Posted by: mattcolvin | July 19, 2011

Low-Bar Gnosto-Communion

I’d like to comment on this video, not because it’s Doug Wilson, but because it is illustrative of some significant differences between my religion and that of most American Evangelicals. Wilson is answering the question, “When should we give children the Lord’s Supper?”

His answer is very interesting. He doesn’t say, “As soon as they’ve been baptized.” (I agree with Jim Jordan that that’s the right answer, qualified by the fact that the supper is a “natural meal”, not medicine. Thus, no cramming bread down the throats of infants who can’t chew.) Wilson also doesn’t give the Westminsterian Presbyterian answer: “After they have made credible profession of faith to their session of elders.”

So what does he say?

At 1:30 in the video, he mentions that…

“Around a year old, the child starts to notice that everyone else is taking bread. When they then reach for the bread, and you have to hold the bread away from them, that moment has become didactic…As long as they are just conked out in the carseat, they’re not learning anything positive or negative. They’re just taking a nap.”

Already he is off on the wrong foot, approaching the question as though the primary thing in the Supper were what the child is thinking, so that as long as a child is unaware of what he is missing, it doesn’t matter that he’s missing it. (I also think that all of our children have wanted the bread much earlier than 12 months old, but that’s not really relevant to the main point I want to make.)

Wilson continues:

“As soon as a child starts to learn that they are out by (your) passing them by (sc. with the elements), we think that that is the time to teach them that they are in, that they’re included, by giving them the elements of the Supper at that time — accompanied with teaching: ‘This is the body of Jesus. He died for you….”

Many questions are being begged here. Why wait until the child realizes he’s missing something? What advantage is there to waiting? Wouldn’t the Supper work just as well if the child did not know what the elements represent symbolically?

The terms of Wilson’s answer indicate that he thinks the Supper works by our thinking about it. Otherwise why wait until there is a “didactic moment”? Why does it matter what the child is thinking? The church is not a society of the like-minded. The child is in. It doesn’t matter whether he knows he’s in yet. The Supper is objective. It makes an objective demarcation between those who are in the Church and those who are outside it — not between those who are tracking with the service and those who are not. Is the child’s own awareness of his “in-ness” or “out-ness” really
what matters? It’s important, sure, but is it what qualifies a baby to receive the Supper? Or is that his actual membership in Christ, rather than his subjective awareness of it?

Wilson’s colleague Peter Leithart has written a very fine little book called Against Christianity. In it, he attacks the view that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are mere appendices to the Word, or that they work as edible flashcards to evoke pious thoughts in our minds. As far as I can see, Wilson falls squarely under Leithart’s condemnation in that book.

As with most other errors about the Supper, there is a silver bullet cure for Wilson’s problem: look to the Passover. The Israelites in Egypt daubed their doorposts and lintels with lamb’s blood. They also ate those lambs, taking a number “according to the mouths eating.” (No worries about nursing infants who can’t chew.) And of course, the lamb had a symbolic meaning.

But did anyone have to think about the symbolic meaning in order to be saved by that blood? No, of course not. The Israelites could have been washing dishes or playing Yahtzee or (most likely) sleeping, and the blood would still have saved them. It didn’t work as a sort of bloody flashcard for them, because it didn’t matter what they thought about it. An Israelite could even have said, “This is cockamamie balderdash, and I don’t believe it for a moment, but I’ll smear this blood on my doorposts just to humor Moses.” And even that profane fellow would have been saved, because the blood didn’t work by Israelites thinking about it. It worked by the Lord and His destroyer thinking about it, as it says in Exodus 12:23:

“For YHWH will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, YHWH will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you.”

When He sees, not you. He will not allow the destroyer into your house. And thus, not into your bedroom, not into your bed, not into your dreaming brain to see if you “really believe” or whether you are thinking about the Passover. Nothing gnostic about it. It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking. It doesn’t even matter whether you are thinking.

