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.