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Notes on two books I’ve read recently:

The Spiritual Condition of Infants:
A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal

Adam Harwood
Wipf and Stock, 2011

What happens to infants who die? Most evangelicals agree that infants, though born in sin, go to heaven. But the way that evangelicals come to that conclusion varies, and the theological steps one takes to that conclusion can have ramifications in other areas, including the question of those who have not heard the gospel.

Adam Harwood’s The Spiritual Condition of Infants wades into the deep waters of speculation on this sensitive issue by providing a helpful survey of the views of sixteen theologians as well as an exegetical look at relevant passages. Arguing against the “spontaneous regeneration” view of Wayne Grudem, Harwood’s conclusion is similar to that of Millard Erickson and William Hendricks, that infants inherit a sinful nature from Adam but become guilty only when they sin. Harwood’s view would have been bolstered by appealing to the Eastern Orthodox view that Christ had a sinful nature and yet was sinless. But even as it stands, this is a careful, thoughtful book on a difficult and sensitive subject.

The Intolerance of Tolerance
D. A. Carson
Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012

A few years ago, I was reading through D. A. Carson’s  Christ and Culture Revisited and benefiting greatly from his analysis of the church within our contemporary Western setting. He made some helpful remarks in that book about the “new tolerance.” Now, several years later, Carson has written an entire book on this subject. The heart of the book is a contrasting of “old tolerance” and “new tolerance.” He writes:

The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new.

The rest of the book unpacks the slide from “old” tolerance to “new.” Along the way, Carson exposes the intellectual bankruptcy of the new tolerance as well as its hypocritical application in a way that muzzles the viewpoints of religious people and those with objective notions of morality. In the end, Carson explains that Christians who attempt to be faithful to the Scriptures will necessarily uphold certain truths as being true regardless of relativism’s tyranny. This is timely work that gets to the heart of contemporary controversies over religious freedom and political involvement.

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17 thoughts on “Book Notes: The Spiritual Condition of Infants / The Intolerance of Tolerance”

  1. Phil says:

    I think that the “old tolerance” of allowing the free expression of contrary opinions is alive and well (see the internet; cable channels (FOX, MSNBC, Al Jazeera (spelling?), Christian Broadcasting, etc.). Who isn’t being allowed to express their opinions? [And who is doing the preventing?]

    And, it seems to me that the “new tolerance” is really just a straw man, that is, Carson is arguing against something that doesn’t (really) exist.

    Are there really people out there saying “all beliefs and claims are equally valid?” What I think you have out there is competing claims about what is valid–with everyone believing their “beliefs and claims” are “true.” Whatever that means.

    1. Phil you probably have not spent much time in a college/university setting in the past several years. Or even in many fortune 500 companies or the Denver police Dept. either. All of them have active speech codes which can you get you fired or sent to diversity classes (I kid you not) if you speak a contrary word on the important subjects – in particular right now Islam and homosexuality (This particular pairing is almost beyond irony itself – but that is for another posting!).
      E.G. The head of my doctoral committee at one of the best known Universities in the country told me that even though he had tenure many times over, was chair of the religious studies dept. – all of this meaning he effectively could not be fired – but if he said anything critical of Islam he would be fired! I have many more actual examples than that but that one epitomizes what Carson is talking about. As an academic he has seen it for many years. I will also just tell you that the Dean of my seminary warned me to be very careful when I came back to teach as an adjunct – that the school was much more concerned about “image” then truth. The DEAN!!! Interesting days we live in.

      1. Phil says:


        I don’t view the mere existence of a speech code as an (inherently) bad thing. If the speech code stops truly egregious comments (e.g. “All homosexuals should be shot.”), I see nothing wrong with it. (As an aside (and a big one at that): Wasn’t one of the reasons O.J. Simpson was found not guilty was that the defense was able to show that one of the detectives had made numerous racist comments in the workplace, and thus the defense was able to (successfully!) raise the possibility (I know it sounds ridiculous) that O.J. was framed? Seems like maybe a good reason for not letting people make certain kinds of statements).

        Of course, I certainly see how a speech code could be misused/abused, but then that’s true of most things.

