Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Answering Paedocommunion, Part IV: The Lord's Supper is About Something

"Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." -Ps. 81:10, cited by Credenda/Agenda as concerning the Lord's Supper.

"What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?" -I Cor. 11:18, written by the Apostle Paul concerning the Lord's Supper.

To judge from the front and back outer cover of the current issue of Credenda/Agenda, one would think the Lord's Supper is a non-specific feast, a celebration of the fatness of the land God has given to his people. The front cover, titled "That Wonderful Cup," contains a picture of a roughly 4-year-old boy holding up a plastic communion cup. The back cover, under a quotation from Ps. 81:10 (cited above), shows a picture of a young child, face smeared with melted ice cream. The picture-lesson one would get from this is that the Lord's Supper is modeled on Easter dinner, where everyone stuffs themselves full of food and then rests on the couch for the evening.

How hard this is to reconcile with the image of the Jewish Passover shown in Exodus 12, where participants ate the sparse offerings of the wilderness dressed as if to flee from danger, was discussed in Part III. There is, however, a Biblical feast that Credenda's cover pictures more closely resemble, and it is described in I Corinthians 11:20-22:

"When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not."

The Corinthians had merged a pagan Agape (love-feast) into the Lord's Supper, and produced a result that was deplorable. But, notice that Paul does not simply condemn the contempt shown for the poor, he also makes it clear that the Lord's Supper is not the place where one fills his belly with food. People have houses for that sort of thing. To turn the Supper into such a spectacle not only "humiliated" the poor, it also "despised the church of God." Why this is so is because the Lord's Supper is not just eating; it is about something.

In Reformed churches, the Sacrament is never administered without a word of institution (WCF 29:3):

"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." -I Cor 11:23-26

The taking of the bread and the wine is a very potent spiritual act, not because of the bread and wine themselves, but because of the body and blood of the Lord. Those who have been Christians for a long time may lose sight of how astonishing this is: that we might really partake in the flesh and blood of the crucified God. Few adults even begin to comprehend this, and it is certain that infants do not. The understanding of this mystery is reserved to those of sufficient intellectual capacity to discern how the flesh and blood of another can be atonement for us all. In attempting to make the Supper accessible to children, paedocommunionists must (and do) dilute the significance of the sacrament until it becomes "Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it." The entire spiritual significance of this event disappears, and we are left with a modern Agape-feast that cannot do justice to such a ponderous invocation.

The Lord's Supper is, like Passover was, the merging of a spiritual mystery with a catechetical demonstration. Take either of these away, and a sacrament is no sacrament any longer ("it is not the Lord's supper that you eat."). Without the mystery, it is only homily. Without the doctrine, it is empty superstition. This is why the Confession excludes from the Supper those who do not both partake and understand rightly.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Answering Paedocommunion, Part III: Single-Word Exegesis

Arguments rooted in the continuity of the Old and New Testaments have always carried weight in Reformed circles, so naturally paedocommunionists appeal to covenant continuity for support. If it can be shown that the Passover meal was given to infants, it could suggest that the Lord's Supper should likewise be given to infants. Peter Leithart attempts to prove this from Exodus 12.

"Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb...They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn." (Exodus 12:3-4,8-10)

Leithart's argument from this passage (which he calls "conclusive") turns on the word "household," which he points out, in the Biblical context, includes children. If the Passover lamb "had to be at least big enough to feed a household," one must believe that children would participate. "If younger members of the household were not going to eat, why was the size of the lamb large enough to feed them? To taunt them?"

By this means, Leithart and Douglas Wilson cast the paedocommunion issue as one of the mean-spiritedness of the Reformed tradition. If only Presbyterians would open their hearts to their children (and stop "taunting" them with graces they can't have), they would admit them to the Table. The problem with this argument is that it digs so deeply into the word 'hosuehold' that it mangles most of the other details in the passage.

The Passover in Exodus is not a picture of superplenary abundance. All of the considerations in the text point to the lamb being just big enough to feed a family, not "at least big enough," as Leithart characterizes. There were no leftovers permitted (Ex. 12:10), and families were to group together to avoid having more meat than they could use for one meal (v4). The food would not have been appealing by the ordinary standards: there was no sauce for the meat (v9), the bread had no leaven, and it was served with "bitter herbs" (v8). The meal was eaten hurriedly and fully dressed for travel (v11). This is hardly a picture of a meal that young children would have been "taunted" by.

