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Children and the Lord’s Supper

Duncan, Ligon, and Guy Waters, eds. Children and the Lord’s Supper. Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2011. 224 pp. $17.99. 

Reviewed by Matthew Claridge

The Reformed community certainly has a troubled child on its hands. Presbyterians face an interesting and vexing question: should those who allow very young children access to the Lord’s Supper be included as “communing” or “non-communing” members within the Presbyterian fold? This sacramental position is known as “paedocommunion,” and, as the authors note, the popularity and visibility of this position is more or less a recent development. It is particularly visible through the wide reach of Doug Wilson’s federal theology movement. The present volume, Children and the Lord’s Supper, edited by Guy Waters and Ligon Duncan, represents a major and collaborate effort on the part of traditional Presbyterians to check the growth of this phenomenon.

The authors trace the origin of this movement to theological causes, not primarily sociological ones. Adherents argue that “paedocommunion is a practice that belongs organically within Reformed theology” (13). This is a good place to start. Indeed, the issue ultimately turns on how we put our Bibles together, on how we coordinate the Old and New Testaments. It is a canonical issue that, as such, impinges both on our theological foundations and our ecclesiastical practice. It is not a theological side-track; it is a main artery. 

The book consists of eight chapters that follow this general scheme: three chapters on exegetical considerations, two chapters on theological considerations with a particular focus on the classical Reformed tradition, two chapters on historical considerations, and a final chapter on pastoral implications. Waters and Duncan outline the substance of the arguments presented in each chapter in the introduction. This is a great convenience, because it boils down the main objections and answers presented throughout the rest of the volume.

The book is very learned, convincing, and comprehensive in its critique. Nonetheless, as a baptist, I cannot help but notice the irony of the whole discussion. In many cases, it is as if the authors must draw from a Baptist playbook to make their case against paedocommunion. Let’s look at a number of these ironic twists. 

Paedocommunionists argue that since young children were included in the Passover, they should be included in the Supper. The authors respond, “It is not altogether clear that children under the Old covenant ate of the Passover meal” (16). That is an astonishing thing to say since most Covenant theologians are insistent that when Acts speaks of entire “households” being baptized it must include young, infant children. Frankly, based on the wording of Exodus 12, it is much more plausible that young children were included in the Passover than it is that infants were baptized in Acts.

Equally astonishing is the focus on the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenant administrations adopted by the authors. Bryan Estelle, in his chapter, quotes from Ridderbos: “The meal Jesus partakes of with his disciples assumes a prefigurative character.… The relation between Eucharist and eating and drinking in the coming kingdom of God is not merely that between symbol and reality, but that between commencement and fulfillment” (42). That sounds a good deal like how a credobaptist would argue for the disparity between circumcision and baptism. As the authors suggest, we are not dealing with “type and shadow” as in Passover and circumcision, but with commencement and fulfillment. It is not a difference of degree, but of character. It is not just the sign that has changed, but the thing signified. 

To be sure, the authors acknowledge this somewhat with regard to circumcision and baptism, but they fall short of drawing the correct inference. They note that under the OT only males were circumcised, but in the NT both sexes are baptized. Yet, this difference is clearly not of the same order as that which they envision between Passover and the Lord’s Supper. They see a much more radical, eschatological distinction between the Passover and the Supper, but fail to see the same difference between circumcision and baptism. The vast bulk of NT teaching on baptism assumes, I would argue, the eschatological distinction applies here as well.

The language employed throughout the volume to describe the appropriate recipients of the Supper is equally apropos to baptism. Waters-Duncan say: “United to Jesus, believers also have fellowship with one another as members of one body. The Lord’s Supper is a visible and pointed expression not only of our union with Christ in his death and life, but also of our corresponding bond with fellow believers as the body of Christ” (20). Can we not say virtually the same things about the NT view of baptism (Rom. 6:3-6; Eph. 4:3-6)? Indeed, the logic Paul employs in 1Cor. 11 to critique the divisiveness of the Corinthians on the basis of the Supper is the same logic Paul uses to answer the objection in Rom. 6 (“are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”) on the basis of baptism.[1] 

Similarly, Derek Thomas draws on Paul’s words in 1Cor. 11:28 “examine yourself” and Jesus’ words “do this in remembrance of me” to argue that both statements assume a “conscious ability to ‘discern’ something of the meaning and purpose of the occasion” which “rules out the very possibility of paedocommunion” (97-8). Could we not draw the same inference from the repeated statement in Acts “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2.38; 8.12; 10.47; 16.31ff; 22.16)?

When the authors turn to the subject of why children may be baptized but not immediately brought to the Table, the authors offer an analogy from “the position of a minor in the commonwealth” (22, 189ff). Just as children are born with the right of a citizen but must eventually earn the privilege to exercise those rights, so too in the case of baptism and communion. Two things should be noted. First, this is their own analogy not necessarily one Scripture itself makes. This is significant. I don’t see warrant for such a distinction in Scripture either in the case of baptism and communion or, for that matter, in the case of circumcision and the Passover. 

Second, it actually constitutes a redefinition of baptism. They say with regard to the Supper: “[It] does not create spiritual life in a person. The Lord’s Supper nourishes the spiritual life of the believer. Unless that life is already present in the believer, the Lord’s Supper will not profit him spiritually” (23, emphasis theirs). My only question is this: Is baptism not also spiritually nourishing? And if so, how? What has happened is that baptism is not simply being envisioned as an analogy to a citizen’s birthright; it is a citizen’s birthright. There is nothing spiritually efficacious or meaningful about it at all. It merely assumes membership in the “visible covenant of the church,” not membership in the New Covenant of Christ’s eschatological kingdom. This becomes particularly poignant when the authors turn to the subject of when and how paedocommunionists would preach the gospel to their children. The authors ask that if we explode the distinction between “communing” and “non-communing” participants in the Supper, how will paedocommunionists call their children to repentance and to place faith in Christ (27, 191ff.)? It is a very good question. However, it also reveals the weakness in the view of baptism the authors are working with.

The authors stress that if we take Paul’s warning in 1Cor. 11:27 seriously we would not place young and immature children in the position of partaking of the Supper in an unworthy manner. Could we not make the same argument with regard to baptism? Michael Horton, for one, argues that baptism bears similarities to OT self-maledictory oaths in which the participant is accepting both the curses and blessings concomitant with the covenant.[2] If that is the case, if there is “worse punishment” for those who “have profaned the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified” (Heb. 10.20), is it at all conscionable to submit immature and unknowing infants to the judgment of God’s covenant stipulations? 

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree with the vast bulk of the arguments employed in this book against paedocommunion. It is a tremendous resource in dealing with one particular nest of issues in how we put our Bibles together. Yet, I feel compelled to say, “Physician, heal thyself!” This is not a book just for those involved in an intramural debate within American Presbyterianism. For reasons the authors might not appreciate, this is a much needed book for the entire evangelical community and certainly Baptists in particular. It reminds Baptists that our Presbyterian brothers really do know better.

Matthew Claridge is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Mt. Idaho, ID.

[1] The authors suggest this passage only refers to regeneration not physical baptism (186). I think it’s both. Baptism is, after all, a picture of our regeneration, and we cannot categorically deny Paul has physical baptism in mind as its appropriate and natural sign (cf. 1Pet. 3.21).

[2] Michael S. Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 114.

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