Cornel Venema is friend and gifted Reformed theologian. In his latest book he has tackled a serious problem in the Reformed world that needed to be addressed and he has done so in a thoughtful, thorough, biblical, and confessionally Reformed manner.
Background to the Review
Before we begin the review it will be useful to put the current question in its immediate historical and ecclesiastical context.
Over the last forty years the conservative and confessional Reformed churches (the two groups are not always identical) have been afflicted with a series of movements which reflect what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Certainty (QIRC—on this see RRC). Among these movements have been the theonomic and Christian Reconstruction movements, the Federal Vision movement, and the paedocommunion movement.
Each of these three movements has attracted followers from evangelical fundamentalism into the Reformed sphere and in the NAPARC (sideline) Reformed and Presbyterian churches. They have also stimulated ecclesiastical committees, reports, and controversies. Over the years, most of the NAPARC churches have addressed theonomy (e.g., the the RCUS and PCA have had Synodical and GA reports and most of the NAPARC denominations have rejected the self-described Federal Vision movement. A few have tackled paedocommunion. The Presbyterian Church in America, the largest of the NAPARC bodies, addressed infant communion in a 1998 report. The majority concluded, “It is the thesis of this report that…the main argument [for paedocommunion] is not sustained. The PCA is well advised to continue the classical Reformed practice of delaying the admission of children to the Lord’s Table until they reach a level of maturity at which they can profess their faith and partake of the elements with discernment.” We should be grateful that the GA adopted the majority report and recommendation that: “That the PCA continue the practice defined in our standards and administer the Lord’s Supper “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.”
About the same time that the PCA addressed this problem, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) received a report containing a majority report which rejected paedocommunion (and two minority reports advocating it). As the OPC site notes, these reports have no constitutional authority but they probably reflect the range of opinion in the OPC.
The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) addressed the doctrine and practice of paedocommunion at Synod in 2004. Synod concluded, “The confessions to which the URCNA subscribe (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort) accurately summarize the teaching of scripture in, for example, 1 Cor 11.24–25; 28. Thus our confessions, in harmony with the scripture, require that the Lord’s Supper be administered only to those who have publicly professed their faith, in the presence of God and His holy church.”
The question of paedocommunion has also been addressed recently by Matthew Winzer, in the Confessional Presbyterian (2007): 27–36.
Nevertheless, the paedocommunion problem persists. There was a minority report in the PCA written by Robert S, Rayburn (pastor of Faith PCA in Tacoma) which argued “That the common opinion of the Reformed church on this matter was and remains ill-considered.” This was essentially an Anabapist argument: the Reformation did not go far enough, it remained unduly influenced by medieval theology and practice. There are other advocates of paedocommunion, many of whom are federal visionists, theonomists, or at least sympathetic to theonomy or the federal vision. A website propounding paedocommunion provides a “Who’s Who” list of paedocommunion advocates which confirms this judgment. It offers the names of 15 proponents several of which are advocates of the FV or the NPP (e.g., James Jordan, Steve Wilkins, N. T. Wright) and many others of which are associated with the theonomic movement either as ought right advocates (e.g. Gary North, R. J. Rushdoony) or as advocates of quasi-theonomic ethic (e.g., G. I. Williamson who wrote essays in the 1980s advocating a sort of quasi-theonomic ethic). A couple of names on the list are a little surprising—Jack Collins (OT Prof at Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the PCA) and William Willimon, a mainline (UMC) Methodist and insightful critic of contemporary Christianity. There are other advocates of paedocommunion, however, who are not listed: Douglas Wilson, the de facto head of the CREC and a Tim Gallant (a graduate of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, who operates a website devoted to paedocommunion), who advocated paedocommunion within the URCNA and whose views were rejected by the URCNA and who has since left for the Christian Reformed Church. The move by the CRCNA in 1995 to open the door to paedocommunion—recently ratified at synod—was overlooked in the furor over women in office, but the admission of infants to the Lord’s Table is arguably as significant a sign of the inroads of fundamentalism and evangelicalism into the CRCNA as the admission to women to presbyterial and ministerial office is a sign of liberalism.
As a matter of logic the fact that the primary and most vociferous proponents of infant communion are advocates of, associated with, or tolerant of aberrant movements such as the Federal Vision and theonomy does not, in itself, prove that paedocommunion is wrong. The provenance of the doctrine, however, is relevant for understanding its impetus and its adoption in segments of the Reformed world. In my experience since 1980, many of those who are attracted to paedocommunion are recent converts to the Reformed faith from fundamentalism.
It is also worth noting that it is beyond doubt and admitted by all intelligent proponents of paedocommunion that the Reformed Churches do not and never have confessed paedocommunion. It is a fact that the Reformed Churches were aware of the theology and practice of paedocommunion as they formed their confession and practice of the Supper. As we begin the survey of Venema’s book, we should understand that the questions are really these: “Have the Reformed Churches been fundamentally wrong about the nature of holy communion and the relations between the sacraments of baptism and the Suppper since the early 16th century?”
I realize that this is a prejudicial way of stating the question. That is intentional. On matters indifferent to the being or safety of the churches we may be dispassionate and open-minded but on matters touching the being or essential theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed Churches we should be more than careful. We should be aggressively defensive of the Reformed confession. At ordination, Reformed ministers vow to take such a stance toward the confession. It may be that our confession is wrong. We confess the primary and unique authority of holy Scripture and thus our confession is subject to revision, but when the Donatists, Novatians, Valentinians, or more recently, the Anabaptists, or the Federal Visionists come knocking, we have every right to place the burden of proof squarely where it belongs (upon their shoulders) and to demand that they meet the highest standard of evidence and to exercise the greatest caution about their proposals. In the case that, in the NAPARC world at least, the theology and practice of paedocommunion usually comes wrapped in a theonomic or federal visionist bundle should also make us abundantly hesitant about it.