Oh my, someone has let the calves out of the stall! They’re out in the pasture. We’ll never get them back in again. Look at them leap and frolic for the sheer joy of being free! Basking in the sun of righteousness overhead, they tread their enemies under foot like ashes. See the calves and their strong young legs as they trample Satan and his hordes under their hooves. (Malachi 4) Sin, death, Satan, hell, and terrorized consciences trampled down! Young calves like old Simeon rejoicing as he held in his arms the Light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. Calves like aged Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, witnessing to all who awaited the redemption of the New Jerusalem. There are poor Mary and Joseph, of course. There are also the humble shepherds, the first pastores of the New Testament, ordained by heaven sent messengers to glorify and praise God for all they had seen and heard. And then there is barren Elizabeth with little John within her leaping for joy at the presence of the Theotokos and the Presence of the Lord himself! And John would soon lend his own voice in praise, for “out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies” the Lord has “prepared praise.” (Mt 21:16, ESV) The whole church with one voice joins in the grand chorus, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven lauding and magnifying the glorious Name of the Lord. For just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5), so “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Co 10:17) The many are the one body, the one bread. And that one bread is Christ with whom the whole church is baked together, to paraphrase Luther. At least that is how it ought to be. That’s the way it should be. One bread. The partaking of the one bread ought to be the communion of all in that one bread, that is, in the incarnate Lord. But it isn’t that way in a sizeable portion of the church catholic, nor has it been for some time. Be that as it may, the fast from the Supper, which has been imposed upon the most vulnerable people of the Church, should not remain unchallenged. Come, brothers and sisters, let us reason together. Let us put aside our preconceived notions. Let’s accept the challenge. Among the many issues which face the church of the West today the communion of all the saints is one with which we must wrestle. There is no escaping it. It won’t go away. It’s out of the stall, and no one will be able to stable it again.
I have noted that the matter of the communion of all the saints is an issue for the West. Yet this was not always the case. In the first part of this article I believe that it was established that by the 5th century, if not before, and at least through the 12th century the communion of infants and the very young was a wide spread practice in the churches of both the East and the West. It was the catholic practice. Both the Council of Trent and Martin Luther acknowledged this. The liturgical scholar Frank Senn notes a very late occurrence in the West of the ancient practice of co-joining baptism, chrism (confirmation) and first communion. He writes,
In England this was done for royal children as late as the time of the birth of King Henry VIII’s children, Elizabeth in 1533 and Edward in 1537. But most children, by this time, were not communed until later when they made their first confession or were confirmed. (Christian Liturgy, Fortress Press, 1997, p 226f)
I think that a reasonable argument can be made for the fact that the demise of this custom is an example of doctrine following practice, the way in which the doctrine of concomitance followed the practice of communion in one kind. In a 1930 study of the decline of the communion of the very young Peter Browe cites four reasons for the decline (see Part One of this article, MM Vol. II, number 4). None of the reasons are purely doctrinal. It is only after the demise of the practice that we see doctrinal justifications being made for the exclusion of the very young from the altar. St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 about personal examination, which are often appealed to today, were rarely referenced in connection with infant communion in medieval times. The first official effort to deal with the communion of the very young was made at the Synod of Tours (813). The synod stated that undiscerning children were not to receive the Supper. However, the practice continued in various parts of the West. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) removed the cup from the laity thereby taking from the very young the most common method by which they could commune (chalice only). In an effort to encourage more frequent reception the same council stipulated that the faithful who had reached the age of discretion (a matter left undefined by the council) were required to commune at least once a year. However, confusion resulted and it was popularly believed that the council’s intention was that one could not commune prior to age seven, which was becoming in the opinion of many the age of discretion, an age which received a pontifical imprimatur in 1910 from Pope Pius X.
An analogous situation was the demise of an every Sunday celebration of the Eucharist in the Lutheran Church. Here, too, justifications for an existing unfortunate practice come after the fact. Nowhere in history do we hear of a Lutheran divine standing up at a theological convocation saying, “Brothers, I just had a smashing idea! The less we celebrate the Lord’s Supper the more our people will appreciate it!” Likewise, there was no such “brainstorm” with regard to the communion of the very young.
