Infant Communion, Revisited

Infants are communed almost immediately after baptism in the Orthodox Church. (From Wikimedia Commons)
Infants are communed almost immediately after baptism in the Orthodox Church.
(From Wikimedia Commons)

By Fr. Gregory Hogg
Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, 29 December 2014

I am the living bread which came down from heaven.
If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever;
and the bread that I shall give is My flesh,
which I shall give for the life of the world. John 6:51

The young children ask for bread,
But no one breaks it for them. Lam. 4:4

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is once again visiting the topic of “infant communion”—a topic perhaps better described as “communion of the baptized,” because those traditions which carry out the practice do so not because of the age or developmental stage of the communicant, but because of their status as fully incorporated into the body of Christ by means of Holy Baptism. Accordingly, in this paper I shall refer to the practice as “Communion of the Baptized,” or COTB.1

The LCMS discussion has taken place chiefly in two documents: a set of theses by Rev’d. Dr. John Pless, and an opinion issued by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, or CTCR.2 For someone who, like me, is a former member of that confession to address the issue may seem something of a fool’s errand. I have no reasonable expectation of changing any hearts or minds by writing this response. Yet I do so for three reasons. First, the ongoing trickle of LCMS pastors into the Orthodox Church because of this issue makes an Orthodox view on the matter worthwhile. It is worth puzzling: why does this issue continue to arise time after time in Lutheranism? Second, a phrase from the Smalcald Articles suggests that Lutherans ought always to engage in inter- and intra-faith dialogue. There Luther says, “Concerning the following matters we may treat with learned and reasonable men, or even among ourselves.”3 And third, the arguments raised in Pless and the CTCR document raise some deeper issues on how theology is done. A theologian of the Church must be prepared to engage theology wherever and whenever it takes place…especially if, as in the present case, familiarity with both sides places him in a position to engender dialogue, discussion and even debate between them.

In what follows, I will try to divide the arguments raised into three categories: exegetical, historical and theological. There are certain arguments I leave by and large unaddressed, but that are worth noting: those based on the Lutheran confessional writings—for example, when P10 says “one cannot endorse the communion of infants/toddlers while maintaining an unqualified subscription to the Lutheran Confessions.” I leave those unaddressed for two reasons. First, as I contended in a series of theses entitled “There is no Lutheran Church,” written just before I became Orthodox,4 I would maintain that there is no trans-parish entity today which truly subscribes quia to the Lutheran Confessional writings. Second, when this kind of argument is made in defense of a position, it is a sign that the position has lost and Lutheranism has become, against its expressed desire and intent, a sect.5 Let us, then, set forth the arguments raised against COTB and offer an Orthodox response.

Exegetical Arguments

Argument from the priority of the Verba

Pless notes that “Lutheran theology does not begin with a generic category of sacraments but works instead from the Lord’s mandates for Baptism and the Supper. Each has its own distinctive features. They are not interchangeable. It does not follow that arguments for the baptism of infants are to be applied for the communion of infants/toddlers” (P7). And later he notes, “Lutheran liturgical practice is not based on historical precedent but on the Lord’s mandates” (P9).

Lutheranism does follow an inductive method of theology, which begins with the “sedes doctrinae” for a given topic like Baptism or the Eucharist. But it most certainly moves to make statements concerning the mysteries as a generic category. Pieper has a four page discussion of “The Means of Grace in General” (III.104-108). And Baier-Walther, the standard dogmatics text of the LCMS before Pieper, has a ten page discussion entitled De sacramentis in genere. It would be remarkable if all the mysteries did not have a deep inner continuity and consistency, since they are all given by the same Lord to the same community for the same end. Pless’ claim that the arguments for one cannot be applied to the other is valid only if the fact of infant baptism is based on some feature of baptism that is not shared by the Eucharist.6

Furthermore, it is not some generic notion but the very Verba themselves which support the Church’s practice of COTB. For Christ says in the Verba, “Take and drink, all of you, for this is my blood of the new testament.” And Mark’s gospel notes, “…and they all drank from it.” Those who reject COTB may note that there were no infants present in the upper room. But we have no indication that anyone was present but Christ and the twelve. The texts mention no women, or laypeople in general. In the light of the Verba, any argument that would remove the gifts from baptized infants and toddlers would also remove them from women and, indeed, all laypeople. So in an ironic way Pless is right when he says, “The words of institution address the purpose, beneficial use, and question of who is to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper” (P1). What part of “all” is unclear?

Argument from 1 Corinthians 11

The real strength of the anti-COTB view is found in the argument from Paul’s words to the Corinthians. Certainly if Paul had not addressed a problem in the Corinthian parish, the case against COTB would be considerably weaker. We may sum up the argument as follows:

  • Major premise: All those who rightly commune must be capable of making distinctions and judging.
  • Minor premise: No infants are capable of making distinctions and judging.
  • Conclusion: Hence no infants may rightly commune.

