Home > Comment > Explaining R. B. C. Howell’s position on infant salvation as expressed in his book “The Evils of Infant Baptism”

Explaining R. B. C. Howell’s position on infant salvation as expressed in his book “The Evils of Infant Baptism”

I have been blogging through R. B. C. Howell’s book entitled ‘The Evils of Infant Baptism.‘ I have reached chapter nine whereby he argues that infant baptism is an evil because it subverts the true doctrine of infant salvation. I have received several comments from my readers who are concerned with Howell’s reasoning in this chapter. These comments have not raised concerns concerning Howell’s denial of infant baptism, but rather raise concerns concerning Howell’s view that all infants are saved who die in infancy. My reader’s believe it to be strange that Howell would base his denial of infant baptism on the point of subverting the doctrine of infant salvation, however, when we turn to great theologians who had come before him, we will see that many held the position that infants dying in infancy are saved by God’s grace.

It would not be strange that Howell believed in infant salvation, if many of the leading theologians before his time or who were his contemporaries also held to this same view. So in this article we are not building a case for the doctrine of infant salvation per se, but rather seek to answer the question of whether or not many of the leading theologians before his time or during his time, also believed in infant salvation.

I start off by quoting Howell himself. This quote comes directly from his book ‘The Evils of Infant Baptism,’ chapter nine, ‘Infant Baptism is an evil because it Subverts the true doctrine of Infant Salvation,’ after which Howell proceeds to defend this doctrine:

“Every child dying in infancy is saved. This is the doctrine of the Baptist denomination. Not of a few only, nor of our churches, and people, of the present day alone. It is the doctrine which has been invariably held by us in all countries, and in every age. It is the doctrine taught by the word of God.”

Here it is clear that Howell was convinced that this doctrine was the position of all Baptists. However, not all Baptists held to this view, even though some certainly did hold this opinion.

Now I will quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith, (Chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling):

III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

Here is some commentary on this point found in the WCF:

“It is unlikely that the Westminster Divines were making the point that ‘non-elect infants dying in infancy’ are not regenerated! Rather the contrast is between elect infants that die in infancy and elect infants who go on to mature years. However, there was certainly a reluctance on the part of some to speak in the less ambiguous terms of the Baptist Confession. Thus Shedd can speak of ‘elder Calvinists’[1] who, unlike John Owen for example,[2] were reluctant ‘to make the circle of election large enough to include all dying infants, and not a part only.’ This he claims, was due to a fear of Arminianism.[3]

Gary Brady- Infant Salvation: A Reformed Baptist Perspective- [1] Shedd, op cit, p. 109., [2] Shedd, op cit, p. 111; Strong, op cit p. 663. I have been unable to trace Strong’s incorrect reference to Owen., [3] Shedd, op cit, p. 111.

The London Baptist Confession of Faith, (Chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling) reads thus:

3. Elect Infants dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit; who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons, who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the Ministry of the Word.

Though this statement in the confession affirms that some infants who die in infancy are saved, nevertheless the ambiguity relative to the phrase and the difficulty of pointing to a direct affirmation from the Bible on this issue prompted one confessionally Reformed Baptist to suggest that perhaps its framers should have said nothing at all.

“The Bible is silent on this issue. It would have been better, therefore, for the Confession simply to say nothing at this point, for that, I am convinced is precisely what the Bible says.”

Sam Waldron- A Modern Exposition of 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, p. 150.

However, the confession does use the terminology, ‘elect infants,’ therefore stating that at least some infants are saved who die in infancy. I believe that this is the same terminology used by the WCF and is not to be contrasted between non-elect infants and elect infants, but between elect infants who die in infancy and elect infants who grow up to eventually profess faith in Christ.

Many believe that John Calvin’s writings are not clear enough in order to determine what he believed concerning this subject. I will give a few quotes from his written materials and let you, the reader, decide whether or not Calvin believed that all infants dying in infancy are saved.

“Infants are not barred from the Kingdom of Heaven just because they happen to depart the present life before they have been immersed in water.”

