Luther on Children at the Lord’s Supper

Should children be admitted to the Lord’s Table? Luther deals with this question in Table Talk 365, part of a much longer entry. Here is the passage:

Should the Eucharist be given to children? I answer: Concerning the sacrament of the altar, no strict law has been laid down. In the same way, there is no imperative concerning prayer, but the commandment is this: that, when we pray, we expect to be heard. In the same way, there is no commandment concerning afflictions; and yet those who are in affliction ought to be patient. Yet it does not follow that children who either do not pray or are not afflicted are condemned. When Paul in 1 Corinthians says, “But let a man examine himself,” he is speaking only of adults, because he is speaking of those who were bickering with each other. But he does not prevent the sacrament of the altar from being given to children, too.

From volume 1 of the Tischreden the Weimarer Ausgabe, p. 157. The translation is my own.

There seem to be two, or two and a half, steps in the logic in the passage. First of all, the sacrament of the altar belongs to a larger group of Christian practices for which there is no direct command as to the doing of the thing itself (e.g., “You must pray”; “You must undergo affliction”).

Instead, it is assumed that such things will, on balance, happen, and so commands are given concerning what one is to do in those circumstances. Put another way, there are duties that attend such things when they happen. But their absence does not mean condemnation. For instance, if someone is not undergoing affliction, it does not mean that that person is under God’s judgment.  This applies to children: if children pray, for example, they must do so expecting to be heard; but if they do not–think of a small child who does not yet know how to pray–it does not mean they are condemned.

But what about Paul’s circumstantial command for the Lord’s Supper, viz. that one should “examine himself”? That one would seem to eliminate children who cannot do what Paul says must be done. But, Luther replies, that command is directed to the adults in the room. We should not infer from it, Luther seems to argue, that adults are for that reason the only ones intended to come to the sacrament, because that circumstantial command doesn’t have anything to do with children one way or the other.

This is not quite the same thing as in the first two examples, where the circumstantial commands applied to everyone. One either does not do those things, or one does them in the prescribed way. The only way of making the example of the Lord’s Supper match up exactly is to draw out an implication that is not stated exactly, i.e. that the command in 1 Corinthians 11 does not have to do with those partaking of the sacrament as such, but with those who would partake of the sacrament while quarreling. In that case, the command about self-examination would not apply to adults as such, but only to adults who are quarreling

Or so it would appear to me. But I’m like FOX News here: I report, you decide!


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