17 August 2007

Catechesis, Confession, and Admittance to the Holy Communion

I met with a bright little six-year-old girl this morning, for an hour or two, concerning the chief parts of the Christian faith and life, the Law and the Gospel, and in particular the Sacrament of the Altar. It was a great conversation. We talked about the Ten Commandments and sin, the need for the forgiveness of sins above all else, the love of God in Christ, the way He got forgiveness for her by His death upon the Cross, and the way He gives that forgiveness to her with His Word in the various means of grace. We talked about her Holy Baptism and what that means for her, and what it is that Jesus gives to her in the Holy Communion. We talked about who Jesus is, that He is true God and He became true Man (because He was born of the Virgin Mary), and that His Word is true and does what He says. The bread and wine are His body and blood because He says so. We eat and drink them, in faith, because He says so. With these gifts of Jesus Himself, we receive His forgiveness of all our sins, because He says so. My young catechumen did not doubt or question any of this, because she knows and trusts Jesus, and His Word is sure and certain and sufficient for her: "Take, eat, this is My Body; drink of it, all of you, this cup is the New Testament in My Blood; it is for you, for the forgiveness of sins." Amen.

Where this six-year-old had questions, she asked. If she was confused or uncertain about any of the things we talked about, she told me so, and we clarified things together by considering the Word of Jesus. She's still learning lots of things about life, but she already knows and believes that Jesus loves her and forgives her, and that He would never lie to her, nor trick her, nor deceive her. She is exactly right about all of this. Her faith and her confession are simple and straightforward, and they are all the stronger and steadier for it. She told me the Commandments, understanding them to be the Word of God. She confessed the Creed and prayed the Our Father. She remembered and rejoiced in her Baptism, explaining that it is the Word of God that makes that water special, and grinning ear-to-ear at all that it means for her. She knows and confesses what the Sacrament of the Altar is, what it is for, and what it does.

This dear little catechumen will be admitted to that Sacrament of the Altar for the first time in a few short weeks. She hasn't memorized the entire Catechism, yet, but I know it is only a matter of time. She has been baptized, she is being catechized (as she has been and will continue to be), and she confesses beautifully (to the extent that her present capacity and maturity enable) the same Christian faith of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. I do not have any doubts about her readiness or worthiness for the Holy Communion; my visit with her this morning confirmed that, even as it also contributed to her ongoing catechesis. Nevertheless, her First Communion will be a significant milestone in my pastoral practice.

Admitting a six-year-old to the Holy Communion is not so remarkable in itself. I have had other communicants of this same age; but, then again, I have not regarded age or grade-level to be the standard or criterion for admission to the Sacrament. I have long held, and still maintain, that admission is based upon the catechesis of the Word in the Christian faith and life. By catechesis what I mean is the divine work of the Law and the Gospel, whereby the Lord God puts the sinner to death and raises him (or her) to new life through the forgiveness of sins. It is a divine work that precedes, coincides with, and follows after Holy Baptism. It is always sufficient, but never complete. It is sufficient because it is God's work. It is never complete, because it is the way and means by which we live with Him, both now and forever.

The theology and practice of the Lord's Supper is given to us in the Institution Narratives of the Holy Gospels. All of Holy Scripture informs our understanding of those narratives, which in turn inform our understanding of the Holy Scriptures in their entirety. But all of the essential questions concerning the Sacrament are answered there in the institution of Christ Himself. It is the use of those Words in the Divine Service, according to His divine command, that give the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink. It is those same Words that teach us what the Sacrament is, what it is for, and how it is to be administered and received. Jesus gives His body and blood to His disciples; and His disciples are those who are baptized in His Name and catechized in His teaching, which is not a static but living and active Word, a daily and lifelong instruction (and return to Holy Baptism).

In the past, I have always required a memorization of the basic six chief parts of the Catechism prior to First Communion. In this I have included all of the primary texts, as well as many of Dr. Luther's simple explanations. I have not understood this "memory work" to be a function of worthiness for the Sacrament; for that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in these words: "Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins." But the fact of the matter is that I have proceeded as though memorization were the criterion of discipleship. Over the past year, I have come to think about this differently, and it is at this point that my practice is changing. Not that I am giving up on memory work as an important part of ongoing catechesis! God forbid! But I understand this memorization to be in service and support of the catechesis that is wrought entirely by the Word and Spirit of God. In other words, it is my aim to treat the active process of catechesis itself as the criterion for First Communion, rather than the cognitive consequence of "memory work."