John Calvin- Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 4, p. 319 (pdf version), Battles Translation

“I everywhere teach that no one can be justly condemned and perish except on account of actual sin; and to say that the countless mortals taken from life while yet infants are precipitated from their mother’s arms into eternal death is a blasphemy to be universally detested.”

John Calvin, in Augustus H. Strong “Systematic Theology”, page 663.

B. B. Warfield wrote an article on the ‘History of Doctrine’ and another article on ‘The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation.’ This is what he says:

“If only a single infant dying in irresponsible infancy be saved, the whole Arminian principle is traversed. If all infants dying such are saved, but doubtless the majority of the human race hitherto, have entered into life by a non-Arminian pathway”

B. B. Warfield- Two Studies on the History of Doctrine, p. 230.

B. B. Warfield shows the development of the doctrine of infant salvation among Reformed Theologians. He outlines Zwingli’s doctrine of salvation:

1. That all believers are elect and hence are saved, though we cannot know infallibly who are true believers except in our own case.

2. All children of believers dying in infancy are elect and hence are saved, for this rests on God’s immutable promise.

3. It is probable, from the superabundance of the gift of grace over the offense, that all infants dying such are elect and saved; so that death in infancy is a sign of election; and although this must be left with God, it is certainly rash and even impious to affirm their damnation.

4. All who are saved, whether adult or infant, are saved only by the free grace of God’s election and through the redemption of Christ.

The central principle of Zwingli’s teaching is not only the common possession of all Calvinists, but the essential postulate of their system. They can differ among themselves only in their determination of what the signs of election and reprobation are, and in their interpretation of these signs. On these grounds Calvinists early divided into five classes:

1. From the beginning a few held with Zwingli that death in infancy is a sign of election, and hence that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into glory. After Zwingli, Bishop Hooper was probably the first to embrace this view. It has more lately become the ruling view, and we may select Augustus Toplady and Robert S. Candlish as its types. The latter, for example, writes: “In many ways, I apprehend, it may be inferred from Scripture that all dying in infancy are elect, and are therefore saved… The whole analogy of the plan of saving mercy seems to favour the same view. And now it may be seen, if I am not greatly mistaken, to be put beyond question by the bare fact that little children die… The death of little children must be held to be one of the fruits of redemption…”

2. At the opposite extreme a very few held that the only sure sign of election is faith with its fruits, and, therefore, we can have no real ground of knowledge concerning the fate of any infant; as, however, God certainly has His elect among them too, each man can cherish the hope that his children are of the elect. Peter Martyr approaches this sadly agnostic position (which was afterward condemned by the Synod of Dort), writing: “Neither am I to be thought to promise salvation to all the children of the faithful which depart without the sacrament, for if I should do so I might be counted rash; I leave them to be judged by the mercy of God, seeing I have no certainty concerning the secret election and predestination; but I only assert that those are truly saved to whom the divine election extends, although baptism does not intervene… Just so, I hope well concerning infants of this kind, because I see them born from faithful parents; and this thing has promises that are uncommon; and although they may not be general, quoad omnes,… yet when I see nothing to the contrary it is right to hope well concerning the salvation of such infants.” The great body of Calvinists, however, previous to the present century, took their position between these extremes.

3. Many held that faith and the promise are sure signs of election, and accordingly all believers and their children are certainly saved; but that the lack of faith and the promise is an equally sure sign of reprobation, so that all the children of unbelievers, dying such, are equally certainly lost. The younger Spanheim, for example, writes: “Confessedly, therefore, original sin is a most just cause of positive reprobation. Hence no one fails to see what we should think concerning the children of pagans dying in their childhood; for unless we acknowledge salvation outside of God’s covenant and Church (like the Pelagians of old, and with them Tertullian, Epiphanius, Clement of Alexandria, of the ancients, and of the moderns, Andradius, Ludovicus Vives, Erasmus, and not a few others, against the whole Bible), and suppose that all the children of the heathen, dying in infancy, are saved, and that it would be a great blessing to them if they should be smothered by the midwives or strangled in the cradle, we should humbly believe that they are justly reprobated by God on account of the corruption (labes) and guilt (reatus) derived to them by natural propagation. Hence, too, Paul testifies (Romans 5:14) that death has passed upon them which have not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, and distinguishes and separates (1 Corinthians 7:14) the children of the covenanted as holy from the impure children of unbelievers.”

