Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 20, April 1992
Copyright (c) 1992 by Biblical Horizons
(Editor’s Note: This essay is an abridged version of Rev. Leithart’s extended and comprehensive critique of Leonard J. Coppes’s book, Daddy, May I Take Communion? The full 56-page critique can be obtained for $7.00 from Biblical Horizons , Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588.)
Since the early 1980s, several of the conservative Reformed Churches have debated and wrestled with the issue of paedocommunion (infant communion). The PCA and the OPC assigned study committees to examine the question, both of which produced useful reports both in support of and against the position. Though the debate seems to have subsided in recent years, there are signs that it continues to percolate in the Reformed Churches. Rev. Steve Wilkins, pastor of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Monroe, Louisiana, for example, has recently produced a widely-distributed tape series giving a strong defense of paedocommunion, and in 1988, Dr. Leonard Coppes published his book Daddy, May I Take Communion?, endorsed by Rev. Joseph C. Morecraft as "the first serious response to the `paedocommunion challenge.’" (Rev. Wilkins’s four-tape series can be obtained from Covenant Productions, c/o Erik Stoer, 26 Kathy Lane, Freeport, FL 32439 for $10.00.)
Though one hesitates to raise what has been a divisive issue, it is not an issue that can be ignored. Belief in paedocommunion is not, to be sure, in any sense a test of orthodoxy. But its significance for the system of Reformed doctrine is vast. It is plausible to argue that many of the tensions that have arisen in Reformed theology are crystallized by, if they do not actually arise from, the traditional antipaedocommunion position. I do not believe that paedocommunion implies any discarding of the foundational doctrines of the Reformed faith, but it does certainly imply a recasting and refinement, a further reformation of Reformed theology.
The paedocommunion debate raises questions not only concerning the character of the sacraments and the relationship of the two sacraments, but also touches on such major areas of theology as the doctrine of the Church, the meaning of the covenant, the relationship of the covenant to eternal election, the doctrines of perseverance and assurance, the relationship of faith and the sacraments, the relationship of faith and understanding, the relationship of faith and works, and other questions of great theological significance. Hermeneutical questions, including the meta-issue of relating the OT and NT, are also implicated. For these reasons, in the PCA, where many have a less than Scriptural view of baptism, paedocommunion is rightly seen as a profound challenge to the prevailing thought and practice. If true, paedocommunion requires the contemporary Reformed churches to undergo a far-reaching theological repentance.
Practically, the stakes are, if anything, even greater. Advocates of paedocommunion claim that their opponents are dishonoring Christ’s invitation to let the little children come to Him to dine at His table. Opponents of paedocommunion claim that the table of the Lord is defiled by the admission of "undiscerning" children and infants. Whoever is right, Christ is displeased with a portion of His Church.
In the following, I hope to advance the debate by considering the main arguments of Coppes’s book. For readers interested in a more thorough examination of Coppes’s positions and arguments, I have written a longer, chapter-by-chapter review of Coppes’s book, which is also available from Biblical Horizons .
At the outset, a few of stylistic comments are in order. Coppes’s book is extremely difficult to read. It is highly repetitive, uses vague and sometimes obscure language, and includes more than its share of incoherent or fallacious arguments and outright false claims. Coppes’s argument includes many twists and turns. Debatable assertions are sometimes qualified dozens of pages later, and the qualifications undermine the original assertions. Coppes has done some good work in the past, particularly in his contributions to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. This book is far from his best effort.
Let us examine a few of the recurring problems in Coppes’s book. First, Coppes tends to employ a rigid, nominalistic hermeneutical and theological method in which things and concepts are sharply distinguished from one another. Thus, for example, he claims that each of the meals and sacrifices of the OT depicted a particular "aspect" of redemption. If this is taken to mean that each particular meal highlighted one aspect or another of the work of Christ, it is unobjectionable. But for Coppes it evidently means something different. It means, quite literally, that each OT sacrifice and meal signified and sealed one and only one part of redemption.
