by Reverend D.A. Bass
I have a teenage son who is maturing physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Amongst the many physical manifestations, he is sprouting hair all over and needs a razor for his face. He is ready for one. His body requires it and he is responsible enough to handle one without seriously injuring himself. What would have been the consequences for him if I had given him a straight razor at age two? Disaster! How irresponsible and dangerous it would have been to do so. Would it have been any different for him at age 4? 6? 9? No. He had no need of it; he was neither ready nor responsible enough for its use. With timing and maturity, the use of a razor is salutary; given at the wrong time, it is irresponsible and dangerous.
This admitedly rough analogy bears on the discussion of paedocommunion, the practice of distributing the elements of the Lord’s Supper to baptized covenant children. More and more reformed congregations and ministers are adopting this practice, which has some historical precedence in the early church, including, among others, the Church Fathers Cyprian and Augustine. Not until the full development of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was paedocommunion dropped, so the argument goes. In their superstitious approach to the elements, they forbade the distribution of Christ’s body and blood to children, lest they drop or otherwise desecrate it or take it unworthily, to the great detriment and damnation of their souls. The Reformers merely followed them in this superstition, preoccupied with other great and weighty matters, blind to this area of need. It is time to restore this ancient and biblical practice to the church and stop cruelly starving our children of grace, paedocommunionists plead.
While the historical argument is of great interest and not always as clear-cut as paedocommunionists make it, the primary case must be made from scripture, and it is to this we must address ourselves primarily. The historical argument will follow secondarily.
THE BIBLICAL CASE FOR THE MAJORITY REFORMED VIEW
The Argument from the Nature of Covenant Signs and Seals
Can a case be made for paedocommunion in the continuity between Passover and the Lord’s Supper? Paedocommunionists think so. Children ate the Passover and children should, therefore, eat the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, if the problem is put this simply and starkly, their argument is nearly made if this be true. But is it true? Did children participate in the sacramental meal of the Passover? To this we turn as the chief – though not exclusive – biblical terrain for our understanding.
Toward this end, I would like to begin by looking at the Passover in its larger context as a sacrament. I believe paedocommunionists begin too close to the particulars of the Passover and lose the perspective of the meal as a potent, guarded sacrament. What do I mean by this? Simply, that God has always bestowed unto man two sacraments as signs and seals of his gracious covenants: one initiatory and probationary, another continuous and confirmatory; in the former, the object is passive and receptive; in the latter, the object is active and participatory. The two trees given to Adam are examples: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was probationary and passive in the sense that he merely had to refrain from eating of it. Had Adam fulfilled his probation, the tree would have served as a sign and seal of his confirmation in righteousness. Obedience = blessing; disobedience = cursing. Had Adam passively refrained from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would have been justified in a right standing before God. Additionally, as covenant head of the family, his progeny would have had this righteousness imputed to them, as well. He would have been initiated into the Kingdom of God and given access to the tree of life. The tree of life, on the other hand, as we see from its reappearance in the final glory-consummation of the New Jerusalem (Rev 22), is eaten from continuously and confirms the life eternal promised by the covenant King. It, too, is fully efficacious and sacramental, as our standards reflect concerning the nature of a sacrament, “…wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 92) There is a continuous sense to its participation, “…with its 12 kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” (Rev 22:2) This is consistent with our hypothesis, that this second sacrament was intended to be a continual reminder of whence life, whether Passover remembering the deliverance from Egpyt or the Lord’s Supper as remembering our deliverance from sin and death.
Likewise, under the Old Covenant, we see two sacraments, one initiatory and probationary, another continuous and confirmatory. Circumcision was applied to covenant males as an initiatory rite into the Church under the Old Testament, the community of Israel. In this, of course, the child was completely passive; he had nothing to say about it. It was the covenant head of the family, the father, who applied this sign and seal of righteousness which comes by faith (Romans 4:11) It was fully efficacious, conditioned upon the covenant faithfulness of the child as he demonstrated his calling and election in the people of God. The sacrificial system, of which Passover was sacramentally emblematic, was continuous in the life of Israel, confirming the life promised by the covenant suzerain as his subjects joyfully and willingly kept faith with him. As we will see below, it also required that the sacrificer not approach his responsibilities recklessly (see, for example, 2 Samuel 6:5-15 and Lev 10:1-3).
