The Antiquity of Infant Communion
ROGER T. BECKWITH
(From “Age of Admission to the Lord’s Supper,” The Westminster Theological Journal,
Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2 [Winter 1976], pp. 125-27.)
Infant communion certainly cannot be traced back as far as infant baptism. The first definite reference to infant baptism is in Irenaeus, about 180 A.D., who speaks of “all who through Christ are born again to God, infants and children and boys and young men and old men” (Against Heresies 2:22:4, or 2:33:2), “born again to God” being a technical phrase meaning baptism, well attested in other parts of Irenaeus’s writings. Considering the small compass of the patristic literature before the time of Irenaeus, this reference is significantly early, and may well reflect a practice originating in New Testament times. (For references see Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries [E.T., London, S.C.M., 1960], p. 73. This work and its sequel, The Origins of Infant Baptism [E.T., London, S.C.M., 1963] collect all the evidence for the antiquity of infant baptism.)
The earliest definite reference to infant or child communion, on the other hand, is in Cyprian (On the Lapsed 9, 25) about the year 251, after the voluminous writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, and Origen had appeared, without any reference to such a practice; and there is both earlier and contemporary evidence that this was something of a novelty. Cyprian was a Western Father, writing in the Latin-speaking seaboard of North Africa opposite Italy; but about sixteen years earlier Origen, by then permanently resident in Palestine, states that children (parvuli) are not given communion, and what he says may well apply not only to Palestine but also to his homeland of Egypt. His words are these:
Before we arrive at the provision of the heavenly bread, and are filled with the flesh of the spotless Lamb, before we are inebriated with the blood of the true Vine which sprang from the root of David, while we are children, and are fed with milk, and retain the discourse about the first principles of Christ, as children we act under the oversight of stewards, namely the guardian angels (Homilies on the Book of Judges 6:2).
Though Origen’s language is highly metaphorical, it is difficult to understand him as speaking of anything but literal children and the literal sacrament. Literal children, if they have learned the first principles of Christ, do not have to wait before feeding on Christ spiritually, though they may have to wait before feeding on him sacramentally. Adults young in the faith do not have to wait before feeding on Christ spiritually, and though they might have to wait before feeding on him sacramentally (especially in the early church, with its long course of catechizing for adult converts), this would only be if they were waiting to be baptized as well, and Origen makes no allusion to baptism. So it seems that he is speaking of literal children, already baptized, but waiting for admission to the Lord’s supper. (Earlier evidence on Egyptian practice is possibly provided by Clement of Alexandria, who writes, “Those who are full grown are said to drink, babes to suck. ‘For my blood,’ says the Lord, ‘is true drink’” [Pedagogue 1:6:36, quoting Jn. 6:55]. Clement is not speaking of the Lord’s supper, but since he understands the symbolism of John 6 as suitable only to adults, he probably understood the symbolism of the Lord’s supper in the same way. The Pedagogue was written about 190-195 A.D.)
Contemporary with Cyprian is the author of the Syrian Didascalia, but his evidence agrees with Origen’s. He writes:
Honour the bishops, who have loosed you from your sins, who by the water regenerated you, who filled you with the Holy Spirit, who reared you with the word as with milk, who bred you up with teaching, who established you with admonition, and made you to partake of the holy eucharist of God, and made you partakers and joint heirs of the promise of God. These reverence... (Didascalia Apostolorum, ch. 9, R. H. Connolly’s edition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1929, p. 94)
The order here is surely significant. The bishop’s flock had first been baptized, then been reared with a long course of teaching, and finally, in maturity, been admitted to communion.
Now, many patristic scholars today are inclined to regard evidence from Syria and Palestine, where the geographical and linguistic links with Palestinian Judaism and with primitive Jewish Christianity were strongest, as more likely than any other to have preserved traditional links with the Christianity of Jesus and his earliest followers, comparatively unaffected by outside influences. If so, the evidence of Origen and the Didascalia on the practice of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt is not only the earliest evidence bearing on our subject, but is on other grounds also more likely than Cyprian’s to reflect the ancient Christian custom. ...in the remotest antiquity it appears that infant communion did not exist.
