By Simon Jooste
The original sixteenth- and seventeenth-century horizon of the Three Forms of Unity and the 1619 Church Order of the Synod of Dort was thick with about five hundred years of theological innovation in the medieval Roman Catholic church, which included the Lord’s Supper. In keeping with a system of salvation by works and sin as a problem of material being, the Lord’s Supper for the Roman Catholic church has been considered a ritual necessary to the ongoing reception of justifying grace. According to this perspective, God bridges the gap between his Son in heaven and his people on earth by making Christ physically and locally present on the “altar” of the Table. Communion for the Roman Catholic represents the climactic realization of Christ’s body on earth, where he is repeatedly sacrificed for the sins of the pious (Horton 2011:804; Trent Session 13; cf. Heidelberg Catechism). Devoid of the agency of the Holy Spirit, Christ is supposedly present wherever the Mass is administered by an ordained priest: where the elements of bread and wine are transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 30). Roman Catholics don’t need the Spirit, because apparently Christ’s body literally fills the gap between heaven and earth. The Reformed call this error an over-realized eschatology: an unbiblical attempt to solve the tension of living the “already” of being heirs to glory while at the same time still living in the “not yet” of this present evil age (Horton 2011:800-801, 812).
Hence, according to Roman Catholic theology the signs of bread and wine are magically converted (in their physical essence) into the body and blood of the crucified Christ. This doctrine is otherwise known as transubstantiation (Horton 2011:804). Simply by virtue of the priest administering the sacraments, the realities they signify are accomplished in that moment. The Supper, along with priesthood and other official operations of the church, become an extension of the body of the risen Christ. For those who are willing to do their part, God is pleased to infuse grace into the soul: grace that raises the obedient from a natural to a supernatural plane of existence (Horton 2011:764-5). And yet the sacraments are not about the exchange of substances or the elevation of nature beyond itself. Rather, they are a sharing of gifts between persons in the context of covenant, with God as the primary actor. God gives the gift of his Son in bread and wine to guarantee his favour toward sinners (Horton 2011:784).
Anabaptism, contemporary evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism: an empty sign
The Anabaptist position is to the other extreme of the historic medieval Roman Catholic one. A diverse movement arising out of late medieval spirituality, Anabaptism (cf. the Quakers) expressed a mystical piety distinct from both Roman Catholicism and the Reformation movement. Essentially, it tended to drive a wedge between the inner work of the Spirit and the outward ministry of the official church. Instead of the sacraments being means of grace, they tended to be regarded as means of discipline in an expression of Christianity where subjectivism, rigorous obedience and social action were the order of the day. The sacraments were ways to remember Christ while bringing one’s “best” to the Table and font with God and neighbour in view. In short: empty signs to be filled with heartfelt devotion. The power of the Spirit is otherwise reserved for direct and unmediated private encounters (Horton 2011:765-6, 812; Berkhof 1996:607).
Various iterations of contemporary evangelicalism share with historic Anabaptism a conception of baptism and the Lord’s Supper filtered through a hermeneutic of suspicion toward the rites and forms of church. Filled by the tributaries of Arminianism and pietism, and their later offspring revivalism and Pentecostalism, the flood of contemporary evangelicalism continues the legacy of construing these ordinances as extension of heartfelt obedience. Furthermore, these official and public signs of piety are often eclipsed by private and socio-political means of obedience, ranging from small groups to rallies outside abortion clinics. According to contemporary evangelicalism, the emphasis in baptism and the Lord’s Supper is less on grace conveyed and more on a public declaration of commitment; one in which certain Christian truths are brought to mind for the purpose of impressing God and one’s neighbour. The primacy actor is man and not God. The signs of water, bread and wine remain devoid of saving grace (Horton 2011:769-771).
