Steven posted the other day on Ursinus on the capacity of infants to have faith in Christ. Because I had been thinking about that post, I was struck this morning by the following passage from Matthew 21.
After Jesus has entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple of the buyers, sellers, and money-changers, Matthew writes:
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children [τοὺς παῖδας] crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” (ESV)
The word Matthew uses here is a generic one for the young, though it doubtless refers to those who are not yet “of age.” And what does Matthew say? That they could correctly identify Christ (“Son of David”) and give him praise (“Hosanna”), both of which imply a real faith in him. When the chief priests and scribes hear this, they are angry: not, however, because it is children who are praising him (interestingly, the prevention of children from access to Christ seems more to have been an issue for the disciples than for the people in general–see Matt. 19.13-15–and the religious authorities say nothing about it here), but because of the content of their praise: Jesus is the Messiah (cf. Matt. 22.41-6).
Even more significantly, Matthew does not rest content with his generic reportage of “children,” but goes on to report Jesus’ own words, which are much more specific. For Jesus, in his rebuke of the chief priests and scribes, quotes the Greek version of Psalm 8.2:
“‘Out of the mouth of infants [νηπίων] and nursing babies [θηλαζόντων] you have prepared praise.'” (ESV)
These terms are both more precise: a νήπιος is an infans, one not yet speaking–a baby. Likewise, one who is a θηλάζων is one who is still nursing at his mother’s breast. This at first sight seems paradoxical, for the Psalm speaks of the speech that comes from their mouths; and yet they cannot speak and their mouths at present are otherwise engaged.
The idea in the Psalm, however, is one of preparation [κατηρτίσω]. What does this mean? In Jesus’ perspective, as recorded in Matthew, God is already at work in these little ones, fitting them for his praise as soon as their voices are ready. Ursinus’ discussion is helpful, it seems to me, for getting this passage right and not underselling what it is that Jesus says, which is really pretty stunning. This capacity does not appear to exist in exceptional cases only (e.g., John the Baptist), but rather is much more general.
That is, there is a direct line of continuity between the “infants and nursing babies” in whom God is at work, and the children praising Jesus in the temple. We are not to imagine these children as suddenly having come to faith when they became able to speak. How do we know this? Because Jesus explains what the children are doing (“Hosanna to the Son of David!”) by speaking of God’s work in those who cannot yet speak–in infants and nursing babies.
If this is so, it ought, it seems to me, to have some effect on how children are viewed in the church: not as those about whom we will “wait and see,” but as those in whom God, by his Spirit, is already at work, even from their earliest days.