Here has been my dilemma, as I have been thinking through these things, repeatedly, especially over the past year or two. On the one hand, there are children who are brought to church faithfully and catechized daily in the home; their entire life is immersed in this context of the Word of God and prayer, in which they are always being taught by what they are constantly receiving and experiencing, as well as by the example of their Christian parents (and older siblings). On the other hand, there are children who are brought to the church for Holy Baptism, but only rarely or intermittently exposed to the Word of God beforehand or afterwards; they are "catechized," not so much by the Word of God in the life of the Church, but by the secular culture of the world, exemplified by the preoccupations and priorities of their families. I'm making these comparisons in the extreme in order to illustrate the point. It sometimes happens that the children on the one hand, for whatever reason, are slower in memorizing the Catechism, while the children on the other hand may be able to learn it by rote and repeat it rather quickly. So, the question arises, which of these children are more thoroughly catechized and more readily prepared to receive the body and blood of Christ in repentant faith and with thanksgiving? I'm not suggesting or implying that any of them should ultimately be denied the Sacrament, but it is this very sort of scenario that has emphatically raised the question for me, as to how preparedness for the Holy Communion ought to be determined.

It is quite clear to me that the Catechism is a most beautiful and precious summary of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, which powerfully serves the catechetical process and continues to support the Christian faith and life, even unto death. Likewise, the memorization of the Catechism serves catechesis, faith and life, by all the more firmly implanting the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ in the heart and mind of the Christian. The value of these things can hardly be overstated. Yet, the same Law and Gospel can be stated differently, even more simply and straightforwardly, as also at far greater length and with ever-increasing nuance. And memorization, as meet, right and salutary as it is, cannot be equated with the repentance and faith which the Word and Spirit of God effect in the heart of the Christian. The Catechism's summary of the Word, and the cognitive memorization of the Word, rather support the actual catechesis of the Law and the Gospel and so help to sustain the catechumen in the Word. But there remains yet a distinction between these several things, which I believe to be decisive.

My goal is not to dumb-down the catechetical process, nor to short-change that process. In fact, I'm all in favor of a longer and more thorough-going catechetical process, one that would involve an extended number of years of pastoral instruction, as well as daily prayer and catechesis in the home and family. None of us shall ever get too much of this. But my interest is in the faithful stewardship of the Mysteries of God in Christ, including, in this case in particular, the giving of His Body and His Blood to His disciples, even His very young disciples, baptized and catechized, for the forgiveness of their sins and the nourishment of their Christian faith and life.

Those children whose entire life is immersed in a context of catechesis, both at home every day and regularly in church, are going to know the Holy Scriptures and the Small Catechism; it is only a matter of time before they do, and it will normally be far sooner than later. In the meantime, they are already the object of the Word and Spirit of God, of the Law and the Gospel, unto repentant faith in the forgiveness of all their sins. They know and love Jesus, because He is knowing and loving them with His Word (faithfully spoken by their parents and their pastors). They recognize His voice, and they follow Him, because He is their Good Shepherd, and they are the sheep of His pasture. Memorization will come with the repetition of prayer and confession, just as comprehension of the Gospel will broaden and deepen through hearing the preaching of Christ. The ability to confess the faith will increase and become more sophisticated, as these children of God grow in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man. But they already have the fullness of the faith, because they have Christ Jesus and His Word, and their life is hidden with Christ in God. They are not ill-prepared to eat and drink His Body and His Blood, because He abides in them with His Word and Holy Spirit, and they abide in Him.

Perhaps it is ironic, but it seems to me that those children who are not so immersed in the faith and life of the Church are going to need the greater structure and requirement of formal catechesis and memorization of the Catechism as a prior preparation for the Holy Communion, precisely because they are lacking the support and sustenance of daily catechesis in the home and the regular rhythm of participation in the Divine Service. These "pre-requisites," if you will, become a means of pastoral care and a kind of "church discipline," especially where parental care and responsibility and self-discipline are lacking. In any case, I am more and more convinced that admittance to the Holy Communion has to be a function of active pastoral care, including the conscientious exercise of church discipline across the board. Such pastoral care ought to mean the communing of those who are baptized and being catechized in the one true faith, whereas church discipline should not require the exclusion of those disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ from His Table.

27 comments:

Paul T. McCain said...

Pastor Stuckwisch, many thanks for your very fine thoughts on this subject. Best I've ever read on the subject. Hope you don't mind, but I posted it over on my blog site with some prefatory remarks:

http://cyberbrethren.typepad.com/cyberbrethren/

Susan said...

