Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009).
Note: This review was published originally on the Heidelblog as a series in 2009 and is slightly revised.
In his latest book Cornelis Venema 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 Recovering the Reformed Confession). 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 Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches 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 Supper 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.
What We Confess
The Heidelberg Catechism Q. 81 asks, Who are to come to the Lord’s Table?
Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.
In his introduction, Venema makes the point that how we frame the question makes a good deal of difference. If we ask, “Daddy, Why Was I Excommunicated?” we beg the question (i.e. assume the conclusion in the premise). I would add that we distort the question because “excommunication” presumes that one was “communicated” in the first place. The author says, “The historic view does not deny that the children of the covenant are invited to the Lord’s Table. As a matter of fact, if thier baptism means anything, it means that they are invited to respond in faith to the Lord’s Gracious promise, which would qualify them to receive the sacrament that nourishes that faith. Therefore, the only thing preventing such children, or any others, from coming to the Table is the absence of an appropriate response to the invitation” (2).
What is meant by “covenant children” and “paedocommunion.” He distinguishes between a “soft” version of paedocommunion which advocates communion earlier than middle to late adolescence (2-3). It admits those who’ve made a simple but credible profession of faith. The second class of paedocommunionists he calls “strict,” i.e. those who favor “the admission of any baptized child of believing parents who is physically able to receive the communion elements.” These two views, he rightly says, are “quite distinct.” Indeed, I was not aware that arguing for communion prior to “middle to late adolescence” made one a paedocommunionist of any kind.
Some advocates of the “strict” view (which seems to me to be paedocommunion proper) like to call their position “covenant communion.” With the “strict” view, however, “there is only one basis for admission to the Table of the Lord, namely, membership in the covenant community” (3). Venema is quite rightly unwilling to concede the term “covenant communion” to the strict paedocommunionists.” The Reformed Churches have reckoned their practice of communion as “covenantal” since the 16th century. For paedocommunionists to appropriate (hijack?) the adjective “covenant” is to assume what needs to be proven (more question begging; 4).
He acknowledges that the appropriate age for communion is not easily determined (4). More on this below.
The rest of the introduction quickly sketches the four main areas of discussion: the history of paedocommunion, the nature and administration of the covenant of grace, the matter of the analogy with Passover, and the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11.
As one who is sympathetic to the notion that communion might occur before “middle to late adolescence” I am a little skeptical of Venema’s assertion that “middle to late” adolescence is the “historic” position of the Reformed Churches. It may have been the practice of some of the Dutch Reformed Churches in the modern (since the 18th century) period but my understanding is that Calvin expected children to learn a catechism which was rather larger than the Heidelberg and to be ready to make profession of faith and come to the table by age 10 (see below). Would this make Calvin a “soft” paedocommunionist? I think not.
How I wish that we might have kept the custom which, as I have said, existed among the ancient Christians before this misborn wraith of a sacrament came to birth! Not that it would be a confirmation such as they fancy, which cannot be named without doing injustice to baptism; but a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers’ church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as a witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which the believing folk with one mind worship the one God (Institutes 4.19.13).
Article 54 of the Acts of the Synod of the Hague (1586), a regional synod of the Dutch Reformed Churches, declared:
No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Table unless he conforms to practice of the church he is joining and has made profession of the Reformed religion as well as furnishing a testimony to his pious conversation. Without this those who also come from other churches shall not be admitted.
This was the language of Art. 61 of Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619):
No person shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, but those who make confession of their faith in the Reformed religion (Gereformeerde Religie), agreeably to the practice of the churches to which they are joined, and who also have the testimony of pious deportment; without which also, none coming from other churches shall be received.
These two articles do not answer when that profession was made but neither do they stipulate that it can only be made in mid to late adolescence.
The Historical Argument
The historical argument for paedocommunion, according to its proponents, is that the evidence is mixed but it was “likely the original practice of the church” (11). Proponents argue that the loss of paedocommunion in the Western Church was due to the rise of the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. the doctrine that the elements of the supper become the literal body and blood of Christ). “In contrast to the relatively strong evidence for the early and general practice of infant baptism, clear evidence for the practice of paedocommunion in some segments of the church begins in the middle of the third century (12).
Justin Martyr made reference to the “proper recipients of the Supper” in his First Apology (12-13) where he taught that only those who have embraced the teaching of the church and who have resolved to live in accord with the gospel are to be communicated. Clement of Alexandria restricted access to the table “to active believers” (13). Origen also “seems to suggest that small children (parvuli) are restricted from communion.
