“The Old Testament Evidence Regarding the Participation of Children in Covenant Observances” Part Two

In my previous article, I summarized the common argument that advocates of paedocommunion derive from the teaching of the Old Testament. This argument appeals primarily to two kinds of evidence, the second of which is the most important. First, an appeal is made to the inclusion of the children of believers within the covenant community and their participation in a number of the observances of the older covenant. And second, an appeal is made to the participation of children in the celebration of the Feast of the Passover, which is regarded as the most important Old Testament type of the New Testament sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Even though my summary may have omitted some features of the paedocommunionist argument, these are the most important and relevant considerations from the evidence of the Old Testament. According to advocates of the practice of paedocommunion, these Old Testament precedents constitute a sufficient basis for the presumption that children should be granted the privilege of participating in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper under the new covenant administration.

In effect, the paedocommunionist argument from the Old Testament grants the premise of one, common objection of Baptists to the Reformed view of paedo-baptism. That objection claims that there is an inconsistency in administering the sacrament of baptism to the children of believing parents, which assumes that they are included with the covenant community and recipients of the gospel promise in Christ, and at the same time refusing such children admission to the Lord’s Table. In the opinion of many advocates of the admission of children to the Lord’s Table, this objection legitimately identifies a real inconsistency in the historic practice of the Reformed churches.
Now that we have identified the main features of the argument for paedocommunion from the Old Testament, we are in a position to evaluate this evidence and draw a preliminary conclusion regarding the implications of Old Testament practice. In this and a subsequent article, I will follow roughly the same order as in my preceding article. I will first evaluate the evidence of the participation of children in various Old Testament practices. After evaluating this evidence, I will then address the evidence drawn from the Old Testament Passover. Though we will conclude that the Old Testament does not provide a case for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper, our conclusions at this juncture will have to be tentative. Since the most important evidence must be drawn from the New Testament, which norms the practice of the believing community under the new covenant, no definitive conclusion regarding the biblical propriety of the practice of paedocommunion may be reached without a consideration of the relevant New Testament data. We will therefore turn to that evidence in subsequent articles.

A Critical Evaluation of the Paedocommunion Argument from the Old Testament
Two Relevant Principles to Note

As we evaluate the Old Testament evidence that might have relevance to the subject of paedocommunion, we need to bear in mind two important biblical principles that tend to be slighted by advocates of paedocommunion. The first principle is that the ultimate norm for the practice of the church must be the New Testament description of the administration of the new covenant. The second principle is that participation in the observances of the covenant, whether in terms of Old Testament or New Testament teaching, must be governed by the Lord’s insistence that His people worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

The first principle is a basic rule of biblical interpretation that acknowledges the progress of the history of redemption and revelation. Whatever continuities may exist between the old covenant and the new covenant, we may not determine the practice of the new covenant community of faith by a simple, direct appeal to the practice of the old covenant. Though Reformed believers confess that the old and new covenants are “one in substance,” they also confess that they are different in their “mode of administration.” There is one covenant of grace, which was first formally established with Abraham (Gen. 15, 17), but this covenant was variously administered throughout the course of the covenant Lord’s dealings with His people in the history of redemption. For example, the covenant relationship between the Lord and His people changes in important respects in the transition from the Abrahamic covenant to the Mosaic covenant. Similarly, with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of time, a “new” and “better” covenant than that of Moses has been instituted (cf. Heb. 7:22; 12:24). We may expect that this new and better covenant will differ significantly in some features of its administration from what was true under the old covenant.

Any consideration of the practice of the old covenant community, particularly its significance for the question of a new covenant practice like that of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, must reckon with this principle. Since the specific form of the old covenant administration has been replaced with that of the new covenant administration, we may not argue for a practice solely on the basis of Old Testament precedents. The general application of this principle is illustrated by the abrogation of the entirety of the “ceremonial legislation” of the old covenant, which finds its fulfillment in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the ceremonial legislation of the old covenant is fulfilled in Christ, the substance and reality to which this legislation pointed forward still remains. However, the ceremonies and types of the old administration end with the introduction of the new. Since the Lord’s Supper marks the “new covenant in [Jesus’] blood” (Luke 22:20), it must be governed by the New Testament’s teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper. Though this is not the place to review the differences between the Old Testament Passover and the New Testament Lord’s Supper, it is important to observe that the latter is an observance that belongs to the “new covenant” and points to the fulfillment of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament legislation. There is no single Old Testament precedent for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, not even the Feast of the Passover, which might superficially appear to be the most obvious candidate for this status.

