Home > comfort, Faith, Ransacking the Lost Treasures of the Lutheran Church, The Ideological Demon > Infant Faith Prior To Baptism: The Lost Work of Johannes Bugenhagen

Infant Faith Prior To Baptism: The Lost Work of Johannes Bugenhagen


Bugenhagen-keysA couple of months ago Logia (a Lutheran theological journal) published an article I wrote about the faith of infants prior to baptism.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of its content, but I’m grateful to Logia  and especially its editor, Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer, for publishing it and working to get it ready for print.  The article’s topic is one that I think needs wider exposure among Lutheran pastors.  First of all, it gives profound comfort for Christian parents who lose children prior to Baptism.  Secondly, it sheds light on theological controversies that have arisen among confessional Lutheran pastors in the past few years—in particular, the nature of infant faith and the question of infant communion.  Finally, it challenges us, through the example of one particular question in pastoral care, to evaluate the degree to which contemporary confessional Lutheran theological assumptions diverge from those of the first generation of the Reformation.

 

The article examines a little book by Johannes Bugenhagen, a reformer who was also Luther’s pastor at the church in Wittenberg.  The book, called On Unborn Children, seems not to have been widely known among Lutheran theologians in the last century or two.  In it Bugenhagen sets out an argument for infant faith and infant baptism against Anabaptist objections.  Then he turns to discuss the faith and salvation of infants which die before baptism.

 

Briefly, Bugenhagen argues that infants have the promise of salvation given to them by Christ when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  On the basis of that word we are required to bring our infants to Christ in Baptism, since in Baptism Christ receives them and gives them faith and brings them into the kingdom of heaven.

 

But what happens to those who are not baptized?  Bugenhagen argues that the promise of Christ—“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” still applies to unbaptized infants.  They are brought to Christ and offered to Him through the prayers of parents and the church.  And Bugenhagen’s contention is that such children, when they die prior to Baptism, are certainly saved and should be treated that way.  Bugenhagen’s view was apparently also the view of Luther, who appended his more famous“Comfort for Women who have had a Miscarriage” to Bugenhagen’s book.

 

Bugenhagen’s approach to the question comes as something of a surprise to some confessional Lutherans.  First of all it seems to imply that infants receive faith in Christ apart from the external Word, at least in the case of unbaptized infants.  And that view, that unbaptized infants receive faith apart from the means of grace in response to the prayers of the church, was not only the perspective of Bugenhagen but also stated explicitly by the great theologian of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, Johann Gerhard (see his A Comprehensive Explanation of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, published by Repristination Press). 

 

Secondly, Bugenhagen’s approach seems largely unknown to confessional Lutheran pastors, who typically will point parents of unbaptized infants who die to the Word they heard while still in the womb instead of to the promise of Christ regarding little children and the efficacy of prayer.

 

Why does Bugenhagen’s book merit wider attention?  First of all because of the comfort it gives grieving parents.  Bugenhagen provides a certain comfort instead of a vague hope.  He doesn’t tell grieving parents “Your miscarried child might be in heaven because you went to church and had family devotions and they might have believed what they heard in utero.”  He says: “Your child is certainly with the Lord, because Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’  And you brought your little child to Christ in your prayers.  Besides this the church also interceded for your little one.  And the Holy Spirit prayed within you with inexpressible sighs.  And so your child was most certainly brought to Christ, who has promised that the kingdom of heaven belongs to infants who are brought to Him.”

 

Secondly, confusion about the nature of infant faith has been behind some theological controversy among Lutheran pastors in recent years.  Relatively recently some furor erupted on the internet as liturgically-minded, confessions-subscribing pastors argued about the validity of infant communion.  Neither party denied the reality of the faith of infants.  But the failure of some pastors to understand the reason the reformers did not institute infant communion has something to do with this lack of clarity on how infants receive the Word of God and faith in Christ.  According to Bugenhagen, infants receive Christ and the Gospel although they are not capable of being taught or understanding the contents of the Gospel.  They are received because Christ promises to receive them, not because they have the same capacity for a faith that is capable of self-examination as adult Christians.

 

Finally, it invites us to look at the ways in which contemporary confessional Lutheranism may be narrower than the Lutheranism of the reformers and of the period of orthodoxy.  Bugenhagen does not seem to understand the Smalcald Articles’ dictum No Spirit apart from the Word the same way many of us do.  Moreover, he ascribes a great deal more to the prayers of believers than many contemporary Lutherans seem to find comfortable.  Finally, his insistence that the purpose of theology is for the comfort of the afflicted consciences of believers challenges our tendency to simplify theology into slogans designed to easily identify heresy.

 

Bugenhagen’s book opens up a number of discussions it would be useful for confessional Lutherans to have.  But my main hope in writing the article was and is that his approach to the comfort of parents who have lost children before baptism would become more widely known among Lutheran pastors.

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  1. infanttheology
    July 9, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Good stuff Pastor Hess – thank you for your work here.

    +Nathan

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