06 December 2001

Yesterday afternoon I went over to Westminster Seminary's bookstore and bought Robert Letham's The Lord's Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread and John Frame's No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (both P&R, 2001). I finished reading both this morning and plan to comment on them. Here's a review of the Letham book, a bit long for a blog, but here it is anyway.

Robert Letham's The Lord's Supper is a reasonably good short introduction to Reformed eucharistic theology, only 75 pages and with fairly large print, making it accessible to the educated layperson not only in content, but also in format. He ranges through many of the typical topics: New Testament terminology, Passover, Jesus' bread of life discourse (John 6), historic views regarding the real presence of Christ and related issues, questions of practice and frequency, and the eschatology of the Supper.

There is much here that is good and edifying and needs to be heard by the evangelical church.

Letham begins by pointing out the degree to which the historic Reformed understanding of the Lord's Supper has be marginalized, especially in the American context, and even by great defenders of Reformed orthodoxy such as Charles Hodge. With regard to the dispute between Hodge and John Williamson Nevin, Letham happily admits that the "verdict of history has been that Nevin was right and that Hodge had failed to grasp his own theological tradition" (p. 2). Thus, as he notes later, Reformed evangelicals need to recover a biblical understanding of the eucharist as "central to the gospel" (p. 13).

Letham goes on to ably defend the historic and Reformed understanding of John 6 as having at least some important reference to the eucharist. Among other things, Letham notes that from the standpoint of John as the Gospel-writer and of his audience, the eucharistic overtones would have been unmistakable. After all, Jesus' miracle in John 6 is described in terms of the eucharistic action--he took bread, gave thanks, and distributed it (Jn 6:11).

The fact that the Supper had not yet been instituted does not count against Jesus' speaking of it here (especially in the context of John's Gospel) since Jesus repeatedly speaks of things that would only make full sense after his death and resurrection (e.g., the need to receive the Spirit, Jn 7:37-39). I would add that Jesus' action in John 6 occurs against the backdrop of the Passover (v. 4) and Israel's meals in the wilderness (v. 32), just as the institution of the Lord's Supper does, though, oddly Letham seems to want to play down any connection between the Passover and eucharist (more on that below).

John 6, then, can provide us with an important understanding of the Lord's Supper, Letham notes, as a means by which we truly feed upon the body and blood of Jesus, through faith, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through this eucharistic feasting "we are introduced into the living fellowship of the Triune God" and by means of it "we receive eternal life" (pp. 14-15). There is no baptistic memorialism here!

After chapter two's historical survey, Letham spends the third chapter giving a useful summary of the views of Calvin and the Westminster Standards as illustrating the biblical doctrine he has already unfolded. His analysis of the Westminster Standards is particularly helpful for those who seek ordination in one of those bodies that requires subscription to the Standards, especially given to what degree the actual teaching of the Confession is often neglected.

In the fourth chapter, Letham moves quickly though several questions of practice, some of which he had touched upon already. He argues that the use of a single loaf and a single cup is the most appropriate way of administering the Supper, noting that for Presbyterians to do otherwise is actually a violation of Confessional standards. Moreover, he urges us to throw off our capitulation to the 19th century temperance movement and put real wine back into the cup, thereby conveying "the intoxicating nature of the gospel" (p, 53).

Regarding the use of leavened or unleavened bread, he argues that the Scriptures leave this matter as open as whether we use burgundy or port and I find his argument convincing. He ends the chapter looking at the question of the frequency of communion and, while he does not think churches should be required to celebrate the Supper with any particular frequency, it is clear that he thinks the biblical example and impulse of the Reformation strongly weigh in favor of weekly communion.

The epilogue provides a brief devotional meditation upon the Supper as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which we already have begun to participate by faith and through the Spirit who unites us with the worship of the angels.

Despite all there is to recommend in Letham's treatment of the Supper, there are several areas in which I found his comments puzzling, overly-narrow in their understanding, or simply mistaken.

First, there is his puzzling attempt to distance the Lord's Supper from Passover. Letham points to discontinuites between the practice of the Supper and that of the Passover seder, the probability that Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples the night before the actual Passover (Jn 18:28), and the idea that the Supper is more clearly connected to the covenant meal on Mt. Sinai in Ex 24 than it is with the Passover festival.

I think, however, that Letham fails to make his case. The fact that the Lord's Supper does not resemble the Passover seder in its precise form does not indicate that there is no deep connection between them. The eucharist fulfills all Old Covenant sacramental meals from the trees in the Garden and the bread and wine of Melchizedek to the sacrificial system of Leviticus and the great feasts of Israel (an observation that is noticably absent from Letham's account). The Passover connection is one of many, but it is not absent, though I'm not entirely sure it is helpful to try to identify the eucharist with one Old Covenant meal or event as somehow more relevant than others. Nonetheless, even if Jesus did not share his meal with his disciples on the actual feast of Passover, it cannot be doubted that Jesus understood what he was doing with them as a Passover meal (e.g., Lk 22:8, 15).

Besides, the establishment of the covenant with Israel on Sinai, including the elders eating with Yahweh and the blood of the covenant sprinkled upon the people (Ex 24), was part of the meaning of Passover. In the first century, Passover was a celebration and commemoration of God's having delivered his people from Egypt for the purpose of establishing his covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. It also served to renew that covenant in the present and anticipate God's final consummation of that covenant in a future restoration. All of that is caught up into the meaning of Jesus' Last Supper as he goes to the cross to accomplish all that Passover represented: deliverance, renewal, and restoration.

