The thesis here is: Inclusion in the sacraments is a necessary privilege of membership in the covenant people. There is no covenant membership except one that is sealed by participation in covenant signs and rites.
I immediately concede any number of qualifications and exceptions to this claim. A baptized and believing woman on life support, for example, cannot receive the elements of the Supper, but is not thereby cut out of the covenant. But the refusal to admit infants or toddlers to the table is an entirely different sort of refusal. The woman does not participate in the meal because she is physically incapable of doing so. From a fairly young age, however, children are capable of receiving the elements, but are refused admission to the table until they can display appropriate mental, spiritual, or emotional responses. Their exclusion is based on principle, while the woman’s exclusion is contingent on circumstances beyond her control.
One of the fundamental issues at stake in the paedocommunion debate has to do with the nature of covenant. Though distinctions between the “form” and the “substance” of the covenant are quite traditional, they are highly misleading. Scripturally, the term covenant describes both God’s self-commitment to His people and the set of prescribed practices, laws, and rites—the whole pattern of life and worship revealed by God and by which we live before Him. Keeping covenant, for the Israelite, meant following the statutes, ordinances, laws, and practices that Yahweh revealed to Israel; breaking covenant meant turning aside from this way of life (see Leviticus 26:14–15; Deuteronomy 29:1; Hebrews 9:1–10).
Just as there is no marriage covenant without an exchange of vows (normally public, at least before a justice of the peace), and no continuing marital relationship except through a set of psycho-bodily practices, so there simply is no covenant where there are no external forms. The covenant is not some invisible reality behind the forms. The visible, ritual, practical forms are constituent elements of covenant.
This visible pattern of worship and life is of the essence of the covenant because the covenant is a communal reality. God entered into covenant with Abraham, but even the Abrahamic covenant embraced his household and future generations. In later covenants, the corporate character is even more evident, as Yahweh makes and renews His covenant with Israel. God established the pattern of life for the public community of Israel, a covenantal order revealed by God and encompassing Israel’s worship, politics and civil justice, family life, and every other aspect of community life. Being corporate, the covenant necessarily takes external and ritual form, for, as theologians from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond recognized, no community can function as a community without some public expression of its communion.
To speak of Israel’s covenant is to speak of Israel’s divinely-ordained “cultural” order, and to speak of a new covenant is to speak of a new “cultural” order in the church. Participation in the covenant necessarily means participation in the practices of the covenant, for there is no other kind of participation in the covenant, because there is no other kind of covenant. Denying that participation in covenant rites is essential to covenant membership is inherently Baptistic, even if the denial comes from paedobaptists.
Opponents of paedocommunion argue that children receive the blessings of the covenant without the sign. Baptists say the very same thing about baptism. Here is the dilemma: Why does covenant membership without the sign suffice for the Supper but not for baptism? Why must admission to the covenant community take ritual form, but not the continuing membership in the covenant community?
Of course, this further assumes that participation in the Supper is an important, if not the only, public indicator of continuing membership in the church. That is based on the biblical teaching that the covenantal pattern by which the church lives centers on worship. In a number of places, Paul characterizes the “Gentiles” as essentially idolaters and describes conversion as a turning from idols to worship the living God (e.g., Romans 1:18–23; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; Galalatians 4:1–11). Peter claims that we have been constituted as a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to God in Christ (1 Peter 2:1–10).
Worship, the chief practice of the new humanity, takes place at the Lord’s table. It always has. From the time of Abel, worshipers have gathered at the Lord’s table/altar, though Protestant polemics against the identification of altar and table have obscured the point. The altar was Yahweh’s table (Ezekiel 44:16), where His “bread” was offered in smoke to Him (see Leviticus 22:17, 21), and from which His people received portions (e.g., Leviticus 7:11-18). For Paul, “coming together to eat” was synonymous with “coming together” (1 Corinthians 11:17, 18, 33). Skeptics on Mars Hill heard the word of the gospel, but they were not thereby part of a covenant people or involved in a liturgical act. Proclamation or teaching of the Word is an inherent part of worship, but that is not what defines worship as worship. There might be several things that distinguish the church’s worship from other worship. But central to these is that worship is what the church does when they gather at the Lord’s table.
If the covenant is the form of communal life, if membership in the covenant involves participation in the external practices and rites of the covenant, if worship is the central practice of the new covenant people, and if worship centers on a meal with God, then participation in the covenant meal is a necessary privilege of being in covenant. If baptized infants really are in covenant with God, they should participate in the meal of that covenant. If they are in the body symbolized by the loaf, can we withhold the loaf from them? And if they are not really in covenant with God, then why in God’s name do we continue to baptize them?
The sacraments should, I have argued, reflect the character of the church. More fundamentally, they should reflect the character of the gospel by which the church has been gathered and in whose power she lives. Though the gospel is not directly implicated in the paedocommunion debate, it is close to the heart of the issues. Opponents of paedocommunion turn the Supper into an act that requires spiritual maturity, reversing the basic meaning of the Supper and ritually denying the nature of the church and the Reformation solas.
The Protestant tendency to restrict the evangelical invitation to God’s table to the spiritually accomplished has done as much to undermine the pure gospel of grace as a hundred Papal bulls and a dozen Tridentine councils. We can shout the formulas until we are hoarse, but still our actions will shout down our words. If the Reformed churches hope to advance the gospel with power in our day, we must ensure that our central liturgical act is brought into conformity to the gospel.
This essay was first published in Credenda/Agenda, 18.1.