APPENDIX I: A LENGTHIER EXCERPT FROM THE DIDASCALIA APOSTOLORUM
For what hope at all is there for him who speaks evil of the bishop, or of the deacon? For if one call a layman fool, or raca, he is liable to the assembly [Mt 5.22], as one of those who rise up against Christ: because that he calls “empty” his brother in whom Christ dwells, who is not empty but fulfilled; or (calls) him “fool” in whom dwells the Holy Spirit of God, fulfilled with all wisdom: as though he should become a fool by the very Spirit that dwells in him! If then one who should say any of these things to a layman is found to fall under so great condemnation, how much more if he should dare to say aught against the deacon, or against the bishop, through whom the Lord gave you the Holy Spirit, and through whom you have learned the word and have known God, and through whom you have been known of God [cf. Gal 4.9], and through whom you were sealed [cf. Eph 1.13; 4.30], and through whom you became sons of the light [cf. Jn 12.36; 1Th 5.5], and through whom the Lord in baptism, by the imposition of hand of the bishop, bore witness to each one of you and uttered His holy voice, saying: Thou art my son: this day have begotten thee [Ps 2.7 (Lk 3.22)]. Wherefore, O man, know thy bishops, through whom thou wast made a son of God, and the right hand, thy mother; and love him who is become, after God, thy father and thy mother: for whosoever shall revile his father or his mother, shall die the death [Ex 21.17; Mt 15.4]. But do you honour the bishops, who have loosed you from sins, who by the water regenerated you, who filled you with the Holy Spirit, who reared you with the word as with milk, who bred you up with doctrine, who confirmed you with admonition, and made you to partake of the holy Eucharist of God, and made you partakers and joint heirs of the promise of God. These reverence, and honour them with all honour; for they have received from God the authority of life and death: not as judging those who sin and condemning them to death in fire everlasting, by cutting off and casting away those who are judged, which God forbid, but that they may receive and save alive those who return and repent. (Didascalia Apostolorum [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929], pp. 39-40)
APPENDIX II: PERTINENT COMMENTS BY LUTHER, CHEMNITZ, AND ANDREAE
...we have a promise and command for the baptism of children, because Christ said [Matt. 28:19], “Preach to all nations, [baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,]” as if he would say, “I wish to be the God of all.” ...we say and we warn that children be brought promptly for baptism. ... There is no urgency about the sacrament of the altar. So there’s no command concerning prayer, but there’s a precept that when we pray we should expect to be heard [cf. 1 John 5:14]. Nor is there a precept about afflictions, although those who are afflicted ought to be patient [cf. II Cor. 6:4]. However, it doesn’t follow that the children are damned who either do not pray or are not afflicted. When in I Corinthians [11:28] Paul said that a man should examine himself [and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup], he spoke only of adults because he was speaking about those who were quarreling among themselves. However, he doesn’t here forbid that the sacrament of the altar be given even to children. (Martin Luther, Table Talk #365; Luther’s Works, Vol. 54 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967], pp. 55,58)
Some have asked whether the sacrament is to be offered also to the deaf and dumb. Some think it a kindness to practice a pious fraud on them and think they should be given unblessed wafers. This mockery is not good; it will not please God, who has made them Christians as well as us. They deserve the same things that we do. Therefore if they are rational and can show by indubitable signs that they desire it in true Christian devotion, as I have often seen, we should leave to the Holy Spirit what is his work and not refuse him what he demands. It may be that inwardly they have a better understanding and faith than we; and this no one should maliciously oppose. Do we not read of St. Cyprian, the holy martyr, that in Carthage where he was bishop he even had both elements given to the children, although – for reasons of its own – that has now ceased? Christ had the children come to him and would not allow anyone to hinder them [Mark 10:14]. In like manner he withheld his blessings neither from the dumb nor the blind nor the lame. Why, then, should not his sacrament also be for those who heartily and in a Christian spirit desire it? (Martin Luther, “A Treatise on the New Testament,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960], pp. 110-11)
