The way a question gets formulated often betrays a bias. This is certainly true when it comes to the question that I wish to address in this and in several subsequent articles, namely, should covenant children be admitted to the Lord’s Table?
Though the question seems benign, it could suggest that such children have been excluded in a way that is to their detriment. Some years ago an advocate of admitting children to the Lord’s Table entitled his response to a book that defended the historic practice of the Reformed churches, Daddy, why was I excommunicated? Now that’s a title that gives new meaning to the expression, “begging the question”! This author’s question was not really a question at all; it was an answer masquerading under the guise of a question. In the opinion of this author, the typical practice of Reformed churches amounted to an illegitimate exclusion of children from one of the rights and privileges that belong to them as members of the covenant community.
It is important to acknowledge this feature of the question we wish to address in this series of articles. Contemporary proponents of what is often called “paedocommunion” frequently allege that the traditional view throws up an artificial barrier to the reception of children of believers at the Lord’s Supper.
Whether this is true or not, however, depends upon a more basic question: on what basis should anyone be received or admitted to the Lord’s Table? A defender of the traditional Reformed view, which emphasizes the necessity of a public profession of faith prior to a believer’s admission to the Table, could well argue that this position does not exclude covenant children. It actually excludes all persons, children or adults, who are not qualified to come to the Table because they have not responded properly to the invitation that was extended to them. The historic view does not deny that the children of the covenant are invited to the Lord’s Table. As a matter of fact, if their baptism means anything, it means that they are invited to respond to the Lord’s gracious promise in the way of faith, which would qualify them to receive the sacrament that nourishes faith. The only thing preventing such children or any others from coming to the Table, therefore, is the absence of an appropriate response to the invitation extended. All believers who answer properly the “R.S.V.P.” that accompanies the overtures of God’s grace in Christ are welcome to come to the Lord’s Table.
When the matter is looked at from this point of view, the question we are addressing takes on a little different shading. Though I will be defending the historic answer of the Reformed churches to this question, I wish to challenge at the outset the claim that this view amounts to little more than an arbitrary exclusion of covenant children from admission to the Lord’s Table. The historic answer of the Reformed churches acknowledges that such children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table, provided they answer in an appropriate manner the invitation that they have received.
Clarifying Our Terms
The question we are addressing is an ambiguous one for another reason. Not only could it subtly suggest that the traditional position inappropriately refuses children admission to the Lord’s Table, but it also leaves uncertain what is meant by “covenant children.” In order to prepare for our consideration of the subject of paedocommunion, therefore, we need to spend a little time clarifying the terms that are often used in contemporary debates. It is surprising how often discussions of the issue become confused quickly because of a failure to be clear about the terms being used.
The subject of children at the Lord’s Table is commonly referred to as “paedocommunion” (lit. “child communion”). This language is used as shorthand for any position that argues for the admission of children to the sacrament of holy communion. Though a useful piece of shorthand, it does not distinguish adequately between two very different views of the children who are to be admitted to the Table. Some advocates of paedocommunion favor only the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper at an earlier age than is customary among many Reformed churches (middle to late adolescence).
Other advocates of paedocommunion wish to admit any baptized child of believing parents who is physically able to receive the communion elements. One of the confusing features of contemporary debates about paedocommunion is that advocates do not always spell out whether they are defending a “soft” paedocommunion view, which admits younger covenant members to the Table who have made a simple, but credible profession of the Christian faith, or a “strict” paedocommunion view, which admits any covenant member who is able to receive the elements. The latter view is evident in the practice of the Eastern Orthodox churches who serve communion to infants on the occasion of their baptism and thereafter. Though these two views may seem very close, they are quite distinct and need to be treated as such.
Our question focuses upon the second position and understanding of paedocommunion: should all members of the covenant community, who have received the sign and seal of the covenant promise in their baptism, be admitted to the Lord’s Table? Though there may be some room for differences in practice among advocates of this “strict” form of paedocommunion, the fundamental point is that any member of the covenant community ought to enjoy the privilege of being admitted to and nourished at the Table of the Lord.
Consequently, some advocates of this strict sense of paedocommunion propose that we might better speak of “covenant communion” than “paedocommunion.” Just as the language of “infant” baptism may give rise to the false assumption that infants are baptized upon some other basis than adults, so the language of “paedocommunion” could suggest a unique kind of participation by children in the Lord’s Supper. The point of paedocommunion, however, is that there is only one basis for admission to the Table of the Lord, namely, membership in the covenant community. All covenant members ought to receive the sacrament, which has the same meaning and benefit for all its recipients.