Likewise, under the New Covenant, we see two sacraments, one initiatory and probationary, another continuous and confirmatory. Baptism, which corresponds to circumcision, is, as our Confession so puts it, “…not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church (and thus initiatory), but also to be to him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace…” As such, it does not confer grace ex opera operatu, by the working of the work itself, and thus its efficacy is tied “…to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time,” grace and salvation not being so annexed to it that no one can be saved without it or guaranteed salvation with it. In receiving it, the object of grace is passive and receptive. Thus time and space will prove the child, a time of probation. This probation having been fulfilled, he may be confirmed in his rights and priviledges of the second sacrament, one which is continuous and confirmatory, the Lord’s Supper. One of its great benefits stems from this idea of confirmation: if one expects to be confirmed in the faith, he must first and continuously examine himself to see whether he be in and remains in the faith. Our standards recognize this function, stating that participants must “prepare themselves thereunto: by examining themselves of their being in Christ…” and a host of other preparatory conditions, garnered from scripture (LC, Q. 17). In it, he is fully active and participatory, as our Standards once again underline: “What is the duty (i.e., active obedience) of Christians after they have received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?” (Q. 175).
Here it might be appropriate to deal with an emotional argument often thrown at the majority reformed position: “You are only half reformed when it comes to the sacraments; you allow children to the baptismal font but turn them away from the Supper. You must come all the way and be fully covenantal here. We understand the covenant biblically by applying the signs and seals of the covenant consistently to our children, both in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You should, too!”
It is the paedocommunionist who betrays a basic misunderstanding of the covenant, however, in regards to its signs and seals. As we have seen in what can only be a survey above, God gave the second of the sacraments to be intrinsically one of continuous, examinatory confirmation. By virtue of its very nature, it is fenced and restricted, as will be further articulated below. The United Presbyterian Church’s order for the Lord’s Supper (1912) gets it right: “That we may now celebrate the Supper of the Lord to our comfort, it is above all necessary, first, to examine ourselves.” Part of the gracious quality of the Lord’s Supper (or Passover, for that matter) is that we are confronted on a regular basis with the essential questions of the faith: Do I believe in Christ’s sacrifice and all the benefits of redemption? Do I believe in the reason for which redemption was accomplished in the first place, namely my own corruption and guilt? Do I believe in the reality of my regeneration and the full redemption of my life and body in the consummated Kingdom of God? The body and blood confront us with these things every time we come to them; it is part of the biblical motif of “remembering.” In the supper, a spiritual “recalibration” is effected as, by faith, we compare what the supper is with what we are, and adjust ourselves by the power of the Spirit to what we should be. As we will see below, the essence of remembering in its biblical sense requires a mature ability to examine oneself, a maturity of which children are not yet capable! In fact, the ability to remember in its biblical sense is of such importance when coming to the second sacrament, due primarily to the threat of being “cut off” from the covenant for violating its provisions, that the ability to do so must be confirmed in the prospective communicant. This is true whether we are speaking of the Old Testament young person coming to Passover or the New testament young person coming to the Lord’s Supper.
With a clear understanding of the larger rubric of the Lord’s Supper as a continuous, confirmatory sacrament, requiring of its very nature a level of maturity and ablility to examine oneself, consistent with God’s design for it and its continuity with past sacraments, it becomes much easier to order the evidence in a clear, discernable pattern. Against this backdrop, the paedocommunion argument begins to show its weaknesses. Let us now examine some of the paritculars alleged in its favor, and see how they hold up.
The Argument from Exodus 12
First, Exodus 12, where the Passover is inaugerated, is rightly cited as the place where we will or will not find evidence for the participation of children. There we find God commanding Moses to tell the people that every man shall “take a lamb according to their father’s houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.” Ex 12:3,4
Does this not settle the question? Certainly, all in the house would eat, every mouth filled; according to what “each” mouth can eat provision was to be made. This, of course, would include children. This conclusion is a bit hasty, however. In fact, it begs the question: it assumes that all (including children) would eat in order to prove that children eat. Those who eat and each who eat are not specified. Provision is merely required for those who do, whatever the restrictions and limitations upon who will eat might be. Do we find any evidence of restriction and limitation, or was the Passover open to any and all, including children?
Fortunately, we find abundant evidence for what the reformed tradition has called “fencing” of the sacraments:
* No foreigner may eat of it. Ex 12:34
* No slave may eat of it unless circumcised. Ex 12:38;
* It is no ordinary meal, but a sacramental one, to be treated such. This is why it had to be eaten in one house (and later, sacrificed at the temple Dt 16:2), with no bones broken, and nothing remaining (Ex 12:10; 46). This is why it was so important to count each of the mouths who were to eat. The circumcised, ceremonially clean male was required to particpate; if he didn’t, he didn’t just miss a party, but a sacrament. It’s neglect was a sin, the punishment for which was cutting off from the community (Nu 9:13)! It was typological in a most direct way – solemn and redemptive (Exodus 6:6; 1 Cor 5:6; 1 Peter 1:18,19) and thus sacramental.
