The New Testament Evidence Regarding Paedocommunion
At several points throughout our treatment of the biblical evidence that is relevant to the question of paedocommunion, we have noted that 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the most important passage to consider. In the historic confessions of the Reformed churches, this passage is often adduced to prove that participation in the Lord's Supper requires the presence of faith on the part of its recipients. Since it is the only biblical passage that directly treats the issue of what is required for a proper or worthy reception of Christ by means of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, it has obvious significance for the question of paedocommunion. The historic view and practice of the Reformed churches, which insists upon a public profession of faith on the part of children of believing parents before they are admitted to the Table of the Lord, represents an application of the themes of this passage. For advocates of paedocommunion, therefore, this passage requires special attention, as it presents an apparently insurmountable obstacle to their insistence that covenant children be admitted to the sacrament without a prior attestation of their faith.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17
Before we proceed to an exposition of this passage, however, we need to return for a moment to a passage that was briefly discussed in an earlier article in this series. This passage is 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. We need to consider this passage, since it is cited by some advocates of paedocommunion in support of the practice of admitting covenant children to the Table of the Lord. It is also regarded as a passage that sets a context and framework for the apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which takes up again the subject of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
In the judgment of some advocates of paedocommunion, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 is a passage of particular significance, since it establishes a basic premise that undergirds the argument from covenant membership on the part of children to their reception at the Lord's Table. That premise is that the Lord's Supper represents in a most powerful way the unity and fellowship of the whole body of Christ, including all of its members. Speaking of the Lord's Supper, the apostle Paul declares: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." In this passage, Paul sets forth a theme that runs like a thread throughout 1 Corinthians, the theme of the unity of Christ's body and the full participation in him of all members of the covenant community. The Lord's Supper, as this passage clearly shows, is a beautiful expression of the oneness of the body of Christ and the fellowship that obtains between all members of the church. This theme constitutes the background to Paul's sobering rebuke to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11, where the apostle points out how their divisiveness in the way they celebrated the Lord's Supper was a sin against Christ's body, the church. For this reason, the judgment of the Lord had fallen upon some of them, just as the Lord's judgment fell upon the disobedient Israelites in the days of Moses (1 Cor. 10:6-10).
The principle that the Lord's Supper belongs to and expresses the oneness of the body of Christ, which is summarized in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, is not an isolated theme in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Already in 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul has noted that the children of believers are "holy." Furthermore, at the outset of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes how believers of the old covenant were "all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea," "ate the same spiritual food, and drank the same spiritual drink," and "drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ" (vv. 2-4). This description not only provides an Old Testament precedent for all members of the covenant community, including the children, having a part in Christ, but it also constitutes the setting for Paul's emphasis upon the "fellowship" or "koinonia" that all members of the church have in Christ. The implications of this for the question of paedocommunion is clear, according to some paedocommunionists. Any participation in Christ by means of the Lord's Supper that inappropriately divides the congregation into segments (rich and poor, adults and children), and excludes some from full participation in the body of Christ, falls under the apostle's admonition of the Corinthians. The practice of excluding covenant children from participation in the Lord's Supper strikes at the heart of what the sacrament means for the unity of Christ's body.
Though this appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 appears to support the paedocommunion case, I am not convinced that it is sufficient by itself to establish the paedocommunion position. It is true that the Lord's Supper is a powerful witness to the unity of the church. The participation of believers in Christ, which the sacrament represents, has inescapable implications for the unity between all who are members of the body of Christ, the church. However, it seems rather premature to argue from the theme enunciated in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 to the claim that all covenant children should be admitted to the Lord's Table, lest the oneness of the body of the church be compromised. After all, the paedocommunionist appeal to this passage in support of the admission of such children can only be sustained, if the particular teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 does not stand in opposition to it. If 1 Corinthians 11 teaches what the Reformed churches historically have understood it to teach, then the paedocommunionist appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 will prove to be premature and unwarranted. No matter how strongly 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 associates the Lord's Supper with the theme of the oneness of Christ's body, it still remains to be seen whether this demands the admission of all covenant children to the Table. Since 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is a passage in which the apostle Paul expressly addresses what is required for participation in the sacrament, it must retain its unique status as the single most decisive passage for determining whether such children should be admitted to the Lord's Table.
