Sacramental Tomfoolery

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The next chapter of Venema’s book addresses paedocommunion in the history of the Church, and he provides us with a judicious and fair treatment. Lane’s response to that chapter is here. Venema handles the material from the fathers competently, grants clear evidence where clear evidence is present, and also gives a fair hearing to the paedocommunionist’s handling of ambiguous evidence. Where the evidence is ambiguous, not surprisingly, Venema leans in an opposite direction than do Gallant and Leithart, but that’s okay. That’s what you do in a debate.

Venema grants the testimony of Cyprian for the paedocommunion position, but disputes whether this requires us to believe that the practice was widespread in Cyprian’s day, although it was clearly present. He grants the testimony of Augustine and Leo, along with the ancient practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church, continuing down to the present. He also grants the widespread practice of paedocommunion in the West from at least the time of Augustine down to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). So this particular debate among the Reformed over paedocommunion has something for the staunch Protestants on both sides. The Eastern Orthodox practice paedocommunion, but this is all tied up with their false sacramentology. The Roman Catholics do not practice it, but this is tied up with their sacramentology, meaning that the doctrine of transubstantiation made them reluctant to give the elements to kids (and even Venema admits a certain element of this). So this means that both sides of the debate in Protestant circles have a solid basis for accusing the other side of countenancing sacramental tomfoolery. This was very kind of the Lord to do, very evenhanded.

That said, let me take this opportunity to clear up a few details from our previous discussion. The question has been asked if I would have a problem with giving tiny portions of the elements to an infant upon the occasion of his baptism. The answer is that I wouldn’t think it was the end of the world, but I would rather not. But my reluctance does not proceed from being dubious about the infant’s spiritual condition. He participated in the sacrament in utero for nine months, and continues to participate at that same level until he is weaned. So in our congregation, the time between such organic participation and individual participation is very short, and corresponds to a similar transition on the physical level between milk and solids. So I don’t see such a child being excluded from anything.

The advantage of giving him a morsel and a drop at his baptism is that it makes an unambiguous statement that this child is, in principle, admitted to the Table. I like that. But other statements are being made as well, and I want to hash them out first. These “other statements” have been made throughout the history of the church, and represent what I consider to be very easy mistakes to make, and we have made them for a long time. I don’t want to adopt a practice that will reinforce this kind of error, cementing it into the liturgy, not until we have sorted it out.

We tend to think that holiness is on the Table, and that it is communicated to us when we partake. From that assumption to a belief in the magic table is a very short step. And lest this be taken as a shot at the RCs and EOs, I think the error is prevalent in Reformed circles also. We all differ on which magic trick we think is being done, but there is an almost universal focus on what is happening on the Table, when the right words are said over it.

But try this on — and please know that I know that to many of you this will sound like gibberish. I know, but that’s my job. But I believe there is something very important here, and I believe that it is something that we must study and learn. We must work through this. We tend to think that we become holy because we eat the holy bread, and because we drink the holy wine. Yes, and amen to a good half of it. But here is the twist — the bread becomes holy because we eat it. The wine becomes holy because we drink it. The body of Christ — which body we are — is holy. We set aside ordinary bread for a consecrated use, and it is our use (and only our use) that makes the bread and wine holy.

The central good that I see coming out of the paedocommunion debate is the central place it gives to the question of “who makes up the body of Jesus?” And in my mind it is as much about whether we will give the baby to the bread as it is over whether we will give the bread to the baby. Any peripheral issue on the edges of the paedocommunion debate that takes away from this, and drags up back into our old besetting sin of staring at the bread and wine, as though something were happening there, is a distraction that ought to be treated as such.

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