The argument as stated above is formally valid. But is it sound? Some efforts to refute it have focused on the minor premise, and claimed to show that infants are capable of making distinctions and judging.7 From a psychological standpoint, this approach may have merit. Recent studies in child development have shown infants are capable of far more than we think, far earlier than we recognize, and that human development does not so much add new features to the psyche, but rather involves the opening and unfolding of latent tendencies. Infants clearly distinguish between various foods they are offered, and judge some to be more desirable than others.8

But it seems to me better to call the major premise into question. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 11 because some of the adult members (the richer ones) were behaving badly in the context of the Eucharistic meal. He is not addressing the question, “who should be admitted to the Eucharist?” He is addressing the question, “How should adult Christians properly receive the Eucharist?”9 When commands are given, one must pay close attention to their scope, or they will be misunderstood. For example, when my children were small I would tell them, “Never cross the street without taking my hand.” I have not revoked that command, yet clearly today they all cross streets routinely without obeying it. We both understand that they are now outside the scope of my command.

Argument from Matthew 28

Pless notes, “The baptized are to be taught according to the Lord’s bidding (see Matthew 28:19-20). This teaching leads to the sacrament not vice versa” (P3). He seems to suggest here that baptism comes first, then catechesis, then partaking of the eucharist. But a careful reading of Matthew 28 seems to show something very different. Christ told the disciples, “As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all I have commanded you.” There are not three things here: baptism, teaching, and keeping. There are only two: baptizing, and teaching to keep. Those who have been baptized are taught to keep all that Christ has commanded. And how do the baptized, the subjects of Matthew 28, keep his command to “Do this in remembrance of me?” Not by expressing intellectual content, but by eating and drinking his body and blood. As St. Paul says, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; let us, therefore keep the feast.” One keeps a feast by partaking of it. There is, of course, a place for the learning of intellectual content. But catechesis is at least as much a matter of the heart, the hands and the mouth as it is a matter of the head.

Argument from the Relation of Passover to Eucharist

Thesis 8 of Pless’ text says: “The Lord’s Supper is the new testament of the Lord, not the new Passover. Hence it does not follow that because infants/toddlers were included in the Passover meal that they are to be communed.” Later in that thesis he adds, “The nature of the Passover does not establish a basis for communing infants and toddlers any more than it provides a basis for a yearly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or making the appropriate setting of the sacrament the family dining room rather than the church.”

This surprising claim seems to be based on an article by Mark Throntveit titled, “The Lord’s Supper as New Testament, Not New Passover.”10 Throntveit’s article has nothing to do with the question of COTB. It makes the claim, rather, that the context for interpreting the Last Supper is the concept of a testament, and not the Passover meal.

One wonders how to assess that claim of Throntveit’s in the light of such texts as these, gleaned from Lutheran theologians whose bona fides seem to be above reproach:

(A) Chemnitz, The Lord’s Supper p. 245: “And in regard to 1 Cor. 11 he [Theodoret] compares the paschal lamb and the Eucharist and says that the one is the type of the other.”

(B) Chemnitz, Ministry, Word and Sacrament p. 128: “For Paul has this in mind, that the Lord’s Supper followed in place of the paschal lamb of the Old Testament.”

(C) C. P. Krauth, cited in John Stephenson, The Lord’s Supper, p. 46 fn 27: “What the paschal lamb of the Old Dispensation typified, Christ is; and what the Paschal supper of the Old Dispensation typified, the supper of Christ is; and that which is promised and shadowed in the Paschal supper is given in the Lord’s Supper, in very deed and substance.”

(D) John Stephenson, The Lord’s Supper p. 79: “Among the many types of Holy Communion given in the Old Testament, pride of place belongs to the manna which sustained the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings and to the Passover lamb…”

(E) John Stephenson, The Lord’s Supper p. 112: “…the impossibility of keeping the feast of Passover without the communal eating of a Passover lamb calls to mind Christ’s fulfillment of Passover in the single event that runs from Maundy Thursday through Easter Day and his replacement of the old Passover meal with the new Passover supper of His body and blood which is no longer restricted, as was the old rite, to one evening of the year at one location on earth.”

(F) F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics I.446: “Circumcision and the Passover were to be in force throughout the Old Testament, but to be abolished with the institution of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

Pless seems to see the testament/Passover dichotomy as an exclusive “or”—i.e. it can be one or the other, but not both. But why could it not be both? Given the long list of Lutheran luminaries who see the Eucharist as the antitype and successor of the Passover, the point that all Israel ate the Passover meal remains a living issue. It is true that not all the points of the Passover meal are duplicated in the Eucharist. But we have already cited Paul’s statement that all ate and drank of the spiritual food and drink (see fn 7, above). The apostle’s words, which bind together the Old Testament mysteries and the New Testament mysteries, seem quite clear.

