Is Paedocommunion a Step Towards Heresy or Orthodoxy?

Sep 25th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I was blessed to spend roughly 6 years as a part of the OPC. Love them or leave them, you cannot deny their tenacity for truth and orthodoxy. While the Eastern Orthodox have been called Orthodox for a long time, there is a sense in which this denomination which began in the 1930s has “earned” this title to a greater extent, but I digress. Amongst these Presbyterians (and in other halls, such as the PCA) have blossomed the thoughts and writings of those who are roughly and grossly fit into a group that adheres to what is known as the Federal Vision (or FV, for short). This group has made many arguments that have led to many conclusions that are held by some of their adherents at varying times, and to varying degrees. The one that I’d like to focus on in this little blog post is the notion of paedocommunion.

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For full context on this debate as it was carried out in history in the OPC, please read this link. What’s confusing about this particular piece of Presbyterian polity is that the majority report of the General Assembly was actually the minority view; that is to say, a small committee ruled in opposition to the rest of the General Assembly that communion might be best given as soon as an infant is weaned. Now, in Presbyterian circles, a newborn can receive the sacrament of baptism. But these paedocommunion advocates would go much further and say that the partaking of bread and wine would no longer be for those who had been examined for a credible profession of faith. It would extend to the mouths of those children who were too young to explicitly sing God’s praise. It would include the same sort of criteria used for considering baptism in infants, which would amount to a huge change.

To do this would go against the practice of all of Protestant history, but why was such a claim made?

As you can read from the link, a central argument in this debate is the extent to which the Lord’s Supper is paralleled to the Passover. If you consider the nature of the Paschal meal, as outlined in Exodus 12, the household was to slay a lamb and have a meal of lamb and unleavened bread with the blood of the lamb placed on the doorposts of the house.

There is much symbolism in this meal–the bread being made without leaven standing for haste, the lamb foreshadowing the crucifixion of our Lord, et cetera. But what these Presbyterian thinkers saw from this picture of the New Testament in the Old Testament was the familial nature of the meal. They considered the simple fact that at this meal, no parent would withhold the meal from their children. Instead, regardless of one’s understanding of the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, at any age this meal was to be celebrated.

In considering the fact that Paul compares the Eucharist to the Passover (in 1 Corinthians 5, for example), it would seem that the advocate of paedocommunion has made a breakthrough. While Reformed thinkers in the past had considered Paul’s warnings about “discerning the body of our Lord” and refrained from giving out the Lord’s Supper to children who had not yet made a profession of faith, these thinkers would argue that it would stand to reason that being a member of the family is the only true criterion for sharing in the bread and the wine.

Now, there are so many things that could be said about the substance of this debate: Is the Lord’s Supper fully analogous to the Passover meal, is there a precedent of administering this sacrament among infants in writers such as Augustine, do we presume regeneration amongst the baptized (or is there baptismal regeneration?), etc.

But what really matters here is the ultimate question: if Presbyterians moved in a united fashion to embrace paedocommunion, would that demonstrate that there is a move towards heresy or orthodoxy? Well, it all depends on whether one found the original name of Orthodox Presbyterians apt or not. When one considers the way that the PCA wrote about this movement in an official manner, their chief rebuttal hinged upon whether these innovations were confessional or not–that is to say, whether the thoughts of these new Presbyterians matched the thoughts of those Presbyterians who worked to make the Westminster Standards in the 1640s. Of course, that puts the cart before the horse. What if the Westminster Standards were lacking, and these men who advocated paedocommunion saw these lacks in arguments such as the above mentioned Passover parallel? Ultimately, it was of no matter to the PCA’s general assembly because they chose to consider confessionalism and (dare I say) tradition over Scriptural arguments.

Of course, things get even trickier when one considers the Westminster standards themselves. The Westminster “divines” wrote this in the beginning:

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (WCF I.6, emphasis added)

Of course, the whole debate over paedocommunion hinges on whether the logic of Passover is truly good and necessary, but again, the self-referential nature of the Westminster Confession was such that the OPC and the PCA brushed the thoughts of some honest Presbyterians aside in favor of Presbyterian tradition. And so even the confession itself does not offer immunity from the tension between tradition and godly innovation. By what standard ought we decide whether we are experiencing growth in truth, or a loss of doctrinal purity? There is a Latin phrase attributed to Reformed thinkers, and it goes as follows:

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est

which amounts to “The Reformed Church should always be Reforming”.

That sounds all well and good on paper, but for the advocates of paedocommunion who were struck down at General Assemblies, they would say that their proposed “reformation” was godly, whereas the majority who voted in opposition viewed this as an ungodly accretion. How can this dispute be resolved?

