Cody Rudisill's Infant Salvation in Evangelical Theology, pt. 2 - the response

A few weeks ago I posted a piece of work that Cody Rudisill, a commentator here, had put together on the subject of infant salvation - whether newborns and young children would be saved or damned eternally in the context of Calvinist Christianity. Cody clearly showed the problems in Calvinist thought and presented a good syllogism.

In this piece, Cody revisits the problem and deals with the typically problematic response that he received within Christian academia. See what you think:
Infant Salvation in Evangelical Theology, pt. 2: Dr. Alexander Pruss’s Rebuttal

I began working on the doctrine of infant salvation as a Christian of a Calvinist persuasion just beginning my studies at Ligonier Academy under Dr. R.C. Sproul—a popular spokesperson and long-time professor of Reformed systematic theology. As I started packing away systematic treatments of biblical theology and commentaries on the Westminster confession, I became distraught at the apparent lack of concern for the death of infants and their salvation. In turning to peer-reviewed articles, the theologians were less interested in making systematically coherent arguments for the salvation of deceased infants than they were with discussing election or paedobaptism. So for class I wrote an argument against the popular views presented by Christians for why infants who die are in fact saved (my previous post was but a summary). My professor, Dr. Fowler White, disagreed but only retorted with the same old rhetoric. Disappointed I sent my article to Mr. Paul Helm, who actually helped me refine my argument and solution (originally I had a proposed a solution to the problems I have been raising—now I see the problems it is fraught with; for the interested reader who wants to see the syllogism, I have no problem with posting it in the comments section—just ask). I took my freshly refined argument and contacted Drs. Alexander Pruss and David K. Clark. Both took issue with my premises; this article focuses on the rebuttal provided by Dr. Pruss.

Associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Baylor University, Dr. Pruss is wonderfully intelligent—if you’re an atheist I highly recommend his blog: -- it’s powerfully academic and thought-provoking (he also contributes to the Prosblogion). Dr. Pruss took immediate issue with what he believed was a limited view of faith in my presentation. In a private correspondence, he explained that rather than saying that infants cannot exercise faith he wanted to expand the scope of who can have faith—where even infants have the ability. Admittedly, my argument creates a sharp cutoff between when you cannot and can have faith (and I believe Christians agree when they talk about an “age of accountability”); Pruss’s position allows for degrees in one’s ability: certainly adults have a greater degree of responsibility/ability corresponding with their intellectual maturity than does an infant who may only have the ability to exercise faith in a very small measure. So Dr. Pruss prefers to think of faith as “accept[ing] Jesus to the extent that one is able.” Infants have a small degree of ability, but it is ability enough to have faith according to his understanding.

In my discussion with professor Pruss he goes on to provide some speculation (and he definitely understands it to be speculation) on what an infant’s faith might look like. It could in fact be a derivative of our parent’s faith. “We trust our parents, and we are ready to accept what they tell us about Christ,” says Dr. Pruss, who continues that “in some way the content of their faith is something we implicitly accept.”

There was one comment in our short dialogue that I found to be odd. For example, while Dr. Pruss believes infants have a small degree of ability (that is, not to the degree that adults do) he also thinks that “by grace the infant can receive such ability.” This is strange because if the infant already has the ability (no matter how minute it is) why would they need God’s grace to give them an ability they already have? In his defense, the dialogue was very short and I don’t want to pretend to have received a detailed formulation of his understanding of infant salvation.

Before moving on it is probably important to discuss Dr. Pruss’s understanding of original sin—something he doesn’t expend much energy unpacking for me, but important nonetheless. After explaining to me his dissatisfaction with the typical Calvinist answer to the question of infant salvation, he makes a clear distinction between personally committed sins and original sin. For sure, this is nothing new. However, his understanding of original sin, as he set forth parenthetically, is unusual; I’ll let you read it for yourself.

I am not happy with this solution [the Calvinist solution], because I think Christ’s salvation is needed to counter not just personally committed sins but also original sin (which I take to be a lack of a loving relationship with God). [Emphasis mine]

I didn’t get a chance to inquire further into this perspective (as I’ll say more about this later) to see just how his understanding of original sin actually differed from a personally committed sin. It seems to me that to lack a loving relationship with God implies that one is capable of having a loving relationship with him (this would seem to be the case if we interpret Pruss to be saying that he grants everyone the ability to have faith), and if they are capable of doing so and do not have one with God then it was a personal choice not to have a loving relationship with God. At the least, I would consider it a sin of omission which would still place it outside of the realm of original sin.

All in all I can see the immediate appeal of Dr. Pruss’s position. It eliminates the need for an “age of accountability” and any sharp cutoff between inability and ability. Moreover, by increasing the scope of who can have faith it gives everyone a chance to accept Jesus and to do so according to one’s own ability. No one is outside of the reach of God’s grace!