The practice of communing infants and the very young continues to this day in the churches of the East. Unfortunately, that is a problem for proponents of the practice within Lutheranism. With so many Lutheran defections to the East it is a hard sale in today’s Lutheranism even when it comes to salutary eastern practices. Protestations are viewed with suspicion, but let me try in my own case. I have no inclination of heading eastward. I believe that its view of grace is as problematic as Rome’s. I’m a convinced Lutheran. Besides, I don’t look good in a beard. Although I have communed children as early as age nine, I only do so after they have gone through a year of catechesis with the promise of another year of instruction after their confirmation. I do not commune infants or toddlers. However, it grieves me when the little ones come to the communion rail for a spoken blessing and look with wide (and longing?) eyes at the ciborium and chalice as the Lord’s true body and blood passes them by. It is a passover which bestows no life.
Martin Luther and the church of his day were separated from the Fourth Lateran Council by three centuries. The practice of communing infants and the very young was not a part of anyone’s experience. However, Luther was aware of this ancient practice and did on occasion comment on it. It should be noted, however, that his comments usually dealt with matters that were peripheral to the practice. As one reads Luther on the subject he cannot help but also see the influence of Scholasticism upon the reformer.
There are about a half dozen Luther citations which deal with the communion of infants and the very young. The first appears in his Treatise on the New Testament (1520) in which he sets forth the evangelical understanding of the Mass as testament and sacrament, rather than meritorious sacrifice. In this work Luther takes up numerous topics relating to the Supper. At the end of the work he answers the question as to whether or not the sacrament should be given to the deaf and dumb. Luther answers yes. After stating that the deaf and dumb should be admitted to the Supper “if they are rational” and if they indicate their desire to receive the Supper, he buttresses his opinion in a way that is somewhat curious. He first notes the practice of Saint Cyprian, the third century bishop of Carthage, who “had both elements given to children.” The age of the children is not specified. This practice, Luther notes, ceased “for reasons of its own”, which may indicate that he was unaware of the reasons for the demise of the practice. Luther gives further proof by stating, “Christ had children come to him and would not allow anyone to hinder them (Mark 10:14)” [AE 35:110-111]. The obvious parallels between the deaf and dumb and the children brought to Christ for blessing, whom Luke in his account terms “infants”, is that both have faith, yet both are unable to articulate their faith verbally. Based on these two arguments, one from church history and the other from Scripture, Luther concludes, “In like manner he withheld his blessings neither from the dumb nor blind nor the lame.”
The Treatise was followed several months later by Luther’s more famous work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Luther refers to Cyprian again to bolster his argument for communion in both kinds. He wrote
….he testifies that it was the widespread custom in the church (at Carthage) to administer both kinds to the laity, even to children, indeed, to give the body of the Lord into their hands. [AE 36:25)
It should be noted that Cyprian states that this practice was “widespread” in his diocese.
In the same work Luther states his opinion that infants can be saved by faith apart from reception of the Sacrament, thereby making their communion unnecessary. He cites Augustine’s dictum, “Believe, and you have eaten.” The context of his opinion is his discussion of John 6. Unfortunately, his blind spot with regard to the Eucharistic dimension of this chapter affects his argumentation and conclusions. For Luther the chapter had nothing to do with the Supper. The reformer’s position on John 6 was further solidified in reaction to the misuse of this text by the Sacramentarians nearly a decade later. Among other things, he couldn’t overcome what he considered the overwhelming exclusionary force of Christ’s words, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) As he wrote, “(Christ) would be condemning all infants, all the sick, and all those absent or in any way hindered from the sacramental eating, however strong their faith might be” [AE 36:20]. In the same paragraph Luther criticizes the Bohemian Brethren for using John 6 as a Eucharistic text in order to prove that communion was to be distributed in both kinds (See the author’s article about the Eucharistic dimensions of John 6 in Motley Magpie ,volume III, Number 3, July 2005).
