Church History and Paedo-Communion

The second chapter of Venema is a discussion of PC in church history. Venema, in this chapter, is addressing the argument for PC that history either favors or allows for PC in the practice of the church. Venema’s thesis statement is here: “The historical practice of the church encourages a reconsideration of the usual Reformed practice of restricting the Lord’s Table to those who are professing members of the church” (p. 11). I assume by “reconsideration” Venema means that the PC position should reconsider the traditional position and switch to it, although the sentence itself could be misinterpreted as saying that opponents of PC should reconsider their position. The two-fold argument from the PC side is that the preponderance of evidence is in favor of PC and that the main reason why PC was stopped was the introduction of unbiblical emphases into the church’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Venema’s first historical point is that the evidence for paedo-baptism is significantly more extensive than the evidence for PC. After examining Justin Martyr (he acknowledges but plainly disagrees with Leithart’s and Gallant’s interpretation of Justin’s statements), Clement (the reference in footnote 4 on page 13 is incorrect; it should be ANF 2:242, not page 243), Origen, and the author of Didascalia, he concludes that “the historical evidence stemming from the earliest period of the church’s history, therefore, provides no uniform testimony to a widespread practice of paedocommunion” (pp. 15-16). Venema does acknowledge that Cyprian is the first reference to the practice, but denies that this constitutes evidence for widespread practice.

It is only in the fourth and fifth centuries that PC became a normal practice of the church. Venema argues that it was Augustine’s view of the sacraments as conveying grace ex opere operato that led him to advocate the practice of PC (p. 18). It is generally acknowledged by all sides that the Eastern church practiced and still practices PC. Venema acknowledges that “the practice of Eastern Orthodoxy since the fourth century certainly lends support to the argument that paedocommunion enjoys the sanction of church history” (p. 19). However, this statement is immediately qualified: “The basis for the practice of Eastern Orthodoxy, however, raises questions concerning how this practice should be evaluated” (ibid).

On the Roman Catholic Church in the Medieval period, Venema acknowledges that the practice of PC did fade after transubstantiation kicked in (after all, one can’t have one spilling the blood of Christ, or letting bits of Christ’s body fall to the floor to be stepped on). However, when it comes to the Reformation, Venema argues that, although the Reformed tradition continued the practice of delay from the RCC’s Medieval period, “they did so for reasons that were consistent with their general understanding of the sacraments” (p. 22). In other words, not for the same reasons, contra most advocates of PC, who simply lump together Reformation orthodoxy with Medieval Catholicism, as if they did the same thing for the same reasons, or as if the Reformed never really examined why they did what they did. The Reformed argue that faith is necessary to gain benefit by the sacrament, and that baptism therefore differs from the Lord’s Supper. In other words, faith does not have to come first in baptism, but it does have to come first in a proper taking of the Lord’s Supper.

Venema concludes by saying that the introduction of PC into the church was concomitant with “dubious sacramental views” (p. 25), and that the Reformed were not continuous with Medieval Catholicism in terms of their reasoning for rejecting PC. Both of these theses argue substantially against the historical reasoning of PC advocates.