However, there are two additional considerations that should be borne in mind in response to a paedocommunionist argument from the principle set forth in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. First, this passage does not warrant the inference that the membership of children in the covenant community is jeopardized, should the privilege of being admitted to the Lord's Table be withheld from them for a period of time. It is instructive that the participation in Christ of which the apostle Paul speaks at the outset of 1 Corinthians 10, was inclusive of non-circumcised persons (and even animals!) who accompanied the children of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. The meals that were eaten during this period of history did not require circumcision, and were not governed by the Deuteronomic stipulations that applied to the annual Passover meal. To appeal to these Old Testament observances, which the apostle Paul mentions at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10, as precedents for who should share the new covenant meal, the Lord's Supper, seems faulty for several reasons, not the least of which is that it proves too much. And second, the paedocommunionist representation of the historic Reformed position is needlessly prejudicial at this point. Representing the historic Reformed practice as though it "cut off" the children of believers from participation in Christ and the covenant community may seem to have merit, but it is a kind of "straw man" argument. Historic Reformed practice acknowledges that the children of believing parents are members of the covenant community and of Christ. This practice also acknowledges that such children should come to the Lord's Supper in order to enjoy the nourishment in Christ that this sacramental feast provides. But it insists that the way believers come to the Table is stipulated in Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
Whether 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 has the implications for the subject of paedocommunion that is sometimes alleged, therefore, depends finally upon how 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is interpreted. It is time, therefore, that we take up directly this passage and consider it in some detail.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
In our treatment of this passage, we will follow an outline that has often been recognized by previous interpreters. The passage nicely divides into four sections: verses 17-22, which identify the problem in Corinth that characterized the church's celebrations of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; verses 23-26, which contain the apostle Paul's summary of the Lord's institution of the Lord's Supper; verses 27-32, which provide instructions on the way recipients of the sacrament ought to receive the body and blood of the Lord, lest they participate in an "unworthy" manner; and verses 33-34, which return to the original problem that Paul is addressing in the Corinthian church and offer instruction on how the Corinthians should wait for each other when they come together to eat, lest they continue to experience the Lord's judgment upon them. Since the third of these four sections contains instructions that are most relevant to the question of the proper recipients of the sacrament, we will give it more extensive treatment.
The Occasion for Paul's Instructions (vv. 17-22)
The particular occasion for Paul's instructions regarding the Lord's Supper in this passage is not difficult to identify. The apostle begins by noting that in the following instructions he does not intend to "commend" the Corinthians (v. 17). Rather, he intends to issue a strong rebuke to them because, in their celebration of the Lord's Supper, they were not following the tradition that they had been taught regarding the meaning of the sacrament. When the Corinthians came together in order to celebrate the Lord's Supper, there were "divisions" and "factions" among them (vv. 18-19). Though Paul acknowledges that he knows this only upon the basis of oral reports, he regards these reports to be accurate and judges, accordingly, that their coming together was "not for the better but for the worse" (v. 17). He also identifies the source of these divisions as "evil men," and observes that God will use them nonetheless to achieve his good purpose. As he describes this purpose, "there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized" (v. 19).
Before considering the apostle Paul's description of the way this divisiveness in the Corinthian church was expressing itself, it is important to observe that the divisions that he identifies in this passage are different than the divisions that he mentioned earlier in his letter. Though the apostle uses the same word ("schism") in this passage as he used earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:10, the earlier divisions that he identifies in the Corinthian church displayed several characteristics that are absent from his description in 1 Corinthians 11. In his previous description of divisions in the Corinthian church, the apostle spoke of a party spirit, which gave birth to "quarrelsomeness" and "jealousy" within the congregation (1:11; 3:3-4). Nothing is said about such quarrelsomeness and jealousy in 1 Corinthians 11.