By emphasizing the "goodness" aspect of the covenant, Leithart has drawn attention away from the fact that Passover is about something, besides feeding. In a detail that John Calvin considers conclusive for refuting paedocommunion, those children taking part in Passover ask, "What do you mean by this service?" (v26) and are catechized by their parents (v27). This shows that the purpose of the Passover is to recollect and transmit the story of the Exodus, to ensure that every generation knew and remembered that God spared the Jews who ate, while striking the Egyptians around them. If Passover were about the enjoyment of abundance, the food would be its own explanation. The children present would have no reason to ask, "Why are we doing this?" Calvin's conclusion is that Passover "did not admit all kinds of guests promiscuously, but was duly eaten only by those who were of an age sufficient to ask the meaning of it." (Institutes 4:16:30) Without this doctrinal aspect, Passover becomes, in Calvin's words, "an unmeaning and useless spectacle." (Commentaries)

In spite of this, does the use of the word household "conclusively" show the inclusion of young children? One can think of many things that belong to "children," but not to childhood. The eldest son of a king is promised the throne, but a prince left fatherless is hardly ever crowned until he reaches adulthood. The right to ascension is still there, but it is conditioned upon other circumstances. The Biblical examples given by Leithart of 'household' including 'children' are seen to refer to grown children (Noah's married sons, etc.), except for circumcision, which is particularly reserved to infancy.

There are several different feasts in the Old Testament that could serve as predecessors for the Lord's Supper, and this prevents drawing detailed conclusions about the administration of the New Testament sacrament from the Pentateuch. So, proving the inclusion of infants in the Passover would still leave paedocommunion a hypothetical claim. Yet, as the Reformers discovered, the Biblical evidence shows that the second sacrament of the Old Testament, like the second sacrament of the New Testament, is reserved to those old enough to understand the meaning of it. There is one sacrament for marking the boundaries of the covenant (baptism), and there is another sacrament for reflection upon the privileges of the covenant.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Answering Paedocommunion, Part II: Unmerging the Sacraments

When God instituted two Christian sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper, did He indeed create two sacraments, or did He create two forms of administering what is essentially the same sacrament? The difference between the classical Reformed position on the sacraments and the positions of other traditions can be distinguished by this question. For the anabaptists, the rules of administration and significance of the Supper have come to be taken as the rules and significance of baptism; baptism becomes a rite restricted to adult believers only, like Communion. A new and man-made "sacrament," infant dedication, has to be added to give believers something to mark their children's place in the covenant. As baptism shifts from a landmark of covenant inclusion to a sustaining grace similar to Communion, a fourth "sacrament," the repetition of the "Sinner's Prayer" moves in to provide a conversion landmark for adult believers. Baptism, then, becomes a sort of "confirmation" of the "born again" experience and increases its depth, like Communion. Where the Presbyterian has the date of his baptismal certificate to mark his becoming part of the body of Christ, the Baptist has the date of his "born again" experience penciled somewhere in his Bible.

For the paedocommunion/Federal Vision side, the collapse of two sacraments into one goes in the opposite direction. For the Baptist, Communion eats up Baptism, but for the paedocommunionist, Baptism eats up Communion. The rules and form of administration of baptism come to be taken for the rules and form of the Lord's Supper, despite the extra distinctions the Bible makes concerning the second sacrament.

Peter Leithart wants the church to believe that refusing Communion to infants kicks them out of the covenant. Since, according to the Reformed faith, it is baptism that uniquely symbolizes inclusion in the covenant (WCF 28:1-"Baptism...for the solemn admission...into the visible Church...[is] a sign and seal...of his ingrafting into Christ"), it appears that Leithart is redefining the Table in the image of a continuing baptismal rite, taking away the distinctiveness of ths sacrament in the process. Compare what the Confession says about the Lord's Supper being distinctly for believers' "spiritual nourishment and growth in [Jesus and] their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him" (WCF 29:1) One also wonders how infants may be engaged in duties owed to God.

