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The Mystery of the Table

Thoughts on the Theology and Practice of the Lord's Supper

July 11, 2015Filed under Theology#m. div.#papers#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Keith Whitfield's Christian Theology III class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Lord’s Table—that microcosm of the great Wedding Supper of the Lamb, the celebration of the end of the age and the dawn of eternal glory—is, sadly and ironically, one of the great sources of division and contention among the people of God. While this division is tragic, it does rightly reflect the importance of the issue, reflecting as it does on central issues including a church’s or denomination’s Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology. It is both important enough to divide over, and central enough to warrant ongoing effort to reconcile over. However, to either rightly divide or rightly reunite, believers must have a clear understanding of the issues at stake in the discussion, as well as the Biblical, theological, reasonable, and traditional bases for those reasons.1

Three major questions confront the church regarding the Lord’s Supper: What is it?, Who may administer it?, and Who may receive it? The first question is a matter of Christology and sacramentology; the second and third questions are ecclesiological, but depend on the first.

Christology and sacramentology

The classic Catholic view, transubstantiation is the idea that in the Lord’s Supper, the body and blood of Christ become truly, physically present in the elements—not in their physical makeup, but in their ontological reality.2 Protestants have frequently characterized this view as a re-sacrifice of Christ, in which the priest sacrifices Christ again. The actual Roman Catholic view is not a re-offering of Christ, however, but a re-presentation of Christ’s offering. Put another way, when the priest offers the sacrament, the congregation mystically participates in the once-for-all action that Christ accomplished at the cross in time and space.3 (Granting that the Protestant characterization accurately reflects popular Catholic piety regarding the Mass—but just as Protestants would not wish to be judged on the worst excesses of their own traditions’ popular piety, so they should interact with the best of Catholic thought and not only its worst extremes.) Catholics further believe that God provides grace to aid the believer in life and to save from the power of sin by taking the mass.

The Lutheran concept of the Table is different from the Catholic position, but nearer it than most other Protestant views. Luther rejected many elements of Roman Catholic practice of the mass, along with the Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation and re-presentation.4 However, he insisted that Christ’s body and blood were nonetheless physically present in the bread and wine. In support of this view, he leaned heavily on the language of the words of institution, “This is my body… this is my blood…” The simple declaration he took to be a clear indication of reality, rather than sign and signified (as Zwingli argued in their debates). That is: “the body and blood of Christ are received through the acts of eating and drink… the consecrated bread is his body and the consecrated wine is his blood.”5 (Many) Lutherans are thus inclined to take the Reformed view (see below) as of an “unreal, fictitious presence” in contrast with a real, “corporeal presence.”6

There are variations in the Reformed tradition, most prominently Zwingli’s memorial view and Calvin’s “real” or “spiritual” presence view. Of these, Calvin’s is the most distinctive and the most widely practiced apart from Zwingli’s view, and is the dominant view among orthodox/Westminster Presbyterians. Calvin argued that Supper is a gift from God the Father, which points to Jesus Christ, as the Holy Spirit makes Christ really present to believers.7 He took the words of institution to indicate that Jesus really is present with believers in the feast—“the incarnate, risen and ascended Jesus Christ along with the grace that God promises.”8 For Calvin and his successors, the bread and wine are really bread and wine, and these untransformed elements are themselves part of God’s gift.9 At the same time, this view takes the words of institution as more than mere sign-language; it affirms that through the Spirit believers are truly partaking of Christ himself.

Probably the dominant view among Western evangelicals is that the Supper is symbolic or memorial only. First articulated by Zwingli and championed by the Anabaptists and Baptists in the centuries that followed, this approach has its adherents among nearly all present-day free-church denominations and non-denominational churches, including the majority of Baptists and charismatics (of all “waves”). There is no single view among Baptists or other low-church evangelicals (Pentecostals or other charismatics included), since they have no single binding authority, whether ecclesiastical or confessional.10 Nonetheless, some standard contours do emerge: baptist theologians tend to emphasize that the grace of God is specially present, but only in the same ways it is specially present in preaching, fellowship, or other normal means of grace. On the other hand, common piety regards the supper as purely symbolic, having no gracious content whatsoever.11 Popular views among charismatics may modify this somewhat, however, by including the idea of healing at the Table, as an act of the Spirit for the gathered church.12