Concerning this point we may read Cyprian, who alone is strong enough to refute all the Romanists. In the fifth book of his treatise, On the Lapsed, he testifies that it was the widespread custom in that church [at Carthage] to administer both kinds to the laity, even to children, indeed, to give the body of the Lord into their hands. And of this he gives many examples. Among other things, he reproves some of the people as follows: “The sacrilegious man is angered at the priests because he does not immediately receive the body of the Lord with unclean hands, or drink the blood of the Lord with unclean lips.” He is speaking here, you see, of irreverent laymen who desired to receive the body and the blood from the priests. Do you find anything to snarl at here, wretched flatterer? Will you say that this holy martyr, a doctor of the church endowed with the apostolic spirit, was a heretic, and that he used this permission [to receive the sacrament in both kinds] in a particular church? In the same place Cyprian narrates an incident that came under his own observation. He describes at length how a deacon was administering the cup to a little [infanti] girl, and when she drew away from him he poured the blood of the Lord into her mouth. (Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], pp. 25-26)
In...the sixth chapter of John...Christ is speaking of faith in the incarnate Word. For he says: “My words are spirit and life” [John 6:63], which shows that he was speaking of a spiritual eating, by which he who eats has life; whereas the Jews understood him to mean a bodily eating and therefore disputed with him. But no eating can give life except that which is by faith, for that is truly a spiritual and living eating. As Augustine also says: “Why do you make ready your teeth and your stomach? Believe, and you have eaten.” For the sacramental eating does not give life, since many eat unworthily. Hence Christ cannot be understood in this passage to be speaking about the sacrament. Some persons, to be sure, have misapplied these words in their teaching concerning the sacrament, as in the decretal Dudum and many others. But it is one thing to misapply the Scriptures and another to understand them in their proper sense. Otherwise, if in this passage Christ were enjoining a sacramental eating, when he says: “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you” [John 6:53], he would be condemning all infants, all the sick, and all those absent or in any way hindered from the sacramental eating, however strong their faith might be. Thus Augustine, in his Contra Julianum, Book II, proves from Innocent [the Bishop of Rome] that even infants eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ without the sacrament; that is, they partake of them through the faith of the church. (Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” pp. 19-20)
Right now I do not think badly about the Bohemian Brethren, having heard from their own representatives their faith concerning the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I do not approve of the Bohemians who commune little children, although I do not regard them as heretics in this matter. I have been thinking daily about prescribing a form for doing Mass and giving Communion, but so far I have not been able to release it. Nevertheless, it ought to be proposed that in the days to come no one be admitted to Communion unless he has been examined and has responded rightly concerning his faith; we should exclude the others. I also think the weak have been indulged long enough, and that the entire Sacrament ought to be brought back and everybody ought to be communed in both kinds [host and cup], everybody who desires and understands, but by no means causing any reason for scandal, either with neighbors or others. (Martin Luther, Letter to Nicholas Hausmann ; quoted in “Whether the Eucharist Should be Given to Children?”, Lutheran Forum, Vol. 30, No. 4 [Winter 1996], p. 13) (an alternate translation [by Walter W. F. Albrecht] of a portion of Luther’s statement can be found as follows in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953], p. 383: “I cannot side with the Bohemians in distributing the Lord’s Supper to children, even though I would not call them heretics on that account.”)
