A 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.
My Dear Wormwood,
You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the local church? Do you realize that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the city looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.
The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time thinking about what it rejects—but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how groveling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which the platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray bestir yourself and send this fool on the round of the city churches as soon as possible. Your record up to date has not given us much satisfaction.
The two churches nearest to him, I have looked up in the office. Both have certain claims. At the first of these the Pastor is a man who has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for a supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his people with his unbelief, and not vice versa. He has undermined many a soul’s Christianity. His conduct of the services is also admirable. In order to spare the laity all “difficulties” he has deserted both the lectionary and the appointed psalms and now, without noticing it, revolves endlessly round the little treadmill of his fifteen favourite psalms and twenty favourite lessons. We are thus safe from the danger that any truth not already familiar to him and to his flock should ever reach them through Scripture. But perhaps your patient is not quite silly enough for this church—or not yet?
At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of this world are equally “under judgment.” We, of course, see the connecting link, which is Hatred. The man cannot bring himself to preach anything which is not calculated to shock, grieve, puzzle, or humiliate his parishioners and their friends. A sermon which such people could accept would be to him as insipid as a poem which they could scan. There is also a promising streak of dishonesty in him; we are teaching him to say “The teaching of the Church is” when he really means “I’m almost sure I read recently in C. S. Lewis or someone of that sort.” But I must warn you that he has one fatal defect. He really believes. And this may yet mar all.
But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between , say, Hooker’s [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Hooker ] doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Christian Church might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.
Your affectionate uncle,
CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1976. pp. 81-84
How Confessional are “Confessional Lutherans”?
Why has Lutheran theology made so little headway in American church life these last 200-odd years? I used to think that Calvinism and its American mutations–and Papism–being at root theologies of glory and the law, were hardier plants than Lutheranism. They made more sense to fallen reason, I figured, being theologies of glory and of the law instead of theologies of the cross–that is, emphasizing that the righteousness of God is found in the offense of the cross, in the weakness and foolishness of God.
I think there is probably some truth to my earlier thinking. But then I had to come to terms with the fact that the Lutheran Churches in various African countries and other parts of the world don’t seem to have the same problem as Lutherans in American. People know the difference in Madagascar between “Lutheran” and “Catholic” or “Baptist.” How did that happen?
I submit that part of the problem is that Lutheranism in America–that is, Lutheranism among those who want most to be faithful to the Lutheran confession–often takes on the character of an ideology. Then, as with all ideologies, it becomes noxious to many people. Ideologies are usually presented by their adherents as the answer to all questions. A person with an ideology wants to convert you because if you would only think the right things the nation/church/world etc. would be better.
Anyway, Lutheranism is, I propose, too often an ideology. The difficulty is that American Lutherans, by and large, are estranged from the real Lutherans. Very few read German and/or Latin, so Confessional Lutheranism as an ideology is boiled down to a handful of “loci” or “distinctives.” And then these distinctives are turned into catchwords that we repeat amongst ourselves. And then a handful of smart guys interpret the slogans and apply them to church politics or to the faults of the evangelicals. Herein lies the problem–Lutheran theology ends up not as it actually is but as the theology of denunciation or the theology of “distinctives.” Because it has to be distinctive, we actually end up critiquing things that need to be taught correctly. Lutheranism becomes limited to the slogans.
The problem is that the slogans, which are perhaps useful for exposing American evangelical theology’s inroads into Lutheran churches, can easily be used to denounce the Lutheran fathers.
Another problem is that pure doctrine is not an ideology; it’s not the answer to every question, it is not the worldview which, if grasped, leads to a crossless world. Suffering is not diminished by pure doctrine but increased. And, it is not an ideology in that it gives power to the elite. Pure doctrine is not the hidden knowledge of the few which serves to exalt them. It is the good news preached to the poor. It makes those who believe it more lowly, servants and slaves of all men.
Thus we have a problem when Lutheranism becomes the ideology that our congregations must be faithful to; the ideology that we must die for nobly in church conventions. It is true that Lutheran theology has enough to offer in terms of aesthetics, spirituality, and intellectual stimulation for all of us who were taught that under no circumstances could we ever do anything for the sake of duty and tradition that we personally at the present time, weren’t interested in. However, that’s not what it’s all about. There is a reason why people who did not have college educations and who did not read the Book of Concord were saved in Lutheran Churches. It’s because the Gospel is Jesus’ voice to His bride. It is His comfort to those who mostly are not elite and are not impressed with intellectual exercises. That is why there are holy older women at my congregation who, despite the fact that the catechism was not always taught as it should have been, know how to pray much better than I do.
