The Wrong Question

Passover lambs MEME

What sort of question is the question of paedocommunion?

Peter Leithart just reposted the first part of a series on paedocommunion. Since many people (most of them far more godly, educated and well-read than I am) have expressed how helpful they have found my posts on baptism, I figured I would offer some responses. Leithart is passionate about baptism, and expresses his conviction that the stakes are high. I agree with him about the stakes, which is why I oppose his errant position. In biblical theology, there is a place for everything and everything should be in its place. The question of paedocommunion in Reformed circles is the sacramental equivalent of those who promote child marriage arguing over the age at which their (perversion of) marriage can be physically consummated. That is, it is the wrong question.

Should young children receive the Lord’s Supper? Should we practice paedo-communion?

Before we address the question of paedocommunion, we must specify both what the question is and what sort of question it is. First, what is the question of paedocommunion? It is not in essence a question about the age of admission to the Lord’s table. Some who do not adopt the paedocommunion position would admit toddlers as young as a year-and-a-half. If, hypothetically, some means were invented to gauge the level of “discernment” in infants, and children who registered a “6” were admitted to the table, that practice still would not constitute paedocommunion. Nor is it a question about force-feeding bread and wine to newborns; though some churches give the elements to newly baptized infants, no Reformed advocate of paedocommunion, to my knowledge, has argued for this practice. Most Reformed theologians are content to wait until the child is able to eat solid food before he begins to participate in the Supper.

What sort of question is it? It is the second question, the question you ask when you got question 1 wrong. This entire debate (as James Jordan admits in his talks on paedocommunion, episodes 43, 45 46 and 49 of the Theopolis Podcast) rests upon the prior assumption of paedobaptism as a sign of “inclusion” in “the Covenant.” Paedocommunion is indeed the logical conclusion if you are convinced of paedobaptism. But since drinking wine is a sign of adulthood, a biblical symbol of judicial maturity (as Jordan rightly observes), giving wine to infants is also a large sign painted in deep red that reads WRONG WAY. GO BACK. Thus, paedocommunion is not only the logical conclusion of paedobaptism, it is also the reductio ad absurdum, the point at which the outcome of your ideology is running against the grain of actual human beings, and thus should be questioned at its very origin. Any discussion of paedocommunion is an intramural disagreement between two people who took a wrong turn centuries back but are unwilling to retrace their steps to discover the source of the conflict.

Leithart asserts that gauging the level of “discernment” in children is wrong, since their membership of the Body of Christ is, at its foundation, completely “objective.” But really, how is gauging their level of mastication and digestion any different? Why not force feed bread and wine to infants? If we can wait until the child is able to eat solid food, surely that is some indication of the nature of the greater debate concerning wine and its symbolic relationship with judicial maturity in the Bible. Is giving bread and wine to small children that they might “participate” really any different conceptually to puréeing the sacramental elements and putting them into a baby’s bottle? If newborns do not partake, are they still part of “the baptised body”? If they are, then communion is not what defines participation in worship. The same can be said of miscarried infants, who are not baptised, yet somehow assumed to be part of that same “body” by mere heredity. If the sacraments are indeed efficacious in the ways that paedocommunionists insist, then they cannot have it both ways.

The specific practical question is, Does baptism initiate the baptized to the Lord’s table, so that all who are baptized have a right to the meal? Paedocommunion advocates, for all their differences, will answer in the affirmative. Nothing more than the rite of water baptism is required for a person to have access to the Lord’s table. Opponents of paedocommunion will answer in the negative. Something more is required—some level of understanding, some degree of spiritual discernment, some sort of conversion experience, and some means for the church to assess these attainments.

Paedobaptists insist that their “Covenant membership” can be entirely objective, but those against paedocommunion at least have enough sense to realise that the table is about spiritual discernment, some level of understanding about God, and a consciousness of accountability for sin. What is required is repentance and faith, both for baptism, and then a renewal of repentance and faith at weekly communion. The problem is that paedobaptists conflate circumcision of heart with circumcision of flesh, something which even the Old Testament does not do. Circumcision for male infants did not require anything more than being born into a Jewish family, or being part of a family which had joined Israel. But that Jew-Gentile distinction no longer exists.