They have also erred who have wanted to use this Gospel [John 6:55-58] as a reason to give the Sacrament to young children [infants?] and they have also done this. As you have heard, the Lord is saying nothing here about the Sacrament of the Altar or of a physical eating. He is speaking of a spiritual eating which happens only through faith in Christ which He calls here eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Through this faith the man is incorporated into Christ and becomes completely one loaf with him. (Martin Luther, “The Feast of the Holy Corpus Christi,” Festival Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils [Dearborn, Michigan: Mark V Publications, 2005], Summer Section, p. 48)
...we must speak about the...sacrament...under three headings, stating what it is, what its benefits are, and who is to receive it. All this is established from the words Christ used to institute it. So everyone who wishes to be a Christian and to go to the sacrament should know them. For we do not intend to admit to the sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come. (Martin Luther, Large Catechism V:1-2, The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], p. 467)
Let this serve as an exhortation, then, not only for us who are old and advanced in years, but also for the young people who must be brought up in Christian teaching and in a right understanding of it. With such training we may more easily instill the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer into the young so that they will receive them with joy and earnestness, practice them from their youth, and become accustomed to them. ... In this way God’s Word and a Christian community will be preserved. Therefore let all heads of a household remember that it is their duty, by God’s injunction and command, to teach their children or have them taught the things they ought to know. Because they have been baptized and received into the people of Christ, they should also enjoy this fellowship of the sacrament [of the Altar] so that they may serve us and be useful. For they must all help us to believe, to love, to pray, and to fight against the devil. (Martin Luther, Large Catechism V:85-87, Kolb/Wengert pp. 475-76)
...Paul shows (1 Cor. 11:23-34) from the rule of the institution that some among the Corinthians were eating unworthily. And when he wants to show how they could eat the Lord’s Supper worthily and with profit, he sets before them the institution itself as he had received it from the Lord. ...the mind, from the words of institution, understands, believes with firm assent, and in the use of the Lord’s Supper reverently ponders what this sacrament is, what its use is, and what the nature of this whole action is – that here the Son of God, God and man, is Himself present, offering and imparting through the ministry to those who eat, together with the bread and wine, His body and blood, in order that by means of this most precious testimony and pledge He may unite Himself with us and apply, seal, and confirm to us the New Testament covenant of grace. And this faith, resting on the words of institution, excites and shapes reverence and devotion of mind as this sacrament is used. ...the institution itself shows that this is necessary and required for worthy eating... (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978], p. 317)
The custom that the Eucharist should be received by lay people only under the form of bread has been introduced [by the papalists] in accord with reason in order to avoid certain dangers and offenses. The danger they understand to be that some of the content of the cup might be spilled. ... Certainly, this preposterous solicitude and prudence, that for this reason the cup is entirely forbidden, was unknown to the ancient church, where such dangers were much more to be feared than now. For every day, or certainly every Lord’s Day, the whole fellowship communicated, and indeed often in so great a multitude that the largest churches were not able to contain them all at one time, so that it was often necessary to repeat the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the same day, as Pope Leo shows, Letter No. 81. In some places the Eucharist was also given to small children; yes, sometimes communicants carried the blood of Christ home with them, as Gregory of Nazianzus relates about his sister Gorgonia. ... It is therefore a mere pretext and not a genuine reason what the papalists allege about danger. Yes, such things happened fairly frequently in the ancient church. For according to Cyprian, Treatise 3, De lapsis, in the case of a very young girl who resisted and pinched her mouth shut with her lips, the deacon poured in something from the cup, which, however, as we read, burst forth from her polluted inwards shortly thereafter. We read in Chrysostom that the blood of Christ was spilled on the garments of some soldiers who broke into the sanctuary. The fathers were greatly troubled when something like this happened, as Augustine testifies, ch. Interrogo vos, yet they did not consider it so monstrous a sacrilege that on account of it the use of the cup should be entirely abolished; but they were careful, and used precautions as much as they could, that such a thing should not happen through negligence. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, pp. 365-66)
