When a Baby Dies: Answers to comfort grieving Parents, by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1999; 126 pp.; $9.99).
Death is never a pleasant topic. But dealing with the death of infants is a most sensitive matter, indeed.
Ronald H. Nash, a Reformed Baptist who is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, writes on one of the most difficult issues which pastors face: what does one tell the grieving parents about the eternal destiny of their baby who has died?
Dr. Nash begins with the true story of a couple who did lose their first-born daughter just a week after she was born. He dedicated this book to that couple, Tamera and Jamie Cupschalk, who encouraged him to write it.
In the first couple of chapters, the professor pillories a fictional clergyman from a mainline denomination who obviously, because of his liberal training, has no answers to the probing questions of grieving parishioners. The author uses this foil in order to demonstrate that children are not born innocent, and that the doctrine of universalism (that everyone will be saved) is false.
In the third chapter, Dr. Nash uses another fictional clergyman-this time a Baptist who had received faulty training at his denominational seminary-to teach that there is no possibility of salvation after death. He demonstrates that the notion of a probation after death whereby infants, and heathen who had never heard the gospel, are given a chance to accept Christ as Savior, is not only false, but also is of no comfort.
In the fourth chapter, the writer attacks the concept of baptismal regeneration. Being a false doctrine, it can be of no use in trying to comfort those mourning the loss of a child.
In the fifth chapter, Dr. Nash lays out a case for infant salvation. His basic thesis is this: "that all children who die in infancy and all mentally handicapped persons whose intellectual and moral judgment cannot surpass that of children are saved." He bases his position on four propositions: 1. Infants are incapable of moral good or evil; 2. Divine judgment is administered on the basis of sins committed in the body; 3. Several Biblical passages speak of unborn infants whom God has regenerated; 4. Jesus' blessing of little children implies not merely the necessity of childlikeness to enter the kingdom, but also that such little children are members of the kingdom.
Dr. Nash's argument in Chapters 5 and 6 follows closely the approach taken by Southern Presbyterian theologian R. A. Webb in his 1907 volume, The Theology of Infant Salvation-a book upon which Dr. Nash relies in his work. In Chapter 6, he paralleled Webb in showing that only a Calvinistic soteriology-particularly a Reformed view of the atonement (particular redemption)-can provide for the possibility of the salvation of babies who, like all mortals, need their sin covered by Messiah's blood and righteousness.
In Chapter 7, Dr. Nash continues to emphasize the necessity of a Calvinistic theology for infant salvation. "Deceased infants and the mentally impaired are saved because God elected them, Christ redeemed them, and the Holy Spirit regenerated them." He also refutes the notion that the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that some deceased infants are not elect. Dealing with the phrase, "Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ . . .," he states that "nothing in this statement rules out the possibility that all such infants are elect and thus will be in heaven."
In the final chapter, the professor handles some questions, such as "Will we know each other in heaven?" (Yes), "Will infants still be infants in heaven?" (No), and "The question of prenatal death" (a fetus which dies in the womb will, like all infants dying in infancy, be saved). He also deals with the question of "What is the relevant age for children?" (what other theologians have called the "age of accountability"). He suggests that the age of four or five might be regarded as the point at which children lose their "moral and spiritual immaturity."
The strength of this book's argument lies in pointing out that false doctrines such as universalism, Pelagianism (denial of original sin), and Arminianism cannot save anyone, especially helpless infants. Its key problem is in its assertion of universal salvation for infants dying in infancy. The critical argument in support of this view is that judgment unto damnation is based only on deeds done in the body, and that therefore infants and others incapable of making moral decisions will not be sent to hell.
While it is understandable why Calvinists would like to take this position, we still must ask if Dr. Nash and his predecessors (R. A. Webb, etc.) have proven their case. In our estimation, it is a leap of logic to take the Scripture texts concerning judgment vis a vis deeds, as being the only basis for divine judgment.
In point of fact, the guilt of original sin is sufficient to condemn us all to eternal punishment. Beyond that, Dr. Nash seems at least implicitly to endorse a supralapsarian perspective (by quoting Webb: "The Calvinist logic is inexorable-what was last in execution was first in intention."). But, if that is true, then predestination both unto life and unto perdition is apart from the question of sinfulness per se.
