Baptists and the Lord's Supper

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My “Conversations with a Catholic” series is now deep into the discussion about the Lord’s Supper. Fellow-blogger and podcaster Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, noticed that my response to the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist leaned more Reformed/Calvinist than what has historically been the Baptist position. In response to the view many younger Baptists (such as myself) are embracing, Michael posted an interview with Dr. Peter Gentry about the Baptist view.

Michael and I have dialogued a few times over email regarding this topic. I appreciate the quotes that he mentioned in his post, but I’m curious as to his putting Spurgeon in the same list. Spurgeon had an unabashedly Calvinistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. There are many other Baptists in history who have understood the “spiritual presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Michael responded by saying, “While Spurgeon used the metaphor of “feeding” right out of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I’m not convinced that Spurgeon completely abandoned the Baptist view for a view that the presence of Christ is with the elements in a way He is not present otherwise. The issue for me is not the language of spiritual presence, feeding by faith, etc. The issue is whether the elements are associated with the presence of Christ in a way that is NOT true if the elements are absent.” He also pointed out that Spurgeon changed his catechism to say “ordinance” instead of “sacrament.”

I admit: Spurgeon is one of these guys that people use for whatever view they have. Just think of his views on eschatology. But I tend to think that Spurgeon’s view fits with Reformed theology more than anything else, due to his insistence on weekly observance and his continual speaking about the preciousness of meeting Christ at the Lord’s Table. Perhaps he meant this symbolically. Perhaps not.

Honestly, I feel “starved” in the Baptist Church for the blessing of Communion. We don’t have it but 4-5 times a year, and when we do, it’s like a tacky add-on inconvenience to the rest of the service. Let me meet Jesus at the table every week! It’s been the centerpiece of Christian worship for 2000 years.

On this, Michael and I both agree. He told me, “I want us to elevate the Lord’s Supper. I want us to acknowledge, read and use our own confessions, and to connect those confessions with the larger Christian tradition when possible. I want us to commune frequently. Weekly is fine with me. I want us to have the Baptist distinctives and and not act as if a ‘symbol’ must always be demeaned by saying ‘only.’ Symbols are powerful ways of perceiving truth and presence. But they do not set boundaries on those realities. The language of symbolism is the only thing that avoids the slippery slope to Rome via the sacraments.”

Michael’s concern with the Reformed/Baptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper is that it might open the door to Rome and Roman spirituality. He sees the Anabaptist and Reformed streams of the Southern Baptist Convention and knows that Southern Seminary represents the Reformed side. Yet he worries that Southern will eventually send many young Baptists to Rome in their search for spiritual objectivity.

I understand Michael’s concern about the Reformed view opening the door to Rome and Roman spirituality… what concerns me is that it seems the symbolic view is adopted precisely because it’s far from Rome. I’m really not concerned about whether my view of the Lord’s Supper is closer to Rome or to Zwingli. I want to truly understand the mystery of the Lord’s Supper that is taught in Scripture.

I don’t want to jump into Zwingli’s ditch because I’m afraid of Roman excess. Neither do I want to adopt Calvin’s view as a middle way. I’m afraid that some people go with the memorial view simply because it’s so far from Rome, while others choose Calvin or Luther as a middle-route. If this is the case, Rome is still front and center and we’re all just positioning ourselves in reference to the Roman Catholic Church… which is giving the Roman view more weight than its worth, in my opinion.

I also understand Michael’s concern that Southern Seminary may send Baptists to Rome by promoting the Reformed view. But could it be that more Baptists are going to Rome because of the disconnect that comes from “celebrating” a memorial-only feast in which we so emphasize what the Lord’s Supper is not that we are preaching the “real absence?”

It’s interesting that Spurgeon says “ordinance,” not “sacrament.” I admit I don’t like either one of these terms. Ordinance sounds like it’s just a command. Ask some Baptists why we baptize and take the Lord’s Supper, and some will say, “I guess just because Jesus told us to.” That’s pretty pathetic. There’s so much more to these actions than that. Sacrament, on the other hand, I like better, but it can be easily misleading because people infuse the word with so many different meanings.

If “sacrament” means “imparting grace,” then I would say that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are indeed sacraments, though the grace they impart is not “saving grace,” but a “strengthening grace,” much like the grace that comes from hearing the Word of God preached. (Thus the Lutheran/Reformed combination of “word” and “sacrament.”) Of course, try to explain that and still use the word “sacrament.” Or try to fit that definition into “ordinance.”

I want to use my confession, and I believe the Baptist Faith and Message in what it says about the Lord’s Supper. That I may take it a little further doesn’t mean I’m outside the confines of the confession. Many Baptist confessions of the past are even more explicitly Reformed in the sense of the Lord’s Supper.

When Michael says the “language of symbolism” is the only thing avoiding the slippery slope, I again get the feeling that we’re choosing our language and seeking to articulate our view of the Lord’s Supper with the shadow of Rome looming in the background. I don’t want to go to the biblical text saying, “How can I avoid Roman excess as I study the Lord’s Supper?” I want to study the teaching on the Lord’s Supper and be ready to have my presuppositions challenged, even if it doesn’t sound Baptist, or it sounds closer to Rome, or Calvin, or whoever.

Yet, I still contend that one can be a good Baptist, believe in the BF&M and still maintain a “spiritual presence” in the Lord’s Supper. And I think Spurgeon is the model.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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