Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Aquinas on Infant Salvation in the Old Testament

An “anonymous” commenter recently commented on my post regarding the possibility of salvation for unborn children. I would like to look at his comment (which is nearly unintelligible) because it gives me an opportunity to explain St. Thomas's position on children in the Old Testament. Our commenter writes:

"You wrote: "Before the coming of Christ, children of devout Jews were able to be saved through the faith of their parents, as St. Thomas says."

See what Fr. Mueller wrote:
St. Thomas asks the question: Did Jesus Christ, when he descended into Limbo, deliver the souls of children who died in original sin? To understand this, we must remember a certain principle and doctrine, namely: There is no salvation possible for any one without being united to Jesus Christ crucified. Hence the great Apostle St. Paul says: "It is Jesus Christ whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation through faith in his blood." (Rom. iii. 25.) Now, those children were not united to Christ by their own faith because they had not the use of reason, which is the foundation of faith; nor were they united to Christ by the faith of their parents, because the faith of their parents was not sufficient for the salvation of their children; nor were those children united to Christ by means of a sacrament, because there was no sacrament under the Old Law which had of itself the virtue of conferring either grace or justification.
Besides, life eternal is granted only to those who are in the state of sanctifying grace. "The grace of God is life everlasting in Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom, vi. 23.) All those, therefore, who died at any age without perfect charity and faith in the Redeemer to come, as well as those who die without the sacrament of spiritual generation after the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ, are not purified from the mortal stain of original sin, and are, consequently, excluded from the kingdom of eternal glory." (De Incarn., Q. lii., art. vii.)

Unfortunately, our “anonymous” commenter does not say what his point is, leaving me to guess at it. The only clue is his reference to what I wrote, and the emphasized portions of Fr. Mueller's text.

In the context of the passage cited, Fr. Mueller is arguing the necessity for salvation of dying with the supernatural virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and with sanctifying grace. He quotes St. Thomas in regard to whether Christ freed those infants from hell who died in original sin only. His answer is no, because these children were not united to Christ by their own faith, or the faith of their parents, or by a sacrament.

Now, even though this is the principal thing addressed in this passage, it does not seem reasonable that our commenter could have been laboring under the impression that this was in disagreement with something that I had said. It is a dogma of the Church that those souls which die in original sin descend immediately into hell. I am perfect agreement with this. Likewise all those who die without charity are excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Granted. The question I was addressing in my post was whether or not there is reason to hope that God offers to children who die without baptism a way of being cleansed of their original sin without baptism; but sometime before their death, not after. I concluded in the positive.

Thus, the commenter must have had in mind some point which was not directly relevant to the point of the passage quoted. Based on his quotation from my post, he seems to be taking issue with the statement that St. Thomas believed that children could be saved by the faith of their parents before the coming of Christ.

Assuming that this is what he finds objectionable, let use examine St. Thomas's position. First let us look at the text of St. Thomas which is referenced.

"I answer that, As stated above (A6), Christ's descent into hell had its effect of deliverance on them only who through faith and charity were united to Christ's Passion, in virtue whereof Christ's descent into hell was one of deliverance. But the children who had died in original sin were in no way united to Christ's Passion by faith and love: for, not having the use of free will, they could have no faith of their own; nor were they cleansed from original sin either by their parents' faith or by any sacrament of faith. Consequently, Christ's descent into hell did not deliver the children from thence. And furthermore, the holy Fathers were delivered from hell by being admitted to the glory of the vision of God, to which no one can come except through grace; according to Rm. 6:23: "The grace of God is life everlasting." Therefore, since children dying in original sin had no grace, they were not delivered from hell."(ST. TP. Q.52 A. 7 C.)

