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Paedocommunion Revisited

Occasionally, I run into discussions regarding paedocommunion. Well over a decade ago, I wrote an entire book devoted to a reasonably comprehensive treatment of this subject. I also have written extensively at paedocommunion.com. There are always those though who are unwilling to read an entire book, and do not really want to track down articles here and there. So in response to one online discussion in particular, I am offering here a few brief observations and responses to sundry objections.

  1. I have referred to the inclusion of children in old covenant communal meals, but it has been objected that these varied widely and had different criteria for participation. They certainly did vary, and there were some differences in terms of critera for participation. (Passover, for example, required circumcision, whereas it appears that at least some other meals did not, and where thus open to believing Gentiles.) But even conceding that, it would be pretty difficult to refer to any instance where age was ever a criterion.Much more importantly, though, is the fact that the old covenant communal meals which are most closely tied to the Lord’s Supper by the New Testament most certainly did include children. The manna and water in the wilderness are clear antecedents to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 10, and children partook of those. And contrary to Calvin, Passover included the little ones of Israel; the so-called catechetical question of Exodus 12:26 (roughly translated as “What is this service to you?”) was never presented as a preliminary to obtaining the right of access. The youngest of firstborn sons who were saved by the Passover partook of the same.
  2. When I speak of the antiquity of paedocommunion in the Church, I do so, not to prove the correctness of the position, but to show that it is no novelty. It is also to be stressed that the casual way in which Cyprian refers to paedocommunion presupposes a widespread practice. Were he offering an apologetic, we could wonder if he was arguing for something that most people opposed, but in fact that is not the case. (See the quotations here.) Rather he assumes that little ones in their parents’ arms are partaking of the Lord’s bread and cup; and that a child too young to communicate her experiences has her “turn” to partake of the eucharist. This is not the sort of evidence to be expected from an “outlier.”
  3. Despite its misuse at the hands of opponents of paedocommunion, 1 Corinthians 11 as a whole stands in support of paedocommunion rather than in tension with it. The matter of discerning the body, in context, refers to the disunity and lack of solidarity at the table of the Lord (see 11:18–22). (For more on 1 Cor 11:29, see my article here.)Unlike the anti-paedocommunion usage of 1 Cor 11, proper interpretation involves an understanding of how the concepts and terminology belong in a context that stretches at least as far back as 9:27. There, Paul refers to his own spiritual self-discipline that he undertakes, “lest after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” The term he uses there is adokimos, which is a privative noun directly related to the verb used in 11:28 (frequently translated, somewhat misleadingly as “examine”). It has to do, not with cognitive reflection but with covenantal testing. If one becomes adokimos, that means that he has broken covenant and is no longer counted among the righteous.This is why Paul immediately proceeds from contemplating the possibility of his own becoming adokimos to discuss the failure of Israel in the wilderness; and it is precisely there where he introduces the Lord’s Supper and the background typology of the baptism through the Sea followed by bread and water in the wilderness. Despite participating in those blessings, Paul notes that a great number of them broke covenant through idolatry and sexual immorality, and therefore fell in the wilderness. Thus we are to take heed lest we likewise fall (10:12). What is falling, then? It is becoming adokimos.Now, note well, we could say that this taking heed is a “requirement” to continue participating in the sacraments. And since presumably small children cannot “take heed” in that fashion, they should not partake. But that of course is completely foreign to Paul’s point. It was not the small children who fell in the wilderness; indeed, it was mostly those who were children who survived the wilderness and inherited the land, while their fathers were prohibited entry due to sin and unbelief.And so it is that when we arrive at the matter of proving ourselves (which is more to the point than “self-examination”), it is completely wrongheaded to say, “Aha! This proves that little children should not be participating in the Supper!” To the contrary, its meaning is along the same lines as 10:12, with the corollary that in the event we continue to stand by humble faith, and thus retain our dokimos status rather than falling and becoming adokimos.

    The truth is that placing this in the realm of some sort of intellectual requirement is not only a form of Gnosticism (knowledge saves); it cuts directly counter to the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 11. Paul’s concern is that the solidarity of the body be retained: one bread, one body (10:17), and consequently the divisions of 11:17—22 are in fundamental ways parallel to the sins of idolatry and sexual immorality by which Israel had fallen. But if that be the case, the refusal to commune children is simply to institutionalize schism within the body and to deny the one bread, one body principle of 10:17. (Note: for further discussion of the matters of “examination” and “remembrance” in 1 Cor 11, see my old article here. For in-depth lexical treatment of dokimazo, see Matthew Colvin’s article here.)

  4. Finally, it is repeatedly claimed that children lose nothing by being excluded from the Lord’s Supper. This is simply false. Adults and children are not different in this regard, and in fact the community-making power of the Supper has more force for children than does any other aspect of the liturgy. Even when very small, they can instinctively know that they are included in the Church, even at a time when the sermon quite literally means nothing to them. (The meeting of Jesus with the two men on the road to Emmaus follows these lines. They remained blind even as He wondrously expounded the great scope of the Old Testament to them, but when He broke bread with them, their eyes were opened.)Yet even that is not my point, which reaches back further still. Paul does not say, “Because there is one bread, by thinking about the oneness of that bread, we who are many become one body.” No, he says simply, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” It is the Eucharist that establishes the unity, not thinking about the Eucharist or its meaning. This is not to deny that thinking about the Eucharist is a good thing—but it is to deny the hyper-intellectualism that marks so much of Protestantism. It is to deny that the activity of God is all about the information He places between our ears.

    As I have noted elsewhere, Jesus blessed the infants who were brought to Him. No doubt, many of them had no intellectual comprehension of what He was doing. If we were to treat that event like we so frequently treat the Lord’s Supper, we must conclude that Jesus’ blessing was not in a blessing for them, but an empty action. Not so. The power of the blessing was in the action of Christ Himself; and so it is with the Lord’s Supper. This does not make the Lord’s Supper “magical,” any more than it makes Jesus’ blessing of the little ones “magical.” It just means that the grace of God is greater than our capacities.

    That last observation brings me around to what I have not mentioned explicitly to this point: the matter of faith. One may object, “It’s not a matter of intellectualism; it’s a matter of faith.” But if faith in your definition requires a certain development of intellectual capacity, you have rejected faith as described in Scripture. I fully agree that in a person who does not have cognitive limitations, as that person grows up faith will most certainly take on an intellectual dimension. But it is simply unbiblical to say what that should look like, and then make that retroactive, so that we can deny the existence of faith prior to that point. That is simply never how the Bible treats covenant children. Just as Jesus blessed the little ones without inquiring about their cognitive abilities, the Bible throughout includes children among the believing community. If we are not ready to grant that, we have a different religion. Justification is by faith (and therefore not by infancy or some supposed “innocence”), and therefore infant faith is every bit as viable and real as adult faith. Nay, more: “Of such is the kingdom of God,” and the kingdom of God is nothing other than the reign of God received by faith; and therefore the only real faith is infant faith that happens to reside in people of all ages.