Paedocommunion: Concluding Observations
In the course of my treatment of the subject of paedocommunion, I have considered the principal arguments of advocates of paedocommunion and found them unpersuasive. Despite the insistence of paedocommunionists that the Reformed churches have failed to recognize the implications of the inclusion of the children of believing parents in the covenant, I have argued that the Reformed view represents a coherent and biblical understanding of the way the sacraments are to be administered. In our review of the biblical evidence regarding the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and its proper administration, we have also seen that the traditional requirement of the church—that covenant children profess their faith before being admitted to the Lord’s Table—is a proper and necessary application of biblical principles.
On the basis of the findings of my previous articles on paedocommunion, I would like to conclude with a number of observations that summarize the argument in favor of the historic practice of the Reformed churches. The purpose of these observations is not to repeat all the particulars of the arguments of previous articles, but to offer a succinct summary of the case we have presented.
After summarizing the arguments that I have adduced in this series of articles, I will also offer in a subsequent article a few comments on the aberrant covenant theology that constitutes the principal occasion for the contemporary advocacy of paedocommunion.
The Relative Weight of Scripture, Confession and Historic Practice
Throughout the course of my evaluation of the paedocommunion position, I have emphasized that one of the most important features of the contemporary debate regarding paedocommunion is the relative weight that is granted to Scripture, the church’s confessions, and the historic practice of the churches. If an answer to the question of paedocommunion is to be given, it must be based upon an evaluation of all the biblical, confessional, and historical evidence. Furthermore, these distinct kinds of evidence must be distinguished in terms of their relative importance and normativity.
For example, the answer to the question whether covenant children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table ultimately depends upon a careful reading of the Scriptures. Though the historical practice of the church, and in particular the summary of Scriptural teaching set forth in the confessional symbols of the Reformed churches, are important considerations in determining an answer to this question, these are not finally normative for the church’s faith and practice. The reformational principle of sola Scriptura requires that we be prepared to address this question in a fresh way, and upon the basis of a renewed study of the Scriptures. The ultimate resolution of the debate regarding who should be admitted to the Table of the Lord may not be determined solely by an appeal to history, or even the summary of Scriptural teaching that is provided in the church’s historic confessions. Consequently, a satisfactory evaluation of the argument for paedocommunion must carefully interact with the arguments from Scripture that paedocommunionists often adduce. It is not enough to answer the case for paedocommunion by appealing to the confessions of the church or historical practice.
Though the confessions of the Reformed churches are subordinate to Scripture, it should be noted that some contemporary advocates of paedocommunion underestimate the extent to which the confessions’ summary of Scriptural teaching militates against the paedocommunion position. In the historic confessions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, a number of articles clearly suggest that admission to the Lord’s Table demands a prior profession of faith, which is necessary to attest the presence of the kind of faith that is able to remember, proclaim, and discern the body of Christ in the sacrament. These articles include: the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A.’s 171, 173, 174 & 177; the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 29.7; the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 81; and the Belgic Confession, Article 35. Though some paedocommunists maintain that an advocate of paedocommunion could justifiably appeal to the confessions in support of his position, this claim does not comport with the language of the confessions or the historical practice of the Reformed churches, which represents an application of their teaching. The burden of proof that is required of advocates of paedocommunion, therefore, includes not only the need to provide a Scriptural case for the admission of covenant children to the Lord’s Table, but also to show how these confessional affirmations are not a faithful summary of Scriptural teaching.
The Historical Evidence
Advocates of paedocommunion often confidently assert that this practice best conforms to the ancient practice of the church. Just as the biblical case for paedobaptism is bolstered by a consideration of the evidence available from church history, so the case for paedocommunion enjoys the sanction of history as well. However, a careful study of church history indicates that this confidence is unwarranted. The evidence from church history for paedocommunion is at best ambiguous. Furthermore, if the evidence from the confessions and history of the Reformed churches from the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation is included, the paedocommunion case from history becomes even more tenuous. Contrary to the claims of some paedocommunionists, the historical evidence that paedocommunion was the earliest, and universal, practice of the Christian church, is at best uncertain. In our study of the historical evidence, we reached the following conclusions. First, the testimony to the practice of paedocommunion in the antiquity of the church does not compare to that for the practice of paedobaptism. 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 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 never 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. An 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.
And 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.
As these conclusions indicate, the evidence for the practice of paedocommunion in the early church is mixed and not nearly as strong as that for the practice of paedobaptism. It should also be noted that the theological arguments for the practice of paedocommunion in the third and subsequent centuries are directly relevant to any evaluation of the historical evidence. By the standard of biblical teaching and the Reformed view of the sacraments, these arguments are often unbiblical and rife with a kind of ex opere operato (“by the work performed”) conception of sacramental efficacy.