* not only was the flesh of the worshiper to be circumcised in offering sacrifice, but also the heart. Israel was condemned for “admitting foreigners uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple, when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood.” Ez 44:7 In fact, Hezekiah specifically required this when he demanded of the people before they participated in the Passover that they “not now be stiffnecked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary…” 2 Chr. 30:8 It is often said in paedocommunion circles that repentance, faith, and obedience are not required for admission to the means of grace and that we “raise the bar” by doing so in the Lord’s Supper. Nothing could be further from the OT model and the NT model. They are consistent and continuous; the participant was required to repent (“unstiffen” the neck; that is, turn [shuv] from his behavior in the opposite direction and “return to Lord”; 2 Chr 30:8,9) specifically within the context of the celebration of the Passover.
* The participant must be ritually clean (Numbers 9:1-11). Here we see that there were certain men who were unclean and unable to celebrate the Passover. God saw participation in the Passover as so necessary as to make provision for its celebration by these ritually unclean men one month later, in the second month, on the 15th, when they would have had time to make for ritual purity. Why would he have used these men as examples for the whole assembly when he had another example ready at hand in the many women who would have naturally been unclean because of their mentsrual cycle? It is because women were excluded already from the Passover as a sacramental meal. An example of ritual uncleanness would therefore be appropos only for the males. Would a child be able to judge of his cleanness or uncleanness? Could he be trusted with such a responsibility? The answer is no; in fact, it would have been dangerous and irresponsible for a child to participate, being yet incapable of judging of these things. Again and again we see in the OT (and we will see it again in the NT) that it is the circumcised, ritually clean males that are addressed and dealt with regarding the Passover.
It is demonstrable that the sacrament was fenced, and required mature reflection and examination by the participants to weigh whether they were in the faith or no. Thus, I would maintain, the “each” in Ex. 12:4 were the circumcised, ritually clean males, who ate as the federal representatives of the women and children, as at other times. It was they who were the ones responsible for it, as at two other feasts: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths.” Dt 16:16 The Feast of Unleavened Bread, of course, included and began with Passover. Ex 12:21 also commands the elders to “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb.”
Additional Questions from the Old Testament Model
Why, one might ask, does Exodus 12 not specifically mention that males alone were to eat of the ritual meal? Are we not reading into the text at this point? Doesn’t the natural sense of the text indicate that whole households, including children, participate in it? No, I would maintain, as Dt. 16:16 and Exodus 12:21 indicate and as the uniform practice of sacrifice indicates and, as noted above, the very nature of the continuous, confirmatory sacrament demands. That is, its very nature as a sacrament demands examination on a continual basis, whenever sacrifice was accomplished, in order to see if one was yet in the faith. Was he and his household circumcised? Was he ritually clean? Did he and his household have yielded, circumcised (read: converted and faithful) hearts?
When we examine the OT up to this point, we find that sacrifice was indeed accomplished by males capable of and required to examine themselves and weigh their faith, consistent with our hypothesis. Cain and Abel were two such men; in fact, Cain is admonished to examine his heart, since he was angry, with a fallen countenance, where sin was crouching at the door, whose desire was to master him (Gen 4:,7). Job sacrificed as the federal head of his family, on behalf of his children, lest “they have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Job 1:5 He not only examined his own heart, but the hearts of his family. So it was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so it was with Moses and the Passover. It was incumbent upon circumcised, ritually clean, properly yielded males to examine themselves and their households, a thing to which children were manifestly incapable and women were manifestly excluded. To specify anew these basics would have been a redundancy; they were assumed as a starting point, although there are the hints indicated above. It was the uniform practice of the faithful.
Weren’t there sacrifices and festivals at which children ate and particiapted? Yes, of course. These tend to confirm our position rather than refute it. Deuteronomy 16 clearly delineates a number of participants in the Feast of Weeks, for example: your son and daughter, male and female servants, Levites, orphans, sojurners, and widows (v11); the Feast of Booths also exhausts this same catalogue of persons who are to participate (v14). Well, then, since the Passover is grouped in with these two in Dt. 16, shouldn’t we infer that the Passover, as well, includes children? On the contrary, we must infer just the opposite, seeing that children et. al. are manifestly absent from the stipulations for the Passover. In fact, they are conspicuous by their absence! The tendency of the context is that the inclusiveness of the Feasts of Weeks and Booths is the exception rather than the rule and thus the wider scope of participants must be specified; since circumcised of flesh and heart, ritually clean males were the rule, it was not necessary to delineate this for the Passover Feast. The Passover – quite apart from the Feasts of Booths and Weeks – was communicated by the circumcised, ritually clean, properly yielded males. The absence of an extensive list of participants from the Passover regulations is consistent with our hypothesis, not that of the paedocommunionist.
