The Master said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
Those words of promise not only give believing parents bold reason to bring their children to church every Sunday, but those words give ministers compelling direction to remember children in their ministry.
All ministers of the gospel must be like the Master they serve and have a great interest in children. Such were the interests of B.B. Warfield (1851-1921), one of the great theologians of Old Princeton, teaching there for 36 years. Though widely remembered for his forceful defense of the inerrancy of scripture, Warfield should also be remembered for his vigorous protection of covenant children in the kingdom of God.
Convinced that the spiritual interests of children must be defended, Warfield labored on their behalf in many of his theological writings, though he never had children of his own. In three essays in particular, one can see how Warfield’s ministry to children covered the whole range of their lives, defending God’s grace to them in their birth, their youth and, should providence require it, their early death.
In his 1899 article, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” Warfield marshalled formidable exegetical and logical skills to defend the infants of believers as proper subjects of baptism.
The occasion was the publication of Baptist theologian A.H. Strong’s, Systematic Theology (1886). In it Strong presented six reasons why infants of believers must not be considered proper subjects of baptism. Rising to their defense, Warfield countered using his exegetical gifts and penetrating logic. In fact, half of Warfield’s success in this essay was revealing missteps of logic embedded in half of Strong’s most passionately argued points.
I will not rehearse the details, but let the reader understand – indeed see for themselves – that well-meaning arguments built on faulty logic cannot withstand better logic. Warfield did not need to bring a battalion of exegesis against all of Strong’s points because for some of them a troop of logic would do. The student of Warfield learns that theological improvement comes as much from better thinking as it does from better Bible reading.
Warfield, of course, was committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and so his convictions on baptism can be found there. But in this essay he did not cite the Confession to refute Strong. He was careful to work his doctrine out of the Scriptures not out of the system. As he said in his inaugural address upon taking his first professorship at Western Theological Seminary, I do not commence with the system and then go on to make the Scriptures teach it. I begin, rather, with the Scriptures and discover I cannot make them teach anything other than the system.
It is this high view of Scripture as the primary standard of the church that guards a biblical catholicity in Warfield. The fruit of it appears in his sparing with Strong. After a full-court press against Strong’s six points, Warfield unequivocally recognizes his “Baptist brethren” saying, “…I cannot refuse them the right hand of fellowship….”
In 1904 Warfield again came to the defense of covenant children, this time not for the graces of infancy but for the graces of youth.
In his essay, “The Children in the Hands of the Arminians,” he responds to Charles Rishell’s book, The Child as God’s Child. Rishell, a professor at Boston University at the time, argued in his book that all children are born into a safe state with God. This is how Rishell applied an “unlimited atonement,” where the death of Christ applies to all men, overcoming the guilt and corruption of original sin without any need for repentance and faith. In this radical Pelagian system a child is not lost and in need of conversion, rather he is born “found” – in a state of grace –only in need of not getting “lost.”
On this faulty foundation Rishell laid out a program for the religious training of youth void of calls for repentance, void of calls to trust Christ alone by faith alone. He emphasized instead a host of efforts to keep a child in the grace in which they were born.
For his part, Warfield calls the whole thing just another version of “autosoteric Christianity,” having more in common with paganism than biblical religion. Warfield argues that Rishell’s scheme fosters the very attitudes that kept the rich young ruler of Luke 18 from seeing the necessity and worth of Christ. Rishell’s man-centered program, argues Warfield, will raise children who cannot love the Savior but only make the fatal boast: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21).
After he recognizes the value of training a child to bridle the appetites of the flesh and live a clean life, Warfield insists there is a training of much greater worth:
It is much more worth while to train a child to recognize the sinfulness of his heart and the amazing deceit and subtlety of its sinful movements. It is much more worth while to teach him to contemplate with ceaseless wonder the unspeakable love of God in the gift of his only begotten Son as a sacrifice for the sin of the world…. It is much more worth while to implant within his soul a longing for the gift of the Spirit by whom, being born anew, he is led onward in the holy walk with God his Savior.
The third article in which Warfield defends the graces belonging to covenant children is his 1891 pamphlet titled, “The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation.”
This article is too detailed and the topic too tender to justly summarize here. However, I commend it to both pastor and parent. With great care for both the glory of God and the enjoyment of God, Warfield takes up the cause of covenant children who die in infancy. He does a full historical survey of how the Church has answered this question over the millennia. He dispels much confusion and settles us within the safe boundaries of biblical orthodoxy.
There is a bold and courageous trail of ministry on behalf of the church’s children in the works of B.B. Warfield. We should not be surprised. Wherever we find a minister of the gospel we should find such a man, a man called to the same interests as the Savior, to receive and bless little ones.