The Confessional Evidence
In my survey of the classic confessions of the Reformed churches, I also argued that there is compelling evidence the Reformed churches believe that the Lord’s Supper ought to be administered only to professing believers. These confessions express a comprehensive understanding of the sacraments as a means whereby the grace of Christ is communicated to his people. They affirm that the children of believers, together with their parents, are recipients of the gospel promise and ought accordingly to receive the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign and seal of their incorporation into Christ and membership in the covenant community, the church. However, they also insist that such children, prior to their reception at the Table of the Lord, require instruction in the Christian faith in order that they might be prepared to receive properly the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament.
One of the basic features of the confessions’ view of the sacraments is that they are subordinate to and confirmatory of the gospel promise that is primarily communicated by means of preaching. The saving power of the gospel Word is only communicated to those in whom such faith is produced by the Holy Spirit. Because the sacraments are visible signs and seals of the gospel promise, their effectiveness, like that of the Word they visibly attest, also requires a believing reception on the part of their beneficiaries. Just as the gospel Word is received through faith, so the sacramental pledges and seals of the gospel require faith on the part of their recipients. Though the children of believers are to be baptized, since they together with their parents are included in the covenant community, their baptism summons them to the same believing response that the gospel Word demands. Baptism (no more than the Lord’s Supper) does not work by its mere administration. It only serves to confirm and bolster faith, which is principally worked by the Holy Spirit through the gospel.
In the Reformed confessions, a clear distinction is also drawn between the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whereas baptism is a once-for-all sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and his church, the Lord’s Supper is a frequently-administered sign and seal of the gospel that nourishes faith. Because the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is designed to strengthen faith, it requires a prior attestation of the presence of such faith on the part of its recipients. Though the language may be a little misleading, the Lord’s Supper, unlike baptism, requires for its proper reception an active and believing participation in Christ. Believers are summoned at the Table of the Lord to “take, eat, remember and believe.” The purpose of the catechetical instruction of children of believing parents is to prepare them to make a credible confession of faith, which in the traditional practice of the Reformed churches is effected by means of a “public profession of faith.”
In the setting of their doctrine of the Word and sacraments, the Reformed confessions uniformly insist that only believers are to be admitted to the Table of the Lord. Participation in Christ through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper requires that believers eat and drink in the way of faith, “which is the hand and mouth of our soul” (Belgic Confession, Article 35. The most explicit statement of the confessions in respect to the question of paedocommunion, is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. In answer to a question about the difference between the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Larger Catechism states:
The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves. (Q. & A. 177)
Admittedly, the Reformed confessions do not stipulate a particular age at which such a profession should be made. Nor do they spell out in detail the kind of instruction in the faith that ought ordinarily to precede a mature profession of faith and admission to the Lord’s Table. However, they clearly insist, in keeping with the nature of the sacraments in general and of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in particular, that the pathway from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Table requires a confirmation of the baptized believer’s embrace of the promise of the gospel.
The Scriptural Evidence
Since the heart of the debate regarding paedocommunion focuses upon exegetical considerations, my treatment of the biblical evidence constitutes the most important part of the case in favor of the historic position of the Reformed churches. The biblical evidence that we considered was primarily of two kinds. The first of these addresses the subject of the Old Testament precedents for the participation of children in various covenant meals, especially the Passover feast. The second of these addresses the subject of the New Testament’s teaching regarding participation in the Lord’s Supper, especially in a passage like 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
No Real Old Testament Precedents for Paedocommunion
Proponents of paedocommunion often cite a number of Old Testament precedents for paedocommunion. The most important of these is the inclusion of children in the celebration of the Passover. Since the Lord’s Supper is closely linked with the Passover, the practice of including children in the Passover meal is of special significance to the paedocommunion case from the Old Testament. In evaluating the paedocommunionist appeal to the Old Testament Passover, I identified several problems with the claim that it represents a precedent for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper.
In the first place, the appeal to the Passover as a precedent for admitting children to the Lord’s Supper tends to minimize the important differences between the administration of the old and new covenants. Though the Lord’s Supper was instituted on the occasion of a Passover celebration, there are a number of important differences between these two rites. Since the administration of the Lord’s Supper belongs to the new covenant economy, it must be governed primarily by the stipulations of the New Testament Scriptures. Advocates of paedocommunion often overstate the similarities between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, and fail to reckon with the implications of the New Testament’s teaching for determining who should be admitted to the Supper.