If children were present, doesn’t this plainly indicate they participated in the meal? Once again, this is nowhere explicitly stated, but falls subject to the same fault of question-begging noted above: children who are present at the meal are assumed to be participants so that it can be proved that they participated in the meal. But, presence does not prove participation! This cannot be too strongly emphasized: presence does not prove participation. Their presence is indicated by their questions flowing naturally from what they observe: “What do YOU mean by this service?” Exodus 12:26 The question is put in the 2nd person plural, not the 1st person plural, as one would expect from someone who was a co-participant. “What do WE mean by this service?” would be the expected response from one who shared in the meal. How many times have you seen a child of covenant parents in obedient reformed churches ask something of the same question concerning the Lord’s Supper? As the bread and cup go by them, without their having a chance to eat of it, they naturally ask, “What are you doing?” or “What does this mean, that you and dad do?” This is precisely the catechal moment Passover presented, indicated by the question of Exodus 12:26, “What do YOU mean by this service!”
What then? Do the children and women go hungry? Poor things! Of course they do not go hungy; there is other food to eat. What would the ceremonially unclean men of Numbers 9 have eaten until they were ceremonially clean? Would they have gone hungry? How about the uncircumcised slave or foreigner? They no more go hungry than the women and children. Would anyone say that these were “deprived” of the means of grace, that they were being starved of spiritual or physical food? No, of course not. In fact, they were being protected and guarded. The punishment of being “cut off” was final: it meant not only banishment from the nation of Israel (a virtual death sentence), but a cessation of a line of progeny, so that a man “cut off” was forgotten and discarded like the foreskin after a circumcision. He was as dead – both spiritually and physically – as that worthless piece of skin. To approach the table ritually unclean was to invoke this curse; for a woman to partake was to invoke this curse; could a child responsibly, maturely, with understanding and all the attention to detail required, come to the table? Of course not, no more than my son could handle a straight razor at age 3. The paedocommunionist likes to invoke the emotional argument that we are depriving, starving, our children of the means of grace; rather, they have it backwards. We are protecting them from potential harm and curse. What father, understanding the grave danger to which he subjects his child, could let him eat? As the federal head of his family, participating for them, will he not see as sufficient the provision made for him and his family without presuming to go farther than commanded? Let us hope and pray so.
The Argument from the New Testament
After briefly reviewing the OT evidence, showing that while the paedocommunionist argument has an air of plausability, it does not hold in the face of the biblical model when examined closely. What do we find when we come to the NT? Oftentimes, paedocommunionists speak as if 1 Corinthians 11 is the sole text from which we derive our case, in the exhortation to “examine oneself.” Is this true? By no means; there is an abundance of texts, as we have demonstrated above in the OT. Let us look first at Luke 2: in coming to the NT evidence.
Jesus was “born of woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law,” (Gal 4:4) and as such Jesus childhood is extremely sparse in the gospels, except at those points where his life intersected with the law. Luke, for instance, documents his circumcision and then telescopes the bulk of his childhood with the summary, “And when they had performed everything according the Law of the Lord (note the centrality of the law), they returned…and the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:39,40) The next incident in his life is when he was ready to become a “son of the commandment,” a Bar-Misphah, a responsible adult male in the community. The Talmud, at Aboth, v. 24, reads “At five years the age is reached for the study of Scripture, at ten the study of Mishnah (our equivalent of catechism), at thirteen for the fulfillment of the commandment…” Before the age of 13, a boy was not accountable before the law; his parents were in his stead. But, after being catechized and examined by the elders of the community to see if his study of scripture and the Talmud had born fruit in knowledge and discernment, he was initiated into the circle of circumcised, adult males and was thereafter subject to all of the responsibilities and benefits of the law. What was one of the chief marks of that initiation? We do not have to wonder; Luke provides the answer for us.
It is no coincidence that Jesus accompanies his parents to Jerusalem at Passover. Note several things:
* “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover…” It is a bit ambiguous as to whether Jesus accompanied his parents or not from this text, but it does serve to strengthen our case versus the paedocommunionist. Why? It explicitly mentions them alone, without including Jesus or using oikos (family) or its derivatives. Even Mary’s presence is a relatively recent phenomena, as I. Howard Marshall points out, “by this time (i.e., first century Jerusalem), women also attended the feast.” He cites Deuteronomy 16:16, Exodus 23:14-17, and Exodus 34:23 as conclusive that it was the males who – at least initially – kept the 3 feast above mentioned. Only later did the women accompany the men, although they did not participate in the meal.
