Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Neglected Evidence For Universal Infant Salvation

Steve Hays recently called my attention to an article by Daniel Akin arguing for the universal salvation of infants. Steve doesn't hold that position, but I do. In the article, Akin mentions a diversity of views on the subject among the church fathers, but he doesn't bring up a more significant point he could have made.

Though there is a diversity of views on infant salvation among the fathers as a whole, universal infant salvation seems to have been the dominant view of the earliest fathers. The salvation of some or all deceased infants, without any accompanying references to the non-salvation of infants, is found explicitly or implicitly in sources such as the following: Aristides (Apology, 15); Hermas (The Shepherd, Similitude 9:29-31); Justin Martyr (First Apology, 18); Athenagoras (On The Resurrection Of The Dead, 14); Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 4:28:3); Tertullian (A Treatise On The Soul, 56). Given the high rate of infant mortality in antiquity and the significance of the issue of salvation, it seems likely that one or more of the apostles would have directly addressed infant salvation in some context. They probably did so more than once, as the Christians living just after them did. The earliest patristic authors were in a better position than later sources to have been influenced by what the apostles had taught about the matter. And notice the wide diversity of backgrounds, locations, personalities, and theologies represented by these patristic sources. That diversity makes the overlap in their views on infant salvation more significant.

Here's a short article I wrote on infant salvation almost a decade ago, at another blog. The article addresses both the Biblical and the patristic evidence.


  1. Another interesting, and to my mind compelling, line of reasoning toward this point of view is the judgment of the dead in Revelation. There the dead are said to be judged by their works, and it's difficult to conceive of the works a dead baby could have written in God's book that would earn him or her damnation. After all, original sin isn't a "work" for each individual - although it will be confirmed in an individual in time - and the judgment in Revelation appears to be highly individualized, and not a corporate/federal/representative judgment.

  2. I'm not sure how the fact that God specifically excluded a teaching that some of the apostles might have made from being preserved for us in scripture is supposed to be evidence that the teaching is true.

    1. Jeremy Pierce wrote:

      "I'm not sure how the fact that God specifically excluded a teaching that some of the apostles might have made from being preserved for us in scripture is supposed to be evidence that the teaching is true."

      I haven't argued that universal infant salvation is excluded from scripture, nor have I argued that its exclusion from scripture would be evidence that it's true.

      I'm using extrabiblical evidence in much the same way it's commonly used in other contexts (Biblical authorship, the canonicity of a book, the meaning of a Biblical term, the historical context of a Biblical passage, etc.). For example, when I responded to Andrew Lincoln's book against the virgin birth last year, I cited the early and widespread acceptance of the virgin birth among such diverse extrabiblical sources as evidence for the concept's presence in the Bible and its acceptance by more of the apostles and Biblical authors than just those who directly affirm it. I used patristic and other extrabiblical evidence to argue that it's unlikely that the virgin birth was initially as narrowly accepted as Lincoln suggests. The kind of argumentation I used in response to Lincoln, which I've also used here with regard to infant salvation, is common in historical research, including among Evangelicals.

    2. I'm not saying you're arguing that it's excluded from scripture. I would assume that as a given, because there's no clear teaching on it from scripture (except by implication). I also said nothing about exclusion from scripture as evidence of truth. What you're arguing is that its presence in the teaching of apostles (despite its not being included in scripture) is evidence that it's true. I'm saying that I don't see that as a good argument, because the totality of facts is not just their teaching it but their teaching it plus its exclusion from scripture, and that means God didn't choose to preserve that teaching of theirs as scripture. That strikes me as evidence against it, not for it.

      I don't see this as parallel to some of the uses you list. Citing post-apostolic evidence to attest to authorship is simply a historical argument for a historical conclusion. If the people who knew John said he wrote John's gospel, that's a good historical argument that he wrote it.

      It's different to look to something like the virgin birth or Trinity, since those are central doctrines the church has always believed to be taught in scripture, not views that have not been long debated as to whether anything in scripture even bears on the issue. Pointing to evidence about apostles' teachings outside scripture might help us understand what the statements in scripture could have meant, when there's some level of debate about whether the statements in scripture do imply what the church has always taken them to imply. The argument is mostly that the early use of clearer statements of it in extrabiblical sources makes it more likely that the less clear statements in scripture meant something similar.

      It strikes me as pretty different to point to extrabiblical evidence about what apostles might have taught outside scripture, when there's a complete lack of evidence within scripture for the truth of such a doctrine. It's not meant to support a historical conclusion, such as when the church supported something later it was really just a continuation of what it already had been teaching. The conclusion here is not about some dominant view later really having been present earlier. It's about a view that some people held later (and some didn't) not just having been present earlier but having been true earlier. That strikes me as a non sequitur. It's certainly not the same argument form as the other ones.

    3. Jeremy Pierce,

      I don't know how you're getting from "there's no clear teaching on it from scripture (except by implication)" to "a complete lack of evidence within scripture for the truth of such a doctrine". Something doesn't have to be clear, explicit, etc. in scripture in order for there to be some evidence for its truth within scripture.