In an October 1523 letter to Nicholas Hausmann Luther spoke of his intention to produce a revised Mass. He noted that it was his intention to reintroduce communion in both kinds, and that those who were to be admitted to the Supper were to be examined. What formed the context of his remarks was the practice of the Bohemian Brethren of communing in both kinds. He wrote, “Right now I do not think badly about the Bohemian Brethren, having heard from their own representatives their faith concerning the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I do not approve of the Bohemians who commune little children, although I do not regard them as heretics in this matter” (“Whether the Eucharist Should be Given to Children?” Lutheran Forum Vol. 30, no. 4, Winter, 1996). Luther is probably using the name Bohemian in a broad sense which would include the Bohemian Brethren, Utraquists, Taborites, etc. Some of the factions in the larger movement to restore the chalice to the laity communed infants and the very young and some did not. Whatever the case, Luther did not consider those who communed infants heretics, though he thought that the practice was unnecessary.
In his last known comment on the practice of the communion of all the saints Luther takes a rather mild position. This exchange appears in his Table Talk, the year was 1532. When asked if the Supper should be given to children he replied, “There is no urgency about the sacrament of the altar.” He goes on to argue that children will not be damned if they do not receive Communion. A bit later he states,
When in 1 Corinthians (11:28) Paul said that a man should examine himself, he spoke only of adults because he was speaking about those who were quarreling among themselves. However, he doesn’t here forbid that the sacrament of the altar be given even to children (AE 54:58).
It should be noted that this was recorded by Veit Dietrich, considered to be one of the most reliable of Luther’s many amanuenses.
Luther’s comments on the practice at issue are what we would expect. The practice no longer existed in the Catholic West and so was not a matter of controversy. Other issues prevailed at this time. However, it is not completely accurate to argue that Luther might have come to a different conclusion about the matter if he hadn’t had bigger fish to fry. Other matters certainly did dominate Luther’s thinking, but his training, influenced by Scholasticism, predisposed him to disfavor the practice of the communion of the very young. However, while Luther does not favor the practice, he never condemns it as false practice. If he felt that the practice was unnecessary, he never expresses the belief that it would be harmful.
By the late Middle Ages any urgency of restoring Holy Communion to the very young was made moot by the belief that the faithful received the res or the thing of the Sacrament (i.e. Christ’s body and blood) by faith. This argument was employed by the Scholastics but it has precedent in the teaching of Augustine. Luther argued in this way also, as did the Tübingen theologians in their correspondence with Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople (1572-79). Aquinas wrote in his Summa (III a, 80, art. 1), “As stated above, the effect of the sacrament can be secured by every man if he receive it in desire, though not in reality.” Therefore the Scholastics could speak of a “Baptism of desire” and a “Communion of desire” or a “Communion of the eyes.” The repentant thief on the cross, for instance, was said to have had the “baptism of desire” and thus was saved, though he was not baptized. In the Middle Ages the laity often did not commune; however, it was reasoned that they communed with their eyes through faith, thus receiving the res of the Sacrament.
Luther argues in the same vein, “Thus Augustine, in his Contra Julianum, Book II, proves from Innocent that even infants eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ without the sacrament; that is, they partake of them through the faith of the church” (AE:19-20).
Yet the question begs to be asked, “Then what kind of communion would this be?” A communion without the physical eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood? That may be satisfactory for the Reformed, but can Lutherans and Roman Catholics be satisfied with only this? This view essentially reduces the Sacrament of Communion to a redundancy.
Supporters of the restoration of the Sacrament of the Altar to all the faithful are sometimes accused of equating the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. Their rationale is characterized in this way: Since the proponents of this practice believe that Baptism qualifies one to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, they have in effect made the two sacraments identical and interchangeable. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The sacraments have commonalities, but each has its distinct properties. The uniqueness of the sacraments is not found in who receives them but in their own individual intrinsic value. The most obvious things which distinguish Holy Communion from Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution are the Real Presence and the physical eating and drinking of the Sacrament. One may have the forgiveness of sins by faith as he hears the Verba, but if he does not come forward to partake he does not receive the body and blood of Christ. The body and blood of Christ, physically eaten, are not pointless redundancies. Indeed, they profit the recipients greatly. The divinized flesh and blood of Christ meshed with our flesh and blood are of great value. Luther’s pungent prose about the Christian being “baked” into Christ in the Sacrament comes to mind. We can only regret his myopia with regard to John 6 and also the influence of late Roman Scholasticism.
