Thursday, August 30, 2012

Paedocommunion

"What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper? It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves." ~ Westminster Shorter Catechism #97

Some of you may be reading this wondering what paedocommunion is. It is the idea that very young children (toddlers), maybe even infants, ought to be given the Lord’s Supper. Arguments for the position generally take one or two paths: the Lord's Supper associations with the OT Passover and/or the close association of the NT covenant signs of baptism and the Lord's Supper. The former briefly states that the Lord's Supper is the NT equivalent of the OT Passover and children of all ages participated in the OT Passover, therefore children, even infants should participate in the Lord's Supper. The latter briefly states that we should not deny infants one covenant sign (the Lord's Supper) while giving them the other (baptism). (For more information on the Reformed view of baptism, see last year's post about it.)

"Why write about this?" you might ask. A couple of reasons: first, this has become a debated issue in the PCA (my denomination) in the past few years, and second, it brings up the subject of the proper observance/celebration of the Lord's Supper, which is a very important subject. (In the below discussion, I will talk more about how we celebrate the Lord's Supper and less about its essence. For more on what the Lord's Supper is, see last year's post about it.)

So, is paedocommunion a biblical practice, properly celebrating the Lord's Supper, or is it not? I believe that it is not. The first thing we need to look at is what Jesus and Paul say about the Lord's Supper (since Jesus instituted it and Paul talks about its proper observance). In Jesus' institution of it (Mt. 26:26-29; Lk. 22:14-23; Mk. 14:22-25) a few things come to the forefront:
  • It is necessary to understand what the elements represent. In all three accounts Jesus takes each element, explains what it represents, and then gives it to His disciples to eat. There is at least the implication that the disciples needed to understand the elements before they ate. Now, I am not saying that every believer who partakes must understand all the theological intricacies and implications of the Lord's Supper, but they have a basic knowledge of it in order to participate. 
  • Luke records a specific command about the Lord's Supper from Jesus: "Do this in remembrance of me." (v. 19) This shows that when we do celebrate the Lord's Supper, Jesus intends for us to remember Him and everything He did for us (i.e. the gospel). As in the previous point, in the remembrance of something there is at least the implication that understanding is also to be involved.
As we can see from Jesus' institution of the Lord's Supper, understanding of its significance and remembrance of His redemptive work is required of those who participate. What does Paul have to say about the subject? We find his inspired words about the Lord's Supper in 1 Co. 11:17-32. The occasion for Paul's writing on the subject was the abuse of the Lord's Supper. That being the case, we can expect him to tells us something about its proper celebration, and he does. He gives (at least) three obligations for participants:
  • Participants must have an active faith that can remember and show Christ's sacrificial death. The taking of the Lord's Supper is the act of remembering and proclaiming of Jesus' death until He returns (v. 26). This, as above, has the implication that understanding must also be involved. 
  • Participants must be able to examine themselves and be certain that their faith in Christ is genuine (v. 28, cf. 2 Co. 13:5). This does not mean that a believer's faith must be so strong that they have no doubts (see my previous post on the value of faith), in fact one of the purposes of the Lord's Supper is to strengthen weak faith, but it must be placed in Jesus alone for salvation. 
  • Participants must be able to discern the body of Christ (v. 29). This discerning has dimensions both soteriological--understanding Jesus and the gospel proclaimed by the elements--and ecclesiological--proper relationship to Christ's Body and its members.
As we can see from Paul's theology on the subject, he shares Jesus' concern for remembering and understanding Christ's work of redemption proclaimed by the elements. He furthermore reminds us that when we take the Lord's Supper we ourselves proclaim the death of Christ until He returns. Paul also requires participants to have a genuine faith in and relationship with Jesus and a proper relationship to the Body of Christ and its members.

In all the above, it is clear that all participants must the ability to examine, remember, and discern, and they must use those abilities in faith when they celebrate the Lord's Supper. Examination, discernment, and remembrance in faith are not faculties that infants and very young children yet have. I am willing to grant that there may be children who are young, perhaps younger than we normally think, who can do these things according to their frame and partake (which is why the PCA's Book of Church Order leaves it up to the session to determine who may participate) but infants and toddlers are not at that age.