Confessional Slogans and Groupthink v. 16th c. Lutheran Confessors
Example. A Lutheran married couple loses a child in the 6th month of pregnancy. The couple has prayed that God would take the child to Himself in heaven, but it could not be baptized since it died before it was born. What comfort can we give to the parents?
If you ask most Lutheran pastors–I mean those who subscribe to the Lutheran confessions–they would say something like, “We have a merciful God.” In a discussion about this issue with some very well read pastors, there was the suggestion that parents who delayed baptism endangered the salvation of their children; that it was heretical to suggest that an infant could be saved apart from Baptism–or at least, that we could have certainty about it.
So…I think our lack of familiarity with the Lutheran fathers contributes to a reductive, polemical American Lutheranism. It has done us no favors with our own people and has hurt us in speaking to American Christendom, because by making Lutheran theology into an ideology we too often end up with a theology that has answers to every question but does not comfort sinners (not as it might), or causes us to take positions that are repellent.
Does Jesus commend us to an unknown, ostensibly merciful God? Or does He reveal His Father? Does He tell us facts about the Father, or does He bring us (and our little ones) into the Father’s Kingdom? Jesus does not come with ideology. He comes with blessing and salvation (or judgment). He comes and heals, or pulls Peter out of the sea; He forgives sins, He dies on the cross. But He never comes with some new topics to discuss about God.
We end up being against wrong teaching, but after we’ve finished tearing down the faulty piety taught by evangelicals, we have little to give Christians in its place. The forgiveness of sins divorced from living piety, or downplaying prayer in reaction to the errors of evangelicals, leaves Lutherans with the doctrine of justification as an ideology grasped by the flesh.
From reading the works of Lutherans that haven’t been translated for a few months, it has become apparent that Lutheran Orthodoxy is broader and richer than the slogans to which it is sometimes reduced.
What follows is a first draft of a translation of part of a book called “Concerning Unborn Children and Children Who Cannot be Baptized”, written by Martin Luther’s pastor Johannes Bugenhagen and published in Wittenberg in 1551. I first found out about Bugenhagen’s writing about unbaptized infants from reading at random in Krauth’s Conservative Reformation. The same line of thought can be found in one of Luther’s sermons in the Church Postil in the Sundays after Epiphany on the centurion (who brought his servant to Christ in prayer.) Johann Gerhard repeats these thoughts later on. I hope that at some point I can either get this into a paper so it can be made more widely known to pastors who have to minister to people who have lost their children before they could be baptized, or just get the references to Logia so that they can publish excerpts in the section of the journal where they put short readings.
My translation is rough, but I’m pretty certain that I haven’t made any errors in transmitting Bugenhagen’s teaching on the matter here. The last few sentences contain some very interesting statements, but I am very tentative on my translation there, so I’ve marked those sentences so that I can run them by someone who’s better in German than I am. So I wouldn’t quote this translation yet.
However, may God make it useful anyway, even in the form it’s in!
Johann Bugenhagen “Concerning Unborn Children and Children who cannot be Baptized”
“Concerning Unborn Children and Children Who Cannot Be Baptized”
p. 62 f.
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.
Yes, I say still more on the same promise of Christ, that the parents, or others who are present, may and should take the little child in prayer even while it is still in the womb, and with thanksgiving for Christ’s command, offer or bring it [to Him] together with this or a similar prayer.
“Beloved heavenly Father, thank You that You have blessed us with the fruit of the womb. Beloved Lord Jesus Christ, let this little child be Yours, as You have said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, because such is the Kingdom of God.’ On this Your promise we bring this child with our prayer. When it is born and comes into our hands, we will also gladly bring it to You to carry it to you in Baptism, etc.”
The prayer, of course, may well be said using other words. That doesn’t matter at all, as long as the prayer proceeds only from the promise of Christ concerning the little children. Thus we should certainly believe that Christ accepts the child, and should not commend it to the secret judgment of God.
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!
*It appears to me that this is what is being said—“and in our prayers which have been commanded to us—“ but for this I really need to consult with some people to make sure I’m not wrong.
** I’m not completely clear what these last 3 adverbs say exactly. But the point of the entire section seems to be—Christ is present in Word and Sacrament. But He is also present in our bodies; He dwells in Christians, fills them, He prays in them and does good works in them. So when I bring my child to Christ in prayer, He is not far off so that I am unable to bring my child to Him, but He is present also in the bodies of the saints.
