The Reformed Tradition and the Problem of Infant Communion, Part 2

Read Part 1.

The Problem of Theological Consistency

With this background,13 focus on Reformed churches’ practice on the prohibition of infant communion takes center stage. The problem is really one of ecclesiology. Reformed churches desire an inclusive ecclesiology for the practice of infant baptism but practice an exclusive one for their refusal to permit infant communion. John Calvin was adamant in this regard: “Do we wish anything plainer than the apostle’s teaching when he exhorts each man to prove and search himself, then to eat of this bread and drink of this cup [1 Cor. 11:28]? A self-examination ought, therefore, to come first, and it is vain to expect this of infants.”14 After quoting 1 Corinthians 11:29,15 Calvin continues: “If only those who know how to distinguish rightly the holiness of Christ’s body are able to participate worthily, why should we offer poison instead of life-giving food to our tender children?”16

The inconsistency is apparent in that the Reformed churches have church members who are not allowed communion. The simple fact is that the New Testament knows of no such division in membership. There is no “lower tier” membership in the Scriptures for those who have only been baptized, and a “higher tier” for those who have later gone to a catechism class or participated in a confirmation ceremony.17

While I agree that infants should not partake of the Lord’s Supper, it is hard to see how Reformed churches can justify such a two-level church membership structure Biblically. The trouble comes with using both inclusive and exclusive practices in their ecclesiology.

Another issue becomes penetrating clear in reading Calvin. Many of the arguments he used to support the prohibition against infant communion, Baptists (and others) use against infant baptism. Calvin dealt with this issue head-on. He related baptism to an initiation, while communion was for “older persons, who having passed tender infancy, can now take solid food.”18 Calvin appealed to the necessity of a person’s needing to discern the Lord’s body and blood, of examining one’s own conscience, and proclaiming the Lord’s death, all of which a baby cannot do. He included the Lord’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me,” of which infants are incapable.19 This whole section in Calvin’s Institutes is well worth serious thought, especially when considering a Biblical understanding of what baptism means (see conclusion). The parallels to the justification of believer baptism are strikingly evident. While Calvin is not the only writer who shaped Reformed theology, his thinking has been influential in regard to Eucharistic theology and practice.

The Problem of Infant Communion and Its Solution

The difficulties infant baptism engenders can be solved by its elimination from church practice. Without infant baptism, churches would have no tension in their ecclesiology between the inclusive and exclusive practices of infant baptism and infant communion respectively. With the former abolished, the need for the latter would cease since only willing believers would become church members, and the practice of infant communion would vanish. All Christians would have the opportunity to examine their own lives before partaking. There would be no need for an unbiblical two-level structure of church membership.

Of course, infant baptism provides much vital theological undergirding for Reformed churches. It is a key link for them between the Old and New Testaments based on the infant baptism/circumcision analogy from an erroneous understanding of Colossians 2:11-12.20 The truth remains there is no direct command for infant baptism and no clear example of infant baptism in the New Testament.21 However, because of its importance to their theological system, Reformed churches would have a hard time letting go of this practice.

Conclusion

Back to the original question: Should churches have to choose between the tension of allowing infants to partake of communion and risk the condemnations in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 in order to have a consistently inclusive church practice? Or should they opt for an inconsistent practice that would allow them to keep their cherished practice of infant
baptism? The answer is neither.

Baptists traditionally advocate for both believer baptism and believer communion (with its requisite examination of a person’s own life and walk with God), thus eliminating the tension described above. This allows Baptists a consistent practice in their ecclesiology: both are exclusive; the ordinances are for believers. Baptists should love, value, and cherish the gospel-centeredness of both ordinances:

  1. Baptism is an identification of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6.1-5). It proclaims the willing believer to be desirous of becoming His disciple (Matt. 28.19-20) and being identified as such with the purpose of living in newness of life. Baptism as a commitment matters to believers every day of their lives—not to get us to heaven, but to remind us to live as befitting Christ’s disciples.
  2. Communion centers on a believer remembering the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. His body was broken for us. His blood was shed for our sin. He died to take away the penalty for our sin that we deserved. The exhortation for us to examine ourselves in regard to Christ’s sacrifice should spur us to holy living motivated by gratefulness to Him for what He has already done for us.

Applications

  1. Do you appreciate your church’s practice of these events that celebrate the gospel? Can you defend, from the Bible, your church’s view of these ordinances?
  2. Are you now living the commitment you pictured and pledged at your baptism? Is holiness a priority for you?
  3. Does your life display the respect for Christ’s great sacrifice on your behalf? Does His death remind you to live for Him? Does your understanding of the Lord’s Supper motivate you to proclaim to unbelievers the meaning of Christ’s death until He returns (1 Cor. 11:26)?