In addition to this basic principle of interpretation, we should also note the Old Testament emphasis, which is also enunciated in the New Testament, that the Lord insists that His people worship Him in a responsible and informed manner (Ps. 50:13-16; Isa. 1:1017; 66:3; Jer. 7:21-26; Amos 5:2124; Mic. 6:6-8). Though this principle does not directly speak to the question whether children participated fully in the observances of the Old Testament, it does warn against an assumption that sometimes creeps into the argument of paedocommunionists. This assumption is that simple membership in the covenant community automatically grants to believers and their children access to all of its rites and observances. In the argument of many paedocommunionists, covenant membership virtually guarantees full participation by every member of the covenant community in all features of the covenant. Any restrictions upon participation in covenant observances, particularly restrictions that might demand a responsible and intelligent appreciation of what the observance means, are regarded with suspicion, as though they were tantamount to a denial of the covenant member’s status. As we shall see in the course of treatment of the biblical evidence pertaining to participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Old and New Testaments norm the practice of the covenant community in a way that often restricts participation in some aspects of the covenant’s observances. Frequently, these restrictions have to do with stipulated requirements that must be met prior to participation on the part of believers and their children.

Though we are only noting these two principles here, it will become apparent as we take up the paedocommunion argument from the Old Testament, and subsequently from the New Testament, that they have significant implications for evaluating the strength of the case for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper.

The Limitations of the Argument from the Participation of Children in Old Covenant Observances

If we keep these two principles in mind as we evaluate the Old Testament evidence, there are several features of its teaching that are slighted in the argument of paedocommunionists. These features suggest that there are limits to the argument for paedocommunion from the alleged precedents of the Old Testament.

We have noted, for example, how paedocommunionists often appeal to the participation of children in the eating of the manna that the Lord provided His people in the wilderness. Since the apostle Paul draws an analogy between this provision of manna and the participation of the new covenant community in Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:1-5, 14ff.), this is adduced as an example of an Old Testament precedent for paedocommunion. The argument is not as strong as it might first appear, however. In a sense, it might be regarded as an example of “proving too much.” In the account of the provision of manna in Exodus, we are not told that there were any restrictions upon the community’s participation in the eating of manna and drinking of the water from the rock (Ex. 16-17). Presumably, even strangers to the covenant community as well as animals were nourished by the food and drink that the Lord miraculously supplied for their daily sustenance. If the assumption were correct that participation in this eating and drinking is a clear Old Testament precedent for the participation of children in the Lord’s Supper, one could also argue for the participation of unbelievers and strangers to the covenant. The circumstances of Israel’s eating manna in the wilderness may have significance as a “type” of the covenant community’s participation in Christ, but there are significant differences between this Old Testament observance and the New Testament sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

The limits of this precedent for children partaking of the Lord’s Supper is similar to the limits of other Old Testament observances that have a New Testament counterpart. For example, there are important differences that exist between the Old Testament rite of circumcision, which in the nature of the case only applied to the male members of the covenant community, and the New Testament sacrament of baptism, which is administered to men and women. And there are significant differences between the annual celebration of the Passover at a central location in Jerusalem, and the frequent administration of the Lord’s Supper in the sanctuary/assembly of the Lord’s new covenant people. It is simply impossible to determine the proper administration of the new covenant by a direct
appeal to these kinds of alleged Old Testament precedents.

Another Old Testament precedent to which paedocommunionists appeal is the participation of children in the Feasts of Weeks and of Tabernacles. Since children were instructed to take part in these Feasts, and were also permitted to partake of peace- and firstfruit-offerings (cf. Numb. 6:2,13-21; Deut. 12:6ff.; 14:23-26; 15:19ff; 16:10ff.; Prov. 7:14), we have ample Old Testament examples of their participation in covenant meals. These examples support the presumption that children should also partake of the Lord’s Supper in the new covenant. Since these examples testify to the inclusion of children within the covenant community and its privileges, they are not without relevance. However, they do not include some of the most important sacrifices of the old covenant that more directly “typify” the sacrifice of Christ, which the Lord’s Supper commemorates and proclaims. Some of these Old Testament sacrifices did not permit participation on the part of the whole covenant community in the meals that accompanied them. For example, it is interesting to observe that the sacrifices that were regularly to be offered in Israel, and that were symbolic of the “work of atonement,” were sacrifices that could only be offered by the Levitical priests. These atoning sacrifices, which included stipulations that no bone of the sacrificial victim was to be broken and that its flesh must not be left overnight, included meals that were confined to the priests who were on duty in the sanctuary (Lev. 2:3,10; 5:13; 6:16-18,26,29; 7:6-10; 10:12ff.; 14:13; Numb. 18:9ff.) or to the priests and their wives and children at home (Lev. 10:14ff.; 22:11-13; Numb. 18:1119). Furthermore, the sacrifice offered by the high priest on the annual day of atonement did not include an accompanying meal, since the meat of the sacrificial animal was discarded and burned (cf. Heb. 7:26ff.; 8:1ff.; 9:6-7, 11-14; 10:19ff.; Lev. 16:7).

