Posted by: mattcolvin | August 5, 2011

He’s Wrong About Grown-Up Communion Too

Doug Wilson and I have been having a discussion on his blog about how the Lord’s Supper works. We are agreed that this question has huge implications for *adults*, not so much for children.

He says, “I would want to do the same thing we do now in the service of worship — because lex orandi lex credendi for the adults. I have seen paedocommunion serve as a wedge for bad theology about communion among the adults. We need to be more careful.”

My point is that Wilson’s answer about children reveals that he has a wrong notion about how the Supper works in the case of adults. That is to say, he has a wrong idea about what faith is.

To get at what this wrong idea is, I want to mention another lecture Wilson gave about the Lord’s Supper in which he contrasted his (Westminsterian) view of how Christ is received in the Supper with a transsubstantiationist view. He said, “We both believe that you really eat Christ. The difference is in how you eat him. They think you eat him with your mouth. We say you eat him with your faith.”

It’s that last locution, “with your faith” that I think is the real issue here. For Wilson, faith is an organ or faculty, a thing you can do things with. But in my view, it is nothing of the sort. It is a pattern of life, a characteristic of persons. When we say, “Paul has faith in God”, we do not mean that Paul has something inside of him like a WiFi card that receives the broadcast righteousness of Christ (and allows him to partake of Communion without being killed by the Little Damnation Wafers). No, we mean that a person, Paul, is loyal to Jesus: obeys His commands, believes His promises, etc. — all according to Paul’s frame. Faith is loyalty to God, and like any other loyalty, that means that it is a pattern of mental, verbal, and physical actions. The Heidelberg Catechism is superior to Westminster in this point because it describes faith as “a sure knowledge” and “a firm confidence”, not a faculty or organ that does things. Granted, Heidelberg still says that “the Holy Ghost works this faith in my heart by the gospel”, but this may be easily explained as meaning that “The Spirit causes me to know that God’s word is true and to have trust in Him.” The word “heart” doesn’t mean an organ or part here. It means your inmost being, or who you really are.

And once we conceive of faith this way, the problem of infant salvation goes away. A one-year-old nursing baby is a loyal member of my family without doing anything. A 12 year-old who insists on behaving the same way is obviously not loyal. He doesn’t have pistis in me or his mother. It’s not a matter of having an imparted faculty inside you. It’s a matter of walking in the way of trust and loyalty to the family — or in the case of Christians, trust and loyalty to Jesus.

So we must then ask, what is the relation between faith and the Supper? Wilson, because he conceives of faith as a thing that you have inside you, and indeed as the means or faculty by which you eat Christ in the Supper, holds that you must exercise this faith while you eat in order for the Supper to be beneficial to you. And that is why he is opposed to giving the Supper to clueless kids who aren’t aware or desiring to participate — not because he fears it will harm the kids, but because he thinks it will encourage adults to think that the Supper works whether they are exercising faith or not.

It is worth noting that Wilson is just following Westminster at this point. WLC question 170 says that Christ is “spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” But this is rather tricky and hard to understand. Most people, when told that they need to exercise faith, will start thinking about God and the Bible and the Creeds, and try hard to believe and love Him. But when told to eat Jesus with their faith, I don’t think most Christians know where to start. It’s like Hogwarts students trying to learn how to cast non-verbal spells or apparate: a matter of learning how to channel and use a magical power inside them. Well, most Christians, when faced with the tricky task of eating the Supper — and according to the WLC’s formulations, it is a positively daunting, not to say impossible feat! — most Christians, when faced with the task, go with what they know how to do. So their default procedure is to curl up in a ball like little potato bugs and think about Jesus. But this is exercising their brains, not their faith. (Wilson, to his credit, does not recommend this technique, as far as I know. But he still talks of faith as a faculty, and thinks we need to “use it” in taking the Supper.)

In my view, this is all quite Gnostic. It involves an inward spark called faith. It makes the Supper into a rather mysterious transaction. It leads Westminster to coach people about how to prepare themselves before it, how to conduct themselves during it, and how to evaluate their success after it (WLC 171, 174, 175) — as though God were Professor Snape looking over our shoulders to smile in malicious bemusement when we slip up somehow and the potion blows up in our faces. But in the Bible, the Supper is not tricky or mysterious at all, but rather is the sort of thing about which Paul can ask forehead-smacking “Is it not…?” questions. Things are really much simpler when we eliminate the effluences, the morphing substances, and the special superpowers (whether power to ‘consecrate’ elements or the power of ‘faith’ to receive Jesus), and restrict ourselves to talking about God, His people, bread, and wine.

