Before we continue the story of the church’s practice in the West, we need to pause a moment to comment on the distinct development of the practice of the eastern church. Even though the formal schism between the eastern and the western church did not occur until 1054 A.D., for our purposes it is important to observe that the eastern church came to practice a form of paedocommunion throughout its various branches and continues to do so until the present day. The precise dating of the emergence of this practice as a universal norm of the eastern church is not easily determined. However, upon the basis of a developed sacramentology, the eastern church came to administer communion to infants upon the occasion of their baptism and thereafter.
The teaching and practice of the eastern church is fairly clear. The seven sacred “mysteries” or sacraments are the necessary and indispensable means for imparting the grace of new birth and life in Christ to their recipients. In the liturgy of the eastern church, which grants even less of a role to the preaching of the gospel as a means of grace than historic Roman Catholicism, the drama of redemption is reenacted by means of elaborate rites that make considerable use of icons and symbolic actions that represent the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The mystery of holy baptism is a rite that effectively grants new birth and life to its recipients whether as adults or infants. The baptized member of the church is immersed three times, and then immediately receives the further “mysteries” of “chrismation” and the “Eucharist.” Baptism is understood to be the entrance into all the mysteries of the church and qualifies its recipients to receive sacramentally the fullness of God’s grace in Christ and the Holy Spirit. In chrismation, the bishop or priest anoints the baptized person with oil, making the sign of the cross and blessing the newly baptized Christian with “the seal of the Holy Spirit.” After the mysteries of baptism and chrismation, the baptized member is also immediately given the body and blood of Christ by “intinction” (dipping of the bread into the wine). Unlike the practice and teaching of the Roman Catholic church, the mystery of the Eucharist must be communicated in both kinds or elements, is administered by intinction, and is given to infants upon their baptism and chrismation.
Without concurring in the particular features of the Roman Catholic understanding of “transubstantiation,” the eastern church also insists that the bread and wine are really changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Since the baptized child is granted entrance into the kingdom of God and born again by the Holy Spirit, he or she is properly to be admited to the sacrament of the Eucharist, which provides the necessary and indispensable nourishment of participation in the body and blood of Christ.
The historic practice of eastern orthodoxy since the fourth century and thereafter, therefore, certainly lends support to the argument that paedocommunion enjoys the sanction of church history. However, the basis for the practice of eastern orthodoxy raises questions concerning how this practice should be evaluated. Since our interest here is primarily historical, we will reserve comment on this subject until we have considered the further history of the practice of paedocommunion in the western church.
Medieval and Contemporary Roman Catholicism
The story of the practice of paedocommunion in the western church since the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era is a complicated one. In the writings of advocates of paedocommunion, this story is often told in an unduly simplistic manner.
For example, it is argued that, whereas the early church practiced paedocommunion, the medieval Roman Catholic Church gradually came to withhold the sacrament from infants and children because of the development of certain doctrinal convictions regarding the sacrament of the Eucharist. Because the developing Roman Catholic and medieval doctrine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper contained tenets that militated against the continuation of the practice of paedocommunion, this practice began to disappear in the western church.
What is clear from the history of the Roman Catholic Church is that paedocommunion ceased to be a widespread practice by the eleventh century, and its present teaching and practice allows for the first reception of holy communion at the age of seven or eight, but usually reserves its reception until the administration of the sacrament of confirmation to baptized children of the faithful who are in early adolescence (usually at the age of twelve). A number of factors played a role in the development of Roman Catholic practice, including the cessation of paedocommunion.
The main stages in the development of Roman Catholic practice are rather clear. In the period prior to the eleventh century, there is evidence that paedocommunion was practiced. The liturgies used in the Spanish Roman Catholic church—for example, the Gregorian sacramentary and Mozarabic liturgy — recognize and provide for the practice.
However, in the period leading up the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the practice of paedocommunion began to diminish. This Council codified a number of features of the Roman Catholic Church’s high sacramentalist and sacerdotalist conception of the communication of God’s grace. At the Council, the dogmas of transubstantiation and the real presence of Christ in the sacramental elements were affirmed. In response to the reluctance of some of the faithful to participate in the sacrament due to the sacredness of the rite and the miracle of Christ’s real presence, the Council stipulated a practice of yearly confession and communion by all the faithful at Easter. One of the Council’s actions that bears especially upon the subject of paedocommunion was the further stipulation that children receive communion for the first time at the age of seven or older. These conciliar decisions played an important role in shaping the practice of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. They also confirm that the practice of paedocommunion was in decline throughout the church.