There is some evidence from Cyprian that, during the Decian persecution, may have come to the table. Venema argues that this practice was probably not widespread (15). Contemporaneous evidence suggests that the earlier practice of restricting children from the table was the practice.
Paedocommunion became a “normal practice” of the church in the 4th and 5th centuries (16). This is clear from many places in Augustine’s writings and was closely connected to his realism(i.e., things do what they do because they are what they are) and his view that the sacraments work ex opere (i.e., by the working, the use of the sacraments) it is worked. The thing signified isthe sign. It was closely connected to his doctrine of baptismal regeneration.
It is not clear when paedocommunion became the dominant practice In the Eastern church but the “practice of Eastern Orthodoxy since the fourth century certainly lends support to the argument that paedocommunion enjoys the sanction of church history” (19).
Venema disputes the account of medieval history given by proponents of paedocommunion as “unduly simplistic” (20). The evidence, however, is that “prior to the eleventh century, paedocommunion was practiced” (20-21) but it diminished in the period leading up to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) where admission to the supper was granted to those age 7 or older. Between the 13th century and the Reformation the practice of baptism was separated from the practice of communion.
By the Reformation, “the only groups practicing paedocommunion were the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Armenian church, and the Bohemian Hussites.” In the Reformation the Lutheran and the Reformed admitted children only after catechism training. Venema distinguishes between the Lutheran practice of “confirmation” and the Reformed practice “profession of faith” (22). He continues by surveying Calvin’s approach to the differences between baptism as “the sign of new birth and incorporation into Christ” and the Supper as a “means of nourishing the faith of believers” (23).
Wolfgang Musculus was one of the “few dissenters to the prevailing view…” (24) He argued for paedocommunion “on the ground that children are included in the covenant of grace with their parents.” His view was “an exception to the rule among the Reformed churches of the continent and the British Isles.”
Venema observes that observance of paedocommunion was only “in some sectors of the church” by the middle of the third century, but it was never as prevalent in the Western church as in the Eastern. He reminds us to take note of the diverse reasons offered for it. We should note the connection between the rise of paedocommunion and sacerdotalism. He reminds us that, though transubstantiation may have had a role in the decline of paedocommunion, there were other reasons for challenging it even in the medieval period, including the long-standing view in favor of an informed reception of the Supper. Finally, he notes that the Reformed churches stressed the distinct function of the Supper as distinct from baptism. The argument for paedocommunion from history is “inconclusive” (26).
Sola Scriptura Is Not Biblicism
Venema observes that the Reformed Churches are committed to the principle of sola Scriptura which means that the Scriptures are to be “regarded as the supreme standard for their faith and life” (27) but that principle does not mean that we read the Scriptures in isolation from the church or from church history.
One of the marks of biblicism is doing just that: refusing to read the Scriptures with the church. This is a quite different principle than that by which Rome operates. She makes the Scripture the product of the church. That’s exactly backward. The church is the product of the divine Word. The Word is not the product of the church. So the Reformed Churches neither conform to the general pattern of evangelical biblicism (though more than a few Reformed folk have become biblicists in the modern period) nor do we conform to the Roman pattern of making church norm the Scripture.
Venema says that the question of paedocommunion cannot be settled merely by appealing to Scripture. “It is also necessary to study what the Reformed churches have confessed regarding the proper recipients of the sarament of the Lord’s Supper.” The evidence from the confessions is that “Reformed believers held that the Lord’s Supper ought to be administered only to professing believers.” In distinction from the Baptists, the Reformed churches affirm that “the children of believers, together with their parents, are recipients of the gospel promise and ought to receive the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and membership in the covenant community of the church.” The Reformed churches also require, however, that children undergo instruction prior to attending to the table (27).
He proceeds to give a summary of the confessional teaching on the relation of the Word and sacraments, the distinctive nature of the sacraments, the two sacraments of the New Covenant, and the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. His claim that the dictum often assigned to Cyprian (but actually a received summary of his teaching on this question), “extra ecclesiam nulla salus est” (outside of the [visible] church there is no salvation) is “not explicitly echoed” (29) in the Reformed confessions is hard to understand since in footnote 2 (p. 29) he writes, “Cyprian’s dictum is using the the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XXV….and the Belgic Confession, Art. 28….” One wonders if the “not” was an editorial oversight?
