UPDATE: A related issue to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper is the methodology for receiving it. Alastair takes on the wine in communion issue, along with a number of other questions.
UPDATE II: In this BHT post, I demonstrate the the language of Baptist confessions avoided the word “symbol” until the BFM. Note the change from the New Hampshire Confession.
UPDATE III: Here is a recent IM post on weekly communion. I’ll reference it here, and again in my next post on “The Baptist Way: Recovering the Lord’s Supper.” (soli deo is now almost officially ended, so I am grieving the loss of any kind of communion.)
This post begins a new IM series on “The Baptist Way.” These posts will feature resources and interviews focusing on issues in the Baptist tradition that I feel are being neglected in theological discussion today.
This first post will introduce the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. Today, many younger Baptists are identifying with a more reformed theology, and many are moving toward other views of the Lord’s Supper. It will be important to understand the Baptist views, and its strengths and weaknesses, as this kind of interaction/evolution occurs among Baptist evangelicals.
For a short historical look at the various Western views of the Lord’s Supper and their historical origins, visit this page at Luther Seminary. Today’s Baptists have a position deeply influenced by Zwingli, but not completely rejecting the language of Calvin.
If you know nothing about the Baptist practice, visit the Wikipedia entry on Baptist ordinances. (It’s not weaponry.) There are many excellent resources on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. Let me suggest several to reacquaint readers with what Baptists believe. (Consult Baptist creeds, confessions and catechisms for a start.)
Dr. Tom Nettles, professor of Church History at Southern Seminary, has an essay on “Baptists and the Ordinances” with a good summary of the classical Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. Note especially Nettle’s comments on Zwingli’s so-called “bare symbolism.”
Baptists practice the Lord’s Supper in conformity with the Zwinglian view of its essence. John Gill states very simply that it is “to Shew forth the death of Christ till he come again; to commemorate his sufferings and sacrifice, to represent his body broken, and his blood shed for the sins of his people.” Any who desires to take it should examine himself to discern if he “has true faith in Christ, and is capable of discerning the Lord’s body.”
The emphasis on commemoration and representation reflect Zwingli’s interpretation of Scripture and his understanding of the distinctive idioms of human nature in conformity with the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon concerning the undivided person of the two-natured Christ. In his Exposition of the Faith sent to King Francis of France, Zwingli argued that “in the Lord’s Supper the natural and essential body of Christ in which he suffered and is now seated in heaven at the right hand of God is not eaten naturally and literally but only spiritually.” The Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation he contended was not only “presumptuous and foolish” but, more importantly, “impious and blasphemous.”
Though this view has been described as “bare symbolism,” for Zwingli it was no more bare than powerful spiritual meditation on the truths of the gospel. “To eat the body of Christ spiritually,” he explained, “is equivalent to trusting with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God.” This meditation may become a spiritual feast and a means of renewed assurance and sanctification. Zwingli sought to make this clear to the Roman Catholic King Francis:
So then, when you come to the Lord’s Supper to feed spiritually upon Christ, and when you thank the Lord for his great favour, for the redemption whereby you are delivered from despair, and for the pledge whereby you are assured of eternal salvation, when you join with your brethren in partaking of the bread and wine which are the tokens of the body of Christ, then in the true sense of the word you eat him sacramentally. You do inwardly that which you represent outwardly, your soul being strengthened by the faith which you attest in the tokens.
The Supper may only be taken by those who are baptized. The major Protestant confessions agree on this…
I want to strongly recommend Dr. Peter Gentry’s summary of the Baptist position in the Baptist Faith and Message Series at Baptist Press. This summary is outstanding, and later in this post, Dr. Gentry will answer some specific questions on the Lord’s Supper.
What is most helpful about Dr. Gentry’s summary is his connection of the Lord’s Supper with the Jewish Passover meal. It is the Passover meal’s symbolic nature that lays the most obvious foundation for a non-sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper.
The accounts in the Gospels show that the Christian ceremony of the Lord’s Supper has its roots in the Jewish Passover festival. This festival was a ceremony observed by the Jewish people to remind them of the Exodus — that awesome event when the Lord rescued them from 400 years of degradation and slavery in Egypt.
Through great miracles and displays of power, Yahweh brought them out of Egypt, rescued them from the cruel oppression of Pharaoh and brought them into a beautiful land they could call their own. Although by definition the Exodus was a non-repeatable event, its significance was preserved for future generations of Israelites by the institution of the ceremony of the Feast of Passover (Exodus 12:24-27), celebrated every year at the Spring Equinox.
