Book Review: The Lord’s Supper

from Jan 27, 2011 Category: Book Reviews

The Lords SupperThe Lord’s Supper by Thomas Schreiner and Matthew Crawford is the tenth volume in Broadman & Holman’s NAC Studies in Bible and Theology series.  Not surprisingly, as B&H is a Baptist publishing house, the second volume in the series dealt with baptism.  When I read that volume, published in 2006, I was not sure they would do a volume on the Lord’s Supper.  Baptists historically have not devoted as much attention to the Supper as they have to baptism.  The publication of this new volume may be a sign that this is about to change. 

All but one of the thirteen contributors come from three schools associated with the Southern Baptist denomination.  Eight teach at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; two teach at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina; and two teach at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  One contributor is a Ph.D. student at Durham University in England.  All have written well-researched and thoughtful chapters.

The order of the chapters is rather straightforward.  The first three look at the biblical texts underlying the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper.  The next six chapters look at the way the doctrine of the Supper has developed historically.  One chapter is devoted to a look at Baptist views, and one chapter offers a theological appraisal of the Supper.  The final two chapters deal with practical issues related to the sacrament.  As with any multi-authored book, some chapters are better than others, but none are terrible.

The book begins with Andreas Köstenberger discussing whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal.  He deals helpfully with the differences between the Synoptic accounts and John’s account and interacts extensively with the arguments of Scot McKnight, Joachim Jeremias, and I. Howard Marshall.  He makes a persuasive argument that the Last Supper was, in fact, a Passover meal.

Jonathan Pennington examines what each of the four Gospel authors contribute to our understanding of the Last Supper.  He examines the differences between John and the Synoptics as well as the differences among the Synoptics themselves.  His next section deals with the common themes found in the Gospels.  He argues that “the Last Supper as presented in the Gospels provides many interconnected nodes of meaning” (p. 44).  He identifies five such thematic “nodes”: The Last Supper is “(1) an enacted parable of Jesus’ impending sacrificial death, (2) the fulfillment of the Passover and exodus, (3) the inauguration of the new covenant, (4) the formation of Jesus’ community and their identity, and (5) an appetizer for the Messianic eschatological banquet” (p. 44).  His discussion of these five themes is particularly interesting and helpful.  The chapter concludes with a section on the distinctive emphases of each Gospel author.

James M. Hamilton Jr. is tasked with looking at the Lord’s Supper in Paul.  His thesis is that “Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:17–34 explain that the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel made by those who embrace the gospel, those whose identity is shaped by the gospel” (p. 68).  Most of the chapter is a fairly standard commentary on the Eucharistic texts in 1 Corinthians, with primary emphasis on chapter 11.  I only wish more space had been devoted to 1 Corinthians 10:16–17.  Interestingly, Hamilton makes a strong argument from Paul for weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.  Responding to one potential objection, he writes, “If it is objected that this would diminish its significance, my reply is simply that those who make this argument typically do not claim that weekly observance diminishes the significance of the preaching of the Word, the prayers of God’s people, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and I doubt they would be disappointed to have weekly baptisms!” (p. 101).  As I have argued myself for weekly observance, I can only encourage Hamilton in this effort.

The historical section of the book begins with Michael Haykin’s chapter on Eucharistic thought in the patristic era.  In this chapter Haykin deals very briefly with the thought and practice of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Basil.  Admittedly, Haykin had to be selective because the amount of material on this subject in the first centuries of the church is enormous.  Granted that, however, four and five pages summaries of the Eucharistic thought of these five men, did not seem quite sufficient.  In addition, I question whether it was a good idea to completely ignore Augustine.  I doubt that Augustine’s views could have been adequately discussed in a few pages in a chapter dealing with many other church fathers as well, so Haykin may not have had any choice but to leave out Augustine, and his argument for doing so – although not based on space – is not unreasonable.  That being said, if the editors were aware of this, I think they should have considered including an entire separate chapter on Augustine.  His views were simply too influential to not be given extensive attention in a book such as this.

The second chapter in the historical section by David S. Hogg deals with the medieval Eucharistic debate between Radbertus and Ratramnus.  There is one significant typographical error in the introductory section of this chapter.  The debate between Radbertus and Ratramnus is said to have occurred in the tenth century (p. 130), when in fact, it occurred in the middle of the ninth century.  That aside, Hogg’s explanation of the debate is one of the most interesting and helpful that I have read.  He explains the issues separating the two very clearly.

The next chapter by Gregg Allison is one of the best in the book.  Allison’s chapter is devoted to a discussion of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.  His chapter helps fill in some of the medieval picture by showing how distinctive Roman Catholic doctrines and practices developed over time.  He also clears away many misunderstandings of what Rome teaches while remaining properly critical of those aspects that are unbiblical.  Roman Catholic readers will certainly not agree with Allison’s evaluation of their doctrine, but I would be surprised if they did not concede that he presented it fairly.