Sadly, neither those who are for nor those who are against paedocommunion realise that their doctrine of a “binary” Covenant membership is Abrahamic, which makes their “objective” baptism redundant anyway.1See The Myth of Covenant Membership. Since the ascension of Christ, everyone is already under obligation to Him, and that includes all infants right across the world. That is the “objective” element of the New Covenant, and it exposes the argument for “inclusion” for what it is: a reductive reversal of the global nature of the New Covenant back to a tribal demarcation like circumcision. For Leithart to bang on against “something more being required” means that he still sees baptism as a parochial fence around an Abrahamic (Judaistic) people of flesh. But baptism (even for the nation of Israel while it was temporarily set apart from other nations), was and is a rite of ordination, the conferring of an office, which is necessarily both objective and subjective: baptism is done to the baptizand with full consent, just like the reception of any official capacity. For any office, something more is indeed required. That is the whole point. And if nothing is required for an individual baptism except being born into the right family, Leithart is living in the wrong Covenant.

Second, and more fundamentally, what sort of question is this? If it is merely a question about the admission requirements to the church’s ritual meal, then the question may be answered by straightforwardly applying a rule. If we narrowly focus on the question of who partakes when, we could admit children without adjusting any other doctrines or practices of the church. If it is only a matter of adding a few names to the guest list, then why is paedocommunion so strindently opposed by some within the Reformed world?

The issue here is Leithart’s “umbrella” terminology, the church’s “ritual meal.” Paedocommunionists rightly point out that all the Israelites participated in the Passover meal, but that meal was related to the separation of Israel from the nations as a people. The division between Hebrews and Egyptians in the first part of Exodus was the “national” outcome of the division between Hagar and Sarah, and their offspring. Israel was baptised into Moses, not into Abraham, and this is because there is a difference between circumcision of flesh (which no longer exists) and circumcision of heart (which was always independent of the circumcision, since Gentiles could believe and yet remain Gentiles). The ritual meals introduced under the Levitical Law concerned not the tables in the houses (or tents) or Israel, but the table of God, a table where only legal representatives dined. The clearest example is the order of events in Exodus 24. Since the circumcision is gone, then the Passover meal was fulfilled once and for all in the death of Christ. It has no Christian equivalent. Why does Leithart overlook this crucial difference? Because paedobaptists see only what they expect to see.

Moreover, this failure to discern the difference between the tables of men and the table of God does indeed require the adjustment of many other doctrines and practices of the church. The practice of paedocommunion is opposed because many within the Reformed world are not willing – as Leithart is – to redefine “faith.” Leithart quotes all of the gutsy texts about baptism which give other paedobaptists the jitters, and rightly so, but somehow does not realise that his position is more consistent only because it is more consistently wrong than they are. If the sacraments were two tires on a bicycle, Leithart is arguing that since the front tire (baptism) is flat, so should the back tire be. The reason many Reformed are against paedocommunion is simply because the descriptions of the table of God in the New Testament cannot be as easily conflated with circumcision.

Paedocommunion is not only about admission requirements narrowly considered, but, like paedobaptism, is linked with a whole range of theological and liturgical issues. It is not only about the nature of the Supper, but also about the church, baptism, and, most broadly, the character of the salvation that Christ has achieved in the world. The gospel is not directly at stake in the paedocommunion debate. Opponents of paedocommunion honestly and sincerely proclaim the gospel of grace, and I am grateful to God that they do. Still, the ecclesial and theological shape that the gospel takes correlates significantly with positions on paedocommunion, and the coherence between the gospel and the church’s practice is at the heart of this debate. The stakes are not so high as they were when Luther protested indulgences and the myriad idolatries of the late medieval church. But the stakes are high, very high.

