During the course of our examination of the Old Testament evidence for the practice of admitting children to the Lord’s Table, we had occasion to observe that the ultimate norm for the practice of the new covenant community of faith must be the teaching of the New Testament. Though it is common among advocates of paedocommunion to rest a large part of their case upon the analogy with the Old Testament Passover, this tends to create a presumption for paedocommunion that predetermines the way the testimony of the New Testament is interpreted.
As we take up the relevant evidence that can be derived from the New Testament, we do so from the conviction that the norm for the confession and practice of the church, particularly as it relates to the question of the proper recipients of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, must be based upon a careful study of the New Testament passages that address this sacrament. Since the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant ordinance, which Christ himself instituted for the purpose of commemorating and proclaiming His saving death upon the cross, our understanding of its spiritual meaning and proper recipients should be based primarily upon New Testament teaching. This is a rule of interpretation that needs to be honored in any evaluation of the arguments for or against the practice of admitting children to the Lord’s Table.
Just as is the case with the Old Testament evidence, the New Testament does not speak as directly as we might prefer to the issue of the participation of children of believing parents in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the New Testament’s teaching is that it does not provide a great deal of information that is specifically addressed to who ought to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Though the New Testament offers some important testimony regarding the institution and meaning of the sacrament, it does not expressly address the question of paedocommunion in the form in which it is often raised by its contemporary advocates. Our procedure in considering this evidence, therefore, will have to begin with an identification of some of the basic themes of New Testament teaching. Only after we identify these themes will we be in a position to ask about their implications for the particular question of the propriety of children being admitted to the Table of the Lord.
Our review of the New Testament evidence will begin with a short, introductory survey of the most important passages that address the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Among these passages, we will see that those passages that describe the institution of the sacrament are of particular importance. In our treatment of this evidence, we will also give special attention to the question whether the Lord’s Supper is primarily to be viewed as a new covenant fulfillment of the old covenant Passover, or whether it differs in important respects from this Old Testament observance. Since the argument from the alleged analogy between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper is such a prominent feature of the paedocommunionist argument, any evidence of a significant difference between these two rites is relevant to evaluating this argument.
After considering these general features of the New Testament evidence that bears upon the question of paedocommunion, we will treat two passages that are of special importance to the question of the proper recipients of the sacrament. The first and less important of these passages, John 6, is often overlooked in discussions of the subject of paedocommunion. However, since this passage describes in some detail what it is to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, it has significant implications for the question of what it means to sacramentally receive and participate in the body and blood of Christ. The second of these passages, 1 Corinthians 11, is the most important and extensive New Testament passage that addresses the manner in which believers should partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Since this passage has often been a linchpin in the historic argument against the permissibility of admitting non-professing members of the new covenant community to the Table of the Lord, it will occupy an especially prominent part of our treatment of the New Testament evidence.
An Introductory Survey of the Types of New Testament Evidence
In order to ensure that our consideration of the New Testament evidence is complete, it may be helpful to begin by identifying all of the passages that have a bearing upon a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper and its recipients. A survey of the New Testament passages that address the subject of the Lord’s Supper indicates that they are relatively easy to identify and place in distinct categories. For our purpose, we will treat these passages as belonging to four distinct kinds.
The first kind of passages includes the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Each of the Gospel writers records the event of the institution of the sacrament on the night in which Christ was betrayed, shortly before His crucifixion and death. These accounts are found in Matthew 26:20–30, Mark 14:17–26, and Luke 22:14–23. In addition to these passages in the Gospels, the apostle Paul provides an extensive statement of the institution of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23ff., a passage that deserves to be placed in a category by itself.
In addition to the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, there is a second kind of New Testament passage that refers or alludes generally to the new covenant community’s celebration of the Lord’ Supper. These passages do not tell us a great deal about the nature of the sacrament, but they do confirm its importance as a regular feature of the life and ministry of the church. In Luke–Acts, there are two passages that may describe examples of the new covenant community’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The first of these is the account in Luke 24:30, 31, which describes Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the two men on the road to Emmaus.
According to Luke, when he reached the home of these men, Jesus shared a meal with them, during which He “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (v. 30). Though this meal did not occur as part of an official, public church service, some commentators argue that Luke’s use of the same language for the institution of the Lord’s Supper (cf. Luke 22:19) suggests that this was a kind of celebration of the sacrament. Luke also notes that, after receiving the bread and sharing the meal, the two men “recognized” the risen Lord. Another of these passages may be the description of the early church in Jerusalem, which Luke provides in Acts 2:42 (cf. also Acts 20:7): “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The phrase in this description, “the breaking of bread,” may also be an allusion to the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the part of believers in Jerusalem. If this passage describes the celebration of this sacrament, it is noteworthy that those who participated are expressly described as those who “received” the Word preached by the apostle Peter and the other apostles. Participation in the sacramental meal is clearly placed in the context of an active reception of and continuance in the teaching of the apostles.
In addition to these possible allusions to the celebration of the sacrament, there are two passage in the book of Revelation that likely refer to the sharing of this meal (cf. Rev. 3:20; 19:1–8). In the first of these passages, Christ appears to allude to the Supper as a means of fellowship with Himself, when He warns the church in Laodicea that its lukewarmness and self-satisfaction may require the discipline of the withdrawal of table fellowship. The second passage speaks of “the marriage feast of the Lamb,” which will be the eschatological fulfillment of the Lord’s Supper as a meal of remembrance and hope for a future, more immediate fellowship with Christ at His return.
Though none of these first two kinds of passages addresses directly who may rightly receive the body and blood of the Lord in the sacrament, there are two New Testament passages that do speak more directly to this question. For our purpose, these two passages constitute the third and fourth kinds of New Testament texts. The first of these passages is the extended discourse in John 6, which describes what it means to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Although this passage does not explicitly speak of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it is has traditionally been regarded as the passage in the Gospel of John that alludes to the sacrament and its spiritual significance. Because this passage provides a general account of what it means to participate by faith in Christ, it has implications for any sacramental participation in Christ and His saving work.
The second of these passages is 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 (in the context of 1 Cor. 10:14–22), which offers the most extended New Testament discussion of the meaning of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and what is required of those who participate in Christ by means of the sacramental bread and wine. Since this passage has always played a principal role in the biblical argument for only admitting professing believers to the Lord’s Supper, it constitutes the most important piece of New Testament evidence that is relevant to the debate regarding paedocommunion.
This brief survey of the New Testament passages that address the subject of the Lord’s Supper illustrates the relative paucity of evidence for determining who are properly to be admitted to the sacrament. Though we shall see that there are several implications in these passages for the issue of who should be received at the Table of the Lord, an answer to the specific question posed by advocates of paedocommunion is not explicitly provided in any of these passages. As we consider these passages and their implications for the question of paedocommunion, it will become evident that a final resolution of the debate can only be achieved upon the basis of an argument that considers general features of the New Testament doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its relation to the Word of the gospel.
In next month’s article, we will begin our examination of the New Testament evidence by considering what we can learn about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and its proper reception from the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In subsequent articles, we will take up the question of the Lord’s Supper and its relation to the Old Testament Passover, as well as the important testimony of John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11 regarding the manner in which believers should sacramentally participate in Christ’s body and blood.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.