Historical Arguments

If we were to sum up P and C’s discussion of the historical arguments, it would be that historical evidence is both unclear and unnecessary. Let us take these each in turn.

History as Unclear

“Evidence for the communion of infants/toddlers in the early and mediaeval church is there in some places, but it is not clear that the practice was universal or when it was first practiced” (P9).

“From the information we have available, we must admit that there is no evidence for a widespread practice of paedocommunion in the earliest centuries of the church’s history following the time of the Apostles” (C, pp. 1-2).

Both P and C’s discussion of the historical evidence seems to be traceable back to an article by Roger Beckwith, an Anglican scholar who wrote on the topic in the Westminster Theological Journal. Beckwith notes that the first mention of infant baptism is found in Irenaeus, about 180 AD. The first clear mention of COTB, on the other hand, occurs in Cyprian of Carthage c. 251 AD.11

We must distinguish between lack of positive evidence, on the one hand, and positive evidence of a lack, on the other. The second would be far more serious an objection to COTB than the first. In searching for this positive evidence of a lack, besides the tendentious citations of Beckwith listed in the footnote above, I came across these lines from a discussion between Charles Anderson and Eric Gritsch in the 1979 edition of Lutheran Forum: “If we wish to cite Cyprian, Nicaea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine in support of the practice, we must also, in all candor, cite the Didache, Justin, Origen and Cyril of Jerusalem in opposition.”12 Unfortunately, no evidence other than the bald assertion of names is offered. It seems to me that those who object to COTB should demonstrate this claim, if they wish to assert it—to find whatever citations Anderson had in mind and spell out these claims in context.

There is relatively little early evidence in favor of COTB, of course; but then, there is precious little early evidence of any doctrinal or practical claims of this sort from the early Church. This is so for several reasons. In the first place, relatively little was written in the first few centuries of the Church. That is because, in part, the leaders were concerned with surviving the sporadic persecutions that came their way. In the second place, matters such as who communed belong not to the kerygma, the public proclamation of the Church, but to its dogma, which was kept in silence from the prying eyes of the surrounding world. So any mention of COTB carries great weight.

It is worth making a methodological point here, as well. It seems to me fruitless to start with the earliest mentions of a practice and move forward to our own time. It is more profitable, and clearer, to work back from history that is closer to us and to use that knowledge to search in the shadows of what is less evident. Let us follow this approach.

It is beyond dispute that the practice of the Orthodox Church, as far back as we can tell, was COTB.13 Further, I know of no one who disputes that in the west, COTB was practiced until a century or two after the Great Schism. Hence, in the undivided Church of East and West by around 1000 AD, COTB was the universal practice. Naturally, since confirmation/chrismation was only done by bishops in the west, we must allow that some time may have elapsed between a baby’s baptism and his first communion, based on the frequency of episcopal visitation. Because in the East the priests were authorized to chrismate, no such gap ever existed in the East.

It is also beyond dispute that the situation obtaining about 1000 AD had been universally practiced for hundreds of years before that date. Theologians of that time were not shy about disputing things they considered innovations—not only in theology, as in the Filioque, but also in practice, as in the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist. No such controversy exists about the practice of COTB. But how far back may we trace it in the West?

Writing to the clergy and people of Constantinople, Pope St. Leo the Great (+461) writes to congratulate them for their rejecting the so-called “Robber’s Synod” of Ephesus. Stressing the true humanity of Christ, Leo says,

For they are to be reckoned outside the Divine grace, and outside the mystery of man’s salvation, who, denying the nature of our flesh in Christ, gainsay the Gospel and oppose the Creed. Nor do they perceive that their blindness leads them into such an abyss that they have no sure footing in the reality either of the Lord’s Passion or His Resurrection: because both are discredited in the Saviour, if our fleshly nature is not believed in Him. In what density of ignorance, in what utter sloth must they hitherto have lain, not to have learnt from hearing, nor understood from reading, that which in God’s Church is so constantly in men’s mouths, that even the tongues of infants do not keep silence upon the truth of Christ’s Body and Blood at the rite of Holy Communion. For in that mystic distribution of spiritual nourishment, that which is given and taken is of such a kind that receiving the virtue of the celestial food we pass into the flesh of Him, Who became our flesh14

The comment of Philip Schaff cited in the footnote speaks for itself: “infant communion is implied as regular.” Schaff has no axe to grind in the present discussion.