There is a lot to respond to here, so I will do it briefly. On theological issues, paedobaptism requires the redefinition in some way of just about every major Christian doctrine. That is a warning sign. On liturgy, I have already mentioned Exodus 24, and am still waiting for an explanation from the proponents of Covenant Renewal Worship on the discrepancies between their practice of paedocommunion and the fact that only legal representatives ate the meal on the mountain. This shows that they are actually beginning with the tradition of paedobaptism as their authority, and not the Scriptures.2See Covenant Renewal Worship vs. Paedosacraments. Concerning the nature of the salvation that Christ has achieved in the world, does it consist of promises limited to a subset of humanity as it did under the Abrahamic Covenant? Or are the promises for all people and all their children, or are most of the infants of the world – including those who are miscarried or aborted or die in infancy – excluded from any possible mercy? Is salvation received through heredity, or through hearing the Gospel and believing it? What Leithart perceives as inclusion is actually exclusion, because his understanding of the fulfilment of the sacred architecture of the Old Testament is stillborn: baptism is not the boundary of the Covenant. Baptism is the vow, the rite of investiture, of its earthly administrators.

Dr Leithart then poses some excellent questions, ones which his non-paedocommunion fellow paedobaptists cannot answer terribly well. But I can answer them because I am not trapped in an Old Covenant paradigm. I am not stuck in the Garden of pietism as most baptists are (Priesthood), or in the Land of physical offspring like paedobaptists are (Kingdom), but concerned with testimony to the World, the meaning of the office conferred in biblical baptism: Prophecy.

At the risk of oversimplification (and provocation), I will briefly pose the options on these wider issues:

  • Is the Supper an ordinance of the church (paedocommunion), or is it an ordinance for some segment of the church (antipaedocommunion)?

The Church is not a carnal demarcation as was Israel. That demarcation was destroyed by Christ at the cross. However, although the Abrahamic division is gone, the Mosaic requirement of circumcision of heart remains. That is why Israel was not baptised into Abraham, and why the Bible never speaks of the Law of Abraham. Israel grew to maturity not only as a nation from a tribe, but also judicially. The ministry begun in Moses was expanded through the investiture of the priesthood and of other judges. That means some segment of Israel participated in certain rites and meals which the rest of Israel did not. But those legal representatives participated on behalf of the others. The priests and the sacrifices were washed with water from the Laver that they might have Sanctuary access as “heads” on behalf of the “body.” One could pose the same question to Leithart concerning his own ordination. Why do “Christian” infants not participate in that? Because it is an office. The Church is the same kind of body – a prophetic one – as was the school of the prophets within Israel. In architectural terms, this is the difference between the Bronze Altar (land and offspring, earth and blood) and the Incense Altar (eldership and fragrant obedience). Covenant history moved from death to resurrection, from a carnal body outside the tent to a prophetic body inside the tent. Once again, see Exodus 24, where the elders of Israel partook in a meal on behalf of all Israel, just like the knights of King Arthur ate at his table as protectors of the realm. All the citizens who were represented by these holy warriors partook of Arthur’s care in them via their voluntary submission: they put their necks under the royal sword that they might bear that royal sword. Who was the first man permitted to bear the sword on God’s behalf? Noah. Baptism is investiture with the prophetic authority of Noah over the nations.3See Exposure to the Elements.

  • Is the church the family of God simpliciter (paedocommunion), or is the church divided between those who are full members of the family and those who are partial members or strangers (antipaedocommunion)?

This question expresses the heinous conflation of the sons of men with the Sons of God, and the fatherhood of men (such as Abraham) with the fatherhood of God. Earthly parents are to image God to their children. That is why God gave us Abraham. Jesus clearly perceived that there was a greater, unseen Father when He reached the age of 12. Joseph had done his job faithfully. At Jesus’ baptism, the process was complete, and the Father in heaven revealed Himself. Covenant history moved from earthly fathers to the heavenly Father, and so did the Covenant sign. The sacraments are for the Sons of God, the priest-kings who have submitted to God and now act on His behalf. The “Abrahamic” facet of the New Covenant is the faith of Abraham.