Even were we to grant a significant degree of similarity between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, there are several features of the Old Testament practice regarding the Passover that do not support the claims of paedocommunists. In our study, we noted the following such features.
First, there is an important distinction between the first and subsequent celebrations of the Passover. Whereas the first Passover in Egypt was clearly a household celebration, the stipulations for later celebrations of the Passover require that it and the other two pilgrim feasts (Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Weeks) be kept only by the male members of the covenant community (Deut. 16:16; Ex. 23:17; 34:23). Though the stipulation that only circumcised men of the covenant community keep the Passover at the central sanctuary in Jerusalem does not expressly exclude the participation of women and young children, it does represent a significant change in the way the Passover was to be celebrated. The Deuteronomic provisions for the annual celebration of the pilgrim Passover did not require the participation of the women and younger children of the covenant community.
Second, it is not clear that all the children of the Israelite households ate the Passover meal. This is a possible construction of the Old Testament evidence, but it is not as likely as paedocommunionists claim. Even advocates of paedocommunion are compelled to acknowledge that unweaned infants could not eat some of the elements of the Passover meal (for example, the meat). The elements of the Passover meal included roast lamb, unleavened bread (a kind of dry biscuit), and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8ff.; Num. 9:11). While newly weaned infants and younger children might possibly be able to eat the unleavened bread, it is implausible that they could digest the roast lamb and particularly the bitter herbs.
Third, the Passover feast included, as one of its prescribed features, a kind of “catechetical” exercise. At a certain point in the Passover rite, the children of the household were to ask, “What do you mean by this service?” (Ex. 12:27). In reply to this question, the head of household was to declare, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.” The presence of this catechetical exercise in the context of the Passover rite does not by itself argue conclusively for or against the participation of infants and younger children. It does suggest, however, that the participation of children in the meal required a measure of understanding and discernment on their part.
And fourth, the historic practice of Judaism does not support the paedocommunionist claim that all members of Israelite households ordinarily participated in the Passover Feast. The history of Jewish practice teaches us that the inclusion of women and younger children in the Passover feast was not the characteristic pattern in the Old Testament economy. The practice of Israel during the Old Testament era was largely shaped by the provisions in the law for keeping the pilgrim Passover annually in Jerusalem, not the household Passover in Egypt. Only circumcised males were required to keep the Passover Feast, and preparations for the Feast included fasting and the ceremonial cleansing (cf. Num. 9:6; John 18:28) of the pilgrim celebrants. In the traditions of Judaism, an “age of discretion” was stipulated for those who kept the Passover.
In my review of the paedocommunionist argument from the Old Testament, we maintained that these problems militate against the claim that the Passover provides a sufficient precedent for the admission of children to the Lord’s Table.
The New Testament’s Teaching
The New Testament teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper can be summarized in terms of three lines of evidence: 1) the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper; 2) the teaching of John 6, which illustrates that participation in Christ requires faith on the part of those who would be nourished by the body and blood of Christ; and 3) the important instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, which provides a clear description of the manner in which recipients are to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Institution of the Lord’s Supper
The first piece of evidence is the language used by our Lord in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Lord instructs those who celebrate the Lord’s Supper to take or receive the sacramental elements, and to do so “in remembrance” of him (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23). Participation in the Lord’s Supper occurs in response to a command, “do this,” and calls accordingly for a responsible engagement on the part of those who take and eat the bread, and take and drink the wine. The act of taking or receiving the sacramental signs and tokens of Christ’s body and blood is to be performed as a means of remembering and believing that Christ’s death was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people. In this respect, the communicant’s reception of Christ through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is different from the way the sacrament of baptism is received. The Lord’s Supper requires the active participation of its recipient in a way that is not required of the recipient of baptism, who in a manner of speaking is the passive recipient of the sacramental sign and seal of the gospel promise. The language of the words of institution requires that the church’s practice conform to the principle that those who participate in the sacrament do so in responsible obedience to the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of him.”
John 6 and Participation in Christ
An important piece of evidence in the New Testament for addressing the issue of paedocommunion is John 6. Since this passage contains a long discourse by Christ on the manner in which believers partake of his body and blood, it has significant implications for how this participation is effected sacramentally. This holds true whether or not the discourse refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as many in Christian tradition have maintained. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a divinely-appointed means whereby its recipients enjoy a true participation in Christ’s body and blood. The description of the nature of any such participation, which is given to us in this discourse, is, therefore, of particular significance for the question how Christ is received in the sacrament.
