Monday, October 10, 2011

Children at the Lord's Table?

Cornelis P. Venema. Children at the Lord’s Table: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009. 183p.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Someone once said that that the strength or weakness of any theological system can be determined by its treatment of the sacraments. In the doctrine of the sacraments, virtually every branch of a theological system is put to the test and harmonized in one of its most practical expressions. Most believers who have come to the Reformed faith have struggled with the theology of the sacraments at some point. Questions arise such as: What is the relationship between the Word and the sacraments? What does it mean that the sacraments are an “effective means of salvation?”  How are the sacraments seals? Yet the question that troubles all at some point is: Who are the proper recipients of the sacraments?
Cornelis P. Venema’s, Children at the Lord’s Table?, is a clearly written and thorough response to paedocommunion, or the practice of admitting children to the Lord’s table based solely upon their membership in the covenant community. Too often it is the case that those who embrace paedobatism reject paedocommunion upon shaky grounds. Advocates of paedocommunion have ordinarily constructed an argument in favor of their practice similar to the defense of paedobaptism. Therefore, paedobaptists who reject paedocommunion by citing the command for self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11, are challenged with the fact that in the case of adults, faith and repentance are required prior baptism without invalidating the baptism of covenant children.
The strength of Venema’s book is that in seven chapters he takes the arguments in favor of paedocommunion seriously and presents them in their strongest form before providing a thorough refutation. After introducing the nature of the question, chapters two and three trace the practice of paedocommunion through church history and the major Reformed paedobaptist confessions. Chapter four assesses the assertion that in the Old Testament, all circumcised children participated in Israel’s feasts, culminating in the Passover. Chapter five addresses the New Testament teaching about the Lord’s Supper in light of the words of institution, the Book of Acts, and what it means to feed upon Christ by faith from John six. Chapter six contains an exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which, as Venema contends, is the only New Testament passage that speaks directly to who should participate in the Lord’s Supper. The last chapter summarizes Venema’s observations and illustrates the manner in which contemporary debates over the “Federal Vision” and other aberrations in covenant theology have often clouded the debate over the nature and proper recipients of the sacraments. All of this is followed by a useful appendix on Covenant Theology and Baptism, which has been reprinted from another publication.
Venema cuts the heart out of the case for paedocommunion by demonstrating that the entire household was not required to participate in Israel’s feasts. At the first Passover, the entire family was required to participate in the feast. Those in favor of paedocommunion often argue that holding children back from the Lord’s Supper until they are able to make a public profession of faith declares that they are cut off from the covenant, even as those who did not participate in the Passover were liable to the Lord’s judgment. However, Venema clearly demonstrates that in the subsequent observances of the Passover, the adult males alone were required to attend and participate in the feast. This implies that children who did not participate in the feast were not cut off from the benefits of the covenant. This clearly demonstrates that the demand for children to come to the Lord’s Supper based upon the pattern of the Passover is entirely unjustified.
Once the Old Testament case for the participation of children in all of the privileges and obligations of the covenant has been dismantled, the foundation of paedocommunion has been demolished. When we ignore the covenantal arguments posited by advocates of paedocommunion by a naïve appeal to 1 Corinthians 11, we must recognize that they are justified in accusing us of the same error committed by Baptists in rejecting infant baptism. Since Venema has removed the arguments from the covenant first, his discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 appears in a different light.
The only downside to this useful volume is that Venema is unnecessarily repetitive, if not redundant. In the beginning of every new section, he re-states material that was presented only a few pages before using virtually the same words. It is even common for him to make a statement in the beginning of a paragraph and then repeat the same statement at the end of the paragraph! If all of the redundant material were excised from this book, its size would be reduced considerably. That being said, the arguments set forth in this book are theologically sound, rooted in careful exegesis of Scripture, fair to the opposing viewpoint, and, as a result, clear, satisfying, and convincing. This book is an indispensable tool for pastors, parents, and churchgoers with regard to their overall understanding of the sacraments.
The preceding review was originally published in The Puritan Reformed Journal.