A Reformed Confessional Question
Paedocommunion and the Three Forms of Unity
The following has been adapted and revised from the postscript in the companion Study Guide to Tim Gallant’s book, Feed My Lambs.
The confessional heritage of the continental (especially Dutch and German) Reformed churches is defined by three confessional documents: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. In this short essay, I hope to dispel the notion that adherence to paedocommunion would subvert subscription to these confessions.
The Canons, due to their limited scope, are not within our purview here. They do not include material which has been aimed against paedocommunion. Rather, appeal has been made to Lord’s Days 28 and 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and Article 35 of the Belgic Confession, to show that paedocommunion is not confessionally admissible.
The Heidelberg Catechism
The primary appeal to the Heidelberg against paedocommunion has been Lord’s Day 30, with the focus placed upon Questions and Answers 81-82. These read as follows:
Q. 81. For whom is the Lord’s supper instituted?
A. For those who are truly displeased with themselves for their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by His passion and death; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and amend their life. But hypocrites and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts eat and drink judgment to themselves.
Q. 82. Are they also to be admitted to this supper who, by their confession and life, show themselves to be unbelieving and ungodly?
A. No; for in this way the covenant of God would be profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation; wherefore the Christian Church is in duty bound, according to the ordinance of Christ and His apostles, to exclude such persons by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, until they show amendment of life.
Those who see paedocommunion as a confessional issue argue from Q/A 81 that it is only those who are so described (as displeased with themselves and their sins, trusting in Christ, and resolved to strengthen their faith and amend their lives) who may be permitted to attend the table.
The problem with this reading is twofold. First, Q/A 81 is not addressing the question of who may be admitted to communion. It is, in the words of a newer edition, concerned with who are to come to the table. That language refers to those who are required to come and says nothing yet about who is forbidden to do so. That is addressed only by the next Question and Answer (82).
Second, the Catechism does not include the all-important word only in the text. We can say indeed that the persons described in the first part of Answer 81 are set in contrast to the hypocrites and unrepentant in the latter part of the Answer, and to the open unbelievers and ungodly persons of Q/A 82. But it is surely evident that such a contrast has nothing to do with paedocommunion, because covenant children do not fall into any of these other categories.
These are the categories of people discussed in these Answers:
- Those who are believing and repentant.
- Those who are secretly unrepentant (hypocrites, insincere).
- Those who are openly unrepentant.
Of these three categories, the first two are admitted to the Supper (by the nature of the case, hypocrites are admitted to the Supper, because their unfaithfulness is secret, and cannot therefore elicit exclusion). The openly unrepentant are to be excluded.
The simple question, based upon these observations, is: to which of these categories do covenant children belong? If we deny that they belong in the first, we surely must deny even more vehemently that they belong in the second or third. Consequently, Lord’s Day 30 simply does not address the question that is being put to it. It is possible to read in historic Reformed practice - but it is not possible simply to derive it from the text.
A secondary appeal is also made to Lord’s Day 28, Q/A 75, which reads in part: "Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him."
Aside from the reference to remembrance (which indeed is not defined here), it is the call for believers to partake of the Supper that is singled out here.
Now, in Feed My Lambs I have already addressed such notions somewhat. The objection implicitly creates a third category which is foreign to Scripture: our children are neither believers nor unbelievers, but something else. According to Scripture, however, covenant children must be viewed as believers, along with the rest of the Church.
Moreover, when we bring our children to the table, we are, in doing so, teaching them to come in faith - that is, as believers. It is difficult to see how Q/A 75 rules out the participation of covenant children in the Supper.
The Belgic Confession
The Belgic deals with the Lord’s Supper in Article 35. This is too great in length to reproduce here in its entirety. In any case, discussion will focus upon only two of its paragraphs.
The first paragraph reads:
We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ did ordain and institute the sacrament of the holy supper to nourish and support those whom He has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.
Here, we are given to understand, the Belgic distinguishes the Supper from baptism. Baptism is given to the children of believers, but the Supper is supplied only to those who are regenerate and have been incorporated into the Church.
It is evident, however, that Reformed theology (and the confessions themselves) recognizes covenant children as having been incorporated into the Church at baptism (see especially Lord’s Day 27, Q/A 74, which speaks of baptism as the means whereby believers' children are "ingrafted into the Christian Church"). So that, then, is a requirement that does not exclude covenant children.
What about 'regeneration?' Does this requirement automatically exclude children?
