Form time to time in the debate over infant communion in the Lutheran Church appeals are made to Eastern Orthodox (hereafter EO) practice (the EO church communes baptised infants -see the picture of an African example). But while those on the theological left, so to speak, may be swayed by the ecumenical dimension of this appeal, and those on the theological right might be swayed by the antiquity of the EO custom, confessional Lutherans should be wary of appeals to the EO practice as a justification for infant communion.
The antiquity of a practice is not, in itself, an argument in favour of its adoption. One of the earliest known references to infant communion is in passing in Cyprian of Carthage's account of the Decian persecution, which establishes the custom of infant communion as being practiced quite early (3rd C.). Yet it is the same Cyprian who elsewhere urges a note of caution about accepting customs simply on the basis of antiquity: "Custom without truth is but the antiquity of error".
It seems likely that the misinterpretation of John 6:53 played a part in establishing the custom of infant communion in the early church. Augustine appeals to it, for example, so it is easy to see how other, less tutored minds might also latch on to this verse as a justification for infant communion. But did our Lord intend his words to be taken literally? If so, no-one who believes, yet who through no fault of their own has not partaken of the Supper, could enter eternal life - the repentant thief on the cross, for example.
The interpretation of John 6 as eucharistic was consistently rejected by Luther both in his early and later years as an exegete. For Luther the spiritual eating and drinking that is by faith was in view in John 6. This was confirmed for him not only on the grounds of the way language is used in the discourse itself but also because to refer John 6 to the Supper was to fall into the error of prolepsis - introducing the element of the Supper into John's narrative before it has been instituted (accepting, as a matter of course, the chronology of the synoptic Gospels).
John 6 also features, of course, in Luther's conflict with Zwngli over the sacramental union in the Supper. But Luther had already adopted his view of John 6 ten years before that controversy reached its zenith at Marburg in 1529, as it appears in his lectures on the Psalms undertaken during the period of 1519-1521. Luther's interpretation of John 6 was not, then, an argument of convenience developed in the conflict with the Zwinglians, but a considered position reached on the basis of grammatical exegesis.
The other texts commonly referred to by infant communion advocates -at least who realise the need for a scriptural "seat of doctrine" for the practice - are the "Let the children..." passages in Matthew and Mark. Yet, in context, neither of these instances concerns the Supper. Again, faith is explicitly in view, not the sacrament. Faith is the instrument by which we are saved, not the reception of the sacrament per se, a view which surely comes close to an ex opere operato view of the sacrament's efficacy. This is not to deny that infants may, and do (!), have saving faith, but it is to point to what is necessary for a beneficial reception of the sacrament. [We'll leave Holy Baptism aside for the present so as not to unnecessarily complicate the argument. Suffice to say that each sacrament must be examined in itself rather than under a general heading of "sacramental theology", under the guise of which much mischievous speculation has been carried out by contemporary theologians!]
Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11 for the believer to examine his/her conscience before communing leads clearly to the inference that those partaking of the sacrament ought to be of teachable age and mind, so as to be able to "discern the body" (and blood) in the sacrament and examine their conscience accordingly.
Granted, for too long the linking of first communion with confirmation in the Lutheran Church has unnecessarily delayed the full participation of children in the sacrament of the altar. Mindful of Paul's exhortation, the Lutheran Church would, in my view, do well to resolve this disputeby adopting the Roman practice of having first communion around the age of seven or eight, after the candidates have been adequately prepared by the pastor through a study of the sacrament itself and the use of the Ten Commandments as a guide to the examination of conscience. In fact, given that pastoral experience suggests that most parents neglect the teaching of the "Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments" to their children in accordance with their baptismal promises, the introduction of children to the sacrament earlier than generally occurs at present and after age appropriate instruction could surely only be beneficial to their spiritual development (?).
The next problem to deal with is Confirmation...