St. Augustine (+430), likewise, testifies to COTB. In 416 the African bishops of proconsular Africa and of Numidia met in two councils: Carthage and Milevum. They argued that Pelagius’ denial of infant sin was incompatible with the institutions of the church. They mentioned infant baptism and the episcopal prayer that the Holy Spirit would strengthen people in their inner man. Both councils sent letters to Pope Innocent I reporting their decisions. Innocent wrote back adding a third institution of the church, namely, that of infant communion. Augustine reports of Innocent’s letters in his Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. Here are Augustine’s words:

Nor do you think thus, that they cannot have life who have been without the body and blood of Christ, although He said Himself, “Unless ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” A treatise against two letters of the Pelagians, ch. 40 (NPNF First Series V:390)

Pope Innocent, of blessed memory, says that infants have not life without Christ’s baptism, and without partaking of Christ’s body and blood. Augustine, A treatise against two letters of the Pelagians, ch. 40 (NPNF First Series V:394, emphasis mine)

Those who reject COTB may question Augustine’s reasoning and his exegesis. But they cannot question that he testifies to COTB as the normal and standard practice of his time—both in Rome and in North Africa. Leo and Augustine do not argue for the practice; they argue from the practice.

So also in the testimony of St. Cyprian of Carthage (+258). In De lapsis, Cyprian tells the tale of a young child abandoned by her parents in time of persecution. While the parents were gone, the maid allowed the child to eat food sacrificed to idols. When the parents returned, and the child approached the Eucharist, she refused it and when it was given anyway, she spat it up. Cyprian draws the conclusion that the Lord thus would not deign to dwell in one who had been defiled by pagan sacrifice.15

What is noteworthy about all these citations is that in no case is the practice viewed as controversial or remarkable. The fathers write of it as if it were a widely accepted norm, not an innovation to be defended and demonstrated. Augustine uses it as a weapon against the errors of Pelagius, for clearly infants could have done nothing to make them worthy or ready to approach the sacred gifts. If communion of the baptized were an innovation, where then is the controversy when these fathers bring it up?

History as Unnecessary

“History alone cannot provide for us a decisive argument for or against paedocommunion. Though we treasure the traditions of our fathers, these traditions like everything else must come under the scrutiny of the sole norm of doctrine and practice among us: the sacred Scriptures” (C, p. 3).

Here we get closer to the heart of the matter, historically speaking. When theology is done properly, history does not function as a second source that can be set over against an independently-ascertained meaning of the Scriptures. Historical evidence is, rather, a window into seeing how the Scriptures were understood by those more closely linked in space and time to the Apostles than are we. Honest exegesis recognizes that everyone interprets the Scriptures in the context of a tradition. Even the authors of C and P make copious use of writings by Luther and the Confessors to make their case. When Pless says “…one cannot endorse the communion of infants/toddlers while maintaining an unqualified subscription to the Lutheran Confessions,”16 he may be right…but at what cost, and with what implication?

When the Orthodox believer is content to abide by the teaching and practice of the Fathers, it is not because he has a low view of the authority and inspiration of the Holy Scriptures over against the Fathers; it is, rather, because he has a low view of his own wisdom and his understanding of the Holy Scriptures over against the Fathers.17 The tradition of the Church, understood in a holistic way, is to the Scripture what a setting is to a diamond. Tradition places the Scripture in its proper light, and protects it from being lost and replaced by the cubic zirconium of contemporary culture.18

Theological Arguments

“Baptism is necessary, but not sufficient, for partaking in the Supper”

In an argument derived from Marc Kolden, P3 says, “Baptism is an absolute prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s Supper, but it does not follow that all the baptized are categorically to be admitted to the altar. The slogan ‘Communion is the birthright of the baptized,’ sometimes used to assert that all the baptized are entitled to eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, is not only problematic in making admission to the Lord’s Supper a ‘right’ rather than a gift, but it also misses the point that for numerous reasons baptized Christians are excluded from the Lord’s Table.” Just as citizenship in the US is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for voting (one must also have attained the age of majority and not be guilty of a felony), so also for Lutherans baptism is necessary, but not sufficient, for partaking in the Supper.19

What, then, is the sufficient condition? The answer to this question is complex—i.e. it has several elements. First is instruction in the faith; second is examination, both by a pastor and also by oneself. In Lutheran circles this condition is fulfilled by catechesis and a subsequent pastoral examination of the catechumens. One could wish that a regular course of private confession and absolution were also involved but (to coin a phrase from Shakespeare) in Lutheran circles private confession is a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance.

