Paedo Participation in the Old Covenant

Early in chapter four, The Old Testament Evidence Regarding the Participation of Children in Covenant Observances, Venema claims the Lord’s Supper is a sacrificial means of nourishing the “kind of faith that can properly remember, discern, and proclaim the death of Christ.” This is the clearest declaration of what nourishment-worthy faith is so far. Still, no real means of testing this have been given. Most nights my kids, beginning before they’re a year old, answer some catechism questions.

  1. Who made you? Answer: God did.
  2. Who is God? Answer: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  3. What else did God make? Answer: Everything.
  4. Are you baptized? Answer: Yes.
  5. Who is God’s son? Answer: Jesus.
  6. What did Jesus do? Answer: Die on the cross for our sins.
  7. What does Jesus give us? Answer: The Lord’s Supper.
  8. Why do you love God? Answer: Because he first loved me.

And so on. This is a wonderful way to end the day. The one year old has hand motions for most of the questions above, and my four year old can articulate his answers. Regularly I throw in new ones or modify existing just to see if he’s paying attention, and frequently I’m amazed at his answers. Now is this “proper” remembering, discerning and proclaiming? Is a “no” answer anything less than an embarrassingly forced theological position, one that throws doubt on sincere faith?

The case for young participation in the sacraments in the Old Testament is strong and it will take a lot of special pleading to get around it. So much that I’m not going to point it all out.

Venema admits that during the wilderness wanderings, all Israelites–men, women and children–partook of the wilderness meals. Paul says everyone was baptized in the Sea and ate the spiritual food and drank the spiritual drink from the rock which was Christ. (1 Cor. 10:1-4; cf Ex. 16:13-20). So children partook of this Old Covenant sacrament which is what Calvin and every other noted theologian considers it. Additionally, women and children were welcome at the pilgrim feasts in Jerusalem (Dt. 16, Ex. 23, Lev. 23) though not required to be there. For Venema, these prove too much or too little. If we take the manna in the wilderness, available to all, as evidence that God would welcome little ones to the bread that Jesus, the true manna, gives us, then what are we to make of the idea that “even strangers to the covenant community as well as animals were nourished by the food and drink that the Lord miraculously supplies for the Iraelites’ daily sustenance”! Suppose God gives bread to children. If some bread crumbs fall off the table and mice eat it, should we then invite rodents to the Lord’s table? Have you even seen Ratatouille and how disgusting rats are in the kitchen? As unassailable as this argument appears, it ought to be noticed how special this pleading is. Strangers in the wilderness? Lots of people joining the covenant people for aimless wandering. The fact that some manna might be enjoyed by a critter or two (not that were told either way) has no bearing on God’s gracious provision of the sacrament to children.

Venema also notes that certain meals were only for priests in the sanctuary (Lev. 2:3, 10), or for priests and their wives and children at home (Lev. 10:14ff; 22:11-13). But what does this prove? A priestly distinction. The only point related to children is the fact that when families ate, they were included.

In order to get some distance from these clear inclusions of children in Old Covenant meals, Venema needs to pit the Testaments against one another, or at least raise the New above: “The first principle is that the ultimate norm for the practice of the church must be the New Testament description of the administration of the new covenant.” Really? No, the “ultimate norm” is not the NT, but the entire Bible, especially in light of the constant New Testament citations of the Old to establish practices. These books were in perfect harmony. It’s bizarre to hear a Reformed theologian talk like this since the Reformed confessions refute pitting the New verses the Old for ultimate norms. But he has to do this because an entire biblical posture toward children–recognizing their capacity for credible faith–has to be ignored in favor of an imposed concept of exclusion.

Venema claims that if we interpret the welcoming of families to partake of the Passover meal as indicative of their invitation to communion, “one would expect the Old Testament provisions for the Passover to require the participation of all members of the covenant people.” But surely one of the reasons that women and children were not required in Jerusalem three times a year was because of God’s mercy. Such journeys were often long, tiresome, fraught with all the difficulties of ancient travel, and expensive. This is a minor point but reveals a larger difference. God is gracious and so are his requirements and his invitations. The question and answer format of the observance of Passover when the children were supposed to ask “What do you mean by this service?” (Ex. 12:26-27) is undeniable proof that children were welcomed to it. How old does one have to be to ask the questions? I almost wrote “answer”, but the parents were supposed to give the answers. Clearly, a young child would be asking these questions and receiving answers and food from his father.

One more thing and then I’ll let this chapter rest. Venema notes the Passover meal included roast lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter erbs. “While newly weaned infants and younger children might possibly have been able to eat the unleavened bread, it is implausible that they could have digested the roast lamb and particularly the bitter herbs.” We also know that wine became an important part of the rite which Jesus referred to as a cup of blessing. “Since wine is an intoxicant and is not suited to consumption by infants and very young children, it hardly seems that they would have been permitted to consume it at the Passover meal.” Blue laws for Israel’s babies! Now this is good timing since yesterday was Easter and I barbecued a lamb (maybe I can post a picture later–it was beautiful), and both my toddler and young child loved it. Roast lamb: four small thumbs up. And as for wine, although it might come as a shock to those living in the wake of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, children love the stuff. True, one doesn’t give them too much. But then again, one doesn’t refer to it as an intoxicant either. An intoxicant-heart-gladdener? Not quite the biblical moniker. The fact that Venema has to, without a shred of evidence, manufacture arguments about the digestibility of Passover for young children tells you there is something more than textual analysis going on.

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