Infant Communion in the Lutheran Church?

last_supper__The Lutheran Reformers knew that many otherwise emulatable figures in church history (beginning with St. Cyprian of Carthage) had practiced infant communion. And they knew that the Eastern Church and probably also some of the Czech Hussites were practicing it even in their own time. As an era of great ecclesiastical and theological upheaval, when so much of the church’s doctrine and practice was coming under review, the sixteenth century would have been the ideal time to introduce infant communion to the churches of the Reformation, if this was something that truly did have a proper evangelical and apostolic pedigree.

But, the Lutheran Reformers did not do this. Luther considered infant communion to be an error similar to the error of withholding the cup from the laity. Not a soul-killing heresy, such as denying the Trinity or the Incarnation, but an error nevertheless. In the same 1523 letter in which he indicated that communion should now be offered under both kinds among the Lutherans, he also indicated that the Hussites should cease offering it to small children who are not able to give an account of their faith. Indeed, he wanted a consistent practice of instruction and examination, before admission to communion, to be introduced in all the churches.

Chemnitz and Andreae – co-authors of the Formula of Concord – were even more adamant than Luther, in their teaching that infant communion is not in keeping with either the institution of Christ or the teaching of St. Paul; and that there are Biblically-based reasons why this practice is not followed by Lutherans, and why this practice actually should never have been followed by anyone!

It is odd, then, that from time to time, even in conservative Lutheran circles, advocates for the introduction of infant communion in the Lutheran Church raise their voices in favor of that cause. The Lutheran Reformers didn’t really consider this matter very carefully, it is said. They did not let the evangelical spirit of the Reformation permeate their thinking also in regard to this topic, it is claimed. They thoughtlessly followed the inherited medieval Latin practice without a critical evaluation, it is assumed. The Reformers were – they do not hesitate to say – mistaken in letting the errant practice of withholding communion from baptized infants go unreformed and uncorrected, even when they were reforming and correcting many other medieval errors in the church.

Are these claims concerning the Reformers’ lack of thinking this through valid? Is that the real history of how the subject of infant communion was addressed (or not addressed) in the sixteenth century? Or does the genuine spirit of Lutheran Reformational theology actually militate against the practice of infant communion, so that the Reformers’ declining to introduce it was a matter of theological principle for them, and was not merely the result of their uncritical and thoughtless traditionalism? Is it possible that the periodic movements in favor of infant communion that we see arising in conservative Lutheran circles, are not arising as a natural outgrowth of the theology of Confessional Lutheranism, but are being triggered by influences from outside the genuine Lutheran tradition?

I have addressed many of these questions historically and theologically in a relatively short paper, entitled “Infant Communion in the Lutheran Church?“, which can be downloaded and read HERE (in my congregation’s web site). The paper seeks to answer all the chief objections, and respond to all the main claims, that have been put forth, and are now being put forth, by the Lutheran advocates for infant communion. The paper’s conclusion – which is demonstrated and documented, and not merely asserted – is that in the time of the Reformers, there were indeed normative, well-thought-through, and Biblically-based Lutheran reasons why infants were not communed in the orthodox Lutheran Church of that day – and why they should not be in the future, either. The Reformers did think this through carefully, in the light of Holy Scripture; and they did know what they were doing, in ruling out the practice of infant communion for Lutherans.


Comments

Infant Communion in the Lutheran Church? — 76 Comments

  1. Whatever has been stated in the past by Pastor Weedon, I would take these quotes to be his confession concerning the practice of infant communion:

    “I have come to suspect that the infant communion irritant (perennial among us, it seems) would not continue to pop up were we to return as a Synod to the norm witnessed in the Symbols: When a child knows the basic catechism and has expressed a desire for the Supper, let him be examined and absolved and welcomed to the table. That was my practice in my former parish and it is the one that I continue to encourage.”

    ALSO:

    “The Lutheran Symbols are crystal clear about what our practice should be (and sadly show what it isn’t in actual practice most of the time) and there is no question that someone who subscribes to the norm of the Symbols (as I do) has promised not to commune those who do not know 1) why they come, 2) what they seek, and 3) who have not been both examined and absolved.
    This is what the Symbols commit Lutheran pastors to, since in our ordination we promise that not merely our teaching but also our PRACTICE will be governed by the norm(ed norm) of the Book of Concord. ”

    This is his statement to the public, and it is clearly not in favor of Lutherans believing in or practicing infant communion. Any effort to imply differently than his plain simple words written today is not appropriate. Carl, you are pushing too hard on the past with this. It may be nice if we could have those other statements pulled down, but that is the nature of the internet that sadly we are all having to deal with (once it’s out there, it’s out there).

