This is a summary of an article by Roger T. Beckwith in Westminster Theological Journal.
This is an issue which has been widely discussed in recent years. The WCC Faith & Order Commission of 1971 supported the admission of baptised infants or children to the Lord’s Supper.
The practice rests on the following assumptions:-
1. that, like infant baptism, infant communion is early attested in church history;
2, that, if baptism is a ceremony suitable for children, then so is communion;
3. that, if the solidarity of the household entitles the child to receive baptism, it also entitles him to receive communion;
4. that, if infants can be admitted to the church and kingdom of God through baptism, they are as entitled as any other member of the church and kingdom of God to receive communion;
5. that, if the OT antecedent of baptism (circumcision) was given to infants, so was the OT antecedent of the Lord’s Supper (the Passover meal);
6. that, if the NT requirement of repentance and faith in connection with baptism can be deferred, so can the NT requirement of ‘discernment’ and ‘remembering’ in connection with the Lord’s supper.
According to Beckwith, the first two of these are ‘certainly wrong’; the next three are ‘dubious’; only the last can be ‘conditionally admitted’. However, the last point depends on the validity of the others.
1. The first references to infant baptism are in the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Origen (about 180 AD and following). There is no reference to infant communion in the writings of these individuals, nor in those of Tertullian or Clement of Alexandria. Indeed, Origen specifically states that communion was not given to children. The first positive reference is in Cyprian (about 251). Therefore, it is unlikely that infant communion dates back to apostolic times, but probable that it is a later development.
2. If the argument is that baptised infants may receive communion from a very early age, then this raises problems about how the wine and bread (possibly unleavened bread) would actually be consumed by those who had not yet been weaned; – and weaning did not take place until the age of about three in NT times. ‘Wine, being an intoxicant, is a drink which needs to be treated with discretion, as the Bible emphasises…Discretion, however, is precisely what infants and children lack.’
3. Membership of a household does not abolish all distinctions of age. The suitability of baptism for infants does not prove the suitability of communion. There is a process of teaching and of nurture (Rom 5:1; 2 Tim 3:15), and only after repentance and faith is it right for the child to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. The best age for such admission may well be the age of discretion, which is likely to be some time during the teenage years, and the church may well ask for some verbal and public declaration of personal faith. The Lord’s use of wine as one of the sacramental elements supports this.
4. Does membership of the visible church imply a right to receive the Lord’s Supper? Yes, but only when the individual has reached the stage (and, to an extent, therefore the age) at which a credible profession of faith can be made.
In the NT, baptism itself is closely linked with repentance and faith (Acts 2:38; 19:4f; Gal 3:26f; Col 2:12f). It is also linked with the ministry of the word (Eph 5:26), for it is through the ministry of the word that faith is invoked (Jn 17:20; Rom 10:17; Eph 1:13). NT practice was to baptise immediately upon a profession of faith (Acts 2:41; 8:12,16,36; 9:18; 10:47f; 16:33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16). Infant baptism does not dispense with faith or repentance, but looks forward to it. Their baptism, therefore can be said to be completed when they do believe and repent. It is doubtful whether individuals should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper before their baptism has thus been completed.
5. The Lord’s Supper was instituted within the context of the passover. Indeed, Mark (14:12-26) appears to assert that the last supper was the actual passover meal. But the passover was a pilgrim meal, and only males who had reached a certain age were expected to attend (Ex 23:17; 34:23; Deut 16:16).
Roger T. Beckwith, “Age of admission to the Lord’s Supper,” Westminster Theological Journal 38.2 (Winter 1976): 123-151.