This is the second in a five-part series titled A Covenantal Defense of Credobaptism. It is a lightly-edited version of a paper I submitted for the Westminster seminary course Doctrine of the Church.
Who Participated in the Passover Meal?
Who Participates in the Lord’s Table?
Who Participated in Circumcision?
Who Participates in Baptism?
I encourage you to read the introductory post again as I made an error in the statement of the Presbyterian position. This error does not affect the substance of the post but I do not want to present an inaccurate view.
Children Participated in the Passover Celebration
In examining the manner in which the sacraments transition from Old to New covenants we will first examine the movement of Passover to Lord’s Table. The paedobaptist position relies on the assumption that unregenerate children did not participate in the Passover. Covenant theologians deal with the question of the participants of the Passover meal in several way:
First, Hodge leaves the question untreated in his systematic theology. Second, in perhaps the majority stance, some assert that children did not participate in the Passover. Turretin states, “[circumcision] was administered to infants and [the Passover] to adults alone.”1 As we will see this bald assertion will not stand.
Second, Calvin argues, “The passover, for which the Supper is substituted, did not admit all kinds of guests promiscuously, but was duly eaten only by those who were of an age sufficient to ask the meaning of it (Exod. 12:26).”2 Even so, this argument is not “so very clear and obvious” as Calvin would like. Even if granted in its entirety, Calvin’s position, by his own admission, requires the participation of children who explicitly do not know the content of their faith’s most central celebration. Nowhere in the text is the Passover restricted to older children. Rather, the natural reading of the passage in its Hebrew context would put in view a picture where year by year children aged into understanding the Passover tradition observed by the whole family.
Third, perhaps the best supporter of Calvin’s position argues, “It is not at all clear that children participated in the Passover meal… For example, Exodus 12:26 tells us that the children would ask their parents, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ If they had participated, it would make more sense to say, ‘What do we mean?'”3 The Greek tradition helps interpret this verse in concert with the familial setting already in view in the surrounding context. It omits any second person reference: “Τίς ἡ λατρία αὕτη” and could very likely be translated, “What does this festival mean?”.4 The Hebrew translation, “What is the meaning of this ritual,”5 which eliminates the distancing language of the second person, is preferred. Even if granted in its entirety, however, this does not require that children did not participate. Rather, it means that children asked the head of the household what he was doing as he led the family through the Passover remembrance. Even if we give it the most generous reading, the most this argument can say is that this particular passage is indeterminate on the question of children physically participating in the Passover.
Fourth, Bavinck argues that the later celebration in Exodus 23:17, excluding children, should govern our interpretation of the inaugural Passover.6 This interpretation is not only a backwards reading of the text but, by that logic, adult women would also be excluded from the Lord’s Table as they too did not celebrate the Passover. The later movement to solely men celebrating the Passover should not be viewed as fencing away children. Rather, “the heads of families (all the men) would stand to worship,” as representatives of the whole family.7
The continuity of participants is of particular importance to this discussion. The weight of biblical evidence suggests that, even though children are not to partake of the Lord’s Table, they did participate in the Passover meal. The lamb was for the entire household (Ex 12:4) and the children who did not yet understand their faith were involved in the celebration (Ex 12:26).
Even Without the Meal Children Were Participants in The Passover
More importantly, even if these criticisms of infant participation in the Passover meal are correct, they uniformly miss a critical fact: Even if children didn’t physically consume the meal itself they were certainly beneficiaries of the realized redemption symbolized and were therefore participants in the sacrament’s substance. While obviously not in every case, there is no question that, in many Hebrew families, the sparing of the firstborn had in view a child too young to trust Yahweh. Even if they did not physically eat the meal they were participants in the event since they were the objects of God’s realized redemptive action.
- There is no compelling reason to believe children too young for faith were excluded from participation in the Passover meal. In fact, there is good reason to believe they did partake in the celebration.
- Even more, they absolutely received the actual redemption symbolized by the meal and were therefore participants in the essence of the sacrament.
- Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol 3 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), 416.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 4:16:30.
- “Theses on Paedocommunion: A Defense of the Historic Reformed Position.” New Southern Presbyterian Review 2005, Vol. 3 (2), 57.
- Noel D. Osborn and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1999), 289.
- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, Kentucky: The Westminster Press, 1974), 200.
- Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 583.
- Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 537.