Consider the Reformer’s words three paragraphs above. If, as Luther states, infants commune by faith, that is, receive the body and blood of Christ by faith (apart from an 8th grade public examination!), then they must be qualified to orally receive the sacred species by that same faith. If they are already “communing” by faith, then why can’t they commune by mouth, since Holy Communion is a meal which is physically received, apart from which reception one has not received Holy Communion, for Communion is not with eyes only (faith), but with the mouth also.
When one analyzes the Scholastic argumentation (shared by Luther), which is clumsily employed by many today, one is struck by the fact that it is a lowest common denominator approach, and in the end negates any need for sacraments at all. If one can have the res of Christ by faith, then why be baptized or receive the body and blood at all, apart from fulfilling some legal mandate? One might as well sit at home, as do our delinquents, saying, “We commune with Jesus in our hearts.” Pastors who buy into Scholastic thinking in this matter have no leg to stand on when dealing with delinquents other than beating them over the head with the Third Commandment.
“Who, then, receives this sacrament worthily? Answer: …..a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ is really worthy and well prepared.” (Small Catechism, Kolb-Wenger Edition,, p. 363) Indeed, Holy Communion is a communion of all the faithful!
1 Corinthians 11
For those who oppose the communion of all the faithful 1 Corinthians 11:28 is the card which trumps the whole deck. At first blush it might appear that the verse does exclude infants and the very young from the altar. However, that is only true if one reads the text superficially and is unaware of its usage in the church of the past. As noted in the first part of this article Fr. Duane Osterloth in his research of the writings of the church fathers through the 10th century does not find the fathers using this pericope to oppose the communion of the very young, although it is used to fence the Table from a considerable list of other people. A possible exception is the Synod of Tours (813), yet here the restrictions placed on who ought to receive the Sacrament are not altogether clear. Although Luther felt that the communion of the very young was unnecessary, the Lutheran confessions do not use this passage to restrict children from the Table, an interesting omission. However, later Lutheran divines did use the verse when opposing infant communion. Once again, one wonders if this is a case of doctrine following practice.
In the Luther quote cited above the reformer noted that the injunction of verse 28 applied only to the adults of the congregation. In a similar vein he writes,
My dear fellow, do you see whom St. Paul is criticizing? Namely, those who burst in like pigs and made of it physical gluttony and treated it no differently from mere daily bread and wine; besides, they despised one another and everyone had his own meal. But we are talking about those who believe that it is not at all something for a pig but the true Body and Blood of Christ and who know that Christ has instituted it for his remembrance and for our consolation (AE 38:132).
In the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians St. Paul is not dealing with the age of admission to the Supper. He is dealing with the abuse of the Supper by a certain faction within the Corinthian congregation. Paul accuses these people of not discerning Christ’s body and blood and of not examining themselves. According to the apostle these two failures were demonstrated by drunkenness, factionalism, snobbishness, poor Table etiquette and despising the church of God. In other words, these people did not have faith or were in serious danger of losing faith. They were returning to the paganism from which they had been rescued. The dire physical consequences of which Paul speaks later in the chapter were divine judgment upon this unbelief. However, Paul’s admonition did not apply to those in the congregation who had faith. The infants and very young of the congregation were not included in Paul’s admonition. They were not the naughty children of Paul’s wayward parish. They had not despised the church of God for they had discerned the body and blood and had examined themselves.
If the opponents of the communion of the very young are consistent in their logic, they would have to agree that Paul is not speaking about infants at all but only about adults. They believe that the apostolic church did not commune infants and the very young, while proponents leave this as an open question. However, if the opponents are correct, then Paul does not have infants in mind at all, but only the adults he censures, as Luther asserted. In other words, this is not about setting an age for first communion. Furthermore, if the opponents were consistent they should ratchet it up a bit and warn that if infants and the very young commune they will come under the judgment of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 11:29-34. Unlike their namesake, they cannot leave the matter as an open question but will have to treat the proponents of this practice as heathen and publicans.