        Also, I don’t doubt there are tons of “minefields” in religious departments/seminaries. It’s a shame if it stifles honest debate.

        1. Hi Phil. The problem with your statement is the words “truly egregious”. Who gets to decide that? How is that dealt with? If it is criminal, as in a death threat that is one thing. But we aren’t talking about that here. The incidents I am talking about are based on having the “wrong” opinion of issues like homosexuality and Islam. Who gets to decide at a university what the “right” opinion is and what we do with the “heretics” who disagree?
          In my youth there was this notion that a university was a place for free speech and that we as Americans had the same right. All of this is sadly gone. Pomo conditioning has given the university political correctness which has given us the speech codes. Of course in most of these same settings it is ok to criticize a Christian creationist or a Jew or something like that and you will not be held up for hate speech.
          OJ was not acquitted because of the ludicrous charges of racism by the stupid LA detective. The LAPD had been protecting his sorry hide for decades. OJ had money and the judge was putting on a show. Most every other court in the land would have convicted him. (I say this as a former policeman who has no patience for bad police work or racism -it just wasn’t the real issue there!)

  2. Josh Walker says:


    Does Adam Harwood deal with the fact the sin and guilt are what bring about death? In other word, does he answer this question: if infants are not guilty of sin, then why do they die, since death is a result of the guilt from sin?

    1. Adam Harwood says:

      Josh, Please see my reply among the comments below.

  3. Thank you, Trevin, for these thought and faith provoking suggestions. Pregnant with our fourth child now, I’ve definitely circled back to considering the question of the spiritual condition (and fate) of infants. As for the intolerance of tolerance, in response to Phil’s comment above, there are often very subtle but just as sinister pressures applied to people to curb expression of their opinions (I know I can speak in more detail of academia, which seems particularly ironic). I will be sure to add both reads to the list.

  4. Caleb B says:

    I didn’t know the Eastern Orthodox view is that Jesus had a sinful nature. That is somewhat shocking to me.
    Trevin, are there any articles you can point us to that express this position – I would want to try to understand how that could even make sense since it is completely new to me.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      The basis for the Eastern church’s position on this is Romans 8:3, where the Father sends the son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin.

      The Eastern church’s view of original sin is quite different from that of the West, which is why the Orthodox can affirm that Jesus was “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (inheriting what we inherited from Adam) and still affirm that He was perfectly sinless and without guilt before God.

      I’ll have to ask my EO readers to weigh in on the theology behind this.

  5. Adam Harwood says:


    Trevin invited me to reply to any questions about my book on his blog. Thanks for your interest and for asking that question. I attempt to address the question in two of my chapters.

    Chapter 5 is entitled, “Does God Judge our Sinful Nature or Our Sinful Actions?” An examination of key biblical texts seems to indicate that God judges people according to their sinful thoughts, attitudes and actions, not their inherited sinful nature. Consider, for example, all the things that elicit God’s wrath in Romans 1. People suppress the truth, fail to honor God, choose idolatry and homosexuality. See also 1 Cor 6:9-10. If it’s true that God judges judges us according to our sinful actions, then infants may be free from God’s condemnation.

    Chapter 6 is entitled, “Are Infant Deaths Due to the Guilt of Other People?” The Augustinian-Calvinist tradition teaches that guilt is imputed to all people and that explains why infants sometimes die. John Murray, in his classic work, _The Imputation of Adam’s Sin_, answers your question that way. In this chapter, I consider two instances in Scripture of the death of infants in which there is no mention of their personal guilt. The best known example of this is the tragic story of the first son of David and Bathsheba. Their infant son did not die because of his own sin or guilt; the text of 2 Samuel 12 is clear that the infant died as a result of David’s sinful actions. My conclusion in that chapter is that infants are not guilty before God because they have not yet acted in sinful ways. However, infants are sometimes subject to the sweeping consequences of God’s judgment against the sinful behavior of their parents–up to and including their first parents, Adam and Eve.

    Thanks again for your interest in my book. You can download the first chapter for free through the blue button on the right side of this Amazon page. You can then read it on the Kindle (or Kindle apps on the iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, PC or Mac).

