When we discuss Baptism as Lutherans practice it, inevitably the question of faith is a point of issue. It is mainly such because Lutherans practice infant baptism, which assumes the possibility of infant faith. But is this really possible? Can infants truly believe?
Some people believe that infants cannot have saving faith. Knowing that “faith comes from what is heard,” that is, the Word of God (Romans 10:17), they cannot believe that infants can hear and understand the Gospel in such a way as to have faith. For them it runs counter to all sound reason, experience, and psychology to believe that infants can believe.
Yet, what is faith? Is it a conscious premeditated decision which we can quantify and quote? And how much knowledge or intellectual understanding is required for it to be faith?
Obviously the quantity or size of faith is not a critical element, for Jesus once said that if we had faith “as a grain of mustard seed” we would be able to move mountains (Matt. 17:20). Also, faith is the antithesis of assured knowledge of all that is going to happen. For Paul wrote that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Faith is essentially trust –absolute trust without doubt (Matt. 21:21; James 1:6).
However, biblical faith in God (versus general “faith,” such as faith in a ship’s ability to stay afloat) is not something that we can create within ourselves. It is not an attitude or feeling or sense of inner conviction we can muster up at will. Ephesians 2:8 assures us that our salvation which is received by faith, is “not of your own doing, it is the gift of God.” In Romans 3:28 we are told “that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In Galatians 3:2, 3 Paul contrasts the receiving of the Spirit “by works of the law” and “by hearing with faith.” In Hebrews 12:2 Jesus is called the “author and finisher of our faith.”
However, having said all that, do we have any indication that children, especially very small children (even infants), really can have faith? And if they can have faith is it a true saving faith?
In Luke 18: 15 it says that people were bringing “even infants” to Jesus. The word in the Greek is brephe which means “baby, infant, newly born, unborn, small child.” In verse 16 Jesus says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The last word for child here is paidion, which can mean “a small child, an infant, one who has not reached their second birthday.” Here Jesus says that such small children were able to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. They can belong to it.
In Matthew 18:1-6 -- Jesus tells his disciples that “unless you turn and become like children (paidion) you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the next verse he refers to “whoever humbles himself like this child…” Does this mean simply that we must come to our Lord with a humble spirit? That would seem inadequate, since “entering the kingdom of heaven” is a matter of salvation, which is a matter of faith in Christ. Furthermore, Jesus expressly talks about “these little ones [mikros] believe in me”! (vs. 6) The word for “believe in” also means “to have faith in.” It is used frequently in the Gospels for adults regarding their faith in Jesus and His Word.
In Luke 10: 21 after the 70 disciples had returned from their mission, Jesus prayed: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes (napiois, a baby without full power of speech.).” In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul contrasts the power of human wisdom and learning with the so-called “foolishness” of proclaiming “Christ crucified.” In fact, he writes, the “world did not know God through wisdom,” but rather “through the folly of” the proclaimed Christ. The “word of the cross” is the actual “power” of salvation, not our natural reasoning abilities or intellect. As Paul would also say in Romans 1:16 of the “Gospel” or good news of salvation through Christ: “it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes.” ---It would appear that our intellect, as great a gift as it might be, can also get in the way of faith. Here Jesus surprises us by saying that the “hidden things” of God are revealed even to those who seem to have no obvious power or ability to reason or critically think.
In 2 Timothy 3: 14-16 Paul recalls how his protégé Timothy had “known the scriptures from childhood” which were “able to instruct [him] for salvation.” The word translated here as “childhood” is brephos which can mean “baby, infant, newly born.” Apparently Timothy had known the Word of God from a very early point in his life!
But wait a minute, you say. None of this makes any sense! Prove to me a child can believe as I do! And therein we have our key point. I cannot “prove” such a thing any more than I can “prove” God Himself exists. This is a matter of faith, not sight. We believe based on the promise of God's own Word.
Here is the rub: My reasoning mind claims one thing, but from the witness of Scripture we read another. The two are in conflict. The point is how I deal with the conflict. On the one hand I can deny there is a conflict. But that is ignoring the obvious. On the other hand I can simply remove the conflict by changing the meaning of the words to make them “fit” with my way of understanding. I cannot take it at face value. My reason must be the Lord of my understanding, not faith.