Since the Lord’s Supper remembers and proclaims especially the atoning aspects of Christ’s work, which were typified by means of these sacrifices and their accompanying meals, these old covenant rites are among the most important Old Testament prefigurements of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. While paedocommunionists do not deny this, they argue that the restrictions associated with these sacrifices belong to the shadows of the old covenant. Since we no longer have a distinct priesthood in the new covenant (Christ is our “only High priest”), these restrictions do not hold any longer. The problem with the paedocommunion argument at this point, however, is that these Old Testament observances further confirm how difficult it is to conclude from Old Testament precedents that all members of the covenant community should partake of the Lord’s Supper. The paedocommunion argument appeals to those observances of the Old Testament that support the full participation of all covenant members, while downplaying those that stipulate restrictions. This is particularly significant, since the restricted observances often concern precisely those Old Testament rites that have the most direct bearing upon the sacrifice of Christ that the Lord’s Supper commemorates.

In our subsequent consideration of the New Testament evidence for or against paedocommunion, we will have occasion to argue that the new covenant sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is much more than an “updated” version of the old covenant sacrament of the Passover. In the context of that consideration, we will return to one of the most important Old Testament precedents for the Lord’s Supper, the sealing of the old covenant that is described in Exodus 24. At this point in our evaluation of the paedocommunion argument from the Old Testament, however, we need to consider the importance of the event recorded in Exodus 24 for our claim that there are limits to the argument that appeals to Old Testament precedents. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant,” which is a quotation from Exodus 24 (cf. Heb. 8-10). In the book of Hebrews, the author maintains that the blood of Jesus is the distinguishing mark of the new covenant and that it surpasses the blood of the old covenant, which was sprinkled over the people of Israel by Moses (Heb. 9:20). This means that the New Testament views the event recorded in Exodus 24 as one, if not the most important, of the Old Testament precedents for the Lord’s Supper.

In the account of this event in Exodus 24, which follows the giving of the law of God at Sinai and the people’s pledge to live obediently before the Lord, it appears to have been a kind of sign and seal of the covenant relationship between the Lord and His people. Though it might be an overstatement to call this event an Old Testament “sacrament,” it functions in a quasi-sacramental way as a visible token and confirmation of the covenant communion between the Lord and the children of Israel. In Exodus 24, we read that Moses, the covenant Mediator, first sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings before the Lord. These offerings represented the fellowship and communion that existed between the Lord and His covenant people. After gathering the blood of these sacrificial bulls, Moses then spread the blood over both the altar, which represented the Lord’s presence, and the people of Israel (including the children). Perhaps the most important feature of this event, is the fellowship meal that was celebrated on the mountain. In the account of this event, we read: “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Ex. 24:911).

When the Lord Jesus Christ used the words of Exodus 24 in the act of instituting the Lord’s Supper, therefore, he was appealing to this Old Testament fellowship meal that Moses and the leaders of Israel celebrated on the mountain. After the children of Israel were covered by the blood of the covenant, this meal signified and sealed their communion with the covenant Lord. Since the blood atonement that preceded this meal was only a type of the blood atonement that the writer of Hebrews teaches was ultimately provided by Christ, this ceremony and its accompanying meal were only celebrated once, and never again. Since Christ’s atoning work fulfills what this atonement ceremony could only typify, the Lord’s Supper, which is the new covenant fulfillment of this event, is celebrated frequently by the new covenant believer who enjoys a full communion with the Lord on the basis of the accomplished work of Christ.
Though this Old Testament observance represents the most significant Old Testament background to the institution and meaning of the Lord’s Supper, it also illustrates the difficulty of directly appealing to the Old Testament for determining the practice of the church. It is impossible to argue from the meal that was celebrated at this time in Israel’s history that all believers and their children should participate in the Lord’s Supper, which is its new covenant fulfillment. It is likewise impossible to prove from the circumstances of this meal that only the leaders of the new covenant community should participate in the Lord’s Supper. What can be derived from this event, however, is that there are Old Testament precedents for the Lord’s Supper—this one in particular—that do not support the paedocommunionist argument that the Passover is the principal Old Testament background for the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, this important Old Testament precedent in Exodus 24 does not lend support for any direct inferences regarding who should partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the new covenant administration.

Conclusion

My purpose in citing these examples of the limits of the paedocommunionist appeal to Old Testament precedents for the participation of children in covenant observances, is rather modest. I have not cited this evidence from the Old Testament to establish a firm conclusion regarding whether children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Rather, I have appealed to these principles of interpretation and examples of Old Testament practice to show that it is not possible to determine the practice of the new covenant simply by appealing to evidence from the Old Testament.

Before we can draw any further conclusions at this point, we need still to consider the most important piece of evidence from the Old Testament, so far as the argument for paedocommunion is concerned. And that is the alleged precedent of the participation of children in the celebration of the Passover. Accordingly, we will turn to the subject of the Old Testament Passover and its significance for the question of paedocommunion in our next article.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.

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