In the Reformed confessions, the preaching of the gospel has ‘a priority” in relation to the sacraments (29-30). “The sacraments do not communicate anything other than the grace of God in Christ, the grace that is communicated firstly and primarily through the preaching of the gospel,” (30).
The sacraments are auxiliaries, appendices to the preached gospel. This is the teaching of HC 65. He addresses the question of the relative necessity of the sacraments. Are they indispensable? Venema writes, “the best answer to this question…must be that ordinarily the sacraments are necessary and indispensable.” That indispensability is not absolute. It is a consequence of the Lord’s “appointment of the sacraments for the believer’s benefit.” (30-31). It is ingratitude to neglect the sacraments.
The sacraments have the most intimate relation to the grace signified and yet they are distinct from that grace. They are signs and not the thing signified (32–33). They add nothing new to the grace of Christ promised in the gospel and like the gospel they must be received in faith (33). Thus the Reformed rejected the doctrine of sacramental regeneration apart from the the Spirit’s working through the Word. They “do genuinely serve, as means of grace, to confer and to communicate the grace of God in Christ” but only as the Spirit “is working through them and as they confirm the faith required on the part of their recipients” (34).
As addressed above the Reformed churches confess two distinct sacraments, with two distinct roles or functions (35). Baptism is the sign and seal of the adoption of believers. The emphasis falls on the privileges of baptism but the Westminster Larger Catechism also teaches the accompanying obligations of baptism (36). They do not teach baptism regeneration but they do teach “a real efficacy” in “conferring the grace of God in Christ on believers” (36). It is not merely a visible testimony to the believer’s subjective state. Because it is a promise by God and commanded by God, baptism is to be administered to believers and to their children (37). We don’t baptize infants on the ground of presumed regeneration or infant faith (38).
The Supper is the sign and seal by which God ‘continually nourishes and strengthens the faith of its recipients” (39). Unlike Baptism, it is meant to be repeated. The governing metaphor in the confessions is that the Supper is a “sacred meal” (39). It is a memorial but not merely that (39-40). It is a means of assurance. It is a holy communion with Christ. “It also serves the purpose of uniting believes more intimately with Him and calling them to a life of loving obedience and holy consecration” (40). Those who receive “Christ through the sacrament with the mouth of faith genuinely partake of him” (41). “In several of the confessions, the language used to describe Christ’s presence is quite robust” (41). Nevertheless, we reject the Roman and Lutheran doctrines of the Supper.
The proper recipients of the Supper are limited by the nature of the Supper as a sacrament and its intended purposes. The confessions describe the “kind of faith that is competent to remember, proclaim and receive Christ through the Lord’s Supper” (43). This is why we fence the table. Unbelievers are not to be admitted. It violates the nature of the sacrament to allow the unbelieving or impenitent to the table (44). The confessions require the active participation of believers in the Supper (44). They warn against the danger of eating and drinking judgment to oneself (45). They explicitly limit participation to those who are capable of articulating their faith who are, as HC 81 says, “displeased with themselves for their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake Christ….” (45). The marks of true faith in Q. 81 are the same as the three parts of the HC: guilt, grace, and gratitude. This was intentional. This was the consensus of the Reformed churches in Europe and Britain (46-48).
What Does Scripture Say?
At the heart of the revisionist, paedocommunionist case is that the confessional and historic Reformed theology and practice of the supper effectively denies the OT pattern of, as it were infant communion, and excommunicates children unjustly.
Venema does a fine job surveying the paedocommunionist case (53-59). He concludes that “the Old Testament does not provide a case for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper….” (59). In his critical evaluation of the paedocommunionist appeal to the OT, he notes that they tend to slight two principles of interpretation: 1) “the ultimate norm for the practice of the church must be the New Testament description of the administration of the new covenant.” 2) “participation in the observances of the covenant….must be governed by the Lord’s insistence that His people worship him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) (59).
Reformed covenant theology has always acknowledged that the old and new covenants are “one in substance” and various in “mode of administration” (WCF 7.6; p. 60). He also notes (61) that we cannot assume that “simple membership in the covenant community automatically grants to believers and their children access to all its rites and observances.”
