Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pope Revises Limbo - What Does That Mean?

In a recent AP article, Pope Benedict XVI was reported as having "reversed centuries of traditional Roman Catholic teaching on limbo, approving a Vatican report released Friday that says there were 'serious' grounds to hope that children who die without being baptized can go to heaven." The report came from the International Theological Commission, which is a Vatican advisory panel. This commission recommended reassessing the traditional teaching on limbo "in light of 'pressing' pastoral needed - primarily the growing number of abortions and infants born to non-believers who died without being baptized."

Limbo, according to The Harpercollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1995), is a "place or state of natural happiness for the nonbaptized dead." At issue for the Catholic church in developing this doctrine is " the reality of original sin and the necessity of Baptism for salvation." The doctrine of limbo was developed by medieval theologians who wished "to mediate the harshness of Augustine's position," who contended that unbaptized babies go to hell. This was in response to Pelagius' position that Baptism was not necessary for salvation. Augustine, though stating that the unbaptized babies went to hell, did assert that they would not "suffer all its pains because they are not guilty of personal sin."

Technically speaking, limbo "is a place or state where unbaptized persons enjoy a natural happiness, though they remain excluded form the Beatific Vision." However, although long taught by the church, there is no "formal doctrine" on this matter. Apparently, from a Catholic theological perspective, it is, as we Lutherans might call it, an "open question."

The report and its endorsement by Benedict therefore "does not carry the authority of a papal encyclical or even the weight of a formal document form the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," according the AP article. Thus, the pope seems to have given a mild stamp of approval to those who wish to call into question a non-essential doctrine that nevertheless remains accepted within the broader sphere of Catholic Tradition. Or something like that.

It is interesting, however, to note that report stressed that "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge." It then went on to further indicate that "No one can know for certain what becomes of unbaptized babies since Scripture is largely silent on the matter."

From a Lutheran perspective we have long held that one should speak only to the degree that the Scriptures do, and where they are silent we should remain silent as well. Thus, Calvin's doctrine regarding election was a problem when he decided to say more than the scriptures said concerning those who were not elected to salvation, coming up with his 'logical' solution of a double-predestination. It is understandable that a doctrine such as limbo would have come about, especially considering the discomfort theologians had with Augustine's conclusions. It is also understandable how Augustine arrived at his position in reaction to Pelagius. However, the proposed solutions in both cases ventured to conclude beyond what God had revealed.

No one, naturally, wants to conclude that unbaptized babies would be lost in any way. Nor do we need to. However, saying that God automatically welcomes these into heaven independent of his means of grace by some other means is also saying more than we should. So what should we say? We know that God is indeed a merciful God. And it is to his mercy that we commend them. Period.

One pastor commented in response to this issue that God has limited us to the means of grace, but He certainly has not limited himself. That is an appealing thought and seems to easily solve the unsolveable paradox here. However, where in scripture does God ever indicate that He works independent of Word and Sacrament? Even when he created the world he brought all things into existence by the power of his spoken Word, through which he has created faith in every believer since that day.

There are many unanswered questions in theology. And answering that which is intended to remain hidden in the private counsel of God alone is always tempting. Although mystery may be appealing in one sense, it is frustrating in another. We have an insatiable need to know.

However, we are called only to act on that which we do know. What we know is that the Lord has called his church to make disciples of all nations by Baptism and the proclamation of the Word. That's the means He has given to us with which to accomplish this mission. These are the means to which he has revealed as being the only source of salvation. Nothing more and nothing less. So we endeavor to baptize our children as we always have. We don't wait. We recognize the importance of this means and emphasize it to our parents. As was mentioned before, the theological issues at state involve original sin (which brings death) and Baptism as a means to salvation. And for those who are not baptized? We leave them to the mercy of God. Period. What more can we say?


L P Cruz said...

I seem to think we have the same views here though of course, yours has more precise articulation than mine. Sorry for the plug,


I wonder what you think

L P Cruz said...

Pr Don,

I am not a professional theologian like you though I have had academic training in Religious Studies. I am new to being Lutheran though I was exposed to it a long time ago. But as David Scaer I think said - it is like poison, it gets into your blood eventually. So, I like to bounce of my ideas and be guided by more skillful theologs than me.

I am glad I am in step on this issue.

D. Engebretson said...

I think that those who are "new" to the Lutheran church sometimes are more astute than those who have been around awhile. You already are indicating a greater interest and affinity to theology than many other lay people, and I dare say too many "professional" theologians, or "church workers" as we like to call them.

Keep up the good work!