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.


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