In the period subsequent to the Fourth Lateran Council, the principal features of Roman Catholic practice in relation to paedocommunion assume a settled form that continues to the present day. Unlike the eastern church, which administers simultaneously the three mysteries of initiation into the body of Christ (baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist), the western church distinguishes them, at least in the instance of children. Though adult converts receive all three sacraments together, in the twelfth and subsequent centuries the Roman Catholic Church increasingly separated baptism from the emerging practice of “First Communion” between the ages of seven and nine, and from the sacrament of confirmation during early adolescence.
Ordinarily, the sacrament of confirmation became the occasion for the admission of the faithful to the sacrament of communion. While retaining the eastern church’s emphasis upon the initiatory character of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy communion, the western church began to emphasize the importance of catechetical instruction and preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, which was increasingly viewed as preparatory to reception to the Eucharist.
Unlike the eastern church, which permitted the priest to officiate at the sacrament of confirmation, the western church insisted that this sacrament must be performed by the bishops of the church. Thomas Aquinas, who exercised an influence greater than any other medieval theologian, taught that, though baptized children have right of access to communion, this right is similar to a person’s reception of an inheritance; the faithful have the right of inheritance before they actually take possession of it. Preparation for and reception of the sacrament of confirmation was viewed as an important means to cultivate the kind of faith and discernment required for meaningful participation in the body and blood of Christ.
By the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the traditional practice of the Roman Catholic Church was largely fixed and continues to the present. At the Second Vatican Council, some reforms were introduced into Roman Catholic practice, but these did not substantially alter the established features of this practice. When the children of the faithful are baptized, they are cleansed of original sin, born again by the Spirit of Christ, and received into the body of Christ. Subsequent to baptism, such children may receive their “First Communion” at the age of seven or older, though the Second Vatican Council cautioned against too strict a rule regarding the age of such children (and the age of those who are thereafter confirmed). Masses for children of the faithful are described and encouraged. However, the Council also emphasized the importance of more rigorous course of catechesis in preparation for the sacrament of confirmation. In its description of confirmation, the Council reiterated the traditional view that it was to be administered by a bishop, and noted that it includes the elements of anointing with oil to symbolize the confirmand’s sealing with the Holy Spirit and the imparting of an “indelible mark” upon the faithful. Though the practice of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church evidences considerable diversity, the reception of “First Communion” coincides typically with confirmation. Due to the intimate connection between baptism and communion, children may receive their first communion before confirmation. However, the usual practice reserves the regular participation in the sacrament of communion to those who have been confirmed in the faith.
At the time of the Reformation, the only groups practicing paedocommunion were the eastern orthodox churches, the Armenian church and the Bohemian Hussites. The general practice of the western church permitted children to come to their “First Communion” between the ages of seven and nine, though most did not partake of the sacrament until they received the sacrament of confirmation, usually at the age of twelve.
During the period of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, debates about the sacraments of the church, including the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, were often extended and contentious. Despite the many points of dispute regarding the sacraments, the Lutheran and Reformed churches maintained the practice of admitting children to the Lord’s Table only after they were confirmed (Lutheran) or made a profession of faith (Reformed) before the church. Though the churches of the Reformation followed the predominant practice of the western church by not admitting infants or very young children to the Lord’s Table, they did so for reasons that were consistent with their general understanding of the sacraments. Since we will consider in greater depth in a subsequent article the testimony of the Reformed confessions, our comments on the practice of the Reformation will be brief.
John Calvin’s comments on the subject of paedocommunion in his Institutes provide a fairly representative statement of the Reformation view and practice. In Calvin’s understanding of the sacraments, the sacrament of baptism differs from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Whereas baptism is a sign of new birth and incorporation into Christ, the Lord’s Supper is a means of nourishing the faith of believers in communion with Christ.
Baptism is properly administered to the children of believers, who are recipients of the gospel promise together with their parents. By contrast, the Lord’s Supper is a sacramental means of strengthening the faith of believers and is given “to awaken, arouse, stimulate, and exercise the feeling of faith and love, indeed, to correct the defect of both.”
Calvin emphasizes that the sacraments are an effective means of grace whereby the gospel promise in Christ is communicated to believers. However, the efficacy of the sacraments does not diminish the obligation on the part of their recipients to receive them by faith. Just as the Word requires the response of faith, which the Holy Spirit works in the believer, so the sacraments require the response of faith, apart from which they are of no benefit to their recipients. In the case of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin insisted that the body and blood of Christ must be received by the “mouth of faith,” and that those admitted to the Supper were required accordingly to be prepared by a prior instruction in the evangelical faith. Only those children of believers who had professed their faith (at the age of ten to twelve) were to be received at the Table.