Second, I find Letham's historical overview of the Supper also to be a bit puzzling. To term "transubstantiation" and "consubstantiation" as modes of "physical presence" seems misleading at best, even if that is how those views may have been popularly understood by those whose churches held to them. But Thomas Aquinas and other theologians are very clear that the presence of Christ in the eucharist is a different mode of presence from what I believe we would ordinarily think of as "physical."

I also find it odd that Letham traces transubstantiation back to the earliest centuries of the church when it is far from clear that the varied views of the Fathers really would count as a belief in some kind of "corporal" presence of Christ, even if their views proved an impetus to later developments. Additionally, aligning the notion of "eucharistic sacrifice" in the writings of the Fathers with a belief in Christ's corporal presence not only misconstrues the patristic understandings of that presence, but also what many of the Fathers meant by that "sacrifice" (see de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum for elaboration).

As for Lutheran views, whatever we may think of the notion of the ubiquity of Christ's body, the Formula of Concord is quite clear that communion with the body and blood of the Lord in the eucharist is not to be understood in a carnal or corporal manner, an error they term "Capernaic" after the misunderstanding of the Jews in John 6. Rather, the Lutheran standards insist, the mode of Christ's presence is a "celestial" one.

Third, Letham summarizes the eucharist in three aspects: [a] a memorial, [b] a proclamation of the gospel, and [c] a participation in the body and blood of the Lord (pp. 6-7). Throughout the book, however, he concentrates on explicating [c] and seemingly treats [a] and [b] as if they were uncontroversial and agreed upon. But this seems to me to be an overly-narrow understanding of what it means for the Supper to be a "memorial" and a "proclamation."

What is usually meant by a "memorial" in evangelical circles is an individual and subjective remembering of Jesus and his work, and that is the understanding that Letham seems to assume. But it is not clear that this is the primary intent of what Jesus established since, in the Scriptures, a "memorial" is not so much a subjective remembering but an objective commemoration before the face of God and people (as Jeremias and Thurian have shown). Arguably, it is such a notion of an objective memorial that the Westminster Confession has in mind when it speaks of the Supper as "a commemoration of that one offering up" of Christ (29.7).

On this understanding, the action of the eucharist is one by which the people of God make remembrance of Christ's one sacrifice and do so before the face of the Father himself, confessing thereby that Christ alone is our propitiation and life, and pleading the promises held forth in him. This view is standard among Reformed divines as diverse as Perkins, du Molin, de Mornay, Turretin, and Polanus. Richard Baxter, for example, writes that the Supper is a means by which the church, "might show the Father that sacrifice, made once for sin, in which they trust, and for which it is that they expect all the acceptance of their persons with God, and hope for audience, when they beg for mercy, and offer up prayer or praises to him" (The Christian Directory II.xxiv. Direction II.ii).

If this is what Jesus meant by establishing the Supper as a "memorial," then we may also ask if this is the manner in which the Supper "proclaims the Lord's death" and if God is a primary audience for that proclamation.

Fourth, Letham needs to take greater account of the ecclesial context of the Supper as something that thoroughly informs how we think about the Supper as a memorial, as a proclamation of the Lord's death, and as communion with Christ. While he does note that we have "communion with Christ, and at the same time and as a direct corollary, communion with the body of Christ" (p. 39), he does not trace out the profound implications of this insight, even if he does speak against American evangelical individualism.

So, for instance, we might argue that the Supper functions as a commemoration of Jesus' death not merely in its ritual action (as Letham suggests, p. 50), but particularly as the action of a gathered people who proclaim that death precisely by eating and drinking together--forgiven and forgiving, reconciled to God and to one another, in unity and love (see Leithart's article in WTJ 59). Likewise, the presence of Christ and our receiving his body and blood might also be placed in the context of the ecclesial body, Christus totus.

Fifth, I simply note my belief that Letham is mistaken in his understanding of those who advocate paedo-communion. While paedo-communion certainly goes against the tide of certain traditions within Reformed Protestantism, there are some weighty biblical arguments in favor of it, none of which Letham engages even superficially. His dismissal of it is very strangely tied to his attempt to align it with a belief in either transubstantiation or baptistic memorialism. The irony, of course, is that neither of the major traditions that hold these views actually supports paedo-communion!

Letham also seems unaware that the same arguments by which Reformed theology has always deflected the Baptist requirement for public repentance and profession of faith as prerequisite for baptism might equally be deployed against his requirement for explicit repentance, faith, and self-examination as qualifications for communion. I would agree we should take the requirement of 1 Corinthians 11 for self-examination very seriously. But in context the requirement is that we examine ourselves to determine if we are truly discerning the Body of the Lord (1 Cor 11:28-29), that is, whether or not we are creating unnecessary divisions within the ecclesial Body that gathers around the table (1 Cor 1:11-13; 11:18-22). If we continue to exclude baptized children from the table, however, one might argue that we are the ones in need of self-examination.

In conclusion, whatever the weaknesses of Letham's book--and they are largely ones of omission--he has provided the evangelical and Reformed church a much needed wake-up call. The holy eucharist has too long been relegated to the sidelines of our spirituality, piety, and worship. My hope is that Letham's clear and encouraging tract will bring about the kind of sacramental revival for which the Reformers worked so hard.