Are Infants Saved, Lost, or Spiritually Neutral? The Unusual Answer of Nathanael Burwash

Note: Articles classified as essays may be long, advanced, or esoteric.

One of the most unusual accounts of infant spirituality can be found in the work of Nathanael Burwash (1839-1918). In The Relation of Children to the Fall, the Atonement, and the Church (Toronto: William Briggs, 1882), Burwash holds the view that infants are in a covenant of grace which merely prepares them for salvation. He rejects one aspect of prevenient grace that is commonly held by Methodists, namely, that God has individually reconciled every person to Himself in Christ. But for Burwash, there is “no work of grace except what is a matter of conscious experience.” In this work, he lays out his explanation of the spiritual state of infants. In short, infants are in a spiritually neutral state: neither condemnable nor saved.

One aspect of prevenient grace that is commonly held by Methodists is that God has individually reconciled every person to Himself in Christ.

If Burwash had been merely a pamphleteer we might overlook him, but he was a Methodist theologian, studied at Yale and Garrett, became the managing editor of The Canadian Methodist Review, and served as president of Victoria College (University of Toronto) from 1887 until 1913. Despite his credentials, he is unique among Methodists in his theology of infant salvation.

On Infant Salvation

Burwash’s main intent in The Relation of Children is to argue against infant regeneration, a common but not majority view among nineteenth-century Methodists. He states one part of his thesis this way: “Men are not already in the kingdom by birth, or by baptism; in fact, this whole notion of unconscious, germinal grace or regeneration, has no foundation in the Word of God” (26).

Infant regeneration was a common but not majority view among nineteenth-century Methodists.

The work is a short exercise of theological interpretation. Burwash is set on showing that “the Scriptures make mention of no work of grace except that which is a matter of conscious experience, beginning in repentance and faith, and perfected in joy, peace, and love” (26). Consequently, he rejects the idea of there being any individual unconditional benefits of the atonement. To say otherwise “is fraught with all the dangers of baptismal regeneration, or of unconditional election” (27). The result is that Burwash is an exception among nineteenth-century Methodists in his rejection of infant justification. He openly rejects John Wesley’s view and suggests that Wesley’s continued operation within the Church of England led him astray on this point.

In The Relation of Children, Burwash argues that the whole of Scripture describes the new birth as only the result of conscious repentance, conditioned by faith. This view is held by “the whole of evangelical Christianity” (27). This, he supposes, single-handedly eliminates the possibility that an infant can be born again or individually saved (i.e., not justified, nor adopted, nor united with Christ).

No doubt he is aware of the Christian nurture movement in the United States, fathered by Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture (1861). Burwash may well have it in mind when he writes, “To depart from this view [of the new birth] is to reduce the work of the church to a process of education, as distinguished from the work of evangelization” (27). The Christian nurture movement was a Christian parenting movement that emphasized the role of Christian parents in raising their children as Christians. This movement held that there is no reason a child should ever know a state of being spiritually lost. The liberal wing of the movement made this claim by denying original sin; the conservative wing, including Methodists, made this argument on the basis of prevenient grace.

The Exegesis

In his exegesis, Burwash begins by describing a covenant of grace in terms of 2 Corinthians 5:17-19. God’s reconciliation of the world to himself in Christ is not salvific in the sense of bringing about a new birth but merely makes the work of reconciliation available to all people, including infants. Nonetheless, it remains “necessary that each individual should for himself ‘be reconciled to God’” (19, emphasis original).

A child who is not yet morally conscious cannot appropriate any benefit from this covenant of grace. “Each individual, while embraced in God’s covenant of mercy toward the race, sees life and escapes from God’s condemning wrath, personally, only by the exercise of faith in Christ” (18). It is improper, then, in Burwash’s view, to consider an infant as individually justified. Burwash writes, “Hence, neither in the infant nor in the penitent adult are we to confound the mercy of God’s covenant of grace with the whole world in Christ, with individual justifying grace” (19). This is another example of how Burwash differs from the consensus view among Methodists which is that God has reconciled the world in Christ unconditionally so that none are born lost. In the Methodist view, one is only lost by rejecting God’s gracious provision in Christ.

The consensus view among Methodists is that God has reconciled the world in Christ unconditionally so that none are born lost.

Burwash next considers Romans 5:12-21 and offers this summary: “What is asserted in this passage is, that God’s grace in Christ looks to, provides for, and works to the final justification and life of all men, just as the sin of Adam tends to the final sin and condemnation of all men” (23). Burwash affirms inherited depravity but denies that there is any real culpable impact of Adam’s sin nor individual impact of Christ’s atonement. Children, prior to moral consciousness, are only affected by potential sin or salvation in the individual sense. “There is no universal justification or universal regeneration of life taught here [in Romans 5:12-21] as flowing from Christ unconditionally, but only a universal grace leading to individual justification and life, the conditions and process of which are elsewhere explained” (23, emphasis original). In short, Burwash understands infants to be in a spiritually neutral state. They are only potentially lost or saved. And they will, in time, either be lost or saved, just not in infancy. He flatly denies “this whole notion of unconscious, germinal grace.”

In the Methodist view, one is only lost by rejecting God’s gracious provision in Christ.

