At the conclusion of our previous article we stated that our answer to the first question, namely, “Should covenant youth of 12 to 15 years old be encouraged to partake of the Lord’s Supper before they make confession of faith?” was a decisive No. The reasons for this negative answer we now state.
1) This plan would be contrary to all Reformed precedent and contrary to the historic position of the church ever since apostolic times.
Let us begin with Calvin himself, and at the same time dispel the idea that he ever taught any such thing. Writing in connection with his treatment of the Romish sacrament of Confirmation, he states in his Institutes, IV, 19, 4: “It was an ancient custom of the church for the children of Christians after they were come to years of discretion, to be presented to the bishop in order to fulfill that duty which was required of adults who offered themselves to baptism. For such persons were placed among the catechumens, until, being duly instructed in the mysteries of Christianity, they were enabled to make a confession of faith before the bishop and all the people. Therefore those who had been baptized in infancy, because they had not then made such a confession before the church, at the close of childhood, or the commencement of adolescence, were again presented by their parents, and were examined by the bishop, according to the form of the catechism which was then in common use.” This quotation at once teaches us that it was the practice in the ancient church to require of those baptized in infancy a period of catechetical instruction and a confession of faith prior to admission to the Lord’s Supper. And church historians all confirm this: Baptized infants were instructed along with adult converts—such instruction being along the Trinitarian lines of the baptism formula and later following the lines of our present Apostles’ Creed—and upon confession of faith were admitted to communion.
And that Calvin himself was committed to this rule is plain from the following quotation (IV, 19, 13): “I sincerely wish that we retained the custom, which I have stated among the ancients before this abortive image of a sacrament made its appearance. But with not such a confirmation as the Romanists pretend, which cannot be mentioned without injury to baptism; but a catechetical exercise, in which children or youth used to deliver an account of their faith in the presence of the church. Now it would be the best mode of catechetical instruction, if a formulary were written for this purpose, containing and stating in a familiar manner, all the articles of our religion, in which the universal church of believers ought to agree, without any controversy: a boy of ten years of age might present himself to make a confession of his faith; might be questioned on all the articles, and might give suitable answers: if he were ignorant of any, or did not fully understand them, he should be taught. Thus the church would witness his confession of the only true and pure faith, in which all the community of believers unanimously worship the one God. If this discipline were observed in the present day, it would certainly sharpen the inactivity of some parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a thing in which they have no concern, but which, in that case, they could not omit without public disgrace. There would be more harmony of faith among Christian people, nor would many betray such great ignorance and want of information; some would not be so easily carried away with novel and strange tenets; in short, all would have a regular acquaintance with Christian doctrine.” Here it is evident, therefore, that Calvin pleads for an early confession of faith, not for admission to the Lord’s table prior to confession of faith. Whether this was due to Calvin’s Romish background, even while he opposed the idea of confirmation as such, I am not able to state. It is significant, however, that while he speaks of the age of 10 in the Institutes, he later fixed the age for confession and admission to the Lord’s table in Geneva at 14 years, as did also a Lasco in the Church of the Refugees. (Cf. H. Bouwman, “Gereformeerd Kerkrecht,” II, 384.) But at any rate, the tale that Calvin favored admission to the Lord’s table prior to confession of faith cannot be substantiated.
Moreover, the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands took this same stand from the very beginning. The Convent of Wezel, 156S, the early synods (Dordrecht in 1574 and 1578, Middelburg, 1581, and ‘s Gravenhage, 1556) and the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19 all emphasized rather strongly: 1) The necessity of confession of faith for admission to the Lord’s Supper. 2) The necessity of catechetical instruction for the children and youth of the church. 3) The necessity of an examination of one’s faith as to knowledge of doctrine, conviction of the truth, and willingness to be subject to the discipline of the church. And in connection with this, we may remark that in this early period the public examination of those who made confession of faith was more extensive than it is today. And this was also connected directly with admission to the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the early editions of the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper contained a rather elaborate formulary for this examination of one’s faith, in which inquiry is made as to one’s knowledge of Reformed doctrine, as to one’s doubts on any aspect of the truth, as to one’s willingness to abide by the doctrine, to forsake the world, and to lead a new and Christian life, and as to one’s willingness to be subject to Christian discipline, and also containing an admonition to peace, love, unity, and reconciliation with the neighbor. (Cf. P. Biesterveld, Het Gereformeerde Kerkboek, pp. 230, ff.)