St. Thomas is merely saying that those infants who die in original sin cannot be saved because, as a simple statement of fact, they were not cleansed by the faith of their parents, not because, as Fr. Mueller's text seems to imply, the faith of their parents was unable to save them. Rather, their parents did not have the faith they needed to save their child. Let us look at a similar text from St. Thomas:

“Although Christ wholly overcame death, yet not so completely did He destroy hell, but, as it were, He bit it. He did not free all from hell, but those only who were without mortal sin. He likewise liberated those without original sin, from which they, as individuals, were freed by circumcision; or before [the institution of] circumcision, they who had been saved through their parents' faith (which refers to those who died before having the use of reason); or by the sacrifices, and by their faith in the future coming of Christ (which refers to adults)." (In Symbolum Apostolum, A.5)

St. Thomas makes it very clear here that Christ only freed those from hell who were without mortal and original sin. The three classes of individuals are 1) adults who were freed from original sin by circumcision, 2) infants before the institution of circumcision who were saved by the faith of their parents, and 3) adults before the institution of circumcision who were saved by faith in the future coming of Christ.

For more references, the following texts should suffice:

“From the beginning of the human race the remedy against original sin could not be applied except in virtue of the mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. Therefore the faith of the ancients with some protestation of faith profited children unto salvation, not inasmuch as it was a meritorious act on the part of the believers -- hence it was not required that it be an act of formed [i.e. living] faith --, but on the part of that which they had faith in or relied on, i.e. the mediator Himself: for in this way also the sacraments that were afterwards instituted have their efficacy inasmuch as they are certain protestations of faith. Hence it does not follow that the unbelief of the parents would harm their children, except incidentally (per accidens), as removing the remedy of sin.(De Malo Q. 4 A. 8 Ad. 13)

“As soon, however, as it begins to have the use of its free-will, it begins to belong to itself, and is able to look after itself, in matters concerning the Divine or the natural law, and then it should be induced, not by compulsion but by persuasion, to embrace the faith: it can then consent to the faith, and be baptized, even against its parents' wish; but not before it comes to the use of reason. Hence it is said of the children of the fathers of old that they were saved in the faith of their parents; whereby we are given to understand that it is the parents' duty to look after the salvation of their children, especially before they come to the use of reason.”(SS. Q.10 A.12 Ad.1)

OBJ 2: Further, before the institution of circumcision faith alone sufficed for justification; hence Gregory says (Moral. iv): "Faith alone did of old in behalf of infants that for which the water of Baptism avails with us." But faith has lost nothing of its strength through the commandment of circumcision. Therefore faith alone justified little ones, and not circumcision.

Reply OBJ 2: Just as before the institution of circumcision, faith in Christ to come justified both children and adults, so, too, after its institution. But before, there was no need of a sign expressive of this faith; because as yet believers had not begun to be united together apart from unbelievers for the worship of one God. It is probable, however, that parents who were believers offered up some prayers to God for their children, especially if these were in any danger. Or bestowed some blessing on them, as a "seal of faith"; just as the adults offered prayers and sacrifices for themselves.(ST. TP. Q. 70 A. 4)

A note on Aquinas's position: while he primarily considers the faith of the parents to be efficacious for the salvation of infants before the institution of circumcision, nevertheless, even after the circumcision, he holds that if a child were to die before the eighth day it could be saved by the faith of the parents. Likewise, even after the institution of circumcision, all the female children were saved in virtue of the faith of their parents.

“It seems, however, that none of the uncircumcised died in the desert, for it is written (Ps. 104:37): "There was not among their tribes one that was feeble": and that those alone died in the desert, who had been circumcised in Egypt. If, however, some of the uncircumcised did die there, the same applies to them as to those who died before the institution of circumcision. And this applies also to those children who, at the time of the Law, died before the eighth day.” (ST. TP. Q.70 A.4 Ad.4)

Thus, it is clear that even after the institution of circumcision, children who died without receiving it could be saved by the faith of their parents. The principle that St. Thomas gives here applies even to children who die in the womb.

The way in which God offered the possibility of salvation to men in the Old Testament also has significant implications for the new. We will look at some of these implications shortly.

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