To speak theologically, the kind of faith Lutherans require to receive the Eucharist—the thing that adults are capable of, and children not—is fides reflexa. Lutheran dogmatics distinguishes between fides directa, the faith with which we believe in Christ, and fides reflexa, the faith with which we reflect on our fides directa and its object.20

What is wrong with the view that communing requires fides reflexa? In the first place, it misunderstands the relation between fides directa and fides reflexa. The rise of self-awareness comes far earlier in life than the paper seems to suggest. Consider a toddler’s tantrums, for example; they are clearly performed with a goal in mind—to get whatever is being sought by the toddler. Further, even for adults awareness of the significance of events comes chiefly in the light of having experienced events first. When one gets married, for example, one does not fully understand the implications of the event; yet one enters unhindered into marital union and, over time and in the light of experience comes to understand the meaning of the act of being joined in wedlock. That is why St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist to the catechumens after they have experienced them.

One might add, more controversially, that this view changes the Eucharist from mystery to mastery, from gift of grace to attainment,21 not of works but of reason. How ironic that for a theological system so determined to smoke out all elements of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, at this point (worthy reception of the Eucharist) everything rests on some attainment of the communicant! Augustine had it right: COTB is a powerful argument against Pelagianism.

The “no loss if not communed” argument

Pless says, “Arguments for infant/toddler communion bypass the truth that in Baptism, we receive ‘victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts’…as though the promise of Baptism remained unfulfilled without the Lord’s Supper. By waiting until children have been instructed, examined, and absolved before admitting them to the Lord’s Supper, they are not being deprived of Christ” (P4).22

It could scarcely be argued by anyone familiar with Orthodox and Lutheran rites of Holy Baptism that the Orthodox Church has any deficiencies with respect to its view of Baptism. The Orthodox rite begins with exorcisms (once essential to the Lutheran rite but now optional). The baptizand is anointed with oil then immersed three times. Following chrismation a threefold circling of the font takes place while all sing, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!”—this threefold circling representing the whole of the Christian life as a circling around the font where forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are received. Then the baptizand receives for the first time the life-giving flesh and blood of the Son of Man: gift upon gift upon gift.

An interesting variant of the “no loss if not communed” argument is found in Mark Tranvik’s 1995 article in Word and World. There Tranvik writes:

If we can establish that forgiveness is central to the understanding of holy communion, then we might have an answer to our earlier question as to why God would institute another sacrament beside baptism and for whom this sacrament is intended.

As the words of institution and Luther’s Large Catechism indicate, the Lord’s supper is for those whose faith is fragile, who tread in the shadows of doubt and who are troubled by their failure to love God and neighbor. If that is the case, why would we want to include infants in the supper?…a case could be made that infants should not partake in holy communion because they simply don’t need it! This is a meal of forgiveness. Infants, whose faith is yet untainted by the world, are not in danger of falling away from Christ…

Note that the position being advocated here is not that infants are without sin. Like all of humankind, they are born with original sin. However, in baptism this sin is forgiven and the infant is transferred into the kingdom of Christ. Holy communion is for those whose consciences are stricken by the effects of post-baptismal sin. It is a meal of forgiveness for those who have willfully broken their relationship with Christ.

It seems clear that infants do not need to be included in this meal.23

It is difficult to follow an argument which gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. For Tranvik, are infants sinners, or not? Further, there is no place in Tranvik’s sacramentology for confession and absolution—a lack which is not surprising, given the rarity of private confession in Lutheran circles, yet still noteworthy. Tranvik’s description of the proprium of the Eucharist would seem to fit better the practice of confession. But setting aside these difficulties, the underlying assumption of the “no loss if not communed” argument seems to be that the Eucharist is only for the forgiveness of sins.24 Even Luther, however, says that the Eucharist is for forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. One may not be able to accuse baptized infants of sin; but surely baptized infants die. Not sin, but death, is the last and greatest enemy.

I am reminded of the story in which a wife says to her husband, “We have been married for five years, and you haven’t told me you loved me since the day we were wed.” He responds, “I told you then, didn’t I? If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.” The mysteries are ways in which the triune God joins us to himself. They are expressions, fundamentally, of his love for his bride and body, the Church. Does someone who has heard “I love you” suffer loss from not hearing it again and again, and in various ways?

The reasoning underlying the “no loss if not communed” is pre-Lutheran, a relic of the Latin middle ages against which Lutherans otherwise fought so hard. Aquinas says,

Nor do they [who baptized children] suffer any loss of life from the fact of our Lord saying (Jn. 6:54), “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you”; because, as Augustine writes to Boniface (Pseudo-Beda, Comment. in 1 Cor. 10:17), “then every one of the faithful becomes a partaker,” i.e. spiritually, “of the body and blood of the Lord, when he is made a member of Christ’s body in Baptism.” But when children once begin to have some use of reason so as to be able to conceive some devotion for the sacrament, then it can be given to them.25

Lutheranism, at this point, simply continues the belief and practice of the later mediaeval Roman church. In part this is understandable, because of the catechetical crisis the visitors discovered when they traveled around the Elector’s lands in 1528—a crisis which led to the writing of the smaller and larger Catechisms. To have returned to the earlier practice under those circumstances might appear to be a further relaxing of an already-chaotic situation. But careful thinkers might take note: if rejection of COTB by the later mediaeval western church was such a good idea, why did it lead to conditions such as were found by the visitors of 1528?