    Pr. Weedon has publicly declared no support for infant communion and has even counseled men that to do so is to sin at the very least against the rest of us in a violation of love.

    Pr. Weedon has also said:
    “And in my struggles I was indeed a cause of stumbling to not a few. For that I can only ask forgiveness. I asked it of my parish, and rejoiced to receive it from them many years ago now.”

    I think you missed that.

  2. The fighting amongst Confessional Lutherans (led on this thread by a pseudonymous individual, though we are probably all guilty of it at one time or another) is bad for our Synod and will lead to the Synod falling back into the hands of the Kieschnicks and even the Piepkorns.

    LCMS members should not act like members of certain microsynods who consider the LCMS apostate: http://www.lcrusa.org/a-synopsis-of-the-lcr.html

  3. @Pastor Joshua Scheer #1,

    Based on your explanation of these recent statements by Rev. Weedon I will gladly agree with you and state I am pleased to read that Rev. Weedon now rejects infant communion and discourages pastors from practicing it.

  4. I have removed the content of a number of comments from the string. They began as comments which quoted past internet activity which are no longer supported by their author.

    We live in a church which firmly confesses the Gospel, that sometimes we don’t always get things right, and thank God for the times when we are convicted of it and then change our beliefs and teachings to be more in line with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. At that point, past positions are left behind in the wake of the forgiveness of sins. Yes, those past positions still can affect others, and that is the sad fact of living in our fellowship, where our sins do affect the whole – but we still rejoice at what God has worked among ourselves and especially within our church body. This is the prayer we should have with regards to the infant communion debate as well, that those who have erred would return to truth and that those who have sinned in love would as well.

    Pr. Weedon is a good and honest man, I take his words to be his very confession. I am thankful for them.

    “Carl Vehse” has now also come forward to be pleased about this change.

    My apologies as Associate Editor for the timing of these changes, which should have been done sooner.

  5. Examine

    One of the main verses referred to in Webber’s paper and in all discussions of “infant” communion is I Cor. 11:28, “Let a man examine himself”. I am aware of two different positions regarding this passage taken by at least some of those who support communing those much younger than teens, yet neither of these positions is addressed by Webber in his paper, nor, I believe, have they been addressed by posts on this website either now or a few months ago.

    The first position is an exegesis of “δοκιμαζειν” (transliteration: dokimazein), which is translated as “examine” in I Cor. 11:28. The reasoning of this position, in a succinct fashion, is as follows. Δοκιμαζειν occurs 22 times in the New Testament. In the NKJV it is translated as “test” 9 times, as “approve” 5 times, as “prove” 2 times, as “examine” 2 times, as “discern” 2 times, as “like” 1 time, and as “finding out what is acceptable” 1 time. Considering all of these uses the definition that seems best is, “to ascertain the worthiness, suitability or genuineness of a person or thing.” If this sense is used to understand I Cor. 11:28, then the issue becomes one of worthiness. From Luther’s Small Catechism we know that, “he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.'” Thus I Cor. 11:28 does not exclude anyone based upon age, reason, understanding, comprehension, etc., but only based upon unbelief in the benefits of the sacrament. (There are many paradoxes within the Christian faith. Paradoxes are, by definition, irrational and incomprehensible, yet, by faith, we believe those that are part of the Christian faith.)

    The second position is an exegesis of the passage in which I Cor. 11:28 is found, i.e. vv 17-34. The reasoning of this position is that Paul is speaking here specifically to those who do not discern the Lord’s body and blood in the sacrament. Thus this position arrives at the same conclusion as the first position, but for an entirely different reason.

    Both of these positions continue to the issue of discernment.

    Discern

    Webber quotes Chemnitz as writing (p3), “‘Let him discern the Lord’s body’, a thing which cannot be ascribed to infants.” and Osiander, Andreae, and Crucius as writing (p4), “children are not able to examine themselves and, thus, cannot discern the Lord’s body”. What do they do with I Cor. 2? If the mysteries of God are discerned spiritually, and the sacrament is a mystery of God, then why did they and some today claim that baptized infants cannot discern the body and blood in the sacrament?

