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Posts Tagged ‘Cornelius Venema’


In his book Children at the Lord’s Table?, Cornelius Venema includes an appendix on the issue of baptism. This appendix, he notes, is his chapter in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism edited by Gregg Strawbridge. This is an interesting irony since Gregg is one of the people mentioned who advocates for infant communion in the PCA.

“The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.” B.B. Warfield

Venema rightly goes after the presuppositions that operate in this discussion. The case is not won on the basis of proof-texts because each side brings different presuppositions regarding the nature of the covenant of grace in its varying administrations. This appendix is here because Venema also sees this problem as the basis for the infant communion debate. He uses the appendix to spend more time explaining the proper relationship between the various administrations of the covenant of grace.

Venema admits both sides have arguments from silence. Just as there is no statement explicitly keeping children in the covenant community (no command to baptize them), there is no statement explicitly removing them from the covenant community. If there was, the would have been a serious battle in the church shortly after Pentecost.  We don’t see this. Rather, we do see, from the beginning, the repetition of the phrase “this promise is for you and your children”. Peter continues to expand it to the Gentiles. Peter is speaking the language of Genesis 12, 15 & 17 in the context of the sign of initiation into the covenant community (just like Genesis 17). But, I get ahead of myself.

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The final chapter, though there is an appendix, in Children at the Lord’s Table? has Venema’s concluding observations and an evaluation. Most of the chapter reviews the material presented earlier in the book. It is fairly redundant, as one other reviewer noted.He does remind us that since this view is out of step with the Reformed Confessions, the burden of proof is on them to show from Scripture that they have it right and we’ve gotten it wrong for 500 years (it is possible). But they failed to provide sufficient evidence (in his opinion, and mine).

But his evaluation includes some thoughts about the different view of the covenant that functions under the surface of their arguments. In other words, he moves on to their presuppositions. This is where the disagreement really lies. The subject of infant communion is just the visible evidence of the different presuppositions (the same is true for the infant-believers’ baptism debate).

The advocates of infant communion operate with a view of the covenant that claims that all members of the covenant “enjoy a full and saving union with Christ.” This got me to thinking. It sounds remarkably like the argument for the “pure church” used by many credobaptists. Their argument for paedocommunion is completely consistent with that view of the covenant. But is that a proper view of the covenant? Is the pure church a proper understanding of the covenant community? Why then practice excommunication (apart from being commanded to) if they have a saving relationship with Christ because they’ve been baptized?

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In Children at the Lord’s Table? everything has pretty much been building up to this moment. 1 Corinthians 11 is the key text to the question of whether or not baptized children should partake of the Lord’s Supper prior to a profession of faith. Here is also where the publisher’s commitment to the KJV is the most annoying. Venema does address one of key textual issues, preferring the non-Textus receptus manuscripts.

The Historic Reformed Interpretation

Venema starts with how this text has been interpreted in the Reformed community. The instruction regarding what it means to participate in the sacrament “unworthily” is seen as normative. It was not limited to the situation in Corinth, but is for all churches and Christians, not just those that struggle with the same sins.

In Corinth, there were additional divisions in the church (beyond those in the first chapters) along class lines. These divisions were most clearly expressed during what they thought was the Lord’s Supper. There was little love expressed, but lots of selfishness and pride. In this section Paul uses lots of 2nd person pronouns. It is about their actions.

But then Paul shifts to the 3rd person for his positive instruction. This change to more universal or general language indicates the normative nature of his instruction. Additionally, participation in the sacrament is predicated upon having faith which is able to remember and proclaim the Savior’s death. The people who partake receive and rest upon gospel promises, there is a subjective element to the sign.

Those who participate are also supposed to examine themselves. Some in the Reformed community have neglected the “themselves” part and require examination by the elders before each celebration of the Supper (yes, our Scottish brothers). This text does not require a “complete spiritual physical” either. The idea is whether you genuinely believe in Christ as He is presented in the gospel. The idea that this is a Puritan-like examination of every nook and cranny of your life is not substantiated by the text (I like the Puritans, but they were not perfect either). Venema calls this a strawman argument used by advocates of infant communion. And rightly so.

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After examining church history, the Reformed Confessions and the Old Testament, Cornelius Venema turns his attention, and ours, to the New Testament in Children at the Lord’s Table?.  He is looking to see if the claims for infant communion can be found in the New Testament. Well, most of the New Testament. He saves 1 Corinthians 11 for a chapter of its own since that passage is so important to the discussion. Venema plays his hand on the first page of the chapter by noting that like with the Old Testament, the New does not address the question as clearly as we might want.

He begins with a puzzling thought- “the alleged analogy between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.” You have to be patient and not pull a knee jerk reaction to the statement. This is one of the most important aspects of the argument for infant communion. He does not deny a connection, but builds a case for it being connected to all the covenant meals. But before we get too far ahead, he surveys the types of NT evidence we encounter. The first are the account of the Lord’s Supper in the synoptic Gospels.  Second, there are texts that allude generally to the celebration of the Supper by the new covenant community (descriptive). Third, there are texts that address how it should be observed (prescriptive).  Fourth, there are passages describing who should observe it (1 Corinthians 10-11), which is also prescriptive in nature.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels do not directly address the issue to whether children may participate. There is no mention of a household celebration here. He is reclining at the table with his 12 disciples- all adult males.  They had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. But it also differs from the Passover in a few ways. While the Passover was seen as a sign of the covenant, it was not seen as conferring grace. It was a memorial of God’s redemption of Israel. It functioned as a reminder, and a call to trust in this same God. But there did not seem to be a “sacramental” function. Zwingli would be happy. But, as we will see in 1 Corinthians, there is blessing and cursing involved in the Supper. It is no mere memorial (sorry, Zwingli). We also see that Jesus expected them to celebrate it more frequently than once a year. It was to be a regular part of worship for the covenant community. But partaking in the Supper also seem to require “remembrance”.  There is a remembering and doing involved here. It seems to require active participation in a way that baptism does not. The language of “blood of the new covenant”, as noted earlier, point us to the covenant ratification ceremony on Sinai (Exodus 24), not simply the Passover.