That, after all, is how the original Passover worked. Why would we think that the Lord’s Supper is any different? I made the point earlier: the Hebrews in Egypt were asleep when the Passover blood on their lintels saved them from the destroying angel. They weren’t exercising anything inside them at the time. “But,” Wilson replies, “look where partaking without faith got them: Most of them were killed in the desert because they didn’t have faith.” Quite right. But in what did their unfaith consist? Was it that their infants in Goshen on Passover night did not have an inner faculty to use the way Westminster recommends in WLC 174? Or was it rather that they all rebelled in the desert? And does the fact that they rebelled mean it would have been better to withhold the Passover from them until they had faith?

And so, if we’re going to avoid semi-Marcionism about the Supper, we will need to allow that it can work without babies thinking about it or desiring it or following along. Indeed, it works for adults the same way. And that’s my point against Wilson: his answer to the question of when to commune children reveals a wrong conception of what faith is, and a wrong conception of how the Supper benefits adults.

Trust Jesus, love the brethren, and eat bread and wine. And then you will not “be condemned with the world,” just as the Hebrews’ firstborn were not slain with the Egyptians.

There’s more to say, especially about the question of Christ’s presence and how He is received in the Supper, but that will have to wait for another time.



  1. “They think you eat him with your mouth. We say you eat him with your faith,”
    Though I don’t like that dichotomy for many reasons, I’m not sure I like one of the distinctions I presently perceive in your next paragraph: that faith is not for or about future activities, but is about the present knowledge/assurance/conviction of the characteristics of past actions (ours and/or Gods). Hebrews 11 seems to teach both past and future: by faith, remembering past things and doing future things to receive future unseen results that natural/worldly men would not believe possible or probable.

    And I like the word “mystery” when describing the Supper (and the Trinity and the natures of Jesus, though the “mystery” of the gospel being for everyone was revealed and understandable). “Things are really much simpler when we eliminate the effluences, the morphing substances, and the special superpowers…” and leave it to the mysterious. 😉

  2. I guess I would say that the faith that God requires is most fundamentally directed toward a person — Three Persons in One God — and only thereby toward either past or future events. We have a whole-person allegiance to Jesus, and therefore we believe with our minds that He really instituted this meal (past event), we eat it with our mouths now (present event), believe that we are thereby sharing in Christ’s body and blood (present, past, future), and we expect the future accomplishment of the salvation that is promised in it (future event). Thus our allegiance to Jesus (our pistis, faith) should condition all of our actions and beliefs in connection with the Supper.

    The word “mystery” is mistakenly applied to the sacraments. As far as I know, 1 Cor. 4:1 is the only warrant anyone has ever been able to produce for that label: “Let a man so consider us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” But in the Bible, a mystery is never “something you can’t figure out,” but always, “a once- hidden thing that has now been revealed.” Paul means that the apostles are in charge of the revelation of the mystery of Christ, which had not been revealed to past ages as it has now been made known by the apostles: that the Gentiles are engrafted into Israel. (Eph. 3:3-6) So the Supper is not a mystery, except perhaps insofar as it concerns the inclusion of the Gentiles. Nothing else about the Supper would have surprised the Jews, nor did they see it as a puzzle to figure out. Indeed, it was itself a clue for revealing other things, as on the road to Emmaus.

    Note that we are never told that the disciples were surprised or uncomprehending at the Last Supper. Just because centuries of wrong assumptions have made it so that we have trouble understanding “This is my body” in a Jewish way doesn’t mean that they had any difficulty.

  3. I still like mystery; some things can’t be figured out…before heaven.
    Trinity = 3 divine persons = 1 eternal nature
    Initially simple, extremely mysterious. Ditto:
    this bread = Christ’s body

  4. Mr. Colvin. I’m new at all this, trying to get answers. I’m not sure I grasped the bottom line over at Pastor Wilson’s site. Could you post a quick, concise bottom line outline of practice for paedo-communion in practical terms? What’s the bottom line here? Sorry for such an elementary question, but some of us get lost in the trees.

    • Todd, I sympathize with the difficulty in understanding the debate. Wilson is confused and confusing. I think I am plain and clear. So here’s my summary:

      The Lord’s Supper does not work by our thinking about it. It does not work by our being aware of it. It does not work by our joy, or our tracking with the service. Those are all anti-paedocommunionist views of how the Supper works, and the fact that Wilson brings them up is proof that he does not understand or really believe in paedocommunion.

