Were the Early Reformers Reformed?

A Response to Ted VanRaalte

When I presented, and then published, some thoughts about child development and ways in which Reformed churches in particular might better minister to adolescents in the church, I was hoping and praying it would generate discussion. I’m therefore deeply gratified that my colleague Ted Van Raalte found my contribution to Children and the Church: “Do Not Hinder Them” (Hamilton: Lucerna, 2019) worthy of engagement, and I want to thank him at the outset for his substantial interaction (see the forthcoming issue of Clarion [69:12] in which magazine my response also will eventually be published).

Dr. Van Raalte is chiefly concerned with my recommendation that we, in the Canadian Reformed Churches at least, consider admitting adolescents to the Lord’s table at a younger age than we typically do (i.e., between seventeen and twenty). Van Raalte does not mince words in alleging that my proposal would tend towards “the breakdown of our Reformed identity as churches” and represent a return, in fact, to “Roman Catholic practices.” Van Raalte faults my proposal for, among other things, a mistaken notion of faith and an inadequate account of catechesis. In what follows, I will engage his critique.

A child of ten

Regrettably, Dr. Van Raalte misrepresents my position by stating that I recommend that youth should be admitted to the Lord’s table at the age of ten.[1] My proposal is actually far more modest (and innocuous!) – namely, that baptized youth who’ve grown up in the church should be admitted “at a much younger age than they presently are” (i.e., younger than seventeen). Had he noticed this key formulation in my proposal, I suspect his alarm would have diminished considerably.[2]

I do reference the age of ten a few times in my paper, and quite deliberately, because it is the only age John Calvin mentions in this connection. “A child of ten,” Calvin wrote, “would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each” (Inst. 4.19.13). Towards the end of the paper, I acknowledge that a “child of ten” (deliberately invoking Calvin’s language) is “unprepared” to assume all the responsibilities of communicant church membership such as voting for elders. Though I’m open to the possibility, nowhere do I recommend the age of ten as a target age for admission to the Lord’s table.

I must admit it was somewhat breathtaking to be accused, precisely when referencing John Calvin’s position, of holding a view which, if implemented, would tend toward “the breakdown of our Reformed identity” and a return to “Roman Catholic practices.” My recommendation is essentially a plea to reconsider the universal practice of the early reformers to admit young adolescents to the Lord’s table. In addition to Calvin, who thought a child was sufficiently suited for the Lord’s Supper at the age of ten, Martin Bucer believed a child could participate upon reaching “the age of reason” – namely, between the ages of ten and twelve.[3] F. L. Rutgers noted that in the “southern countries” children between the ages of ten and twelve were admitted to the Lord’s table.[4]

It is not the case, as is sometimes assumed and alleged, that such children were expected to master the contents of the larger Reformation catechisms. The Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1541), for example, which had 373 questions, was “suitable for the instructing of children from the ages of ten to fifteen” though a much smaller catechism, i.e., The Little Catechism (1553) which had only sixteen questions, was used to prepare “young children before admission to Holy Communion." [5]

Though formal catechism teaching was occasionally offered for older children, parents in the Netherlands, for example, vowed in their baptismal promises to instruct their children in the aforesaid doctrine when they came to the “years of discretion,” i.e., seven years old, the age when Roman Catholic children were expected to begin doing penance.[6] In the Dutch refugee church of London, pastored by Jan Laski, “all children above the age of five were enrolled in special catechism classes.”[7]

It is thought that in the Netherlands, as in the Palatinate where the Heidelberg Catechism was produced, children typically professed their faith when they were fourteen.[8] Though it is unclear when, the minimum age for profession of faith in the Netherlands was eventually raised to sixteen.[9] In every single instance, however, adolescents younger than seventeen were being admitted to the Lord’s table in the early Reformation period.


Faith and catechesis  

Dr. Van Raalte questions my claim that what the Lord’s Supper requires is simply faith in Christ and then faults me for not substantiating my claim, as if it were dubitable. I will now happily refer Van Raalte to a shared doctrinal standard, the Heidelberg Catechism, which in Lord’s Day 30, Question and Answer 81 indicates that the Lord’s table is set for those “who are truly displeased with themselves because of their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them,” and who “desire more and more to strengthen their faith” (cf. LD 25, 28, 29). For biblical warrant, I would of course appeal to Galatians 2, where Paul upbraids Peter for adding to faith in Christ other requirements for table fellowship (see especially v.15).

Dr. Van Raalte then abruptly abandons his claim that faith itself is insufficient for participation at the Lord’s table to insist instead that what is required is a certain kind of faith. For a moment it seems as if we’re agreeing, though Van Raalte alleges that I’ve diminished the knowledge component of faith. This is odd, given that my position does not vary considerably from that of the early reformers – namely, that in order to commune one should ordinarily be familiar with the contents of a Reformation catechism (i.e., the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Sacraments). Not one of the early reformers thought such familiarity was an impossible feat for a young adolescent. Why would Dr. Van Raalte?

Relatedly, Van Raalte faults me for failing to provide an account of catechesis. This too is puzzling, given that, earlier in my paper, I devoted significant attention to catechesis and concluded with five ways to enhance it. Among my recommendations, in fact, is to translate the important “head knowledge” imparted in catechesis into “heart knowledge” by accenting character formation. Moreover, in numerous places throughout my paper, I provide evidence that the early reformers who favoured admitting to the Lord’s table those as young as ten or twelve were also insistent on catechesis. Why would Van Raalte assume that the admission of young adolescents to the Lord’s table implies a denigration of catechesis?