4. More held that faith and the promise are certain signs of election, so that the salvation of believers” children is certain, while the lack of the promise only leaves us in ignorance of God’s purpose; nevertheless that there is good ground for asserting that both election and reprobation have place in this unknown sphere. Accordingly they held that all the infants of believers, dying such, are saved, but that some of the infants of unbelievers, dying such, are lost. Probably no higher expression of this general view can be found than John Owen’s. He argues that there are two ways in which God saves infants:

(1) “by interesting them in the covenant, if their immediate or remote parents have been believers. He is a God of them and of their seed, extending his mercy unto a thousand generations of them that fear him;

(2) by his grace of election, which is most free, and not tied to any conditions; by which I make no doubt but God taketh many unto him in Christ whose parents never knew, or had been despisers of, the gospel.”

5. Most Calvinists of the past, however, have simply held that faith and the promise are marks by which we may know assuredly that all those who believe and their children, dying such, are elect and saved, while the absence of sure marks of either election or reprobation in infants, dying such outside the covenant, leaves us without ground for inference concerning them, and they must be left to the judgment of God, which, however hidden from us, is assuredly just and holy and good. This agnostic view of the fate of uncovenanted infants has been held, of course, in conjunction with every degree of hope or the lack of hope concerning them, and thus in the hands of the several theologians it approaches each of the other views, except, of course, the second, which separates itself from the general Calvinistic attitude by allowing a place for reprobation even among believers’ infants, dying such. Petrus de Witte may stand for one example. He says: “We must adore God’s judgments and not curiously inquire into them. Of the children of believers it is not to be doubted but that they shall be saved, inasmuch as they belong unto the covenant. But because we have no promise of the children of unbelievers we leave them to the judgment of God.” Matthew Henry and our own Jonathan Dickinson may also stand as types. It is this cautious, agnostic view which has the best historical right to be called the general Calvinistic one. Van Mastricht correctly says that while the Reformed hold that infants are liable to reprobation, yet “concerning believers’ infants… they judge better things. But unbelievers’ infants, because the Scriptures determine nothing clearly on the subject, they judge should be left to the divine discretion.”

B. B. Warfield- The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation, pgs. 281-283 (pdf version)

Again B. B. Warfield elaborates on the development of the doctrine of infant salvation among Reformed theologians:

“Toplady, and Doddridge, and Thomas Scott, and John Newton, and James P. Wilson, and Nathan L. Rice, and Robert J. Breckinridge, and Robert S. Candlish, and Charles Hodge, and the whole body of those of recent years whom the Calvinistic churches delight to honor, that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into His glory — not because original sin alone is not deserving of eternal punishment (for all are born children of wrath), nor because they are less guilty than others (for relative innocence would merit only relatively light punishment, not freedom from all punishment), nor because they die in infancy (for that they die in infancy is not the cause but the effect of God’s mercy toward them), but simply because God in His infinite love has chosen them in Christ, before the foundation of the world, by a loving foreordination of them unto adoption as sons in Jesus Christ. Thus, as they hold, the Reformed theology has followed the light of the Word until its brightness has illuminated all its corners, and the darkness has fled away.”

B. B. Warfield- The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation, pgs. 285-286 (pdf version)

Among the Baptist there has also been a variation of opinions on this subject. Charles Spurgeon certainly believed that all infants dying in infancy were saved. Spurgeon answered the charge of hyper-Calvinists who had begun to adopt Arminian teaching of the damnation of infants:

Among the cross falsehoods which have been uttered against the Calvinists proper, is the wicked calumny that we hold the damnation of little infants. A baser lie was never uttered. There may have existed somewhere, in some corner of the earth, a miscreant who would dare to say that there were infants in hell, but I have never met with him nor have I met with’ a man who ever saw such a person. We say, with regard to infants, Scripture saith but very little, and, therefore, where Scripture is confessedly scant, it is for no man to determine dogmatically. But I think I speak for the entire body, or certainly with exceedingly few exceptions, and those unknown to me, when I say we hold that all infants are elect of God and are therefore saved, and we look to this as being the means by which Christ shall see of the travail of his soul to a great degree, and we do sometimes hope that thus the multitude of the saved shall be made to exceed the multitude of the lost. Whatever views our friends may hold upon the point, they are not necessarily connected with Calvinistic doctrine. I believe that the Lord Jesus, who said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” doth daily and constantly receive into his loving arms those tender ones who are only shown, and then snatched away to heaven. Our hymns are no ill witness to our faith on this point, and one of them runs thus:

Millions of infant souls compose

The family above.”