Thus, for example, Coppes argues (pp. 81ff.) that the Passover was "propitiatory," but did not depict a vicarious substitutionary sacrifice. God was turned from His wrath by the slaughter of the Passover lamb and the presentation of its blood, but "there is nothing in the explanation of the rite to say that the lamb was the vicarious substitutionary sacrifice or atonement for the sins of the people" (p. 82). Again, he suggests that the Passover signified propitiation (the satisfaction of God’s wrath) but not expiation (the removal of sin, p. 113). He hedges his statements by admitting that the Passover was "generally expiatory," but not "immediately expiatory." Yet, he concludes that, because it lacked the element of laying on of hands, the Passover "was not, in itself, a vicarious substitutionary sacrifice" (p. 81). (For an extended discussion of the Passover, see J. H. Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin [Minneapolis, MN: Klock & Klock, (1863) 1980], pp. 355-76.)
This line of argument implies that God’s wrath can be propitiated without the removal of sin. It suggests the possibility that God’s wrath can be satisfied by something less than the death of a substitutionary victim. That, in turn, suggests that God can justify without being Just. Coppes’s response to this criticism would perhaps be that the Passover is but one OT rite among many. Redemption, he urges, was depicted in the whole of the sacrificial system, not in any single rite or sacrifice. Though the Passover did not expiate sin (at least not "immediately"), other OT sacrifices and rites did. But this answer does not meet the objection. If Coppes is correct, the Israelites who participated in the original Passover were delivered from God’s wrath without being delivered from sin.
The sacrificial system of the OT was designed to restore communion between God and man. Sin alienates man from God. God is angry with sinners so long as their sin is not removed. That sin, and therefore God’s anger, are removed by sacrifice. Coppes’s discussion leaves the impression that redemption can be achieved in part, and that communion with God can be restored in part. If Coppes is correct, we are left wondering about the status of a sinner for whom God’s wrath is propitiated, but whose sin is not covered. Does the Passover lamb suffice to restore communion with God, or does it not? If the blood of the Passover lamb did not restore communion with God, why did the people share a communion meal?
Surely, Coppes is on to something important. The important truth in his discussion is that no single OT sacrifice or meal exhaustively typified the fulfillment of that redemption in Christ. The question is how we relate the multiplicity of the OT types to the One Christ and His work of redemption. It seems to me that a more satisfying way to describe the relationship among the various meals and sacrifices is in terms of "perspectives," as that notion has been developed by John Frame and Vern Poythress. (See Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987], and Poythress, Symphonic Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988].) A perspective is a limited view of a whole. Seeing each element of the sacrificial system as a "perspective" on the coming Redeemer would mean that each sacrifice and meal and rite emphasized one particular dimension of the sacrifice of Christ, without excluding the other dimensions. Indeed, properly understood, each sacrifice and meal would imply all the others. Each depicted the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ from a particular angle. (See Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses [Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991], p. 49.) Employing a "perspectival" approach, we can avoid distinguishing the different sacrifices too sharply and implying that the sacrifices dealt with one and only one "aspect" of sin and redemption.
We run across a similar quagmire when Coppes begins to talk about the application of redemption. Again, the various "aspects" of salvation are neatly separated. He claims that each meal and rite of the OT brought the worshiper closer to God only in respect to the particular aspect of redemptive reality signified and sealed by that particular rite. Coppes is operating along the traditional Reformed lines of the ordo salutis, which has been subjected directly and indirectly to a searching critique by a long line of Reformed scholars from Geerhardus Vos and John Murray to Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., and Herman Ridderbos.
Gaffin’s work especially has laid the foundations for a thorough-going Biblical refinement of the Reformed doctrine of the application of redemption (a refinement that at the same time is a recovery of some of Calvin’s best insights). By emphasizing the centrality of union with Christ and the eschatological character of redemption, Gaffin and others have avoided sterile separations between various stages in redemption. If we are justified, it is because we are united by faith to the One who was justified by His resurrection (Rom. 4:25); if we are sons by adoption, it is because we are united to the Firstborn among many brethren; and so on. Gaffin concludes from a careful study that Paul views justification, sanctification, adoption, etc. "not as distinct acts but as distinct aspects of a single act." (Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, (1978) 1987], p. 138.) Against Coppes’s tendency to separate neatly between stages of redemption, Gaffin would raise Paul’s rhetorical question to the Corinthians, "Is Christ divided?"
