On Infants’ Early Deaths

baby_ambroWe thought we’d share some interesting comments by Gregory of Nyssa regarding divine foreknowledge. The Tradition affirms that God, to use Gregory’s expression, “knows all things before they be” (from Gregory’s On the Making of Man). That seems pretty straightforward. And there are many such examples from the Fathers that repeat the same thought.

More interesting, however, are Gregory’s thoughts on the providential use of such foreknowledge which he expounds at some length in his On Infants’ Early Deaths, explaining that God uses his foreknowledge of evils as the basis upon which to bring their life to an end before they commit those evils. But it is not possible that what is in fact foreknown can be the basis upon which God acts either to bring about or prevent what is foreknown. What is foreknown (on the traditional view) is by definition already the result of whatever was done to bring it about attempting to prevent it. Gregory’s logic here is impossible. Here are a few his comments from On Infants’ Early Deaths:

“It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that he not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which he has forbidden; it is reasonable to expect that he who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which his foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice.”

“Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them [foreknown evils] before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants.”

“But seeing that our reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions. Well, then, not only one might pronounce that God, in kindness to the founders of some family, withdraws a member of it who is going to live a bad life from that bad life, but, even if there is no antecedent such as this in the case of some early deaths, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness. That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is reason, and wisdom, and perfect goodness, and truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with his truth. Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.”

“The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil. That some of the wicked have lived on does not upset this reason which we have rendered; for the evil was in their case hindered in kindness to their parents; whereas, in the case of those whose parents have never imparted to them any power of calling upon God, such a form of the Divine kindness, which accompanies such a power, is not transmitted to their own children; otherwise the infant now prevented by death from growing up wicked would have exhibited a far more desperate wickedness than the most notorious sinners, seeing that it would have been unhindered.”

“Take courage good mother, your son would have been worse than the worst human being who ever lived, so in his kindness God has prevented your child’s foreknown sins from being committed” hardly provides a basis for comfort. But the logic doesn’t work either. What is foreknowledge if foreknown sins can be prevented? They were foreknown. Is Gregory (inconsistently) assuming a category of possibilities knowable ‘as possibilities’ but not knowable (as is traditionally held) as the the world’s actual history?

(Picture from here.)

8 comments on “On Infants’ Early Deaths

  1. What a convoluted argument. My daughter’s death thus prevented her from living a wicked life; whereas, one of my sons is being allowed to sow mightily to the flesh. And then where is the dividing line of each of our own wickednesses that would require God’s bumping us off early. Gregory should not have left his day job.


  2. Matt Parkins says:

    Mental – but all Christians have oddities in the outworking of their theology, the church fathers were the first of many!

    If God had EDF and chose to keep altering how reality will play out until enough evil-to-be infants were dead that would pretty well much be the same as the calvinist ‘theological determinist’ view – I actually can’t see how it would be different at all. God would essentially be tinkering with reality until he has it as he wants it and then hits the start button, and reality plays out as he always decided it would.

    Thus EDF becomes (what I term) Exhaustive Meticulous Sovereignty (EMS) or the blueprint view as Boyd calls it.


    • Tom says:

      I confess I was amazed when I ran across this work of Gregory’s a few years back. I’d love to talk through it with some Orthodox friends.

      And this is just Gregory’s answer. It doesn’t follow that all Orthodox agree with him specifically on this question. But what’s interesting about this passage is that Gregory admits that God’s actions in the world are a “response to” freely determined (even if foreknown) choices. And that’s not your standard “classical” view on God’s actions.


  3. tgbelt says:

    Convoluted is a good word for it.


  4. tgbelt says:

    Gregory’s view is a kind of pseudo-open theism, a kind of pre-recorded open theism if you will. An infant’s evil is “foreknown” but “alterable” based on that foreknowledge. This raises the question of the providential use of foreknowledge (as it’s traditionally viewed in the East and by Arminians generally). So Gregory’s idea that God can “foreknow” some future event an on that basis act so as to prevent the foreknown event from occurring is a deformed version of open theism; i.e., it suggests that God can genuinely “foreknow” future X (Joey grows up to commit a 2nd holocaust) and on that basis act so as to “foreknow” that Joey dies when he’s 8 weeks old. A “kind” of openness (that doesn’t really work).

    Evangelical theologian-author David Hunt has tried unsuccessfully for years to argue that changing the future based on foreknowing the future does make sense.


    • Matt Parkins says:

      I think a lot of ordinary folk that I know hold that version of arminianism – it seems the natural retreating position from ordinary arminianism. Is there any good material anywhere that encompasses both sides of that particular argument?


      • tgbelt says:

        David Hunt and a few open theists have engaged on it. For the traditional (simple-foreknowledge) view, start with Hunt’s “Divine Providence and Simple Foreknowledge,” in Faith and Philosophy 10:3 (July 1993): 394-414, then his chapter “The Simple-Foreknowledge View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (InterVarsity, 2001). The objection that such knowledge is providentially useless is offered by David Basinger, “Middle Knowledge and Classical Christian Thought,” Religious Studies 22 (1986): 407-422, and “Simple Foreknowledge and Providential Control,” Faith and Philosophy 10:3 (July 1993): 421-427; Bill Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge, ch. 3; and Sanders, “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God,” Faith and Philosophy 14:1 (January 1997): 26-40. Hunt offers replies in, “Prescience and Providence: A Reply to My Critics,” Faith and Philosophy 10:3 (July 1993): 428-438 and gives is another try in “Contra Hasker: Why Simple Foreknowledge is Still Useful,” JETS 52/3 (September 2009): 545-50. There might be a few other pieces here and there. Hunt’s case never gets off the runway if you ask me.

        But even if Gregory’s idea isn’t possible, it’s interesting to see what is implied about God in Gregory’s belief that God does foreknow different futures. It’s as if he’s taking a sort of Molinist approach (what WOULD happen IF this baby grew to adulthood) and on that basis choosing (and so foreknowing) a different future. What’s implied is a far more relational view than most people assume is the case with the Fathers.


  5. Jeff says:

    It’s interesting that Gregory couldn’t shake the need to reconcile God’s benevolence with EDF. Where no theodicy is conceivable, neither is accountable normativity. The less-inconsistent atheists are dead-on on that one.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s