  • Did Jesus die and rise again to form a new Israel (paedocommunion), or did He die and rise again to form a community with a quite different make-up from Israel (antipaedocommunion)?

In sacrificial terms, the “body” of flesh (as “one”) was transformed into a “body” of fragrant smoke (as “many”) by the fire of Pentecost. As mentioned, the Church functions within all nations as the priesthood and the school of the prophets functioned within Israel: as legal representatives.

  • Did Jesus die and rise again to form the new human race (paedocommunion), or did He die and rise again to form a fellowship of the spiritually mature (antipaedocommunion)?

God works in fractals. If Adam responded to the Father in heaven as a child, then God would make Adam a father on the earth. The human race still exists as it always did, and the fellowship of the spiritually mature with God still exists as it always did. What has changed is the maturity and access of “Israel,” and this is given to us in sacred architecture. The demarcations within old Israel are now the demarcations of the new Israel.

  • Does baptism admit the baptized into the covenant or symbolize his prior inclusion in the covenant (paedocommunion), or does baptism merely express a hope that the baptized one day will enter the covenant in some other fashion (antipaedocommunion)?

On this one, the definition of “Covenant” by both paedobaptists and baptists, is wanting. The New Covenant has no boundaries. Baptism is ordination into the New Covenant priesthood of all believers. Nobody is excluded from the New Covenant and its obligations, so paedobaptism is redundant.

  • Does the covenant have an inherently historical/institutional character (paedocommunion), or is it an invisible reality (antipaedocommunion)?

I think the answer to this one is that the Church is not discerned through what is visible (flesh: Priesthood) or invisible (Spirit: Kingdom) but through what is audible (witness: Prophecy). At Pentecost, holy fire fell upon human flesh and the result was legal testimony. That is what baptism is about, so the answer is that the true priest-kings will be known by their testimony. That is the Church of God.

  • Does grace restore nature (paedocommunion), or does grace cancel our nature or elevate beyond nature (antipaedocommunion)?

This is interesting. Is childhood redeemed by Christ? Certainly, but through mediators, that is godly parents. In The Baptised Body, Leithart asks if baptists talk to their babies. Certainly. And all babies – even non-Christian ones – respond to their parents. But as David points out for us in Psalm 22, God teaches us about the invisible through what is visible. There is a shift from being under guardians and parents to becoming a guardian and a parent. That shift, that rite of passage, is baptism. This conflation of physical childhood under parents with spiritual childhood under God is the reason why paedocommunionist churches are not simply a metaphorical “nursery of culture,” but actual nurseries. One would think that those who are so versed in typology would be able to discern the difference between type and antitype in this instance. Their prejudice concerning paedobaptism means they are unable to rightly discern the meaning of texts such as Psalm 22:9-10. Another example is the disciples bringing infants to Jesus (Matthew 19:14). Who was the baptised one in that account? It was Jesus. He had submitted to God (priesthood) and was thus a king who could be trusted with those in His care, unlike the Herods who committed adultery, slew infants, and rejected John’s baptism. Paedobaptists miss the whole point of the passage, and even see it as evidence to support their case!

  • Does faith require conscious and articulable belief (antipaedocommunion) or is faith something of which infants are capable (paedocommunion)?

Leithart conflates trust in earthly parents with trust in God, but the movement is from natural (earthy) to spiritual (heavenly), from childhood (seeing the visible) to adulthood (discerning the invisible). When it comes to deciding what age is suitable for baptism, we are given no biblical examples of children who have grown up in a Christian family, but we are given Timothy. Based on the typology of fatherhood on earth and in heaven, and the position of the Red Sea baptism in Israel’s history, it would seem that baptism is a rite of passage for one who is ready to answer directly to the leadership of the Church, and not through their parents or other guardians. It is the beginning of personal testimony, and thus personal accountability. Baptism confers office, some level of authority, and also vulnerability to personal excommunication.

