Response Essay: Venema on Covenant Radio Regarding Paedocommunion

April 2009; this essay is also published at

Note: The radio interview to which this response refers is apparently no longer available on the Internet.

On April 29, 2009, Dr Cornelis Venema, president and systematic theology professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary — and a man under whom I learned as a student from 1997–2000 — was hosted by William Hill on the online show, Covenant Radio. This interview was on the topic of paedocommunion, regarding which Venema has written a recent book, Children at the Lord’s Table?.

While as of this writing (April 30, 2009), I have not yet had opportunity to purchase the book in question, I thought it appropriate to provide some reflections on this interview.

First, I wish to commend Dr Venema on a number of points. He de-escalated the paedocommunion conflict by demurring from the notion that paedocommunion is "dangerous." On the whole, his presentation was level-headed and irenic, which can only serve to further the discussion in a fashion that is upbuilding rather than antagonistic.

In addition, I was glad to note that Venema acknowledges that in some Reformed churches there has been a "lack of aggressiveness" (indeed, he even used the term "neglect") with regard to bringing children to the table, so that they are often not ready to come when perhaps they ought to be. (To be sure, he softened this note by suggesting that our modern North American socio-cultural context probably does less to lead children to sufficient maturity at an early age, in comparison to other cultures, particularly that of the Reformation.)

I confess that in listening to this interview, I was a little surprised how essentially conventional Venema’s approach was, given the fact that in a previous interchange in The Confessional Presbyterian, he seemed a bit more adventurous in terms of how he sought to attack the paedocommunion viewpoint.

While other ground was covered that is not particularly pertinent to this particular conversation (in particular, the matter of "young child" communion on the basis of the guidelines which Venema himself sets forth as prerequisites for right participation in the Supper), I would summarize Venema’s main point this way:

Contra paedocommunionists and Baptists, the traditional Reformed practice of baptizing infants but withholding the Supper until profession of faith is not "inconsistent," but flows from the nature of the covenant relationship in terms of its privileges and obligations. The Lord’s Supper is a privilege that requires the prior activity of faith, and its proper reception entails knowing one’s need for a saviour, knowing that Saviour is Christ who paid the penalty for one’s sin, and that one is called to a life of Christian gratitude. Such knowledge is the precondition for ability to participate with active remembrance of Christ and discernment of the body.

Venema also argues that while the Roman Catholic view of sacramental efficacy is that the sacraments work ex opere operato — by their own working they are efficacious, unless the recipient obstructs them — the Reformed view is that sacraments are added to the Word to nourish and buttress (previously existing) faith. He insists that no one working within the traditional framework would withhold the richest spiritual food from children — in terms of the ministry of the Word. And thus they are not deprived of full communion in Christ’s nourishment.

Because Venema’s treatment is actually quite conventional, it is safe to say that there isn't much here that I have not already dealt with elsewhere, particularly in Feed My Lambs. However, there are a few points I wish to make which will hopefully help to make clear why I regard Venema’s position as inadequate and unbiblical in certain fundamental respects.

Finding Appropriate Analogies for the Sacraments

In distinguishing between the proper recipients and administration of baptism, on the one hand, and the Supper, on the other, Dr Venema takes a familiar course of argument: As in a family, there are minor members and others with more mature responsibilities, and likewise, as in the nation, there are minors without certain privileges such as driving, and yet who are nonetheless full citizens, so it is with the sacraments: A child can be a full covenant member, and yet not yet eligible to come to the table.

The problem with this course of argument is that, while it sounds fine enough as a generalized logical deduction, it doesn't work when one considers either the nature of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or the biblical texts which run squarely counter to the analogy.

Let’s consider this analogy again. If the "confirming" sacrament (as opposed to the initial/initiatory sacrament of baptism) were intended to be for the mature only, or for those who had at any rate "graduated" to a certain level, why did God get the symbols so fundamentally wrong? After all, the imagery of the Supper is a family meal; it is not anything at all analogous to mature responsibilities such as driving a car or participating in elections or whatever mature family responsibilities Venema may have in mind with his analogy. We all know that after birth, we do not, and cannot, wait for years and years before we eat. The fact that the ongoing sacrament is in the form that it is, rather than some other, definitively demonstrates that the analogies to "mature privileges" resorted to so frequently simply do not work.

Moreover, this observation is backed up by the texts which neither interviewer Hill nor Venema bring up. While both are eager to focus on 1 Corinthians 11 (more on that shortly), the preceding and succeeding chapters both have material that is highly relevant to the question of whether the two sacraments are essentially parallel in terms of the identity of their recipients. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul draws attention to the experience of Israel in the wilderness and insists that Israel partook of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (10.2-4). We know that all Israel partook of both the "baptism" and the "spiritual food and drink"; there was no intermediary event (whether personal or corporate) which was necessary to qualify them for moving from the baptismal blessing to the "nourishment" blessing. And note well — when we say, "all Israel," we mean just that, including the children. In fact, the ones who fell under judgment in the wilderness were precisely the "mature," while those who were children at the time of the exodus not only partook safely, but ultimately entered the land of promise without their parents.

Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 12.13, Paul ties baptism and the Lord’s Supper together in terms of recipients: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body... and all were made to drink of one Spirit."

Why Primacy Cannot Be Given to 1 Corinthians 11

The example of 1 Corinthians 10 leads me to another problem with Venema’s approach. He repeatedly says that he is interested in deriving the guidelines for the Lord’s Supper from the New Testament. And he also makes it clear that he is in full agreement with the common Reformed practice of treating 1 Corinthians 11 as "the most important and the most comprehensive" New Testament evidence regarding how the sacrament is to be administered, who is to receive it, and in what manner it is to be received.

And yet, a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 10-11 shows very clearly that in writing the supposed "most important and most comprehensive" passage, Paul was not at all operating with Venema’s principles. For in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is doing nothing new at all, but rather is building on his own argument from the Old Testament that he has made in 1 Corinthians 10.

And that can scarcely surprise us if we are paying attention, because in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul twice says that the experience of Israel is normative for us, because the patterns of approval, disapproval and judgment are patterns (Greek tupoi) for us (10.6, 11). In other words, as we may have suspected when Paul sets Israel’s wilderness privileges in the terms of the new covenant sacraments, there is a relational typology that coheres between Israel and us, and it applies to the sacraments.

Given this typological relationship, it is no surprise that just as all Israel partook of baptism as well as spiritual food and drink, so too does the whole new covenant body: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (10.17). This verse explicitly says that "we all" participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and that this common participation is bound up with the fact that we together are one body. The Supper and the body are coextensive, and to bar from the Supper is implicitly to bar from the body (even if unwittingly).

Venema and other Reformed traditionalists want to give 1 Corinthians 11 a place of privilege. But this is much more than about giving primacy to one text. Given what we have seen, their approach not only makes 1 Corinthians 11 more important than 1 Corinthians 10 — it also flatly contradicts 1 Corinthians 10.

This will not do at all.

As I show in Feed My Lambs, as well as in the on-site article, "Examination and Remembrance," Paul is not inventing new principles in 1 Corinthians 11. Nor is he articulating anything unique to the New Testament. To the contrary, his so-called "examination" (Greek dokimos) terminology in 11.28 is set in definite relationship to its antithesis mentioned back in 9.27. The Greek word adokimos, frequently translated "disqualified" or something similar, is the privative of the word used in 11.28. Both words have to do with fundamental issues of approval or disapproval in terms of God’s covenant. In the case of 9.27, Paul’s carefulness regarding his own walk is so that after preaching to others he himself would not be "disqualified"; this is immediately followed up by the appeal to the example of Israel’s judgment in the wilderness as a set of case examples of what it looks like to be so disqualified and suffer the consequences.

Thus, the whole discussion of chapter 11, rather than being given some semi-autonomous privileged place, must be set squarely within the context of this discussion in the preceding chapter. Just as Paul applies the wilderness pattern of Israel to the matter of idolatry in 10.14ff, so likewise he applies the same pattern to the matter of the Corinthians' table factions and disunity in 11.17ff.

The point is that however we interpret the particular phrases which Venema points to as guidelines ("do this in remembrance of Me," "examine oneself," "discern the body" — all of which I have treated at length elsewhere), it should be clear that Paul has no intention whatsoever to use these phrases to sever the relational typology he has so emphatically affirmed in chapter 10. He is certainly not contradicting what he has asserted unequivocally in 10.17 (and will again in 12.13), namely, that the sacrament of the table is for the whole body.

It is thus not quite true, as Venema suggests, that paedocommunion advocates place the whole 1 Corinthians 11 passage within the constraints of the limited case (i.e. division at the table) in the context. To the contrary, I place the passage within the context of the whole of Scripture, beginning with the foundational preceding chapter, and on backward to the wilderness accounts of the Pentateuch to which Paul appeals. That is what Paul is doing, and insisting on a "New Testament" guideline for determining who receives the Supper and how they are to receive it, is wrong not simply on a broader systematic level, but is wrong on the narrower level of the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11 itself. Because Paul does not write the passage in a vacuum, but in an Old Testament-determined matrix.

What Faith Is Required?

Venema insists that the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper are those with faith. Yet, as (again) I have noted elsewhere, this proves too much, as the New Testament explicitly links faith to baptism (ironically, it never explicitly links faith to the Lord’s Supper — go figure). On his own principle, Venema should not believe in infant baptism.