The paedocommunionist appeal to the manna in the wilderness (1 Cor 10; Ex 16–17) proves too much. It is true that children ate the manna. Presumably strangers to the covenant ate the manna as did animals (62). The manna was a type, not a blueprint. It was also a means of bodily sustenance. The sacrament is a means of spiritual sustenance but it is not intended for bodily sustenance. There are differences between the OT types and the NT fulfillment. Circumcision was, in the nature of the thing, applied only to males. Baptism is applied to both sexes. The Passover was annual and the Supper was frequently administered (62).
Children participated in the feats of weeks and booths (63) but children did not participate in those that “more directly ‘typify’ the sacrifice of Christ, which the Lord’s Supper commemorates and proclaims….” The work of atonement and their accompanying meals was restricted to Levitical priests. Venema faults the paedocommunionists for highlighting those places that teach the participation of children while “downplaying those that stipulate restrictions” (64).
One of his more interesting observations/arguments, one that I find compelling, is the NT usage of Exodus 24 (Heb 9:20). The NT regards this as perhaps the most important OT precedent for the Supper. Moses, the covenant mediator, “sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings before the Lord” (65). He spread the blood over both the altar and the people (including the children). The accompanying fellowship meal was celebrated on the mountain. Infants did not participate in this meal, but our Lord appealed to this typological event in the institution of the Supper. There are significant OT precedents for the Supper that do not support paedocommunion (66).
As to the Passover, there is “no indisputable evidence for or against the claim that all of the children of the covenant participated fully in its celebration” (67). Venema helpfully distinguishes between the first celebration of the Supper and its subsequent celebrations (68). The initial celebration was a household event, but the subsequent celebrations were pilgrim feasts that “required only male members of the covenant community to keep the Passover and the other two pilgrim feasts…(68) (i.e. feasts and booths). Since there is no “clear biblical evidence that women or children attended the pilgrim Passovers” it doesn’t follow, therefore, that exclusion from Passover was tantamount to excommunication.
Perhaps the most helpful thing Venema does in this chapter is to challenge some of the more fundamental paedocommunionist assumptions about the way things “must” have been and about the way continuities between typological and fulfillment periods in redemptive history should be viewed and used.
In ch. 5 Venema addresses the NT evidence (or lack thereof) for infant communion in the NT. Thus far he has argued that the case from history is mixed at best. The case for paedocommunion from the Reformed confessions does not exist. If the case from the OT is lacking, then the case for paedocommunion is tottering precariously at best.
He proposes to resolve the debate “only on the basis of an argument that considers general features of the New Testament doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its relation to the Word of the gospel” (78). E.g. the accounts of the institution of the Supper in the gospels “reflect an understanding that may suggest how this question should be answered.
He notes (80) is the difference between Baptism as a sacrament of initiation that, in the nature of the case, can only be administered once. Either one is baptized or one is not. The Lord’s Supper, however, “is to be celebrated regularly in the context of Christian worship and the ministry of the Word of God until Christ comes again.” Thus Paul quotes the words of institution (1 Cor 11:25) “this do as oft as ye drink it” with the “obvious implication” that the Supper is to be “celebrated frequently by the church….”
The Supper is to be observed and celebrated “in remembrance of Christ.” Participation is “in response to an imperative….” The sacrament is a sign to be received “remembering and believing” (emphasis original). The Supper requires “the active participation” from the recipient that is not required in baptism (80). This is “particularly significant” for the question of paedocommunion.
He notes that Jesus’ meal with the two men on the road to Emmaus has been understood to refer to the Holy Supper (81) and that the men “knew” that he was the risen Lord. Acts 2:42 records the practice of the Apostolic church and the “breaking of bread” “may be an allusion to the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper…” (82). If so, then it is is significant that those who ate the Supper are said to have received the preached Word. Communion is observed in the context of the preaching of the Gospel. He points to two possible allusions to the Supper in Rev 3;20 and 19:1-9 wherein it is described as a means of fellowship with Christ and in which it could be withdrawn as a matter of discipline.
Thus far, he says, nothing “in this evidence argues for the admission of non-professing children to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” (83). “In its basic form, the argument of many paedocommunionists is easily stated” if all children (with the exception of unweaned infants) in the old covenant participated fully in the Passover meal, and if the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant form of the old covenant Passover, it follows that children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table.” (84) The middle premise here is that the Supper is a NT Passover. To this question Venema now turns his attention.