>>admittance to the Holy Communion has to be a function of active pastoral care<<

This means that those children whose brain-function isn't as advanced as others, those who learn more slowly, those who sometimes "hear dyslexically," will not be prevented from coming to the Table just because they can't perform the cognitive function that memory-work requires. (And you know me, Rick, I certainly have NOTHING against memory work at all!)

Fasting and bodily preparation (including being able to recite the catechism) are certainly fine outward training, but ....

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you for your kind words and encouraging remarks, Paul. Of course I don't mind that you have shared my comments with others, though I am humbled by what you have said. I am deeply grateful that my efforts are perceived in the pastoral and evangelical spirit with which they are offered.

Susan, yes, you have correctly understood a significant aspect of what I mean; and of course I know that you have nothing against memory work, either. It occurs to me that your great love for hymns, which I share (though you put me to shame in your real knowledge of hymnody), points in a slightly different way to this same consideration. For the poetry and meter, the music and rhythm of hymondy, lend a tremendous benefit to the hearing and learning, the confessing and praying, and also the memorizing of the Word of God. Children (and adults) who otherwise struggle and "stutter" (in one fashion or another) in their efforts to learn and confess the faith, are given a huge boost and benefit when the Lord opens their lips to show forth His praise with the Church's song.

Paul T. McCain said...

I'm would hope however that Mrs. Gehlbach is not suggesting we should be force-feeding the Blessed Sacrament to infants in arms, toddler and preschoolers, correct?

Paul T. McCain said...

Rick, Holger Sonntag has posted a fairly substantial response to your post at my blog site and I think you might like to read it and consider a response. Holger is a thoughtful individual and has several legitimate concerns in mind when he responds to your post. I've responded to him briefly, but I thought you might like to know about it. It might be a good opportunity for some helpful conversation among brethren.

Lutheran Woman said...

Question:

When parents bring their infant children to the waters of baptism, the parents reply in faith for the child as they are put over the child by God in faith.

What is the argument that this does not apply for the Lord's Supper as well?

Dr. Dan Czaplewski said...

Pastor Stuckwisch offers a deeply pastoral rationale for "early communion." As Pastors help leaders in their churches to adopt appropriate practices in this area, the question arises: "how young is too young?" Does anyone have any thoughts?

Moria said...

It seems that Pr Stuckwisch is trying to get past the question of age to the question of faith, confession, and pastoral care. Wherever these three exist, regardless of age, there may be admission to the supper.

Paul T. McCain said...

Lutheran Woman...the logical extension of your apparent argument for giving the sacrament to infants is that we should hand the Sacrament to all persons who present themselves at the altar and confess what the NT says they must be able to examine and confess for themselves.

The major mistake made by advocates of infant communion is lumping all the means of grace into one generic category and from that then reaching conclusions.

Lutheran Woman said...

That doesn't address the question Pastor McCain. I am wondering what the argument is against a parents authority for answering for the child in one sacrament yet not another.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments and questions, and in general for the interest in this topic. Rather than trying to reply to everything in this fashion, I think that I shall have to plan on some future blog posts addressing such things as confirmation, closed communion, church discipline, etc.

For the time being, let me respond to the matter of "infant communion." I've always had, and still do have, both reservations about the practice of communing baptized infants and an interest in the topic. I have not advocated the introduction of the practice, nor is it my practice (as I should think would already be obvious from what I've posted), for a couple of primary reasons: It is without precedent within the history of the Lutheran Church, and I have not been convinced that it would be the most faithful and salutary pastoral practice. I'm not afraid of the discussion, however, and would be happy to see it vigorously debated on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, the example of the historic Church catholic, our Lutheran confession of the Sacrament and its administration, and sound theological consideration in our own day. It has a considerably earlier, far longer, and much broader pedigree than the typical LCMS practice of recent generations (that is, admission to the Sacrament after eighth-grade confirmation).

All of that being said, my comments concerning catechesis, confession and admission to the Holy Communion are not aimed at any particular age, young or old, but at the process and criteria by which disciples of the Lord Jesus are admitted to His Supper. So, I'm simply not advocating for or against "infant communion," and I pretty deliberately avoided that topic altogether in what I wrote.

The Scriptural and Confessional criteria for admitting someone to the Lord's Supper is one of catechesis and confession. I haven't changed my mind on that, nor do I regard it as my prerogative to change my mond on that, as I believe it to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. What I have adjusted in my thinking and practice is whether this catechesis and confession must include the memorization and recitation of the Small Catechism verbatim prior to being admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar. I don't believe that it does. The particular scenario I have described is a family context in which a child is immersed in ongoing catchesis, both at home and at church. I'm asserting that such a catechetical context is at least as significant and supportive of repentant faith as the memorization of the Catechism in a course of formal catechesis classes. Such situations also include an established relationship of pastoral care for the entire family, parents and children.