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After examining church history and the Reformed Confessions, the next logical place to turn is the Scriptures. Cornelius Venema does just that in Children at the Lord’s Table?. He starts with the Old Testament.  Well, after briefly summing up the arguments from the previous two chapters.

Here is his summation of the argument made by proponents of infant communion:

“Advocates of paedocommunion often appeal to the inclusion of children within the covenant in its Old Testament administration as a point of departure for interpreting the teaching and practice of the New Testament. Paedocommunionists argue that since children in the old covenant received the sign and seal of covenant membership in the rite of circumcision, and since they were granted the privilege of participation in many of the covenant observances, including the important rite of the Passover, believers should proceed from the conviction that a similar circumstance likely obtains in the new covenant.”

That’s is a mouthful! Just like the argument for infant baptism starts in the Old Testament, they say, the argument for infant communion does too. But is the matter as clear as it is for circumcision? In Genesis 17, Abraham is commanded to place the sign and seal of the covenant on his children. Does such a command exist in the matter of Passover or other covenant meals?

He notes that all of Israel partook of the manna, with the exception of children who were not yet weaned (those typically under 3). They did not understand the manna to be a sign and seal of the covenant. It was God’s provision. Paul, following Jesus’ lead in John 6, uses this as a type to point to Christ. Christ was meeting their needs, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 10. But Paul uses this in an unexpected way- their participation in that baptism in Moses and that spiritual food and drink did not save them. Many perished in the wilderness due to their idolatry. Paul is not developing a sacramental theology so much as warning the Corinthians against presumption. As I noted in the post on church history, John 6 uses the eating and drinking as a metaphor for faith.  The issue is faith. [One review of this book on Amazon claims he doesn’t address the topic of the manna. Oops!]

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In his book, Children at the Lord’s Table?, the next thing to be examined is the Reformed Confessions of Faith.  Is the practice of infant communion consistent with or inconsistent with the doctrine (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxy) of Reformed Confessions?

Why Confessions? Scripture is our ultimate standard. But people disagree as to the meaning of Scripture. Confessions of faith are summaries of the teaching of Scripture. As such, they define allowable interpretations of Scripture for a community of believers. We are concerned with Reformed Confessions in this discussion because we are talking about the practice in the Reformed community, not other communities.

The charge is made by credo baptists and paedocommunionists that advocating infant baptism and believer’s communion is inconsistent. But this ultimately means that the sacramental theology of the Confessions must be wrong. Covenantal credo baptists argue from a different sacramental theology than Reformed Theology has traditionally held. The presuppositions they hold make our position seem inconsistent. Is the same true for Reformed paedocommunionists? Do they have presuppositions that result in a sacramental theology that is different from that found in the Reformed Confessions?

“In the opinion of proponents of paedocommunion, the insistance that covenant children profess their faith before they are received at the Table of the Lord denies to them a privilege that ought to be extended to every covenant member.”

There are 3 main ways to look at the sacraments. First is the view of the Roman, Eastern and possibly Lutheran churches toward salvation, or grace, being communicated by the sacraments. This means that the sacrament actually accomplishes that which it signifies. As a result, baptism always regenerates sinners and cleanses from sin. Communion would be understood to always strengthen faith (presuming the previous regeneration of the celebrant).

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While I was in seminary the topic of paedocommunion (infants receiving communion) was largely unaddressed. I may have overheard a conversation or two, but it was very much under the radar. During my time in the ARP, the subject was not even on the map. While candidating for a position in a PCA church in New Jersey, the retired minister who was their stated supply encouraged me to study this subject (and I thought “why?!”).

Now that I am in the PCA it is time. There are pastors who hold to this view, though they are not permitted to practice it. One of my elders read Children at the Lord’s Table? by Cornelius Venema so I decided to read it for myself.

“Though it is true that the church’s practice ought to be formed by the teaching of the Scriptures, which are the supreme standard for faith and practice, the Reformed churches read the Scriptures in the company of the whole church and may not ignore the lessons of history.”

The first argument for paedocommunion that Venema examines is the argument from church history. As noted above, sola scriptura is about our final authority regarding practice. Properly applied we also examine church history and historical theology to see how the church has thought and acted in the past. We recognize that the Spirit has been instructing the church in the meaning of the Scriptures for 2,000 years. We don’t start from scratch. But not all the church has thought or done has been in accord with the Scriptures.

Those arguing for infant communion assert an early and widespread practice of infant communion. They claim that the western church has departed from this practice and should return to the practice. Venema examines this claim first. He notes the ample early evidence for infant baptism (he depends upon Jeremias’ work). The evidence for infant communion is note nearly as strong or as early. The first clear statement affirming the practice of infant communion is from Cyprian in the middle of the 3rd century. Prior to this we find statements indicating the church did not practice infant communion. For instance, Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century) says that “no one is allowed to partake but the man (person) who believes that the things which we teach are true…” (First Apology). So the practice he was familiar with was communion after a period of instruction in the faith. Clement of Alexandria (150-219) also teaches that those who receive it have been instructed and receive it “by faith” in Instructor and The Stromata. In the east, Origen, also says that children were not given communion in his Homilies on the Book of Judges.

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