Matthew Crawford was tasked with explaining and evaluating Martin Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and I believe he succeeded admirably.  His chapter, like Allison’s, is very instructive and helpful.  Luther had many helpful insights into the Supper, but his view is not always the easiest to understand.  Crawford’s careful explanations should help non-Lutheran readers get a better grasp of what Luther said and why he said it.  I also appreciate Crawford’s discussion of the problems with Luther’s doctrine – particularly the dangerous doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body.  It is a doctrine that is far afield of the doctrine of Christ taught in Scripture and officially formulated at Chalcedon.

Bruce Ware’s chapter on Zwingli’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is very good.  Ware’s primary argument is that the understanding of Zwingli’s view as the “memorial view” is partial and imprecise.  He seeks to bring out the other elements in Zwingli’s doctrine.  Ware follows Bromiley in arguing that Zwingli does believe Christ is present in the Supper, but he is not as clear in explaining how different Zwingli’s concept of presence was from the other Reformers.  Roman Catholics and Luther were teaching that Christ is present somehow in the elements of bread and wine.  Calvin’s doctrine of presence was tied to his understanding of our union with Christ.  Zwingli’s understanding of presence was based on his reading of Christ’s words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  In other words, according to Zwingli, Christ is present in the Supper in the sense that He is present in the same room, but this kind of presence was not distinctive of the Supper.  Luther reacted very strongly to this view, but Calvin objected to it as well.

Calvin is one subject of the next chapter by Shawn Wright on the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.  Because I stand within the Reformed tradition, this chapter is of particular interest.  My comments will accordingly be somewhat more detailed.  Unlike the previous chapter, which was devoted to the doctrine of Luther rather than the doctrine of the Lutheran tradition, this chapter is not devoted to Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper.  I believe this was an unfortunate decision on the part of either the editors or the author because it greatly limited what he was able to do.  The same would have been true of the previous chapter had the author and editors decided to deal with the entire Lutheran tradition.  They would have had to deal with Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, and Gerhard as well as the Book of Concord.  It would have been too much.  Similarly, I think trying to deal with the entire Reformed tradition in one chapter was too much.  The Reformed tradition encompasses several views of the Lord’s Supper.  One of those views was examined in the chapter on Zwingli.  Another is found in the views of Calvin.  I believe this chapter would have been much improved had it been devoted solely to Calvin’s view.  If it had then been decided to look at Reformed confessional views, a separate chapter could have been devoted to the doctrine found in the two main Reformed confessional streams: the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt).  I think Wright was mistaken in assuming that in order to examine the Reformed confessional view, he would have had to examine all of them (p. 249).

After explaining that it would be impossible to examine every Reformed confession and theologian, Wright says, “In this chapter, then, we examine the two most important sources (after the Bible) to the RT [Reformed tradition] in the English-speaking world: John Calvin and the WCF” (p. 249).  Wright moves into the evaluation phase of the chapter quite early on when he writes, “Calvin especially, and Westminster to a lesser degree, detracted from the centrality of the gospel by over-emphasizing the power of the Eucharist” (p. 250).  Wright has already mentioned in a footnote that he thinks the views of Calvin and Westminster diverge and that Westminster is better (p. 249–50, n. 7), but both undermine the gospel to a degree in his understanding.

Right off the bat, a significant methodological problem in Wright’s examination of Calvin’s doctrine becomes evident.  He says that he has decided to limit his interaction with Calvin to the final 1559 edition of the Institutes (p. 254, n. 20).  Surprisingly, the same footnote mentions Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford, 2000) because Muller takes great pains to argue (rightly) that the Institutes must not be taken in isolation, but must be read alongside the commentaries (not to mention his letters, sermons, catechisms, tracts, and treatises).  Calvin wrote an enormous amount on the Lord’s Supper in a variety of contexts.  His interaction with the Lutherans Westphal and Heshusius alone can fill hundreds of pages in translation.  One simply cannot understand Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper by looking only at the 1559 Institutes.  This is another reason why a separate chapter on Calvin would have been advisable. 

According to Wright there are several problems with the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.  The root problem is its definition of sacraments.  Wright says that the Bible does not speak of the Supper as a “means of grace,” a “sign,” or a “seal,” nor does it teach that Christ is objectively present in the Supper (p. 279–80).  Wright admits that his criticisms express an inherent biblicism found in the Second London Baptist Confession (p. 280), but he does not deal adequately with the biblical arguments given by the Reformed in support of their definition of sacraments.  These arguments are based on a biblical-theological reading of the entire Scripture and what it has to say about God’s covenants and the signs and seals he attaches to them.