The historic Lutheran precedent, so far as I have ever been able to discover or discern, is that little children were catechized in the basic chief parts at home, then brought to the pastor to be examined and admitted to the Lord's Supper. This typically happened at seven or eight years of age, but it was the catechesis and confession, not the age, that was determinative. I have never deviated from this protocol. What I am doing, at this point, is simply adjusting the measure of my pastoral examination and care.

Paul T. McCain said...

Lutheran Woman, the difference is that Holy Baptism is what Holy Baptism is and the Lord's Supper is what the Lord's Supper is.

Each gives it gifts in different ways and for different purposes and benefits.

They are not identical in how they are given or received.

Pastor Andrew Green said...

Lutheran Woman asks a valid question that, in my opinion, has not yet been answered. I agree with the point that is being made throughout this discussion that completion of a confirmation course and/or a set amount of memory work cannot and should not be used as the requirement for admittance to the Table. To do so makes participation in the Supper a reward for the confirmad. In other words, it is something that he/she has earned the right to do.

However, arguing that infants cannot commune because they cannot sufficiently confess, or to use the language of Scripture, examine themselves, is in essense doing the same thing. So being confirmed or reciting memory work is no longer the requirement but making a sufficient confession of faith is. What’s the difference? Both approaches essentially require a work of human hands and mind in order to gain access to the Table.

We teach, believe, and confess that all of salvation from beginning to end is the work of God. God is the One who converts, who justifies and who sanctifies. As we confess n the Third Article of the Creed, it is the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers and enlightens. It is His work that establishes and sustains faith, a work that is begun at infancy through Holy Baptism. Therefore, it is His work that allows/causes all communicants to examine themselves before coming to the Table asking those questions that are in the Catechism (question 303) : Are we sorry for our sins, do we believe in our Savior and in His Words of the Sacrament, and do we plan, with the help of the Holy Spirit to change our sinful lives.

We have been stuck in this paradigm of making our children earn the right to come to the Lord’s Supper that any discussion of removing the requirements “spooks” people about communing our children earlier, much less at infancy. But, the inability to examine oneself is not the point to begin discussing infant communion. Thus, to answer Lutheran Woman’s question, if the LC-MS parent who brought his/her infant to the waters of Holy Baptism, speaking the faith on behalf of the child, also brings that child to the Table, there should be no concern about communing that child. There is no question of open communion allowing just anybody to come to the Table as the child is being brought in the arms of a communicant member of the church, a child that is presumably going to be instructed in ongoing catechesis if the parent and God-parents honor the vows taken at the Baptism.

With that said, however, it is best to defer to AC XV which teaches that all rites and ceremonies be performed under the parameters of tranquility and good order. Communing infants raises too many practical questions and will cause too much discord to make the practice “profitable for tranquility and good order.” If our synod was more unified in practice and existed in an atmosphere of fraternal discussion, maybe that could happen. But, for the lack of that, this practice should not be instutited.

Everytime that I discuss this issue I am a bit more saddened that we are withholding our children from the Table because of practical concerns more than theological concerns.

Paul T. McCain said...

Pastor Green, your case would be much stronger if we did not in fact have a clear teaching from the Lord's Apostle on the necessity of examining oneself before receiving the Sacrament.

I believe you are making the same mistake I see many making who advocate for infant communion: treating the means of grace as simply the same thing and so necessarily the same thing that all must receive.

I believe Pastor Stuckwisch has a well taken position that is mindful of Apostolic Scripture.

Advocating for the forced feeding of the sacrament to infants in arms and toddlers contradicts the Apostolic Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.

Lutheran Woman said...

That was quite profound Pastor Green. I was recently confronted with this argument and had no idea how to counter it because in essence, I lacked the time to study further and could not in my own mind make a defense.

As for the argument that the sacraments are not the same: The only thing I can think of that makes them different is that one is beneficial for salvation while the other one assumes you already have saving faith. One cannot be Baptized to their harm, yet one can partake of the Lord's Supper to their harm.

Yet in both cases a parent can speak for the child saying, "I believe..." and yet for some reason we consider it invalid for the Lord's Supper and not Baptism.

I am not trying to advocate infant communion, I am just trying to understand this argument. I believe in all the doctrines of the historic Lutheran confession, but have a hard time believing that all the church fathers before us denied infant communion.