Dr. Uuras Saarnivaara in his book Scriptural Baptism writes the following:
“We have here a case in which Christ teaches one thing, and human reason, experience, and psychology teach an opposite thing. Christ says that infants, brephe, are acceptable to the kingdom of God – it is theirs. He also indicates that they receive it, since even grown-up people must receive it as infants. The reception must take place by faith only.
Human reason and psychology deny that infants can have faith. Jesus says that they can. You have to choose….where you follow your own reason and human psychology or Christ. I want to believe what Christ says of infants, even though I cannot understand it. Since the Lord says that infants can receive the kingdom of God, it is obvious that they can also be baptized….” (p. 18).(1)
God has blessed us with tremendous intellectual powers of reason, which we have used to solve some of the most perplexing problems of our times. But there is a limit to human reason. Theologians have talked about the magisterial use of reason and the ministerial use of reason. In other words, reason reigns supreme over all, even faith, or reason serves faith. Human reason within the unbelieving scientific community will gladly claim that reality is only that which is quantifiable by some scientific means of measurement. Yet we all know that the very fact of faith itself fails this test. So does the reality of the spiritual world, of angels and demons. True, some parapsychologists try to measure the paranormal world (ghosts), but hard-core scientists will not believe in anything unless it meets the strictest standards of human knowledge and reason.
Admittedly infant faith does not meet this test. Yet, it also does not fail it. No one can prove it is impossible. For Luther there was even an objective case to refer to in the Bible which made the argument possible in favor of infant baptism. He wrote: “Infants hear the Word of God when they are brought to Baptism; therefore they receive faith. This is proven in the case of John the Baptist who rejoiced in the womb when he heard the Word of God.” Read Luke 1: 41 where Mary “greets” Elizabeth and the unborn child John “leaps in the womb.” But is “greeting” the “Word of God”? We cannot know exactly what the greeting was, but a common form of greeting in Jesus’ day might be “rejoice, be glad” or even “peace be with you” – a very biblical desire. This was far more than the “hello” of today. Yet even if this argument is not convincing, consider who was in Mary’s womb. It was the Word of God in human flesh (John 1:14). John responded to the presence of this living Word of God by literally “leap[ing] in her womb.”
One final consideration is in order, which should not be used to “prove” infant faith, yet removes the immediate objection that infants are complete “blank slates” that only operate by some kind of reflex action. Through more recent scientific findings we have come to discover that infants are far more complex than we might have been led first to believe. It has been shown that infant brains have the capacity to process auditory and visual inputs and thus can process human language and make sense of their environment. Dr. Scaer writes that some studies have demonstrated that infants, even deaf children, are “born with grammatical categories which enable them to learn not one but several languages, and to keep these separate from each other, before they reach the age of one.” He also writes that “Many educational programs are based on the hypothesis that the first years are the most important for learning. Now this is not the basis for any argument for infant faith, but it certainly deserves more attention than those widely assumed but unproven claims that infants are without sufficient intellect, consciousness, or will.”(2)
Can infants have faith? Jesus and even Paul talk of them as if they do. Nothing in the Bible says explicitly that they cannot, even though we may “reason” that they cannot. And faith, as we see, is not defined by our power or the quantity of our intellect, knowledge or reason, but by God’s gift of life within us by the work of the Spirit.
Infant faith, in fact, is a powerful illustration of grace in action. Infants are highly dependant and helpless. They cannot do anything for themselves but cry. Yet in an amazing miracle God creates faith within them purely as a gift– a miracle, by the way, that is no less than the one he sustains in us each day!
(1) Uuras Saarnivaara, Ph.D., Th.D., Scriptural Baptism: A Dialog Between John Bapstead and Martin Childfont (New York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1953), 17.
(2) David P. Scaer, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Baptism, Vol. XI (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1999), 151. Note also that Scaer references an article by Annette Karmiloff-Smitth, “Annotation: The Extraordinary Cognitive Journey from Foetus through Infancy” in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 6/8 (1995): 1293-1313, from which some of these remarks are addressed.