What about the arguments for paedocommunion given by proponents? In answer to the first, I do not believe that arguments by association with the OT Passover hold up under scrutiny:
  • First, there are a number of dissimilarities between the Lord's Supper and the Passover, which make them not a one-to-one relation like circumcision and baptism (cf. Col. 2:11-12). If, however, we grant a significant degree of similarity, there are still problems with attempting to argue from Passover regulations. 
  • Second, after the first Passover, God stipulated that only the male members of the covenant community were required to participate in the feasts (Ex. 23:17; 34:23; Dt. 16:16), including the Passover. This did not expressly bar women and children, but it did represent a significant change in its celebration and a significant difference from the NT Lord's Supper.  
  • Third, it is also not at all clear that children participated in the Passover, at least children that were not able to understand what was happening. It is not very likely that very young children (especially infants) could have eaten and digested the food of the Passover. Furthermore, the only evidence we have for children's participation are those that are old enough to ask the question, "What is meant by this service?" (Ex. 12:26) and comprehend the answer given by the father (Ex. 12:27). It at least suggests that the children who did participate had to have the ability to understand and discern the meaning of the Passover. 
  • Finally, very young children participating in the Passover is not consistent with the historic practice of the Passover among Jews. In the OT, males who could make the journey and participate in the fasting and ceremonial cleansing (cf. Nu. 9:6; Jn. 18:28) were those who participated. In later traditions, post NT, only children who had reached the age of discretion participated.
I also do not agree with the argument that since we give one covenant sign to infants (baptism) we should give the other to them as well (the Lord's Supper). This is not biblical. Scripture commands, by association with the OT sign, that baptism be given to infants (Ge. 17:9-13, cf. Col. 2:11-12, see also my previous posts on baptism). It is also not said by the Scripture (or the Reformed tradition) that baptism is a saving rite or that it is effectual at the moment it is given. It is a sign of the need for the gospel, gospel promises, and righteousness received by faith. It is also a sign in which recipient is passive, just as he is when God draws him. Therefore, the sign can be absolutely objectively given to a child in the prayerful hope that the child will one day have faith and receive the promises subjectively. This is not the case with the Lord's Supper. We are not commanded to give it to infants or very young children, and we are commanded to be able to subjectively examine ourselves, remember Christ's work, and discern His body in faith (as shown above). Jesus' institutions of the Lord's Supper and Paul's recounting of it all require active participation in faith in order to be nourished by Christ in it (cf. Jn. 6:53-55). This shows us that while baptism and the Lord's Supper are both covenant signs, the occasion and participants of each differ on several points.

You might still be thinking, "So what?" We cannot forget how important the Lord's Supper is. It is one of the means of grace, which means it is one of the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of His redemption. It is something God instituted to communicate grace to us in a true and objective way. It is a covenant sign representing the heart of God's covenant of grace. It is not something man made up and can change on a whim. Getting it wrong is a serious matter, so serious that Paul says, "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died." (1 Co. 11:29-30)

For a much more detailed treatment of this subject, I would suggest Cornelis P. Venema's book, Children at the Lord's Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion.

By His Grace,
Taylor

3 comments:

Big Jen said...

Really well written argument Taylor.

Jake C. Rudge said...

What do you think about ordaining guys who believe in paedocommunion yet take it as an exception and agree not to teach it?

A. Taylor Rollo... said...

Big Jen, thanks for the compliment!

Jake, that is a great question. I do have an opinion on that, which I am sure you already figured. It sounds like you are familiar what has been going on in the PCA the past couple of years, but for those who are not, my answer requires a little explanation. I do not want to insult your intelligence but simply make sure anyone reading the comments has all they need to understand it.

When the PCA ordains a man, one of the things asked is whether or not he has any exceptions to the system of doctrine laid out in the Westminster Standards. The Book of Church Order (BCO) states in 21-4-f: "Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery shall inquire not only into the candidate's knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion." This italicized part is the key. An exception is allowable by the court ordaining the man if it is not out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine, is not hostile to it, and does not strike at the vitals of the Christian faith.

The question is, then, "Is such an exception (paedocommunion) hostile to the system or does it strike at the vitals of religion?" In this case, I would say yes. I am not a fan of candidates being able to take exception to Standards on this point and just say that they will not teach it. That might work for some doctrines but the Lord's Supper is one of the means of grace (vital to Christianity) and an active celebration, meaning we need to be taught how to properly celebrate it. With it, the minister is supposed to instruct the congregation in the proper manner of participation. If you believe in paedocommunion, then you probably do not hold that a participant is required to examine themselves of their being in the body of Christ and faith in Christ (all the stuff I mention above that is proper to its celebration). If you believe in paedocommunion, then you probably also do not hold that faith is necessary for the sacrament to be effectual (see my past posts on the Lord's Supper linked above). That means, when a minister opens the Table, he will not tell the communicant members they have to examine themselves and come with faith, and, therefore, he will not be properly teaching the positive, subjective aspects of participating in the Table (vital to the Reformed view of the Lord's Supper and I would argue the biblical teaching on it). So, saying you will not teach paedocommunion means you also will not teach communicant members the positive aspects need to properly celebrate the Lord's Supper. I do not think that is an allowable exception because of how important the Lord's Supper is and how important its proper celebration is.