Since the Supper was instituted in connection with the pascha, the premise has “apparent plausibility.” (85). It has been traditionally believed that the elements used in the institution of the Supper were passover elements, but, he notes, that traditional belief has been questioned. There is some “apparent discrepancy” between the synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) accounts and John’s account (86). One resolution to read John’s language as indicating that the meal occurred on “Friday of Passover week.” The “similarities between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover should not be overstated on this account” since “there are several important differences between them” (86). First, there are the words of institution which were derived from “the covenant renewal ceremony of Exodus 24—a ceremony that was reminiscent of the way the Lord had confirmed His covenant with Abraham…” (87). Like M. G. Kline Venema observes that these OT antecedents of the Supper involved a bloodletting to signify the “solemn bond between them.” The Lord bound himself to them with a “self-maledictory oath” and taught that covenant breaking requires a blood atonement. Thus “Christ’s words of institutions do not connect the Supper with the Passover, but with the covenant renewal meal that Moses and the elders of Israel celebrated on Mount Sinai” (emphasis original). The Passover was the setting but the true antecedent was not the private family Passover meal, but the public, religious fellowship meal shared by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders.
The Passover commemorated the Exodus. The Supper commemorates “Christ’s sacrificial death, which is the fulfillment of of all the types and ceremonies of the law, especially the sin and guild offerings of the old covenant. (emphasis original). The Passover is certainly fulfilled in the Supper, but the Supper recapitulates and fulfills much more (87-88).
Is membership covenant in the covenant of grace sufficient ground for admission to the table? To answer this question Venema appeals to John 6 and 1 Cor 11. The former has important implications for our understanding of the Supper (90-91). Here Venema is following Calvin (93), quoting his commentary on John 6:56: What is in view in John 6 is not the Supper directly but rather the eating of Christ by faith. That eating says Calvin, however, “is figured and actually presented to believers in the Lord’s Supper” (93; emphasis original in Venema’s quotation). For Calvin, Christ made the Supper a “seal of this discourse.” It is necessary to participate in Christ but the only way to participate in Christ then, is to do so by faith and the Supper is the sign and seal of that faith (94-97).
Thus, in the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the manner of our partaking [of Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper] is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Art. 35; quoted on p. 98). The Belgic echoes the teaching of John 6. The “general teaching of John 6 regarding how believers participate in Christ’s body and blood has a clear and compelling implication for any mode of communion with Christ, whether by by means of the gospel Word or the sacrament that accompanies the Word” (emphasis original; 98). Thus “the church’s requirement that those who are admitted to the Table of the Lord” make a credible profession of faith before communing is a “legitimate application of the teaching of this passage.”
According to Venema, the “most important and compelling piece of New Testament evidence that bears on the question of paedocommunion is undeniably 1 Corinthians 11:17–34” (101). This is the because this passage is “the most extensive and comprehensive New Testament passage on the Lord’s Supper.” The Supper has no exact analogy in the old covenant. The “scriptures of the new covenant must determine how it is administered and received.”
The historic Reformed interpretation of 1 Cor 11 “Paul’s instructions regarding what it means to participate ‘unworthily’ in the sacrament are viewed as normative for all members of the new covenant community.” Paul used this particular instance to articulate not only specific guidance but general guidelines for the administration of the holy Supper.
The “most important features of the traditional interpretation” focus on vv. 27–29 (103). Paul required self-examination before communing. The point of the self-examination was to “test” (Venema’s term) whether one’s faith and conduct are “in accord” with one’s profession. This requirement has been implemented variously in the Reformed tradition. Generally it has been taken to mean that “believers must test themselves in terms of the normal requirements of of a Christian profession.” Here he cites HC 81 in a footnote. It’s worth repeating here to set the context:
81. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?
Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.
After the requirement for self-examination paul adds that “all who partake of the sacrament must do so only as they properly ‘discern’ the body of Christ (v.29). Such discernment includes an understanding of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and its implications for the conduct of believers in relation to him and others” (103). Thus, as Venema notes, the Reformed Churches have restricted the Supper to professing members in good standing. Paul’s teaching that some ate and drank judgment to themselves has weighed heavily on the Reformed as they’ve interpreted this passage and that weight is reflected in the language of the Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 25 when it makes self-examination a prerequisite for communion. The HC Lord’s Day 30 also appeals to this language (104).
Contemporary advocates for paedocommunion allege that the Reformed Churches have misunderstood this passage. They argue that the passage “commends the admission of all members of the church, young and old alike.” The traditional view wrongly “divides segments of the covenant community (in this case, professing and non-professing members) in a manner that is reminiscent of the unwarranted divisions in the Corinthian church.” They argue that the historic Reformed view and practice actually comes under the apostle’s rebuke since it “excludes some members of the community from full participation in Christ” (105).
