It was the Apostolic practice, and the Old Testament practice before that, to require extensive catechetical instruction before allowing one to partake in the feast of the Lordís Supper (and the Passover which the Lordís Supper replaced). It is a certain sign of ecclesiastical degeneration when those poorly informed in the chief doctrines of the scriptures are allowed to partake. And allowing those who knowingly or ignorantly embrace sundry heresies detracts from the unity and health of the church. How can two walk together unless they be agreed?
The early church respected this principle. Accordingly, Schaff records in History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, p. 255 that two to three years of catechism was the norm before adults could partake. For instance, the council of Elvira alludes to the custom of making it last two years and the civil law fixed it at this (Justinian, Novel. cxliv). And children were typically catechized several years before partaking some time beginning after the age of twelve. There had to be an understanding of the chief doctrines through catechetical instruction, an assent to them, and a profession to follow Christ as personal Lord and Savior by seeking to live consistent with the doctrines.
"Catechumen" was the term in the early Church assigned to those undergoing a course of preparation for the purpose of partaking of the Lordís Supper. The word occurs in Gal. vi, 6: "Let him that is instructed in the word, [ho katechoumenos, is qui catechizatur] communicate to him that instructeth him [to katechounti, ei qui catechizat] in all good things." Other parts of the verb katicksein occur in I Cor., xiv, 19; Luke, i, 4; Acts, xviii, 24.
As the acceptance of Christianity involved belief in a body of doctrine and the observance of the Divine law ("teach, make disciples, scholars of them"; "teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you", Matt., xxviii, 20), it is clear that instruction must have been given to the adult converts from paganism, as well as children preparing for Christian adulthood. The church fathers rebuked the heretics for disregarding such catechetical instruction before initiation into communion. As Tertullian noted: "one does not know which is the catechumen and which the faithful, all alike come [to the mysteries], all hear the same discourses and say the same prayers" (quis catechumenus, quis fidelis incertum est; pariter adeunt, pariter audiunt, pariter orant), "Catechumens are initiated before they are instructed" (ante sunt perfecti catechumeni quam edocti.--"De Praeser."xli, P.L., II, 56) As the church degenerated over the centuries, the standards for catechetical instruction before communion were made increasingly lax. The Protestant Reformation reversed that trend, and thus lifted the requirements for partaking in the Lordís Supper to their Biblical norms.
An example of a Reformation catechism required before communion is one drawn up by John Craig (1512-1600) and approved by the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1592.†† Before one would be allowed to partake of communion, one would have to be catechized in and understand the answers to the questions posed in the catechism, which covered the chief doctrines of scripture.† If one failed to understand the doctrines, then one would be ineligible to partake due to ignorance.† If one disagreed with some of the answers to the catechism, then one would be ineligible to partake due to scandal (for it is scandalous to professedly disagree with any of the chief doctrines of scripture).† Below are excerpts from the Catechism, but a complete version of it can be read at http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/communca.htm :
Q. 1. What are we by nature?
A. The children of God's wrath, Eph. 2:3.
Q. 2. Were we thus created of God?
A. No, for he made us to his own image, Gen. 1:26.
Q. 7. Who may deliver us from this bondage?
A. God only who bringeth life out of death.
Q. 8. How know we that he will do it?
A. By the promise and sending of his Son Christ Jesus in our flesh, John 3:16, 17.
Q. 60. What signifieth baptism unto us?
A. That we are filthy by nature, and are purged by the blood of Christ, Titus 3:5.
Q. 61. What meaneth this our union with the water?
A. Our spiritual union with Jesus Christ, Rom. 6:3, 8; Gal. 3:27.
Q. 65. How then are infants baptized?
A. Upon the promise made to the faithful and their seed, Gen. 17:7, 10.
Q. 71. What signifieth the action of the supper?
A. That our souls are fed spiritually, by the body and blood of Jesus Christ, John 6:54.
Q. 77. To whom should this sacrament be given?
A. To the faithful only, who can examine themselves.
Q. 85. What is the office of the Christian magistrate in the kirk?
A. He should defend the true religion and discipline, and punish all troublers and contemners of the same.
Q. 86. Why use we a table here, and not an altar as the fathers did at
A. Because we convene, not to offer a sacrifice for sin, but to eat and drink of that sacrifice, which Christ once offered upon the cross for us, Heb. 7:23, 24, 27, and 10:11, 12, 14, 18.
Q. 87. What protest we when we come to the table?
A. That we are dead in ourselves, and seek our life only in Christ.
The Westminster Assembly concurred with this Reformation policy concerning communion.† Hence we reading in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q. 173. May any who profess
the faith, and desire to come to the Lordís supper, be kept from it?
A. Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lordís supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ hath left in his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation.
So those who were ignorant or scandalous were not allowed to partake of communion.† A distinction should be made between sin versus ignorance and scandal. Given our remaining sinful nature, we sin every moment at least in thought, for we neither love Christ as much as we ought, nor hate and reject sin as much as we ought. But scandal is an observable, unrepentant course of life and/or professed belief, contrary to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the Westminster Standards. And ignorance is an insufficient understanding of the doctrines of scripture, such as are laid out in the Catechism. (Those who do not even understand the chief doctrines of scripture cannot possibly examine themselves in any meaningful way.)† The Westminster Shorter Catechism came to function, like Craigís earlier Catechism, in outlining the chief doctrines of scripture, so that people would be sufficiently informed to be able to examine themselves, and hence be eligible for communion.† But those who rejected some of those doctrines were rightly regarded as scandalous.† Here is a list of examples of scandal cited at the time:
ď(W)e are also very sensible of the great and imminent dangers into which this common cause of religion is now brought by the growing and spreading of most dangerous errors in England to the obstructing and hindering of the begun Reformation, as namely (beside many others) Socinianism, Arminianism, Anabaptism, Antinomianism, Brownism, Erastianism, Independency, and that which is called (by abuse of the word) Liberty of Conscience, being indeed Liberty of Error, Scandal, Schism, Heresy, dishonouring God, opposing the Truth, hindering Reformation; and seducing others" (Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1638-1649 Inclusive, p. 333). ď
Without reformation, such were not allowed to partake in communion, along with those who were ignorant.† Such was the historic policy of the Church of Scotland, along with the other reformed churches of the Reformation.
But most Protestant churches in the following centuries have crept back into error. There is widespread heresy in modern Protestant churches, and there is little doctrinal unity which should characterize the communion feast. Any true reformation of the churches must include a reformation of this aspect of church life.† Catechism must precede communion.