Notes

13 Calvin also acknowledged the ancient church practice in his 1543 edition of the Institutes, even before 1563 pronouncement by the Council of Trent (see above). Calvin wrote: “This permission was indeed commonly given in the ancient church, as is clear from Cyprian and Augustine, but the custom has deservedly fallen into disuse,” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vols. 1 & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), page 1352 in this edition. Battles’ translation is from the 1559 edition but note “c” in the text indicates it originated in 1543. This is from book IV, chapter 16, paragraph 30. Henceforth: 4.16.30.

14 Calvin, Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 4.16.30, pages 1352-1353 in this edition.

15 “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”

16 Calvin, Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 4.16.30, page 1353 in this edition. Henry Beveridge translates the last sentence as: “If they cannot partake worthily without being able duly to discern the sanctity of the Lord’s body, why should we stretch out poison to our young children instead of vivifying food?” Calvin, Institutes, transl. Henry Beveridge (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 4.16.30. The 1541 French edition of the Institutes uses this phrasing: “If they cannot be worthy participants except with approval by testing, it is not reasonable for us to present to children their judgment and condemnation by administering it to them,” Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 543–544.

17 Which then enables the person to take communion.

18 The whole quotation is as follows: “Furthermore, they object that there is no more reason to administer baptism to infants than the Lord’s Supper, which is not permitted to them. As if Scripture did not mark a wide difference in every respect!… For if we consider the peculiar character of baptism, surely it is an entrance and a sort of initiation into the church, through which we are numbered among God’s people: a sign of our spiritual regeneration, through which we are reborn as children of God. On the other hand, the Supper is given to older persons who, having passed tender infancy, can now take solid food,” Calvin, Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 4.16.30, page 1352 in this edition.

19 Calvin, Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 4.16.30, pages 1352-1353 in this edition.

20 See the Faith Pulpit article: “Colossians 2:11-12 and the Circumcision Infant Baptism Analogy,” https://www.faith.edu/2018/02/colossians-21112-circumcision-infant-bapti….

21 In regard to household baptisms, several baptismal passages often used to show an example of infant baptism (Acts 10:1-48; Acts 16:15; Acts 16:31 34; Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16 with 1 Cor. 16:15). However, it is significant to remember that the issue with these texts is not whether infant baptism could have happened, but whether it did happen in these passages. The burden of proof remains on those who advocate infant baptism to show that it did happen, and advocates of infant baptism have never been able to do so convincingly. A helpful book might be Matthew Waymeyer, A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2008).

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 3 Comments

MShep2's picture

A great article, but there is one small error:

Reformed churches desire an inclusive ecclesiology for the practice of infant baptism ...

Since there are Reformed Baptist and other Reformed churches that do not practice infant baptism, this sentence should be edited. As a matter of a fact, I have a good friend who is a missionary with the Free Presbyterian church that does not believe or practice infant baptism.

MS
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Luke 17:10

J. Baillet's picture

No where does the Bible state that all church members are entitled to the same privileges. Dr. Rathbun is the one stating that. Baptism and Communion are separate and  distinct sacraments or ordinances with separate and distinct meanings, purposes, and requirements.

Women and children may be members of the church but do not meet the Biblical qualifications for becoming pastors, elders, or deacons. Just because you are a member of the church does not mean that you meet the Biblical qualifications for taking the Lord’s Supper. Just because you are a member of a Baptist church, you may not have the right to vote if you are under a certain age.

In regard to the Reformed requirements for communicant membership, Dr. Rathbun does not appear to appreciate that this entails a credible profession of faith on the part of the candidate. Merely completing a membership or catechism class is not sufficient. Moreover, there is no such thing as a confirmation ceremony in the Reformed church. One is received into communicant membership upon a credible profession of faith.

 

JSB

J. Baillet's picture

MShep2 wrote:

A great article, but there is one small error:

Reformed churches desire an inclusive ecclesiology for the practice of infant baptism ...

Since there are Reformed Baptist and other Reformed churches that do not practice infant baptism, this sentence should be edited. As a matter of a fact, I have a good friend who is a missionary with the Free Presbyterian church that does not believe or practice infant baptism.

Quite rightly, with one clarification, the Free Presbyterian Church of North America has officers as well as members who are paedobaptist as well as credo baptist. Another denomination with the same stance that comes to mind is the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches.

JSB

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