Volume 18, Issue 1: Thema
Bread and Wine for Children
I came to the position of child communion slowly, reluctantlyand inexorably. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and was baptized at the age of ten. I had made a verbal profession of faith when I was four years old, and right after I was baptized, I began partaking of communion. In that church we observed communion monthly.
After I was grown and called to the ministry, our church established (at least in this regard) a pattern of worship that was very similar to what I had grown up with. Our church was baptistic in its founding, and we celebrated communion once a month. All three of our children were dedicated to the Lord in infancy. They all came to a profession of faith very early and were baptized as
young children. In the early years, we had a children's church that ran concurrently with the sermon, but when the kids got a little older, they would join the adults in the main service. The net effect of all this is that none of my children can remember a time when they were excluded from communion. They
were, but they were also in another part of the building at the time, and so did not notice. At
some point, we began calling our kids out of children's church on communion Sunday so that they could partake together with us.
Over the years the changes were incremental, but for various reasons (which we did not really understand at the time), the majority of us in our church felt a real need to include our children as participants with us in the worship service. And so we gradually discontinued the practice of children's church and brought our children into the worship of God together with us.
After I became Calvinistic, I started having to deal with the views of the Reformers more than I had ever done before, and so I had to start interacting with their curious practice of baptizing babies. Well, would you look at
that? In part, this was because I had inadvertently become the only Calvinistic preacher in the area, and various Reformed and Presbyterian refugees who had been
hiding out in the ecclesiastical woodwork started to come to our church. And a number of them were young couples, of an age where babies could be expected to show up from time to time. This inevitably happened, and the parents did what such conscientious parents always dothey asked me if they could arrange for a baptism. The answer to this, of course, was, "Are you
crazy?" But I still knew that I needed to do a little reading on the subject. And so I started to study the issue because I was now pastoring a number of people with paedobaptist backgrounds and convictions. The aliens had landed.
How does this tie in with paedocommunion? Well, it connects in several ways. First, paedocommunion had been my baptistic
reductio ad absurdum in debate for my paedobaptist friends. "If I baptize a baby, then why shouldn't I offer him communion as well?" To this argument, some of my paedobaptist friends said
okay quite cheerfully, while others had said the two sacraments were
quite different, and that baptizing an apple did not mean you should commune with an orange.
But what with one thing or another, and lots of Bible verses with covenant promises in themI don't know, it was dark, they were bigI became a paedobaptist. And I was stuck with my previous argument. Becoming a paedobaptist necessitated becoming a paedocommunionist, straight off, at least if you were to go by how
I had been talking a few months before. He who accepts the
one must accept the other, or at least so I had argued. But I still did not accept paedocommunion right off, and the reason was
another argument I had explicitly used as a baptist, but which I had now abandoned. This was the argument that (in effect) patronized the Reformers by saying that they were swell Christians, and they broke from Rome in a way greatly used by God, but unfortunately, they
did not break from Rome cleanly and decisively enough. They came away from Rome, but not far enough away, and a consistent Reformation would have necessitiated a rejection of infant baptism. This was the "two cheers for the Reformation" argument.
Of course, having accepted infant baptism, I had to drop that argument and put my hands slowly on the roof of the car. But on the ride down to the station, I was somewhat disconcerted to discover that the paedobaptist cops who were hauling me in were using the
same argument in their own discussions. They were paedocommunionist cops as it turns out, and they knew that the
Reformers (almost) universally considered and rejected paedocommunion. John Calvin dismissed it in his
Institutes, the Directory of Worship put together by the Westminster theologians plainly rejected the notion, and so on. You get the idea. Coming to paedobaptist convictions had been humbling for me, and one of the things I was repenting of was patronizing the Reformers for "not going far enough."
I had just arrived in Reformed circles, pretty chastened, and I wanted to spend some time learning from the Reformers instead of trying to teach them. And so I was resistant to the arguments of paedocommunionists, not because their position was unattractive to me, but because I was wary about picking up an argument I had just been prevailed upon to drop.
B. B. Warfield once wrote that the Reformation was a collision between Augustine's doctrine of salvation and Augustine's doctrine of the church. According to this view, that great man laid the doctrinal foundation for both movements within the church, and when they grew to their respective maturities, one of them had to go. And as long as this is not pressed too far, I think there is
something to it. But the reason for bringing this up is that I believe there is something similar going on with the Reformation and this issue of paedocommunion. In other words, who are the true heirs of the Reformation? Baptists or paedocommunionists? It is a difficult question to answer because the Reformers, almost to a man, condemned
both positions. And so the paedobaptist who is opposed
to paedocommunion might want to say that I have framed the question illegitimately. "Why," he might reasonably ask, "can't we consider the heirs of the Reformers to be those within the Reformed world who actually hold the same positions that the Reformers did? To wit, baptize those babies, and withhold communion until they come to a mature ability to approach the Table in faith?"
