We are still occupied with the question whether our adolescents should be encouraged to make early confession of faith (at the age of 12 to 15) and thus partake of the Lord’s Supper. And, having mentioned some of the arguments advanced in favor of this idea, we shall now try to formulate a conclusion and produce reasons for it.
And then, by way of introduction, I want to state that my answer to this second question would not be a flat No, but a qualified No. My reasons for this will become more clear in the third section of this discussion. But I want to emphasize, first of all, that I do not believe that a definitely fixed and precise age can be established for the making of confession of faith. Hence, while I believe as a general rule that early adolescence is not the time for confession of faith, I would not exclude the possibility that occasionally a youth of 12 to 15 years old is spiritually and psychologically ready to confess his faith. And, in the second place, while you may, in general, follow the rule that confession of faith should be made by the time one reaches adulthood, nevertheless within that limitation the making of confession of faith is an individual matter. And not only do you run the risk by attempting to legislate an exact age when confession of faith must be made of de-emphasizing the spiritual character of such confession, but, to my mind, there are many more detrimental aspects to such legislation which would outweigh whatever demerits our present practice may have. We may also observe by way of introduction that there has never been unanimity of opinion on this subject among Reformed authorities. Dr. A. Kuyper probably comes nearest to the view suggested under “II.” He proposes the age of 16 as the proper time for confession of faith. In “Onze Eeredienst,” page 436, after a lengthy discussion of the transition from baptism to communion, he presents what to my mind is a faulty argument, writing as follows (I translate): “It is therefore so much better to connect the making of confession more nearly and more closely to baptism, and to put it at the close of the age of childhood and before the rise of intellectual pedantry. To say that this may not be and cannot be because a young man or young lady of 16 cannot judge concerning their state will not do, because this same allegation would also hold as to baptism, since no father or mother is in a position to judge concerning the state of the newborn infant. In the case of baptism it goes on the ground of the confidence of faith, not upon selection. Whoever would make selection, judgment, would first have to wait for the age of adulthood in order to baptize. . . . . Not from yourself, nor from your child, but from your God and His covenant must the reckoning proceed. If His word testifies that the children of believers are indeed holy, then we leave the further choice to the one who knows the heart, cleaving to His word. And we have our newborn children baptized. But in the same way of thinking, it also fits then that the baptized child, as soon as it awakens to self-consciousness should come to confession, not as proof of learning or of spiritual certainty, but as consequence and outflowing of his baptism and at the same time as transition to communion.”
Dr. H. Bouwman, on the other hand, maintains a different outlook in his “Gereformeerd Kerkrecht,” II, p. 384: “To make confession at a very young age is as a rule to be rejected (avoided). At the age of 13 to 15 one’s judgment is not ripe, and his knowledge is not pure. The custom of the Reformation period, which is still followed in some countries, gave occasion for the decadence of the church. As a rule we may fix the age of 17 to 21 as the most indicated (favorable) time for the making of confession of faith. It is good for one to make confession while young because thereby he feels himself closely bound to the church, because he gives himself consciously under church discipline, and this at the same time can serve as a restraint for a restrained and Christian life. But this last may not be the motive of confession. After all when public confession simply must serve as a bridle, it becomes de-natured and a mere mouth confession is given shelter. In the age of crisis the young man or young woman has need of spiritual guidance. And they must not make confession otherwise than with self-consciousness, with knowledge of the truths of salvation, according to the rule followed by the church. He who is unfaithful, however, and follows the world, who despises the confession and the sacrament, must be ecclesiastically admonished, and, in the case of stiff-necked persistence in that evil, excommunicated.”
I find myself in substantial agreement with these remarks of Bouwman, and I submit the following considerations against this second proposition:
1) While it is true that early confession of faith finds historical support in the fact that confession at the age of 14 was the rule during the Reformation period, it is also true that this very custom was an important factor in producing a doctrinally weak church, so that soon Arminianism could run wild in the Dutch church.
