Children at the Lord's Table
James T. Dennison
From at least the time of John Calvin, the Reformed churches have interpreted 1 Corinthians 11:29 as requiring a profession of faith prior to participation in the Lord's Supper. Taking the phrase "discerning the Lord's body" in the sense of implying profession is but a particular instance of the general Reformed rule: confession of faith is prior to the Lord's Table. In the nature of the case, profession of the covenant with the mouth comes before feeding upon the symbols of the covenant with the mouth.
This order is altogether suitable and appropriate. Profession ought to precede participation in the Lord's Supper. Commitment should precede communion because the words of Jesus in instituting this meal say as much. Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me." Now whatever the bread and the wine may be, at least they are memorials. When we see the bread and the wine, we remember Jesus. Well, what do we remember? What? You see that to ask the question is to raise the issue of what we profess about Jesus when we come to the Table. In other words, we plainly cannot come to the Table of the Lord properly without professing to remember something about him. Remembering the Lord at his Table requires a prior profession.
Again, profession is prior to participation. For as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim the Lord's death till he comes. Well, what is it to proclaim—to show forth—the Lord's death? What? To proclaim Christ's death is to announce it, declare it, and advertise it (if you will) to the world. Can we proclaim that death, announce that death, declare—yes, advertise—that precious death without professing it? Showing forth the Lord's death till he comes requires a profession of participation in that death.
What is clear from the words of institution is reinforced and made even clearer by Paul's instructions in verses 27–29. To eat unworthily is to profane the Supper. Unworthy partaking is at least undiscerning partaking (vs. 29) and partaking unprepared (vs. 28). In order to partake in an acceptable manner, one must examine oneself. And in examining oneself, one must at least discern the body and the blood of the Lord. Now to discern the body and blood of Christ is to recognize the sacramental significance of the elements—to recognize the sacrifice of Christ. The fellowship that is offered by the elements is fellowship with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. His sacrifice is the basis of our fellowship with the Father. There must be awareness of the meaning of that sacrifice, appropriation of its benefit, and living out of the relationship established by it. To discern is to commune with a person—the living person Jesus Christ. The crucified Jesus is the Jesus who lives and meets us at the Table through his Spirit.
Bringing Judgment upon Oneself
To fail to discern this is to bring judgment upon oneself. The strong language of verses 27, 29, and 30 cannot be toned down. To partake without discernment, to partake unworthily, to partake without self-examination, is to invite judgment, weaknesses, illness, and even death.
There is a judgment which, when passed upon ourselves, graciously avoids the judgment of disgrace and death. There is an examination of ourselves which graciously turns aside the scrutiny of an all-holy God. We are called to examine ourselves so that we will not have to face the examination that God will give us (if we come without self-examination).
How then do we examine ourselves? How do we discern the Lord's body? How do we partake worthily? By grace, through grace, in grace. Only by grace. Yes, grace is God's prerogative—his sovereign initiative. But in this meal God says, "I invite you to respond to my initiative in graciously providing my Son as the Lamb who takes away your iniquities. Will you answer my grace in Christ by sitting down to a meal in my presence?" The Table of the Lord is the place where we reply, "Yes, Lord Jesus, you are my Lamb; yes, Lord Jesus, you are my Lord and my God. Yes, Lord Jesus, you are my sufficiency; yes, Lord Jesus, I have no hope in any other, save Jesus' blood and righteousness."
Surely, if language means anything, the words "remember," "proclaim," "examine," and "discern" require commitment of mind and heart to the person and work of Jesus Christ prior to approaching his Table. What is understood must be cherished and deeply loved. Whose table is this? Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Do I know the Son of God? Am I leaning on him? Do I love him? Why did he live as he did? Do I know he is righteous? Am I trusting his righteousness alone? Do I love this righteous Savior? Why did he die as he did? Do I know the meaning of his death? Do I lean upon a dying Savior? Do I love this bruised and bloodied God-man? Do I receive him as he is offered in the gospel? Do I confess him before men? Do I then come to his table to nourish—to feed upon—the grace and mercy that he has bestowed?
In the Reformed tradition, this has been the accepted understanding of 1 Corinthians 11. Profession precedes partaking, because faith precedes feeding.
