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.