2) Especially the age of early adolescence is still in every respect—physically, psychologically, and spiritually a formative, unstable, and immature period. The early adolescent is just beginning to think for himself, form his own opinions and judgments, and arrive at his own conclusions. He does not yet act and must not be expected to act as a mature individual. And if we may assume that one’s spiritual development and growth runs, generally speaking parallel to his physical and psychological development and growth—as I think we may—then we should not expect an adolescent to act as a mature individual spiritually either. To do so nevertheless could lead to grave spiritual consequences, both for the church and for that individual. And, while we are on this subject,anyway, personally I think that nowadays we encourage and even force those who are still very much children to act far too “grown up” for their own age and their own good. Too many young people today are given the privileges and prerogatives of a more advanced age while they are both unwilling and unprepared to bear the responsibilities—or even to discern the responsibilities—that are paired with these privileges and prerogatives. And we must not fall into the same snare spiritually.
3) In our doctrinally weak age we ought not to deemphasize the doctrinal and intellectual aspect of confession of faith, but rather emphasize it more. After all, faith is knowledge as well as confidence. And the latter is impossible without the former. Besides, in the very questions for public confession of faith our young people are asked to express agreement with the doctrine taught in our churches. How, pray tell, can they ever do this unless and until they have been thoroughly instructed in this doctrine? In our churches their formal doctrinal instruction does not even begin until they are at least 13 years old. And when I consider how woefully weak some of our covenant youth can be in knowledge of distinctive Reformed doctrine even when they appear at the consistory meetings for confession of faith in late adolescence, I tremble to think what the results would be if they made confession of faith before they were even 15 years old. I am afraid you would have to reduce the doctrinal requirements to the barest generalities, and thereby also throw away the future doctrinal strength of the church.
4) I believe it would be both unfair and impossible to make a distinction among the communicant members of the church by requiring part of them to continue their catechetical instruction after they have made confession of faith and been admitted to the Lord’s Supper.
5) The proper way to combat false notions of church membership and evil tendency on the part of covenant youth to “sow their wild oats” and to postpone confession of faith with the false notion that as long as they are not communicants they have a certain license to live more loosely is not by an enforced and mechanical and legislated early confession of faith. The problem is mainly a spiritual one. And the means to combat this evil, to the extent that it exists, must also be spiritual. From the pulpit and in the catechism class, by instruction, by warning and admonition, by a clear and firm insistence upon the covenant calling of our youth, by stern and loving discipline, and also by the covenant instruction of home and school, this evil must be fought. There is no other successful means than that of fostering in our children a keen covenant consciousness and sensitivity and a warm covenant zeal to the utmost of our power. True, this must be done from childhood on; but the critical period of early adolescence is especially the age for this.
6) I would also cite our slowness and even loathness to discipline members by baptism, especially adolescents, as an objection here. How many of our elders would be prepared to classify as unbelieving and ungodly—or even to begin to think of one as unbelieving and ungodly—those who have not made confession of faith by the age of 15 or 16? Consistories can already be slow to treat a baptized member in his twenties; and they certainly would not be ready to discipline in the negative sense of the word one who is in his mid-teens.
7) Nor should we forget that historically the Reformed churches have allowed infant baptism (that is, baptism without a confession of faith) up to the age of 14 and even 15 years. Whether you agree with this or not, the fact remains that this has been practiced. And it is an indication that at least they have not considered those in their early teens to be ready for confession of faith.
8) This practice would either lend itself to the revivalistic spirit of our American religious age and result in immature, emotional confessions of faith, or it would lend itself to a dead orthodoxy and the resultant mechanical and automatic confession of faith of all early teenagers. In both cases the confession of faith would be unconsidered, lightly made, and just as lightly denied.
III. Should we encourage our adolescents at all to partake of the Lord’s Supper?
To this my answer would be: Yes, by all means!
And under this answer I want to make the following observations:
1) It should always be remembered that confession of faith is an individual matter. Within the broad period of adolescence no minimum age for confession of faith can be fixed. Nor should confession of faith become a mass activity and a sort of democratic thing. Our young people should be warned against this too, lest one makes confession of faith just because another, possibly his friend, does so, and because he does not like to go before that “austere” consistory alone.