In spite of the niceties of his position, I believe the problems it creates are overwhelming. As can be seen in my outline of his basic disagreement with my argument, Dr. Pruss is not placing the stress of his rebuttal on my view of original sin; rather, he pinpoints my take on the nature of saving faith. This being the case I take it that he and I are on the same page in understanding that faith is necessary to cover all sins, including original sin. Therefore, I don’t need to harp on his interpretation of original sin. What should first and foremost be confronted in his presentation is not how infants are saved, but whether they are. Obviously infants are saved, in his opinion, by their having exercised faith to the degree they are capable of. If that’s the case, who says that they actually do exercise faith? Let’s make this especially clear. Just because a foetus has the ability to exercise faith does not mean that it knows it has such ability or can even begin to understand how to use that ability. For example, as a 5-month-old it could be said that I had the ability to start talking like my parents were—I was a normally maturing person, anyways—but I didn’t know I had this ability, nor know how to begin exercising it. Even granting that somehow a foetus can exercise faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ does not mean that the foetus will decide to do so. But I’m not willing to grant that. To me it’s like telling someone in a burning building that you have provided a way for them to be saved and not proceeding to tell them how they can do so! This is particularly discomforting for Christian ministers who cannot comfort parents who have deceased infants.

This is a great analogy which clearly shows the weakness in the argument. Surely an ability to do something is dependent, defined even, by the cognitive knowledge of how to do it. A latent potential isn't an ability, otherwise all able-bodied people in the world have the ability to play ice hockey. This is wrong. They have the ability to learn how to play ice hockey. This seems to be an equivocation of the word ability where it can mean both potential and a skill set.
At this point we should ask does an infant’s faith even closely resemble what Dr. Pruss understands to be biblical faith? Accepting Jesus and having a loving relationship with God are two facets he mentions. If we take the New Testament as a whole then biblical faith means accepting the historical propositions about the person and work of Jesus Christ and having a trusting relationship with him. In our discussion I pointed out to him that his argument most struggles with the hypothetical situation where a human dies at the very moment after conception. Such an individual lacks the physiological properties necessary to exercise a biblical faith involving both content and trust. As a syllogism (where X is my hypothetical individual):

1. That everyone has the ability to exercise saving faith in Jesus Christ may or may not be true.
2. Anyone who has the proper belief content about--and relationship with--Jesus Christ is exercising saving faith.
3. But X did not exercise saving faith in Jesus Christ.
4. Therefore, X either
i. had the cognitive and relational ability to do so and chose not to
ii. X did not have the cognitive and relational ability.
5. X did not have the cognitive and relational ability.
6. Therefore, X was not able.
7. Therefore, it is not true that everyone has the ability to exercise saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Unless there is a sufficient reason for her not being so, X is here damned.

I think it is fairly obvious to everyone that such an individual as I proposed hypothetically above is entirely incapable of housing propositional statements—let alone ones about the person and work of Jesus Christ. But what if by God’s grace such an individual was given the ability. According to Dr. Pruss this faith would be a derivative of the parents’. I struggle with this for two major reasons.
I'm not surprised - it's no definition of faith I have ever hear of. It's flatly incoherent. A particular faith is a cognitive pastime. It is not a hereditary meme. I can't inherit an appreciation for Brahms, or a belief in UFOs! What nonsense!
The first I mentioned earlier: even if God gives one the ability does not mean the foetus (or infant) will exercise that ability. But I also can’t see how having the faith of one’s parents is at all biblical. Faith requires an individual trusting in the propositional content about the person and work of Christ and having a personal relationship with him—not with him through your parents. In this case the content of the fetuses belief is directed toward the parents and not Jesus Christ.

To sum this up, I think Dr. Pruss needs to prove more than that infants can have faith to however small of a degree. He needs to show us whether infants do in fact use this ability to actually exercise saving faith. Moreover, if the faith of an infant is a derivative of the parents’, then Dr. Pruss has himself created a sharp cutoff between a time when an individual’s faith is that of their parents and when it becomes that of their own.
This seems to be a case of the sorites paradox. Such a claim for a cut-off is, at best, entirely arbitrary, but more likely incoherent.
In addition, if an infant akin to the one in my hypothetical scenario above cannot have a content or filial-based relationship with Jesus Christ like adults, then that foetus’s faith is not of a different degree it is of an entirely different kind! I’ve been over a year in waiting, and have yet to receive a reply.

What can we learn from this? That Calvinism, no matter what way you look at it, condemns small children to eternal torture.

Now, back to that all-loving God... Where did I see him?... I know he's around here somewhere...Well I think he was, some 2000 years ago...

[Thanks to Cody Rudishill for his good work here.]