Like many theological issues, paedocommunion also poses the question of the relative weight of Scripture and tradition. The question is not what the Reformed tradition has taught on this issue; I concede that very few Reformed theologians have advocated paedocommunion. Nor is the question about Jewish custom, which opponents of paedocommunion often cite. (Why should Christians care what the Talmud says?) The issue is what Scripture teaches, and if we find that our tradition is out of accord with Scripture, then we must simply obey God rather than men, even if they are our honored fathers in the faith.

Amen, brother. Show me infant baptism in the Bible, and I will obey. Paedosacraments are nothing more than tradition, an errant extrapolation based (very badly) on the features of an obsolete Covenant. Why should anyone care what the Reformers (and what they say about baptism has to be the most internally contradictory load of propaganda I have ever read) have to say on the matter?

In the following parts of this essay, I focus on the ecclesiological issues raised by paedocommunion, which are simultaneously questions about the nature of the covenant, about the continuity of Old and New, about salvation, and about the gospel. Throughout, I am guided by an underlying assumption that the sacraments manifest the nature of the church. For centuries, sacramental theology in the Reformed and in other traditions has often focused narrowly on the effect of sacraments on individual recipients, and as a result, both the theology and practice of the sacraments have been horribly distorted. We should, in addition and even primarily, consider sacraments in an ecclesial context. The question should not only be what a particular rite does to me, but also what this ritual tells me about the community that celebrates it.

Certainly. But paedobaptism is obviously a tribal rite – a fact which is not as apparent to those within the tribe. To those without, joining the Church becomes a matter of joining the community of blood first, that one might then have greater access to God. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the New Covenant. The message which a credobaptism by immersion proclaims loud and clear is that anyone can repent and believe, and then minister to one’s own tribe of blood out of that direct access to God. The Abrahamic Covenant was a social demarcation with an ethical telos. The New Covenant is an ethical demarcation (repentance and faith first) with a social telos, witness to those around us. I have shared this a number of times with Dr Leithart. We are no longer looking to the Holy of Holies. We are emerging from the empty tomb with the message that the Tablets of Moses have at last been satisfied.

According to Paul’s teaching, the Lord’s Supper embodies the nature of the church as a unified community. Because we partake of one loaf, we are one body (1 Corinthians 10:16), and because partaking of the bread and cup is a communion in Christ, it commits us to avoiding communion with demons and idols. The Lord’s Supper ritually declares that the church is one, and that this united community is separated from the world. This is why, according to Paul, the Corinthians were not actually performing the Lord’s Supper (1 Cointhians. 11:20).

Certainly, but we are one in Spirit, not in flesh. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have the mind of Christ as His “friends” and confidants, just like the disciples. It is for those who – as guardians, ambassadors, administrators and legal witnesses – go out into the world as living sacrifices, living epistles, and if necessary, blood oblations, repeating the life of Christ before the world. Christian community is the result of those representatives who submit to Christ in baptism and dine at His table, not vice versa.

From Paul’s perspective, the Supper and its practice provide a criterion for measuring and judging the church’s faithfulness to her calling and her Lord, and, conversely, the New Testament’s teaching concerning the church provides a criterion for assessing our sacramental life. The Supper is a ritual expression of our confession that the church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. We should ask both, “Does the church’s life measure up with what we say about ourselves at the table?” and “Is what we confess about the church manifest at the table?”

Once again, ethical before social. Baptism and the Lord’s table are unity via voluntary death. This is not the carnal “unity” of the Circumcision. This is the unity of those who have repented, believed, and received the Spirit of God as Jesus and the disciples did. The substitutionary offering of Jesus was extended in the substitutionary offering of His followers, those who “filled up” His sufferings as a testimony. The sacraments are all about legal testimony, beginning with a public profession of faith.