There are many things of a theological nature which rightly may be said about "the sacraments" on the whole: they symbolize the graces they represent (they "point to" grace), they give us an image of a spiritual reality (they "look like" grace), and they guarantee a benefit to those who are worthy to receive them (they "promise" grace) (WCF 27:1-3). But, there are many distinctions between the two sacraments: one is an image of washing away pollution, the other is an image of nourishment; one is administered only once, one is administered regularly; one uses water, one uses bread and wine; one is applied externally, one is taken internally; one is rooted in ancient Jewish water rituals (Num. 19; Eze. 36), one is rooted in the person of Christ; one is given to individuals, one is given to congregations.

If the Lord's Supper becomes a kind of continuing baptism, one can see how the questions Leithart asks could arise: "Does baptism merely express a hope that the baptized one day will enter the covenant in some other fashion?" If one's inclusion in the covenant is not completely settled in baptism, and needs to be completed or continued in Communion, then exclusion from Communion could be seen to negate baptism. But, the Reformed have never thought this way. Even in one suspended from the Table, there is no expectation that one's baptism has been canceled, nor is one expected to repeat their baptism if they are later restored from suspension or excommunication. A disfellowshipped brother is still a part of the covenant, even as they violate that covenant. The covenant continues to be in force regardless of whether Communion is kept. There is therefore no reason to believe that paedobaptism only joins one to the covenant where it is immediately followed by participation is the Lord's Supper.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Answering Paedocommunion, Part I: Forms and Substance

On a much older blog entry about the 'Federal Vision,' I've been asked about the current (special) issue of Credenda on the subject of paedocommunion. Normally, I would leave such a topic to the experts, but since the question has been put to me, and since I will be mostly repeating the nearly unanimous position (singular) of the Reformers, I will dare to tread into these waters.

The sidebar paragraph for this issue of Credenda is, in it's entirety: "They're sitting there. You baptized them. You say Jesus loves them. Give 'em the bread, you lumpy anabaptist." Credenda's incisive (perhaps they would say 'serrated') style makes me smile on occasion, but I cannot give it the degree of credit they do in the advertisement on the inside back cover: "Laughter is War." Satire and ridicule are used as blunt tools by all forms of complainants. Any savage can mock (consult the Democratic Underground forums for proof); there is nothing uniquely Christian about it.

But it's the use of the epithet 'anabaptist' that surprises me, even in the 'literary' context of a Credenda publication. This term, like 'hypercalvinist,' is often used as an insult without much concern for its actual meaning. The anabaptists were separatists who rejected infant baptism. John Calvin, no enemy of paedobaptism, nonetheless claimed "the greatest difference between the two signs" (Institutes 4:16:30) If John Calvin is an anabaptist, then what's left of the Reformation is smaller than Mormonism.

The point I will address in this article is Peter Leithart's claim that "there simply is no covenant where there are no external forms." This is to say that by denying infants the Supper, we are throwing them out of communion with God. Leithart asks a number of questions at the beginning of the article, and by labeling certain possible answers 'antipaedocommunion,' buries within the questions the claim that one must either believe in paedocommunion or reject the covenant. Leaving aside the question of whether this position reduces the sacrament of baptism (which the Reformed do administer to infants) to a trifle, let's consider what the Confession says about the 'forms' and 'substance' of the Lord's Supper:

"Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament: yet they receive not the thing signified thereby, but by their unworthy coming thereunto are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto." (WCF 29:8)

It is the teaching of the Reformed tradition that the forms are closely connected to the substance, but sacramentally only, and not to the degree that having the form always guarantees the substance nor that lacking the form denies the substance. John 3:8-"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Concerning the other sacrament, the Confession says:

"The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time." (WFC 28:7)

So, those who would claim we are "starving" infants of the grace of God by delaying their admittance to the Table are shown to have a very time-bound understanding of the operation of the grace of God.

Leithart offers the example of marital relations as the forms that underlie the covenant of marriage, saying, "Just as there continuing marital relationship except through a set of bodily practices, so there simply is no covenant where there are no external forms." Yet, it may be the case, that due to the advanced age of the partners or other factors, a couple may choose not to engage in marital relations, and yet still be very much in covenant one with another. In fact, this example shows how a covenant commonly may continue unabated for an entire period of life without attestation by the usual physical forms. This parallels what the Confession says about the form of baptism sometimes long preceding the attestation of the substance. If the sincerity of marriage is not doubted due to the lack of marital relations near the end of life, why would the reality of one's connection to the church be doubted due to the lack of participation in the Supper at the beginning of life? The tight connection between forms and substance that Leithart wishes to establish is thereby loosened.