Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Case For Covenant Communion -- A Review

Rayburn, et al. The Case For Covenant Communion. Edited by Gregg Strawbridge. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2006. 210 pp. with foreward, appendix, and Scripture index. $14.95 (paper) ISBN 0-9753914-3-7.

CFCC presents a forceful case that covenant children within the church should be allowed to participate in communion. The case presented here is grounded in Scripture, history, and covenant theology, and is in general well-argued. Though the various arguments are not entirely dispositive, they are nevertheless the ones to be reckoned with by those who think about communion in Reformed Churches.

The book consists of a series of essays by various contributors. The first article, by Robert Rayburn, sets forth the framework of the argument. As Rayburn sees it, children should be admitted to the table because (pp. 14-15)

* Children of believers have always participated in covenant meals and been nourished thereby,
* The theology of covenant children demands participation,
* The sole argument against paedocommunion, from 1 Cor 11, is based on a misreading, and
* Paedocommunion was the practice of the early church.

The articles that follow then flesh out Rayburn's skeleton. Jordan demonstrates that children participated in Passover and the other OT feast meals; Leithart explores the theology of those meals. Gallant, Sutton, and Lusk argue for childrens' participation in communion as a necessary consequence of covenant theology. Meyers and Strawbridge deconstruct the objections to paedocommunion. The article by Blake Purcell attempts to demonstrate that paedocommunion was practiced as early as the first century.

These articles are followed by a fascinating reprint of Rayburn's article in Presbyterion 22.2 of the development of the Presbyterian theology of covenant children, which includes details about the 1857 controversy between Charles Hodge and Thornwell concerning the status of unbelieving covenant children. Included are a set of excellent questions and objections by V. Philips Long which were part of the original Presbyterion article.

The book's case is stimulating and persuasive, but not finally compelling. Meyer's argument helped me to rethink the current communion practices at our church and to strongly consider a lower age for the communion table. Jordan's argument is speculative at points, but his central claim, that children did partake of the Passover, is quite well-established and demolishes Murray's contention that only adults participated. On the other hand, Purcell's attempt to push the date of paedocommunion to the first century is strikingly unpersuasive, as the evidence prior to Cyprian (AD 250) is simply too thin to bear the weight he wishes to place on it.

In the end, the central issue appears to be one's reading of 1 Cor 11.

If in fact 1 Cor 11.28 means "examine yourselves", then all of the other arguments can be seen in other lights. Perhaps the Passover has been modified in the New Covenant to require evidence of the circumcision of the heart. Or perhaps the children that participated in Passover were young, but not infants. Perhaps the theology of covenant children demands that we prepare children to partake, rather than give them communion as early as possible. These hypotheses are but examples of the routes one is compelled to take if 1 Cor 11.28 is indeed a command to be followed by all who partake.

But if on the other hand 1 Cor 11.28 is directed solely at the misbehaving Corinthian adults (so Rayburn), or means "prove yourselves" (so Meyers), then the objections to paedocommunion evaporate entirely.

This point needs to be discussed further. The current weight of translation work lies heavily on the side of self-inspection; yet Rayburn's argument that the command is directed towards the miscreants at Corinth is compelling. Whatever the case, we can be grateful to the authors for bringing the discussion to the fore and providing substantial food for thought.

One question that I brought to the book was its degree of entanglement with Federal Vision theology. Since so many of the contributors are also signatories to the Federal Vision Statement, and since that same statement explicitly advocates paedocommunion, I found myself approaching the book wondering to what extent I would have to evaluate its arguments without the benefit of accepting or understanding all of the Federal Vision.

To my pleasant surprise, I found that the arguments stand more or less on their own. The case for paedocommunion is argued almost entirely within the bounds of theology that is common to the Reformed community.

An experienced churchman might ask, "Why revisit the issue at this time, since both the PCA and OPC have considered and rejected paedocommunion in the past?" The answer appears to be this: even if paedocommunion is not the answer, the unacceptably long period of time that our children wait to take communion is a problem. This book serves as a stimulus to reconsider that problem afresh.