Paul’s sacramental reasoning can be extended in many directions. We know, for instance, that the church is a body in which divisions of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female have been dissolved (Galatians 3:28), and Paul severely rebuked Peter when his table fellowship failed to line up with this ecclesial reality (Galatians 2:11–21). A church that refuses bread and wine to blacks, or to whites, or to Asians, is lying about both the church and the Supper. More pointedly: Paul says that the church is a community where the weakest and most unseemly are welcomed (1 Corinthians 12:22–26). Does the Baptist refusal to baptize infants give ritual expression to that kind of church, or does it instead imply that the church welcomes only the smart and the strong?

Leithart’s point here is valid, but what he fails to realise is that despite his claims to the contrary, paedosacraments simply call up the Jew/Gentile division from the grave of Jesus. Abram was a Gentile when God called him. A Church bounded by paedosacraments is nothing but an unworkable hybrid with Judaism, which is why there is conflict between the divided sacraments of Leithart’s opponents, and why there is conflict between Leithart and his opponents. It is the conflict, the enmity, between a demarcation of flesh and a demarcation of Spirit. They lust against each other.

Again, Leithart totally misses the point of baptism as a rite of investiture for priest-kings, for guardians, for witnesses. Everyone is already under the care of Jesus, but through the ministry of saints, the baptized. God works through mediators. That is what Sanctuary access is about.

At the same time, the sacraments must express what the church proclaims in the gospel. This might be approached from various directions. That Jesus broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles is part of the gospel, and so the Supper expresses the gospel when it welcomes Christians from every tribe and tongue and nation. The gospel announces that God has initiated a new creation in and through Jesus, and our practices and theology of the Supper must express the scope of that announcement. The gospel is about the grace of God to sinners who have no ability to crawl their way back to Him, and the way we think about and perform the Supper must be consistent with that. According to Luther, the Supper is the gospel, for in it our heavenly Father offers His Son to us through the Spirit for our life; the Supper is first and last God’s gift, God’s gift of Himself, to His people. But saying that and enacting that in our table fellowship are two different things.

Luther was wrong. The sacraments are not something that make one a Christian, although that misapprehension is understandable in the old Christendom which was yet to break the conceptual bounds of the oikoumene. But that is gone, and a social or civic baptism cannot work outside of those Old Covenant grave clothes. The sacraments are something that Christians voluntarily do. The Spirit of God turned the world upside down, and baptism and table are not about God offering His Son so us. They are about us voluntarily offering ourselves to God, and us offering His Son to the world. Leithart’s focus here is entirely parochial. The field is not the Church. The field is the world. The sacraments are not about cultivation but representation.4See Cultivation and Representation.

In short, the Supper and its practice provide a criterion for measuring and judging the church’s faithfulness to the gospel, and, conversely, the New Testament’s teaching concerning the gospel provides a criterion for assessing our sacramental life. Jesus frequently described His preaching as an invitation to a feast, a feast that He Himself celebrated with tax gatherers and sinners throughout His ministry and that He continues to celebrate with sinners in the Eucharist. The gospel thus provides a criterion for judging our admission rules for the table: Is the invitation to the table as wide as the invitation to repent and believe?

Yes, but once again Leithart conflates obligation with response in his definition of “Covenant membership.” Actual repentance and faith is required from those who attend as the Bride.

We must think about baptism and the Supper in these (overlapping, if not identical) ecclesial and evangelical contexts if we want to grasp what is at stake in the paedocommunion debate. The question is not only who’s in and who’s out, but rather what our decisions about who’s in and who’s out say about the church we are and the gospel we proclaim. What kind of community are we claiming to be if we invite children to the Lord’s table, or, as is more commonly the case, what are we saying about the church when we exclude them? What do our ritual statements about the church say about the church’s relation to Israel and the character of salvation? Put our theologies and our sermons to the side for a moment: What gospel does our meal preach?

Paedosacraments “proclaim” that the Church is tribal, that the promises are for a select group of people and their children, and that membership of the body of Christ is about cultivation (coming to faith) rather than representation (witnessing to that faith). Pentecost turned everything around, but Leithart is still looking to the womb rather than coming out of the tomb.

Share Button


Comments are closed.