Yet with that said, I fully agree that for the sake of good order we should not commune infants. My worry if this practice did ever begin to take hold we would need exceptionally good pastoral handling of the situation. There are so many parents out there who bring their children to the waters of Baptism and do not catechize, leaving the SS teachers and pastor to do everything. Being raised this way may not be beneficial for the child who receives this Sacrament. We also have too many pastors who already mishandle this Sacrament that I would fear that infant communion would only add to the problem.

I like the fact that there are those pastors out there telling parents what is expected of them and their children. I find parents to be more active in catechizing their children when they are told what is expected of them. For this, I am truly thankful and pray that more will follow such practices in the LCMS for that practice seems to be very beneficial to the church as a whole.

I also want to say that I understand why so many pastors get upset when talking about this subject for I am sure that they genuinely care are mishandling this Sacrament. Many come to this subject with closed ears, but we still need to continue to teach praying for wisdom from the Lord.

Paul T. McCain said...

We Lutherans are bound by Sacred Scripture and by the interpretation of Sacred Scripture presented in the Lutheran Confessions.

The issue is not coming to this issue with "closed ears" but with ears open to hear and obey Sacred Scripture.

I am disappointed that those who advocate for infant communion simply want to ignore the Biblical text that clearly requires self-examination before receiving the Sacrament and a confession of the Lord's actual body and blood in the elements. This is the Apostolic word and is reiterated in our Lutheran Confessions, specifically the Large Catechism, where Luther makes it clear that we Lutherans do not give the Sacrament to those who are unable of doing these things. Elsewhere, our Confessions make it clear that we do not give the Sacrament to those who do know what it is, or why they come.

Pr. Stuckwisch's article is entirely faithful to the Bible. I can not same the same for Pr. Green or Lutheran Woman's position. By the way, it is troubling that a person discussing doctrine would not do so using their actual name and identify themselves.

It is precisely because of what God's Word teaches that we must say "no" to force-feeding the sacrament to infant and those too young to examine themselves and confess their faith as Pr. Stuckwisch describes in his article.

Tragically it is those who persist in advocating for a practice that is contrary to Scripture and our Confessions, infant communion, who make it nearly impossible to gain a hearing for the kind of thing Pastor Stuckwisch is advocating for.

That is truly sad!

Paul T. McCain said...

Rick, sadly, this comment thread illustrates the problem with *not* clearly rejecting infant communion.

It is impossible for you to take a position for earlier age of first communion and not, at the same time, rule out infant communion as contrary to the Scriptures or the Lutheran Confessions.

Unless we are willing to say a clear and definitive "no" to infant communion, it is, in my opinion, nearly impossible to say an effective "yes" to what you are calling for in your article.

Sad, but true, I'm afraid, as evidenced by this discussion.

Lutheran Woman said...

By the way, it is troubling that a person discussing doctrine would not do so using their actual name and identify themselves."
I didn't realize the internet was yours to tell others what they could and could not do. That is troubling.

Paul T. McCain said...

Madam, I was not telling you what to do, or trying to direct the Internet, I was merely making an observation. I have found that anonymity in serious theological conversations is not helpful, but harmful.

I encourage you to use your real name and therefore demonstrate that you are willing to be responsible and accountable for your comments.

It is for the best.

Respectfully,
Pastor McCain

Lutheran Woman said...

Sir, as a Christian gentleman it is not your place to tell another man's wife what she should or should not do. Names do not help nor hinder a conversation. If you have a problem with it, I suggest you take it up in prayer rather then encourage me to sin.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, may I simply urge that electronic means of communication, though surely a tremendous God-given blessing, are also susceptible to misunderstanding; which makes it all the more necessary to exercise patience with one another and put the best construction on our neighbor's actions.

As I've said, I have reservations about "infant communion," and I do not advocate the practice for a number of reasons. At the same time, I am not afraid of discussing the topic, and actually appreciate the opportunity for such discussion. I have not sensed that any of the comments here have proceeded from or with a disregard or disrespect of the Holy Scriptures, nor of our Lutheran Confessions. The words of St. Paul concerning self-examination are, as far as I am concerned, a given. However, as Dr. Luther exemplified in his occasional remarks on this topic, that apostolic admonition can be understood and applied in a variety of ways. I don't believe it is helpful to avoid discussion and debate, especially when it is engaged in good faith and the fear of the Lord. Indeed, there is a need for self-examination of our inherited practices, in order to maintain clarity and faithfulness in our stewardship of the Mysteries of God. Allowing conversation of such matters, even when they seem obvious, not only offers us the opportunity to grow in our own understanding, but also provides the opportunity to serve and support our neighbor in love.