This tension could perhaps be logically decided, if there really were some sort of Presbyterian Magisterium. But there isn’t and so the tension continues. May God open our eyes to ask the question of whether we are being consistent, or merely convenient.

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19 comments
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  1. Dr. Deane,
    Nicely done. I hadn’t seen that Reformed saying until now. I would think, though with tongue-in-cheek, that it would be much more fitting to the nature and history of the Reformed churches that they would rather declare:
    Ecclesia protestari semper protestandum est

    forgive me if my latin syntax is off…

  2. How does this relate to the C2C mission? I’d like to hear about Paedocommunion in the Catholic Church.

  3. David,

    Paedocommunion is standard practice in the Eastern Catholic Churches, as in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

  4. Why isn’t it practiced in the Latin churches?

  5. Thanks for your comments.

    To perhaps add clarity to the relevance of this issue, let me share some more about my experience in the OPC. My first pastor left our congregation to live on the East Coast and the remaining elders (known as the session) looked for a new pastor to replace him. A seemingly good candidate came around, but it was discovered that while he was originally ordained in the OPC, he had more recently left to be a part of a new Presbyterian denomination that was OK with paedocommunion. It was suspected that perhaps he too was OK with paedocommunion, and questioning of him determined this to be the case.

    After discussing, the session decided to not make a “call” to bring him to our congregation. Many who were sympathetic to his views, or at least to the notion that he would be a good fit for the congregation, decided to leave.

    Several months passed and no other candidates came to light. At that point, the session decided to re-extend an offer to the pastor who is in favor of paedocommunion (keep in mind throughout all this that as a respectful and decent man, this pastor would never try to foist his views onto the congregation, but if he were in the “driver seat” at a General Assembly he would vote his conscience and try to bring about a change in the interpretation of the Reformed view of the Sacraments). At this point, the members of the congregation who were happy about him not receiving a call to be pastor were now upset, and some of them left.

    I experienced this all first-hand. The awkwardness over the change of opinions, the questioning over whether our welcome was sincere, and the ultimate philosophical question of whether this practice was heretical or orthodox, was staring me in the face. Sola Scriptura was supposed to clear up our issues, but at the end of the day some people stood on the Westminster Standards in one sense, and others stood on another–people parted ways, and books have been written in favor or opposition to this practice. It pained me greatly to be caught in the middle, and it still does to this day.

    But with all that being said, is this view of an ultimately invisible church which calls each person to construe their own theology that underscored the flaw of Protestantism to me, and in contrast showed the greatness of Apostolic Succession within a visible Church.

    I hope that makes the thoughts that I tried (albeit feebly) to share on Called to Communion.

    Now, as to the practice of when First Communion is administered, this papal document called Quam Singulari is a must read. It praises the Eastern Churches for their practice and tries to bring more synchrony to the Roman Church. Will there be full identity in practice? That’s not entirely necessary, but the point is that we have a Magisterium that speaks, and we must follow our bishops as they lead us in succession of the Apostles.

    I should also say that these thoughts in favor of giving communion as early as possible are part of the reason why my family is part of an Eastern Catholic Church-my personal reflections on the Paschal supper made participation in that spiritual practice more congruous. In many senses, I have my old pastor to thank for bringing this issue to light.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  6. I have the quote from Saint Augustine mentioning infants receiving Holy Communion. I’ll try to find it and put it up unless someone else has it on hand.

  7. Found it!

    “Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are denying that Christ is Jesus for all believing infants. Those, I repeat, who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants, infants that is who have been baptized in Christ, Christ the Lord is not Jesus. After all, what is Jesus? Jesus means Savior. Jesus is the Savior. Those whom he doesn’t save, having nothing to save in them, well for them he isn’t Jesus. Well now, if you can tolerate the idea that Christ is not Jesus for some persons who have been baptized, then I’m not sure your faith can be recognized as according with the sound rule. Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are **infants, but they share in his table**, in order to have life in themselves.”

    Augustine, Sermon 174, 7.

    This only makes sense. If they’re regenerate, why can’t they receive the Christ in the Blessed Sacrament?

  8. David,

    New Advent gives a brief explanation of the church discipline regarding why infants do not receive the Eucharist in the Western Church.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04170b.htm

  9. I read somewhere (maybe from an FV proponent?) that the practice declined with the more precise medieval formulations of transubstantiation, and the fear that a child would spill or spit up the elements.

  10. I can understand how in the protestant faiths children may receive communion, when it is merely symbolic of unity with Christ and is no more sacramental than was the unleavened bread at Passover.