Just before Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the rulers to be crucified, he celebrated this “freedom meal” with his 12 disciples. As he did so, he turned the symbolism of the meal in a new direction.
He used the Passover festival to act out in symbolic drama the meaning of his coming death at the hands of the Jewish and Roman rulers. The unleavened bread and the wine were no longer symbols of deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but pictured him as the Passover Lamb sacrificed so that his people might be delivered from slavery to sin and death. As the leader of a new exodus, he instituted a new ceremony to commemorate it.
Read and master this superb presentation. It is the finest short defense and explanation of the Baptist view that I have found.
Dr. John Piper has several excellent sermons on the Lord’s Supper from a Baptist point of view. The series “Why We Eat the Lord’s Supper” is excellent.
1 Corinthians 11:24 and 25, “Do this in remembrance of me.” “This is my body” means: Let this representation of my body and blood remind you of me. First, the death of Christ is proclaimed. And then by this proclamation we are reminded of Christ. Remember me, Jesus says, sitting with you in fellowship. Remember me being betrayed – and knowing all along. Remember me giving thanks to the God who ordained it all. Remember me breaking the bread just as I willingly gave my own body to be broken. Remember me shedding my blood for you so that you might live because I died. Remember me suffering to obtain for you all the blessings of the new covenant. Remember me promising that I would drink this fruit of the vine new in the kingdom (Mark 14:25). Let the memories of me, in all the fullness of my love and power, flood your soul at this table. Which leads to the third and final meaning of the words, “This is my body.”
These sermons are available in print and for download. There are other resources at Desiring God about the Lord’s Supper as well. The sermon “Why and How We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper” is a fine, short summation of the Baptist view of what the scriptures teach. I commend it as well.
Charles Spurgeon had a more reformed rhetoric about the Lord’s Supper, but stayed within the Baptist view, changing his catechism to say “ordinance” rather than sacrament, and carefully saying “represents” and “instructs” as often as he spoke of “feeding on Christ.” Spurgeon also led his church to take the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. There are many sermons in any collection of Spurgeon’s sermons that show the pastoral use of the Lord’s Supper in a “frequent celebration” context.
For example, this sermon on “Fencing the Table” is a good example of Spurgeon’s view of the how the Lord’s Supper should work in a Baptist context.
The other ordinance is the Lord’s Supper; and, as baptism sets forth, typifies, (mark you, nothing more than typifies,) and is the emblem of the new birth, so the Lord’s Supper is the emblem of the spiritual feeding of that new life. Now, though a man is born only once, he eats a great many more times than once, and drinks a great many more times than once. Indeed, to eat and to drink often, are necessary to the maintenance of our life. If we neglected to do so, we should soon find ourselves in an ill case. Hence, the Supper of the Lord, representing, as it does, the spiritual feeding of the new-born life upon the body and blood of Christ, (and only representing it, mark you,â€”not really doing it in any carnal sense,) is oftentimes to be repeated. We find that the early Christians very frequently broke bread together; I think they did so almost every day. It is recorded, by some of the early fathers, that the first Christians seldom met together, on any day of the week, without commemorating the death of Christ. Augustine mentions this and he seems to have taught that, at least once in the week, on that blessed day which celebrates the resurrection of our Lord, Christians should meet for the breaking of bread. I think that, the oftener we meet for this purpose, the better it is for us. The Holy Spirit specifies no particular time; we are not under a law which binds us to this period or to that. Our Lord leaves it very much to our own loving hearts; but the words that Paul quotes, “This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me,” certainly imply that we should often “do this” in remembrance of our dear Lord and Savior.
Indexes to Spurgeon’s sermon topics are available at several sites.
Southern Baptists first writing theologian was J.L. Dagg. In his Manual of Church Order, Dagg includes an important chapter on “Communion,” and deals with not only the Baptist view (including closed communion,) but also a response to other views.