      I also don't understand why a concept's exclusion from scripture would be "evidence against it". Much of what Jesus said while on earth wasn't recorded in scripture, the Thessalonians are told to maintain the apostolic traditions "whether by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thessalonians 2:15), etc. The apostolic teaching I'm appealing to is one that's about a matter as important as salvation, and it was disseminated confidently and widely enough to be manifested in the patristic literature in the way I've described above. We're not addressing something like Peter's errant behavior in Galatians 2 or a mistake Paul made about a non-doctrinal matter in a private discussion. If I'm correct in suggesting an apostolic teaching of universal infant salvation as the best explanation for the patristic (and Biblical) evidence, then that teaching is more like 2 Thessalonians 2:15 than something like Peter's behavior in Galatians 2. It would be better if we had an explicit teaching of scripture rather than the sort of weaker implied conclusion I've been appealing to, but lesser evidence is still evidence.

  3. If infants are universally saved, they should be universally baptized. Right?

  4. Unless baptism requires a profession of faith. Right?

  5. Mr. Fletcher,

    Yes. That's the pattern we see in the NT. I am convinced we ought to follow it. However, if all infants are saved, would it not have a major effect on our theology of baptism? Even paedo-baptists might need to reconsider their position and practices. Perhaps mass community baptisms should be held for infants of the "unchurched."

    The point I was trying to hint at is that the theology of salvation of those who believe in universal infant salvation will be very different from that of those who do not. For the latter, when a sinner comes to believe the gospel. he or she is transformed, brought from spiritual death to life in Jesus Christ. He is justified for the first time.

    For the former, salvation is not a new thing for the convert; it is a return to a former state. A revivification. A return to spiritual life. A second justification.

    1. I disagree we ought to follow it. I am a paedobaptist. I also am inclined toward universal infant salvation.

      I don't see how universal infant salvation affects informed positions on baptism. Perhaps if one held to the view that one ought to be baptised if and only if one is elect, then it would affect it, but that's a bad position. The pedobaptist may hold that all and only visible church members ought to be baptised (and one becomes a member of the visible church through profession or by birth to a professor), and since all infants are not members of the visible church, all oughtn't be baptised.

      Your remarks about the former don't follow at all, so the point you tried to obliquely make is unwarranted.

    2. Though I'm a credobaptist, I agree with Mr. Fletcher that universal infant salvation wouldn't imply universal infant baptism for a paedobaptist. And, as Steve Hays has mentioned in a post today, universal infant salvation doesn't require that every infant be in a state of salvation. I see no reason to think universal infant salvation requires "a return to a former state…a second justification". If a person is going to live until age ninety, why think God justified him as an infant merely because he would have been justified in infancy if he'd died as an infant?

  6. This may be a difference without a distinction, but it seems pretty important to me. I do not hold to universal infant salvation, however, the question is not "are all infants saved", the question is "are all infants WHO DIE saved?" There are plenty of infants who do not die.

    I used to frame this discussion as "all babies are saved, all adults aren't, therefore at some point, a baby loses his salvation and needs to gain it again." I'd add "age of accountability" for good measure. But that's being disingenuous. It should be framed as "does God allow unelect people to die in infancy?" We can't tell by virtue of age whether or not a person is "saved" any more than we can tell by hair color, and this perspective protects that truth.

    Pro-infant salvation folks would not say "Hey, because your living child is an infant, he is one of the elect", rather, they would say "Because your child died when he was an infant, hat shows he was elect."

    Likewise, the argument I used before of "Just kill all the babies before they become unsaved" is invalid. God is still in charge, and if it is His will that no unelect person dies in infancy, who am I to frustrate His will?

    1. I think "universal infant salvation" is a shorthand expression for those who die before the age of discretion.

      That said, to be it seems arbitrary to contend that if Stalin died at 5, he'd go to heaven, but if he died at 25, he'd go to hell–as if salvation comes down to lucky or unlucky timing.

    2. There are those who hold that all who die in infancy are elect. And there are those who hold that all infants without exception are actually saved. I have had discussions with such people. (Of course, they are almost invariably Pelagians.)

      I strongly suspect that Jason Engwer is a part of the first group. However, I have two points:

      1) Use of the language of “universal infant salvation ” makes one sound like a member of the second group.

      2) Some early church writers would have been members of the second group.

      Just asking for clarity.

    3. I'm not sure that distinction makes any logical sense. If all infants without exception are saved, then all people without exception are saved, except perhaps those who never leave the fetal stage and enter the infancy stage. We all were once infants. You'd have to think that me-as-an-infant and me-now are literally different people to think that it's even metaphysically possible for the former to be saved and the other not. I have to think you meant something different, but I don't see how to fit your words to something different.

    4. People who hold that view would say that we fall from grace the first time we sin past the age of accountability.