It seems that Van Raalte, in fact, has a very miserly view of catechesis – namely, information imparted in a classroom. “If, on DeJong’s model,” he writes, “catechesis is to precede admission to the table, he will have to start his catechumens very young, perhaps at age of five.” But what is so remarkable about this? Couldn’t parents teach a five-year-old to pray the Lord’s Prayer and to learn the Ten Commandments? Perhaps my model implies a more vigorous catechesis, which includes not just classroom education but apprenticing, mentoring, and modelling at home and church.


Full membership vows and ecumenicity

Van Raalte also objects to my proposal that admission to the Lord’s table should be separated from “full membership vows.” To me this is a necessary implication were churches to return to the practice of the early reformers. Though a young adolescent might be sufficiently mature to be admitted to the Lord’s table, it does not follow that she or he is also equipped to vote for elders or approve the church’s operating budget. This is an issue with which many Reformed churches must grapple. Someone kindly referred me to this information, provided at the official website (see opc.org) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, with whom the Canadian Reformed have “sister-church” relations:

What would be an appropriate age (or perhaps earliest age) for a child to make a confession of faith? The Bible specifies no age, but based on Jesus’ own “coming out” (Luke 2:41–49), which is consistent with traditional Jewish practice, age 12 or 13 seems to be a good norm. Some precocious children are capable of a credible profession of faith   before age 10.

So how does one mark the moment when a communing adolescent is permitted to vote? I recommended a particular approach only because it is already practiced in other Reformed churches – namely, having communing adolescents affirm membership vows once they reach the age eighteen. Quite apart from voting or communing, baptized members are fully members of God’s covenant community though some responsibilities of their membership are withheld until they reach sufficient maturity to fulfil them.


Valuing the sacraments

Finally, Dr. Van Raalte concludes his critique of my position and his defense of the status quo practice in Canadian Reformed churches with a mysterious reference to a “sifting and testing” process during adolescence. I’m unsure to what dynamic he is alluding and whether it is psychological or scriptural. It is true that adolescence is marked by some instability in terms of identify formation, and some skepticism toward the teaching of authorities, parental or ecclesiastical. This only reinforces my question: Why would the church want to bar such youth, in a crucial season of their development, from participating in the Lord’s Supper? Such an impulse, in my mind, betrays an impoverished view of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. Especially adolescents could benefit from the nourishment the Lord’s Supper provides. It would help form their identity as those who belong to Christ, body and soul, both in life and death.



I’m thankful that Dr. Van Raalte engaged my arguments in a substantial way. I envisioned some resistance to my proposal to reconsider the discarded practices of the early reformers and was very heartened by the warm reception it received when I presented it at the seminary conference. What I did not imagine was an allegation that my proposal, if adopted, would “tend toward the breakdown of our Reformed identity” and represent a “step backwards to Roman Catholic practices.” Does Dr. Van Raalte allege the same of Dr. Erik Watkins, who contributed a chapter to the same volume, and those OPC and URCNA colleagues who hold a view similar to mine? As much as his allegation pains me, it puzzles me more.

[1] Van Raalte repeatedly uses the noun “children” to depict my recommendation whereas I often wrote about “youth,” “young people,” or “adolescents.”

[2] Certainly not to the same degree or in the same way, but the late Dr. Karel Deddens made a similar plea decades ago: “But one thing is certain: from the hour of baptism the demand for confessions calls to be fulfilled. Therefore any unnecessary delay is wrong” (emphasis added; see Deddens, “May Children Partake of the Lord’s Supper” Clarion 35:21 [October 17, 1986] 423).

[3] See Amy Nelson Burnett, “Confirmation and Christian Fellowship: Martin Bucer on Commitment to the Church,” Church History 64:2 (Jun. 1995) 208 and 212. This reference and those that follow were provided in my chapter.

[4] F.L. Rutgers, Kerkelijke Adviezen II (Kampen: Kok, 1922) 69.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996) 4, 238. The Little Catechism, subtitled, “The Manner to examine Children, before they are admitted to the Lord’s Supper,” was added to the Geneva Catechism in 1553. Moreover, the Polish theologian Jan Laski (1499-1560) wrote a catechism (translated into Dutch) with 250 questions and answers, though only forty questions had to be answered satisfactorily to be admitted to communion (See Verboom, “The Heidelberg Catechism in the Netherlands,” 14 and George Ella, “Jan Laski the Pan-European Reformer” MBS Texte 19 [2004] 7).

[6] Wim Verboom, “The Heidelberg Catechism in the Netherlands” in The Church’s Book of Comfort (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2009) 131, 133.

[7] Ella, “Jan Laski the Pan-European Reformer,” 7.

[8] See Verboom, “The Heidelberg Catechism: A Catechetical Tool” in Payne and Heck, A Faith Worth Teaching (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2013) 232n12 and “The Heidelberg Catechism in the Netherlands,” 138.

[9] Verboom, “The Heidelberg Catechism in the Netherlands,” 138.

Popular Posts