Moreover, the Scriptures do teach covenantal solidarity-whether it is unto blessing or unto condemnation. Although God's grace certainly can and often does overcome the natural sinful tendencies of a particular clan or family, one would not necessarily expect that the offspring of rebels, dying in infancy, will enjoy divine grace. Indeed, Dr. Nash's position could lead to an untenable conclusion: that aborting the seed of reprobates would be a blessing to those unborn children, as they would then be guaranteed spending eternity in heaven, which assurance they would not have had they lived beyond the age of accountability.
There is much helpful in this volume, especially in its refutation of false theologies and false bases for infant salvation. However, we believe that we do not have sufficient Scriptural warrant to go beyond the careful phrases of our Confession of Faith, even in our desire to comfort grieving parents. We may reasonably expect that those within the covenant are beneficiaries of divine grace. But even as the outward sign of baptism is not an absolute assurance of eternal destiny, neither is the faith or faithfulness of parents.
In the final analysis, our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus. Our Triune God, Who has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, knows what is best for us, and we can entrust ourselves to His Fatherly care. We do not believe that it is wise to make absolute statements beyond that.
The Family Worship Book: A Resource Book for Family Devotions, Edited by Terry L. Johnson (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1998; x+200; $19.95).
Family worship is one of those matters which people know they should do, but which often does not get done. This book is a practical guide for families to engage in this important, yet often neglected, duty.
Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, Terry Johnson's concern for godly piety and Biblical worship has manifested itself in a variety of ways. He was the impetus for Central Georgia Presbytery's overture to the 1992 PCA General Assembly which led to the erection of an ad hoc committee on psalm singing, and the eventual production of the Trinity Psalter, of which Mr. Johnson was the editor. He has also authored a book, Leading in Worship, which is like this present volume designed to give practical advice.
He begins this book by noting the loss of family and community in society as a whole, and the failure of the church to compensate for this loss. He writes: "Repeatedly tried and proven ways of transmitting the heart and soul of the Christian faith to others have been abandoned in favor of exciting, entertaining, novel, but ineffectual alternatives. We pride ourselves in being modern. We look down our noses at previous generations. We have had a love affair with the novel and new. Educational, political, social, and religious fads have swept over us again and again, first possessing the field and all right thinking people, and then in a matter of months, fleeing to the curiosity shelf in our cultural museums, replaced by yet another untested novelty. The time has come to admit our error and pause to look back, before we again look ahead."
He continues: "What we hope to demonstrate in the pages ahead is that by returning to the practices of previous generations we may be able to revitalize the family and the church of today. The 'ancient paths' of Sunday worship, Sabbath observance, family worship, and catechizing are where spiritual vitality for the future will be found."
Pastor Johnson then sets forth the keys for a Christian family's spiritual health: the "Family Pew" (i.e., families engaging in public worship together each week), observance of the Lord's Day (the "market day of the soul"), family worship, and catechizing.
Chapter Two is "Making the Commitment to Family Worship." It begins by laying out the Biblical, theological, historical, and practical reasons for family worship; suggests how to get started; and gives suggested elements of family worship, including books which can aid in teaching young children.
Chapter Three gives "An Outline for Family Worship." Included are calls to worship; psalms and hymns; creeds and commandments; Scripture reading; prayers of confession, intercession and thanksgiving; ascriptions of praise; and benedictions. Chapter Four fleshes out each of these rubrics; and Chapter Five gives a sample of putting this model into practice.
Chapter Six is almost 50 pages of "Family Resources." Here one finds a Family Bible Reading Record; the Children's and Shorter Catechisms; and 50 Great Passages for Bible Memorization. Chapter Seven lays out "Historical Resources," including Isaac Watts' A Guide to Prayer, and two works associated with the Westminster Assembly: Thomas Manton's "Epistle to the Reader," and the Church of Scotland's Directory for Family Worship (1647).
The final chapter is a "Family Psalter/Hymnal." Mr. Johnson writes that "it is vital that the church's songs be substantial enough to accurately express the subtlety of Christian faith and experience. Simplistic, sentimental, repetitious songs will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment. For this reason we have a decided preference for metrical Psalms (Psalms rhymed, metered, and set to music) and time-proven hymns, particularly those of the 18th century, the 'golden age' of hymn writing." What follows is a collection of sixty metrical Psalms and sixty hymns of human composition.
This book is attractively-done, with a cover that is impervious to stain when juice or milk is spilled on it. If you need help in the conduct of family worship, buy a copy-and get one for your neighbor, too.