      If babies are baptized, and can chew, they should be given the Supper. Even if they’re not interested in it, they should be given the Supper. Its efficacy doesn’t depend on their interest or awareness, and those things should not be made prerequisites to their participation. If anyone thinks that the Supper’s efficacy depends on such things for babies, that is proof positive that he has also misunderstood how the Supper works in the case of adults.

      The Supper works the same way the Passover did, not a different way. Look at who partook in Egypt, and how much their thinking contributed to its efficacy. To say that the Supper is different is semi-Marcionite thinking.

      • Great! This helps.

        So, at the risk of imputing motives, what would be the presumed reasoning behind requiring “thinking” or “awareness” or “joy” or “tracking” for the Supper’s efficacy? What’s being guarded against? Ex opere operato? In your mind, is that something to be avoided? Or have we overreacted to it? Does the whole category (of ex opere) need to be dumped, on all sides as a category error?

        Related: Would you say the same thing about “paedofaith” vis a vis infant baptism’s efficacy? I just finished Rich Lusk’s book. It would appear he too is subtly requiring paedofaith in order toward baptismal efficacy. What say you?

        I appreciate the feedback. I am tracking with you, and would like to somehow close on this issue with some confidence. Appreciate your help.

  5. I think Wilson is trying to guard against superstitious views of the Supper, by which he means something like transsubstantiation.

    In my view, ex opere operato is part of a centuries-long category mistake about what the Supper is. Bringing “substances” into the question made sure that the question would be approached wrongly on both sides. The church has conceived of the supper as medicine or as a container for grace or as something spooky and weird — anything but a ritual meal. So the Roman Catholics are way off base and doing all their thinking in a world of Greek philosophical categories that are about as helpful for explaining the Lord’s Supper as Indo-European linguistics is for explaining a birthday cake. But in my opinion the Reformers didn’t get beyond these categories either. They just swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, and it has been swinging ever since. Hugh St. Victor, Ratramnus, Radbertus. Zwinglianism. Anglo-Catholicism. Calvin’s view. Dabney’s view. Nevin’s view. Back and forth, back and forth, with very little progress or illumination.

    I think Leithart’s books on Baptism are very helpful on this point, both his dissertation (“Priesthood of the Plebs”) and “The Baptized Body”.

    We need a New Perspective on the Sacraments, to stop seeing them through the lenses of Reformation-era debates, and understand what thirteen Jews in the upper room thought about the Supper. In my view, Daube is helpful. In others’ opinion, not so much. Tim Gallant and I think much alike about the Supper, but differ about Daube.

    I haven’t read Lusk’s book. A Reformed paedocommunionist pastor whom I respect once mentioned that he doesn’t have a use for Lusk’s paedofaith theories, and sees them as unhelpful when arguing for paedocommunion. What matters is that the child is in the covenant. If he gets cut off later, too bad for him, but that’s not a reason not to baptize him or to deny him the Supper in infancy.

    That said, I respect Lusk, and I don’t want to prejudge the book. Like Leithart, he’s a writer with whom I used to disagree vehemently, but to whom I have now come much closer in my thinking. His book might be great, and I haven’t read it.

  6. Leithart’s “Baptized Body” has transformed my thinking, though I’ve yet to put all the puzzle pieces together (this coming from a Plymouth Brethren/DTS background!). Thanks again for the input. Look forward to following your blog.

  7. So what do I read in Daube?

  8. Meaning, I’m seriously interested in pursuing what this “new perspective on the sacraments” you suggest could look like. Can you point me in some more specific direction/titles/authors other than Leithart (whom I have)?

  9. “For Wilson, faith is an organ or faculty, a thing you can do things with. But in my view, it is nothing of the sort.”

    And you are therefore at odds with the book of Hebrews. Particularly chapter 11. The whole chapter is: “By faith _name_ _verb_ …..”

    By faith Abel offered…

    By faith Abraham obeyed…

    By faith he sojourned…

    By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau…

    By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph…

    By faith Moses refused…

    “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”

  10. Daube’s Collected Works, vol. 2, “New Testament Judaism” is helpful, but you have to be critical and sift him.

    Morna Hooker, “The Signs of a Prophet.”

    Jim Jordan’s monographs “Christ in His Supper” and “The Agape Meal” (or something like that — call Jim and he’ll know which one). Also his essay “Tentative Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration.”

  11. Deborah Bleicher Carmichael, “David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder.”

  12. Haven’t read it, but it appears that you can find the entire Carmichael essay online here (

  13. […] Colvin does a good job advancing our discussion of the Lord’s Supper here. I am talking, obviously, about his description of our disagreement, and not about the side he […]

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