Furthermore, the divisions noted earlier in his letter were between at least four parties, each of whom favored one apostle, or even Christ himself, over the others. The schism in the Corinthian church involved a spirit of opposition to the apostle Paul on the part of some members, and was rooted in the differing allegiances of the church's members to their spiritual overseers. Unlike the divisions that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 11, the divisions that Paul characterizes in the earlier portion of his letter were not of a sociological nature (between rich and poor), and did not express themselves in the context of the gathering of the covenant community for the purpose of worship and the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Though there may be a broad connection between these distinct forms of factionalism in the Corinthian church, the particular focus of the apostle's comments in 1 Corinthians 11 is different than in the earlier portion of his letter.
In his explicit description of the divisions he has in mind in this passage, the apostle notes that they were exhibited in the context of the church's "coming together" in order to participate in the Lord's Supper.
When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. 1 Corinthians 11:20-22
The language of the apostle in these verses is sharp and severe. When the Corinthians come together for the purpose, among other things, of participating in the Lord's Supper, there are divisions among them. These divisions are evident in that some members proceeded to eat and enjoy "his own meal," ignoring other members who were poor and remained hungry. The conduct of some of the Corinthians amounted to a reprehensible dividing of the one body of Christ, since some members enjoyed a personal feast in the presence of other members with whom they did not share their plenty. Since this divisive and unseemly conduct occurred within a setting that included the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the apostle goes so far as to say to these members that their celebration of the sacrament was not an eating of Christ at all.
Because their divisiveness struck at the very heart of the communion or participation of all members of the body in Christ, which is represented so powerfully in the sharing of the sacramental meal, it falls under the strongest condemnation of the apostle. We should not conclude from this that the apostle is condemning all members of the Corinthian congregation, or suggesting that the Lord's Supper was not being celebrated by any of the Corinthian believers. The language Paul uses makes clear that he is speaking directly to those in the Corinthian congregation who were guilty of the kind of behaviour he describes. These members are clearly distinguished from others who are presumably not at fault for the divisions that obtained in the Corinthian church at its gatherings for the celebration of the sacrament.
The significance of this occasion for the apostle Paul's instructions to the Corinthian church in this passage remains to be seen. Advocates of paedocommunion tend to argue that this occasion limits the application of what the apostle says subsequently about the Lord's Supper to those who may be guilty of the same conduct as some in the Corinthian church. They also appeal to this occasion for a particular understanding of what Paul goes on to say about a proper "discernment" of the Lord's body. Because Paul is admonishing the Corinthian believers for an abusive practice that wrongly divided between different segments of the Lord's body, some proponents of paedocommunion argue that the one over-riding imperative of this passage, which must govern any celebration of the Lord's Supper, is: make no distinctions between members of the covenant community (whether between rich and poor, or between adults and children), lest the meaning of the sacrament as a Table of unity be undermined.
I do not have any objection to an emphasis upon the context for Paul's teaching in this passage. Context is always of special importance to the interpretation of any Scriptural passage. What I object to in this case is the use of context to override the clear particulars of a passage. In my judgment, it is a premature and unwarranted use of this context to conclude that any restrictions upon participation in the sacrament violate the principle of the unity of the body of Christ. We will have to determine, when we treat the more relevant sections of this passage, whether this is so or not.
The Institution of the Lord's Supper (vv. 23-26)
Immediately after the section that describes the abusive practice of some of the Corinthians in their celebration of the Lord's Supper, the apostle Paul turns to the "tradition" regarding the sacrament that he received from the Lord himself. In this section, the apostle wants to remind the Corinthian church that the Lord's Supper belongs to the Lord, and not the Corinthian believers. Their celebration of the Supper, accordingly, must be governed by the teaching of the Lord Himself and the terms set forth at the time of the sacrament's institution.
