Theological Debate & Are Children “Christians”?

Posted on 20. Sep, 2012 by in Book Reviews

The Christian church should be thankful for theological debate. Numerous debates over the course of ecclesiastical history have produced stunning pieces of literature and helped us to understand truth better. Of course, some debates haven’t been kind to certain theologians and their reputations have suffered because falsehoods have an amazing propensity to self-perpetuate. But theological debate often brings out the best in a theologian.

What seems to be an all-too-common trait in public disputations is the use of sources. One example comes to mind between the Lutheran theologian Jacob Andreae and the Reformed stalwart Theodore Beza at the Colloquy of Montbeliard. Both used the same authorities and interpreted not only the Scriptures differently, but they also interpreted their same sources differently. Not only Paul, but also Calvin has had some rather ingenious interpreters over the ages, particularly in recent times!

At the Westminster Assembly the divines went back and forth, sometimes in heated discussion. The debate over 1 Corinthians 7:14, where Paul describes the children of believers as “holy”, sticks out in my own mind.

Thomas Goodwin believed that the holiness spoken of in 1 Cor. 7:14 “is such a holyness as if they dy they should be saved.” Like John Owen, Goodwin had a particularly high view of the covenant. Goodwin’s comments elicited some frank responses from his colleagues. Goodwin acknowledges that whether the children have the holiness of election of regeneration is something uknown to him, but he thinks they “have the Holy Ghost”.

Lazarus Seaman – a staunch Presbyterian – believed Goodwin’s position destroys the ground for baptizing infants. Goodwin attempted to clarify his point in his response. He does not affirm that infants of believing parents are actually saved, “but we are to judge them so”. This last point of Goodwin’s is crucial, I believe.

Another Presbyterian, Stephen Marshall, rejected the view that the holiness of 1 Cor. 7:14 is the type of holiness that would save those who die in infancy. Marshall takes the position that the judgment of charity extends only so far, namely, that the “Infants of believing parents are federally holy.”

Rutherford, a “weak” Presbyterian, with ecclesiological affinities with several of the “Dissenting Brethren”, entered the debate and re-affirms the distinction between real and federal holiness. He comments: “The Lord hath election and reprobation amongst Infants noe lesse than those of age, as Augustine of Jacob and Esau.”

But this point fails to adequately refute Goodwin’s position. Goodwin affirms election and reprobation. But that revelation in Romans 9 is a matter of God’s decree, which we are not privy to. “But,” says Goodwin, “the question is not of the reality in the events, but what I am to judge of them. If you take it of all that they are holy and saved, my judgment knowes the contrary, but when you come to perticulars, I judge soe of this child and that child. It is an indefinite proposition, ‘I am thy God and the God of thy seed,’ not a universall proposition. That which you call federall holyness and that which I call reall, doe both coincidere in this.”

Marshall responds by saying that we are not to judge whether they possess a real holiness, but to believe that they are holy with the holiness spoken of; that is, a federal holiness. Goodwin responds: “To me the holyness in 1 Cor 7:14 is the same with that ‘I will be thy God and the God of thy seed.’ If you make it any other holyness, then baptisme is a seale of some other holyness than the holyness of salvation.” Further, he argues that our judgment is not an infallible judgment, but it is a judgment that answers the promise. We are judging according to the terms of the covenant.

The debate continued. And if you enjoy this sort of thing, then purchase (for over $900) the Westminster Assembly minutes that are due out this year.

For my own part, it is interesting to note that the Westminster Public Directory of Worship describes covenant children as “Christians”. I have a number of friends, all of whom hold vigorously to the Westminster Standards, who would disagree strongly on how we are to view our children.

If they aren’t Christians based on the judgment of charity, according to the promise of the covenant, then what are they? And if baptism is a naming ceremony, what name are they given?

Regardless of what position one takes on this point, we should not be afraid to engage in lively debate with one another. I fear the PCA has come to a point where we have lost the ability to debate theologically. I have my own suspicions as to why that is the case. But, more positively, what does it take to debate well? Besides the obvious (i.e., learning), you should probably not take yourself too seriously. That’s what made Luther such an effective disputant.

And another thing, receiving criticism for our academic work can hurt. But being a minister puts all of that into perspective. If you’re doing your job as a minister (in the pulpit and outside of it), its likely that the criticism you receive for a journal article or book that 100 people might read, and 10 will actually care about, with 1 or 2 disagreeing with you, will be like water off a duck’s back.

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