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

So far in our study of the question of paedocommunion, we have primarily focused upon the historical evidence for and against the practice of admitting children to the Lord’s Supper. We have argued that the evidence from church history is ambiguous, and cannot be cited as a sufficient basis either for embracing or rejecting the practice of paedocommunion. Though significant sectors of the eastern and western church have admitted children to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it is not possible to establish with certainty that this was the earliest practice of the church. Moreover, where the practice of paedocommunion has become normative, as in the eastern church, the justification for the practice often includes an appeal to a sacramental doctrine that includes some unbiblical assumptions that are incompatible with key features of the Reformed confessions. For example, the historic advocacy of paedocommunion is often defended on the basis of the conviction that the sacrament of baptism effects the regeneration or new birth of its recipients. Since baptized children are presumed to have been born again by the Spirit, it is only fitting that they should receive the Lord’s Supper, which further nourishes and strengthens baptized Christians in their new life as members of Christ and recipients of His life-giving Spirit.
In our summary of the teaching of the Reformed confessions, we noted that the practice of requiring children of believing parents to profess their faith before being admitted to the Lord’s Supper follows from their understanding of the nature and use of the sacraments. In the Reformed confessions, the sacraments are viewed as visible signs and seals of the promise of the gospel. The Holy Spirit produces faith through the preaching of the gospel and confirms faith through the administration of the sacraments. Just as the Word requires the Spirit-authored response of faith to communicate the grace of Jesus Christ, so the sacraments, which are a visible confirmation of the gospel Word, require faith on the part of their recipients in order for them to serve effectively as means of grace. In the Reformed confessions, all believers and their children receive the sacrament of baptism, which is a sign and seal of their incorporation into Christ and His church. However, baptism does not confer the grace of Jesus Christ regardless of the response of its recipients. Those who are baptized enjoy the privileges that belong to the reception of the sacramental sign of incorporation into Christ. But they simultaneously are placed under the obligation to embrace the gospel promise that was signified and sealed to them in their baptism. The instruction of children of believing parents in the Christian faith is undertaken in order to prepare them to respond appropriately to their baptism in the way of faith and thereby be admitted to the Table of the Lord. What distinguishes the Lord’s Supper is that it is a sacramental means of nourishing faith that requires, in the nature of the case, the attestation (through public profession) of the kind of faith that can properly remember, discern and proclaim the death of Christ. Because the Lord’s Supper is designed to nourish faith, it requires the presence of faith on the part of its recipients.

Having considered the historical and confessional arguments for and against paedocommunion, we are now obliged to turn to the biblical evidence that may bear upon this practice. What biblical evidence is there to support or to oppose the practice of admitting the children of believing parents to the Lord’s Supper? Though the teaching of the New Testament is of decisive importance for determining who should be admitted to the Table of the Lord, we will begin with a consideration of the Old Testament evidence. Advocates of paedocommunion often appeal to the inclusion of children within the covenant in its Old Testament administration as a point of departure for interpreting the teaching and practice of the New Testament. Since in the old covenant children received the sign and seal of covenant membership in the rite of circumcision, and since they were granted the privilege of participation in many of the covenant observances, including the important rite of the Passover, we should proceed from the conviction that a similar circumstance will likely obtain in the new covenant. When we take note of the way the new covenant frequently enlarges the privileges of covenant inclusion in comparison to the old, we may expect, according to paedocommunion advocates, that this would likely include their participation in the sacraments of the new covenant. Though Reformed churches have historically recognized this with respect to the baptism of the children of believers, they have inconsistently refused to reckon with its implications for their participation in the Lord’s Supper.
In order to evaluate these claims of paedocommunionists, we will begin with a review of the kinds of Old Testament evidence that they frequently adduce. Since the principal component of the argument from the Old Testament for the admission of children to the Lord’s Table is an argument from the analogy between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, this will occupy most of our attention. In the first part of our consideration of the Old Testament evidence, we will be content to set forth the common form of the argument of advocates of paedocommunion. After this argument has been summarized, we will evaluate its strength to determine whether it can sustain the weight that many paedocommunionists place upon it.

The Paedocommunion Argument from the Old Testament

The argument for paedocommunion from the analogy with the Old Testament Passover is a well-known and common feature of the case for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper. However, this argument does not stand alone. Though it plays an important role in the case for paedocommunion, it only does so within the context of a broader argument that appeals to the precedent of the inclusion of children within the life and privileges of the Old Testament covenant community. The incorporation of children within the covenant community, which was signified and sealed to them by means of circumcision (Gen. 17:7-14), is an essential feature of the administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament. The children of the covenant community, no less than their parents, were regarded as recipients of the covenant promises and obligations. They enjoyed, consistent with their status as members of the covenant community, many of the privileges and benefits of covenant communion with the Lord and those who belonged to the people of God.