It is a commonplace among those who attack COTB that it goes hand in glove with open communion.26 This is an understandable worry for Lutherans (and Protestants generally), since in those western confessions which practice it (like the ELCA and the Episcopal Church) one sees open communion. As an Orthodox priest I can only respond that the two do not necessarily go together. The Church has been practicing COTB as far back as we can tell; yet it has no problem with open communion. It must rather be some feature in the Protestant confessions which links the two. What that might be, I don’t know; but it might be the basis of profitable reflection.

Now let us turn back to the pages of the New Testament, and the experience of the mothers who brought their infants to Christ for his blessing. When the disciples tried to chase the infants away—presumably because they could not “benefit” from the Lord’s teaching, which involved hearing propositions requiring understanding—Christ rebuked them, commanded the children to be brought to him, and pronounced them to be the paradigm for membership in the heavenly Kingdom. It is hard not to see in this attempt to refuse communion to baptized infants within the communion fellowship simply another example of adults trying to claim that adulthood, not childhood, is the paradigm case of faith. But Christ has it otherwise.

Further, it is precisely because each of the mysteries has its own proprium that all together are necessary for the fullness of the Christian life. Otherwise, we might ask, “If one receives faith through preaching, then why baptism? Why chrismation? Why the Eucharist?” If each mystery gives all (and, in a sense each one does), and if there is no proprium attaching to each—then any one is sufficient. Only by acknowledging the proprium of each mystery are we preserved from the sacramental modalism at the root of this argument’s reasoning. Only then do we have a sense of the proper ordering of the mysteries. For the Orthodox, Nicholas Cabasilas’ The Life in Christ beautifully portrays the proprium of each of the first three mysteries: baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist.27

Some Concluding Thoughts

As I began, so I conclude. I realize that I have undertaken a fool’s errand, and that these reflections will have little or no effect on those who penned P and C. Yet there is a large group of pastors and people who are ever-more aware of the instability and weakness of the Lutheran paradigm on this matter, and it is to them that I address these words.

I might add that there is strength in the Lutheran system of catechesis which is both noble and worthy of emulation. It is worthy that Orthodox youth and adults should continue to grow in the faith, and to reflect on the mysteries of Christ and the Church. This happens chiefly by attending, and attending to, the theologically rich services of Vespers and Matins, but also by regular instruction and by a regular course of private confession and absolution.

Many of the articles I consulted are from the 1990s; some are even earlier. This issue of COTB continues to be a matter of discussion among Lutherans, and I have a hunch that P and C will do little to stem the tide. I have remarked to more than one Lutheran pastor who approached me on this topic, “Please—if you intend to remain in good standing in the Lutheran ministerium, avoid this issue.” Lutheranism is founded on a fault line between East and West; its Christology owes much to the East, while its Triadology is Western and its soteriology a mixture. This issue of COTB touches the Lutheran system at that fault line, and it is inevitable that those who explore and probe here will experience the temblors that result from that touching.


The Very Rev. Fr. Gregory Hogg is pastor of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Dorr, Michigan.


Works Cited (Partial)
Listed by date and confessional commitment of author

Note: I do not list works cited from the pre-modern era, or works not dealing directly with the topic of COTB. I list the following chronologically, because I find it interesting to see the developments and dependencies of arguments in later sources. I list them by confessional commitment because I find that, too, to be interesting. At the very least, it demonstrates that this is not simply a discussion within the LCMS.

1976
Anglican
Beckwith, Roger T. “The Age of Admission to the Lord’s Supper.” Westminster Theological Journal 38 no 2 (Winter 1976), p 123-151.

1979
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Anderson, Charles and Gritsch, Eric. “An exchange of letters on communing infants,” in Lutheran Forum 13:2 (Pentecost 1979), pp. 8-10.

1995
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Tranvik, Mark. “Should Infants be Communed? A Lutheran Perspective” in Word and World

1996
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Marc Kolden. “Infant Communion in Light of Theological and Pastoral Perspectives,” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1996) 

1997
Evangelican Lutheran Church in America
Throntveit, Mark. “The Lord’s Supper as New Testament, Not New Passover.” Lutheran Quarterly XI (1997), pp. 271-289.

2013
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
Pless, John. “Theses on infant/toddler communion” 

Evangelical Lutheran Synod
Webber, David J. “Infant Communion in the Lutheran Church?”

