Luther: The Faith of Unbaptized Infants

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of you know I’m Lutheran but, what exactly is a Lutheran. The Lutheran church was, of course founded by Martin Luther, in one of the opening salvos of the Reformation, and is the oldest of Protestant Churches followed closely by the Anglican, with which we share many things, as indeed we do with Catholics as well.

That may be part of our problem over the last 500 years we have developed many strains of Lutheranism, in one place we may be a very liberal church, while simultaneously next door being, very close to as traditional as the traditional part of the Catholic church. Personally, I’ve very much on the traditional end of the scale, while my particular branch is pretty liberal.

This seems to be another way we have become a lot like Anglicans. I can find you a Lutheran Church where God is Love is the main gospel proclaimed, the rest seems to be on the cafeteria plan but I can also find a Lutheran church where confession is practiced, and the veneration of Mary is encouraged. Sometimes we get lost in our own church.

My own theory of operation is that when I don’t understand something, I look for authority, and as a Lutheran that usually means Martin Luther, of course almost all Catholic teaching up to the Reformation is allowed, after all Luther was an Augustinian monk as well as a priest.

I was raised strangely enough in the United Church of Christ, yep the same church in which Reverend Wright serves. My church unlike his was a pretty conservative church in the German tradition, nearly Lutheran itself, which makes sense, as we’ll see.

My church was an Evangelical and Reformed church before the merger that created the UCC. But as has been said, part of the problem with Protestantism is that sometimes it gets down almost to Tom’s Church and Dick’s Church. My home church was a split from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and no I don’t know why, either. It might have been because Matilda had a prettier Easter bonnet than Maude,. Sometimes it’s that trivial.

As usual soon after the church was formed, there was a need for a cemetery, which was located about 3.5 miles from town, just over the county line, which seemed weird to me. When I was a trustee, my main responsibility was the cemetery, so I found out why. The first member of the congregation to die was a girl who died of whooping-cough, and because of health regulations, her body could not be transported across county lines in those days. So something had to be done. Since the church needed a cemetery it was decided to locate it on the other side of the county line, the logical place was next to the Catholic cemetery. All went well and it was done.

But there was another anomaly, our cemetery ran along the south side of the Catholic cemetery and then across the back of it. In that back part there was a grave of a baby girl, whose date of death was before the establishment of the cemetery. I got curious about this and dug around in our records, and found the story.

This baby, a girl, had lived less than an hour after she was born, and was Catholic, for whatever reason she had not been baptized, and so could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery, and so had been buried behind it. When we bought ours, one of the stipulations (besides maintaining a hog proof fence around the cemetery) was to care for this  lonely grave.

The article which follows from  writing in De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine, tells you why this was completely acceptable to my church.

Thus the spoken Word is indeed the word of a human being, but it has been instituted by divine authority for salvation.  For God wants to govern the world through angels and through human beings, His creatures, as through His servants, just as He gives light through the sun, the moon, and even through fire and candles.  Here, too, you could say: “No external thing profits.  The sun is an external thing.  Hence it profits nothing; that is, it does not give light, it does not warm, etc.”  Who would put up with one who argues in such a silly way?

Therefore the rule of which I have also spoken above stands.  It states that God no longer wants to act in accordance with His extraordinary or, as the scholastics express it, absolute power but wants to act through His creatures, whom He does not want to be idle.  Thus He gives food, not as He did to the Jews in the desert, when He gave manna from heaven, but through labor, when we diligently perform the work of our calling.  Furthermore, He no longer wants to form human beings from a clod, as He formed Adam, but He makes use of a union of a male and a female, on whom He bestows His blessing.  This they call God’s “ordered” power, namely, when He makes use of the service either of angels or of human beings.  Thus in the prophet Amos (3:7) there is the noteworthy statement that God does nothing that He does not first reveal to His prophets. 