The Participation of Children in Covenant Observances

Of particular interest to the paedocommunionist is the way children in the old covenant participated in various covenant ordinances, including covenant meals and rites that find their fulfillment in Christ. The participation of children in these covenant observances illustrates their place within the covenant community. They also suggest that it would be inconsistent with Old Testament precedents to prohibit children in the new covenant from enjoying the privilege of participation in its rites, including the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Though we will not treat all of these observances, several are of special interest to the case for paedocommunion.
Among the important covenant observances in which children participated were the “wilderness meals” (Ex. 16:13-20). During the period of Israel’s wilderness wandering before the entrance into the land of promise, all the people of Israel enjoyed the Lord’s provision of daily manna from heaven. The children of Israel participated in these meals together with their parents. The importance of the participation by children in these meals is highlighted by the way the apostle Paul describes them as a means of participation in Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. According to Paul, the children of Israel “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (vv. 1-4). In the argument for paedocommunion, the fact that Paul describes the people of Israel, including the children, participating spiritually in Christ by means of these “wilderness meals” is an important precedent for their spiritual participation in Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper. Remarkably, after this description of the wilderness meals at the outset of 1 Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul goes on to speak of the Corinthians participation in the body and blood of Christ through the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 14-17). The Old Testament participation in Christ through the wilderness meals parallels in an important way the New Testament participation in Christ through the Lord’s Supper. The implication of this is that the wilderness meals represent an Old Testament precedent for the admission of children to the Table of the Lord.
Next to the precedent of the participation of covenant children in the wilderness meals, advocates of paedocommunion also appeal to the great feasts of the Old Testament, particularly the annual observance of the Feast of the Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Deut. 16). Since we will consider the Feast of the Passover in the next section, we will restrict our discussion at this point to the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths.

In the book of Deuteronomy, which provides detailed instructions for the worship of the people of Israel in the land of promise, the observance of these feasts, together with the presentation of various offerings and sacrifices, is to take place at the centralized place of worship where the Lord has put His name and that He has chosen as His dwelling place (Deut. 12:4-6). The people of Israel are commanded to worship the Lord in accordance with the provisions of the covenant, which emphasize that the sacrifices are to be presented at the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. Specific instructions are also given for keeping the three annual Feasts in Jerusalem. What is especially significant about these instructions is that they expressly speak of the participation of children in the meals that accompany some of the sacrificial offerings and the annual festivals (Deut. 12:7,12,18). Though there were some restrictions upon the participation of the Israelites and their children in the meals that accompany the guilt and sin offerings (e.g. Lev. 6:29; 7:6-9), these restrictions do not apply to the Feasts of Tabernacles and of Booths. The Feast of Weeks, which celebrates the Lord’s provision for the people in the land of promise, required the presentation of a “tribute of a freewill offering” to the Lord in gratitude for His blessings. The celebration that accompanied this freewill offering called all the children of Israel, young and old alike, to rejoice before the Lord for His goodness and bounty (Deut. 12:11). In the provisions for the Feast of Booths, the children of Israel are commanded to celebrate the harvest by rejoicing in the feast before the Lord. This Feast, like the Feast of Weeks, expressly enjoined the participation of all the people—parents and children, the Levites, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut. 12:14). Even though only the males in Israel were required to keep these feasts on an annual basis (Deut. 16:16), the provisions of the covenant make it clear that all the Israelites, men, women, and children, were permitted to take part and join fully in their celebration. The requirement that males participate in these feasts does not mean that other members of the community, younger children and women for example, were not permitted to participate.

While advocates of paedocommunion acknowledge that covenant children did not participate in all the Old Testament rites and meals associated with the various sacrifices stipulated in the Levitical legislation, they claim that the participation of children in these old covenant observances and meals constitutes an important line of evidence for the admission of children to the new covenant Table of the Lord. Since these observances and meals find their fulfillment in Christ, the participation of children in them represents a kind of participation in Christ under the “types” and “shadows” of the Old Testament legislation. At the least, they create a kind of presumption for the admission of children to the Lord’s Table, provided there is no clear New Testament prohibition against such admission.

