In the church today there is a growing debate over the admittance of children to the Lord’s Supper. Some churches have not admitted children to the table until an age of accountability, others have allowed them from infancy, while others have landed somewhere in between. What can the church learn from John Calvin on the admittance of children to the Lord’s Table? The first lesson that the church can learn is that there is a more historic position of the church. Secondly, there are stipulations of when children should come. Thirdly, there are stipulations of how they should be admitted. Fourthly, there are serious consequences in holding the wrong position.
PRACTICE OF SOME IN CHURCH HISTORY
The first lesson that the church needs to learn is that there is a more historic position that predates any reference to paedocommunion. It has been proposed that paedocommunion movement is a modern day example of semper reformanda, a return to the more ancient church practice of children at the table. However what we learn from Calvin is that the issue of paedocommunion was dealt with at the time of the reformation and it was rejected for an even earlier position of the Church.
Calvin references Cyprian and Augustine who were aware of the practice of paedocommunion, if not supportive of it. Calvin is quick to point out that though paedocommunion became a practice within the church, it was quickly abandoned for a previous apostolic practice. He states that “in the early Church, indeed, the Lord’s Supper was frequently given to infants, as appears from Cyprian and Augustine, but the practice justly became obsolete.” Calvin was aware that there was a time in the church when the Lord’s Supper was given to infants; however, he was also aware that this practice was preceded by an even earlier custom, which rejected paedocommunion.
The earlier church position for admittance of children to the Lord’s Supper was that only mature confessing individuals were to be permitted. Origen 16 years before Cyprian makes clear that the practice of paedocommunion was not the norm. Origen believed that the milk of the word was for the children, while the table was for mature adults. Venema points out that the earliest references to whom should be admitted to the Supper is found with Justin Martyr. Martyr believed that admittance was for “the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.” Venema also brings to our attention the position of Clement of Alexandria, who restricted the table to active believers who have an understanding of the basics of the faith.
Calvin’s belief that there was an earlier opposing position to that of Cyprian and Augustine was accurate. Calvin’s statement that it became obsolete was accurate as well. In fact very few in the Western church held to this position and none of the Reformers sought to reestablish the practice, rather they rejected its tenable position. Calvin would say in his Institutes, “I wish we could retain the custom, which, as I have observed, existed in the early church, before this abortive mask of a sacrament appeared.” Calvin helps the church today realize that paedocommunion is not new and novel, but nor is it the ancient practice of the church.
WHEN SHOULD THEY BE ADMITTED?
Secondly, Calvin helps the church by showing us that there are biblical stipulations of when children should come to the Lord’s Table. Though Calvin believed that infants should be baptized, that did not mean that he believed that they should be allowed to come to the Lord’s Table. In Calvin’s mind a distinction must be made between the age requirements of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Calvin believed that,
This distinction is very clearly shown in Scripture. For with respect to baptism, the Lord there sets no definite age. But he does not similarly hold forth the Supper for all to partake of, but only for those who are capable of discerning the body and blood of the Lord, of examining their own conscience, of proclaiming the Lord’s death, and of considering its power.
For Calvin there is no age limiting factor for baptism. He is quick however to point out that there are limiting factors placed upon the Lord’s Supper. These limiting factors tell us when a child should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper – and that is when they have the ability to: discern the Lord’s body, examine one’s self, proclaim the Lord’s death, and consider its power. Calvin believed that infants and young children did not have this ability and should thus wait until they did.
How does Calvin define these limiting factors of discerning, examining, proclaiming, and considering? For Calvin discerning the Lord’s body meant to,
handle the sacred body of Christ with unwashen hands, (Mark 7:2,) nay more, as if it were a thing of nought, they consider not how great is the value of it. They will therefore pay the penalty of so dreadful a profanation.” Let my readers keep in mind what I stated a little ago, that the body is presented to them, though their unworthiness deprives them of a participation in it.
A child should not be allowed to come to the table until they have the ability to discern what the body means and until they value it very highly. Again Calvin does not believe that an infant has the ability to value the body of the Lord in this way and should be held back from the table until that time.
The next limiting factor to the table is the ability to examine oneself. Calvin believed that it was each person’s responsibility to
prove and examine his conscience, to see whether he has truly repented of his faults, and is dissatisfied with himself, desiring to live henceforth holily and according to God; above all, whether he puts his trust in the mercy of God, and seeks his salvation entirely in Jesus Christ, and whether, renouncing all enmity and rancour, he truly intends and resolves to live in concord and broth
Calvin believed that to examine one’s self started with the proving and examining of one’s conscience. Calvin went out of his way to make sure that his readers do not misunderstand what he was saying with what the Papist meant by examination. Calvin explains their view by stating, “Papists make it [examination] consist in auricular confession. They order all that are to receive the Supper, to examine their life carefully and anxiously, that they may unburthen all their sins in the ear of the priest. Such is their preparation!” Calvin continues,
Those persons, after having tortured themselves with reflection for a few hours, and making the priest—such as he is—privy to their vileness, imagine that they have done their duty.