For further reading:
1987 OPC report on Paedocommunion
1988 PCA report on Paedocommunion.


Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Thanks, Jeff, for the fair-minded review.

Re paedocommunion-FV connection, the book was to have included another essay, written by an anti-FVer, but it was omitted from the collection at the last minute (for reasons having nothing to do with the FV). I happen to have obtained the article via secret incantations and dark arts...or perhaps it was by e-mail. If you'd be interested in reading it, drop me an e-mail and I'll see if I can get permission to share it with you. Or perhaps it will suffice merely to know of its existence.

Jeff Cagle said...

YES, absolutely! Thank you.


(my username) (AT) juno (dot) com

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Will see what I can do.

Hey...10 years ago tonight, you and I were rehearsing a Rich Mullins tune for special music at CCF. Other things happened to prevent the performance and burn the date into my brain....

Jeff Cagle said...

Was it 10 years ago? Wow. I remember the event well.

Ya know, I don't know whether you know this, but I went back a couple of years later and tried to persuade the other party to forget and forgive, and to come in out of the cold.

He wasn't biting. :(

The church is such a tangled place.


Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Many people tried -- Mark, John K., Bill D. before him, Sam, and Ray and Carolyn all worked at fixing the mess. And that was just the officers. Well, except Carolyn, who was mostly there to hold my hand. ;-) I'm sure you weren't the only other one to take a stab at it. I appreciate knowing that you did!

The cool thing to come out of it, though, was that I got to see presbyterianism working the way it should, with a plurality of elders working together to shepherd God's people, even though we were both of other flocks. Or rather, one of us was of another flock, and the other was a stray, and I suspect still is.

The church is a tangled place, but Jesus knows every thread of every knot. The saints who are in the land are still the gloriously delightful ones. Hallelujah!

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Jeff, could you e-mail me (valerie ~at~ kyriosity ~dot~ com)?

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Never mind. All i needed was your address, which i see you already posted here. D'oh!

Travis said...


Thanks for your review. Here is my take on the 1 Cor 11 issue.

1) Rather than reading the text prescriptively, it is intended to be descriptive. That is, as per the Corinthian issue (which is not all church's issue) "do this."

2)Here is my minimal exegesis of the passage. I'd love to hear from you.

3) As God, in the past, had limited his ordinances to the male gender but now has expanded it to include female; mightn't it also be inferred that the meals that once were limited to heads of home have now been expanded to include the whole family?

Say hi to the cult down the hall for me: Patrick, Steve, Pam and Mike. Tell 'em Mr. Competiciones sez hi.

Jeff Cagle said...

Thanks for the comments and your link. It took me a while to figure out who you are, and then I had to go ask Steve,

"So who is Travis Matthew Finley?" Now I know. Nice to meet you!

A few thoughts about your blog (only since you asked!)

(1) I think you're likely correct that Paul is speaking directly to the Corinthians' situation. After all, you don't find these detailed instructions in the other epistles. So your distinction between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" is useful.

I might prefer to word it as, "globally normative" and "locally normative", since Paul *is* "prescribing" something to the Corinthians.

But now, certain global ethical norms bubble out of 1 Cor 10 and 11. One of those is Meyer's "one loaf, one body" principle. Not just the Corinthian church, but all churches are bound to "read" communion as a statement of unity in the body.

In 1 Cor 10, this means not uniting with pagan religions.

In 1 Cor 11, this means not acting in a divisive fashion.

Both of these appear to be globally binding ethical norms.


(2) All must dokimazo themselves, whatever that means, to ensure that they do not follow in the Corinthians' footsteps.

It may not be that the dokiamzo-ing ("dokimazwn"?) would take the same form in every church, but every church member should be certain that his practice of partaking aligns with his position as a member of the church.

This is, I think, the force of the criticism in 11.20-22 as well as the warning in 11.27: they should have known better because of the nature of the meal.