The Participation of Children in the Passover

The principal piece of Old Testament evidence that is commonly cited by advocates of paedocommunion, however, is the Old Testament rite of the Passover (or the “Feast of Unleavened Bread,” as it is termed in Deuteronomy 16). Among the old covenant practices that have the most direct bearing upon the new covenant sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Passover deserves to be given pride of place. Since the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of the Passover celebration (Matt. 26:17-29), and since the essential elements of the Lord’s Supper were derived from the Passover (the bread and the cup), the Passover represents the most obvious and relevant Old Testament antecedent or “anti-type” for the New Testament sacrament. According to those who favor the admission of children to the Table of the Lord, such a practice alone does justice to the important connections between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, and particularly to the fact that children were admitted to the Passover Feast. Just as children participated in the Passover remembrance and proclamation of Israel’s deliverance in Egypt through the blood of the Passover lamb, so children in the new covenant should participate in the remembrance and proclamation of the church’s deliverance through the blood of Christ, who is her “Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7)
In order to make a case for paedocommunion from the Old Testament precedent of the Passover, proponents of paedocommunion usually argue in two ways. On the one hand, they insist that the requirements for participation in the Passover were not such as would exclude children. And on the other hand, they argue that there is positive evidence to warrant the conclusion that children were permitted to participate fully in the Passover.

Among the practices that belong to the Old Testament Passover, several appear initially to exclude the likelihood that infants and younger children participated in the Feast. The description of the first Passover in Exodus 12 includes the following practices that became part of the annual Passover Feasts in Jerusalem: the eating of the Passover lamb “according to what each can eat” (Ex. 12:4) the eating of unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8); and a kind of “catechetical exercise” in which the children are to ask, “What do you mean by these service?” (Ex. 12:26). Each of these elements of the original Passover seems to require a measure of maturity and spiritual discernment that would exclude full participation in the Passover meal by infants and younger children. Furthermore, the subsequent annual celebrations of the Passover in Jerusalem included several additional features that seem inconsistent with the participation of all the children: the stipulation that only the males were required to keep the annual Feast (Deut. 16:16); the requirements of “ritual cleanness” on the part of the Passover celebrants (Num. 9:6; John 18:28); and the incorporation of the “cup of blessing,” which involved the drinking of wine (an intoxicant) on the part of the Passover participants. In their response to this kind of evidence against the participation of children in the Passover, paedocommunionists maintain that young children were (and are) capable of eating the Passover elements. They also argue that the “catechetical exercise,” which was an important component of the Passover celebration, would not prevent little children from participating. According to paedocommunion advocates, this exercise was not a “pre-requisite” for participation in the Passover, nor was it substantially different from other, similar exercises in which the Lord made provision for children to be taught to remember His covenant faithfulness (compare Josh. 4:6-7; Deut. 6:20-21). Though paedocommunionists acknowledge that females and younger children were not required to keep the annual Passover, the requirement that males keep the Feast is not tantamount to a prohibition against the participation of the entire community—men and women, young and old. None of these common objections to the participation of children in the Old Testament Passover, therefore, proves convincingly that children were not permitted to join in the celebration.

The argument of the paedocommunionist is not limited to answering these common objections to the participation of the children in the Passover. Several positive considerations are also cited in favor of the claim that the traditional practice involved the full participation of the children of the covenant. According to advocates of paedocommunion, there is ample evidence for the likelihood that children participated in the Passover at a very early age. If we remember the basic starting point of the Old Testament administration of the covenant, namely, that the children were included as full members of the covenant community (cf. Deut. 29:9-13), this evidence seems undeniable. In the description of Exodus 12, the first Passover is consistently viewed as a “household” rite, which included the active engagement of all who were members of the household, whatever their age (vv. 3,4,21,24,26). In the provisions for the selection of the Passover lamb, consideration is to be given to the size of the particular household (v. 4). Within the contours of this thoroughly covenantal framework of household celebration, the only stipulated requirement for the participation of any household member in the Passover was that all male members needed to be circumcised (12:43-49). The only persons who are expressly prohibited from participation in the Passover feast are those who were uncircumcised. Since the Passover is one of the three great feasts that the children of Israel were to celebrate annually in Jerusalem, it is significant that the general description of these feasts in Deuteronomy 12 specifies the inclusion and participation of children in their observances (12:67,11-12). If these kinds of evidences are given appropriate weight, it seems most likely that the Old Testament Passover was a covenant feast in which the children of the households of Israel fully participated.

Conclusion

No doubt there are other dimensions of the paedocommunionist argument from the Old Testament for the practice of paedocommunion. However, our summary of the most common form of the argument from Old Testament precedents is sufficient for our purpose. In our next article, we will evaluate the strength of these arguments and conclude that, despite their apparent force, they are not a sufficient basis for overturning the historic practice of the Reformed churches, which only admits professing believers to the Table of the Lord.

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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