Seeking to prepare for eating worthily, men have often dreadfully harassed and tortured miserable consciences, and yet have in no degree attained the end. They have said that those eat worthily who are in a state of grace. Being in a state of grace, they have interpreted to be pure and free from all sin. By this definition, all the men that ever have been, and are upon the earth, were debarred from the use of this sacrament.
By proving and examining one’s conscience Calvin did not have in mind the spilling out of all your sins to a priest while seeking to become sinless. If being worthy to partake of the Lord’s Supper depended upon our sinlessness we would never be able to partake. Calvin is quick to point out that if we are to seek our worthiness from ourselves, it is all over with us; only despair and fatal ruin await us. So how does Calvin explain this? If self-examination does not involve a sort of navel gazing what does it involve?
First, Calvin clarifies that the examination that is to take place is of personal concern and not a corporate one. Calvin brings to our attention that when Paul exhorts us to pure and holy communion, he does not require that we should examine others, or that every one should examine the whole church, but that each should examine himself. According to Calvin we are not to be looking around at others examining them, nor concluding that their unworthy partaking effects ours. Calvin points out,
If it were unlawful to communicate with the unworthy, Paul would certainly have ordered us to take heed that there were no individual in the whole body by whose impurity we might be defiled, but now that he only requires each to examine himself, he shows that it does no harm to us though some who are unworthy present themselves along with us.
According to Calvin examination is of personal concern, which involves the examination of oneself. So what according to Calvin are we examining ourselves for? Calvin continues to explain by stating that:
If you would wish to use aright the benefit afforded by Christ, bring faith and repentance. As to these two things, therefore, the trial must be made, if you would come duly prepared. Under repentance I include love; for the man who has learned to renounce himself, that he may give himself up wholly to Christ and his service, will also, without doubt, carefully maintain that unity which Christ has enjoined. At the same time, it is not a perfect faith or repentance that is required, as some, by urging beyond due bounds, a perfection that can nowhere be found, would shut out for ever from the Supper every individual of mankind. If, however, thou aspirest after the righteousness of God with the earnest desire of thy mind, and, humbled under a view of thy misery, dost wholly lean upon Christ’s grace, and rest upon it, know that thou art a worthy guest to approach that table—worthy I mean in this respect, that the Lord does not exclude thee, though in another point of view there is something in thee that is not as it ought to be. For faith, when it is but begun, makes those worthy who were unworthy.
Calvin’s scripturally legitimate option of examining ourselves involves a critic of our faith and repentance. He defines repentance as a renouncing of oneself as well as the giving up of oneself to Christ and his service. He defines the faith that is required as a hunger for the righteousness of God after we have been humbled by the reality of our misery – knowing that we can but lean upon Christ’s grace, resting in his righteousness alone. Calvin is quick to make sure that we understand that no one will ever have perfect repentance and faith, because if that was the requirement then no one could come, but he believes that we must make sure that these are genuine.
The last limiting factor in Calvin’s mind is the ability to consider what the Lord’s Supper stands for. In Calvin’s mind admittance to the table also requires that the child be old enough to ask about and consider its meaning. He states:
The passover, for which the Supper is substituted, 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.
Infants clearly do not have the ability to ask about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, though a young child might. But when we look at Calvin’s limiting factors of discerning, examining, and considering, they together are beyond the reach of both the infant and the young child. For a child to partake of the Lord’s Supper without such examination would be to partake unworthily and thus jeopardize their wellbeing. Calvin defines unworthy partaker as one:
without any spark of faith, without any zeal for charity, [and who] rush forward like swine to seize the Lord’s Supper, [who] do not at all discern the Lord’s body.
He continues to point out that those who partake unworthily are,
they [which] do not believe that body to be their life, they put every possible affront upon it, stripping it of all its dignity, and profane and contaminate it by so receiving; inasmuch as while alienated and estranged from their brethren, they dare to mingle the sacred symbol of Christ’s body with their dissensions.
they have no faith in Christ, yet, by receiving the sacrament, they profess to place their salvation only in him, and abjure all other confidence.
For Calvin, those who partake of the Supper who have meet the limiting factors are those who say they believe but don’t. They are those who claim to rest in Christ but place it somewhere else. It is those who partake unworthily who are in jeopardy of judgment. Because of the danger of judgment Calvin wants the communicant to examine their inner man before they partake. He encourages the individual to:
descend into himself, and consider, first, whether, with inward confidence of heart, he leans on the salvation obtained by Christ, and, with confession of the mouth, acknowledges it; and, secondly, whether with zeal for purity and holiness he aspires to imitate Christ; whether, after his example, he is prepared to give himself to his brethren, and to hold himself in common with those with whom he has Christ in common; whether, as he himself is regarded by Christ, he in his turn regards all his brethren as members of his body, or, like his members, desires to cherish, defend, and assist them, not that the duties of faith and charity can now be perfected in us, but because it behoves us to contend and seek, with all our heart, daily to increase our faith.
According to Calvin there is no way that an infant has the ability to examine him or herself in such a fashion. This is why he asks the rhetorical question: How, pray, can we require infants to commemorate any event of which they have no understanding; how require them to “show forth the Lord’s death,” of the nature and benefit of which they have no idea?
THEY SHOULD BE CATECHIZED
The third lesson the church can take away from Calvin’s view on paedocommunion is that there are stipulations of how they should be admitted. Calvin does not merely close the table to children with no hope of ever partaking. Calvin believed that, young people may not be brought forward unless they are well instructed, and have made a profession of their faith in the church. Calvin simply wants to return to the earliest church custom of catechizing, confirmation, and confession before they be admitted. Calvin said that children should not be allowed at the table unless: the children are taught the truths of the faith, are tested on them, and make a public confession of.
Thus, Calvin believed that for children to understand the faith and the sacraments in particular, they needed to be catechized. Wulfert de Greef points out that in 1551 Calvin replaced his adult catechism with one geared for the instruction of youth in school. This catechism,
contains Calvin’s short explanation of what children who want to participate in the Lord’s Supper need to know: a large number of Bible verses as well as twenty-one question and answers that Calvin drew up with a view toward participating in Communion.
de Greef goes on to point out that they were not only to be catechized but also quizzed before they were allowed to partake of the table:
Four times a year, before each celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the children were given an opportunity to answer the questions in a church service. Demonstrating a satisfactory knowledge of the faith was considered a profession of Faith.
Calvin did not merely bar children from the Lord’s Supper, but he actively worked at preparing them for it. The road of preparation began with catechism in the home and in school. After they were adequately catechized and had become of age, they were brought before the Overseer to be examined. Calvin states:
Those who had been baptized as infants, because they had not then made confession of faith before the church, were at the end of their childhood or at the beginning of adolescence again presented by their parents, and were examined by the bishop according to the form of the catechism, which was then in definite form and in common use. But in order that this act, which ought by itself to have been weighty and holy, might have more reverence and dignity, the ceremony of the laying on of hands was also added. Thus the youth, once his faith was approved, was dismissed with a solemn blessing.
After a child came of age and had been examined by the Overseer they were then called upon to give an account of their faith before the church.
Calvin believed that one’s confession of faith was to be done when one reached boyhood and not before. He notes:
those in boyhood, or immediately beyond it, would give an account of their faith in the face of the Church. And the best method of catechising would be, if a form were drawn up for this purpose, containing, and briefly explaining, the substance of almost all the heads of our religion, in which the whole body of the faithful ought to concur without controversy.
Ideally in Calvin’s mind after being examined by the Bishop the child in question would then make a public profession of faith. “While the whole Church looked on and witnessed, he would profess the one true sincere faith with which the body of the faithful, with one accord, worship one God.” Calvin believed that this process would prompt even the least motivated of parents to do their job of catechizing their children. It was his hope that it would
undoubtedly whet the sluggishness of certain parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children, as if it did not at all belong to them, but who could not then omit it without public disgrace
He goes on to point out that it would also create
greater agreement in faith among the Christian people, and not so much ignorance and rudeness; some persons would not be so readily carried away by new and strange dogmas; in fine, it would furnish all with a methodical arrangement of Christian doctrine.
For Calvin, the Lord’s Table is only for those who are able to discern the Lord’s body, and examine their own hearts. The road for the admittance of children to the table was through an even earlier custom of the church where a boy of ten years of age or beyond were properly catechized, examined, and who make public confession of their faith. Once they have gone through this process they are admitted to the table.
The fourth and final lesson the church can learn from Calvin is that the whole issue of paedocommunion has serious consequences. In light of the Apostle Paul’s warning of drinking judgment upon oneself for the unworthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin believed that we had better be sure that our children have the ability and the desire to partake. Calvin concludes that “if only those who know how to distinguish rightly the holiness of Christ’s body are able to participate worthily, why should we offer poison instead of life-giving food to our tender children?”
The church today should consider once again Calvin’s position on paedocommunion. Since it goes against the earlier custom of the early church, since children do not have the ability to examine whether they are partaking worthily or not, since there is already an established way for them to come to the table, and since the risk of judgment is so high for infants and young children, the church would do well to heed Calvin’s position.