I am currently reading A Humble Inquiry by Jonathan Edwards, in which he explains the reasons why he was putting some doctrinal daylight between himself and his predecessor Solomon Stoddard. And since these basic issues, being what they are, cannot ever go away, and because in addition they have become deeply embedded in the American psyche (even our pagans are evangelicals), let me say just a few necessary things about the practice of child communion in the CREC and the doctrine of regeneration.
Edwards had a high level of respect for Stoddard, and this was possible, I believe, because both were evangelicals, as opposed to the formalists. Stoddard believed that communion was a “converting ordinance,” but he did so believing that there was such a thing as conversion, and that there were visible communicant members of the visible church who needed to be so converted. The debate between Edwards and Stoddard was over how best to get the people from here to there, and not over whether there was a here or there.
When you come down to it, Warfield’s distinctions really are helpful.
Formalism represents a plug-and-chug approach to divine things. The naturalistic formalists are the liberals, and if you are going to be religious at all, such formalism becomes something of a necessity. The supernaturalist temptation to formalism is very strong whenever you have an ex opere operato approach to the sacraments. If you think that the sacraments dispense grace the way water goes through a garden hose, then you might believe that the other end of the hose is in Heaven, making you a supernaturalist, but you also believe that we have full control of the nozzle down here, making you priest-ridden.
Now because the formalist impulse is very strong in the human heart, it is even up to the challenge of trying to co-opt Warfield’s evangelical options. This cannot be done without contradicting the actual teaching of those options, but it can be done. I prayed the prayer. I signed the card. I filled out the form in the back of that Gideon Bible. I threw the pine cone in the fire at youth camp. This is supernaturalist, because the other end of the hose is in Heaven, but our nozzle is plain and undecorated, making us Young-Life-cabin-counselor-ridden.
Now there is a sharp distinction between a formalist approach to paedocommunion and an evangelical approach to child communion. Assume the communing of young children, and then ask yourself if there could be different reasons for doing so. Sure — child communion can be practiced all the way across Warfield’s chart, from right to left. But there is a world of difference to be found in the reasons.
A naturalist formalist, a postmodern liberal, could commune children for the same reason he would commune a Buddhist. We are all ascending the same mountain although we travel by different paths. He retains the form of religion but denies the power. A different sacrament was involved, but this reminds me of a John Gerstner story. He was a visiting preacher at a church, and they asked if he would officiate at an infant baptism that morning. He said sure, and they took him down to the font to check him out. There was a white rose there, and he was told that their practice was to dip the white rose in the water, and use it to sprinkle the baby. What’s the white rose for? Well, it is to symbolize the innocence of the child. Oh, Gerstner said. What’s the water for then?
Eastern Orthodoxy is robustly supernaturalist, and they commune children. But they do so with a view of the sacraments that sadly blurs the evangelical imperative — you must be born again. There are many reasons we don’t want to go in that direction, but that is another subject for another time.
An evangelical and covenantal approach (call it modified Stoddardite) requires a credible profession of faith, but sees each administration of the Supper as an opportunity to profess that faith, and an opportunity for children to learn how to profess their faith, from the heart, with sincere evangelical conviction. When such a profession proves false, and a twelve-year-old boy in the church proves himself to be a congenital liar, he should be subject to the discipline of the church.
Evangelicals who do not commune little children can debate whether that is a credible statement of faith, and this is a debate that should happen, but it is an intra-evangelical debate. It is an intra debate because of the shared assumption that regeneration is an absolute necessity. It is not an absolute necessity for membership in the visible church, as all non-baptists would acknowledge, and it is not an absolute necessity for communing in the visible church, as all child communionists would acknowledge, but it is an absolute necessity for anyone would see the kingdom of Heaven.
The covenantal and evangelical approach to child communion is distinguished from the ex opere operato approach in this way. It is a matter of direction. In the ex opere understanding, the grace is going in. In the covenantal and evangelical understanding, the grace is working its way out. A converted person works out what God works in, but an unconverted is never in a position to do so. If the bucket has no bottom, it does not matter how long you run the hose.
What about the Edwards option? I will keep you posted as I continue to work through A Humble Inquiry, but I cannot see any logical stopping point between what Edwards is arguing for and the baptistic position. I say this while recognizing that worse things than that can happen, but I still feel constrained to give a solemn warning . . .