In my introductory article on the subject of paedocommunion, I noted that there are four typical arguments that are advanced for this practice. The first of these arguments is an appeal to the historic practice of the church. According to those who advocate the practice of admitting children of believing parents to the Table of the Lord, this practice best accords with what we know to have been the practice of the Christian church throughout its history.
Though it is true that the church’s practice ought finally to be normed by the teaching of the Scriptures, which are the supreme standard for faith and practice, the Reformed churches read the Scriptures in the company of the whole church and may not ignore the lessons of history. The historical practice of the church encourages a reconsideration of the usual Reformed practice of restricting the Lord’s Table to those who are professing members of the church.
Advocates of paedocommunion maintain that a careful study of the history of the church will show that paedocommunion was likely the original practice of the church. Though the evidence for this practice may not be wholly uniform, the most plausible interpretation of the evidence confirms the widespread practice of admitting children to the Lord’s Table. Moreover, the discontinuation of the ancient practice of paedocommunion in some segments of the western church was the result of the introduction of unbiblical emphases into the church’s understanding of the sacrament. While defenders of paedocommunion acknowledge that the evidence from history is somewhat mixed, they insist that the preponderance of the evidence supports the argument for rather than against paedocommunion. Even though the lessons of church history are not finally determinative for the present practice of the church, they warrant a fresh evaluation as to whether the practice of the Reformed churches in this respect is not in need of further reformation.
In order to evaluate the historical case that paedocommunionists often adduce for their position, we will offer a brief survey in this article of the more important evidence that can be mustered on the question of the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, we will follow a rough historical outline of several of the more important periods of church history, taking note especially of the history of the church in the West.
The Early Church
It is generally admitted that the evidence for the practice of paedocommunion in the earliest period of the church is not as clear or as ample as the evidence for the practice of paedobaptism. In the case of infant baptism, the first explicit evidence for this practice can be found in the writings of Irenaeus in the late second century. However, there are also statements by other early church Fathers (for example, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen) that imply that infant baptism was practiced in the Christian church from the beginning.
In contrast to this relatively strong evidence for the early and general practice of infant baptism, clear evidence for the practice of paedocommunion in some segments of the church only begins with a statement in the writings of Cyprian that dates to the middle of the third century. Unlike the evidence for infant baptism, which is uniformly affirmative of the practice, the reference in Cyprian to the practice of paedocommunion must be read in the context of earlier and contemporary statements that oppose this practice. Before considering the statement of Cyprian, a brief summary of this evidence will serve to place it in context.
One of the earliest references to the subject of the proper recipients of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is provided by Justin Martyr (110–165 A.D.). Speaking of the sacrament, Justin notes in his First Apology that “this food is called among us the eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these.”
In this comment regarding the church’s earliest practice, Justin, an early second century defender of the Christian faith, observes that the sacrament is only to be received by those who embrace the church’s teachings and resolve to live in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Justin’s description of the church’s practice does not expressly exclude the reception of children at the Table of the Lord, though this seems to be the inference that is demanded.
Another writer in the period before Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–219 A.D.), also describes the practice of the church in a way that restricts the Table’s recipients to active believers. In his Instructor, which offers a kind of short catechism of the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Clement notes that those who partake of the sacrament do so “by faith.”
Similarly, in Clement’s The Stromata, the requirements for participation in the sacrament are like those mentioned by Justin Martyr: “One’s own conscience is best for choosing accurately or shunning [the Eucharist]. And its firm foundation is a right life, with suitable instruction. But the imitation of those who have already been proved and who have led correct lives, is most excellent for the understanding and practice of the commandments. ‘So that whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord ….’”
Shortly before the statement of Cyprian, which speaks positively of the practice of paedocommunion, Origen, one of the most influential of the eastern church Fathers, also seems to suggest that children (parvuli) were not given the sacrament of communion.
Before we arrive at the provision of the heavenly bread, and are filled with the flesh of the spotless Lamb, before we are inebriated with the blood of the true Vine which sprang from the root of David, while we are children (parvuli), and are fed with milk, and retain the discourse about the first principles of Christ, as children we act under the oversight of stewards, namely the guardian angels.
In this admittedly highly symbolic statement, Origen makes a distinction between children, who are fed with the milk of the Word of God and are not yet able to receive the flesh and blood of Christ, and more mature believers, who are at a stage of spiritual maturity that permits them to do so. While Origin uses metaphorical language, he seems clearly to be speaking of participation in the sacrament of communion, when he speaks of being “filled with the flesh of the spotless Lamb” and being “inebriated with the blood of the true Vine.” Though Origen does not spell out in any detail at what age or under what circumstances more mature members of the church could partake of the Lord’s Supper, he clearly describes a practice that would exclude children of immature years from participation. Children may spiritually be fed by Christ but they are not yet able to be sacramentally fed by means of the Lord’s Supper.
On the basis of these kinds of statements in the writings of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, scholars like Jeremias have concluded that children did not participate in the Lord’s Supper before the third century of the Christian era. However, as we noted previously, there is a statement of Cyprian (c. 250) in his treatise, On the Lapsed, that refers to the practice. Describing the struggles of the church during the period of the Decian persecutions, Cyprian places words in the mouths of the children of believers that suggest their participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper:
With mutual exhortations, people were urged to their ruin; death was pledged by turns in the deadly cup. And that nothing might be wanting to aggravate the crime, infants also, in the arms of their parents, either carried or conducted, lost, while yet little ones, what in the very first beginning of their nativity they had gained. Will not they, when the day of judgment comes, say, “We have done nothing; nor have we forsaken the Lord’s bread and cup to hasten freely to a profane contact; the faithlessness of others has ruined us.