The entire case against the ancient practice of communing the entire church hangs on a particular interpretation of one verse in the New Testament. This interpretation is open to debate and it stands in opposition to our Savior’s gracious invitation to his entire flock. If this interpretation is allowed to stand, then the Church is not a communion of saints, but a partition of the Body.
But what of the matter of discernment of which Paul speaks in this pericope? We go on.
One Faith, One Lord
Much ink has been spilled in attempts to determine what Paul meant when he said, “Let a man δοκιμαζέτω himself.” This author believes that the heart of the matter is how one defines and looks at faith, for this is not principally about infant communion but about infant faith. There is one faith as Paul told the Ephesian Christians. Those who oppose the communion of the very young are forced into operating with a two-tier type of faith. They believe they have warrant for this because Lutheran theologians of the Age of Orthodoxy spoke of fides directa and fides reflexa. However, where in Scripture is faith spoken about in this way? Faith cannot be parsed in this manner. This parsing brings to mind the two-tier approach to faith found in Pentecostalism: carnal believers and spirit filled believers or plain old Christians and anointed Christians. No, there is one faith. C.F.W. Walther put that truth in this way,
Grace is obtained either entire or not at all; it is never given piecemeal, as Luther puts it. A person is either a child of the devil or a child of God; either in the kingdom of darkness or the kingdom of light; either in a state of grace with God or under His wrath. There is no middle ground (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, p 148).
Walther also cautions that when speaking about faith or about the believer one must give a definition and speak in a way that includes all believers of all times.
In the thirteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times (ibid, p 3).
The strength, consciousness, and productiveness of saving faith are possessed by all the faithful. Why didn’t men like Walther see the occasional inconsistencies of their theology? That’s one of those inconsistencies which is not too felicitous, to run Francis Pieper in the other direction. After all, we’re all products of our environment and our times.
There is one faith, not two. Christian faith trusts, believes, discerns and examines. All Christians trust, believe and discern Christ. They know Christ as their mighty Savior. This is the positive side of the coin. All Christians examine themselves and find themselves weak and in need of a Savior. This is the negative side of the coin. However, it is the same coin, the same faith. The same Spirit who convicts is also the one who comforts. The gifts of discernment and self examination are simply that, gifts. How infants do this is a mystery. How anyone does this is also a mystery. Not two mysteries, one more mysterious than the other, but one mystery.
St. Paul wrote to Timothy (literal translation), “And that from a babe (βρέφους) sacred letters you have known, the (ones) being able you to make wise to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15). Paul next fleshes out this divinely imparted wisdom of salvation when he writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (vv 16, 17). It is worth noting that verses 16 and 17 do not have any age specification added to them. The only notification about age is that Timothy knew the Holy Scriptures and was wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus even as a babe. While Christians remain students of the Holy Scriptures all their lives, Paul does not set up a chronology of the gifts of faith that is age specific. If baptized babies are wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, as was Timothy, then they are discerning with regard to the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament and discerning as well with regard to their need for these gifts. Discerning one’s need for the Father’s Table or discerning the Real Presence of the body and blood in the Supper do not require greater or more advanced discernment than knowing that Jesus is the Savior, which the opponents do attribute to infants. These various truths require the same gift of discernment given by the same Spirit to people who by birth are incapable of this discernment, no matter what their age. Perhaps this fabricated distinction between faith which believes that Jesus is the Savior, but cannot discern a need for a Savior nor the body and blood of the Savior in the Sacrament, is the highest hurdle which the opponents must clear. Their attempts will reveal how rationalistic their view of faith has become.
In the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians St. Paul deals with the inability of human reason to grasp the mysteries of the faith. Fr. Duane Osterloth makes this salient observation about the intellectualizing of faith:
The emphasis on cognitive understanding has the air of Scholasticism, with its heightened emphasis on human reason (i.e. cognitive understanding of the Sacrament; cognitive awareness of one’s sins; cognitive understanding and reception of the Gospel for “assurance” of forgiveness). It’s all about the brain. Perhaps the new man is more than brains. Certainly the new man makes use of human understanding in as much as there is the capacity to understand, but the Holy Spirit isn’t hindered by the lack of reason. Indeed, isn’t human reason the problem? (Personal correspondence, January 9, 2007.)