    Unless and until this question is addressed, Webber’s next to last full paragraph on page 5, beginning “The discernment”, is irrelevant as regarding “infant” communion.

    Unless and until this question and the two positions above are addressed by those opposed to “infant” communion, we will get nowhere.

    Didascalia

    I did not follow the point Webber was attempting to make in the last two sentences, beginning “The sequence”, of the last full paragraph on page 4. Could anyone please elaborate/clarify for me?

    Adults vs Children

    In the last full paragraph on page 7, beginning “God has,” Webber uses the words “adults” and “children”. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was being imprecise in his usage of the words. Nevertheless, impreciseness of language leads to confusion and obfuscation, not to clarity and understanding. (We need look no further than the use of the word “infant” within the various posts on this topic for proof of this.) If we were to take Webber’s paragraph as written literally, we would all have to reject it, after all 15 year olds aren’t adults.

    Open Communion vs Infant Communion

    In the last full paragraph on page 8, beginning “Contrary to”, Webber correctly notes that open communion eventually leads to “infant” communion. But Webber seems to imply that the reverse is also true. It is not.

  6. @Glen Meints #5

    Believe and discern are not synonymous. St. Paul requires not only faith, but also discernment (and self-examination – which is an introspective kind of discernment) for communicants. I describe this in the paper as a “discerning and reflexive faith,” as compared to the broader concept of a “general” faith or a “passive” faith (terms of limited usefulness, but useful here, I think).

    In the Small Catechism, Luther states that worthiness for communion consists not just in “faith,” but in faith in the specific words of the sacramental institution. This is a discerning faith, that is capable of a studious reflection upon the meaning of specific words of Scripture as compared to other words of Scripture.

    The distinction between “children” and “adults” is Luther’s, not mine. But he defines an “adult” – in the question of whether or not the sacrament is intended for that person – as one who has been quarreling and sinning, and who is directed by St. Paul to examine himself consciously and to repent of those sins. When a child becomes capable of this, then at that time that child becomes an “adult” for these purposes. Whether he is or is not an “adult” also in other respects is not pertinent to understanding Luther’s comments. Because this is admittedly an imprecise usage of the term “adult,” I put the word in quotes in my commentary on Luther’s statements. I’m intending only to be explaining Luther here, not setting forth my own preferred way of explaining this.

    In the ancient church (and also today), an adult convert would be catechized, then baptized, and then communed. The Didaskalia does not present that sequence, however. It presents instead a sequence that would be applicable to children born into Christian families, who would be baptized, then catechized, and then communed.

  7. How Are people with severe mental ailments eg. schizophrenia communed? What about people in vegetative states?

  8. DJW –

    Come, man! You surely have to know/understand that infants were baptized, received chrismation, and communed in the same service.

    Pax tecum – jb

  9. DJW –

    That is a dodge, isolating merely the Syrian Church, (or any other, for that matter).

    You know as I know the early Church didn’t refuse the baptized from the altar. They might not have been in one of the approved Lutheran Confessional groups and all . . .

    You know the 3-year Lectionary. I hope I don’t get hammered for that, too! 🙂 Tomorrow I am preaching on Matthew 18:1ff. While I do not speak to “who is worthy” at the table, I am setting the table for thoughts as to who should be at the table, guardian angels willing.

    The faith of the little ones is lauded by the Christ. In no uncertain terms! Tell me otherwise.

    I would be most interested on your take on FoC SD VIII:59. Does the verb progression in the whole text of John 6 not lead to mastication, or are we Zwinglists pretending at the altar every week? I have that wonderful communal event every Sunday, happy to say).

    If John 6:53-56 means exactly what it says, what are we saying to ourselves, and our children? In the end, the definitive interpretation and quality of Scripture is not our comments, or even, dare I say so, our confessional statements.

    It is understanding that Jesus is at the heart of every matter, in every matter of Scripture. Luther caught that understanding. His limitations at his moment in time do not prevent us from a clear and concise examination of the matter at hand, nor should we artificially suspend our thinking on that basis.

    Will I see infant communion within my lifetime? Only in my dreams. Communion at a younger age than the seeming “age of reason?” Perhaps. “What we have always done” is a formidable barrier to the Gospel. I can only hope.

    Remember, David, the faith of infants is far better than your faith or mine.

    Jesus said so, in so many words.

