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Infant Faith and Infant Regeneration in Zacharias Ursinus

In his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus gives several defenses of infant baptism over and against the common objections of the anabaptists. Ursinus’ defenses are particularly interesting in that they demonstrate certain theological categories which he employed to defend the notion of infant faith and even infant regeneration, both of which partially justified the practice of infant baptism. Ursinus writes:

Obj. 2. Those who do not believe, are not to be baptized; for it is said, “He that believeth and is baptized,” &c. But infants do not believe. Therefore, they are not to be baptized. Faith is necessarily required for the use of baptism, for he that believeth not shall be damned. But the sign of grace ought not to be given to such as are condemned.

Ans. 1. The first proposition is not true, if understood generally; for circumcision was applied to infants, although they were not capable of exercising faith. It must, therefore, be understood of adults only, who are not to be baptized except they believe. Neither can our opponents say of adults that they do certainly believe. If infants, therefore, are not to be baptized because they do not believe, then neither are those to be baptized who have arrived to years of understanding, because no one can certainly know whether they have faith or not. Simon Magus was baptized, and yet he was a hypocrite. But, say our opponents, the church ought to be satisfied with a profession of faith. This we admit, and would add, that to be born in the church, is, to infants, the same thing as a profession of faith.

Faith is, indeed, necessary to the use of baptism with this distinction. Actual faith is required in adults, and an inclination to faith in infants. There are, therefore, four terms in this syllogism, or there is a fallacy in understanding that as spoken particularly, which must be understood generally. Those who do not believe, that is, who have no faith at all, neither by profession nor by inclination, are not to be baptized. But infants born of believing parents have faith as to inclination.

We also deny the minor proposition; for infants do believe after their manner, or according to the condition of their age; they have an inclination to faith. Faith is in infants potentially and by inclination, although not actually as in adults. For, as infants born of ungodly parents who are without the church, have no actual wickedness, but only an inclination thereto, so those who are born of godly parents have no actual holiness, but only an inclination to it; not according to nature, but according to the grace of the covenant. And still further: infants have the Holy Ghost, and are regenerated by him. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb, and Jeremiah is said to have been sanctified before he came out of the womb. (Luke 1:15. Jer. 1:5.) If infants now have the Holy Ghost, he certainly works in them regeneration, good inclinations, new desires, and such other things as are necessary for their salvation, or he at least supplies them with every thing that is requisite for their baptism, according to the declaration of Peter, “Can any man forbid water to them who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we.” It is for this reason that Christ enumerates little children amongst those that believe, saying, “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me.” (Matt. 18:6.) In as much now as infants are fit subjects for baptism, they do not profane it as the Anabaptists wickedly affirm.

~Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, P&R reprint of 1852 edition, pg. 369-370

We see at least three important points here. Ursinus believed the following about children born to believers:

  1. The fact of their birth in the church was equivalent to a profession of faith.
  2. This infant faith is an “inclination to faith,” a grace of the prior work of the Holy Spirit done in them, and, as Ursinus teaches in other places, it must be nurtured through training and discipleship in the church.
  3. Infant regeneration is seen in certain Biblical cases, and Ursinus appears to believe that infant regeneration is an ordinary characteristic of New Covenant families, enough so that they are equipped with “good inclinations, new desires, and such other things as are necessary for their salvation” and are “supplie[d] …with every thing that is requisite for their baptism.”

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.