Actually, it cannot, for several reasons. The Belgic does not say that the Supper was only ordained and instituted for those who can show to others that they are regenerate (whether by way of some kind of profession of faith, or some other means). Rather, it says that the Supper nourishes and supports those who have been regenerated. If we suppose we do not have outward evidence of regeneration because the child is too young, this statement nonetheless does not necessitate the conclusion that the child be excluded until he can provide that outward evidence.
After all, if the child is regenerate, then, according to the Belgic Confession's own words, the Supper has been ordained and instituted to nourish and support him. And if that is so, then the child ought to receive the Supper. (I am not claiming that the Belgic here is deliberately teaching paedocommunion. This is simply an observation that the antipaedocommunionist stance is at such tension with covenant theology as a whole, that when specific attention is not being given to the subject, paedocommunion, far from being shut out, arises as the logical conclusion.)
But we must inquire further into the Belgic's use of this word regeneration. It is true that it goes on to speak of regeneration being "peculiar to God’s elect." Yet this employment of the term elect would not seem to be the technical theological one often employed by the systematicians (which refers to those eternally chosen to eternal life, who will never finally fall away).
Why do I suggest this? Because regeneration here seems to refer to that which is effected through baptism.
This is borne out by careful study of the previous article of the Confession. Article 34 says that baptism "serves as a testimony to us that He will forever be our gracious God and Father." Moreover, the washing with water signifies that just as the water washes away bodily filth, so does the blood of Christ by the power of the Spirit internally sprinkle the soul, cleanse it from sin, and regenerate us from children of wrath unto children of God.
This is clarified further: "Not that this is effected by the external water, but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God." The minister administers the sacrament and the visible things, but the Lord gives the thing signified: "washing, cleansing, and purging our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort. . . ."
What is intended in this article? Simply to point out that baptism is symbolic for something deeper and more profound, which may or may not (and probably does not) actually accompany the rite?
That is the way most modern Reformed appear to take this language. But it is probably not the way the author, Guido de Bres, was going. In the next paragraph, he adds,
We believe, therefore, that every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be baptized but once with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same, since we cannot be born twice.
That language, again, could perhaps be taken simply to mean that because baptism is symbolic (but quite independent) of rebirth, which can only occur once, so it should only be received once. The problem with that understanding is how de Bres continues:
Neither does this baptism avail us only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.
Note the only in the above statement. Baptism does not only avail us at the time of its administration. This implies that it does avail us at that time. Moreover, how it avails at that time can only be understood in the light of the preceding. De Bres' whole argument, taken as a whole, is that the renewal which only Christ can work is imparted precisely at baptism. In short, much to the consternation of many, baptismal regeneration of some sort is taught by the Belgic Confession. In baptism, we are promised that we are transferred from the death in Adam which held us, and united to Christ thereby (see Rom. 6:3-6); we are promised that in baptism we are clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27). In that sense, baptism confers new life.
The Three Forms of Unity do not divorce baptism from the reality which it signifies. Baptism promises the same things to children as to adults, and to the same degree (see Lord’s Day 27, Q/A 74: redemption and the Holy Spirit "are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to adults"). Confessionally speaking, we are certainly not required to view baptism as a deferred promise - only expected to be of effect later. If anything, we are led to view baptism as sealing a promise that is made real conjointly with (or, in a real sense, by means of) the administration of the sacrament.
The point of this little exercise was simply to establish that both elements mentioned in the first paragraph of Article 35, regeneration and incorporation into the Church, are effected at baptism, according to the Belgic Confession. Consequently, we can hardly appeal to either as providing a prerequisite which would exclude (baptized) children from the table.
The other paragraph of Article 35 which we must address is the penultimate one, which reads:
Lastly, we receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up among us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, with thanksgiving, making there confession of faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself. In a word, we are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love towards God and our neighbor.
Even a casual reader will discern a great affinity between this paragraph and 1 Corinthians 11. It is quite evident that here de Bres was borrowing heavily from that passage. It is not altogether surprising, then, that some of the same observations arise in connection with this paragraph as with the biblical passage. The Belgic speaks of remembrance, thanksgiving, confession of faith and of the Christian religion, and self-examination.
In truth, however, de Bres does not speak of remembrance, thanksgiving, or confession as requirements. The form of argument is rather that in the Supper, this is what we are doing. (In this respect, de Bres appears to understand Paul better than most interpreters.) That this is his intention is reflected by the therefore which begins the next sentence: it is precisely because this is what we are doing at the Supper that we must examine ourselves.