    Pax tecum – jb

  10. @jb #11

    The “Early Church” was not monolithic – especially if “Early Church” includes the Semitic, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, Celtic, and Latin branches of the church, spanning many centuries.

    My contention, for which I do present evidence, is that in the 3rd century, North African Latin Christianity had embraced a practice that was not the original apostolic practice, while Syrian Semitic Christianity was at that point retaining the apostolic practice.

    Everyone now agrees that in Cyprian’s dispute with Stephen of Rome over the question of whether those baptized in schismatic churches needed to be rebaptized or not, Stephen was correct and Cyprian was wrong. Is it therefore so difficult to imagine that Cyprian and the church of Carthage might also have been mistaken about this aspect of the administration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in comparison to the viewpoint of the church in Syria?

    True it is that Cyprian’s practice did eventually prevail, rather than the practice of Syria in the 3rd century. That’s the “Early Church,” I suppose. So too did the practice of those who invoked and prayed to Mary and the saints prevail in the “Early Church,” over the objections of St. Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century. As a Lutheran, though, I say that Epiphanius was correct, and the rest of the church should have listened to him. And as a Lutheran, I say that the church of Syria was correct, and the rest of the church should have followed its example.

  11. David –

    Your historical account is admirable. I expected that from you.

    However . . .

    I am bound by my vows to Scripture and the Confessions, and you did not respond to my request for your take on FoC SD VIII:59. No one ever does.

    Be the first!

    Your last paragraph? I am a bit unsure of exactly what you are saying.

    Is the faith of a baptized infant (within the confines of, and practiced by an orthodox pastor), valid for admission to the altar, or not?

    Is John 6:53 applicable, or not?

    Pax tecum – jb

  12. @jb #13

    Even if John 6, and the reference to John 6 in FC SD VIII:59, have a sacramental application, how does this settle the question of whether or not the Lord’s Supper per se is intended for those who do not yet have a discerning and reflexive faith? Christ’s humanity, and the flesh and blood of his humanity, cannot be separated from his person. When an infant is baptized into Christ, he is thereby baptized not only into the work of Christ, but also into the person of Christ – including the humanity of Christ and by necessity therefore also the life-giving flesh and blood of Christ. A baptized baby is mystically united to the incarnate God, and to the flesh and blood of the incarnate God. Why wouldn’t the comments of the Tuebingen Theologians therefore be a sound explanation of how John 6 applies to a baptized, believing baby?:

    “And since the children are not able to examine themselves and, thus, cannot discern the Lord’s body, we think that the ceremony of the baptism is sufficient for their salvation, and also the hidden faith with which the Lord has endowed them. For through this faith they spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, even if they do not, in the communion of the supper, physically eat it.”

  13. David –

    I simply do not believe the words you just wrote.

    If a baby is “mystically united” (as you say) to the Incarnation, that is, well, mystical. Reflexive faith is Pieper’s terminology, and again, not something to which I made a vow!

    Examination is NOT the issue. Believing IS.

    I am not required to perform a good work prior to receiving the Holy Eucharist.

    Are you?

    Pax tecum – jb

  14. @jb #15

    Please pay close attention to what I point out in the paper regarding the difference between the way in which Baptism was instituted, and the way in which the Lord’s Supper was instituted. In instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus speaks to the disciples, as communicants. He is addressing them directly, “looking them in the eye,” as it were, and talking right to them. He is engaging their minds. He is requiring their attention and reflection.

    That is also what the Words of Institution properly do with communicants today, when we follow the dominical mandate, “Do this.” We cannot “do this” with babies, or with sleeping or unconscious people. Quite simply, we are not doing what Jesus did, if we commune people who do not consciously understand the Words of Institution, and who cannot be prompted by those words to a discernment of what Jesus gives, and to a self-examination of their need for what Jesus gives.

    This is not just an incidental aspect of what Jesus did – akin to the fact that the original communicants were all Jewish men, sitting on cushions around a low table. Those things are not a part of the dominical mandate for us. But the requirement for discernment, reflection, and rational attentiveness are embedded in the Words of Institution themselves. Chemnitz points this out in some detail, as I quote him in the paper. And in so doing, he is expanding on what Luther says more simply in the Small Catechism, that he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith “in these words…” Not just a passive faith in Christ as Savior, generally speaking, but a discerning faith in the meaning and impact of specific words of Scripture, as compared to other words of Scripture.