2014
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
CTCR, “Knowing what we seek and why we come,” adopted 13 September 2014. Available at LCMS.org. (Note: the website lists it as from 2013, but the text itself says it was adopted as stated above.) 

1. I am indebted to all those colleagues and friends, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, who aided and reviewed my work. Naturally, all errors and omissions are my own. I dedicate this article to the memory of my friend L.M. (who was not consulted for this work).

2. Pless’ work entitled “Theses on infant/toddler communion” appeared in Logia online. The CTCR document “Knowing what we seek and why we come,” was adopted 13 September 2014. In this response, I will refer to the Pless theses by P1, P2 etc., where “P” denotes “Pless,” and the number denotes the particular thesis. The CTCR document will be referred to as C, p 1, where “C” refers to “CTCR” followed by the page number. Mention should also be made of a text “Infant Communion in the Lutheran Church?” by Rev’d. David J. Webber.

3. “De sequentibus articulis agere poterimus cum doctis et prudentibus viris vel etiam inter nos ipsos.” Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979) p. 433.

4. Available here.

5. Note also the reference in C, p. 3 to “our own history.” The Lutheran confessors did not know of such a thing. There was only history, not “our own” history. See the excellent study by Peter Frankl, Testimonia Patrum, for the importance of the argument from history for the Lutheran confessors.

6. It is worth noting that one of the features common to the “means of grace,” according to Pieper, is their twofold power. The means of grace in general have both a vis exhibitiva and a vis effectiva, according to Pieper (III.103). One could accordingly make the case that since the means of grace in general supply the condition of their worthy reception, this must also be true for the Eucharist especially vis-à-vis infants who, unlike adults, are not yet capable of self-deception.

7. The arguments raised by now-Frs. Andrew Moore and Jonathan Cholcher while they were still in the LCMS in the 1990s come to mind here.

8. C, p. 4, says that infants and very young children “have no way to demonstrate that they can complete the kind of self-examination required by the passage.” Now it is not simply a question of self-examination, but of demonstrating it; now it seems to be granted that they can self-examine, but not the kind of self-examination required by the passage. If Lutherans are to be consistent, this testing should be done on all prospective communicants, including those with developmental disabilities and those with dementia. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

9. Luther himself noted that the text in question (1 Cor. 11) spoke only of adults (LW 54, p. 58). The question of who is admitted to the mysteries is addressed in 1 Corinthians 10. There Paul says, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1Co 10:1-4 NAU). The same word “all” is used in connection both with baptism and with the meal.

10. Lutheran Quarterly XI (1997), pp. 271-289.

11. Westminster Theological Journal 38 no 2 (Winter 1976), p 123-151. Beckwith claims that Origen, in Homilies on the Book of Judges 6:2, teaches that infants (parvuli) do not commune. He cites these words: “Before we arrive at the provision of the heavenly bread, and are filled with the flesh of the spotless Lamb, before we are inebriated with the blood of the true Vine which sprang from the root of David, while we are children, and are fed with milk, and retain the discourse about the first principles of Christ, as children we act under the oversight of stewards, namely the guardian angels.” Beckwith comments: “Though Origen’s language is highly metaphorical, it is difficult to understand him as speaking of anything but literal children and the literal sacrament” (p. 126). How amazing that Beckwith recognizes the metaphorical nature of the text, and proceeds immediately to treat it as straight narrative! It seems rather more likely that Origen, whose fame was gained in the catechetical school of Alexandria, is speaking of the experience of adult catechumens than of people baptized as infants.

Again, Beckwith claims that the Didaskalia Apostolorum has the order of baptism, teaching and eucharist. But given the fluidity of the age of baptism in the ante-Nicene context (the famous example of Constantine’s death-bed baptism comes to mind), and the missionary situation of the Church, we must hesitate to draw the kind of categorical conclusions that Beckwith does.

12. Lutheran Forum 13 (1979), p. 8.

13. C, p. 2 notes: “The churches that belong to the eastern side of the East-West division of the church have maintained the practice of infant communion since ancient times.”

14. Found at CCEL (emphasis mine). Schaff comments, “Two things are here to be noticed: (1) that the allusion appears to be to the formula of reception then in use at the Eucharist, the priest saying Corpus Christi, and the recipient answering Amen… (2) that infant communion is implied as regular: this we know to have been the case in much earlier days. Cf. Apost. Const. viii. 13, Cyprian de Lapsis, ix. and xxv. &c., also Bingham’s Antiq. xv. chap. iv. § 7.” When a bishop of Rome, like Leo, asserts this as a practice, its scope would extend well beyond Rome—certainly, for example, in the churches of Gaul.