...on account of the fear of the danger of spilling, some already early considered a departure from the form of the institution of Christ; however, lest they should take away and abrogate Communion under both kinds altogether, they gave the communicants consecrated bread dipped into the cup of blessing for a full Communion; that is, they judged that it would not be a full Communion if the Eucharist were given under the species of bread only, without the consecrated wine. It is worth observing from where this crept into the church. For since we read that among the ancients in a case of necessity, in Communion of little children and of the sick, a dipped and infused sacrament was sometimes given, as is seen from the story of Serapion; from Cyprian, Treatise 3, De lapsis; and from Prosper, De promissionibus, ch. 6 and ch. 26, quest. 6, ch. 15, in Decreta, some afterward wanted to bring the custom of a dipped sacrament from these extraordinary cases into the lawful and ordinary Communion of the church, contrary to the institution of Christ and the custom of the ancient church, and that under the pretext of the danger of spilling, and of reverence toward the Eucharist. But Pope Julius, about A.D. 340, sharply rebukes this custom in an epistle to the bishops of Egypt (and this is quoted in De consecratione, dist. 2, ch. Cum omne). It is worth the effort to consider on what grounds he refutes it. He says that it is contrary to the divine order, contrary to the apostolic institutions, likewise that it is contrary to the evangelical and apostolic teaching and ecclesiastical custom. He also shows (and this must be especially noted) from where the proofs in this matter must be sought and taken. For he says: “It will not be difficult to prove this from the fountain of truth itself, from which the ordained mysteries of the sacraments have come forth.” ... Julius finally concludes: “When they give a dipped Eucharist to the people for a full Communion, they have not received this as a proved testimony from the Gospel, where He commended His body to the apostles, and also His blood; for the commendation of the bread is mentioned separately and that of the cup also separately.” In this way the custom of a dipped Eucharist was at that time suppressed. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, pp. 421-22)
It is clear that one cannot deal with infants through the bare preaching of repentance and remission of sins, for that requires hearing (Rom. 10:17), deliberation and meditation (Ps. 119), understanding (Matt. 13:51), which are not found in infants. With regard to the Lord’s Supper Paul says: “Let a man examine himself” [1 Cor. 11:28]. Likewise: “Let him discern the Lord’s body” [1 Cor. 11:29], a thing which cannot be ascribed to infants. Moreover, Christ instituted His Supper for such as had already become His disciples. In the Old Testament infants were circumcised on the eighth day, but they were admitted to the eating of the Passover lamb when they were able to ask: “What do you mean by this service?” (Ex. 12:26). There remains therefore [for infants] of the means of grace in the New Testament only the sacrament of Baptism. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, pp. 165-66)
[The Council of Trent had decreed:] “That Little Children are Not Obligated to Sacramental Communion. Finally, the same holy synod [of Trent] teaches that little children, who lack the use of reason, are not obligated by any necessity to the sacramental Communion of the Eucharist, since, regenerated by the washing of Baptism and incorporated into Christ, they are not able at that age to lose the grace of children of God, which they have obtained. Nevertheless, antiquity is not therefore to be condemned if at some time it observed this custom in certain places. For even as those holy fathers had a believable cause for what they did, by reason of their time, so it is to be certainly and without controversy believed that they did not do this from any necessity for salvation. ... If anyone says that Eucharistic Communion is necessary for little children before they have arrived at the years of discretion, let him be anathema.” There is no controversy between us and the papalists about this question. Therefore I judge that it is not necessary to unravel this whole dispute, since this discussion was instituted chiefly for the sake of the things which are in controversy. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, p. 435)
We often exhort our people who have repented to partake frequently of the Lord’s Supper. However, we do not commune the infants, for Paul says: “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the Lord’s body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself” [1 Cor 11:28-29]. And since the children are not able to examine themselves and, thus, cannot discern the Lord’s body, we think that the ceremony of the baptism is sufficient for their salvation, and also the hidden faith with which the Lord has endowed them. For through this faith they spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, even if they do not, in the communion of the supper, physically eat it. (The Tübingen Theologians [including Jacob Andreae], Correspondence with the Patriarch of Constantinople , Augsburg and Constantinople [Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982], p. 143)
Those who intend to commune shall give notice to the pastor or one of the ministers the day before, or before Mass in the morning. The ministers shall ask of them in a discreet way whether they know the Ten Commandments, Creed and Lord’s Prayer, whether they know and hold the right doctrine concerning the Sacrament, what fruit they expect from a worthy use of it, and especially whether they hold enmity or wrath against any one. Thus may they discover how the people understand these matters, how much profit they derive from sermon and catechism, and how much they need kind instruction. But they must be careful not to mortify either young or old by their examination and thus for a long time keep them from the Sacrament. They shall diligently admonish the people to seek Absolution in preparation for the Sacrament. ... Those are to be excluded from the Communion who live in willful error and heresy, or in open undeniable vice, or scorn the express Word of God. Also the irrational and fools, children who cannot understand, and those who neither know nor will learn the Ten Commandments, the Creed nor the Lord’s Prayer. (Brandenburg-Nürnberg Church Order , as epitomized in Edward T. Horn, “Liturgical Work of John Brenz,” Lutheran Church Review, Vol. I, Whole No. 4 [October 1882], pp. 281-83)
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