Finally, Burwash comments on Matthew 18:1-14 and 19:13-15, offering the same explanation as in Romans 5, that children are in a pre-converted but prepared state of grace.

They [children] are ready to enter into the kingdom as soon as its Divine Word becomes intelligible to their understanding; they are in a believing, trustful, receptive state of mind; they are candidates for the kingdom most precious in the sight of the great heavenly Father, but still “lost sheep” whom the Gospel must “seek and find.” (24)

Burwash sees the “lost sheep” as especially referring to children who are arriving at moral awareness. By “lost” Burwash does not mean that children are condemned to hell should they die infancy, but only that they are yet unable to embrace the grace which has been extended to them. Burwash cannot admit of unconditional benefits of the atonement any more than he can admit that their “lostness” is condemnable eternally.

Spiritual Neutrality

Burwash makes it apparent that he holds to a form of federalism, that Adam and Christ are each representative heads for the human race. For Burwash, we inherit Adam’s corruption without culpability, and we are benefactors of Christ’s covenant of grace generically. Again, none of the effects of the first or second Adam are personally applicable to infants, in Burwash’s view. Historically, theologians have understood infants as either lost and condemned in Adam or redeemed by Christ. This is typically viewed as an either-or spiritual state. But Burwash rejects this binary framework. Infants are born with the “physical taint of sin” yet also “under a dispensation of mercy.” Consequently, infants are neither condemned (although they are lost) nor uncondemned. They are simply non-responsible humans who are without judgment.

It is very true that there is a physical propagation of sin, because our relation to Adam is physical. But that physical propagation of sin becomes a moral and spiritual state, only when we become capable of moral conscious life. On the other hand, our relation to Christ is purely moral, and spiritual; and it, too, begins to take effect just as soon as we become capable of conscious moral life. The very moment we are capable of manifesting the disease, we are capable of using the remedy, and that is repentance toward God and faith on our Lord Jesus Christ. (28)

Burwash is quite plain that children are in a state of spiritual indifference prior to becoming morally conscious. Yet their nature is not morally indifferent because as soon as a child gains moral awareness, they are under condemnation. All children do, in fact, sin immediately upon gaining moral awareness.

All men are born with a physical taint of sin…which immediately that we become capable of conscious moral life, breaks forth in actual transgression, and brings us into a state of conscious spiritual death, out of which we can be delivered only as, with penitent confession of our sins, we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. (29)

This notion of spiritual neutrality seems unique to Burwash and it isn’t clear why he parts from the Methodist tradition by denying a greater effect of prevenient grace.

Those Who Die in Infancy

Burwash recognizes the most glaring challenge: what about those who die in infancy? How can be said about an infant who is in neither a state of condemnation nor redemption? As Jerry Walls has pointed out, this has been a question of interest since the early church fathers and there is a broad consensus that all who die in infancy are saved. Burwash is uncertain:

It is asked what then becomes of those who die before conscious moral life is fully and fairly developed? We can only reply that God cares for them and provides for their case. But to them we have no duty. For them we can do nothing. How God applies to them the provisions of the Gospel, or on what conditions, we know not. All that we can say is that in those provisions they have a share, and God will not deprive them of it. (28, emphasis original)

Jerry Walls states that “our view of infant salvation should be consistent with our account of the nature and ground of salvation generally” (88). Walls adopts the view of Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921), a contemporary of Burwash, that “since infants are not capable of moral or spiritual choices, if salvation requires such, then infants must have the opportunity after death to make such choices” (89). Burwash’s view fits most consistently with this view but leaves the question open. What we can say is that Burwash denies certain salvation for those who die in infancy on the basis that infants are not saved prior to their death.

Infant Baptism

To be sure, Burwash affirms that every child is born under a dispensation of mercy which, upon their first awareness of sin, presents grace to the child. A child must accept that grace to be saved, but Christian parents and ministers are duty-bound to assure that the child makes use of that grace (29). A child who is able to receive baptism ought to be baptized. Although Burwash does not explicitly reject infant baptism, it seems clear that he is not referring to the baptism of children who are not yet morally conscious. 

Burwash ends by asserting the duty of the church to baptize children “as soon as they are able to receive it” (31). Children are entitled to baptism because of God’s covenant of grace into which the infant is born. Children need to be baptized as soon as they are able to receive it, that is, as soon as they gain moral awareness. However, he is clear that a child is not baptized “not because they have salvation already, but because they need it” (31, emphasis original). 

Burwash’s account of baptism of children is puzzling. Why exactly should a child be baptized if they are not already saved? Baptism is, according to Burwash, the church’s act of permitting children to come to Jesus and is a means for giving a child the word of salvation. Does this mean that a child is born again in baptism since he is not born again before baptism? Although this is a logical option for his view, he has already rejected it. 

Conclusion

Burwash’s silence at critical points is ultimately unsatisfactory. He provides no certain personal relation of infants to the Fall, the atonement, or the Church. The view that infants are spiritually neutral—not culpable for sin nor redeemed by the atonement—ought to be rejected. He is unclear on what happens to a person who dies in infancy and again on what baptism means for a child. In the end, Burwash’s account simply lacks the ability to answer difficult questions.