* “And when he was 12 years old, they went up according to the custom.” That this was Jesus first trip to Passover is manifest from the context, and in this most commentators agree. J. Jeremias, in his landmark Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, throws some valuable light on this custom. He says, “…we may conclude (from Luke 2:41) that it was custom among people from a distance to bring their children when they reached twelve years of age.” (p. 76) Before twelve years of age, they remained at home. The Talmud records a priest named Joseph (not the NT Joseph of the Holy Family) as full of excessive zeal for bringing his entire oikos (household), children and all, to the second Passover, held one month later in provision for those who were unclean at the first or otherwise unable to attend it (he would not dared to have brought them to the Passover in the month of Abib). The Pesshita records that he was turned back (M.Pes. IX) that he might not set a precedent for such behavior! If, indeed, the Passover was instituted for the whole family – women and children, as the paedocommunionists maintain – how Jospeh and Mary and the pious Jews were misguided! But, it seems, the paedocommunionists are now here to set the text and tradition straight.
* One might inquire, “If one did not become a ‘son of the commandment’ (Bar-Mishpat) until age 13, what was Jesus doing there at age 12? Doesn’t that rather indicate that he came up every year?” No; as Jeremias points out, “Luke 2:42 is not contradictory to this rule (of age 13 as initiatory); the twelve-year-olds were brought on the pilgrimmage in order to get them used to the event which would become a duty next year.”
* This Passover was also a time of examination and preparation for his initiation. Examination is not restricted to self examination; the males were expected to be well versed in Scripture (beginning at age 5) and the Talmud (beginning at age 10). After this period of catechism, he would appear before “session” (in Jesus’ case, “the teachers”). If he acquitted himself like a son of the commandment, he would be “confirmed” in the adult world as a full participant in the privileges and responsibilities of the Law – including participation in the sacrament of Passover! This is utterly consistent with our hypothesis, that this second sacrament is one of continual self examination and responsibility, in which the participant is expected to be active and mature. The text and tradition conform with this hypothesis; it is the paedocommunion position which is innovative and out of step with text and tradition.
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
The gospels also support our case when it comes to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, at the celebration of Jesus’ last Passover meal.
The care with which the upper room was selected is indicative of its sacramental character and the assurance that it was ritually clean, free from any hint of leaven (Matthew 26:17-19). If, indeed, the Passover was eaten by families (oikoi), where were they? In the evening, when the meal was eaten, Jesus “reclined with the twelve” – circumcised, ritually clean males all! It really does no good to protest, either, that this was merely a direct consequence of their having left all to follow Jesus, and that they were merely together as disciples qua (italics) disciples. After all, most of them were family men and were with family at other times with Jesus during his ministry (e.g. Mark 1:29-31; John 2:1-12). If Jesus was as committed to “keep the Passover” (Mt 26:18) as the text says He was, then he would do it with families – women and children – if that were the stipulation. Was He fully obedient or not? If the Passover was only fulfilled and kept when eaten with women and children, then where were they? Jesus either kept it as He should, with circumcised, ritually clean males, or else he was manifestly disobedient. There is no way around this for the paedocommunionist. If the paedocommunionist is correct, then Jesus was disobedient and forced his disciples to disobey Passover stipulations by taking them from their families at the most important festival of the Hebrew calendar. Rather, it is no coincidence of discipleship that Jesus eats the Passover with twelve circumcised, ritually clean males. It goes to the heart of conformity with its stipulations!1 Corinthians 11
Next we approach 1 Corinthians 11, which, according to paedocommunionists, is the only leg upon which we have to stand. I hope this illusion is beginning to fade. Only a brief review of this text will be attempted here. This entire piece is only intended to be an introduction, in any case.
The chief objection to the majority reformed understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 is that we take it out of context by applying the warnings (unworthy participants profane the body and blood of the Lord [v27], and incur judgment on themselves [29b]; examine yourselves [v28]; judge yourselves to avoid condemnation from the Lord [v31,32]) to children as a basis for admission to the table. The context for these warnings is the sin of division within the body of Christ, the church, so it is maintained. They say that the majority view over-extends the context to include under its purview children and the unexamined when it was addressed to adults; this error is repeated in the insistence that one’s walk in general must be examined for sin when the context is restricted to division within the body. Once again, while these arguments are put forward with an air of plausibility, are they true to the text?
