Verbum Dei in Utero, Part 3
Finally, and this will have to be brief because I’ve spent time that I don’t have writing this—the preceding discussion has me wondering, “How exactly does Baptism work faith in infants?”
Dr. Marquart, I remember distinctly, said that babies do not have reason and so cannot understand the Word; thus in Baptism the word is applied to them through the water and the child receives faith and the Holy Spirit not through the ears and then the understanding, but through “the skin.” At the time I liked it. Then later I forgot about it. But now I’m wondering whether this might be the fruit of Marquart’s encyclopedic knowledge and decades long meditation on the Confessions and on the Lutheran theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries in the original languages.
I was doing research about this by looking through free books on Google, and I found a book by a Prof. M. J. Firey, who was a professor at a seminary of the General Council (I think). He writes in this book that Luther’s baptismal theology developed through three stages. In the earliest stage, he was still Augustinian, so he distinguished between the sign (baptism with water in the Triune Name) and the signified (regeneration through the Holy Spirit). In the second stage he (according to this guy) tended to stress that the promise (He who believes and is baptized will be saved) was necessary to be added to the sign (baptism) in order to bring comfort to the afflicted sinner. Then in the third stage, he was supposed to have emphasized God’s Word and ordinance in instituting the sacrament and how it transformed the earthly element (or transfigured it). The author points to the Small Catechism.
“What is Baptism? Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included [comprehended?] in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. Where is this written? Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with faith, which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the Word of God it is a baptism; that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul writes in Titus, chapter 2: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ, our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Hopefully I remembered the catechism correctly because I didn’t go back and check. But the point is that the water of Baptism is more than plain water—it is life-giving water that effects new birth. I wonder then if that is where Prof. Marquart was getting his idea that in Baptism the Holy Spirit is given “through the skin.”
(In quoting Dr. Marquart, I’m not trying to suggest what he definitely meant or didn’t mean, or that he’d agree with what I’m saying. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear him wrong, but I never sat down with him and had an extended discussion either.)
Anyway, that last question is something I will have to study some more.
The conclusion is this: I’m not disagreeing that Christ gives infants faith through the external word. I think that that is probably the right way to think about it. The problem is that we are not told exactly how infants are given faith. We have examples of them receiving faith or responding in faith while still in the womb, in response to a spoken Word. We have Jesus imparting blessing and the kingdom of God to babies seemingly through His spoken word and perhaps his touch, even though the babies don’t understand the words.
My concern is the way that we get to this conclusion. It seems that the route is through a theological apothegm which is very important, but which seems to be being misinterpreted and which seems to be now norming the words of Scripture. No Spirit apart from the word is a basic rule of orthodox theology. But it should not be expanded to mean that the Holy Spirit, once received, never does any comforting, leading, or preaching except during Divine Service, Bible class, or devotions. Nor does it mean that the promises Christians have been given regarding the salvation of infants only apply if they can be shown to have been in a church service or heard the bible read. Nor should this passage from the Smalcald Articles be used in such a way that we permit ourselves to believe that our negligence in prayer is not responsible, at least in part, for the feebleness and sickness of confessional Lutheranism, even though we are “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), or at least, zealous for pure doctrine.
All of those interpretations of the passage in the Smalcald Articles contradict what Luther repeatedly teaches elsewhere. It is true that we have had great trouble from evangelicals who have gotten us to think of the Spirit apart from the Word. But the situation isn’t helped by denying that the Holy Spirit comforts us inwardly after we have received Him through the external word, or that He leads our prayer, or that He offers unspoken sighs to God from our hearts which God hears, or that our prayers help us and the church, and our failure to pray harms us and the church. I suffered as an evangelical with lack of assurance of salvation. But the problem isn’t helped by denying the Spirit’s work in applying the word or teaching the Christian inwardly, or His work in teaching us to pray and intercede. “Whoever doesn’t pray will certainly lose his faith. Next to the preaching office, prayer is the greatest office in Christendom,” Luther writes (WA 34 , p. 395, 14f).
Finally, we risk undermining our own doctrine of the means of grace when we forget that the Word comes to us in human words. We should not insist or demand that God miraculously supersede the ordinary limits of human language (and human hearers). That’s why it isn’t right for me to walk into the pulpit with no preparation and start making stuff up. Of course the Holy Spirit can make such a sermon good, but it’s tempting God for me not to prepare. Likewise, when I preach too long for my hearers to be able to handle—refusing to recognize the limits of the people I’m preaching to—that is also tempting God. Of course, I’m not able to know how to preach exactly what people need, so after preparing every sermon I have to commend all of it—the writing, the delivery, and the fruit that it bears—into God’s gracious hands. But it’s still wrong if I slack off, because God uses human words to give His Spirit, and those words should be prepared with the same care you would in preparing any other address.
So if we say, “the kids hear the word, so God works faith through that—“ that may not be a bad conclusion. But it is bad if on the way there we reject his promise regarding children, denigrate the promises He has given to prayer, and read Scripture through the lens of our theological presuppositions.
But in saying all this, I don’t intend to direct any criticism at you, Dr. Heidenreich. I think these are dangers for confessional Lutherans in general. We rest on our laurels too much, and have a tendency to develop an idiosyncratic reading of Lutheran theology that does not necessarily fit with the Lutheran fathers (not to mention Scripture) and then look suspiciously at everyone who doesn’t talk the way we do. I guess I’ve been guilty of this. I spent a lot of years driven by hostility toward evangelicalism and as a result rejected things as “evangelical” that were really necessary and salutary for me.
And with that, I thank anyone and everyone who bothered to read all 4500 words of this. I usually think through things as I write and talk, which makes it difficult to keep things to a reasonable length.
Verbum Dei in Utero, part 1:
Verbum Dei in Utero, Part 2
Theology Like a Child:
- Luther: The Faith of Unbaptized Infants (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)