Liberal or theological progressive Protestantism shares with contemporary evangelicalism a common source in pietism and her offspring revivalism. Beyond the emotive element, evidence of this shared legacy can be described as a tendency toward activism or a politicization of the faith. Instead of God serving and faithful receiving, the focus in corporate worship and church life in general is upon the moral and social effect of ecclesiastical ordinances. Preaching is yet another opportunity for moral uplift and religious instruction. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are reduced to political statements. The sprinkling of water signifies the removal of prejudicial barriers experienced by people from diverse ethnic and sexual backgrounds. The Lord’s Supper further signs this unity by witnessing to the inclusivity of the Gospel in a world fractured by a ferment of identity politics.
In short, low church and liberal Protestant traditions separate the signs of bread and wine from what they signify: Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and, in turn, attempt to fill these empty signs with the “merit” of heart-felt repentance and renewed good intentions. When preaching is reduced to information impartation and the sacraments emptied of efficacious grace, a longing arises among God’s people to encounter God through other means, which are done by us (Horton 2011:755).
Reformed piety: the speculation temptation
On “paper” the continental Reformed tradition, like Presbyterians and Anglicans, have a sound view of the Lord’s Supper. However, the more a doctrine and practice matters to God and his people, the greater the temptation to act wiser than God. Biblical examples are legion. One famous example is that of the golden calf, where Israel became impatient waiting for Moses as he spoke with God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32; cf. 1 Cor. 10). Where had the “action” gone after the signs and wonders of the great Exodus from Egypt? Then there is the jarring story of Nadab and Abihu who offered up “unauthorized fire” to God when they thought they were being reverent in their devotion. Yahweh turned them into charcoal (Lev. 10). A classic New Testament instance is the division and drunkenness that took place around the Table at the church in Corinth: as if it did not matter what one did with the physical body; supposedly, only the spirit matters (1 Cor. 11:17-22). But God judged the Corinthian church for their false worship. Many fell sick and died (11:27-32). A common thread through these biblical examples is the injection of the doctrine and commandments of men into the worship of God (Matt. 15:9).
One of the ways in which the continental Reformed tradition has at times erred in her approach to the Lord’s Supper has been to elevate its importance to a superstitious level. This tendency is at least in part behind why some have practiced it so infrequently. Simply put, this flawed thinking has two aspects. First, the Supper is seen as having a mystical nature that is supposedly denigrated when celebrated too often. Yet, as argued above, the Word and the sacraments are of equal value, and should be ministered together.
Second, a superstitious view considers the Supper of such elevated importance that the recipient cannot surely be “worthy” of it too frequently. Hence, the practice of observation only a handful of times a year – only when members are adequately prepared and have been given permission to attend (by the elders). But this reasoning is clearly out of step with a biblical and confessional understanding of what the Supper signs and seals. It is not a sacrament for the strong and the prepared, but for weak penitent sinners that come to receive from God’s bounty of grace as often as possible.
Third, a variant of a superstition understood in terms of sharp dualism between the spiritual and material, the divine and human natures, is a conception of the Supper indebted to the Zürich Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). Assuming a position at odds with Martin Luther, Zwingli conceived of the sacraments more as a human than a divine pledge, an occasion for teaching and motivation. Instead of channelling grace, this scheme saw baptism and the Lord’s Supper as memorials or emblems of the great truths of the Gospel, occasions for truth to represented to the mind (Horton 2011:767, 807-823). Hence, why practise the Supper frequently if it is not much different from any other act of Christian piety?
In short, we within the continental Reformed tradition are not to rest on our laurels. The temptations to replace what we believe and confess regarding the Supper with the wisdom of men are ever present: whether it be the memorialist innovations of Zwingli or the activism of updated pietism. The biblical position is that the sign and the thing signified become one by the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, without changing the substance of the elements or confusing bread and wine with the physical body and blood of Christ. “The close connection between the sign and the thing signified explains the use of what is generally called ‘sacramental’ language,’ in which the sign is put for the thing signified and vice versa, Gen. 17:5; Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 5:7” (Berkhof 1996:769). Hence, because Christ is present to his people in the Supper in a special sense, the sacrament should be administered as often as possible.
Rev. Dr Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.