First, let me address the old canard that Paul is restricting himself to the sin of division, while an obsessive preoccupation with self-examination in general, concerning particular sins, is not in the context. Does Paul restrict himself to the destructive sin of division within the church? Is this all he expects the Corinthians to examine themselves against?
Paul is treating the division within the body here in chapter 11 as symptomatic of the entire pattern of sin within the Corinthian church. In the context and flow of the entire book, the divisions within the body are merely the larger fault line of the seismic activities rending them below the surface. There is incest tolerated within the body (1 Cor 5); can anyone imagine this as morally neutral and non divisive? Would it not rend the unity of the fellowship? Can anyone imagine Paul not barring such a one from the table? Sexual immorality was rife amongst the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:12-20); can anyone imagine this as morally neutral and non divisive? Would it not rend the unity of the fellowship? Can anyone imagine Paul not barring such a one from the table? Corinthian Christians were suing one another in the civil courts (1 Cor 6:1-11); can anyone imagine this as morally neutral and non divisive? Would it not rend the unity of the fellowship? Can anyone imagine Paul not barring such a one from the table? Some Corinthians were worshiping yet in pagan temples as well as in church, causing many to stumble and fall back into sin (1 Cor 8); can anyone imagine this as morally neutral and non divisive? Would it not rend the unity of the fellowship? Can anyone imagine Paul not barring such a one from the table? Some Corinthian Christians were using a pecking order of spiritual gifts to establish their own superiority (1 Cor 12-14); can anyone imagine this as morally neutral and non divisive? Would it not rend the unity of the fellowship? Can anyone imagine Paul not barring such a one from the table? Others were distorting and even denying the doctrine of the resurrection (1 Cor 15); can anyone imagine this as morally neutral and non divisive? Would it not rend the unity of the fellowship? Can anyone imagine Paul not barring such a one from the table?
Paedocommunionists like to obfuscate the question of self-examination by pointing to the general issue of division while ignoring all of the many particulars which constitute the general. Paul’s whole strategy is to hit each of the beats of sin like drumbeats which, taken as a whole, constitute the sad song of division. Thereafter, the exhortation to examine and judge oneself is meant for each Corinthian to look within and see into which category he falls, to see if he must personally tag himself with one of the sins afore mentioned. This, indeed, is part of what it means to “discern the Lord’s body.” As an incestuous man, do you not profane the supper by participating in your persistent sinful state? As a spiteful man in suit at law, do you not profane the supper by participating in your persistent sinful state? As sexually immoral, or an idolater, or proud, or unbelieving, do you not profane the supper by participating in your persistent sinful state? Indeed, just as such a one was “cut-off” from the community of Israel for profaning the Passover, so Paul observes “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” The sacramental nature of the Lord’s Supper required self-examination and the level of ability to sufficiently do it, in order not to experience the NT equivalent of being “cut-off”. The covenant responsibility to examine oneself, to see if he was stiffnecked or uncircumcised of heart, is as relevant under the New Covenant in the Lord’s Supper as it was under the Old Covenant in the Passover(2 Chr 30:8,9). It becomes apparent that to say Paul is exclusively treating of the sin of divisiveness at the table is to artificially restrict the context. The majority reformed view, then, does not and has not artificially expanded the context, but properly applied it within its context.
It is popular among paedocommunionists to argue that Paul is speaking to adults here and not children, and so this text cannot be used as a proof in favor of restricting the admission of children to the table. This is a red herring argument and quite irrelevant. We can just as easily say, “Of course he’s talking to adults; children were excluded from the table until they were of an age that they could discern the body!” This silence argues nothing for either side.
The paedocommunionist also likes to assert that “discerning the Lord’s body” is restricted to perceiving the covenantal unity we have in Christ as the church, Christ’s body. In their view, Paul is not speaking of a level of content one must know concerning salvation and Christ’s work of redemption, which only a relatively mature and reflective person can attain. Therefore, the kind of knowledge and preparation traditionally demanded by reformed people of the prospective communicant through confirmation is not inherent in what it means to “discern the Lord’s body.” I have two major objections with this understanding of the text:
1. double entendre – there is, at least, a double entendre at work here. Certainly, in one sense, the body is the church, his blood bought people. But one cannot divorce the salvific nature of the supper from this context either, when Paul cites the words of institution, “…the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you…” (11:24). Can anyone deny the soteriological import of these words? How pregnant is this phrase, from which Christians have been birthing great theological meaning for millennia? Discerning the Lord’s body is as much knowing and believing content as it is practicing unity. In fact, how can one separate consideration of and reflection upon the church as a united body in Christ from the very work it took to create it? Of what body did Jesus himself speak in the Upper Room, when he said, “This is my body, which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me?” Luke 22:19 Was he speaking of the Church or his life, about to be sacrificed on the cross? The latter, of course; to artificially restrict the context of 1 Cor 11 in speaking of the body to the church alone is exegetically illegitimate. The supper proclaims soteriological content (v23-26), which must be discerned to observe it properly. The paedocommunionist artificially sunders these two aspects of “discerning the Lord’s body” in order to ease the difficulties of his point.
