One of the most contested aspects of Lutheran theology when talking to people tends to be the concept that infants have faith. Luther vigorously upheld the ancient practice of infant baptism against the anabaptist movement, and also sought to uphold baptismal efficacy. An objection which he often encountered was that since salvation is by faith alone, how can baptism save an infant, who does not yet have faith? Rather than answering the question in the way that Augustine does, wherein a parent’s faith or the church’s faith is imputed to the child, Luther argued that infants do indeed have faith.
In opposition to what human reason might suppose, infants can have faith. The Biblical testimony on this is clear. Look for example at Psalm 22.
“Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” (Psalm 22:9-10)
In this Psalm, David discusses his faith, and in doing so references the fact that he had faith at a time when he was still nursing. How is this possible? The answer is just as clear, “you made me trust you.” In Reformation theology (and all Augustinian theology for that matter)faith is a gift of God. It is not a human achievement, not something that one chooses out of a free will. If this were so, then infant faith would be impossible. But according to a monergistic scheme, faith is a divine gift, a divine work through the operation of the Holy Spirit. This being the case, why is it not possible that God could do such a work for an infant? To argue otherwise seems to imply that there is something necessary in a person for faith to be a possibility. This is in opposition to Reformation theology.
Peter Leithart makes the argument that infant faith is proven by the fact that we talk to infants. If we spend time talking to infants, and interacting with them, we do so because we know that they have an awareness of others. However limited that awareness might be, it is apparent. Are we, as Christians, willing to say that this is the case with other human beings but not God? Is not the reality of God even more apparent and real than that of creation? An infant has to constantly look outside of themselves to receive help; they look to others to get food, to move to where they need to be,and for every type of sustenance in life. Is this not precisely what faith is? Looking to one outside of ourselves as helpless creatures?
Just to make this more clear, look at a couple more passages. First, look at the example of John the baptist. Luke writes, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41) John clearly had faith even before birth. It might be objected that this is not a valid example because of John’s unique place in redemptive history. This may be the case, but what it does demonstrate is that infant faith is a possibility, not an absurdity.
Look at Matthew 18:1-6
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
This text demonstrates that children can and do believe at a young age. The greek term used here “παιδία” usually has reference to an infant or young child.
There is a parallel text in Luke,
“Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the 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.” (Luke 18:15-17)
This text is significant because it uses the term “βρέφη” which refers to infants rather to children in general. Jesus plainly admits in this text that infants can obtain the kingdom of God. How does one obtain the kingdom of God? Through faith.
Some might argue that this is an invalid argument because the point Jesus is making is not about infant faith and salvation, but about humility. He is using a child merely as an illustration. Even if this is the case, this does not negate the fact that the illustration is real. Even is he is primarily making the point that becoming like a child is necessary to enter the kingdom, this is only the case because children indeed do have faith. He says that “to such belongs the kingdom of God.” This includes both infants and those who approach God with childlike faith.
This story is apparently so important that it is included in all three synoptic accounts. Mark writes similarly,
“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me;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.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.” (Mark 10:13-16)
Thus it is apparent that infants can have faith. There are numerous examples of this such as in the case of John the Baptist and David. This is clear due to the nature of faith as a gift. If faith as a divine act of the Spirit, surely it can be applied to infants. Finally, this is demonstrated by the fact that Jesus says that infants and small children can have faith and enter the kingdom of God.