Coppes also misconstrues the nature of the institutional transition from Old to New Covenant in some important respects. The NT institutions (sacraments, priesthood, etc.) do not necessarily match one-to-one with the institutions of the OT. It is far too simplistic a view of the NT to suggest, for example, that the Aaronic priesthood is analogous to the New Covenant eldership, and the duties of the Levites exactly correspond to the duties of deacons. The entire OT is fulfilled in Christ, and transformed by His death and resurrection. In theory, Coppes agrees with this. In practice, however, his entire book constitutes a search for a single OT rite that exactly corresponds to the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, Coppes is consistently offering arguments that prove more than he wishes to prove. He argues from Ezekiel 44:5-9, for example, that only people who are circumcised in the heart (that is, who have made a profession of faith) are to be admitted to the Table. But that passage is about restricting access to the sanctuary, not the table per se; the NT sanctuary is the Church. Taken in Coppes’s terms, Ezekiel 44 really proves that only those who have made a profession of faith should be admitted to the Church. Thus, his arguments against paedocommunion continually tend to undermine his own paedobaptist convictions.
The basic assumption of Coppes’s book is that the nature of the Lord’s Supper (what it means) determines the design (who should be admitted). He argues that we can make no simple identification of the Lord’s Supper with the Passover; the nature of the two meals is different. This assertion assumes the notion of "aspects" discussed above. The Passover depicted only one aspect of redemption, while the Supper signifies and seals the whole.
Thus, the fact that children were admitted to the Passover does not prove that they should be admitted to the Supper; we cannot determine the design of the Supper from the design of the Passover. Coppes’s argument also implies that no other single OT meal was the consummate antecedent of the Supper. He is also at pains to point out that there were many different meals in the OT, with varying terms of admission.
If no single OT meal determines the design of the Supper, how do we decide whether or not children should be admitted to the Supper? Several lines of thought suggest themselves. First, one could argue that, since no OT feast corresponds exactly with the Supper, we need to decide the question of admission on the basis of more general theological principles, such as the nature of the covenant, the nature of the Church, the nature of baptism, etc. Alternatively, one could look for a general pattern in the OT feasts that could be applied to the Supper. If we discover that all the OT feasts admitted children, then we could conclude that the NT feast should admit children as well. Neither of these lines of argument assumes a simplistic identification of the Supper with Passover or with any other single OT meal.
Coppes, unfortunately, rejects both of these alternatives. Instead, having dismissed the "simplistic" paedocommunion appeal to the Passover, he simplistically identifies the Supper with a different OT rite. Though he never states it in precisely this way, Coppes’s full argument is as follows:
1. The Great Atonement is the heart of the OT sacrificial system;
2. The Lord’s Supper fulfills the entire OT sacrificial system;
3. Since the Atonement is the heart of the sacrificial system, the Supper particularly fulfills the Great Atonement;
4. The rites that "attach" the sacrifices to the Great Atonement are the laying on of hands and approaching the altar;
5. Participation in the Supper thus particularly fulfills the approach to the altar and the laying on of hands;
6. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper should admit only those participants who could approach the altar in the OT (the design of the Supper is determined by its nature);
7. Since only potential federal heads who had made a profession of faith could approach the altar, only federal heads should receive the Supper;
8. Though in the OT, women were not allowed to approach the altar, in the NT women can receive the Supper.
Several criticisms of this argument are in order. First, it seems odd at first that Coppes would choose a fast day (the Day of Atonement) to determine the admissions requirements to the NT feast, or why he would use the rite of "laying on of hands" to determine admission requirements to a meal. The reason becomes clearer on consideration. In the OT, there were two basic kinds of meals: 1) meals in which leaders or priests alone participated and 2) meals in which the whole people of Israel participated. The first type of meal was bound up with the temporary OT holiness boundaries, which have been removed in Christ. To prove from the OT that children should be barred from the Lord’s Table, Coppes has to offer an example of an OT meal that meets two requirements: 1) all the lay Israelites were invited, but 2) their children were excluded.
Coppes never provides any example of such a meal, because the OT knows nothing of such a meal. When lay adults were invited to feasts, their children were invited to eat and drink with them. This was true of the Passover (Ex. 12:3-4), the peace offering (Lev. 7:15-21), the other annual feasts of Israel (Dt. 14:22-29; 16:9-14), and the wilderness meals (1 Cor. 10:1-4). Coppes knows he cannot provide a single example of a common meal that excluded children, so he continually shifts attention from the OT meals to other OT rites. He assumes that the Supper excludes children. To show how this is consistent with the OT types, he must find an OT rite that included lay adults, but excluded children. The rite of "laying on of hands" meets those requirements.