“Toplady, one of the keenest of Calvinists, was of this number. ‘In my remarks,’ says he, ‘on Dr. Nowell, I testified my firm belief that the souls of all departed infants are with God in glory; that in the decree of predestination to life, God hath included all whom he decreed to take away in infancy, and that the decree of reprobation hath nothing to do with them.’ Nay, he proceeds farther, and asks with reason, how the anti- Calvinistic system of conditional salvation and election or good works foreseen, will suit with the salvation of infants? It is plain that Arminians and Pelagians must introduce a new principle of election, and in so far as the salvation of infants is concerned, become Calvin. Is it not an argument in behalf of Calvinism, that its principle is uniform throughout, and that no change is needed on the ground on which man is saved, whether young or old? John Newton, of London, the friend of Cowper, noted for his Calvinism, holds that the children in heaven exceed its adult inhabitants in all their multitudinous array. Gill, a very champion of Calvinism, held the doctrine, that all dying in infancy are saved. An intelligent modern writer, (Dr. Russell, of Dundee. ) also a Calvinist maintains the same views; and when it is considered that nearly one-half of the human race die in early years, it is easy to see what a vast accession must be daily and hourly making to the blessed population of heaven.”

Charles H. Spurgeon- Exposition of the Doctrines of Grace, Thursday, April 11th 1861

A letter written by Spurgeon:

To [A Correspondent].

NEWINGTON, S.E., June 12, 1869.

DEAR SIR, —

I have never, at any time in my life, said, believed, or imagined that any infant, under any circumstances, would be cast into hell. I have always believed in the salvation of all infants, and I intensely detest the opinions which your opponent dared to attribute to me. I do not believe that, on this earth, there is a single professing Christian holding the damnation of infants; or, if there be, he must be insane, or utterly ignorant of Christianity. I am obliged by this opportunity of denying the calumny, although the author of it will probably find no difficulty in inventing some other fiction to be affirmed as unblushingly as the present one. He who doubts God’s Word is naturally much at home in slandering the Lord’s servants.

Yours truly,

C. H. SPURGEON

Charles H. Spurgeon- Letters of Charles H. Spurgeon- General Corresponce, page 193, pdf version

Whereas Baptist theologians such as Keach, Dagg, and Boyce held that there were indeed non-elect infants, Baptists theologians like Spurgeon, Gill, and Broadus, believed that all infants who died in infancy are saved. All of the above believed that infants inherent Adam’s guilt and therefore ground their views of ‘elect infants’ in God’s electing grace.

All the Reformed Theologians who held to the doctrine of infant salvation were guarding the gospel against an Arminian perversion of it. If Arminianism were true, then no infants who die in infancy are saved because they do not grow up to be able to accept Christ as their Saviour. However, if God has elected infants who die in infancy unto salvation, then the Arminian scheme of salvation falls flat on its face.

Thus we have seen that many who lived during the time of Howell, among those who are Calvinistic in their soteriology, believed in the salvation of all infants who die in infancy. Therefore, we should not think it strange because Howell held to this view.

  1. June 15, 2021 at 10:28 am

    Thank you. The outline of these various positions is helpful and well explains the reasoning for Howell’s position.
    The entire subject still raises questions on which Scripture is silent. When we tread where God has refused to reveal truth, we not only end up with a variety of opinions, but speculation. Still, “Enquiring Minds Want to Know.”

    • June 15, 2021 at 11:16 am

      Your welcome brother. I absolutely agree. I tend to hold to what Sam Waldron stated, That it would have been better for the writers of the Confessions to have said nothing at all.

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