Age of Accountability

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I think I've hit on one of the things that's been lurking in the background in my resistance to the idea of an age of accountability. Now this post will largely be assuming some things many here will not grant, e.g. exclusivism about who gets saved, Christian particularism about how they get saved, perhaps Protestant soteriology, and traditional or classical models of divine knowledge (as opposed to open theism). One reason I assume these is because I think they're all true, but it's more important for this post that most people who hold to the age of accountability as I'm about to explicate it do in fact assume all these things. Perhaps denying any of them, or at least certain ways of denying them, will get around the problems I'm about to raise. I think it might still take some work to do so, however.

The standard age-of-accountability view includes the following claims:

1. At some age (which may not be the same for everyone), each person becomes morally responsible.
2. Before that point, (a) it would be unjust for God to hold the person responsible for their sins, or (b) they aren't really sins until that point, or (c) God would always be merciful in such cases when justice might still be deserved.
3. After that point, the gospel message applies, and those who repent and follow Christ are saved, while those who don't are not.

Now there's an unspecified fourth issue that an age-of-accountability view might go either way on. What criteria determine what the age of accountability is, and do the criteria admit of vagueness such that there isn't a clear line between being morally responsible and not being morally responsible? So we get the following two views:

Suppose there is no such vagueness. Take the case of a hypothetical child Fergus. Fergus is currently below the age of accountability, and thus if he dies he'll be saved eternally. Once he hits that age, he'll magically become morally responsible overnight, even though that transition is based in capacities that admit of vagueness such as cognitive abilities, recognition of one's own sin, grasp of the concepts necessary to understand the barebones gospel message, and so on. Thus the age of accountability seems arbitrary.

What if there is vagueness, then, in how God determines whether someone is accountable? The capacities undergirding the age of accountability are matters of vague boundaries, and thus also is the age of accountability. Children become more accountable as they become more able to understand the gospel message and apply it to themselves. This means the degree of responsibility they have for their own sin and for not responding to the gospel depends on how far along they are in their moral development.

The problem with the first view is that it's arbitrary and thus seems unjust. If God draws the line of salvation at a certain point of responsibility, when one iota less would bring someone into salvation, it seems as if the consequence is far more severe than the difference in level of responsibility should warrant. With two possible outcomes of infinite difference in value, a tiny difference in how responsible someone is shouldn't be enough to put someone in one and someone of slightly greater moral awareness, say, in the other.

The problem with the second view is that it doesn't fit well with the exclusivist position that most people who believe in an age of accountability accept. I don't happen to think vagueness problems are a problem for exclusivism in general, because in my view the basis for those who are past the accountability age is still objective and clear: Is there a genuine work of divine grace in the person's life? That doesn't come in degrees. God intends salvation for someone or doesn't. God doesn't sort-of-intend things. Those with a weaker view of God's sovereignty in salvation have to say more here, but I have no problem with vagueness problems and exclusivism per se.

But once you add in the age of accountability, there is a problem, because it becomes vague whether the person is responsible for having to trust in Christ and be committed to him. Such people are on the borderline for whether they ought to be sent to hell if they haven't repented.

Now there are a couple ways someone might still hold to an age of accountability despite this problem. God could simply ensure that no one dies while in the vague area of moral responsibility where it (a) isn't clearly enough to count as a fully participating morally responsible child but also (b) not clearly small enough to count as not yet responsible. So God could avoid the unjust outcome by working it into his providential plan that no one ends up in that position.

You could instead think there are degrees of punishment and good in the afterlife. A lot of people think that anyway. But to make this work, you'd have to think the level of punishment in hell for those in the borderline of responsibility would be so close to zero that it's very near the level of good in heaven for those who are near the borderline of responsibility and end up just making it into heaven.

I wouldn't rule out the first, but the second sounds implausible given the accounts of the afterlife that you see in scripture, and even the first has to attribute to God a lot of activity that is never spoken of anywhere in Christian scripture. It brings in considerations that we're expecting God to care about that aren't countenanced anywhere in scripture. A lot of people are so resistant to the idea that infants are morally accountable for the sin nature they're born with that they might be willing to accept these sorts of things, but it's not clear at all to me that we should prefer these adjustments to the idea that there's no age of accountability and children with no capacity to reflect on their lives morally are nonetheless morally accountable to God for their sin.

Now perhaps a more helpful way to capture what I think is motivating the age of accountability idea is to recognize that what an act of divine regeneration might look like will be different for those with diminished capacities. Presumably we're not being told that John the Baptist understood the full implications of who the Messiah was to be when we're told that he leaped for joy when his pregnant mother came into the vicinity of Mary when she was pregnant with Jesus. We're being told that he was excited somehow, and perhaps a work of regeneration at that early age included an additional sensitivity even in his pre-natal state to being in the presence of divinity. Nothing I've said here tells us one way or the other about how many infants or how many of those with diminished capacities into adulthood experience something like what John the Baptist did (or at least whatever part of it was sufficient for salvation).