The implication of this description of Cyprian is that the children of believers were participants in the sacrament of communion, at least in his experience as a bishop of the church. If this is correct, Cyprian’s statement represents the first clear testimony for the practice of paedocommunion in the churches with which he was acquainted.
It is unlikely, however, that the practice of paedocommunion was widespread at the time of Cyprian’s ministry in the church. A contemporary of Cyprian’s, the author of the Syrian Didascalia, confirms that the practice in Syria and Palestine was in accord with what we have seen to be Origen’s experience, namely, that believers were admitted to the Table of the Lord only after a period of instruction in the faith. This author writes:
Honor the bishops, who have loosed you from your sins, who by the water regenerated you, who filled you with the Holy Spirit, who reared you with word as with milk, who bred you up with teaching, who established you with admonition, and made you to partake of the holy eucharist of God, and made you partakers and joint-heirs of the promise of God.
The implication of this statement is that participation in the sacrament of communion was reserved to those who had been properly prepared through instruction in the Christian faith. Only after the children of believers were nurtured in the word of God as milk were they permitted to partake of the eucharist.
The historical evidence stemming from the earliest period of the church’s history, therefore, provides no uniform testimony to a widespread practice of paedocommunion. This evidence suggests that the ancient practice of the church likely did not include the admission of children to the Lord’s Table. The evidence of this practice in some sectors of the church in the middle of the third century does not warrant the inference that it finds its roots in the antiquity of the church. At the same time that Cyprian describes a practice of paedocommunion in the sector of the church with which he was most familiar, there is contrary evidence in sectors of the church, including Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, which are the likeliest to have preserved the earliest practice of the church.
The evidence from the earliest period of the church indicates that the practice of paedocommunion only began to emerge in certain sectors of the church during the third century. In the fourth and fifth centuries, however, this practice became fairly widespread in the eastern and western branches of the church. Indeed, during this period paedocommunion became a normal practice of the church. With the development of the church’s doctrine of the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of baptism, which reflected an increasingly “realistic” understanding of the sacrament’s effectiveness in transforming its recipients, the argument for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper became more compelling.
Because the sacrament of baptism was viewed as a regenerating ordinance, anticipating the more developed medieval teaching of the sacrament’s effectiveness ex opere operato (“by the work performed”), baptized children were presumed to be born again of the Spirit and properly the recipients of the nourishment provided through the sacrament of communion. This development can be illustrated from the writings of the greatest and most influential church Father of the period, St. Augustine (354–433 A.D.), and from comments of Leo the Great, bishop of Rome (440–461 A.D.).
There are a number of passages in the voluminous writings of Augustine that clearly affirm the practice of receiving children at the Lord’s Table. In a sermon in which Augustine argues that children are born and conceived in sin, he notes that “[t]hey are infants, but they receive His sacraments. They are infants, but they share in His table, in order to have life in themselves.” In order for the children of believers to enjoy life in Christ, they must participate in the sacraments, which grant the spiritual life and nourishment that is needed.
One of the principal arguments that Augustine makes for the admission of such children to the Table of the Lord is an appeal to the teaching of Christ in John 6. Because Christ insists that those who would have life in Him must eat His body and drink His blood, children must be received at the Table of the Lord, lest they be excluded from life in Christ.
And what else do they say who call the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper life, than that which is written: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven;” and “The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world;” and “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye shall have no life in you?” If, therefore, as so many and such divine witnesses agree, neither salvation nor eternal life can be hoped for by any man without baptism and the Lord’s body and blood, it is vain to promise these blessings to infants without them. Moreover, if it be only sins that separate man from salvation and eternal life, there is nothing else in infants which these sacraments can be the means of removing, but the guilt of sin.
Because children have been cleansed of sin through the sacrament of baptism, and because they as well as adults can only have life in Christ through a sacramental eating and drinking of his flesh, they ought to be received and nourished by means of the sacrament.
The influence of Augustine, particularly his view of the necessity of sacraments to grant salvation, provided considerable impetus to the practice of paedocommunion in the church in the fourth and subsequent centuries.
Further witness to the emergence of the practice of paedocommunion in the western church in the period after Augustine, is provided by Leo, bishop of Rome. In answer to a question regarding the need for the rebaptism of children who were captured by pagans after having been born into and originally nurtured in a Christian home, Leo makes the following comment: “Those who can remember that they used to go to church with their parents can remember whether they received what used to be given to their parents.” Leo’s answer may imply that these children could remember how they formerly partook of communion at a young age. If this is the case, then his answer attests to the practice of paedocommunion in the western church during the fifth century.
The kinds of arguments that were used by Augustine exercised a considerable influence upon this development. If children are born again through baptism and thereby initiated fully into the spiritual body of Christ, they possess the spiritual life required to be nourished at the eucharist. And if the sacrament of communion furnishes its recipients with the necessary eating and drinking of Christ of which John 6 speaks, then the children of believers should not be excluded from participation in the sacrament. The soil within which the practice of paedocommunion was to flourish was prepared in the writings of Augustine and others who shared his sacramental views.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.