- Paul’s rebuke of Peter as argument for open communion (geneveith.com)
- Integrity and Outreach (lifetogetherinmns.wordpress.com)
- Enemy Identification (immanuelandimmanuelblog.typepad.com)
- Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Or were you too busy having a beer with Caiaphas and making snotty jokes about Galilean piety? (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- Martin Luther’s Ambassador: An Unclean Frog Spirit (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- How the church has been feminized (happolatismiscellany.wordpress.com)
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Or were you too busy having a beer with Caiaphas and making snotty jokes about Galilean piety?
This post just got me thinking about what Jesus would have had to say if He had dropped in on any number of conversations I’ve participated in or led or instigated with other ultra-orthodox confessional Lutheran pastors who make our collars wide and our shirts and pants blacker than darkness in Old Adam’s heart.
For instance, how many times have you heard a confessional Lutheran guerilla point out that “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” is a crummy hymn because the answer to the question is, “No,” and instead of trying to get back and be there when they crucified my Lord we should go to the sacrament of the altar where Jesus gives us the body and blood that was offered for us on the cross?
I’m chief of sinners here. I like the sense of purpose that comes from being part of a movement or an insurgency. I’ve gone on the crusades, and I’ve repeated the latest arguments and slogans and found comfort in wearing a uniform and marching in formation. But all too often confessional Lutherans (in the LCMS anyway) embrace slogans or frequently repeated shibboleths as if they were real theology. Slogans and shibboleths are useful for simplifying things in order to rally the troops against an enemy. But if that’s all our theology is–one slogan after another seeking to draw unmistakeable battle lines so that we know which side we’re supposed to fight for at all times–I fear that the devil is leading us around by the nose in order to discredit the very thing we want to fight for.
The example of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” illustrates this. Now the confessional Lutherans have a point. It’s imperative that we look for Jesus in the right place. Luther is the one who came up with this in the first place. We don’t try to go back to the cross. We go to the sacrament of the altar. Besides, even if you were standing on Golgotha right next to St. John, the death of Jesus happening in front of your eyes would be no benefit to you without the word of the Gospel that offers Jesus’ suffering to you as for you.
But at the same time, were the slaves who created this hymn so stupid that they actually thought that they lived in 30 AD? Or is it that we are liable to be adolescent, arrogant, uncharitable, and so pedantic that we cannot tolerate any poetry in Christianity and are deaf and blind to the work of the Holy Spirit in those who do not have formal education, or who lack refinement?
No, we were not there. But the slaves who sang this song were not talking about teleporting to 1st century Judea. They were talking about meditation on Christ’s passion.
Admittedly the hymn is not teaching doctrine. What it is asking us to do is meditate–imagine–Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? No. But shouldn’t I hear the passion story and recognize myself? Doesn’t the passion narrative interpret us in this way? Is this ancient history that really has nothing to do with me? Or when I hear about Peter warming himself by the fire while Jesus is being tried–doesn’t the Word of God put me into the story? I may as well have been Peter. How many times have I gotten comfortable and tried to blend in with those who hate Jesus? And it leads me to ask–where is Jesus being accused right now? How is He hidden here and I, like the people in the passion story–don’t recognize him?
We hear about Pilate–as pastors–and we see his difficulty. If he does what is right, what he knows to be right (even though he pretends like his hands are tied and it’s somebody else’s fault), he’s going to have trouble. So he tries all kinds of ways to avoid killing Jesus–everything he can think of to avoid putting him to death without facing a potential riot, ruining his career, perhaps putting his own safety in jeopardy if angering the chief priests got him on Caesar’s bad side. But nothing works. So he either has to get his name in the creed as the one who condemns the Son of God to die as a rebel…or suffer. And what pastor has never experienced this in his congregation? So when have I put Jesus to death, or denied him? Or worse yet, when have I been Caiaphas and decided that Jesus was worthy of contempt because of his naive, fanatical rejection of all concessions to the way things really work in this world and his continual attacks on my fabricated righteousness where I insist on certain laws of God and make up rules and interpretations so that the laws that are too hard to keep or that I don’t want to keep don’t apply to me?
All this is is meditation on Christ’s passion. This is how instead of hearing the passion narrative as the story of some guy who died a long time ago I hear it as a story that reveals who and what I am. Luther has a famous sermon about meditation on Christ’s passion in the Church postil that tells us–in a more comprehensive way–to do what “Were You there” is trying to move us to do. And Lutheran hymns continually exhort us to meditate on Christ’s passion too… Read more…