Second, Coppes shifts ground several times in the book. His stated assumption is that the Supper fulfills the entire OT sacrificial system, and therefore no OT rite had precisely the same nature as the Supper. Yet, Coppes also suggests a single OT rite–the laying on of hands–was the main OT antecedent of the Supper. If it is simplistic to identify the Supper solely with the Passover, it is equally simplistic to identify the Supper solely with the "laying on of hands." Similarly, he often says that the Sinai meal of Exodus 24 was the most direct antecedent of the Supper. But there is no reason to say that the Supper fulfills the Sinai meal more directly than it fulfills any other meal.
Third, Coppes confuses the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ with the continual celebration and application of that sacrifice in the Supper. The NT nowhere compares the Supper to the Great Atonement. Instead, the NT compares Christ’s death to the Great Atonement (Heb. 8-10). The Great Atonement is over and done; we now celebrate the release achieved by the Cross. The Supper is the NT Feast of Booths, the feast that followed the Great Atonement.
Fourth, Coppes’s argument is based on the premise that admission to the OT sacrificial rites became more restrictive the nearer one got to the altar. The meals of the wilderness, Coppes claims, were virtually unrestricted; the feasts of Tabernacles and Pentecost were somewhat more restrictive; the Passover, which required circumcision, was more restrictive still; and the rite of "laying on of hands" is the most restrictive rite of the OT system, since it involves a near approach to the altar.
It is true that there were various meals, with varying terms of admission. Yet, Coppes seriously misrepresents the Biblical data. The most glaring error is his treatment of the status of "sojourners" in ancient Israel. He argues that in general sojourners were not circumcised and not admitted to the altar (pp. 96-97). At the same time, he admits that circumcised strangers could bring votive, freewill, and burnt offerings (citing Lev. 22:18). Uncircumcised sojourners could offer sacrifice only through the priesthood, but could not approach the altar. Coppes summarizes the condition of the uncircumcised stranger as follows:
In fact, however, circumcision was not a prerequisite for approaching the altar. The uncircumcised sojourner was to follow the same procedures as the Israelite in making his offering (cf. Nu. 15:14-15). (Jacob Milgrom, Numbers [Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990], pp. 398-402. Milgrom writes, "the ger [stranger] may participate in the voluntary sacrificial cult if he follows its prescriptions [Num. 15:15-16; Lev. 22:17ff.]" [p. 399].) Thus, the uncircumcised sojourner was able to get as close to the altar as any Israelite! The sojourner was able to lay his hands on the head of the sacrificial animal, in accord with the instructions of Leviticus 1-5. The sojourner was allowed to slaughter sacrificial animals. In other words, an uncircumcised sojourner could participate in those ritual acts that Coppes claims are the most restrictive acts of the OT sacrificial system, the acts that are most directly associated with the Great Atonement.
This error in Coppes’s argument undermines his entire thesis. He claims, rightly, that there were degrees of holiness in the OT system. Some meals and rites were restricted to priests, some to circumcised Israelites, some open to sojourners. But Coppes turns the OT hierarchy of holiness on its head. He claims that approaching the altar and laying hands on the head of the animal required a higher level of holiness than did participation in the Passover meal. Yet, any uncircumcised sojourner could approach the altar, but only the circumcised could eat the Passover meal. A chart will help summarize the contrast between Coppes’s position and that of the Bible:
The bottom line here is very significant. Coppes admits that children were admitted to the Passover in the OT. Yet, contrary to his conclusions, Passover required a higher degree of holiness than approaching the altar to offer sacrifice. If Coppes’s scheme were accurate, children should have been excluded from Passover (since it required circumcision), and admitted to the altar (since it did not require circumcision). But Coppes’s scheme is at this point precisely the opposite of the Biblical scheme. Coppes’s argument is based on his premise that approaching the altar required a high degree of ritual holiness. But that premise is simply wrong.
Coppes’s book has certain things in its favor. He challenges any simplistic effort to base paedocommunion solely on the example of Passover, and his emphasis on the reality of Christ’s presence in the Supper is welcome. His most central arguments against paedocommunion, however, are frequently fallacious and based on false assumptions. Though I can hardly claim to have offered a definitive defense of paedocommunion here, I hope that I have shown clearly some of the problems with Coppes’s rather idiosyncratic defense of the traditional position, and shown the plausibility of the paedocommunion position.