A book to look for

2014/04/09

Tolle Lege has an exciting release coming out this month. I remain keenly interested in sacramental piety, especially the Reformed variety, even though a somewhat curmudgeonly friend of mine recently attempted to pour cold water on my interest in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. How can it be otherwise? I seriously doubt that the Lord intended that Christians would repeatedly encounter baptism and His table within the life of the church without also calling us to reflect deeply on the significance of these means of grace. Hughes Old’s latest work has the look of a thorough overview of the history of Reformed Eucharistic piety. It also ought to make for some fruitful comparison with works such as Mathison’s Given For You, Maclean’s The Lord’s Supper, and Byars’s Lift Your Hearts On High. All of those works cover the history of Holy Communion in the Reformed churches to some degree but none with the scope and detail that Old’s table of contents promises.

Specifically, baptism is a sign and seal of the benefits of forgiveness (Acts 2:38 and 22:16) and of regeneration (Titus 3:5), a being incorporated into the fellowship with Christ and His Church (Rom. 6:4). Therefore baptism is ministered not only to such adults as have been won for Christ through the work of missions, but to the children of believers also, for they together with their parents are included in the covenant of grace, belong to the church (1 Cor. 7:14), and have been taken up into fellowship with the Lord. And when these children grow up, and by public confession personally acquiesce in that covenant, and have come to the years of discretion, and can distinguish the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:28), then they are called together with the whole church again and again to proclaim the Lord’s death till He come, and so strengthen themselves in the fellowship with Christ. For, although baptism and the holy supper have the same covenant of grace as their content, and although both give assurance of the benefit of the forgiveness of sins, the holy supper differs from baptism in this regard that it is a sign and a seal, not of incorporation into but of the maturation and strengthening in the fellowship of Christ and all His members (1 Cor. 10:16:17).

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine, trans. Henry Zylstra (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 541-542. Translation of Magnalia Dei (1909).

Those two sacraments have the whole covenant of grace with all of its benefits, in other words, they have Christ Himself as their content, and accordingly they cannot convey those benefits except by the way of faith. They were, accordingly, instituted for the believers and assure these believers of their portion in Christ. They do not precede the Word but follow it; they have not the power to grant a particular grace which cannot be given by the Word nor be accepted by faith; rather, they are based on the institution of the covenant of grace on God’s part and the confirmation of that covenant of man’s part.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine, trans. Henry Zylstra (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 541. Translation of Magnalia Dei (1909).

Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John CalvinGrace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin by B.A. Gerrish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace and Gratitude is an impressive, scholarly examination of Calvin’s Doctrine on the Lord’s Supper, beginning in a seemingly unusual place. Starting with creation and God as the Fountain of All Good and a Benevolent Father, Gerrish takes up wider themes in Calvin’s theology, showing how these themes preoccupied Calvin the theologian and naturally played dominant roles in the shape of his Eucharistic theology.

Overall, Gerrish ably guides his readers through apt quotations of Calvin’s work. He also shows a superb conversance with the relevant background. Gerrish is particularly good in the early chapters at setting out Calvin’s intellectual world as well as the general history of thought on the goodness of God.

Gerrish occasionally reveals his bias as a mainline historical theologian of the 20th century, complete with ecumenical preoccupations. Even so, I am impressed that he mostly sets aside quibbles and modern critical concerns so that Calvin and his Reformation context receive deep appreciation.

The scope of this work makes it particularly valuable. Gerrish sets the stage with a statement of the issues and an exploration of Calvin’s “Sum of Piety” in the introductory chapter. Moving on through Calvin’s conception of a Benevolent Creator to Calvin’s theology of the Means of Grace and then his thought on Adoption, we finally get into the Lord’s Supper in the last two chapters only after discussing Calvin’s theology of baptism. Readers will enjoy the way the background on the major Calvinistic themes leads naturally to Calvin’s complex and poetic Eucharistic theology.

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From The Strasbourg Rite, 1539:

And may all of us, here gathered before you, in the name of your Son and at your table, O God and Father, truly and profoundly acknowledge the sin and depravity in which we were born, and into which we thrust ourselves more and more deeply by our sinful life. And since there is nothing good in our flesh, indeed since our flesh and blood cannot inherit your kingdom, grant that we may yield ourselves with all our hearts in true faith to your Son, our only Redeemer and Saviour. And since, for our sake, he has not only offered his body and blood upon the cross to you for our sin, but also wishes to give them to us for food and drink unto eternal life, grant that we may accept his goodness and gift with complete longing and devotion, and faithfully partake of and enjoy his true Body and Blood—even himself, our Saviour, true God and true man, the only true bread from heaven; so that we may live no more in our sins and depravity, but that he may live in us and we in him – a holy, blessed and eternal life, verily partaking of the true and eternal testament, the covenant of grace, in sure confidence that you will be our gracious Father for ever, never again reckoning our sins against us, and in all things providing for us in body and soul, as your heirs and dear children: so that we may at all times give thanks and praise, and glorify your holy name in all that we say and do.

Source: Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed, ed. Jasper and Cuming, New York: Oxford, 1980, pp. 150-151.

For this is the design of the gospel, that Christ may become ours, and that we may be engrafted into his body. Now when the Father gives him to us in possession, he also communicates himself to us in him; and hence arises a participation in every benefit. Paul’s argument, then, is this— “Since you have, by means of the gospel which you have received by faith, been called into the fellowship of Christ, you have no reason to dread the danger of death, having been made partakers of him (Hebrews 3:14) who rose a conqueror over death.”

From Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians

Q. 172. May one who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord’s supper?
A. One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened.

While reading Malcolm Maclean’s fine books titled simply The Lord’s Supper, I was struck by a reference to the catechism Q&A above. Here we have tender thoughts from the Westminster Divines (and hopefully, many Presbyterian churches, that is if they still hold to the Larger Catechism). To me, this question shows that the highly popular view that the Puritans were just rigid, cold, precise, and judgmental is just plain wrong. Here I think they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture, that Christ will not harm the bruised reed and snuff out the smoldering wick. Basically, if people come to the Lord’s Supper with doubts, and they most certainly will, that is if they know their own hearts, they have the assurance that Christ is greater than their hearts.

I also recently read another book about the Lord’s Supper. It’s Keith Mathison’s Given For You. It is also a fine book. In fact, Maclean and Mathison’s books are great for comparison, seeing that both advocate John Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist, both carefully review the Biblical witness, and both spend the bulk of their time on surveys of historical theology. Mathison examines the Reformed tradition more broadly while Maclean highlights the fascinating story of Scottish Presbyterian thought and practice.

One quote in Mathison’s book seemed really quite wrong headed. Maybe that’s because it so well reflects the received wisdom. While covering the Westminster Standards on the Lord’s Supper, Mathison cites another author who says that the Westminster Larger Catechism, when it came to the Lord’s Supper, breathed a spirit of oppressive introspection, or something to that effect. I think Q. 172 proves that to be wrong. By the way, it is exceedingly common to associate the Puritans with legalism, introspection, and a lack of joy. Hopefully people will stop doing that so much, or if they feel they must, maybe they’ll do us the favor of arguing the point. The truth is, if this common view of the Puritans is a truism, some of these dour slogans people freely throw around may just have to do with how they view Christianity itself, deep down.