In the final essay in his series critiquing strict Calvinism’s understanding of God’s Sovereignty in Predestination, Dr. G.W. Northrup proposes to “apply to the case of infants dying in infancy and of the congenitally idiotic the positions of the Calvinistic system already discussed.”1 On the whole, and contrary to many today who seem to feel the subject of infant salvation remains insignificant, Northrup contends for its extreme importance, “The question of the fate of those dying in infancy is one of vast theologic as well as of practical interest. For a large proportion—probably a distinct majority—of the human race pass out of the world before reaching the age of moral accountability.”
Again, how stunningly strange that many today—both Reformed and non-Reformed—lobby to halt discussions on whether or not we may offer confident hope in the case of infants dying in infancy being immediately ushered into God’s merciful presence.
Are not infants human beings made in God’s image? And, are there not but two actual destinies to which every human being’s eternal end awaits? To suggest then that exploring whether we may be confident or not that infants dying in infancy experience God’s grace remains an insignificant query seems particularly apathetic at best and expressly cold-hearted at worse. Not to mention it crosses the spirit of our Lord’s words when He so took a public defense of the little ones against those who seemed to suggest they did not matter—“Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mk. 10:13-14). Hence, we admit our own sympathies lie with Dr. Northrup so far as the weighty significance of this question is concerned.
In the fifth and last essay, Northrup begins by suggesting that there exists “three and only three positions” which may be taken toward infants dying in infancy as well as the eternal fate of the mentally challenged: “1. Either all are lost. 2. Or all are saved. 3. Or some are lost and some are saved.” While few would hold to the first position, Dr. Northrup offers impressive evidence to show historically how strict Calvinism has had illustrious advocates of position number three, beginning with its domineering influencer, Saint Augustine. In fact, given the evidences Northrup marshals, it is not too much to suggest that many, if not most, of strict Calvinism’s brightest burning theological lights have held some form of position number three.
Even so, a visible shift of belief had taken place in Northrup’s day pertaining to the Reformed understanding of the fate of infants dying in infancy, a shift so noticeable that Northrup could suggest “The universal Protestant church agrees with Dr. [A.A.] Hodge in the view above expressed, and [now] rejects with horror the dogma of infant damnation”2 (p.128). Apparently, the shift of Reformed allegiance of the belief that some infants dying in infancy are eternally damned to hell to a belief that all infants dying in infancy are eternally rewarded in heaven came somewhere between The Westminster Confession of Faith and the rise of Princeton theology (pp.126-127).
Northrup contests this particular shift in belief not because he did not agree with the move away from the historically aberrant position which strict Calvinists routinely held concerning the eternal damnation of some infants dying in infancy. Rather the way Northrup apparently saw it, strict Calvinists dropped what was a necessary inference from their understanding of God’s Sovereignty in Predestination. Northrup states his contention like this:
The question of the future condition of infants, dying in infancy, according to the strict Calvinistic system, must be determined by the essential positions of that system, viz. :
1. Mankind are by nature burdened with guilt and depravity–exposed to the everlasting displeasure of God.
2. In dealing with infants as with those who reach the age of moral responsibility, God acts as a sovereign, determining the destiny of each and every one in the exercise of an optional power.
3. Regeneration is the exclusive work of God and is wrought in those and in those only who are embraced in the purpose of election.
4. In choosing men to eternal life God does not take into account as a reason or condition of his action any thing foreseen in them.
5. The decrees of election and preterition are eternal and immutable, and the number included in each is ”so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished” (pp.127-128, paragraph(s) here and below broken apart solely for better readability; all italics here and below original)
Consequently, Northrup turns to two questions as he challenges strict Calvinism’s view of predestination as applied to infants dying in infancy:
I. What proof, or even presumption, can the Scriptures afford, on the theory of strict Calvinism, that all infants dying in infancy are saved?
II. How can the assumption of universal infant salvation be reconciled with the Calvinistic theory of predestination? (p.128)
Below are excerpts on the second question from Northrup’s response. First, note Northrup’s summary of what strict Calvinism’s view of God’s Sovereignty in Predestination necessarily implies concerning infants dying in infancy:
II. If, now, strict Calvinism assumes, as it does assume in our day, — an assumption, however, let it be remembered, in support of which it cannot, consistently with its own principles, produce any Scriptural evidence — that all dying in infancy are saved, the question will arise, how can this assumption be reconciled with the view that God elects an exceedingly large class not one of the non-elect dying in infancy—and yet, excludes from among the reasons or conditions of His action the only circumstance which marks them as a special class—their early death? There is but one conceivable or supposable method of reconciliation, viz. : the death of those who die in infancy must be regarded, like regeneration and its immediate antecedents, as a divinely appointed result, or consequence, of their election.
According to this conception the purposes of election and non-election must be viewed as embracing the individuals of each class (the elect and the non- elect) from the beginning of their existence in the womb, —since some die the very hour in which they begin to live, —and must be viewed as determining all the acts of God by His providence and Spirit in relation to them. Of the elect it was determined:
(1) That some—one half the human race—should die before or soon after birth.
