Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

The Salvation of Infants (3): A.A. Hodge, Again

In my last post, I noted that A.A. Hodge “is much more forthrightly assertive [about the salvation of all who die in infancy] than he is [in his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith].” While the topic does not arise in his Outlines of Theology, as I mentioned before, it does come up several times in his Popular Lectures on Theological Themes. Alas, once again he does not hear give his reasons; that is to say, rather than making an argument for his belief here (where he follows his father Charles closely), he takes this belief as read and uses it as a proof for other arguments.

Most significantly, he uses his position on infants as demonstrative proof for arguments about ecclesiology, in which he shows himself to be de iure humano rather than de jure divino when it comes to polity. For Hodge, being a Presbyterian (or an Episcopalian, or a Congregationalist) most definitely has nothing to do with the essence of the church. Organization is, for Hodge, accidental rather than essential. It is, of course, also obligatory–the church must have some organization, just as any other human institution must–but “Christ never did make organization needful in the sense that our being Presbyterians is an essential of the Church.”

First, his remarks from from Lecture 9, “God’s Covenants with Man–The Church”:

But you may ask me, as a good Presbyterian, a High-Church Presbyterian–because we have a High Church as well as a Low Church–you may ask me, Do you not think there is a visible Church? Yes, I believe the true Church is visible. It consists of men and women who are regenerated, who have divine life, and whose divine life is shown in their holy walk and conversation. You ask if the Church must not be organized? I say yes, but organization is never an essential of the Church. Organization is a simple accident; it is a necessary accident; it is a very important one with us; it is, according to our mode of thinking, obligatory, because it is commanded. By means of organization we have solidification and growth, and it is a great means of self-propagation in accomplishing the great missionary work of carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. But Christ never did make organization needful in the sense that our being Presbyterians is an essential of the Church. (pp. 207-8)

Immediately afterwards, the salvation of infants (and, indeed, of all who die before “com[ing] to free moral agency”), a belief that he takes to be universal among his audience, is used to show that, for that very reason, organization cannot be of the esse of the church:

You and I believe that immortality is provided for all souls before birth, as well as after birth, and for infants that have not come to free moral agency, irrespective of their knowledge of Christ. Now, think of the history of the world since Adam: all the souls of those that have died before birth or between birth and moral agency have been redeemed in Christ. You see that organization cannot be the essence of the Church. I tell you that the infinite majority of the spiritual Church of Jesus Christ come into existence outside of all organization. Through all the ages, from Japan, from China, from India, from Africa, from the islands of the sea, age after age, multitudes flocking like birds have gone to heaven of this great company of redeemed infants of the Church of God; they go without organization. Now, this is a demonstration: that if the great majority of the Church always has existed outside of organization, then organization, while of assistance, is not essential to the Church. You may add church to church; these are but incidental forms which the universal Church of God assumes on different occasions under the guidance of the Spirit, under the guidance of God’s providence as a great propaganda for the purpose of accomplishing the great and divine work of carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. (p. 208)

The same theme appears in Lecture 13 on “The Kingdom of Christ,” where Hodge discusses what certain adjectives, such as “unity,” “catholicity,” and “infallibility” (yes, you heard that right), mean when applied to the church. He begins again with general observations about the nature of man (he is inherently social and thus always tends toward organization) and the nature of the church (its particular mode of organization changes under varying historical conditions). He writes:

Nevertheless, this spiritual body, always consisting of men and women whose natures are essentially social, must ever spontaneously and universally tend to organize itself under all historical conditions. All the various forms which thence result have been comprehended in God’s design, and are necessary for the spiritual development of the Church and for the accomplishment of the great tasks it has been commissioned to perform. Yet the permanent results of biblical interpretation unite with the history of Christ’s providential and gracious guidance of the churches in proving that he never intended to impose upon the Church as a whole any particular form of organization. Neither he nor his apostles ever went beyond the suggestion of general principles and actual inauguration of a few rudimentary forms. The history of the churches during all subsequent ages shows that these rudimentary forms have been ever changing in correspondence with the changes in their historical conditions. And in exact proportion to the freedom and fruitfulness of the Church’s activity in the service of its Master are these organic forms rapidly and flexibly adapted to the conditions of the sphere in which their especial work is appointed. These various denominational forms of the living Church are all one in their essentials, and differ only in their accidents. These accidents have been determined in each case by conditions peculiar to itself, especially by those resulting from national character and from political, social, educational and geographical circumstances. Some have sprung from transient conditions, some from the idiosyncrasies of their founders, and some even from the follies and sins of selfish partisans. Other differences are rooted in far more permanent distinctions of nations and classes, and represent persistent rival tendencies in the thoughts and tastes and habits of men. All of these, since they exist and are used as instruments of the Holy Ghost, have in fact a providential justification. And each one, even the least significant, emphasizes some otherwise too much neglected side of the truth, and is therefore, in its day, necessary to the completeness of the whole. (pp. 304-5)

Now a second time he adds the salvation of infants as a proof of his position:

It is evident, therefore, that while the Church of Christ necessarily tends to self-organization under ordinary conditions, and to different forms of organization under different conditions, nevertheless organization itself is not of its essence. The Church exists antecedently to and independently of any organization, and its far larger part, embracing all mankind of all centuries dying in infancy, extends indefinitely beyond all organizations. All the more it is certain that no special form can be essential to the existence, or even to the integrity, of the Church. (pp. 305)

Note that, for Hodge, the “far larger part” of the glorified church consists of those who were saved outside of any organization. Correspondingly, he believes that the number of the redeemed will in the end far exceed the number of the lost. Charles Hodge says this in his Systematic Theology (treated previously here), and his son echoes it in the last lecture of the volume, Lecture 19 on “Final Rewards and Punishments,” adding a touching and illuminating anecdote about his father. In a discussion of heaven, Hodge the younger says:

Although heaven can only be entered by the holy, yet such, we are assured, is the infinite provision made for human salvation, and such the intense love for human sinners therein exhibited, that the multitude of the redeemed will be incomparably greater than the number of the lost. My father, at the close of his long life spent in the defence of Calvinism, wrote on one of his conference papers, in trembling characters, a little while before he died, “I am fully persuaded that the vast majority of the human race will share in the beatitudes and glories of our Lord’s redemption.” (pp. 459-60)

“‘The vast majority of the human race will share in the beatitudes and glories of our Lord’s redemption.” Why so?

Remember that all who die before complete moral agency have been given to Christ. Remember that the vast populations of the coming milleniums are given to Christ. Then shall the promises of Christ to the great Father of the faithful be fulfilled to the letter: “Thy seed shall be like the sands of the sea-shore;” “They seed shall be like the stars of heaven for multitude,” and recollect that when God made this promise, while Abraham saw only with the naked eye, God took in far more than even the telescopic heavens in magnitude. (pp. 460)

Hodge sees two reasons, then, because of which the number of the saved will drastically outnumber that of the lost: (1) he believes Christ possesses “all those who die before complete moral agency”; (2) he has an optimistic eschatology based on the Abrahamic promise and therefore believes that the future is a field with far more wheat than tares. All of this is, for him, founded on his construal of “the intense love for human sinners” manifested in God’s revelation of himself, in which “infinite provision [has been] made for human salvation.”

It is a provocative historical curiosity that Hodge takes his view on these matters for granted in passages such as those quoted above, with no suggestion that his audience would find them controversial. I dare say that the case would not be the same today, and this is perhaps worth further reflection. Future posts will look at other 19th-century figures on this issue, and how the position is deployed in varying theological contexts.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.