The problem again is that the Reformed traditionalists tend to take definitions of a more-or-less mature faith and make that the norm. The simple answer to this has, in truth, been offered above: in Scripture (whether Exodus or 1 Corinthians), the whole body receives both sacraments, and therefore this approach must be wrong. If our deductions lead us to a different practice than does Scripture itself, even if we are basing our deductions on biblically-based doctrines, we have to have gone wrong somewhere. (Cf my comments on the role of inference in my article, "Covenant, Predestination, and Dogmatic Method: A Modest Proposal on the Role of Theological Inference.")

Paedocommunionists have tended to say that the traditional Reformed definitions of faith are not wrong — but it must be remembered that they are catechetical definitions, and a catechumen, by the nature of the case, is someone who is able to reason and have self-reflection and so on. The way faith is defined by Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism (for instance) is therefore just fine — if we're referring to someone who is capable of learning Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

But that is a very different matter from the assumption that faith is only faith when it comes to look like that. Because in the final analysis, that means that faith is only faith given a certain level of psychological or intellectual development. And that is just not the shape of Scripture. That’s why I hammered on Matthew 19.13–14 in Feed My Lambs. If the kingdom of heaven — a synonym for the new covenant rule of Christ — is "of such" as the little ones; and if the new covenant is faith-determined; then surely we can only conclude that the mature, self-reflective form of faith is not the form of faith, period.

Augustine said that infants were the ideal recipients of the sacraments. Augustine was by no means a belittler of faith, but he understood better than the Reformed traditionalists — who perhaps have imbibed a bit too much of intellectualism — that the point of faith is the One upon whom it rests. And if God cannot have full involvement with an infant prior to a self-conscious, intellectually-developed form of faith, then He is not ultimately a God that is worth resting a mature faith upon either.

Sacramentalism or Redundancy?

Numerous paedocommunion advocates have suggested that in withholding the Lord’s Supper from children, churches are depriving them from feeding upon Christ. Venema answers this by arguing that, contra Roman Catholic theology, the sacraments do not work efficaciously by their own power, but only have power as a support to faith. He denies that children are deprived, because the richest food of the ministry of the Word is offered to them.

I have argued elsewhere ("Word and Sacrament: Evaluating a Mantra") that the notion that the sacraments do not convey anything which the word does not convey is ambiguous, and in fact, highly misleading. It is of course true that the same Christ is communicated to us by way of the Word preached and by way of the sacraments. That is clear enough. But surely, scarcely anyone wants to imply that the sacraments are redundant. But if they are not redundant, that means they have a specific role that the Word preached cannot assume.

I believe it is another example of intellectualism that leads Reformed traditionalists to appeal to ex opere operato as some sort of trump card. The implication is that if you believe anything can happen without a certain level of intellectual or self-reflective ability, you must believe that the sacraments are some sort of magical rituals.

This derives from the misguided notion of mature faith as the be-all and end-all, as the only "real" faith, which we've already discussed, in connection with what I believe is some unclarity with regard to the sacraments themselves.

When Jesus explained the Scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, their eyes remained closed until He went in with them and broke bread. As amazing as that sermon must have been, the breaking of bread did something for them which the preached Word could not do. And it seems to me that this is particularly acute when we are talking about small children. It is all well and good to say we don't withhold the preached Word from them. But if the breaking of bread did more for two despondent adults than a sermon did, it’s safe to say that will likely usually be the case with young children, as well. (And even moreso where the sermons we are talking about are the sort often preached in Reformed churches.) The same Christ is communicated, but He is not communicated in the same way, and the sacrament’s interface with the intellect is very different than that of a sermon. The sacraments have riches worthy of a lifetime of reflection; but they also have riches that can be grasped intuitively in a fashion which no sermon can be.

And that’s why I'm more than ready to say that those who withhold the sacrament from children but offer them a Word that only someone relatively more mature can grasp are doing exactly what they have been charged with doing: depriving Christ’s children of His blessings.

I'm not convinced that bringing up the ex opera operato issue is at all helpful here. Nobody claims that the sacraments work by some innate power. What we do claim is that God looks at the children of believers as themselves believers, and that He treats them accordingly, and gives them the richest blessings of the sacraments. Apart from that, infant baptism becomes merely a rite for the sake of the parents, or at best a rite that doesn't "take effect" until later. But that is not the way God works; that is not the way the Scriptures speak.

When we read that Jesus took the little ones up into His arms to bless them, we are not to suppose that unless they had intellectual comprehension of the meaning of His blessing, they must not really have received a blessing. And so likewise, in the sacrament we are dealing not merely with what a more intellectually-developed faith can appropriate on various levels; we are dealing with what God Himself has the power to do for His little people.

That is the God of the gospel.

— Tim Gallant

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