The Reformed Tradition and the Problem of Infant Communion, Part 1

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2018. Used with permission.

Introduction

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.

Past Precedent

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)

Notes

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 2018 Bio


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.

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There are 11 Comments

Andrew K's picture

For my Reformed and Presbyterian friends, the rationale for not giving infants communion is simple: they "cannot discern the body" in the elements, so they should not partake.

They further argue that baptism is the sign of "covenant initiation" while the Supper is the sign of "covenant renewal." Since they do different things, it is, they think, not illogical that they should be administered differently.

When we were in a Presbyterian church, there were "communicant" and "non-communicant" members. The "non-communicant" were children who had not made a profession of faith before the church.

M. Osborne's picture

I'm Baptist / credobaptist. In a class I took at WTS, there were (among others) two Prebysterian paedobaptists, one who advocated paedocommunion, and the other who held to the more typical Presbyterian position against paedocommunion.

The response I heard was consistent with Andrew K's post above: 1 Corinthians 11:28-29:

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

The traditional Presbyterian was arguing that young children lacked the ability for self-examination.

I'd be interested if we have any paedobaptists among us, if they could elaborate. I didn't get to discuss this at length with my classmates.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Paul Henebury's picture

...but they can discern the substitutionary atonement for their sin?

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Bert Perry's picture

I remember about ten years back, Doug Wilson made the argument for children receiving communion (I can't quite remember how small) on the grounds that if pseudo-immersion made them part of the family of God, it made no sense not to feed. them.  It seemed to me that the conclusion followed from the premise, at least in a way.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I don't see how age matters if the qualifying criterion is baptism.  Once baptized, communion is an automatic right if consistency holds sway. 

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

It all flows from Baptism, and the terrible error the early church made in conflating the Spirit with the baptismal waters (e.g. Jn 3:5). See Beale's Historical Theology on this, or any responsible historical theology text. That error is the great fountainhead from which much more error flows.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Andrew K's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

I remember about ten years back, Doug Wilson made the argument for children receiving communion (I can't quite remember how small) on the grounds that if pseudo-immersion made them part of the family of God, it made no sense not to feed. them.  It seemed to me that the conclusion followed from the premise, at least in a way.  

The response I've heard to that is that they are being nourished--by God's Word as read and preached. But the Supper has a different function.

J. Baillet's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

"...but they can discern the substitutionary atonement for their sin?"

 

That would be the traditional Lutheran view, not the Reformed view.  All the benefits of Christ may be signified in the baptism but not appropriated until faith (discernment of the body) and confession.

JSB

Paul Henebury's picture

I am sure that I have read Reformed writers who have argued that infants may have faith

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I had a dear old Presbyterian Elder, now with the Lord, argue that infants may have faith, based upon John the Baptist's Spirit induced response to the arrival of Mary.  

G. N. Barkman

J. Baillet's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

I am sure that I have read Reformed writers who have argued that infants may have faith

We all hope and pray that our children never know a day when they did not trust in the Lord Jesus as their Savior. Many Baptists, raised in a faithful Christian home, professing faith and being baptized at a young age, cannot recall when they did not believe. My wife, the daughter of a faithful, long-time GARBC minister, has this testimony. Good Baptists disciple their children from the womb, ensuring that they are included in the assembly of Christians on a weekly basis; hearing the Word of God preached, taught, and read regularly; singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; and being taught to pray to their Father in heaven. Contrary to the allegations of some Reformed folks, Baptists do not treat their children as pagans.

We do not generally know when the Holy Spirit performs his regenerating work and saving faith is born in the human breast. Can a person “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”?  Yes. (Luke 1:15). This does not necessarily indicate the presence of saving faith at that time but it does not rule it out either. Most Baptists, as well as the Reformed, recognize that at least some children dying in infancy are regenerate and go to heaven. At some point in time, this spiritual quickening occurs and faith is awakened. Even if it is possible that some infants have saving faith, this would be the exception and not the rule.

The presence of saving faith in the infant is not the basis for the baptism of the infant by Reformed paedobaptists. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith 28.6, the effectiveness of the saving grace offered in baptism “is not tied to that moment in time” when the infant is baptized but “according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time,” which could occur anywhere from infancy to adulthood. Rather, the basis for the infant’s baptism is rooted in being the offspring of at least one believing parent. (WCF 28.4). I have heard some Baptists claim that John Calvin believed in baptismal regeneration, as do the Lutherans. This is certainly not so. In his commentary on the Ethiopian eunuch’s profession of faith as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, Calvin stated, “This is the perfect faith ... which receiveth Christ ... with the earnest affection of the heart, as Paul will not have this faith be feigned. Whosoever hath not this when he is grown up, in vain doth he boast of the baptism of his infancy. For to this end doth Christ admit infants by baptism, that so soon as the capacity of their age shall suffer, they may addict themselves to be his disciples, and that being baptized by the Holy Ghost, they may comprehend, with the understanding of faith, his power which baptism doth prefigure.” (Boldface added).

As Dr. Rathbun correctly notes, the issue is an ecclesiastical one and not one of soteriology. Are Reformed paedobaptists being inconsistent in admitting infants into the visible church by baptism and then denying them the Lord’s table until profession of faith? Although this has been vigorously and much more fully debated in some Reformed circles of late, this is not so, as has already been mentioned in this thread. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two separate sacraments, or ordinances if you will, with differing Biblical significance and mandates. Initiation into the visible church is not the same as remembering Christ’s Cross-work and being spiritually nourished in him. Even in Baptist churches, membership does not necessarily include all the privileges thereof. For example, a child of tender age may profess faith and be baptized, but not allowed to vote until 16 years of age. In reality, Baptist children from infancy have all of the privileges of church membership but cannot vote until a certain age or be baptized or partake of the Lord’s Supper until profession of faith. Baptist and Reformed children alike, while in the church, are called to repentance and profession of faith before being admitted to the Lord’s table.

JSB

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