Their view depends considerably upon their reconstruction of the circumstances prompting Paul’s response. For the paedocommunionists, the problem was not “orthodoxy” but “orthodopraxis” (right practice). The problem was not “unworthy” participants but ungodly pride and factionalism. [Here one hears echoes of the NPP/FV reconstruction of the 2nd-temple Judaism and of Paul’s response to it. Justification not about “acceptance with God” or “courtroom metaphors” but about “boundary markers” and the like. It’s not hard to see how the argument “The Reformation misunderstood Paul on justification” could easily become the argument, “The Reformation also misunderstood Paul on the Supper”—rsc] They argue that the language of “remembrance” and “showing” (vv.24–26) does not necessarily exclude infants from communion. They argue that the Supper is itself an exhibiting of the body and a remembrance, not that anyone necessarily has to remember. Advocates of paedocommunion argue that what the Corinthians failed to discern was their membership in the body of Christ. I have previously responded to this claim. Venema quite rightly concludes that the paedocommunionist interpretation of this passage has “clear and startling implications for the practice of paedocommunion” (107).
Essential to the paedocommunionist interpretation of 1 Cor 11 is their reconstruction of the original setting and problems that provoked Paul to write this section of the epistle. According to Venema the most basic premise of the paedocommunionist argument is that “the Lord’s Supper represents, in a most powerful way, the unity and fellowship of the whole body of Christ” (108). He concedes that the theme of the unity of the body and the “full participation” of members in that body runs like a thread through 1 Corinthians. The Lord’s Supper is a “beautiful expression of the oneness of the body of Christ.” The theme of the Supper as an expression of the unity of the body is not isolated to 1 Cor 10:16-17. It is expressed in 1 Cor 7:14 and the early verses of 1 Cor 10. Does 1 Cor 10:16-17 support the case for paedocommunion?
Venema says, “No.” The Supper is a powerful witness to the unity of the body but “it seems premature to argue from the theme enunciated in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 to the conclusion that all covenant children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table lest the oneness of the body of Christ be compromised” (109). If the historic Reformed view of 1 Cor 11:17–34 is correct then the paedocommunionist reconstruction of the original situation and their reading of 1 Corinthians 10 fails. 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 “must retain its unique status as the single most decisive biblical teaching for determining whether such children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table” (110).
If infants are not allowed to commune, is there status as members of the covenant of grace jeopardized? Well, Venema notes that the “participation in Christ” described in 1 Corinthians 10 included uncircumcised males and even animals! As previously noted, the paedocommunionist reading of 1 Corinthians 10 proves too much.
There are 4 sections in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. Vv. 17-22 identifies the problem, vv. 23–26 contains Paul’s summary of the institution of the Supper, vv. 27–32 instructs us on how to receive the body and blood of Christ, and vv. 33–34 return to the original problem (111).
The problem is not reconstructing the original context and problems (112–14). Venema argues, however, that the advocates of paedocommunion use their reconstruction of the original context to obviate Paul’s clear instructions in ch. 11. In other words, because we do not have the same problems today (namely turning the Supper into factional meals) as described in 1 Corinthians 11 it does not really apply directly to us. In other words, in the historic Reformed reading of 1 Corinthians 11, it is normative for our understanding of the Supper even if our circumstances have changed whereas for the paedocommunionist it is not so normative because of the change in circumstances. This move allows them to control the understanding of the supper via their reconstruction of the original situation and via their reading of 1 Corinthians 10.
Another question/problem raised by the paeodcommunionist reading of 1 Cor 11 is their “handling of the words of institution” by which they argue that we should translate “this do in remembrance of me” as “do this unto my remembrance.” The force of the revision is to move the locus of the act from the person remembering (which requires of certain level of cognition) to a purely objective state of affairs so that whenever the Supper is administered (including infants) it is done as an objective, corporate memorial along the lines of Leviticus 24:7 (115). From an historical-theological perspective this is a sort extreme anti-Zwinglianism. Is the “of me” in 1 Corinthians 11:24–25 subjective or objective? Is it “remembrance of me” or “my remembrance”? Contra the paedocommunionist reading most English translations (115–16) take it as “remembrance of me.” Venema argues, the “point of the Lord’s words of institution is that the participant in the sacrament is placed under the obligation to obey the Lord’s command, to act in such a way that expressed informed remembrance and believing proclamation of his death” (116).