Several good points have been made in the course of the discussion. I would like to believe that we can argue with each other in a way that is constructive and edifying, and that such debates do not have to result in consternation and frustration. I appreciate the reminder that the Lord has not given us a category of "Sacraments" in general, but has given us Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion (as well as Holy Absolution), each with its own propria. I am also grateful for the discussion of faith, that it is worked by God the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, and not by any reason or strength in man. Iron sharpens steel, and a vigorous contending with one another over the understanding of the Word of God sharpens our mutual confession.

Again, I deliberately avoided the topic of "infant communion" in my blog post, because my interest at this juncture is in the process and criteria for admission to the Holy Communion. That needs to be established first, before any sort of discussion of age or maturity can adequately be dealt with. I have taken as a given the teaching of our Lutheran Confessions, and have sought to be informed in my own pastoral practice by the historic example of the Lutheran Church. Within those parameters, "infant communion" is simply not in view. Yet, I do not assume that it is necessarily rejected or ruled out by those parameters, either. That is another discussion to be had.

Without confusing the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion, it does seem to me that Lutherans have not grappled seriously enough with their own theology and practice of "infant Baptism." There is a certain tension in this regard, not to say any contradiction, within our Lutheran Confessions. So, for example, Baptism is understood to be "necessary" but not "absolutely necessary." I'm not disagreeing with that, but only observing the inherent tension in this. There are lots of tensions or paradoxes in a theology that is ultimately shaped and defined by the Cross, and we Lutherans have not tried to resolve them with rational logic. Luther's arguments against the Anapatists included, forcibly, the premise that children can and do have faith in the Gospel, even prior to receiving Holy Baptism. Luther's baptismal rites, like the historic baptismal rites of the Church catholic, also presume that the baptismal candidate already has the trinitarian faith, both objectively and subjectively. The renunciation of Satan, all his works and all his ways, and the confession of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are in fact a kind of public self-examination. So, while it is quite true that we ought not to make easy equations between Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion, it is likewise true that we need to take seriously the significance and implications of the baptismal rite.

Part of my point has been that faith itself, as well as the confession of the faith, depends upon the catechesis of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel. It is not a function of age, grade-level, cognitive ability, human wisdom, reason or strength; although the Lord who deals with us through external means surely does use all of these things as handmaids of His Word. So also music in general and hymnody in particular. I would rather give attention to how the faith is taught and confessed, than try to discern what is going on inside of anyone's head or heart.

A couple of other thoughts that have occurred to me in the course of these discussions (as also in my own thinking over many years):

Talking about self-examination is all fine and good. But while we are insisting on a "capacity" for such examination, we ought to be at least as insistent that those who have already been admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar actually be examining themselves, which is to say, considering their place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and confessing those sins which are thereby discovered to the pastor. That is clearly the teaching of our Lutheran Confessions, and yet it has become the rare exception rather than the rule.

Also, church discipline needs to be exercised more faithfully and consistently, as a means of real pastoral care, with young and old alike. That's hard work, and not a lot of fun, but it needs to be happening across the board. It ought to be happening already in the case of all the baptized, and all the more so in the case of those admitted to the Holy Communion. That kind of discipline goes hand in hand with catechesis, confession & absolution, and First Communion.

Finally, I believe that our language concerning this topic needs to be reverent and respectful, not only for the sake of Christian love for one another, but also in faith and love toward Christ our Lord. While we may disagree passionately about various aspects of admission to the Holy Communion, it is the Body and Blood of Christ that we are discussing. Our conversation ought to confess that solid fact, as all our words bow before His.

Pastor Andrew Green said...

I do not believe that my unconditional subscription to Scripture and our Confessions made n my ordination vows is in question because I do not say absolutely “no” to infant communion. I have long been part of discussions within our synod on this issue and have heard arguments on both sides, most notably a presentation by Revs. Jonathan Cholcher and Andrew Moore while pastors in the Southern Illinois District. Both Cholcher and Moore makes a good argument from Scripture, or Confessions and the writings of the Church Fathers that our typical understanding of ‘dokimadzo’ in I Cor. 11 is mistaken and should be taken as God’s work and not that of man, a work that is wrought by the Holy Spirit. From listening to both sides of the argument, including a rebuttal presentation by other pastors of the SID, I do not say no to the practice on theological grounds. However, I do on practical grounds even going so far as restricting my conversations on this topic to venues such as this. Because of the obvious consternation of this issue, I would never discuss this even in the remotest terms with my parishioners.