But if at times some things happen without the service either of angels or of human beings, you would be right in saying: “What is beyond us does not concern us.”  We must keep the ordered power in mind and form our opinion on the basis of it.  God is able to save without Baptism, just as we believe that infants who, as sometimes happens through the neglect of their parents or through some other mishap, do not receive Baptism are not damned on this account.  But in the church we must judge and teach, in accordance with God’s ordered power, that without the outward Baptism no one is saved.  Thus it is due to God’s ordered power that water makes wet, that fire burns, etc.  But in Babylon Daniel’s companions continued to live unharmed in the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:25).  This took place through God’s absolute power, in accordance with which He acted at that time; but He does not command us to act in accordance with this absolute power, for He wants us to act in accordance with the ordered power.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, AE 3:273-274

Because daily I see and hear with what carelessness and lack of solemnity—to say nothing of out-and-out levity—people treat the high, holy, and comforting sacrament of baptism for infants, in part caused, I believe, by the fact that those present understand nothing of what is being said and done, I have decided that it is not only helpful but necessary to conduct the service in the German language  For this reason I have translated those portions that used to be said in Latin in order to begin baptizing in German, so that the sponsors and others present may be all the more aroused to faith and earnest devotion and so that the priests who baptize have to show more diligence for the sake of the listeners.

Out of a sense of Christian commitment, I appeal to all those who baptize, sponsor infants, or witness a baptism to take to heart the tremendous work and great solemnity present here  For here in the words of these prayers you hear how plaintively and earnestly the Christian church brings the infant to God, confesses before him with such unchanging, undoubting words that the infant is possessed by the devil and a child of sin and wrath, and so diligently asks for help and grace through baptism, that the infant may become a child of God.

Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy.  Thus it is extremely necessary to stand by the poor child with all your heart and with a strong faith and to plead with great devotion that God, in accordance with these prayers, would not only free the child from the devil’s power but also strengthen the child, so that the child might resist him valiantly in life and in death.  I fear that people turn out so badly after baptism because we have dealt with them in such a cold and casual way and have prayed for them at their baptism without any zeal at all.

…see to it that you are present there in true faith, that you listen to God’s Word, and that you pray along earnestly.  For wherever the priest says, “Let us pray,” he is exhorting you to pray with him.  Moreover, all sponsors and the others present ought to speak along with him the words of his prayer in their hearts to God  For this reason, the priest should speak these prayers very clearly and slowly, so that the sponsors can hear and understand them and can also pray with the priest with one mind in their hearts, carrying before God the need of this little child with all earnestness, on the child’s behalf setting themselves against the devil with all their strength, and demonstrating that they take seriously what is no joke to the devil.

For this reason it is right and proper not to allow drunken and boorish priests to baptize nor to select good-for-nothings as godparents.  Instead fine, moral, serious, upright priests and godparents ought to be chose, who can be expected to treat the matter with seriousness and true faith, lest this high sacrament be abandoned to the devil’s mockery and dishonor God, who in this sacrament showers upon us the vast and boundless riches of His grace…

Martin Luther, “Baptismal Booklet”, in The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, pp. 371-373.

Continue reading Luther: The Faith of Unbaptized Infants « De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine.

It is good for us to recall that the Lutheran Church stands for something along with our Christian brothers, and is not really simply the church that successfully broke from Rome. We, like our brethren believe this:

If you stand for nothing, You’ll fall for anything.

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5 Responses to Luther: The Faith of Unbaptized Infants

  1. You should realize, though, that if it was an evangelical and reformed church, they probably would have had a different reason for burying the child. Lutherans believed that babies were born with original sin, and so needed to be brought to faith in Christ, but they also comforted parents that if a baby was stillborn or died prior to baptism, they had still been brought to Christ in the prayers of the parents (and of the church.)

    The reformed (that is, Calvinist) teaching about unbaptized infants is different. As I understand it, they would say a baby conceived by Christian parents is an heir to God’s covenantal promises whether baptized or not. Infants are baptized as a sign of that covenant. However, whether a child is actually saved or not depends on whether or not God has elected him or her or decreed his or her damnation before the beginning of the world. So the Calvinists, as I understand it, would bury unbaptized infants for a different reason than Lutherans would. The Calvinists would give an unbaptized baby a Christian burial because baptism is a mere sign that does not necessarily do anything. (I think that’s a fair way of describing it. Maybe if there’s a Calvinist around here they could correct me.)