The implication of this passage (see esp. vv. 35, 40, 47-8, 50-51, 53-54) is expressed well in the language of the Belgic Confession, which declares that “the manner of our partaking [of Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper] is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Article 35). Without specifically citing John 6 as a proof text, the Belgic Confession echoes the teaching of Jesus’ discourse, when it insists that “we … receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life.” Ordinarily, there is no communion with Christ apart from a believing appropriation of the gospel Word that declares him to be the Word become flesh for us and for our salvation. Unless the Father grant a believing response to the gospel in the hearts and minds of believers, they will not be able to come to Christ to eat his body and drink his blood. The necessary prerequisite to a full participation in Christ is this divinely-worked response of faith. If this holds true for the believer’s general participation in Christ, it holds true for the believer’s particular, sacramental participation in him and his saving work.
1 Corinthians 11:17–34
In my treatment of the New Testament evidence, I observed that 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is the most important and decisive passage in the Scriptures for answering the question of the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. In this passage, we have the most extensive New Testament treatment of the sacrament, and one that spells out in precise language what is required of those who, as members of the body of Christ, eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. In this passage, the apostle Paul moves from a description of a particular problem in Corinth (vv. 17–22) to the institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 23–26) and instruction regarding proper participation in the sacrament (vv. 27–32). In doing so, the apostle offers general instructions that apply to all members of the covenant community who come to the Lord’s Table. There are at least three obligations that participants of the Lord’s Supper must meet when they receive the sacrament.
First, those who are admitted to the Lord’s Table are enjoined to do so in the way of an active faith. Participants in the sacrament are expected to be believers whose faith is able to “remember” and “proclaim” Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross. This follows from the nature of Christ’s words of institution, which place recipients of the sacrament under the obligation to come in active remembrance of Christ.
Second, recipients of the sacrament are also obliged to come only after they have “examined” themselves to ascertain whether their faith is genuine, and exhibits the normal marks of a true Christian profession. The verb Paul uses in this passage for such self-examination has the general meaning of “to test something to determine its genuineness.” The closest possible parallel to what such self-examination requires is found in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where the apostle summons all believers to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” In the Reformed tradition, the selfexamination required of believers in this passage is a responsible testing to ascertain whether their faith is genuine. Believers are to come to the Table of the Lord after they have tested or examined their faith, looking for the ordinary marks that belong to a Christian profession. The marks of such faith are an acknowledgment of sin and its consequences, a heartfelt trust in Christ and his saving work, and a genuine desire to live gratefully in obedience to the Lord.
And third, in this passage recipients of the sacrament are also obliged to “discern” the body of Christ. Discerning the body of Christ involves a proper “recognition” or “understanding” of the body of Christ that was offered as a sacrifice for sin. Though this recognition or understanding has obvious ecclesiological implications, namely, that all who participate sacramentally in Christ are members of the one body, the church, it primarily focuses upon a right understanding of the body of the Lord represented in the sacramental elements of bread and wine. This discernment will be reflected in a pattern of conduct within the body of Christ that is consonant with the meaning of Christ’s body and blood that were given as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people. Such discernment does not require an extraordinary level of sanctification or intellectual apprehension of the meaning of Christ’s body. But it does require of every participant in the sacrament that he come to the Table and partake in the way of an active faith, which is capable of remembering, proclaiming, and discerning the body of Christ.
On the basis of my understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, I concluded that it provides sufficient warrant for the historic view and practice of the Reformed churches. The children of believing parents must be instructed and nurtured in the Christian faith in order to prepare them to profess publicly the kind of faith that is required in order to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Such a public profession amounts to a confirmation that their participation in Christ by means of the sacrament will be an eating and drinking “with the mouth of faith.”
This summary of the evidence in favor of the historic practice of the Reformed churches concludes my evaluation of the paedocommunion position. Despite the claims of proponents of paedocommunion, there is no compelling historical or biblical case for overturning the church’s practice of requiring a profession of faith before admitting children of believers to the Table of the Lord. On the basis of my review of the biblical evidence, I can only conclude that the practice of the churches faithfully reflects the teaching of the Scriptures regarding what is means to partake of Christ by means of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
However, this does raise a question that I would like to pose in a subsequent article: Why are contemporary advocates of paedocommunion so adamant and persistent in their claims that all children of believing parents be admitted to the Table of the Lord without a prior profession of faith? In that article, I will propose that the principal argument for paedocommunion is not a biblical or exegetical, but a theological one. The real occasion for the contemporary push for paedocommunion in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches is a covenant theology that claims that all members of the covenant community, believers and their children, enjoy the fullness of salvation in union with Christ. This covenant theology is often connected with a doctrine of baptismal efficacy that has more in common with historic Roman Catholicism than the Reformed faith.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.