Have you ever taken a seemingly insignificant topic, idea, or person, and delved into that subject learning all the interactions and facets connected to it? Several years ago a friend lent me the book Cod, which did exactly as described above. The author took this ubiquitous fish and explored it in the history of Western peoples, and lo and behold, not only did you learn about this fish, but the whole of history began to open with connections and causes you never grasped in high school Western Civ.
Theology works in similar ways. Taking a small tangential subject and exploring how others have wrestled with one issue opens up the way that person thinks about God, Christ, Sin, Salvation and the Church. When all research is done and the topic is laid bare on the table, you end up with much more than you expected.
Adam Harwood did this with The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal. Harwood is a professor at the Georgia Baptist college, Truett McConnell, and grapples with an issue painful for anyone who has lost children and thorny for the Christian friend or clergy called to minister to a friend in time of crisis.
This is not some dry academic tome, although there is no doubt he has done his homework. It is packaged in a readable work, full of personal stories and historical narratives, navigating the tragic nature and steps of logic necessary for such a topic.
The book begins with the author stating his assumptions about the topic and how he came to interact with this subject and the theologians he has wrestled with along the way. Related topics and questions are considered, and then he jumps headlong into the historical treatment of the fate of infants.
His historical survey looks at both East and West, but the East is a small chapter compared to the bulk of the book dedicated to Western views, primarily in the Reformed, Anabaptist, and Baptist traditions. This is to be expected. Harwood himself is Baptist, and he should know his tradition well, and there seems to be enough diversity in these views allowing for a lengthy discussion.
His review of the East is commendable, because he includes and gives credence to a portion of Christianity often ignored. Irenaeus, Gregory the Theologian (Nazianus), and Gregory of Nyssa are the prime theologians considered. And while it is a small chapter, he does well, because the East doesn’t have many of the theological problems making this a tougher issue for the West. One fact stands out clearly in this book: Western theology is primarily a struggle and response to Augustine. This is not true only in the Roman Catholic world, but the Protestant world as well.
The problem of the West is man inherits a sin nature from Adam, and in some quarters this inheritance includes the guilt or condemnation of Adam. So each person is born condemned and deserving of eternal punishment. Each theologian tries to escape this problem with a solution including exceptional mercy on the part of God (through baptism or family ties) or an inherited nature not equating to inherited guilt.
In the East, there is no sense of a sin nature man inherits. What man inherits from Adam is mortality, and this existence of death is the breeding ground of sin. Being born into this breeding ground of sin or “state of sin”, leads people to sin. So whether a man lives a life free from the commission of sin, he still is in need of a Savior from the bondage of death. When God became man through the person of Jesus Christ, He sanctified human nature delivering it from death by using the cross to inject life in the grave destroying its power upon man and shattering the bonds holding man in slavery. So the infant who dies, has been sanctified and saved by Christ’s death.
Several points of interest arose in my readings of the Western theologians speaking to their theology as a whole and how it interacts with the East (if unknowingly).
- The assumption by many of the Western theologians that salvation is deeply tied to a person’s understanding, continues to bubble up, and presents problems. In some cases, there is a sense salvation occurs through knowledge of God, whereas in the East, salvation is through communion with God.
- He references a study on the Moral Life of Babies done by a research university full of interesting data to explore at a later time.
- Western theologians are so afraid of Pelagianism (man does not inherit a sin nature nor guilt, and is capable of saving himself by living free from sin), they never want to question whether a person inherits a sinful nature and the implications it may bring.
- One theologian comes close to the Orthodox view: “a person who is unable to make moral judgments makes that person subject to the effects of the presence of sin but not the guilt of sin.” The illustration used is the children of the rebellious Israelites in the Exodus. These children were not guilty or responsible for their parents lack of faith, but they still suffered the consequences by wandering in the wilderness.
- Zwingli, who I always thought of as one of the more radical early Reformers, said something soundeding very Orthodox: “For what could be said more briefly and plainly than that original sin is not sin but disease and that the children of Christians are not condemned to eternal punishment on account of that disease.”
The author eventually concludes each person inherits a sin nature from Adam, but he does not inherit the sentence of condemnation upon Adam. The only sin where man can be judged is the sin he is morally aware of committing. Upon become morally aware then a person is guilty of sin. Therefore an infant or small child would die innocently and be covered under the sacrifice of Christ through the mercy of God.
If you want a glimpse of the way Western Christianity and the Protestant world in particular understands sin and salvation, the study of this particular topic provides an entryway into those broader topics. Harwood does a thorough job collating a large amount of information into a small readable volume.