In Luke’s record of the Visitation, Elizabeth revealed to Mary, “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (1:44) We must ask the opponents of the communion of all the faithful: If the fetus John was able to discern the Presence of the Lord, though both the Lord and he were hidden within their mothers’ wombs, how is it that the very young cannot discern the Presence of Christ in the Supper or discern their need for this Gift? If the unborn John experienced joy (a faith word) when he recognized the eternal Logos hidden in human flesh, and further hidden within a human womb, then an infant can certainly recognize the body and blood of that same Logos hidden in the species of bread and wine. It is after all a gift and a mystery.
Opponents of the communion of the very young also argue that infants should not commune because they cannot articulate their faith, an argument that reeks with the scent of Arminianism. In Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday the Evangelist records that the leaders of the people were indignant because the children were crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (21:15). Here the evangelist uses the general παίδας to describe these children. Interestingly Jesus cites Psalm 8:2 in his reply to the leaders, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise” (v 16). In Luke’s parallel account Jesus counters the demand of the leaders that he rebuke and silence his followers by saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (19:40). Those who argue that children cannot discern the body and blood of the Savior and that they can’t examine themselves have actually called into question the power of the Holy Spirit to do all things, and they find themselves using the same argument which all Arminians use against infant baptism. Indeed, all arguments against the ability of infants to understand the Faith can be turned against Holy Baptism. The Spirit can turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. If the Spirit can impart faith in Jesus in the heart of a child, which is a thing that is humanly impossible, then he can impart discernment and the ability of self examination, for these are Spirit-given gifts too.
And the children do cry out! They do articulate their faith. Listen to them sing during Mass. A bit off key, a little out of sync, but praise nonetheless! With his citation of Psalm 8 Jesus held up the articulated praise of infants as something exemplary. In like manner Jesus holds up βρέφη as models of how the kingdom of heaven is received. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Matt. 18:16, 17). The Lord says that infants receive the kingdom of God, not bits and pieces of it, but the entire kingdom. Jesus, speaking about little ones, told Simon Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Truly there is one church, one kingdom of God. Those who oppose the communion of all the faithful would have us envision a bifurcated church. “Feed my lambs (sort of, some of them, not all of them, don’t give them everything on their Father’s table, hold something back until they memorize 100 Bible verses, or until they can verbalize what the Spirit has already given them).”
The believer is not just a brain. Believers are human beings who are wondrously complex. In the same way faith is not a collection of data analyzed and assented to. Faith is a wondrous mystery.
The Greatest Generation
The church ought not be divided into two. Unfortunately that has happened time and again. It is the division caused by unbelief and false doctrine. It happened at Corinth. Paul had to deal with misbehaving adults, but not with the faithful no matter what their age. Indeed, it might be easier for the Lord to deal with infants and the very young, in spite of original sin, since they have not piled up recalcitrant prejudices against the truth. For example: how hard hearted were the Twelve on the night of our Lord’s betrayal! Had they properly examined themselves? Did they recognize the Lord’s body and blood in the bread and wine before them? Had they attempted to plumb the depths of the Eucharistic mystery? Had they memorized 100 Bible passages and the Six Chief Parts? Apparently they had, if only in embryonic form, for the Lord communed them. As in the mystological catechesis of the early church substance followed form, understanding followed Eucharistic participation. If blockheaded disciples were communed, shouldn’t the little ones also be included at their Father’s Table, those with simple hearts who simply trust what the Master tells them, even though we are wordless when it comes to describing all this?
As we engage in this discussion it is often the adults who are the problem, just as it was in Corinth. Tell a two year old that the host is Jesus’ body and he will believe it. It’s the old died in the wool Baptist who will argue that bread is bread and that “is” means “symbolizes”. While younger confessional Lutheran pastors and laypeople are open minded when it comes to this discussion, it is often the Lutheran “Bronze Agers” and the peace-at-all-cost and grow-the-church bureaucrats who chafe at the idea. When one has been subjected to the rationale of many of the Greatest Generation when it comes to a restoration of an every-Sunday celebration of the Sacrament, the reinstitution of private Absolution, the debate about good liturgics, etc. one wonders if these folks are the least qualified to come to the Lord’s Table. Good Lord, spare us this kind of discernment! But then again neither age nor silliness disqualify. The Greatest Generation knew how to prosecute a war and grease the wheels of commerce, but with a few exceptions its legacy on the Lutheran Church in this country has not been stellar.