    The Lord’s Supper does require faith, and it does strengthen faith. But the route that the Lord’s Supper takes in doing this – unlike baptism, which goes directly to the passive faith of an infant – is the route of discernment, reflection, consideration, and self-examination. This is concluded from the method and means of the Institution itself – what Jesus said, to whom he said it, and what his saying presupposed and required in his listeners.

  15. I had typed something here and have lost it twice because I entered the wrong CAPTCHA code, which is hard to read a lot of the time. Is there some way that you can allow the text to remain and not vanish, instead of a blank screen that says “WRONG CAPTCHA”? Clicking Back only sends me to a blank comment field.

  16. SKPeterson :Like Joe @ 4, I would like to see a more clear definition of what constitutes reflection and self-examination, especially in light of the Eucharist and Confirmation. As a youth growing up ALC/LCA, I went through first communion instruction at about 10, but not confirmation until 8th and 9th grade, with the actual confirmation ceremony taking place in the early months of 10th grade. Once confirmed, we were then adult, voting members of the congregation. Yet, in my LCMS congregation communion is not offered until one has been confirmed, but confirmation takes place in 7th and 8th grade with the rite being performed in the Spring of the 8th grade year. However, once confirmed, the kids are still kids. They don’t get to be voting members until they reach 18. I guess what I am remarking on is the felicitous inconsistencies in congregational practice and standards for youth comprehension of the same for both admittance to the Eucharist, confirmation, and full membership in the congregation.

    Signing a congregation’s constitution and becoming a voting member is the same as signing a legal contract, which requires one to be eighteen. Congregations are also chartered state corporations, which is why voters must be eighteen.

  17. jb :…you did not respond to my request for your take on FoC SD VIII:59. No one ever does.
    Be the first!

    You mean this?

    “Thirdly, the Scriptures speak not merely in general of the Son of Man, but also indicate expressly His assumed human nature, 1 John 1:7: The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin, not only according to the merit [of the blood of Christ] which was once attained on the cross; but in this place John speaks of this, that in the work or act of justification not only the divine nature in Christ, but also His blood per modum efficaciae (by mode of efficacy), that is, actually, cleanses us from all sins. Thus in John 6:48-58 the flesh of Christ is a quickening food; as also the Council of Ephesus concluded from this [statement of the evangelist and apostle] that the flesh of Christ has power to quicken; and as many other glorious testimonies of the ancient orthodox Church concerning this article are cited elsewhere.”

  18. @TimS #17
    I always copy (to the clipboard) my comments prior to submitting them; that way if the submission fails for some reason, I can still paste my comments rather than having to retype them.

  19. @Rob Williamson #8

    I think the quotation I include in the paper from C. F. W. Walther addresses this kind of question:

    “The category of those who cannot be admitted to the holy Supper because they cannot examine themselves includes also the sleeping, the unconscious, those who cannot deliberate because they are in the last movements [the last gasps before death], the insane, and the like. … In a case in which one who desired the holy Supper had become so weak in understanding and memory that he could undertake the self-examination only with
    the preacher’s help and could only repeat what was said to him, but had shown himself to be an upright Christian when he had greater mental powers, the theological faculty at Jena advised that he be admitted [to the holy Supper]” (Pastoral Theology, p. 147).

    For some people, their state of mind, or their impaired capacity, simply means that the gospel would now properly be delivered to them in some way other than the Lord’s Supper. If they are in a condition where they no longer desire the Lord’s Supper and/or no longer understand what it is, God will preserve and strengthen their faith in other ways: by the renewal and remembrance of their baptism; and by the sharing of the Word of God and absolution.

  20. Don’t you think that if such a seismic shift in praxis occurred in the first few centuries of the church from non infant communion to infant communion, that volumes would have been left us of such a struggle? All the other major heresies such as Gnosticism, Arianism, Dynamic Monarchianism, etc. engendered abundant written responses. This was not the stone age. No such response is found in the writings of the Father’s of the first Five centuries on this or on other practices such as invocation of Saints, etc. A single verse from the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum) hardly proves the praxis of the Syrian Church. The verse itself does not reference infants, (the “milk” surely is a reference from the NT passage referencing it). Also Epiphanius is a solitary voice on invocation of saints, and is no more representative of Orthodox Christianity of his day than is the trickle of voices calling for infant communion within the LCMS of its own tradition.

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