Wright points out three other problems he finds with the Reformed doctrine of the Supper.  First, he finds no support for the idea “that Jesus is present in the Supper in a way He is not present at other times” (p. 280).  Second, he thinks Reformed doctrine teaches believers to look to the Supper instead of to the cross for comfort.  Finally, he argues that “the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on Christ’s unique spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper lacks explicit biblical warrant” (p. 281).  The first and third issues are closely related, and I think this is an example of how interacting with the commentaries of Calvin could have helped.  Wright’s claim that the Reformed doctrine of the Supper causes believers to look to the Supper instead of to the cross for comfort is based on some basic misunderstandings the Reformed tradition.  The two are not opposed.  It is beyond the scope of this brief review to get into too many details about this.  Suffice it to say that for those who are interested, I have attempted to explain Calvin’s view in the first chapter of my book Given For You as well as in my chapter on Calvin’s doctrine of the sacraments in Derek Thomas and John Tweeddale’s book John Calvin: For a New Reformation (Crossway, forthcoming).

The final chapter in the historical section of the book is Gregory Wills’ chapter entitled “Sounds From Baptist History.”  The chapter, while not bad, was not what I expected.  I expected to read about the views of the Supper held by some of the most prominent Baptist theologians throughout history.  Instead the chapter is devoted almost (not entirely) exclusively to a discussion of the debate among Baptists over open vs. close communion.  Wills argues that the move from close communion to open communion in the Baptist churches prepared Baptists to tolerate liberalism.  Not all of the contributors to this book agree on this point (see p. 4).  As the editors indicate in their Epilogue, this is a book written by Baptists for Baptists (p. 391), so perhaps such a topic continues to be a matter of great interest to Baptist readers.  As an eavesdropping outsider, however, I would have appreciated a discussion of more than one issue.

Brian Vickers chapter is titled “The Lord’s Supper: Celebrating the Past and Future in the Present.”  His chapter is a theological appraisal of the Lord’s Supper from a Baptist perspective.  The chapter includes a lengthy section on the nature of “remembrance” in the Old and New Testament and why God calls His people not to forget.  All in all the chapter is a helpful discussion of the past, present, and future aspects of the Lord’s Supper.

Gregory Alan Thornbury considers the implications of the Supper on the Christian community in his chapter.  The chapter focuses much of its attention on the role of the Christian community in the wider world.  This chapter also contains my favorite quote from the entire book.  Speaking of American Christians in general, Thornbury speaks of how “we” find ourselves immersed in a confusing and violent world.  “We” ignore the fact that this was the situation of the ancient world too.  “We” want to find the biblical principles that transcend time and place.  Then he writes, “We have read Gadamer’s trenchant critique of Schleiermacher in Truth and Method and are tempted to feel jaded about the prospects of recovering authorial intent” (p. 350).  The first thought that popped into my mind as I read that was, “We have?”  Thornbury also expresses concern that younger Baptists seem to be attracted to “real presence” views of the Supper” (p. 359).  He calls them to remain content with the memorial view that has long been the majority view among Baptists.

The final chapter in the book, by Ray Van Neste, answers a number of practical questions about the observance of the Lord’s Supper in the context of the local church.  He begins with a helpful overview of some reasons why the Supper is undervalued in Baptist churches (I think many of these same reasons also apply in other churches as well).  He discusses among other things a lack of appreciation for ritual, a lack of appreciation for symbolism, a focus on the negative (i.e. on what we don’t believe), a lack of substantive teaching, the entertainment culture, and joyless observance.  He then turns to answering a number of important practical questions.  I will not mention all of his answers because many are quite standard and unsurprising.  A few of his answers, however, might be worth noting.  It is interesting, for example, that he argues strongly for weekly observance of the Supper (pp. 370–4).  He also argues that the church should use one loaf rather than many small pieces of bread (p. 375).  The chapter is a good overview of some questions almost every church of any denomination will face at one point or another.

The main weakness in this book stems from trying to cover too much in too little space in certain instances (esp. the chapters on the patristic era and on the Reformed doctrine of the Supper).  I am loathe to mention it at all because like almost every writer, I have fallen victim to the same thing in my own work.  I raise the issue at all only because potential readers should not have unrealistic expectations.  All of the chapters in this book are well-written.  It is simply my opinion that some were able to cover their topic better than others because the range of issues to be discussed in those chapters was sufficiently narrow to enable the necessary depth.  I look forward to seeing what kind of discussions this book will raise in Baptist circles.  Will Baptists begin to seriously consider weekly communion, for example?  We will see.  I would strongly recommend this book to all Christians who are interested in learning more about the Supper of our Lord.