15. Marc Kolden “Infant Communion in Light of Theological and Pastoral Perspectives,” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1996), makes the claim that “<i>infant communion was not widely practiced in the early church. Indeed,” he says, “this practice only became more common later and then for questionable theological reasons. The first mention of it is by Cyprian in about A.D. 250, but it does not appear to have been well established. Origen, for example, notes that infants were not communed in his church.” When one checks his footnote, one is led back to the Beckwith article mentioned above.

16. P10.

17. It is odd that those who claim to have a strong notion of original sin sometimes seem to believe that their own understanding is exempt from its effects!

18. In my own pilgrimage to the Orthodox Church, I was repeatedly struck by the number of cases in which change happened in the western church but not in the eastern—and these cases were testified to not only by Orthodox authors but also and especially by Roman Catholic and Protestant authors.

19. In reading Lutheran arguments against COTB, one is struck repeatedly by how infants are grouped together with swine (C, p. 6), those under discipline or of a different confession (P3), “…those who live in willful error or heresy, or in open undeniable vice, or scorn the express Word of God. Also the irrational and fools…and those who neither know nor will learn the Ten Commandments, the Creed nor the Lord’s Prayer” (1533 Brandenburg-Nuernberg Church Order as cited in David J. Webber, “Infant Communion in the Lutheran Church?” p. 3).

20. Cp. Marc Kolden, “Infant Communion in Light of Theological and Pastoral Perspectives, Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1996), p. 254: “Any talk about preparation will of necessity not involve requirements that are understood in terms of works or qualification but as expressions of faith. This certainly involves repentance, that is, agreeing with God’s judgments on us, and trust in the words of promise instituting the sacrament…There needs to be sufficient capacity to know that this is Christ’s body and blood and that it is “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sins” (emphasis mine). Kolden advocates not “works” but “expressions of faith”—when, in the Lutheran paradigm, works are expressions of faith!

21. What else is implied by the citation of the Mishnah’s age of 13 as the “age when one’s vows become legally binding and when one must fulfill one’s religious and ethical duties” (emphasis mine, cited in Webber p. 4).

22. The pedigree of this argument is as old as Lutheranism itself. Webber (op. cit.) cites the correspondence of the Lutherans with Patriarch Jeremias: “Since the children are not able to examine themselves and, thus, cannot discern the Lord’s body, we think that the ceremony of baptism is sufficient for their salvation, and also the hidden faith with which the Lord has endowed them” (p. 4).

23. “Should Infants be Communed? A Lutheran Perspective” in Word and World XV.1 (Winter 1995), pp. 88-89.

24. Kolden makes a similar case: “The Lord’s Supper has a different purpose [than baptism]; it is not for incorporation but for nourishing and building up the body through the forgiveness of sins.” Op. cit. p. 251.

25Summa Theologica Pt. III Q 80 A 9, Reply to Objection 3. The Lutheran’s 1577 letter to Patriarch Jeremias has this same idea: “For through this faith they spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, even if they do not, in the communion of the supper, physically eat it.” (Cited in Webber, p. 4) But recall that in 1 Cor. 10 Paul does not speak of spiritually eating food, but of eating spiritual food. The notion of “spiritual eating,” like the notion of an “invisible church,” has caused great mischief in theology.

26. Cp. C p. 8: “As more and more groups promote the Eucharist for all the baptized or simply for all, it becomes all the more important that we remain faithful stewards in our own generation of the mysteries entrusted to us.” See also Webber, p. 8. One might note that a faithful steward is careful both to withhold the mysteries from those who ought not receive them, and not withhold the mysteries from those who ought to. Kolden begs the question when he says “In the New Testament <the Lord’s Supper> is given to adult followers of Christ and has its own rationale distinct from the rationale for baptism.” Op. cit. p. 252.

27. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974. (Note: the translation needs to be updated and corrected.)

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for an insightful article. I found it particularly interesting in that you say “the ongoing trickle of LCMS pastors into the Orthodox Church [is] because of this issue.” I don’t object to your claim, it just seems as though other barriers, greater indeed, would have had to be cleared primarily, or perhaps not. That is my question. I wonder if you would comment further on that point? Perhaps in your own journey there is insight. God bless you Father!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Stephen. There were indeed “barriers” on my way to the Church. But there were also “bridges,” which I spoke about in a seminar on Orthodoxy for Lutherans some years ago. I would liken the process to learning another language. (I’m learning Russian now.) Each language has its own grammatical and syntactical peculiarities. For example, in English we say “I have x,” but in Russian they say, “U mina yest”–literally “at me there is.” Dumb example, but it illustrates the point. As I learned the new language (Orthodoxy) while still living in the first language’s community (Lutheranism), I found that certain chronic problems in Lutheranism never arise in Orthodoxy.

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