2) As a general rule, late adolescence—let us say, approximately from one’s seventeenth to his nineteenth year—is the time for a maturely made, knowledgeable confession of faith. Here again, I want to qualify this by emphasizing that you cannot legislate this as the onlytime for confession of faith. But generally, this age is indicated by:
a) The very nature of this age of adolescence. Late adolescence is the time of decisions in much of our life. It is at this time that one takes up or decides upon his life’s work. It is at this time that one begins to think seriously about, and even to choose, his life’s partner. From this same point of view, it is at this age that one comes to a mature, firm knowledge and assurance of his living part with Christ.
b) By the fact that at this age one’s doctrinal training and instruction has been completed in our churches as far as the formal instruction of the catechism class is concerned. That doctrinal instruction should include a study of the Heidelberg Catechism of approximately two years, a study of the Netherland Confession of two terms of catechism, and if possible some study of the Canons and of the history and doctrinal issues of 1924. Such a basic doctrinal course is not designed to make little theologians out of our covenant youth, but to furnish them with the basic doctrinal equipment which a Reformed believer needs. And one should not neglect his opportunities for doctrinal training in order to make early confession of faith. This is not to say, of course, that doctrinal instruction and study should be neglected afterwards. For there is plenty of room for further study even after confession of faith.
3) Confession of faith should be increasingly the goal that is held before covenant youth as they enter the period of adolescence. This, after all, is the very purpose of their catechetical instruction. And our youth should be reminded of this. Along these lines, I would suggest the following:
a) The spiritual aspect of catechetical instruction should receive a greater emphasis than it usually does. The doctrinal instruction should be applied. Covenant youth must be made to understand that catechism is not simply a matter of knowledge and understanding in the intellectual sense, much as any course in school, but a matter of believing with the heart. I fear that this is often neglected in the catechism room.
b) To these same matters the preaching of the Word must call attention. Our youth must not be permitted to get the impression that the preaching of the Word is for their parents and for communicant members, and for themselves only when they “get good and ready for it.”
c) Our pastors (and elders), particularly in the work of family visitation, have an excellent opportunity to give wise spiritual counsel to the youth of the congregation. By this I do not mean that all covenant youth should be bluntly told in their teens that they should make confession of faith, but rather that a pastor should talk with and to his young people, counsel with them, help them to gain an insight into the matter, to see the seriousness of it, aid them with their questions and doubts. This is a spiritual art. But every pastor should strive to get close to his young people above all and to gain their confidence and respect, so that they seek his help and counsel and prize it.
4) Errant youth should be dealt with very promptly and firmly and seriously. They should be the object of the special attention and care of pastors and elders. And disciplinary labors in the sense of admonition and warning should not by any means be neglected. For this period of early adolescence is frequently a crisis-period in a negative sense especially. It is not so much the case that covenant young people come to conscious conversion in the full and mature sense of the word in this period of their lives; but rather, in a negative sense, a tendency to rebel and to be indifferent and even to come to ohen alienation with respect to the church and religion has its inception in this period. G. Brillenburg Wurth discusses this aspect of our subject capably, I think, in his Christelijke Zielzorg, pp. 177, ff. And he makes the point that up to about the age of 15 it is quite possible to keep a hold on the young people, but that when the time comes that they become more or less independent, find their own work circle, come into contact with a different spiritual milieu, then it becomes more difficult to maintain contact with them any longer. And therefore, this period is not the time of positive decision, but the time for counsel and guidance with a view to confession of faith in late adolescence. If then, however, late adolescence passes without confession of faith, there is cause for concern. And, depending, of course, on individual circumstances, the church should not be slow to deal with such delinquents as “covenant-breakers.”
For we must always remember that the church consists of believers and their children. And while adolescence is a period of transition also spiritually, if one is neither a believer nor a child he has no place in the gathering of the church on earth, and should be made to understand this. For his own sake, for the sake of the purity of the church, for the sake of the sanctity of the means of grace, and for the sake of the holiness of our God this must be strictly maintained in the church. But by the same token, the church must labor mightily with its children and youth, instructing and training them in the way of God’s covenant, with the positive purpose in view that they may in due time, in God’s own time, assume their place consciously in that covenant. And we have God’s promise appended to such training: “When they are old, they shall not depart therefrom.”