Baptists at the Lord's Table: A Review of "The Lord's Supper"
It’s ironic that the central practice that unites the church across two millennia has often caused major division between Christians. Start talking about the Lord’s Supper and you’re confronted by a host (pun intended) of questions:
- How frequently should we partake of the Lord’s Supper?
- Is this a sacrament or an ordinance?
- How is Christ present in the elements? Is he present at all?
- What does it mean to partake of the Supper in an unworthy manner?
- Who can join us at the table?
Each of these questions (and many more) are covered in a recent book edited by Thomas Schreiner and Matt Crawford. The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes (B&H, 2011) is part of the NAC Studies in Bible and Theology. A number of Baptist scholars have contributed essays that deal with particular questions about the Lord’s Supper. The result is a solid resource for pastors and church leaders (from all denominations) who want to go deeper in their understanding of the Supper’s significance.
Below is a brief overview of the essays in the book, followed by some considerations and some areas I think the book could have been stronger.
The book begins with biblical exposition of New Testament passages that describe the Last Supper or the early church’s practice of the Supper.
- Andreas Kostenberger makes a convincing case for viewing the Lord’s Supper as a Passover meal.
- Jonathan Pennington outlines the way the Gospels treat the Supper, both the common and distinctive elements that emerge.
- James Hamilton exegetes a relevant Pauline passage on the Supper (1 Corinthians 11) within the context of the whole letter.
Several essays in the book deal with the historical development of thought on the Supper.
- Michael Haykin contributes an excellent essay that traces Eucharistic thought through the Patristic era.
- David Hogg covers debate between the medieval monks Radbertus (who believed in the physical presence of Christ in the elements) and Ratramnus (who believed in a spiritual presence).
- Gregg Allison provides a thoughtful, accurate overview of contemporary Catholic theology on the Mass, keeping the Catholic view of the Supper tied to the rest of Catholicism’s theological structure.
- Matthew Crawford leads us into the Reformation era by introducing us to Luther and his largely traditionalist view of the Supper.
- Bruce Ware covers the Zwinglian view, dispelling some myths about Zwingli along the way (primarily, that he was a mere memorialist). The Zwingli-Luther debate at Marburg is summarized as a debate about Christology, a point I have argued elsewhere.
- Shawn Wright describes the Reformed view of the Supper, focusing primarily on the role of the Holy Spirit and the idea of the spiritual presence of Christ. He critiques the Reformed for overemphasizing the power of the Eucharist and thereby detracting from the centrality of the gospel.
- Greg Wills surveys the “open communion” versus “close communion” controversy that has raged on and off throughout Baptist history.
The end of the book contains theological and pastoral reflections on the Supper and its meaning for today.
- Brian Vickers provides a fresh take on the Supper, particularly in the way the past and future meet in the present.
- Greg Thornbury encourages us to view the Supper as stirring up God’s people to love and unity. He describes the table as “ground zero for learning how to be a Christian… If you cannot get it right there, you will not get it right anywhere.” (358)
- Ray Van Neste contributes perhaps the most controversial chapter of the book because it deals solely with questions about how Communion should be practiced.
I enjoyed this book for the wealth of information it provides and for the way this information seems to be geared toward pastors and church leaders. This is not a book of information collected for its own sake. It’s for the good of the church and the glory of Christ.
Nevertheless, there are a few places I think the book could have been stronger.
First, this is a Baptist book filled with solid contributions from Baptist scholars. And yet the only chapter that includes anything distinctively Baptist about our vision of the Supper is the historical account of open versus close communion debates. Surely there’s more to the Baptist position than the debate about who can join us at the table! Perhaps a chapter examining the Supper in Baptist confessions or explaining/critiquing the view of Charles Spurgeon (who advocated both the spiritual presence and open communion) would have been helpful.
Another odd omission is Augustine. Haykin’s essay on the patristics is a fascinating examination of the Supper in the thought of Justin, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Ambrose and Basil. But not including Augustine in this list is like writing a book on the twelve disciples without including a section on Peter.
The Lord’s Supper is an interesting collection of essays, primarily because the authors don’t always agree. For example, in his historical survey of the close communion controversy, Greg Wills argues that open communion has – at least historically – been a gateway to liberalism. In the next chapter, however, Ray Van Neste argues theologically and exegetically for open communion as the biblical position.
In my opinion, Wills’ historical assessment is accurate, but his contemporary application is deficient. His chapter reminds me of scholars who argue that taking an amillennialist view of the end times leads to liberalism. It’s true that at one point, dispensationalists were almost always conservative, whereas liberals were almost always amillenial. But the context is too different today to assume that end times debates are determinative of one’s theological trajectory. In the same way, when giants of the conservative Baptist movement can hold to open communion (W.A. Criswell, C.H. Spurgeon, John Bunyan) and not abandon traditional beliefs, it doesn’t make sense to warn against open communion as if it is a slippery slope.
Van Neste’s essay will probably elicit the most response because of the practical nature of his contribution. He seeks to ground many of his preferences in Scripture, though some of these are surely debatable. All readers will appreciate Van Neste’s pastoral sensitivity and thoughtfulness regarding these issues. Few will agree with all of his conclusions.
(For example, I believe that his opposition to serving Communion to shut-ins is misguided. Van Neste overemphasizes the physical presence of the church gathered and misses the beauty in showing how members who are unable to gather together physically are still part of the body.)
Overall, this book contains insightful essays that describe the beauty of the Lord’s Supper and the ways this ordinance has been viewed throughout church history. Pastors who are preparing to preach again on the Lord’s Supper will find a feast in this book.