The confusion between these two different views of paedocommunion can be illustrated by taking note of another term that is sometimes used in debates about the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. Some defenders of the historic Reformed position on this question speak of “credocommunion” in distinction from “paedocommunion.” On analogy to the customary terms used in debates about the proper recipients of baptism, this language emphasizes that the Lord’s Supper is reserved for those who have publicly professed the Christian faith. Because the sacrament is provided as a means to nourish and strength faith, it should be received by believers who have professed their faith before God and his people. The language of “credocommunion,” therefore, serves to stress the indispensability of a prior profession of faith before admission to the Table of the Lord.
Even though this language can be helpful, I am unwilling to concede that advocates of a strict paedocommunion position are entitled to ownership of the language of “covenant communion.” When advocates of a strict paedocommunion position apply this language to their view, they assume what needs to be proven, namely, that the covenant demands the admission of all its members to the Table of the Lord, whether they have professed the Christian faith or not. But what if the new covenant in Christ, which is to be administered according to the New Testament Word, requires that those who receive the sacrament of holy communion do so in a way that demands a prior profession of faith? Administering the sacraments of the new covenant in accord with the demands of the divinely-authored Word of the covenant surely has as much right to be called a “covenant communion” view as the alternative, paedocommunion view. For this reason, the historic view of the Reformed churches may well be termed both a “covenant communion” and a “credocommunion” view. To treat these terms as incompatible is another form of the kind of “begging-the-question” argument we noted above.
I offer these comments, not to make matters more difficult than they need to be, but to achieve a measure of clarity regarding the precise question we aim to address in this series of articles. The question I am addressing is not so much the question of the approximate age at which children of believing parents should profess their faith and thereupon be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This is a related question, and it is one that we will take up in the course of our discussion of the issue of paedocommunion. But the question of the optimal age at which covenant children should profess their faith is not the fundamental question. Indeed, it is not a question that, as we shall see, is finally able to be answered in a definitive manner. The exact question we aim to address is: does membership in the covenant, which is signified and sealed to the children of believing parents through their baptism, constitute a sufficient basis for admitting them to the Table of the Lord. We will not focus our attention so much upon the “soft” paedocommunion view, which is itself but a modification of the historic view of the Reformed churches (but encouraging children to profess their faith at an earlier age). Our focus will be upon the “strict” paedocommunion view, which claims that membership in the covenant is a sufficient basis for admission to the Table of the Lord.
The Principal Arguments for Paedocommunion
During the last several decades, a remarkable amount of attention has been given the subject of paedocommunion by Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Many (perhaps most) confessionally Reformed denominations have studied at length the biblical and historical dimensions of this issue, often prompted by vigorous advocates of the paedocommunion position. Though these studies have not led many of these denominations to alter their historic practice, agitation for paedocommunion continues unabated in some quarters. It is risky to offer a generalization about the reasons for this continued agitation. But the advocacy of paedocommunion seems to find its home especially among Reformed believers who are relatively recent converts from broad evangelicalism to a more specifically Reformed understanding. Among such converts, there is a keen interest in the Reformed view of the covenant and its implications for the life of the church and the calling of her members. This interest has spawned a number of calls for a more thoroughly covenantal view of things than has historically been the case in the Reformed churches. The advocacy of paedocommunion is, in this respect, something of a symptom of a broader desire to see the distinctives of Reformed covenantal theology worked out in a more thorough fashion.
To conclude our introduction to the issue of paedocommunion, we need to identify briefly the principal arguments that are often cited by its advocates. Since this article is only an introduction to the subject of paedocommunion, we will reserve to future articles a more thorough account of these arguments. An examination of the writings of paedocommunionists indicates that the arguments for the paedocommunion position are of four kinds.
The Historical Argument
The first argument for the paedocommunion view is an historical one. According to paedocommunionists, the admission of children to the sacrament of holy communion best conforms to what we know of the ancient practice of the church. Even though the ultimate standard for the church’s practice must be the teaching of Scripture, it is important to observe that the practice of paedocommunion was widespread in the early church and continues to be the practice of the Eastern Orthodox churches to this day. The occasion for the cessation of the practice of paedocommunion in the Western church was the development of the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was formally codified at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D. Because the doctrine of transubstantiation taught that the sacramental elements of bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ, participation in the sacrament became a more fearful prospect for believers and their children. In the instance of infants and children, the fear of desecrating or misusing the consecrated elements came to form an obstacle to their admission to the sacrament. In spite of the Reformation’s recovery of a more biblical understanding of the sacrament, it did not challenge the Western church’s abandonment of the older practice of paedocommunion.