The simple ceremony is admirably contrived to serve more than a single purpose. While it shows forth the Lord’s death, it represents at the same time the spiritual benefit which the believer derives from it. He eats the bread, and drinks the wine, in token of receiving his spiritual sustenance from Christ crucified. The rite preaches the doctrine that Christ died for our sins, and that we live by his death. He said, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” These remarkable words teach the necessity of his atoning sacrifice, and of faith in that sacrifice. Without these, salvation and eternal life are impossible. When Christ said, “My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed,” he did not refer to his flesh and blood, literally understood. He calls himself the living-bread which came down from heaven. This cannot be affirmed of his literal flesh. To have eaten this literally, would not have secured everlasting life; and equally inefficacious is the Romanist ceremony, in which they absurdly imagine that they eat the real body of Christ. His body is present in the eucharist in no other sense than that in which we can “discern” it. When he said, “This is my body,” the plain meaning is, “This represents my body.” So we point to a picture, and say, “This is Christ on the cross.” The eucharist is a picture, so to speak, in which the bread represents the body of Christ suffering for our sins. Faith discerns what the picture represents. It discerns the Lord’s body in the commemorative representation of it, and derives spiritual nourishment from the atoning sacrifice made by his broken body and shed blood.
1. Q. What two ordinances did Christ give to his Church?
A. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-26).
2. Q. Why Did Christ give these ordinances?
A. ‘To show that his disciples belong to him, and to remind them of what he has done for them (Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-26).
3. Q. What is Baptism?
A. The dipping of believers into water, as a sign of their union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Jn. 3:23; Acts 2:41; 8:12, 35-38; Col. 2:12).
4. Q. What is the purpose of baptism?
A. Baptism testifies to believers that God has cleansed them from their sins through Jesus Christ (Acts 22:16; Col. 2:11-14).
5. Q. Who are to be baptized?
A. Only those who repent of their sins, and believe in Christ for salvation should be baptized (Acts 2:37-41; 8:12; 18:8; 19:4, 5).
6. Q. Should babies be baptized?
A. No; because the Bible neither commands it, nor gives any example of it.
7. Q. What is the Lord’s Supper?
A. At the Lord’s Supper, the church eats bread and drinks wine to remember the sufferings and death of Christ (Mk. 14:22, 24; 1 Cor. 11:23-29).
8. Q. What does the bread represent?
A. The bread represents the body of Christ, broken for our sins (Mt. 26:26; 1 Cor. 11:24).
9. Q. What does the wine represent?
A. The wine represents the blood of Christ, shed for our salvation (Mt. 26:27, 28; 1 Cor. 11:25).
10. Q. Who should partake of the Lord’s Supper?
A. The Lord’s Supper is for those only who repent of their sins, believe in Christ for salvation, receive baptism, and love their fellow men (Mt. 5:21-24; 1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:18, 20, 27-33; 1 Jn. 3:24-27; 4:9-11).
Other Baptist resources may appear in the comment threads or in updates to this post.
In closing this post, I want to return to Dr. Peter Gentry, who kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the Baptist View of the Lord’s Supper. Here are those questions. (I much appreciate Dr. Gentry responding as he was leaving for Germany for the summer.)
1) Many younger Baptists are attracted to Calvin’s view of the supper, primarily because it seems a step above the “bare bones” symbolism they heard growing up in church. What would be your response to a reformed Baptist who said that we should change our view of the supper to a more Presbyterian/Calvinistic view?
Just because an interpretation is favoured by a particular tradition (e.g. Calvinistic or Presbyterian) is essentially irrelevant and does not make the interpretation right or wrong. Every Christian group has had some things right and some things wrong. The key issue is: what does the Bible really teach? We should test all aspects of every tradition, including our own, against the Scriptures. I am more interested in being a Christian faithful to Scripture than in supporting a particular tradition. It just happens that in large measure what I think the Bible teaches is what church historians may identify as baptist tradition.
2) So many of the controversies about the Lord’s Supper revolve around the kind of language Jesus and Paul use. Is there a compelling reason you don’t believe “this is my body” can refer to the bread on the table?
There is a compelling reason why the phrase “this is my body” cannot literally refer to the bread on the table. And this is the fact that the Lord’s Supper is instituted as a “revision” of a Jewish Passover Meal. Since this is the context, the bread and the wine must be interpreted symbolically and not literally. All of the items in the Passover Meal are also symbol. See Exodus 12:26 where the children ask, “What does this ceremony mean to you” (NIV).
3) Many evangelicals are hungering for more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper in their churches. (The average SBC church celebrates 5 times a year.) What would be your view on the value frequent communion in the Baptist tradition?
The Christian tradition in which I grew up celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week. I wrote an entire paper once to show that the Lord’s Supper, according to the teaching of the Apostles, is the very heart of Christian Worship. Acts 2:42 lists it as one of four items to which the early Christians were absolutely devoted. Churches in which the practice of the Lord’s Supper is so marginal (only five times a year) are in my view deficient in their understanding of Scripture. I think what I wrote in my article on the Lord’s Supper defends this view.
In another post, I’ll make some observations on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper.