There are a few issues that keep recurring in The Spiritual Condition of Infants. These issues weren’t necessarily theological, but they degraded Harwood’s argument and effectiveness. In my next post I will address specific theological areas of appreciation and disagreement, but in this post I want to raise two of the recurring issues: he fails to build a positive case, and he makes frequent unsubstantiated appeals to authority.
Making the Case
In the introduction to the book, Harwood says that his goal is to “write a positive statement about what the Bible does teach about infants.”1 Thus we would be right to expect Harwood to build a case throughout Scripture, showing the biblical foundation for his premise that “infants are sin-stained, not guilty… all people who die in their infancy will be included in God’s restoration of fallen creation…”2 His goal is to give us a positive case for what the Bible teaches; we are right to expect him to focus his efforts on just that: laying a foundation, building on that foundation, presenting us his case from Scripture. What we actually find is a book designed to refute opposing views. Harwood devotes most of his attention to addressing the biblical arguments of his theological opponents. Instead of building a clear, systematic, comprehensive case, he focuses on several points raised by opposing views, tells us why he thinks those views are wrong, and at times tells us how this or that passage should instead be read to support his position. For instance, at the conclusion of his chapter Holy Children: Covenant or Blessing? Harwood summarizes his discussion in this way:
So, what does 1 Cor 7:14 imply about the spiritual condition of infants? This passage is cited by some people who teach a covenant view of salvation and infant baptism. Their argument is that the sanctification mentioned by Paul refers to the children of believers being protected by God due to the faith of their parents. In this chapter, I attempted to demonstrate some of the difficulties in affirming a covenantal view of salvation and infant baptism.3
In other places Harwood is left in a somewhat ambivalent position, having raised challenges against an opposing view while failing to draw firm conclusions of his own:
In Mark 10:13–16, Jesus blessed young children. Although it is not certain whether or not Jesus considered them guilty of sin, he neither called them to repentance nor attempted to baptize them with water. Rather, he blessed them and pointed to them as an example of how a person should receive the kingdom of God.4
Toward the beginning of the chapter on Mark 10:13-16, Harwood said he would address the passage in three ways: first, by considering the age of the children; second, by showing why this passage cannot be used to defend infant baptism; and third, by discussing “the meaning of the text and its application to the present research.”5 The large majority of the chapter is given to the second section: sections one and three each get one paragraph, the remaining pages focus on infant baptism. In section three, where Harwood intended to present the meaning and application of the passage, the best he can offer is “it is not possible to determine whether or not Jesus viewed the infants in the group as guilty of sin, but he did welcome them.”6 I appreciate his honest handling of the passage – he does not attempt to make it fit his conclusion – but it does not help him to “write a positive statement about what the Bible does teach about infants.” Such examples are not unique. His interactions with Scripture largely focus on refutation rather than construction.
Appeals to Authority
A second problem is Harwood’s willingness to reference scholars as though their word alone settles certain key questions. He grants them a great measure of trust and authority without letting us know why they should be trusted. Quite possibly those authors in their own writings have explained why they believe as they do about this or that passage, but all Harwood gives us is their conclusion. He expects to trust them – and him – that what they have said is correct while opposing views are incorrect. This comes across as elevating scholars who support his conclusions simply because they support his conclusions.
Harwood’s appeals to authority occur throughout the book. For instance, in his chapter on Romans 5:12-21 he notes that John Murray appeals to the passage to show that even infants are included in the sin of Adam since infants experience death. Harwood’s response is to quote C.E.B. Cranfield who said, “…those who die in infancy are a special and exceptional case, and Paul must surely be assumed to be thinking in terms of adults.”7 We are not told why Paul must surely be thinking about adults. No exegetical argument (or any other kind of argument) is made to show why infants “must surely be” excluded from Paul’s consideration. Harwood never tells us why Cranfield’s view is better than Murray’s or why we should agree with Cranfield’s declaration that infants are not in view.
A similar appeal to authority occurs again later in the chapter in the same context: “Fitzmyer also explains that including infants among the all who sinned of Rom 5:12 was not an idea that Paul had in mind.”8 We might assume that Cranfield and Fitzmyer both explain their assertions in their own writings, but despite the fact that their assertions are essential to Harwood’s position, he does not explain why they are correct. We are left with the claim and must choose whether or not to accept it without argument.
Later, Harwood makes an elementary mistake when he says, “None of these Old Testament scholars glean from the text that humans are guilty of sin from birth.”9 As I was reminded time and again in seminary, citing scholars who agree with me is not in itself an argument that I am right. Opposing scholars can always be found. It is not enough for Harwood to quote half a dozen people who say what he is saying. I need to know how they get their position from the text.
Appeals of this sort are common throughout Harwood’s book. This is not to say that he never presents arguments from the text, but his arguments are often built on simple assertion. At best all that he accomplishes is to demonstrate that there are differing viewpoints. His conclusions are built on an invisible foundation: he has told us of its outline but has left out the substance.
Tomorrow I will dive into some of the specific theological issues raised by Harwood.