Showing Up at the Wrong House for the Bible Study

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Lane and I continue the discussion. In this segment, Lane repeats Venema’s argument that receiving the sacrament of bread and wine is just like receiving the Word, and that it is necessary for someone to be able to do the latter before they can be admitted to the former. Both require “active engagement” by the recipient. “If a child cannot understand the Gospel, they will not understand the Sacrament either.” “Neither the gospel Word nor the sacrament work merely by virtue of their administration.”

This is all quite true, and with regard to the point of this discussion, it is beside the point. Teaching a child to respond to the things of God in love, trust, faith, and submission is a task that godly parents undertake from the first moment they take that child in their arms. It is not like teaching your son to operate a chain saw, where only an idiot would start him too early. It is more like teaching him to love the English language, and to love the stories you tell him in it. “These are your people. I am your father. Jesus is your Savior.” And children can learn to say amen to this before they can say amen. It might come out as “mi-mi,” but they are nevertheless learning to participate.

So, yes, active engagement is part of the deal. It is an essential part of the deal. In fact, it is so essential that we shouldn’t waste any time before we begin to teach our children how essential it is by teaching them to be actively engaged as they come to the Supper.

But this agreement of mine to the principles involved should reveal to us a hidden assumption that is helping to drive this debate. This is the assumption that when very young children are taught to respond this way, we are simply training them, as you would a puppy, and not really educating them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The plastic nature of a child’s soul is thought to be such that you could tell them anything, and since they don’t know any better, this responsiveness of theirs cannot be known to be true faith. And since we cannot “know” it to be true faith, then we need to wait until their profession of faith is mature enough to cross-examine. We are bringing the logic of courtroom verification into the rearing of children. Nothing against courtroom verification in its place, but that’s not what we should be doing here. Christian nurture is more like breastfeeding than it is like grilling a hostile witness.

Another way of putting this is that we do not believe that genuine sentiments can be taught or instilled. Following Rousseau without knowing it (Geneva has winding streets and some Calvinists have gotten lost in it, showing up at the wrong house for the Bible study), we assume that if it doesn’t burble up spontaneously from the heart, then it cannot be sincere. A small child refuses to thank his grandmother for a treat, and so mom starts to haul him off to the back bedroom. “Oh, dear,” says grandma, “I don’t want him to be spanked because he didn’t thank me. I only want him to thank me if he really wants to.” To which a wise mom will reply, “Just give me a couple minutes. He will really want to.”

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