Do you renounce the devil?
So often to our amazement and regret we realize that the church of the past had a far better grasp of the truths of the Faith than we do. In regard to the matter at hand this can be seen in the Rite of Holy Baptism which Luther inherited and which has come down to us today. Since the 18th century the common take on Paul’s words about examination is that one must be able to discern the body and blood of Christ, acknowledge one’s sinful condition and be able to recite whatever a catechizing pastor has assigned for memorization. Furthermore, this examination is to be publicly articulated before the congregation at age 13 or thereabouts, a thing that all Lutherans have experienced and can vividly recount in Garrison Keilloresque fashion. This is the sine qua non for Table fellowship, and in the minds of the opponents it obviously disqualifies infants and the very young, even though the confirmation class is a relatively new development.
Yet infants and the very young have already been examined in the Rite of Holy Baptism. Their godparents gave them voice to answer questions in regard to their faith and their understanding of the creedal truths of Christianity, in addition to their pledge to renounce the devil and all his ways and pomp. These questions were not asked to reveal what the infant would proleptically believe at a later date, which is the teaching of Calvin (see Institutes, IV, XVI, 20). The questions were rather asked to reveal what the child did believe, for faith and baptism go together, and not necessarily in some neat chronological order. Just as we don’t pinpoint a moment of presence in the Supper, so we don’t pinpoint a moment of faith in the Rite of Holy Baptism, which is saturated and dripping with the Word throughout. Again, this is a mystery.
In view of the current debate it is interesting to see how contemporary baptism rites have handled the traditional questions. In most cases we can give high marks. The questions were retained by Luther in his 1523 and 1525 revisions of the baptismal order. They were retained in the agenda which accompanied The Lutheran Hymnal. Three contemporary Lutheran orders of service retain the questions: The Lutheran Book of Worship (ELCA) , The Lutheran Hymnary (ELS), and Lutheran Service Book (LCMS). Interestingly, the Wisconsin Synod’s Christian Worship, a Lutheran Hymnal retains the questions only for adults, which is the case with the Missouri Synod’s short-lived Lutheran Worship. One wonders if the editors of these two works understood that the questions were an admission that infants can articulate high level doctrinal formulations, albeit through their godparents. The rationale that is sometimes given, that people misunderstood the rite at this point, doesn’t satisfy. Could it be that something else was at work here, even if the formulators of these two books weren’t entirely aware of it themselves?
The Lutheran Confessions
It is apparent that the people engaged in the debate about the communion of the very young are of a good heart and devoted to the confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church. All those engaged are serious about their Lutheranism, and if they are pastors, desire to remain faithful to their ordination vows and their subscription to these symbols. Yet, the question ought to be posed: Are the confessions being read correctly by those who steadfastly oppose the communion of all the faithful or are they reading into these symbols the prejudices of later Lutheranism?
Philip Melancthon counters the calumny that the Lutherans had done away with private confession and absolution by stating,
Confession has not been abolished in our churches. For it is not customary to administer the body of Christ except to those who have been previously examined and absolved” (AC, XXV.1, Kolb-Wengert Edition, p. 73).
It should be noted that this examination is described as the custom of the Lutherans, as it had been among the Romanists. Note that no mandatum Dei is cited. 1 Corinthians 11 is not referenced. It is doubtful that Melancthon even had the communion of the very young in view. Even if this statement was intended to describe the custom of excluding the very young from the Table, which is doubtful, it then merely describes a relatively new custom (three centuries old). Prior to the demise of the communion of the very young adult inquirers were “examined and absolved.” However, the infants and very young of those already confirmed were baptized, chrismated and communed on the same day and remained communicants all their lives. Some other customs which the Augustana speaks about are private confession and absolution, the retention of the traditional liturgical ceremonies, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on every Lord’s Day. Since some of the opponents of the practice in question pick and chose when it comes to these customs (e.g. an “every” Sunday celebration of our Lord’s most precious body and blood every first and third Sunday), might others be a bit picky too? Customs are salutary. The rejoinder about the communion of all the faithful, “We’ve never done it this way before!” has currency, if the “before” has antiquity and is not just the practice that a seventy year old church member remembers from his youth. Still customs do change. In this author’s opinion they shouldn’t change if they affirm the gospel and are catholic. That’s why all the pastors reading this should stay with the Common Service. However, customs should change when they don’t give full expression to the gospel, as when a portion of the flock is not allowed to feed on the body and blood of the Good Shepherd. The Lamb for the lambs!