In one of his most explicit statements on the question of paedocommunion, which was written in reply to the Anabaptist charge that it was inconsistent to baptize infants but refuse them admission at the Table, Calvin argues that [t]his permission to admit children to the table was indeed commonly given in the ancient church, as is clear from Cyprian and Augustine, but the custom has deservedly fallen into disuse…. For with respect to baptism, the Lord there sets no definite age. But he does not similarly hold forth the Supper for all to partake of, but only for those who are capable of discerning the body and blood of the Lord, of examining their own conscience, of proclaiming the Lord’s death, and of considering its power.…
Because the Lord’s Supper differs from baptism, as a sign of inclusion differs from a sign of nourishment in faith, Calvin insisted that reception at the Table follow instruction in and profession of the faith by the children of believers.
The practice of the Reformed churches has followed the pattern established by Calvin. One of the few dissenters to the prevailing view, Wolfgang Musculus, attempted to argue for paedocommunion on the grounds of the children’s inclusion in the covenant of grace with their parents. Musculus’ dissent, however, was an exception to the rule among the Reformed churches of the continent and the British isles.
Since the sixteenth century, the Reformed churches have required a public profession of faith before admitting children to the Table of the Lord. Because the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament that nourishes faith, it requires the kind of faith that is able to remember, proclaim, and discern the body of Christ. The public rite of profession of faith is ordinarily the means whereby baptized members of the church are welcomed into full communicant membership.
Though we have provided only a brief sketch of the history of the Christian church’s practice in regard to paedocommunion, several observations are warranted by the evidence that we have considered.
First, the testimony to the practice of paedocommunion in the antiquity of the church does not compare to that for the practice of paedobaptism. Though the evidence for paedobaptism in the early history of the church warrants the inference that it was the earliest practice of the church, the evidence for paedocommunion warrants only the inference that it was a practice introduced into some sectors of the church by the middle of the third century. However, there is earlier and third-century evidence that indicates that paedocommunion may have been an innovation when it was first introduced.
Second, by the time of Augustine and thereafter, the practice of paedocommunion became increasingly widespread in the eastern and western branches of the church. The practice of paedocommunion in the eastern church, which continues to the present, was established during this period. The practice of paedocommunion in the western church became the prevalent one until the twelfth century. However, even in this period the practice of paedocommunion was not as universal in the west as it was in the east.
Third, any evaluation of the widespread practice of paedocommunion in the church during the period prior to the high middle ages and the Reformation must take note of the diverse reasons offered to encourage or to discourage this practice. Any assessment of the practice of paedocommunion may not ignore, for example, the close connection between a growing sacramentalism, which viewed baptism as a means of granting new birth to its recipients, and the admission of children to the Lord’s Table. Those who would appeal to the practice of paedocommunion in this period have to reckon with the dubious sacramental views that encouraged the admission of children to the Table.
Fourth, the reasons for the decline of the practice of paedocommunion in the western church are complex. Advocates of paedocommunion often cite the emergence of the doctrine of transubstantiation and the growing fear of desecrating the consecrated elements if paedocommunion continued to be practiced. They also appeal to the practice of withholding the cup from the faithful, a practice that allegedly made the participation of infants in the sacrament by means of intinction difficult, if not impossible. Though these factors may have played a role in the decline of paedocommunion, there are other factors that tend to be overlooked, for example, the long-standing conviction of the church Fathers, Augustine included, that insisted upon a believing and informed reception of the sacrament of communion. The development of the sacrament of confirmation and its association with the admission of believers to the sacrament has its roots in the earliest teaching and practice of the church. This development played a role equal to the articulation of the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation in restricting admission to the Lord’s Supper to professing believers.
And fifth, the uniform conviction of the churches of the Reformation was that children of believers should be nourished at the Table of the Lord only after they had reached an age of discretion and were able to receive properly the sacrament. Though the Reformed churches continued the practice of baptizing the children of believing parents, they insisted that the Lord’s Supper, which was not a sacrament of incorporation into but of spiritual nourishment by Christ’s body and blood, required the attestation of the kind of faith that could remember and proclaim the death of Christ.
Though we have yet to give more careful attention to the teaching of the Reformed confessions regarding the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper, it should be apparent that the argument from history for paedocommunion is at best inconclusive. If the Reformed churches were to admit children to the Lord’s Table today, they would have to do so upon the basis of other considerations of a confessional or biblical nature.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.