From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2018. Used with permission.
The title of this article may seem like I am suggesting that churches who hold to Reformed1 theology should not be practicing infant communion. The fact is, they do not. One might wonder, “Does any denomination allow infants to partake of the Lord’s Supper?” The answer is yes. In Eastern Orthodox churches and a few other denominations, it is not only allowed, but it is a standard practice. Why do these churches accept this practice, and why is it a problem for churches who adhere to Reformed theology?
Churches who practice infant communion do so in large part because they recognize a tension. They consider that practicing infant baptism on church members’ children, but not granting those children all the rights of full church membership, is inconsistent. To churches who practice infant communion, membership includes partaking of the Lord’s Supper. You can search for pictures on the internet showing Orthodox priests spooning a mixture of bread and wine into the mouths of babies and toddlers.
In many churches who practice infant baptism, including those of the Reformed persuasion, pedobaptism also grants the baby membership into the church.2 One writer discusses this tension when critiquing the liberal World Council of Churches’ landmark report in 1982, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” (BEM). This document claimed broad consensus across many theological traditions and was the result of some 55 years of collaboration.3 In criticizing the tendency of the document to “exaggerate the importance” of the Lord’s Supper, David F. Wright cites the BEM’s contention that the communion celebration always manifests the whole church.4 Wright responds with, “At one level this is patently untrue for all those churches who do not admit to communion baptized infants who are acknowledged to be members of Christ and his church.”5
The challenge Reformed churches face (as well as most churches who practice infant baptism) in prohibiting infant communion6 is consistency with their practice of infant baptism. I will explain this issue by examining the past precedent of infant communion, the challenge of balancing theological consistency with church practice, and the problem that infant baptism creates for churches who do prohibit infant communion, especially as applied to Reformed churches.
Today, it seems all churches who highly regard historical precedent of church practice acknowledge the early church did practice infant communion. The evidence for this comes from several prominent church fathers, including Cyprian (c.200-258) bishop of Carthage. In one of his writings he describes a “baby girl” who, during a time of persecution, was separated from her parents and forced to participate in pagan rituals. After she had been restored to her mother and given communion, the baby resisted and vomited the elements. Cyprian interpreted this action as demonstrating the infant’s confession of having been defiled by the pagan practices. In his description of the episode, Cyprian seems to indicate infant communion was a common practice.7
Also in support of infant communion in the early church is no less authority than Augustine (354-430). Based on the John 6:53 text,8 Augustine boldly asserted that infants should also partake of the communion elements against the opinion of some: “But he who says [that infants should not partake] is inattentive; because, unless all are embraced in the statement, that without the body and the blood of the Son of man men cannot have life, it is to no purpose that even the elder age is solicitous of it.”9 In corresponding near the end of his life with a Vitalis from Carthage, Augustine wrote of the salvation of children. He indicated that infants would be judged according to what they had done “in the body,” even though they lived only a short time. He referenced those who had been taken to be baptized and who had eaten of Christ’s flesh and drank His blood.10 These actions would be counted in the infants’ favor as regards their salvation. Again, he seemed to describe infant communion as a normal practice.
However, there was a change of position later in the history of Christianity. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) acknowledged this change. In reaffirming the preeminence of the Lord’s Supper during the Council of Trent, the RCC stated the basis for not giving communion to little children. The Council still admitted the historical practice of infant communion, though justifying it as a circumstantial issue to that time.11 Though there was a condemnation prescribed: “If any one saith, that the communion of the Eucharist is necessary for little children, before they have arrived at years of discretion; let him be anathema.”12
Thus, churches that give strong weight to historical precedence in church practice do not condemn infant communion, though most Western infant-baptizing churches do not practice it.
(Next: The Problem of Theological Consistency)
1 In this article the term “Reformed” theology or churches means those who adhere to Covenant Theology.
2 Though without the right of infant communion.
3 It was the culmination of the ecumenical effort begun in 1927 at the first Faith and Order Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. See David F. Wright, “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (the ‘Lima Report’): An Evangelical Assessment,” chapter 22 in Baptism in Historical Perspective (Great Britain: Paternoster, 2007), 308. This article can also be found in Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry (the ‘Lima Report’): An Evangelical Assessment, Rutherford Forum Papers, 3 (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1984).
4 His words are: “Under ‘The Eucharist as Communion of the Faithful’ we are told that ‘It is in the Eucharist that the community of God’s people is fully manifested. Eucharistic celebrations always have to do with the whole Church, and the whole Church is involved in each local Eucharistic celebration’ (‘Eucharist’, 19),” Wright, “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” p. 317. For the full text of the BEM document, you can download it here: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-o… ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text, accessed 4 November 2018.
5 David F. Wright, “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” 317. Wright cites another issue in concluding his thought (to which subject I will return): “At another level it seems unnecessary theological bombast, and in fact is more appropriately predicated of baptism, where it is not said in BEM,” ibid.
6 How widespread this practice was might be challenging to establish, but it does have the testimony of several highly respected church fathers.
7 St. Cyprian, St. Cyprian: The Lapsed and The Unity of the Catholic Church, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, trans. Maurice Bévenot, 25th ed., Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 1957), chapter 25 from “On the Lapsed,” pages 32–33 in this edition; also alluded to in chapter 9 (p. 20). I found Bévenot’s translation to be more readable than the one from the Fathers of the Church series: Saint Cyprian, “The Lapsed,” in Treatises, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, vol. 36, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958), chapter 9, page 64-65; and chapter 25, pages 78-79 in this edition.
8 John 6:53, “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” This was (and still is by many) considered a text on the Eucharist.
9 Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), chapters 26-27, page 25.
10 The letter begins with a discussion of the relation of prayer to free will and predestination, and transitions into this summary of salvation. See Augustine of Hippo, Letters (204–270), ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Wilfrid Parsons, vol. 32, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1956), 87.
11 The full statement is as follows: “Finally, this same holy Synod teaches, that little children, who have not attained to the use of reason, are not by any necessity obliged to the sacramental communion of the Eucharist: [Page 143] forasmuch as, having been regenerated by the laver of baptism, and being incorporated with Christ, they cannot, at that age, lose the grace which they have already acquired of being the sons of God. Not therefore, however, is antiquity to be condemned, if, in some places, it, at one time, observed that custom; for as those most holy Fathers had a probable cause for what they did in respect of their times, so, assuredly, is it to be believed without controversy, that they did this without any necessity thereof unto salvation,” 21st Session, 16 July 1562, chapter IV: “That little Children are not bound to sacramental Communion.” See https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct21.html for documentation. Accessed 4 November 2018.
12 Ibid., Cannon IV. Because of past precedent that allowed it, the Romans Catholic Church cannot now prohibit it, though they do not practice it today.
Ken Rathbun serves at Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary as Vice President for Academic Services and Dean of the College. He is an adjunct teacher in both the college and seminary. Previously, Dr. Rathbun served as a Baptist Mid-Missions missionary to Jamaica for 14 years, serving at the Fairview Baptist Bible College. He earned his B.A., M.A., and M.Div. degrees from Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. He also completed an M.A. degree in the History of Religions from the University of Iowa and his Ph.D. from the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.