The historic Reformed understanding of this passage recognized some distinction between the original context and our, post-apostolic, post-canonical context. This difference, however, did not stop them from rightly finding general principles in 1 Corinthians 11 that preclude infant communion (117–18). Paul’s instructions are “applicable to any celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the part of any believer” (118; emphasis original). Even if one no is not committing the very same sin committed by the Corinthians, it is nevertheless possible to eat and drink unworthily (note the adverb). The “closes parallel to this passage is 2 Corinthians 13:5 where the apostle summons all believers to “[e]xamine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove [test-rsc] your own selves. Know ye not that your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (Venema quotes the AV following RHB publication guidelines). The ESV reads:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
Venema points to Gal 6:4 as another parallel passage that has the same reflexive language. He also observes that the “idea of self-examination in verse 28 has often been freighted with the excess baggage of protracted, introspective process of spiritual inventory-taking, the term requires only a responsible testing on the part of the believer to see whether his faith is genuine” (119).
A second issue is the intent behind the language “discern the [Lord’s] body.” There is a textual variant here. The older text omits the qualifier “Lord’s.” This has allowed paeodcommunionists to argue that what should be discerned is the “church” not the body of Christ in the Supper. I have already addressed this claim. Venema concludes that the shorter reading is the best text but that the shorter reading does not support the paedocommunionist claim (121). The body to be discerned is not the congregation but rather the body which “he gave as a sacrifice on behalf of his people” (121).
I hope that readers will see that the historic Reformed, confessional theology, piety, and practice of the Lord’s Supper is not and has not been mere conservatism. The Reformed Churches have paid close attention to Scripture and from it have formed a covenant theology (i.e. a reading of redemptive history) and a view of the sacraments of the covenant of grace (baptism and the Supper). As Venema notes 127–28), the impetus for the modern revival of the error of paedocommunion in some Reformed denominations and federations is not a superior biblical exegesis or superior theology of the Supper but rather a covenant theology that is not Reformed, which is alien to the Reformed reading of Scripture.
He says, “[s]ome contemporary advocates of paedocommunion claim that all covenant members without exception—believers and their children who are recipients of the covenant promise and the accompanying sacrament of covenant incorporation, baptism—enjoy a full and saving union with Christ.”
He is correct to highlight the connection between the covenant nomism of the so-called and self-described “Federal Vision” movement. You can read more about this erroneous covenant theology in the booklet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace, in this more academic essay, and in the volume, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. To add a layer of complication that Venema does not mention but which draws the FV covenant theology perilously close to that advocated by the Remonstrants and rejected soundly at Dort, is their doctrine that the benefits conferred in baptism must be retained by grace and cooperation with grace. This, in their view, is the second part of “the covenant.” God has done his part and now you must do yours.
Since, in the FV theology, “the baptism of the children of believers effectively unites them to Christ and grants them full participation in his saving work, baptism by itself provides a sufficient warrant for admitting such children to the Table of the Lord without requiring a preceding profession of faith” (141). Venema is exactly right about this. The argument over paedocommunion, at least in our circles, is really an argument about covenant theology. What i the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches? The answer, of course, is that it is that which has been taught and confessed since the early 16th century and since that time we have consistently rejected paedocommunion because we reject the biblical exegesis of the paedocommunionist argument and because we have a different covenant theology. The FV view borders on (or crosses over into) “sacramentalism” (145). We understand, in the language of the Westminster Confession 27.2 that there is a “sacramental union” between the sign and the grace signified. The sign is not the grace signified.
Chapter 7 is particularly useful for its brief survey of the historical, exegetical, and theological issues and for a summary of the confessional Reformed response. One might do well to begin his reading with this chapter to get an overview before going to chapter 1. There is an appendix to the work, a chapter on covenant theology and baptism.
Venema has produced a truly helpful survey and analysis of the arguments being advanced by contemporary (Federal Visionist) proponents of paedocommunion. If you are tempted by the FV or its arguments for paedocommunion (and it is a temptation) you should read this book for yourself. All of us who value the historic, confessional Reformed reading of Scripture, the Reformed covenant theology, the Reformed Word and sacrament piety, and the Reformed practice of the Supper owe a debt of thanks to Venema for this fine work.