    I am an Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia. Last semester, I was asked to address this topic in a chapel message. You can watch and/or listen to that message by following this link:

    Blessings on your life and ministry.

    In Him,


  6. As for an official Orthodox response, I will have to pass, but I can try my hand at an unofficial response to the question.

    First, I have never heard us express the nature of Christ as sinful. Trevin is right in that Orthodox have a different view of nature and original sin (If you want better theological sources on this check out John Romanides – Ancestral Sin).

    Rarely will you hear Orthodox speak of original sin meaning that man has inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin. Each man is only guilty of his own sins. Yet Adam’s sin corrupted creation and each of us were born into a state of sin or perhaps a better way to say it would be a “body of sin”. What we inherit is corruption or death. Man is born with the parasitic power of death within him.

    When Christ at the Incarnation takes upon himself Human Nature, He sanctifies it, by joining it to the Divine Nature. So in a sense He did take on sinful human flesh, but the Divine nature purified and sanctified it, and this sanctification extended to all mankind.

    For us the Incarnation itself and not just the events of the Passion are salvific, because Human Nature can now enter into communion with the Divine.

  7. Clay says:

    Like Theron, I’ve never heard that Christ had a “sinful nature”, although He does have a fully human nature and was subjected to the consequences of the fall in the same way that all humans are. On top of that, I don’t think (although I’m no expert) that Orthodox theologians would speak in terms of a “sinful human nature” at all. Human nature is created in the image of God and therefore can’t be in essence sinful. Because of Adam’s sin, human nature has certainly become corrupted, and we are all born in alienation from God, which is sin, but I don’t think it would be proper from an Orthodox perspective to say that humans are by nature sinful. Our salvation does not involve obtaining a new nature, but rather it involves restoring the image of God in human nature and elevating it into likeness of God. Christ became what we are (fallen human) so that we can become by grace what He is (deified human). Again, I’m no expert on all of this so I’m probably speaking in terms that a true Orthodox theologian would need to clarify. Here is a short article explaining the Orthodox understanding of of “original sin”, if anyone is interested.

    As to the eternal fate of departed infants, there isn’t a whole lot of speculation on the part of Orthodox theologians. The only Greek Church Father who really dealt specifically with this topic was St. Gregory of Nyssa, and he doesn’t conclude with any definite answers.

    1. Clay says:

      To clarify, when I say that human nature has become corrupted, I mean that humans have become subject to unnatural forces which influence us away from God and towards sin. To paraphrase the article I linked to, in our fallen state it is hard to do good and easy to do bad. But when we sin we are acting contrary to our true nature and not in accordance with it. That’s why sin, on some level, feels uncomfortable.

    2. Adam Harwood says:


      Good to meet you.

      I dedicate a chapter of my book to the view of the spiritual condition of infants among prominent Eastern theologians prior to Augustine. In that chapter, I consider the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

      You wrote, “As to the eternal fate of departed infants, there isn’t a whole lot of speculation on the part of Orthodox theologians. The only Greek Church Father who really dealt specifically with this topic was St. Gregory of Nyssa, and he doesn’t conclude with any definite answers.”

      You might be surprised by the writings of those three theologians on the topic.

      Blessings on your life and ministry.

      In Him,


      1. Clay says:

        Thanks Adam. I should have qualified my statement with “to the best of my knowledge…”, which admittedly is too little. I’ll have to check out your book!

  8. Steve Martin says:

    “In sin my mother conceived me”

    “All have sinned and have fallen short…”

    “No one is righteous…”

    One just need observe two infants fighting over a rattle to know that this is true.

    1. Adam Harwood says:


      Thanks for your note. I deal extensively with the biblical texts you have noted.

      This study is a revision of my PhD dissertation in Theology. My argument is that the Bible presents a difference between the sinful nature we inherit and the guilt which is later acquired when we have attained a state of moral responsibility and then act out of that sinful nature.

      I notice on your blog that you have a Lutheran background. In my historical section, I interact with some of the writings of Martin Luther.

      If interested, you can see the outline of my argument by clicking on the book cover above, which links to Amazon. From there, you can preview certain pages and even download the first chapter for free.

      Blessings on your life and ministry.

      In Him,


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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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