hyper-Lutheran way.  Scripture is unequivocal.  The little children who are brought to Jesus in prayer, whose parents believe—the kingdom of God belongs to them, and they are not to be hindered.

This by the way is the only reason we can be certain that baptized babies are certainly in God’s grace.  Everyone knows that not everyone who is baptized believes, and certainly not everyone who hears the Word believes.  We would really have no certainty about little babies except for the promise “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”—without that promise we would be left in doubt, because babies do not give evidence of faith.  In fact, without this promise of Jesus we would have far less certainty about whether or not we should baptize babies at all.  But the promise is that the kingdom of God belongs to them.  So if that is so we can’t deny them baptism even though they can’t confess their faith or give any evidence of it.




Verbum Dei in Utero part 1:

Verbum Dei In Utero part 3:

Theology like a child:



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