Proponents of the communion of all the faithful are not in conflict with the Lutheran symbols. Adult inquirers, both young and old, are examined and absolved and then invited to the Table. Our infants are examined and absolved in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. All the faithful will be catechized for the rest of their lives until they join in “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). This examination and the faith that it reveals insures that this practice is not open communion. To say that we don’t know what infants believe and therefore should not include them, as some opponents have asserted, is absurd. Jesus says that they believe, and they believe the Faith. Until proven otherwise Christian charity demands that we admit them to their Father’s Table. Also puzzling is the charge that the communion of the very young is a return to ex opere operato. “Baptism isn’t magical hocus pocus,” we’ve heard. But what do these same pastors say to parishioners who have lost an infant which the pastor himself baptized. He would never say (we hope), “Well, you know, it doesn’t work like magic, but I’m reasonably sure the baptism took.” Ah yes, be of good cheer!
What now? This author would urge caution. This is a churchly matter and deserves the church’s prayerful consideration. For starters the CTCR of the LCMS should reconsider this matter in view of the growing interest in this issue and in view of recent research. In other words, the Commission should not just reissue its 1997 study of the practice when asked to speak again on the matter. However, changes within the Church have sometimes occurred in subtle and unexpected ways. There is a general agreement within Lutheranism that children ought to be admitted to the Supper at an age earlier than 13 or 14. However, that does not really deal with the issue at hand, for the real issue here is not infant communion but faith. Those who reduce faith to cognition will have to prove their point from Scripture, especially dealing with the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2.
It’s no secret that Missouri’s partner church in Japan allows the communing of the very young and that this practice has been adopted by isolated parishes in the States. This is the custom of our Japanese brothers and sisters and is not church divisive. The ELCA has given approval to the practice, and this is not only the consequence of this church’s more open communion policy, but also came about through a thoughtful reconsideration of the issue. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the years to come. Will there be a popular underground movement that will have to be dealt with after the fact, with practice informing later doctrinal formulations? Will this be a matter which will bust open the Lutheran Church in the States? Who knows?
Most proponents of the communion of the very young are not advocating force feeding infants the sacred species. Perhaps the rule ought to be, as it once was, they commune when they are physically able. They most certainly should be communed when they ask for the body and the blood of their Savior, and this can occur at a surprisingly early age. Just as a very young child reaches for food at his father’s table at home without cognition of the rudiments of good nutrition, so the same child can reach for the Bread of Life at his Father’s Table in the house of his Abba.
Opponents have pleaded that the Lutheran Church has larger fish to fry. Why get side tracked, they reason, on this peripheral matter? Yet, we are speaking about the very nature of faith. If we can’t get this right, then what can we get right?
Brothers and sisters, come let us reason together. This fish ain’t fried quite yet. Besides, wouldn’t be nice if Lutheranism would be known for something more than lesbian priestesses. It would also be nice to scoop Rome on this one. However, we better hurry and get our act together. In his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI writes
If the Eucharist is truly the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, it follows that the process of Christian initiation must constantly be directed to the reception of this sacrament. As the Synod Fathers said, we need to ask ourselves whether in our Christian communities the close link between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is sufficiently recognized.
One can only speculate on how the Panzerkardinal eyes the East, but the Pope clearly has his eye on the Church’s past. Pastors, let our eyes be on the little eyes that view the passing of the Savior’s body and blood at the rail and ask the question being asked more and more, “Aren’t they Blood too?”
In Nomine Jesu§
The Reverend Fr. Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.