I have maintained for sometime – going on a decade now – that our biggest hindrance to the issue of when to initiate communion in our children is the paradigm that we are in regarding confirmation. And, sadly, we will most likely always be stuck in this paradigm. For instance, I pastor a congregation that is associated with a large military installation. So, as to not raise any questions of anonymity, I am at Grace Lutheran, Killeen, Texas with many active duty members stationed at Ft. Hood Army Post. As such, Grace is a very transient congregation being effected by routine transfers and currently the deployments to Iraq. I have had a few families come in whose memberships were from congregations that offered first communion prior to confirmation – sometimes as early as fourth grade age. One of their first questions to me is whether or not I would honor their admittance to the Table. Through discussion with my elders, our practice is to review the teachings of the Sacrament with the child and allow him/her to commune. The reason that they ask is because at other congregations near military posts, they have been denied because the child did not fit the accustomed paradigm.

I would love to start communing earlier here at Grace because I feel that our children are under much more pressures and influences in this world than I (or any one part of this discussion) was at their age. If we believe that the Sacrament truly gives what it says, we should be giving them the spiritual tools of the faith to cope in this world. As it is, I get them in seventh grade and offer them the things of God to defend themselves against the temptations of Satan, the flesh, and the world and they say, “We’ve already learned to cope. Why do we need these things?” We have elementary children already dealing with drugs, sex and violence and who already know how to manipulate through deception, lying, and force. Yet, I am extremely hesitant about offering an earlier first communion because of my worry that some other parish will not honor the practice here at Grace. I will continue to wrestle with this with my elders through continued study and prayer.

Until we can break free from this paradigm of confirmation and until we can impress upon the parents their responsibility to catechizing their children at home as well as at church, we will be sorely hindered in our discussions of first communion at any age other than after the rite of confirmation.

Nat said...

Pr. McCain,
Whether or not Lutheran Woman prefers to use a screen name is immaterial to the debate at hand.

Lutheran Woman,
Despite this, Pr. McCain did not actually tell you to use your name, he merely encouraged you to.

I would hate to see a valid discussion be run off-track.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

For those who may be interested, the discussion of this topic (beginning with my own blog post) has continued and even intensified somewhat on Rev. Paul McCain's Cyberbrethren blog. I've offered a number of responses there, as best as I am able under time and energy constraints, to various questions and concerns that have been raised about my practice.

Paul T. McCain said...

I thought it was important for me to post this here. This is an update to my first blog post in which I expressed full agreement with your post Rick. I find I must express a disagreement with your practice, but still believe your post is a very valuable contribution to this ongoing conversation and says so much well.

Update: I learned in the conversation that has taken place in the comment section under this post that in fact Dr. Stuckwisch is not requiring children who are presented to him for first communion to have committed to memory the basic/primary texts of the Small Catechism, which are: Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord's Prayer, Confession, Lord's Supper. I would therefore moderate my support for his comments and indicate that I believe, as Dr. Sonntag makes clear in one of his posts below, that clearly our Confessions indicate that such familiarity with these texts is what our Confessions do expect and require. Therefore, I would respectfully differ with Pastor Stuckwisch on this point. I would therefore not be communing the six year old child that Dr. Stuckwisch is communing. But, otherwise, I heartily agree with his pastoral concerns regarding the age of first communion. I believe Pastor Stuckwisch has done a fine job of making the case for earlier age of first communion, but I believe we are bound together to follow the practice indicated in our Lutheran Confessions of requiring memorization of the primary texts of the Catechism [not the explanations necessarily]. I continue to believe however, in spite of this difference with Dr. Stuckwisch, that the practice of denying the Sacrament to children until after they have completed a two or three year course of instruction is not founded on Biblical or Confessional principles. In the comments that follow this post, you will read how one pastor, William Weedon, is going about these things in his parish and I would agree with his practice]

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I appreciate Rev. McCain's candor in evaluating my practice and my rationale for it. He has been gracious in this conversation, both here and on his own blog. Since I can't carry on the conversation very well in both places at once, I'm mainly going to offer my response on his blog, and those who are interested in following the discussion are invited and encouraged to do so there (at Cyberbrethren).

Some brief comment is necessary here, however, for the sake of clarity. I am surprised that Rev. McCain misunderstood my original blog post, since one of the main points was a difference in my thinking on memory work as a prerequisite for First Communion. I'm glad that he has had a chance, now, to clarify his own position, despite my disappointment that we do seem to disagree on this to some extent. Nevertheless, he has evidently misunderstood some of my further conversation on this topic, and that's what I want to set straight for the record here.