I believe this is a most reasonable question, and this is my attempt at an answer. I don't believe antipaedocommunionists hold to the
same position as the Reformers, despite their agreement on the end result. This end result
was the formal position of the Reformers, and, as such, it carried within it all the tensions that this same position contains today. And those today who are grappling
with those tensions are not trying to be troublemakers, but rather trying to work out the ramifications of what they have confessed.
This meansbut wait. Before I say what it means, let me say that what I am putting forward here is not being done in a belligerent manner at all. I am not trying to pick a fight with anybody. And yet we have to work through some difficult issues here, and I recognize some people might want to fight about it. The reason emotions run high is that our children are at stakeon the one
side, believers feel that participation in Christ through the bread and wine (appropriated by faith) is being withheld from their children; while on the other side, believers feel that what to them is blurring the importance of individual faith is a way of withholding the gospel from our children too. And if you want a fight, threaten somebody's kid.
But this is where my testimony as a ex-baptist comes in. It is not enough to adopt the formal and external practices of the Reformers, in this case, "infant baptism and delayed communion." The reason I have for saying this is that when I came into the Reformed world (the American version), I did so as a ex-baptist, just fresh off the boat. And one of the things I was soon astonished to
find was that I was still surrounded by baptists. They were baptists who baptized their infants, to be sure, but that was about the extent of the difference. The baptisms were simply wet dedications, and I had grown up with infant dedications. I had been dedicated to the Lord by my parents when I was a baby, and my wife and I (staunch baptists) had dedicated all three of our kids in church. So what's
a little water?
I found myself in a Reformed world that was (but for that bit of water) baptistic. Baptistic in worship, baptistic in ecclesiology, baptistic in its revivalism, and baptistic in its approach to the Table. In some ways, I would even argue that the Reformed churches could be even
more baptistic than the baptists. Once I was baptized in my Southern Baptist church, I was admitted to the Table
right away. In many cases, kids in baptist churches are admitted to the Table years before their counterparts are admitted to the Table in Reformed churches. In light of the conversionist requirements that are often placed on covenantal kids, it sometimes appears that they might as well be unbaptized. But please note I wrote
"conversionist," which is not the same thing as disparaging the need for
true conversion. True conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, and not the work of his ecclesiastical handlers. Those handlers always need
handles, which usually wind up being testimonies and assurances that can be seen by men, and which can also be faked by other men.
This baptistic presence in American Reformed circles has worked out the tensions in one direction, and I believe they have accomodated themselves to the prevailing baptistic assumptions in our culture. The paedocommunionists have worked out the tensions in the other direction. The end result is that (I want to argue) the paedocommunionists have consistently embraced what the
Reformers taught us about what baptism and the Lord's Supper are, and the antipaedocommunionists have retained the Reformers' liturgical practice. The paedocommunionists have kept the substantive teaching and altered the ritual to fit with it, while antipaedocommunionists have kept the ritual and altered the teaching, to fit with
it. By all this, I do not mean that they have altered the teaching
For example, here is a thought experiment. Round up 1,000 anti-paedocommunionists. Ask them if they believe the sacraments of baptism and communion to be in
any sense effectual means of salvation. Overwhelmingly they will say that they don't, that they are not Roman Catholic, and that they belong to a church that adheres to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The problem is that
the question was a quotation from the Westminster Confession (SC 91/LC 161). Then ask them if they agree with the Westminster Directory when it excludes from the Supper any who are ignorant, which includes tiny children. And they will agree with that.
Now flip it around. If you were to ask 1,000 paedocommunionists, they will differ with the restriction in the Directory, and be much more likely to agree that baptism and communion are effectual means of salvation. Now this is qualified elsewherethe sacraments are effectual means of salvation
to worthy receivers, and worthy receivers means
evangelical faith. This is all granted, and I
cheerfully agree with it. But how many anti-paedocommunionists would be willing to say this, even with all the necessary qualifications in the
same sentence? "For those who have true evangelical faith, baptism and the Lord's Supper are effectual means of salvation." And the reason for this reluctance, I would argue, is substantive doctrinal agreement with the baptists.
Because of this, I would submit there is universal agreement among the Reformed today that says there was a tension in the position of the Reformers that had to be harmonized in one direction or another. They have gone one direction, and we another. But no one today holds the original tension.