John Calvin spoke of baptized infants as having a “seed” of faith.
This protofaith would eventually mature into fully-actualized adult faith in the case of the elect. However, the seed illustration does not mean that faith in the child is only a matter of potentiality. As Calvin unfolds the way he understands God’s work in the infant, it becomes clear that he believes infant faith and adult faith stand in a continuum. Infant faith is not merely a dormant virtue, awaiting some later development to awaken it. While Calvin struggles to describe infant faith, he has no qualms about robustly affirming that God can and does work faith in infants by His Spirit. He does not view infant faith as something rare or strange. Indeed, he gives it a kind of normativity, and connects it with the sacrament of initiation. Infant faith is a significant component of Calvin’s theology.
…Calvin argues that infants can experience the grace of regeneration in Christ in Institutes of Christian Religion 4.16.17 and 4.16.18. In the next section, he responds to the (Anabaptist) argument that infants should not be baptized because they cannot understand preaching:
Many He certainly has called and endued with the true knowledge of Himself by internal means, by the illumination of the Spirit, without the intervention of preaching. But since they deem it very absurd to attribute any knowledge of God to infants, whom Moses makes void of the knowledge of good and evil, let them tell me where the danger lies if they are said now to receive some part of that grace, of which they are to have the full measure shortly after. For if fullness of life consists in the perfect knowledge of God, since some of those whom death hurries away in the first moments of infancy pass into life eternal, they are certainly admitted to behold the immediate presence of God. Those therefore whom the Lord is to illumine with the full brightness of His light, why may He not, if He so pleases, irradiate at present with some small beam, especially if He does not remove their ignorance before He delivers them from the prison of the flesh? I would not rashly affirm that they are endued with the same faith which we experience in ourselves or have any knowledge at all resembling faith, (this I would rather leave undecided); but I would somewhat curb the stolid arrogance of those men who, as with inflated cheeks affirm or deny whatever suits them.
Several points here are worthy of close attention. Calvin says infants can receive in infancy some small measure of the fuller grace they will receive later in life. They do not have the “same faith” as adult believers because their faith does not include the same kind of knowledge. But they are still capable of receiving inner operations of grace, presumably a kind of incipient faith. This is especially important in the case of infants dying in infancy: Calvin does not want to make their salvation an exception to sola fide. But he indicates other infants who grow to maturity may have faith as well. Nothing indicates that Calvin thought of infant faith as a rarity; indeed, he seems to regard all covenant infants as subjects of the Spirit’s work.
Calvin acknowledges that paedofaith is different from adult faith, but he is content to leave the nature of such faith undetermined, beyond the obvious admission that infants do not have knowledge like we do as adults. However difficult it might be to conceive of faith in infants, only “stolid arrogance” (that is, stubborn rationalism) would lead someone to deny the possibility of infant believers. Infants are capable of a “small beam” of grace, which may give way to full light later on in life. This illumination even in infancy is God’s gift and can justly be called “faith.”
In 4.16.20, Calvin furthers the point. Baptism (like circumcision) is a sacrament of faith and repentance; thus, only repentant believers should receive it. Any objection to paedobaptism is also an objection to paedo-circumcision, but everyone agrees that infants were to be circumcised in old covenant Israel.
For although infants, at the very moment they were circumcised, did not comprehend with their understanding what the sign meant, they were truly circumcised to the mortification of their corrupt and defiled nature, a mortification that they would after- ward practice in mature years. To sum up, this objection can be solved without difficulty: infants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies within them by the secret working of the Spirit.
Calvin says infants could not grasp the meaning of the sign with their understanding, but this does not preclude their grasping it by faith. Here again, Calvin distinguishes adult faith and repentance from the infantile form of these virtues, which he calls their “seed.” Faith and repentance are present in infants in an inchoate, seminal form. In time, they will come to fuller and more active expression. Calvin clearly views infant faith as organically related to adult faith. A covenant child would not need to have a “conversion experience” in order to become a believer; he simply needs to grow in the faith he possessed even as an infant. Calvin was no revivalist.
This post was adapted from Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents by Rich Lusk (Athanasius Press, 2005).