In the Consensus Tigurinus, Calvin wrote, "Since all are commanded to examine themselves, it follows that faith is required of all before they approach the sacrament." Heinrich Bullinger wrote in the Second Helvetic Confession, "He who comes to this sacred Table of the Lord without faith … unworthily eat(s) of the Lord's Table." The Scots Confession, in which John Knox had a hand, states, "The supper of the Lord is only for those who are of the household of faith and can try and examine themselves both in their faith and their duty to their neighbors. Those who eat and drink at that holy table without faith … eat unworthily." John Jewel, one of the gems of the English Reformation, wrote that no one was to take the Lord's Supper without understanding—"in meaning thereby, to judge the Lord's body and to declare his death." William Perkins, the father of English Puritanism, wrote, "A man of years must first believe and be justified before he can be a meet partaker of the sacrament." Quotations could be multiplied which reflect this Reformed understanding of the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11.
What our Calvinistic fathers wrote on this matter, they believed to be the teaching of the Word of God. They understood the inspired apostle to require a profession of faith before approaching the Table; hence, they required it. The authors of the Reformed confessions felt that they were expressing in summary form what 1 Corinthians 11 expresses on the terms of admission to the Lord's Supper. Their confessions expressed the teaching of the Word of God. They had done their homework—exegeted the passages, compared Scripture with Scripture—and confidently drew up summaries of that biblical teaching.
It is not necessary for us to reinvent the wheel on this matter. We do not have to grope after the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11, as if no guidance to its proper sense could be found in the Reformed tradition. The history of interpretation is our friend and counselor. Scripture requires profession before partaking—that is the verdict of our Reformed forefathers.
Sidestepping the Biblical Requirement
There is only one way to sidestep this biblical conclusion—this biblical conclusion recognized and adopted by our Calvinistic confessions. The only way to sidestep the requirement of profession before partaking is to reinterpret 1 Corinthians 11. The context of 1 Corinthians 11 must be changed from the communion meal to the common meal. The meaning of "remember," "proclaim," "examine," and "discern" must be changed from a cognitive activity to an experiential happening. The central focus on sin, guilt, and death in the Lord's sacrifice must be rejected as too gloomy and foreboding. The role of the Supper as a nourisher of grace must be replaced with a sentimental view of the sacramental elements as mystically infusing grace. The requirement for communion (self-examination) must be removed by a call for all to have access to the symbolic channels of the church. The confirming and sealing character of the Supper must be displaced by a symbolic-educational view of the Table.
Finally, to overturn the historic Reformed view of admission to the Supper, it must be attacked as a distortion of 1 Corinthians 11, as an over-rationalization of Scripture, as an outmoded approach to an existential event. And so we hear calls for change—for moving beyond the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Calvinistic understanding of the Word of God. Virtually every modern denomination has, since 1970, been faced with calls to alter the requirement of confession before communion—to drop the requirement of profession of faith before communion, particularly for covenant children. In 1972, the UPCUSA (now PC[USA]) admitted children to the Lord's Supper without profession of faith. In 1980, the PCUS followed suit. And now, in the OPC and the PCA, voices are being raised in favor of the admission of children to the Lord's Table without profession of faith. That this is a radical departure from the teaching of our Reformed confessions is admitted by all the innovators. But, they say, nothing less than the Word of God requires it.
To that I reply, "Where?" Where does the Word of God permit anyone—child or adult—to partake of the Lord's Supper without a credible profession of faith? The question is not whether a child is permitted to make a credible profession of faith. Of course, a child could make a confession, which would need to be carefully examined and probed, and then be duly admitted by the officers of the church to the Lord's Table. But no, the question in the contemporary debate is this: shall a child who makes no profession of faith be admitted to the Lord's Table? Many are saying yes, but do they know what they lay upon these little ones? "Whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill and some of you have died." If we would spare our children the judgment which falls on those who partake without discerning the Lord's body, then we cannot—we must not—permit them to come to the Lord's Table without a credible profession of faith.
Listen to what Calvin says to those who argued in his day for the admission of infants and children to the Lord's Supper without a profession of faith:
Teach and train and nurture the children in the things of Christ that they may come to acknowledge him before men, give credible evidence of the hope that is in them and solemnly and joyfully come and sit down with him—with Jesus himself—at his banquet Table.
But we dare not admit children without a credible profession of faith. Far from bestowing privileges of blessing upon them, to do so is to hang millstones about their necks.
The author, an OP minister, is academic dean of Northwest Theological Seminary and regular pulpit supply for Redeeming Grace OPC in Port Angeles, Wash. He provides his own Bible translations. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2008.