In his summary of the institution of the Lord's Supper, the apostle emphasizes especially the two purposes for which the sacrament was ordained: first, to "remember" Christ's sacrificial death upon the cross; and second, to "proclaim" His death until he comes again.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
Whenever believers participate in the Lord's Supper ("as often as you drink it"), they do so in obedience to the Lord's command to remember Him and His sacrifice for His people. The bread that is eaten and the wine that is drunk signify the body and blood of Christ, and the new covenant that is based upon His sacrifice upon the cross. Furthermore, the act of partaking of the sacrament is a divinely-appointed means of proclaiming the death of Christ. The sacrament is a public declaration of Christ's work, and fosters in believers the expectation of Christ's return, even as He promised.
The usual interpretation of these words of institution is that they require an active and responsible participation on the part of recipients of the sacrament. Those who eat the body and drink the blood of Christ must do so, not in a witless or uninformed manner, but as believers whose remembrance and proclamation of Christ's death requires the "mouth of faith." However, in their handling of these words of institution, some paedocommunionists argue that we should translate the language, "do this in remembrance of me" (vv. 24-25) as "do this unto my remembrance." In this view, the remembrance in question is not so much a subjective act on the part of the believer who receives the sacrament, but an objective act on the part of God (and the believing community) in which the sacrament's observance is itself the memorial. In this connection, an appeal is made to the language of Leviticus 24:7 and the general Old Testament theme of "remembrance/memorial." On analogy with the Old Testament usage of the language of "memorial" in connection with the appointed feasts (cf. Num. 10:10), the Lord's Supper is itself an objective memorial/remembrance of Christ's death.
When Christ commands those who partake of the Lord's Supper to do so in remembrance of Him, therefore, he is not setting forth a requirement for participation in the sacrament but declaring its purpose. If this is the sense of the words of institution, then it is no longer permissible to appeal to the language of receiving the sacrament "in active remembrance" of Christ to exclude immature and non-professing members of the covenant community.
At the level of the grammar of the passage, the question this raises is whether "of me" in the original language of the text is an "objective" ("remembrance of me") or "subjective" ("my remembrance") genitive. Though it is possible to take it in the latter sense as some paedocommunionists suggest, it is instructive that English translations of the text usually take it to be an "objective" genitive. Within the setting of Christ's words of institution, and the imperative addressed to the recipient of the sacrament ("do this…"), this seems to be the likeliest translation. To quote the common words employed in the administration of the sacrament, recipients of the sacrament are summoned to "take, eat/drink, remember and believe…" The point of the Lord's words of institution is that the participant in the sacrament is placed under the obligation to obey the Lord's command, to act in a way that expresses an informed remembrance and believing proclamation of his death. In the historic understanding of the Reformed churches, a public profession of faith on the part of a covenant child is the ordinary means whereby the presence of that kind of faith is confirmed.
Since we have not yet treated the most important section of this passage (verses 27-29), we are not in a position to draw any firm conclusions regarding its implications for the subject of paedocommunion. All we may conclude at this point is that the apostle is addressing a particular problem in the Corinthian church's celebration of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The problem is that some members of the church were acting divisively in the context of their reception of the sacrament. Rather than sharing their food and drink with more needy members of the congregation, they were eating and drinking (to the point of drunkenness!) while others remained hungry and forgotten. In this context, the apostle chooses to address the subject of a proper reception of the sacrament. In order to provide a framework for his instruction, he begins by appealing to Christ's words at the institution of the Supper. The Lord's Supper is Christ's, and it must be celebrated in accordance with Christ's command.
So far as the question of paedocommunion is concerned, these words of institution seem to place the recipient of the sacrament under the obligation to partake in the way of an active faith, which is capable of remembering and proclaiming the sacrificial death of Christ. In the historic understanding of this language, it has typically been argued that this requires an attestation of faith on the part of those who are admitted to the Lord's Table. Advocates of paedocommunion, however, argue that this is not a necessary inference that must be drawn from the language the apostle uses. Since the most decisive section of the passage remains to be considered, we will resist the temptation to draw any more definitive conclusions at this juncture.
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 self-examination 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 it 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.