(2) That others, numbering many millions, should be born idiotic, and should live beyond the age at which responsibility begins in the case of those who are mentally competent at birth.
(3) That the rest—few as compared with those who die in infancy—should live for a period, longer or shorter, after reaching the age of accountability. Of the non-elect, however, it was determined that all should be born in a condition of mental soundness, and should live beyond, or up to, the commencement of moral agency. In this conception we have a clear and adequate solution of the problem in hand—the reconciliation of the assumption that all who die before or soon after birth, are saved, with the position that in decreeing to save a part only of mankind God did not take into account as “conditions,” or “moving causes” of his action, “any thing foreseen in them” —”any thing by which they were distinguished from other men.” This idea renders the whole subject before us luminous.
Of the elect some die in infancy, and some are congenital imbeciles—their early death and congenital imbecility being due to their election, which is the determining principle of all God’s acts in relation to them from the first moment of their existence; but of the non-elect none are appointed to die in infancy, or to be born idiotic—their exemption from early death and from congenital idiocy being rendered certain and necessary by the decree of preterition. (pp.135-137)
The chief logical conclusions of this doctrine have been indicated, but they may be stated more fully as follows:
1. All infants are regarded by God as elect or non-elect (reprobate) from the first moment of their existence.
2. The decree of election rendered all included in it liable to be appointed to an early death—a liability which becomes a fact in the case of one half of the human race.
3. The purpose of election also rendered all included in it liable to be appointed to be imbeciles—a liability which also becomes a fact in the case of many millions.
4. The decree of election also rendered those included in it liable to be appointed to live beyond, or up to, the beginning of moral agency— a liability which becomes a fact in the case of a number vast, indeed, but small as compared either with those who die in infancy, or with the non-elect.
5. The decree of preterition necessarily frees all embraced in it from liability to an early death, or necessarily involves their appointment to live to the age of moral action.
6. The decree of preterition also frees all embraced in it from liability to congenital imbecility. It is true that most of those included in the purpose of election are appointed to be born in a condition of mental soundness; but the difference between the two decrees, in this particular, is, that while the elect may, or may not be free, the non-elect must be free, from congenital imbecility, that is, if all infants are to be saved.
7. The decree of preterition renders it impossible for God Himself to do anything, at any period of their life, for the salvation of those who are included in that decree.
8. The decree of preterition, since it presupposes original sin, and has respect to, and is justified solely on the ground of, original sin, necessarily involves the decree to punish the non-elect for that sin, “which deserves eternal damnation.”
The consideration of this scheme suggests, among other questions, the following:
1. Does it not seem extraordinary, that, though more than half the human race are elected, all, or nearly all, the elect in heathen lands, and the vast majority of the elect in Christian lands, are appointed to an early death, and appointed to an early death because of their election; whereas if they had been appointed to live to the age of adults, by far the larger part of the world’s population, from the beginning of history, would have consisted of regenerate persons?
2. Does it not seem most extraordinary that that which of all calamities is universally regarded as the most terrible—congenital imbecility—should be due to the blessing of election?
3. Does it not seem most extraordinary that all the non-elect should be appointed to live to the period of responsibility, considering the fact that their damnation is not only certain, but inevitable, do what they can to secure eternal life, even in the way appointed in the gospel, and the further fact, that their guilt cannot but increase with the increase of the years of their life, thus rendering their final doom infinitely more dreadful than it would have been if they had been sent to hell on the day of their birth?
4. Is the early death of infants—of one-half of the human race— due to their election, or may not this result be due to the fact, infallibly known to God, that He could not save them, under the wisest method of providential and gracious action, in case they were appointed to live to the years of responsibility? According to this supposition their early death would be the indispensable condition of their participation in the mercy of God, and not an effect of His mercy already bestowed upon them in their election.
5. Is there any Scriptural warrant for the application of the doctrines of election and nonelection to infants? Or are infants, as such, and consequently, all infants, being freed from condemnation through the atonement, embraced in the infinite love of God in the sense that had any of those who perished in the years of responsibility been appointed to die in infancy they would have been saved? (pp.140-143)
It seems to me Northrup has thoroughly examined and categorically challenged strict Calvinism’s understanding of God’s Sovereignty in Predestination as it particularly affects its most recent insistence upon viewing all infants dying in infancy as a special class of human beings in which, as a class, they universally are all apart of God’s eternal purpose to unconditionally predestine to eternal life.
1p.122; while Dr. Northrup uses what in every linguistic case is presently a cold, harsh and even offensive term to speak of the mentally challenged among us (i.e. “congenitally idiotic,” et al), I chose to retain his language nonetheless. We cannot genuinely fault Northrup for those terms were acceptable in his era on a broad basis including the medical community itself
2Northrup’s exact phraseology is a “revolution which has taken place in the views of Calvinists, and especially of Presbyterians, in regard to the future condition of infants, dying such…” (p.127-128)