In the past, as a prerequisiste for First Communion, I have required that catechumens memorize the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Our Father, all but the longest of Luther's questions (and answers) on Holy Baptism, as well as the first two questions (and answers) concerning the Office of the Keys and the Sacrament of the Altar.

In the case of the six-year-old girl that I described in my blog post, I have not required that she have all of this material memorized prior to First Communion. Rather, on the basis of the fact that she is being catechized in all of these things within the context of her home and family, and that she is faithfully brought to church for the Divine Service and weekday prayer offices, I have considered that her catechesis in and confession of the Word of God are substantially and significantly supported and served by this familial context, in a way that actually exceeds the benefits of memorization. Having said that, let me repeat what I have indicated previously: I am a strong advocate of memorization, and I drill this into my catechumens and their families at every age and grade level. But I have tried to distinguish between the purpose and blessing of such memorization, on the one hand, and the Word of God itself, which alone brings about and sustains repentance and faith. In other words, it is not memorizing per se that catechizes the child and prepares him or her for the Holy Communion; it is the Word of God, alive with Christ and His Spirit, which do that divine work of catechization. Memorization serves and supports that Word of God; but so does a familial context of daily prayer and faithful church attendance. That was my point.

Now, as it so happens, the young girl that I described does know by heart the primary texts of the first three chief parts, as well as the Verba Domini of the Holy Communion, and certainly the Word of God by which she was named in her Holy Baptism. So, if that is the issue at hand for anyone, let me assure you that she has in fact memorized these things. But this drives to the point at hand: Is it her memorization that makes her well prepared for the Supper? Or is it not rather the fact that the same catechesis of the Word which has made her worthy and well-prepared has also taught her heart and mind and lips to know and love and confess this Word of God in Christ?

I guess I find it telling, and even a little troubling, that the single factor of memorization would be held to make such a decisive difference. And I say that, again, as someone who advocates memory work very strongly. But memory work, taken in and of itself as an isolated factor, is not decisive in my opinion. I do not believe that it is necessary, but neither do I consider it to be sufficient. Instead, memorization serves that which is alone both necessary and sufficient, that is, the Word of God, which is nowhere more beautifully summarized than it is for us in the Small Catechism. Some children can memorize that Word very easily, without necessarily being engaged in the Word through daily prayer and catechesis. I rejoice in their knowledge and confession of the Word, to be sure, but I do not consider such a child to be more worthy or well-prepared than another child who may find memory work a constant struggle, but who is daily and richly immersed in that Word within the family and in the life of the Church.

The little girl that I described does know the primary texts of the Catechism. Not because they were assigned to her or expected of her, but because her father and mother pray and confess them with her, and her pastor and congregation pray and confess them with her, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, all year long. She happens to be very bright and remembers things easily, but she is not made more ready for the Body and Blood of Christ by her intellectual prowess.

What Dr. Luther addresses in the Preface to the Large Catechism (which I regrettably do not have in front of me at the moment) is that fathers are required by God to catechize their families and households; in doing so, they are to expect their children and other members of the household to repeat the primary texts of the six chief parts word for word, and that any servant who is unwilling to do so should be dismissed (and any child who refuses to do so sent to bed without any supper). Repeating things word for word is an effective pedagogical method of catechesis, and it certainly leads to memorization of the text being repeated, but I do not regard this as requiring up front that those texts be memorized. Dr. Luther indicates that one should know these texts (of the first three chief parts) before receiving the Holy Communion; but I do not equate "knowledge" with memorization (nor memorization per se with knowledge). Children are taught to know these texts by their parents and families praying them and confessing them and putting them into practice in the home. This very process will also include the memorization of these texts, but at different paces and progress, depending on the child's intellectual capacity and ability.

Pastor Andrew Green said...

After reading Pr McCain's latest post about the requirment to memorize the Catechism before being admitted to the Supper, I was going to respond. Then I read Pr. Stuckwich's comments where he did a much better job than I would have done. So my two cents here is to simply repeat what I said in my last posting - until we brek free from this paradigm of confirmation being a rite of passage for admittance to the Table, we will not be able to earnestly discuss communion at any earlier age than after confirmation. What a pity that our children are being spiritually penalized because of some intellectual requirement for rote memory. I don't recall the apostles having to recite memory back to our Lord when on the night when He was betrayed He took bread and broke it. In fact, I think that immediately afterwards the disciples got into a squabble over who was the greatest signifying that they still didn't get it. But, somewhere in our Lord's grace, He still found it appropriate to offer them His body and blood even though they didn't have the intellectual capacity to grasp all that they had seen and heard over the last three years.