2. examination – the exhortation to examine oneself and judge oneself, then, mean more than just making sure one didn’t bear ill will toward another or tolerate some internal friction. The kind of examination demanded by the context required content! That is, it demanded a level of catechal sophistication children cannot yet reach. Just as Passover took a time of preparation and catechizing before the communicant was ready to continually examine himself, so the Lord’s Supper demands an equally rigorous ability and training, of which children are not yet capable. If our task is to remember and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” then reformed tradition has been correct in requiring a minimal facility in these things before signing and sealing them in the supper. The kind of examination demanded by the context required content!
1 Corinthians 10:1-5
Much is also made of the children eating manna and drinking the water from the rock in the wilderness, as Paul uses for illustrative purposes in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. Children ate from the manna and water; ergo, they should eat of the bread and wine. After all, doesn’t Paul call the manna and water “spiritual food and drink”? If they could partake without the kind of superstitious danger we have imputed to the elements, why can they not eat of the true spiritual food, the Lord’s Supper? Indeed, the paedocommunionist would say, why should they not necessarily eat of it?
Once again, this argument has an air of plausibility, but will not hold up to closer inspection.
Firstly, the manna and water were daily sustenance. They were not a sacramental sacrifice as was the Passover. Indeed, there was nothing sacrificial about the manna and water at all. In fact, the rebellious Israelites would complain about this food, demanding meat, which appetite God would satisfy with a vengeance (see Exodus 16)! Israel’s grumbling about water would provoke a rash and angry response from Moses, a sin for which God promised he would not enter the Promised Land (see Exodus 17; Deuteronomy 32:48-52). In every place the manna and water are foods designed to sustain the body. In no place of scripture do we find the manna and water to be sacramental in the way of Passover. When the paedocommunionist uses this analogy, he is comparing two unlike things, like the proverbial “apples and oranges.” No one would deny that children ate the manna and drank the water. But we would say, “So what? What does this have to do with the sacrament of the Passover or Lord’s Supper?” If an analogy is to be proof, it must be apt. The analogy of manna/water with Passover is manifestly inept.
Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 10 is that, though the Israelites all shared in the same identification with Christ (the baptism of Moses, v2) and shared in the same covenant benefits which accrued to the faithful in Christ (the manna and the water, v3,4), that was not coterminus with their election in Christ and thus a guarantee of their deliverance. Just because one went through fire and water with the people of God, just because one ate the same food as they did, was no guarantee that one was “a true Israelite” or that one could behave as an idolater or immoral person with impunity. That was a matter of heart rendered obedience (1 Cor 10:6-22). In fact, “…with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” (v5) The manna and water thus appear here not as a sacramental sacrifice, but as a physical benefit of being identified among the covenant people of God. The author of Hebrews makes much the same point in Hebrews 6:4,5 when he lists some of the benefits of being in covenant with God. Again, his point is that sharing in these benefits is no reason to presume salvation and deliverance when all the evidence in life and doctrine runs counter to obedience (Hebrews 6:6-8). Just as none of the benefits listed in Hebrews 6 is sacramental, so neither the water nor manna is sacramental.
Secondly, the water and manna were spiritual food in the sense that they were given supernaturally, by the hand of God, by the One who is Spirit (John 4:24). The manna and water fed the body, not the spirit. It was intended to be physical nourishment, to get them from wilderness to Promised Land in a state of health, not a sacramental, spiritual nourishment. They already had Passover and the sacrificial system for that! This does not obviate its spiritual nature, however, in having been showered upon them apart from their own strength and abilities, apart from any physical source. God supernaturally bestowed it upon them from the realm of the Spirit, as food from heaven: “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you…” Ex 16:4 It was spiritual in terms of its source and Giver, not in terms of its object and effect.