    In the Catholic Church, the understanding of the Eucharist is quite different, and therefore requires a different discipline. I have to disagree with Mr. Marshall on this, I don’t think infants should receive the Eucharist, for the same reasons the Lateran Council and the Council at Trent proscribed against it; they lack reason and therefore cannot truly declare ‘Amen’ as an adult can in professing their faith that the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ.

    We Latins think that in this and other ways we have grown beyond our brothers in the Eastern Churches and that simply because there was an early practice does not mean it is necessarily the best practice-we’ve had 2,000 years to study the deposit of faith and hopefully in this and many other ways we’ve come to understand and practice it with greater precision.

  11. Mark,
    See above for the link to Quam Singulari. Pope Pius X confirmed this part of it, which emphasizes that the Lateran Council and the Council of Trent were not going against infant communion, but merely saying that one must begin to receive communion no later than the age of reason. It was a move against those who not only wanted reason but “enough” reason to receive the holy Eucharist, thereby delaying the first reception even earlier than age 7. This is not to denigrate infant communion, but argue against adult communion.
    See here:
    This practice later died out in the Latin Church, and children were not permitted to approach the Holy Table until they had come to the use of reason and had some knowledge of this august Sacrament. This new practice, already accepted by certain local councils, was solemnly confirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran, in 1215, which promulgated its celebrated Canon XXI, whereby sacramental Confession and Holy Communion were made obligatory on the faithful after they had attained the use of reason, in these words: “All the faithful of both sexes shall, after reaching the years of discretion, make private confession of all their sins to their own priest at least once a year, and shall, according to their capacity, perform the enjoined penance; they shall also devoutly receive the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist at least at Easter time unless on the advice of their own priest, for some reasonable cause, it be deemed well to abstain for a while.”

    The Council of Trent, in no way condemning the ancient practice of administering the Eucharist to children before they had attained the use of reason, confirmed the Decree of the Lateran Council and declared anathema those who held otherwise: “If anyone denies that each and all Christians of both sexes are bound, when they have attained the years of discretion, to receive Communion every year at least at Easter, in accordance with the precept of Holy Mother Church, let him be anathema.”

    With these things being said, this is getting away from the actual point of the article–the question raised is how development in Protestantism can occur on a principled basis.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  12. Paul’s argument against the Corinthians isn’t based on solely the use of Passover. He is arguing that they had gross public sin and idolatry, and that if they remembered their Old Testament, God has always been harsh about this.

    “Examination” is an Old Testament doctrine in connection to God’s feasts (Is 2, Hos 8-9).

    As to passover- If you check the context of the “unified body” passage with lasts from 1 Cor 10- 1 Cor 12, the threats Paul hopes to bring to mind come from identifying the Eucharist with ALL the Old Testament meals.

    In 1 Cor 10, Paul explicitly connects it to Manna and Quail, and to the Water from the Rock, and to the Peace offerings.

    ALL of those meals included children who were covenantally marked.

    In 1 Corinthians, Paul doesn’t tell anyone NOT to eat. He tells EVERYONE to be repentant. But we don’t expect children to NEED to repent of gross immorality or idol worship (unless their parents are taking them to it).

    The same passage tells us that God doesn’t allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear, and that he always gives us a way out. We shouldn’t hold children who aren’t being tempted beyond a child’s level to the measure of what an adult might be able to bear, and then imply that the child has no way out of the guilt.

    Our baptism is enough.

    The one bread indicates all the body by all the body eating one bread (1 Cor 10.17), and the whole baptized body is marked by spiritual drink (1 Cor 12.13).

    —10.17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
    —12.13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

    Blessings,
    Luke Welch
    Winepress Films

  13. Luke,
    Thanks for your comments. I guess the next question is that if these Scriptures are enough to convince others of the goodness of infant communion, why have the OPC and PCA rejected this view? Are you part of a smaller group like the CRE or do you hope for another denomination? I hope I’m getting where you’re coming from.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  14. Jonathan,

    I am a big fan of the CREC. I go to an Anglican church plant (associated with Anglican Mission in the Americas):
    http://saintandrewsanglican.com (Baltimore/Annapolis)

    We are permitted to commune our children there.

    Grace and Peace,
    Luke Welch

  15. I have friends in the CREC and appreciate their fine biblical theologians, but i still do not hold the minority position within our Presby denomination. I am not strident against paedocommunion, but do not seek to practice it myself. The description of the passover meal (or the fellowship offering for that matter) do not grant us enough of a picture to project infants directly participating in the meal – small children more likely. For example, take the question asked in Ex 12:26. It is difficult imagining an infant posing the question. Unleavened bread (or meat in the case of the fellowship offering) would have been difficult to “process” and feed to infants as well. Regarding confirmation in the Latin church, is the age for that fixed, and how is that established?