So it doesn't follow at all that all infants go to hell or anything like that. That's consistent with everything I've said, but it's also consistent with all this that none do, or perhaps some do. I'm not really commenting on that issue in general, just on this one approach that I think ends up with problematic elements. So I'm not sure we should try to handle this kind of problem with the idea of an age of accountability that bases moral deservingness on capacity to understand. That doesn't mean I have a clear view on the best way to approach it, though. But positive views have never been my philosophical strength.

[cross-posted at Evangel and Prosblogion]


Thanks Jeremy, this is a great post on an issue I've been thinking about recently. I agree and wonder if sometimes we reduce faith to something purely cognitive when perhaps it isn't?

I don’t see the problem with the criteria. First, assume no vagueness. You write that this is arbitrary and thus seems unjust. How? The mere fact that we cannot discern God’s reasons for his decisions does not imply that he doesn’t have them. Consider a and b of your second age-of-accountability claim. If they aren’t really sins before a certain point but are sins after that point, then it doesn’t matter how tiny the sin after this point has been reached. This is a matter of objective reality. God recognizes it and acts according to his justice. If you go with c of the second claim, that God would always be merciful, then being arbitrary (if God even could do such a thing) wouldn’t be an issue. Just because God chooses to show mercy to one person does not mean that another, to whom he does not choose to show mercy, has not received justice. As to the option in which there is vagueness, I’m afraid you’ve lost me there. God is the one making the decision according to the criteria. How can anything be vague to an omniscient being?

Having said this, I am generally skeptical about an age-of-accountability. I do grant everything that you assume in your first paragraph, but I differ with the standard claims. For the first, which is the age at which each person becomes morally responsible, I wouldn’t make this different for anyone. Since I hold to the doctrine of original sin, that we are all held accountable for Adam’s transgression whether or not we have committed personal sins, I would put our moral responsibility at the moment we become persons. I believe that personhood begins at conception. Given such an early age, neither a nor b of claim two are valid (I may be able to grant c, but I’ll save that for now). I reject what claim three implies; namely, that before the age-of-accountability, there is a way outside of the gospel whereby a person can be saved.

For those with sufficient cognitive development, there is a three-fold manifestation of faith. These are noticia (awareness of the facts), assensus (intellectual agreement with these facts), and fiducia (the actual faith that justifies). It is entirely possible to have the first two without the third, in which case there is no saving faith. In God’s ordinary providence all three are present in those who are saved. For those who are incapable of the first two, either because of age or mental defect, God can bypass these and give only the third, which is sufficient for salvation. The gift of faith, however, is never given to those whom the Holy Spirit has not first regenerated. And only those who by virtue of their union with Christ are raised with him in his resurrection are regenerated. Being in a state of faith at death is the only way to escape eternal punishment afterwards. Since I believe in the perseverance of the saints, that it is impossible for our union with Christ to be broken, I must conclude that anyone of sufficient age who dies and goes to hell would have ended up there had he or she died as an infant. Also, any infant who dies and goes to heaven would have ended up there had he or she lived to a sufficient age.

The only kind of an age-of-accountability which I may be able to grant would be tied to c of claim two- God would always be merciful. It would not be a mercy that resulted in salvation, though, for that would have to be permanent. Instead, it would simply be that only the elect die before this age. Yet, while this view is consistent with scripture, I find nowhere that it is taught there. The only thing we can conclude with any certainty is that all elect infants who die go to heaven.; this says nothing about whether all infants who die are elect.

The no-vagueness model means there's a sharp line between having not enough capacity to be morally responsible and having just enough to be morally responsible. That means what makes you morally responsible is vague, but there's no vagueness in the moral responsibility that results. It's like saying that there's a sharp line between red and not-red, even though the difference has to do with degrees of difference having to do with wavelengths of light reflected from a surface. The difference between red and not-red is vague because the thing it's based on is vague. The indeterminate range where it's not determinately red but also not determinately not-red is not problematic, though, because it's a feature of our language that it isn't precise about such matters. If it's in a vague vicinity of a certain group of wavelengths, it's red. If it's well outside that range, it's not red. There's a penumbral area where we won't definitively pronounce it red or not-red.

The reason this seems to me to be intolerable with moral responsibility is that an all-or-nothing view of moral responsibility has huge significance, and basing that on something that is vague, where there are no such sharp cutoff points, is not something I'd expect a just God who understands all precision to do. It's one thing to bestow mercy when justice is deserved and to base it on justice already carried out on a perfect sacrifice. It's quite another to say that justice is deserved in one case but not even deserved in another but then to use imprecise criteria to make such a precise judgment. I don't see God doing that. That's why I say it's unjust.

I guess you're not understanding what I mean when I say there's vagueness on the vague option. The vague option is that there are degrees of moral responsibility to correspond to the degrees of capacity. As a child's capacities develop, the child's moral responsibility increases. So moral responsibility comes in degrees. I see no problem with that being vague even if God understands exact precision, because God knows what degree of responsibility each person has and knows the underlying precise phenomena that ground the increase in degree of responsibility.

I think I agree with everything beyond your first paragraph. It sounded as if you thought your were disagreeing with me, but I'm not sure why you'd think that.

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