Ecclesiological Practice

Nearly all major traditions partake of the Lord’s Supper as gathered churches—not in individual or family settings (though there are of course exceptions). While some denominations and organizations also practice the Eucharist in parachurch contexts, this is the exception rather than the rule.13 The Catholic church offers the Mass daily: as the supreme sacrament and primary means of grace in the life of a Catholic believer, it must be taken frequently. Lutherans, most Reformed churches, Anglicans, and Methodists generally take the Supper weekly, usually as the climax of the Sunday service. By contrast, most other low-church evangelicals—whether denominationally affiliated or not, and whether charismatic or not—come to the table much less frequently. There is no typical pattern among such groups. Taking the supper as rarely as once or twice a year is not unheard-of, taking it weekly is rare, and monthly or quarterly perhaps the most common.

Various demoninations’ restrictions on the Table vary significantly. The Catholic and Orthodox generally restrict the Table to those in communion with their traditions. Some (though by no means all) Lutherans and Reformed similarly bar from the Supper those who do not share their particular confessional stances.14 Among the free church traditions, practices vary widely. On the one hand, many modern baptistic churches practice fully open communion15—a practice that has deep roots in the tradition, dating at least to the practice of John Newton’s church. On the other hand, the majority of Baptists historically and many today argue for closed communion, where only believers baptized as believers (and usually by immersion) may take communion.16 Across all traditions, advocates of more “open” communion emphasize that it is a universal church institution that emphasizes Christ’s work on behalf of all believers, while those in favor of “closed” communion emphasize the importance of the elements that do separate the denominations—not least their Christology.

Spiritual Presence, Practiced Regularly

Although the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions are commendable for their attentiveness to the words of institution, there remain substantial problems with both their views. The Roman Catholic emphasis on priestly mediation of the mass obscures Christ’s all-sufficiency as mediator; likewise, the language of re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice obscures the finality of Christ’s act on the cross. The Lutheran view recognizes no distinction whatsoever between sign and thing signified, and it hangs on the interpretation of the crucial “is” in the words of institution, ironically without regard for how language (sign) may convey something other than than bare sense (signified). Meanwhile, purely symbolic/memorial views fail to give due attention to either the seriousness of Christ’s words at institution or the ways in which God has always mediated his grace through physical signs and symbols. The language of both Old and New Testament ordinances is more than merely figurative: God really did something in the sacrifice of sheep and goats, and he really does something in baptism, church discipline, and the Eucharist.

Calvin’s “real presence” view seems the best of the options. It maintains the immensity of Christ’s proclamation of his presence, but without insisting on a view of that presence that diminishes his corporeal ascension. It maintains a truly sacramental view of the material elements, thereby claiming the goodness of the created order and God’s right to use his created world in particular and spiritual ways, but without embracing an ex opere operato interpretation of his grace along the way. Finally, it both maintains the actual presence of Christ himself and is beautifully Trinitarian, understanding that presence as effected by the Spirit, who both catches the believer up to heaven and mediates the Savior to his people in their fellowship, as believers partake of the free gift of the Father.

The Lord’s Supper is a demonstration of the unity of Christ’s people, and as such it should be extended as widely as possible. On the one hand, it is important to offer the Supper only to those who are professing believers in Christ. On the other, refusing communion to those who worship the Trinitarian God in the risen Lord Jesus proclaims division in the very practice meant to display the church’s unity. Against the practice of “closed” communion, churches should welcome to the table any who trust in Christ. “It is a meal of remembrance for Jesus’ sacrifice that brought us forgiveness from sins. As such it is solely a meal for disciples…. Therefore our communion is open to all who profess to be followers and disciples of Christ.”17

As to frequency, Scripture is silent, and so it behooves Christians today not to press any position too strongly. Yet it still seems fair to say that if indeed the ordinance is a place of special meeting between Christ and his people, then his people should be eager to meet with him often. In that light, weekly communion seems best. However, this does not necessarily entail partaking of the Table in every service (though it may). Churches might also opt to leave it at its current monthly or quarterly frequency for corporate gatherings, but make it a part of the weekly gathering of small groups, for example, thus emphasizing both the broader community of the church and the particular unity of the communities within it.18