  16. Steve,
    Regarding your exegetical question, Exodus 12 does not say that if one’s children ask about the significance of the Passover rite, that one would then explain and admit them to the table. It just explains the explaining, if you will. Your CREC friends would most likely respond in a similar manner. The point is this: we as Apostolic Christians do not center our decision making on our “take”/”perspective”/et cetera–we have a magisterium, whether in communion with the Petrine successor (Catholic) or in a conciliar view (Orthodox). With that being said, if you see my comments about Quam Singulari above, you will see that some Popes have pointed to our Eastern Brethren in trying to drive down the “normative” age for first communion. Regarding confirmation/chrismation, there is some diversity here in the Roman Catholic Church, but it would tend to be around the age of 13. The thought there is that as this is a sealing with the Spirit to gain strength to live the life of a martyr, one needs to enter adult life prepared. In terms of papal decrees/councils, I do not know that it is so clear. Because we as Catholics tolerate brethren who give this sacrament both at infancy and at age ~13, neither position has been judged, it would seem.

    But let’s stay with the issue of unity-in the Presbyterian world, how is this issue handled when CREC brethren meet PCA brethren? If they cannot present their children to receive the bread and the wine, would they present themselves? I would imagine that the CREC would welcome any PCA member to commune, but that given this issue vice versa is true.

    Extending my thoughts beyond Presbyterianism, I know of one couple who attends a Reformed Baptist church and because of their infant baptisms (being raised in the OPC), they have been attending a church for years but cannot become members. It seems that their leaders are OK with giving the sacrament/symbol but not having these people in the rolls! It strikes me as especially odd/incongruous, as the ultimate question of whether these two are baptized is answered as a definitive “no” by these Baptist believers.

    This logical discord is what happens when people brandish forth their favorite proof texts and come down in judgment on those who don’t agree-and it gets especially messy when those accused people have a proof text (or ten) that actually would seem to represent the opposite view. And thus we have the problem of authority presented before us. The faith was once and for all delivered, but to whom? Via the Scriptures? We would argue that this is not the (sole) case.

    When I reflect on these awkward moments, I hope and pray that it leads those involved to ask: is this what Christ wanted? New denominations based on the time of first baptism/communion? Further fragmentation of Christ’s Body? May He make us one as He and His Father are one!

  17. I know this isn’t exactly on topic but are there Catholic churches that do practice paedocommunion? I read in one of the comments above that it is not necessarily condemned but are there any Catholic churches that do practice it? If not, why not? I’d also be curious to find out why the Orthodox still practice it but the Catholic church from what I can tell seems to have departed from that practice for the most part.

  18. Michael ,

    I cannot answer your question regarding the EO church about paedocommunion, however according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia I have found the following:
    The existing legislation with regard to the Communion of children has been definitely settled by the Fourth Lateran Council, which was afterwards confirmed by the authority of the Council of Trent. According to its provisions children may not be admitted to the Blessed Eucharist until they have attained to years of discretion, but when this period is reached then they are bound to receive this sacrament. When may they be said to have attained the age of discretion? In the best-supported view of theologians this phrase means, not the attainment of a definite number of years, but rather the arrival at a certain stage in mental development, when children become able to discern the Eucharistic from ordinary bread, to realize in some measure the dignity and excellence of the Sacrament of the Altar, to believe in the Real Presence, and adore Christ under the sacramental veils. De Lugo (De Euch., disp. xiii, n. 36, Ben. XIV, De Syn., vii) says that if children are observed to assist at Mass with devotion and attention it is a sign that they are come to this discretion.

    NHU

  19. The eastern rites of the Catholic Church practice it. Someone else can answer beter than I can, but I think of it like priestly celibacy, which is a discipline and not a rule. Until about a century ago the Latin Rite children had to wait until they were 13 or something, but a pope reduced the age to ~7 (accountability).

    P.S. to the crew here at CTC, this is the very article I stumbled upon early last year that led me to start readling this site. I was researching paedocommunion online. At the time, it was a big deal to me and I wanted to make sure my interpretation was correct on the topic. Now as a Catholic, I thank God every day that I no longer have to make those decisions. The Catholic Church has decided the issue of paedocommunion, and I have the honor of bending the knee to that decision.
    Anyway, thx to all of you guys that contribute to this site. I love you guys!

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