Posted by: mattcolvin | May 8, 2013

The Best Argument for Paedocommunion


Above: Michelangelo’s depiction of kinaesthetic, bodily knowledge at the creation of Adam.

I’ve been a proponent of paedocommunion for about 13 years now. It is the issue that determined which church my family joined when we moved to Cincinnati 10 years ago. It is also the theological issue I have blogged about most. I have argued for paedocommunion…

1. From the nature of the covenant, i.e. the fact that the God we worship demands that we come to his feast with our children as well.
2. By attempting to overthrow the regnant assumptions about what “let a man examine himself” means in 1 Corinthians 11. (Also here.)
3. From the fact that the children of priests are entitled to eat of the same holy food that priests do. This involves proving that Christian baptism is an initiation to priesthood. Peter Leithart also makes this case in his masterful dissertation, The Priesthood of the Plebs, which is a Biblical study of the entire concept of priesthood.
4. By appeal to the precedent of the 16th century Swiss-German reformer Wolfgang Musculus.
5. From the fact that the inclusion of infants in Communion is a necessary consequence of their membership in the body of Christ, and that to exclude them is to say that they are not of the body, and that we have no need of them.

In this post, I want to pursue a sixth argument: namely, that credocommunionists are missing one of the most important ways the Supper actually works. This is, to my mind, the most powerful argument for including infants in the Lord’s Supper, because it has the salutary benefit of correcting how we think the Supper works in the case of adults as well: namely, 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 beds when the angel of death passed over their houses because of the sign of blood on their doorposts and lintels.

This precipitated a discussion of what faith is. I quoted Bavinck to the effect that “Faith, the faith by which we believe, is not an organ or faculty next to or above reason but a disposition or habit of reason itself.” I added that

Faith is not a disposition of reason only, but of whole persons, including their unreasoned habits, desires, and loves… And for that reason, it can be a disposition also of infants, in a Psalm 22:9-10 sense: “I have trusted in you from birth; from my mother’s womb, you have been my God.” Indeed, I am not sure whether faith cannot be a disposition even of animals:

So the donkey said to Balaam, “ Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?”
And he said, “No.” (Numbers 22:30 NKJV)

This is precisely a protestation of the donkey’s πιστις, its faithfulness and loyalty to Balaam. And the same sort of loyalty is precisely what God wants us to give Him.

I believe this more strongly than ever. I only wish that in the debate that followed, I had had what I have now from James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom. The book is subtitled, “How Worship Works”. That is a rather bold claim, bolder even than a book entitled “How Marriage Works”, since the relationship of Christ and the Church is even more unfathomable than the way of a man with a maid. So I will not make the claim that Smith has provided an exhaustive account of how worship works. Rather, it is enough that he has explained in greater detail one of the most important ways that liturgy works upon us.

Smith introduces his claim this way:

What if we are actors before we are thinkers? What if our action is driven and generated less by what we think and more by what we love? And what if those loves are formed on a register that hums along largely below the radar of consciousness—but are nonetheless acquired products of formation and not mere aspects of “hardwiring”? Then any adequate account of Christian formation and discipleship—and hence any holistic vision for Christian education—will need to appreciate the dynamics of habituation that make us the sorts of actors we are.

This is precisely right: our loves and desires are shaped on a level deeper than and prior to consciousness. They are shaped via our senses, via our bodies. Smith draws on the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty for some conceptual explanation of how this sort of formation happens:

As Merleau-Ponty describes it, we build up a habitual way of being-in-the-world that is carried in our body, one that is “known” on a level that precedes and eludes conscious reflection and objectification.[89] “The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and to have a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.” My body is not just an object that moves through otherwise neutral space; rather, my body is surrounded by this “practical field” that shapes and constitutes its world. The cup is pick-up-able because I have hands and it has a handle. It’s not even that I “see” the cup “as” pick-up-able; that is too objectifying. It is pick-up-able for me, for my body. The stairs or rocks are climbable because my practical field already constitutes them as such. So we can no longer separate the body as physiological mechanism from the “habit-body” that has built up over time (PP 95). It is this “habitual body” that “knows” with a “preconscious knowledge.” It is the locus for a way of life.

Our bodies are the means by which we constitute our way of being-in-the-world. The insights of child psychology are also important here: When we are dealing, not with cups and stairs, but with other persons, then our bodies are not merely the means by which we constitute objects, but rather, we are ourselves significantly constituted by our relationships. A child wants to know “Am I lovable?” and “Will my parents still be there for me?” The answers to these pre-conscious and subconscious questions are formed before the child can formulate questions or reason. The child is constituted as the beloved child of his parents via his bodily experience of their love: being held, being nursed, being comforted when he is in pain. Or he may be constituted in the opposite way by the opposite experience: by abuse or neglect or harshness.

Mark Horne once asked, “Do Baptists talk to their babies?” I think this is part of what he was getting at with that question.

We need to take seriously the question of how our inclusion or exclusion of covenant infants affects them on this subconscious level, for if faith is primarily “seated” anywhere, it is seated on this level – the level of our desires and constitution, the level of our loves and self-identity. Perhaps we could even say that this is the level of our being that Jesus calls “the heart” in such utterances as “out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” and “the good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good” and “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he”. If so, then the church should be very concerned with what we do to each other on this level.

So when Doug Wilson says,

“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….”

Wilson shows that he is either not aware of the deeper level of knowing that Smith calls “praktognosia” or “kinaesthetic”, or else that he does not think the sacraments work on this level. For if he recognized these things, he would not wait until “a child starts to learn…accompanied with teaching.” He would get busy forming the consciousness of children in the church BEFORE they start to think about these things.

And no age is too early. Our daughter Naomi was born with a large amount of sticky meconium all over her face. Our midwife had to take a washcloth to her face to help her breathe. This involved some uncomfortable scrubbing that affected Naomi’s disposition toward washcloths for several years into her toddlerhood. So if baby Naomi gained a kinaesthetic knowledge that “washcloths are nasty things that want to take her face off” from that neonatal experience, what do covenant infants gain from their inclusion or exclusion from the Lord’s Supper? I think I could probably solicit testimony from paedocommunionist parents, and my email inbox or Facebook post comments would be filled with anecdotal evidence showing that the Supper works on this level. It is not the only level on which it works, but it is perhaps the most important one.

James K. A. Smith has done the church a great service by making it possible to discuss the issue in these terms.


  1. I wonder how much of the credocommunion position, especially in Reformed circles, is a result of the assumption of the primacy of the intellect in knowledge? I recall reading some journal articles a few years back all examining the triumph of Cartesianism (i.e., “man is a thinking thing”) in 17th century Reformed thought. And if anything characterizes the Reformed way today it’s a heavy emphasis on the Brain.

  2. Excellent thoughts, Matt. This is not on the surface a narrowly biblical argument, but I think that once we get inside it, there are plenty of texts that support it.

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