John 6, The Bread of Life Discourse
“Aha!” one might say, “Jesus himself made the spiritual connection between manna as physical food and his body as spiritual food in John 6:30-59. Will you contradict Jesus discourse here? Will you starve our children of their spiritual nourishment by keeping them from the table?” Certainly, no one would argue that Jesus was making the explicit point that manna was a type of heavenly sustenance of life eternal, and that He himself was the anti-type. This, indeed, is one of the 7 great “I am” discourses in John, the Bread of Life Discourse. The Jews were trying to pin Jesus down after his feeding of the 5000 men (which number was determined by counting the circumcised, ritually clean males at, surprise, Passover [John 6:4,10]!) Will he be like Moses and be a constant source of bread for us? They required this sign before they would believe. “Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jn 6:31
Very briefly, Jesus makes the ironclad connection between manna and himself: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.” v51 What’s more, he explicitly insists upon the idea of feeding upon him directly (“For my flesh is true bread and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” v54,55). Then, in the coup de grace, he tells his disciples of the utterly spiritual nature of this banquet: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail; The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” v63,64
For those with faith, for those who believe, Christ is indeed spiritual life, the bread from heaven, in whom is life eternal. This is as real and potent for our covenant children as it is for adults! They, too, feed upon the spiritual manna, the bread from heaven, Christ himself, as certainly as do adults.
Well, then, haven’t you just made the paedocommunionist’s point? If our children have spiritual life in Christ, feeding upon the bread from heaven, isn’t manna a type of the sacrament? Shouldn’t they participate in its signs and seals? Why do you still insist on keeping them from the table?
While this argument has an emotional appeal and a gloss of plausibility, it is important to note several exegetical truths here.
First and foremost, this text reveals the nature of faith, not the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ are a spiritual thing, appropriating the bread of heaven by faith: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” v47,48 This was Christ’s insistence, the thing which provoked his disciples to say, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” v60 It is belief in his words, the life of faith, which is at stake: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are those of you who do not believe.” Rather than immediately running to an application to the Lord’s Supper, and then to distributing the elements to our children, we should rather flee to John’s immediate context, that is, that the Bread of Life discourse refers to Christ’s mission of redemption, as John establishes from the beginning: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” Jn 1:14.
This has been the insistence of Protestant exegetes from the Reformation onwards. D.A. Carson notes: “Eating the flesh of the Son of Man is a striking, metaphorical way of saying that the gift of God’s real ‘bread of life’ is appropriated by faith…on the very face of it, the theme of John 6 is Christology.” Colin Brown notes, in a succinct turn of phrase, that “John 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper; rather, the Lord’s Supper is about what is described in John 6.” John Calvin himself has perhaps the most appropriate comment for us at this point, as he deals with John 6:
“The ancients fell into a gross error by supposing that little children were deprived of eternal life, if they did not dispense to them the Eucharist, that is, the Lord’s Supper; for this discourse does not relate to the Lord’s Supper, but to the uninterupted communication of the flesh of Christ, which we obtain apart from the use of the Lord’s Supper.” (Commentary on John, at v53)
Here Calvin upbraids the paedocommunionist for reading this discourse utterly out of context, falling into the same error as the ancients (e.g., Cyprian and Augustine). Indeed, we agree with Calvin and Protestant tradition that linking the spiritual nature of manna and the bread of life to the Lord’s Supper is exegetically illegitimate!
At the risk of being redundant, let me emphasize again that Jesus is unequivocally transitioning from the type of himself as spiritual bread in the manna to the antitype: here, finally, stood eternal life in his own person. While manna is utterly unlike the Lord’s Supper in that it is not sacramental and an imparter of grace, it nevertheless is spiritual in that it is a type, a physical food from the realm of the spirit – “bread from heaven” – which points in a real and substantial way to the antitype, the actual bread from heaven, Jesus the Christ. If these things are clearly kept before us, then we will not be confused by illegitimate exegetical moves which equate the manna with the supper.
Paedocommunion has been given a fresh (although I believe false) currency in many circles today. The reformed faith is enjoying a resurgence, enlivening not only traditional communions, but also spawning new churches, denominations, and fellowships who cherish the creeds and traditions of the Reformed faith. For this we praise God! This resurgence has also stimulated a great deal of thinking, rethinking, and reexamination of text and tradition. Again, for this we praise God! It is fruitful to ponder and debate the great truths of the faith, especially those so dear to the heart of every reformed person, the truths concerning the signs and seals of our faith. Thus, I believe the debate over paedocommunion can be fruitful. However, I am concerned with the unseemly rush to embrace this practice without sober, mature reflection. It is, as one wag has put it, too much like a fad. The air of plausibility many have artfully brought to it has stolen many a heart and mind. Many have rushed to adopt the practice of paedocommunion without seriously considering the exegetical case made above (which could be made much more convincingly by another or perhaps at greater length later). There is, however, a history to this debate which has been equally ignored. Others have held both views in the life of the church. Why is it reformed communions and creeds without exception have debated this in the past and come to the majority view held here? This question naturally brings us to the historical argument (to follow, soon).
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