What then of the requirement of self-examination? I have already spoken of this at great length in my comments on 1 Corinthians 11, and I will not attempt to say it all again. But if we can exegete 1 Cor. 11:28 in a manner that does not exclude children (and I certainly think we can), then it is difficult to see why we cannot do the same with the Belgic Confession. It would seem rather strange that we treated our understanding of the Belgic with more stringency than our understanding of Scripture.
Besides, all parties agree that this requirement is not to be applied rigidly and absolutely. I have not yet seen a church which excludes from the table those who have become senile. (Such may exist, but I have never seen it.) Rather, the churches have rightly judged that the loss of those reasoning faculties which would enable the individual to examine himself is not sufficient reason to exclude him from the table. Likewise, many churches will allow the mentally handicapped to participate after a certain age.
In both of these scenarios, we are essentially talking about children. Many of the reasoning and emotional processes of senile individuals could rightly be described as a reversion to childhood. And many mentally handicapped are really just big children. (Hence the old terminology of retardation - their progress was retarded, so that they could not advance beyond early childhood in their mental capacities.)
If the churches admit the senile or the mentally handicapped (and it would be deplorable if they did not), then, they are conceding that self-examination or similar requirements cannot be applied rigidly and absolutely. If their own practice falls within the purview of the Belgic, then so would paedocommunion, which is so essentially analogous to it.
In any case, I have shown that self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11 has to do with whether or not one has broken faith with Christ and His Church (see my essay, "Examination and Remembrance," as well as Feed My Lambs). I would suggest that we tend to underestimate the ability of children to examine themselves on that level. After all, through our discipline we call upon them to 'examine themselves' in connection with their relationship to their siblings. If they are unable to discern whether they are in or out of that fellowship, it only means that they are not yet capable of breaking fellowship. If this can be true within the body of the family, it can also be true within the body of the Church.
So the call for self-examination is not a bar to children’s participation at the table of the Lord.
May Covenant Children Pray?
Is it indeed logical to interpret the Three Forms of Unity as excluding paedocommunion? I believe we are reading these confessions with a split personality. We affirm what we wish to affirm and deny what we wish to deny.
Let us consider an analogy within the confessions. If we take e.g. the terms of Lord’s Day 30 (Q/A 81) as exclusionary requirements (i.e. "if you unable to do this, due to your age, you cannot partake"), by the same principles of interpretation, the Reformed ought to forbid their children from praying. The Heidelberg Catechism, after all, specifies what belongs to true prayer:
First, that from the heart we call upon the one true God only, who has revealed Himself in His Word, for all He has commanded us to ask of Him, second, that we right thoroughly know our need and misery, in order to humble ourselves before the face of His majesty; third, that we be firmly assured that, notwithstanding we are unworthy of it, He will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.
Careful comparison will show that this answer closely parallels Q/A 81. The things which are requisite for right participation in the Lord’s Supper are also requisite for true prayer: repentance and faith.
And yet the Reformed have always taught their children to pray. Why? Because they recognize that prayer is a covenant privilege. They recognize that they are called upon to nurture their children in the instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4) - not merely as an eventual aim, but as a present reality.
But if that recognition and practice is not a violation of the confessional standards, it is difficult to see how paedocommunion is a violation of the confessional standards. We need to see that we are simply not treating the confessions even-handedly.
It is only natural that many among the Reformed assume that their confessions exclude paedocommunion. Quite clearly, it is not the historic Reformed practice. And furthermore, they have employed these confessions in connection with profession of faith - which in turn is tied to the admission to the table. It is only too easy, then, for them to read their own thinking, and indeed the historic Reformed thinking regarding paedocommunion, into the confessional documents themselves.
As a prime example, we know that in his Commentary on the Heidelberg, Zacharias Ursinus teaches against paedocommunion. Since Ursinus was the primary author of the Heidelberg, the temptation then is to read that opposition into the Catechism. But we have not subscribed to the theology of Ursinus; we have subscribed to the confessions.; (Imagine the nightmare of subscribing to the theologies of all the contributors to the Westminster standards!)
When the confessions themselves are studied closely, however, it seems that they simply do not address the question. It is possible to draw the inference that the Reformed faith stands in opposition to paedocommunion. But in terms of the actual wording of the Three Forms of Unity, such is not a necessary inference.
Consequently, those federations which have not disciplined advocates of paedocommunion for violating their vows of subscription have been correct in their assessment of the situation. Among those churches which are bound by the Three Forms of Unity, paedocommunion is not confessionally outside the pale.