The churches followed varying customs as to the age for confession of faith, but from the very beginning the Reformed Churches have always insisted without exception on the necessity of confession of faith for admission to the Lord’s table.
Now I have purposely entered into this aspect of the question in considerable detail because I consider this alone to be a very strong argument. In fact, I would hesitate long and seriously and investigate and weigh the arguments with extreme thoroughness before I would ever dare to throw away a precedent of such long standing in the Reformed Churches and a precedent that goes back all the way to the church of immediate post-apostolic times. Understand well: we do not live by mere precedent and tradition. If it could be shown conclusively that such a precedent is wrong and anti-Scriptural and detrimental to the life of the church, then the precedent must be rejected and the truth and the right way of the Word of God must be embraced. But believing, as we do, the unity of the church of all ages, and believing that the church in the past was led into all the truth by the Holy Spirit, we cannot lightly break with history. Any change that is made must be shown to be a progression in the historical Reformed line, not a departure from that line. Unless, therefore, this can be proved, we must not make the change.
2) This plan would be contrary to our Reformed documents, i.e., our Church Order, our confessions, and our liturgy. Let me cite two articles from the Church Order, first of all. Article 61 states: “None shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except those who according to the usage of the church with which they unite themselves have made a confession of the Reformed religion, besides being reputed to be of a godly walk, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.” It is very- obvious that this article would have to be changed radically in order to introduce the plan we are discussing. However, Article 59 is of indirect significance also: “Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church, and are therefore obliged also to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism.” This article is significant: a) Because it associates adulthood and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. b) Because in adult baptism confession of faith is made, upon which celebration of the Lord’s Supper follows as a necessity. c) Because Reformed churches, both here and in the Netherlands, have allowed infant baptism up to the age of 14 and 15. Now you may disagree on the idea that a child of 14 or 15 should be baptized as an infant, and I believe I would also; but the significant fact here is that Reformed churches have considered such persons not to be adults, and not ready for confession of faith and for the Lord’s Supper.
In the second place, let me refer you to our confessions. I will not quote at length from ourCatechism. And then, first of all, let me emphasize that it is undoubtedly the position of our Catechism that infants (and therefore also adolescents) who are born in the church do have essentially a right to the sacraments, organically considered. This ought to be plain from Question and Answer 74, the beautiful expression of our Catechism on infant baptism. In the second place, let me point out that almost all of the questions and answers dealing with the Lord’s Supper teach that this sacrament is for believers and for conscious partakers, and that the entire section presupposes a rather thorough understanding on the part of these believers of the meaning of the sacrament and of the sacramental operation. In the third place, Questions 81 and 82 are of direct bearing on this question, and certainly imply strongly the necessity of confession of faith. In my opinion, one who is not a professed Christian cannot qualify for a place at the Lord’s table in the light of these statements of our Catechism. But our Netherland Confession is still more explicit. In Article 35, the last part, we read: “Lastly, we receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up amongst us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, with thanksgiving: making there confession of our faith, and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself; lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup, he eat and drink judgment to himself.” To me this quotation means nothing less than that this whole plan is wrong from a confessional point of view. For while it does not state explicitly that confession of faith must take place prior to our partaking of the Lord’s Supper, it nevertheless states that at the Lord’s table we make confession of our faith and of the Christian religion. It means that one must be able and ready to make such a confession of faith when he goes to the Lord’s table. And therefore, our Church Order is correct when it requires that none shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except those who have made a confession of the Reformed religion.
Finally, let me briefly point out that all the language of our Form for Administration of the Lord’s Supper teaches the same thing by implication, namely, that this sacrament is for conscious believers who are able to examine themselves and able to discern the Lord’s body, and that too, in a quite mature manner. To me, therefore, this part of our liturgy (and let me remind you that historically this is the background of this form too) can mean nothing less than that the Lord’s Supper is for a professing believer.
There is more to be said; but this must wait for the next issue.