This is why I call Wilson a low-bar credocommunionist or gnosto-communionist, not a paedocommunionist. It may look like he’s doing the same thing as real paedocommunionists (e.g. Peter Leithart), but he has a fundamentally different conception of what faith is, and how the covenant works.

Our church lets any baptized child have the supper. Why? Because the Supper is part of what forms the people of God, and babies are members of that people. We recognize that participation in the Supper exercises a God-ward, not merely man-ward, demarcating function that is totally independent of whether we are conscious or sentient or thinking pious thoughts. We recognize that we are not Gnostics, and that the Supper is not an aide-memoire.

The consequences of this difference are very profound, and extend far beyond what we do when we’re at the Lord’s Table. They also affect how we think about the senile, the retarded, the mentally incapacitated, and babies in utero. They affect how we think about faith itself, and whether it is the sort of thing that can even be “alone”, still less justify while being alone.

My friend Brad mentioned once that he thought I was too hard on Wilson, and that he was grateful to Wilson for bringing him out of Baptist theology and into the light of the Reformed faith. I replied that that was all very well, but that I had never been a Baptist. I would add that Wilson is still approximately half Baptist in his thinking. Indeed, he prefaced his answer to the question about when to give children the Supper by saying that there are Baptist families in his church, and that his session defers to those families and allows them to postpone their children’s baptism until after they make profession of faith. I think this policy is admirable for its patience and pastoral sensitivity, and I have no doubt that it has brought many Baptist families to an eventual acceptance of a more covenantal and Reformed way of looking at their children. Rather than make the theology of baptism a bar to fellowship, Wilson is able to embrace those Baptist families and show them, week in and week out, the lovely sight of baptized children taking the Supper. That’s a good thing, and it shows that Doug is a wise pastor who has a sensible understanding of the state of the church in North America in 2011. But I wonder if this compromise doesn’t give away too much, theologically.

I am glad that my pastor, and my church, have a better practice that does not compromise with what my friend Mark B. calls “the schismatic heterodoxy.” As my pastor put it two weeks ago in his sermon, the question is whether we are called to a decision or to a Table, to a Feast.

To see how unnatural Wilson’s criterion is, consider this parting question: Do you withhold birthday cake from children until they start to inquire about it?

ADDENDUM: Wilson has replied. My response to his reply is here.


  1. Matt,

    I felt like this quote anticipated a contrast:
    “I would add that Wilson is still approximately half Baptist in his thinking. Indeed, he prefaced his answer to the question about when to give children the Supper by saying that there are Baptist families in his church, and that his session defers to those families and allows them to postpone their children’s baptism until after they make profession of faith. I think this policy is admirable for its patience and pastoral sensitivity….”…but
    I don’t feel like you finished your thought on DW being 1/2 baptistic. Did you?

    • I didn’t do as thorough a job of it as I’d have liked to. Basically, the fact that he leaves it up to the families in his church is further evidence that he is not thinking really covenantally. It may be wise in light of our present culture’s baptistic problems, but it doesn’t thoroughly cut off the baptistic notion of what faith is.

  2. To be just a touch more precise, what your friend Brad said was that the only reason he finds himself able to agree with you to the extent that he does is that he was first exposed to Doug Wilson (which to him suggested that the two of you agreed on a significant number of things). And he said this not because he believed that you should never criticize Wilson but because he found it ironic that the particular criticism you were discussing at that moment was how frequently Wilson criticizes those with which he holds so much in common.

    But perhaps I have underestimated your differences.

  3. […] my post, I said that the difference between Wilson’s definition of faith and mine affects “how […]

  4. […] like certain theories of how the Lord’s Supper works, is another instantiation of what Philip Lee calls […]

  5. […] in neither infants nor adults does the Supper work by our awareness or thinking. In the past, I argued that this is consonant with the original Passover, in which the Israelites were asleep in their […]

  6. […] at Canon WIRED, I recently answered a question about child communion, and that answer elicited this response. Since these are reasonable questions on a complex subject, let me add just a few more thoughts […]

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