Many believers are tempted to dismiss these sorts of details as of little importance—secondary issues that do not or should not affect them or the life of their church. However, because the church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper has implications in so much of the church’s life, her doctrine and practice at the Table are in fact quite important. Rightly understood and practiced, the Table teaches the church about Christology, the communion of the saints, the work of the Spirit, the goodness of the created order, and the relationship between Christ’s work and God’s grace. These are not light matters; they are foundational in the life of the church. The high-church traditions certainly have this much right, then: the liturgies and practices of the church matter. Indeed, in many ways, the practices of a community may be as profound a force in shaping her people as the proclamations of her leaders.19 Any Christian community with deficient views or practices of communion will necessarily be lacking in its worship and fellowship. Christians are called to unity, and it is around the table that their unity is most deeply proclaimed. If there is any place for ecumenism among Christian denominations, it is at the Table. Likewise, Christians are called to worship not just Christ-the-idea, but Christ-the-man, whose body and blood they spiritually receive for the nourishment of their souls: the good gift of the Father, worked in them by the Spirit. Christ the Lord is seated in heaven, and is spiritually present everywhere, but he is spiritually present especially at the Table,20 and this is a great comfort to saints in the midst of trials and woes.

Works Cited

  • Bergman, Mike. “Why We Practice ‘Open’ Communion.” SBC Voices. Posted September 9, 2011. (accessed June 29, 2015).

  • Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

  • Gros, Jeffrey. “The Roman Catholic View.” In The Lord’s Supper: Five Views, edited by Gordon T. Smith, 13–31. Downers Grove: IVP Academic,

  • Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. “The Pentecostal View.” In Smith, 117-135.

  • Moore, Russell D. “Table Manners.” Touchstone, Sept/Oct 2011. (accessed June 29, 2015).

  • Olson, Roger E. “The Baptist View.” In Smith, 91–108.

  • Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. TODO

  • Stephenson, John R. “The Lutheran View.” In Smith, 41–58.

  • Van Dyk, Leanne. “The Reformed View.” In Smith, 67–82.

  1. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a helpful framework for all theological work, and perhaps especially for any sort of ecumenical work, so long as the centrality and final authority of Scripture itself over the other criteria is upheld.

  2. Jeffrey Gros, “The Roman Catholic View,” in The Lord’s Supper: Five Views, ed. Gordon T. Smith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 17–19; cf. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 1362–1367.

  3. Gros, 19–20.

  4. At the least, he rejected his understanding of those views, and probably as well the Catholic church’s popular teaching at the item; leaving aside aside the issue of Roman Catholic views on tradition and authority, is is possible either that Luther was mistaken on Catholic dogma or that Catholic teaching has been clarified helpfully in the intervening centuries.

  5. John R. Stephenson, “The Lutheran View,” in Smith, 45.

  6. ibid., 48; emphasis original.

  7. Leanne Van Dyk, “The Reformed View,” in Smith, 75–77.

  8. ibid., 78.

  9. So, rightly, David E. Willis, Notes on the Holiness of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 93, quoted in Smith, 35. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1333.

  10. Roger E. Olson, “The Baptist View,” in Smith, 93–94; Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “The Baptist View: A Pentecostal Response,” in Smith, 115.

  11. Olson, 101.

  12. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “The Pentecostal View,” in Smith, 126–128.

  13. The author was very briefly an attendee of a Wesley Foundation campus organization in college where the Eucharist was a regular part of the weekly service.

  14. So Gros, 31; Stephenson, 56–57.

  15. So Olson, 37, “Withholding sacramental sharing on the basis of disagreement about the nature of the Lord’s supper seems odd to us… we are not offended by Catholics’ closed Communion, but we find it odd and exclusive”—a sentiment he reiterates on p. 64.

  16. So Russell D. Moore, “Table Manners,” Touchstone, Sept/Oct 2011, (accessed June 29, 2015).

  17. Mike Bergman, “Why We Practice ‘Open’ Communion,” SBC Voices, posted September 9, 2011, (accessed June 29, 2015).

  18. This highlights the contextual nature of the practice: while regular Communion is a natural outworking of any sacramental view, the way that works out in practice naturally looks very different in a house church than in a megachurch, and different in Kenya than in Kansas.

  19. Cf. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.

  20. A point made by Nathan A. Finn in numerous class lectures and private conversations.