Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Biblical Requirement of Preparing for the Supper vs. Paedocommunion
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 1 Corinthians 11:28NKJV
This morning we look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 171, which asks, “How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?” It gives the answer, “They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience, and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.”
For the past thirty years in many Reformed circles, the subject of paedocommunion keeps coming up. It is a clear sign of the sad state of theology in the Reformed Church today. Paedocommunion refers to the practice of allowing children to partake of the elements of the Lord’s Supper as soon as they are physically able. Advocates base many of their positive claims on implications drawn from comparing the Jewish Passover and infant baptism with the Lord’s Supper. They also argue that the practice prevailed in the early church. They err in their comparison arguments by failing to properly distinguish between an Old Testament type and its New Testament fulfillment, and in the spiritual difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So also, a 2007 article by Matthew Winzer in The Confessional Presbyterian Journal demonstrated how church history is selectively distorted in a very few inconclusive statements of Cyprian and Augustine, while a veritable mountain of extended passages from a whole host of church fathers, including Cyprian and Augustine, explicitly teach against the practice.
One of the main ways the early church fathers taught against paedocommunion was in their uniform affirmation of the concern of today’s Larger Catechism question: that communicants must be prepared in their hearts and minds before they come to the Lord’s Supper. More than one hundred years before Cyprian, Justin Martyr wrote how in Christian worship services no one was permitted to approach the Lord’s Table who did not first go through catechesis training. Catechesis was post-baptismal instruction given to baptized catechumens, so that they could, in Augustine’s words, “hear what the faith and pattern of Christian life should be, so that first they may prove themselves and then eat of the Bread of the Lord and drink of the Chalice.”
Similar statements forbidding Communion until the completion of catechesis instruction can to be found in Tertullian, Irenaeus, Cyril, Basil, Chrysostom, and many others. Until one completed catechesis, the early church commended a participation in the Supper by prayer (thus, Canon 13 of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD), which is probably what Augustine in a few places indicates, seeing that he always affirmed a required level of discernment when he explicitly described the qualifications of rightly communing (See Augustine NPNF 1, 6:504, 7:113). It was not until Sacramentalism took root and eternal life was inextricably and unbiblically tied to the physical ingesting of the Supper that we find Pope Gelasius I, in 495 AD, decree, “No one should venture to exclude any child from this sacrament, without which no one can attain to eternal life.” Seeing that sacramental superstition began the unbiblical practice of paedocommunion, it is not surprising that its most strenuous advocates today belong to the modern sacramentalist movement called “The Federal Vision.”
However, Scripture and not church history is the final court of appeal in all disputes. And the verse at the head of this article is sufficient refutation of the paedocommunion position for it explicitly addresses the issue of the qualifications for partaking of the Lord’s Supper. The Reformers all understood this fact, which is why they hardly dealt with the issue of paedocommunion; it was as plain and uncontroversial to them as other issues they barely addressed, like marriage not being permitted to two people of the same sex. Why address something on which almost no one was confused? The PCA position paper on paedocommunion affirms this fact of history, “Classical Reformed theology has been virtually unanimous in judging that covenant children ought not be brought to the Lord’s Table before the age of discretion.” As the Westminster Divines rightly teach in today’s question: partaking of the elements in the Supper requires personal and discerning self-examination in an introspective time of preparation. A child simply cannot do this. To hold otherwise is to distort the above plain verse of Scripture and to misunderstand the meaning of the Supper and how we benefit by it: not merely by eating and drinking, but by faith as we remember Him!