    Lutherans would base their practice instead on Jesus’ promise, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.” They would say, by virtue of that promise, along with Jesus’ promise: “Whatever you shall ask in my name, you will receive,” we can conclude that the child is saved even though it was not able to receive the normal means of rebirth–Holy Baptism.

    The Lutherans would not want to downplay the saving power of baptism, nor its necessity for infants. The Augsburg Confession says “Baptism is necessary for salvation.” They would say–baptism confers faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit, justification, forgiveness of sins, and makes the child born of Adam a new creature. It is the ordinary means by which salvation is given to children born in original sin, and we should not look elsewhere, as though baptism were something less than “a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 2). And yet we do not say that Christ is unable to fulfill His promise “let the little children come to me…for of such is the kingdom of God” by some other means when we are not permitted to bring the child to the normal means God has appointed for little ones to be reborn.

    Out of these two theologies, I think the “evangelical and reformed” church (i.e. the Lutheran Reformed union) tended to be Calvinist. By definition it was not Lutheran, since it was a forced union between Lutherans and Calvinists, which is an automatic repudiation of Lutheranism, since union with a church that denies the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper is impossible for anyone who subscribes to the confessions of the Lutheran church.

    Anyway, it’s important to recognize that although the practice of burying unbaptized infants might have been the same among Lutherans and reformed, yet the theological rationale for doing so came from two very different sources.

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    • neenergyobserver says:

      Thank you, that was considerably more than I knew. I’m reasonably familiar with the Lutheran teaching, since I came to the church as an adult (although sometimes my ELCA seems a bit watered down). My home church was E &R but is was also a split off a MS Lutheran church, I have doubts that anybody in the local church thought that deeply about it. And as an excuse for my own ignorance, you can probably guess what the UCC merger did to either/both the E&R and MS remnants, although I remember that I was confirmed with the Evangelical Catechism, which I don’t think talked about predestination at all, long time ago though.

      Unless one is lurking, I doubt I’ll find a Calvinist floating around here, most of my serious Christian commenters are either Catholic or Anglican, which has certainly spurred me into the theology of my own church.

      So thank you again, Reverend Hess, for your comment and I will be reading more of your site, it seems hard to find good Lutheran sites, so I grab ones that I find quickly and hang on.

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      • Rev. Karl Hess says:

        From what I understand, the evangelical and reformed church came as a result of a forced union between the Lutherans and the Reformed by the Prussian king, who was Calvinist (while most of his subjects were Lutheran.) Union churches are not generally known for being very precise theologically. And in America theological precision is generally seen as a bad thing. Of course, American Christianity is largely Calvinist in its ancestry, and protestantism from that stream has always been more willing to tolerate disagreement in doctrine, whereas Lutherans historically insisted on unity in doctrine.

        I appreciate your patronage of my blog. You might also try googling weedon’s blog and cyberbrethren, if you haven’t already read those. And Cranach, the blog of Veith. Those are good places to start looking at Lutheranism of a more “classical” or “confessional” variety.

        In general, Lutheran churches in America struggle with being watered down. ELCA churches are watered down in a liberal protestant sort of way(sometimes a neo-pagan sort of way). LCMS and WELS churches are often watered down in a non-denominational/conservative methodist sort of way. It’s difficult to find Lutheran churches and pastors that have a firm grasp on the faith confessed in the Book of Concord. That’s why I’m trying to translate some of this material (however lousy my translation may be)–so that even those pastors that teach the historic Lutheran doctrine get more of the flavor of Lutheran piety. I’ve found that because I didn’t have access to a lot of things that I’m looking at now that I can sort of read German, my theology and prayers were growing in thinner soil than they should have been. There is a tremendously rich devotional life in the Lutheran tradition. Also, bar none, Lutherans have the best hymns. Unfortunately, the prayerbooks and meditations largely haven’t been translated into English, and a lot of the hymns either haven’t been translated or are just not well-known enough among Lutherans for their comfort to really be appreciated.

        Again, thanks for reading my stuff.

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        • neenergyobserver says:

          Thanks again for the comment and I will be following the link. I’ve always felt there had to be more there that just wasn’t getting used.

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  2. Pingback: Luther: “Opinion Concerning the Baptism done by Women in the Pain of Childbirth”, 1542. « De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine

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