The Covenant Argument
Reformed believers who advocate the practice of paedocommunion generally recognize that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, not the traditional practice of the church, finally determines the faith of the Christian church. Therefore, it is not enough to argue from history for paedocommunion. There must be clear biblical warrant for admitting children to the Lord’s Table. In addition to the historical argument, therefore, proponents of paedocommunion appeal to three biblical kinds of arguments.
The first of these biblical arguments is really the linchpin of the case for paedocommunion. As we noted above, many who favor paedocommunion insist that their position ought to be called a “covenant communion” position. All who are members of the new covenant community—believers and their children—ought to be admitted to the Table of the Lord. As recipients of the promise of the covenant, the children of believing parents ought not only to be baptized but also to be received at the Lord’s Table. The prohibition against children of the covenant being admitted to the Table of the Lord amounts to a kind of backhanded “excommunication.” It also betrays a failure to rid the church’s practice of a kind of “baptistic” thinking, which does not fully acknowledge the rights and privileges that belong to every member of the covenant community.
If the sacramental practice of the Reformed churches is to measure up to its covenant view, the children of believing parents, who have received the sign and seal of covenant membership in baptism, ought to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Otherwise, the “Baptist” argument that Reformed churches do not “practice what they preach” when they refuse children at the Table of the Lord is irrefutable. A consistent covenant position demands that all members of the covenant receive the privileges of the covenant. The Lord’s Supper, which the Lord instituted as a means of grace to confirm and strengthen those who are his members, is one such privilege that may not be withheld from the children of believing parents.
The “Analogy With the Passover” Argument
Lest it appear that the biblical argument for paedocommunion is simply a covenant argument, which appeals to the broad implications of covenant membership and privilege, proponents of paedocommunion also appeal to the analogy between the Lord’s Supper and the Old Testament Passover, as well as other covenant meals. Since the Lord’s Supper was instituted on the occasion of the Passover as the new covenant fulfillment of the old covenant rite, the church should admit children to the Supper just as they were formerly admitted to the Passover.
Unless we fall prey to a kind of “dispensationalistic” view of the discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, we should not withhold the privilege of admission to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper from the children of believing parents. The Reformed practice of prohibiting children from coming to the Table of the Lord represents an impoverishment of their circumstance, when compared to the privileges that they enjoyed under the old covenant administration. Moreover, we have an additional precedent for the inclusion of such children in the privilege of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the Old Testament practice of sharing various covenant meals and sacrifices with the children of the covenant. Here too the traditional practice of the Reformed churches opens them up to the charge of inconsistency. If Reformed churches may argue from the Old Testament practice of circumcision and the inclusion of children within the covenant to the New Testament practice of baptizing the children of believers, then they may also argue from this Old Testament practice regarding the Passover and other covenant meals to the New Testament practice of admitting children to the Lord’s Table.
The 1 Corinthians 11 Argument
The last argument that advocates of paedocommunion often present is an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 that appeals to the historical occasion for its teaching about “worthy” participation in the Lord’s Supper. The historic Reformed view of this passage is that it sets forth a general principle, namely, that those who partake of the Supper must do so in a “worthy” manner by properly discerning, remembering and proclaiming the body of the Lord.
In this interpretation, the apostle Paul stipulates that the reception of the elements of the sacrament requires faith on the part of those who partake. This faith is of a sort that is competent rightly to discern and proclaim the reality and meaning of Christ’s death upon the cross. Many who argue for paedocommunion, however, emphasize the historical occasion for Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11. In this passage, the apostle addresses a particular failure in Corinth, namely, the failure to discern properly who belongs to the body of Christ or the church. By their factionalism and practice of discriminating between rich and poor, the Corinthian believers were contradicting the profound meaning of their common participation in Christ. As members of one body through faith in Christ, they were obliged to treat equally every member of the body.
According to some paedocommunionists, this specific occasion for Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 11 limits their application. The admonition to discern the body of the Lord, for example, is not a general rule that every participant in the Lord’s Supper should have a proper understanding of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It is rather a specific charge to some believers in Corinth who were acting inappropriately in the context of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (and some believers today who may commit a similar offense).
This specific charge does not apply in the case of children who have not committed a similar offense. It may even be the case that the historic Reformed practice of excluding children from the Table of the Lord represents a failure to discern the body or church in a manner that is similar to the practice Paul condemns. For these reasons, the traditional appeal to 1 Corinthians 11 against the practice of paedocommunion proves to be invalid.
In our subsequent articles on paedocommunion, we will have occasion to consider each of these arguments at greater length. Though none of these arguments can stand alone, we will follow the sequence of these four arguments as we address the subject of paedocommunion. Bearing in mind what we have defined as the focus of our question, we will consider in our next article the history of the Christian church’s teaching and practice regarding the proper recipients of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.