“Assuming that a child has been well catechized and raised in a reasonably normal Christian way, i.e., that the child has been lovingly disciplined, that he has been included in public worship and that the family has attended faithfully to the means of grace (preaching of the Word and the sacraments as appropriate) parents might ordinarily expect their child to begin to be ready as early as age 12—perhaps a little earlier or later.”
James writes to ask about when children should make profession of faith and receive communion. He has observed young children being admitted to the table and wonders whether that is proper, whether children are really professing faith or merely parroting what they have heard their parents (and pastor) say.
The key word here is “credible.” Can a 6 year-old make a “credible” profession of faith? My understanding of childhood development is strongly influenced by the view of humanity represented by Dorothy Sayers’ lecture and essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” I tried to apply that approach to practice of catechesis with my own children and to encourage others to do the same. If that view is correct, children generally develop in three stages: parrot, pert, and poet. In their younger years they naturally delight in repeating what they are told. They have a remarkable facility for memorization. This is when children should be memorizing Scripture and catechism. As you suggest, however, being able to repeat is not necessarily the same thing as being able to understand—though there are exceptions. The second stage, the pert stage, is that season in which children begin to analyze what they have memorized. They are immature so the questions may come out ill-formed or, to put it plainly, smart-aleck, hence “pert.” It is important for parents, pastors, and elders to persevere, however, with the child because what he is really asking is “do you really believe this or are you just going through the motions?” The third stage of development is the “poet” in which the child begins to realize that there are transcendent realities to which symbols point and it is somewhere in this stage that we might expect a child to make profession of faith, when he has more prepared to speak for himself, when the faith in which has been catechized has become not just an inheritance but a personal possession.
Children are not computers and childhood development occurs at different speeds in different children. Social and cultural changes affect the process too. Calvin expected children to make profession by 10. Memorization was more widely practiced then than it is now. Lifespans were shorter. In our culture, in some ways children seem to be pushed toward maturity in the wrong ways (e.g., sexual development) but in other ways their growth seems to be retarded by misguided educational philosophies that emphasize subject experience over objective reality and approaches to parenting (e.g., helicoptering) that slow the ability of children to explore the world for themselves and to take responsibility for themselves at an earlier age.
Assuming that a child has been well catechized and raised in a reasonably normal Christian way, i.e., that the child has been lovingly disciplined, that he has been included in public worship and that the family has attended faithfully to the means of grace (preaching of the Word and the sacraments as appropriate) parents might ordinarily expect their child to begin to be ready as early as age 12—perhaps a little earlier or later. Certainly we should expect covenant children ordinarily to be prepared to profess faith before the elders before high school graduation and parents should not assume that profession must be postponed as if profession and graduation must go hand-in-hand.
Remember, we have two sacraments: the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant community (baptism) and the sign and seal of renewal or personal appropriation: the Lord’s Supper. These sacraments have different functions and we do not collapse them by restricting initiation into the covenant community only to those who make profession (that is the Baptist practice) nor do we collapse them so as to admit infants to communion, that is the error of paedocommunion. In the New Testament sometimes we see adult converts profess faith and receive the sign and seal of initiation (e.g., the Philippian jailer) and sometimes we see whole households receive baptism. See this essay for a discussion. Baptism is for unbaptized adult converts and for the children of believers. God has not revoked his promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children” since Peter said expressly, “for the promise is to you and to your children (Acts 2:39).” Communion, however, is for the baptized and the instructed (catechized) Christian.
May a 6-year old sufficiently understand the mysteries transpiring in the Lord’s Table to be able to participate in holy communion? Perhaps but it would be an extraordinary case. After all, the Reformed churches confess in Heidelberg 75
…that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.
A believer, who is admitted to communion on the basis of a credible profession of faith, says that, in communion, we are
so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul (Heidelberg 76).
and in Heidelberg 77 we say:
we are as really partakers of His true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit , as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of Him.
It is essential that a believer understand the difference between being nourished by ordinary bread and wine and being nourished, by the work of the Holy Spirit, on the true, “proper and natural” body and blood of Christ through faith alone. This is the distinction we make in Belgic Confession art. 35:
Thus, to support the physical and earthly life God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all as life itself also is. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers he has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten—that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.
Ordinary eating is common to all humans, believer and unbeliever alike. Communion, however, is a holy sacrament, in which only believers actually eat and drink Christ by faith:
To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood. He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacraments in our hands and eat and drink it in our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.
How this happens is a mystery and no one comprehends a mystery fully, since in the nature of the thing it is “incomprehensible,” as we confess, but a communicant must ordinarily (there are exceptional cases as is the developmentally delayed) apprehend or be able to appreciate that it is a mystery. He must be able to apprehend and appreciate something of the mystery of being fed by Christ’s true body, through faith, by the work of the Spirit.