Issue No 68

Spring 2015


It surprises many people to learn that more was written on the sacraments at the time of the Reformation than on any other doctrine. Why spend so much time, effort and ink on what many Christians today consider to be a relatively trivial part of what we do when we gather together? Why not focus efforts on the “far more weighty doctrines” of the authority of Scripture or justification by grace alone? Well, I think the Reformers had two reasons: Firstly, they knew that no doctrine stands as an island. What we believe about the sacraments necessarily impacts our understanding of justification by grace alone through faith alone and our understanding of the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Secondly, the Reformers knew that the sacraments were not merely trivial things. They are gifts of the Lord Jesus Christ given to his bride, the Church. It is not the high view of the sacraments in the sixteenth century which should concern us, but the low view that the sacraments have today. Somewhere along the road we have lost the understanding of them as being “visible words” which present Christ and his work to us in a way which is particularly suited to our humanity.

Two years ago we dedicated an entire issue of Foundations to examining baptism from both Baptist and Paedobaptist perspectives. The current issue is dedicated to the Lord’s Supper and again brings together contributions from a wide variety of perspectives. Before introducing those articles I would like to continue my editorial commentary on the importance of the “distinct but inseparable” maxim. In previous editorials, we have seen its significance for understanding the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ and sovereignty and human responsibility. My contention in this editorial is that the maxim also has the potential to offer great light in understanding the relationship between the sacraments and the reality to which they point.

While the Reformers spent much time engaging the church in Rome on the doctrines of ex opere operato and transubstantiation, there was a less well-known debate going on among the Reformers themselves about the presence of Christ at the Supper and the relationship between sign and reality. Martin Luther argued for consubstantiation, whereby Christ’s body is physically present “in, with and under” the bread and wine. Huldrych Zwingli vigorously opposed this view and the debate often became heated, most notably at the Marburg Colloquy where Luther began his argument by taking out a piece of chalk and writing “This is my body” on the table! At the heart of the disagreement lay different views concerning the relationship between sign and reality in the sacraments.

Zwingli illustrated his view by reference to the Swiss Confederates’ annual pilgrimage to Nähenfels where they gave thanks to God for their victory over the Austrians in 1388. In the same way, Zwingli argued, “the man who in the remembrance of the Supper gives thanks to God in the congregation testifies to the fact that from the very heart he rejoices in the death of Christ and thanks him for it”. According to Zwingli, the problem for Luther was that he had fallen into error by conflating the sign of the sacrament with the thing signified: “if they are the things which they signify they are no longer signs; for sign and thing signified cannot be the same thing.” In other words, Luther had mixed the sign and the thing signified. He had recognised that the two were inseparable but had failed to observe their distinction. The problem with Zwingli’s view, however, is that he had made the opposite error by separating the sign from the thing signified. Calvin identified this problem many years later: “[T]he sacraments of the Lord ought not and cannot at all be separated from their reality and substance. To distinguish them so that they be not confused is not only good and reasonable but wholly necessary. But to divide them so as to set them up the one without the other is absurd… If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that he performs all that it signifies.” (John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord and Only Saviour Jesus Christ”, in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid, Library of Christian Classics [Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1954], 147-148).

The sign of the sacrament and the thing signified should remain distinct but inseparable if we are to avoid, on the one hand, the errors of Rome and, on the other, the danger of emptying the sign. What that looks like in practice, however, is harder to define. Brian Gerrish has provided a helpful taxonomy which can assist us in analysing the various positions. He distin-guishes between symbolic memorialism (where the sacrament merely points to something that has happened in the past), symbolic parallelism (where the reality happens simultaneously in the present), and symbolic instrument-alism (where the reality is actually brought about through the sign). In the articles that follow, each of those views will be represented and I will leave the reader to determine which most clearly represents the teaching of Scripture and the nature of Christ’s gifts to the church.

Turning to those articles, we begin with a detailed treatment of Calvin’s doctrine by William B. Evans. Evans sets Calvin’s doctrine in its historical context and explains how it is integrally linked to his soteriology, eschatology and ecclesiology. Evans notes how subsequent developments in Reformed theology rendered Calvin’s doctrine implausible to some but argues that it is both scripturally sound and consistent with the earliest practices of the church. Moreover Evans suggests that renewed attention to Calvin’s doctrine will greatly benefit the church which has seemingly moved away from a participationist understanding of salvation (emphasising union with the humanity of Christ) towards an appropriationist soteriology.

John Stevens, in a challenging and provocative article, argues that contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper bears little resemblance to the practice of the early church. Stevens provides a detailed exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 and argues that when the church was forced to cease meeting in private homes it constructed a theological justification for its new practices which more closely resembled the pagan cults of the Empire. For Stevens, much has been lost in the move from the Supper being a corporate church family meal to it being a time of close and personal communion with God. He suggests that we need to re-emphasise the horizontal aspects of the Supper and that celebrating the Supper over a meal will greatly facilitate this.

Richard Wardman provides a careful analysis of Thomas Cranmer’s views arguing that they most closely approximate to Gerrish’s second category of symbolic parallelism. Wardman shows that, while Cranmer insisted on the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper, he resisted speaking about the sacraments as a seal. In his approach, Cranmer was closer to Bullinger than Calvin. Wardman proceeds to consider the views current in contemporary evangelicalism and argues that there is much to be gained from reflection upon Cranmer’s insistence that it is as a ministry of the Word that the Supper can be said to convey grace.

Ian Clary’s article takes us back to the interface between baptism and the Lord’s Supper as he presents a historical overview of the open communion debate among the Baptists. He traces out its beginnings in the seventeenth century debate between John Bunyan and William Kiffin and shows how it was peaceably resolved within the Baptist Missionary Society by William Ward’s willingness to “throw away the guns to preserve the ship” in the nineteenth century. As open communion increasingly becomes the majority position within Baptist circles in the UK, this is a timely article which ought to stimulate further thought and discussion. The issue also contains reviews of Messy Church Theology and a recent collection of essays on Sanctification.

I very much hope you enjoy reading this issue of Foundations. Correspondence and submission of articles are always welcomed. All articles are peer reviewed.

Ralph Cunnington

May 2015


Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and Its Relevance for Today

William B. Evans

Professor of Bible & Religion, Erskine College, Due West, South Carolina, USA

Read More

Not Reformed Enough: Critiquing Contemporary Practice of the Lord’s Supper

John Stevens

National Director, Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, UK

Read More

The Lord’s Supper in England: Then and Now –

A Look at How Thomas Cranmer’s Eucharistic Theology Compares with Today

Richard Wardman

Paster, New City Church, Milton Keynes, UK

Read More

Throwing Away the Guns: Andrew Fuller, William Ward and the Communion Controversy in the Baptist Missionary Fellowship

Ian Hugh Clary

Fellow & teaching associate, Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Read More

Review Article: Messy Church Theology (ed. George Lings)

Oliver Gross

Member, Kingswood Church, Welshpool, Powys, UK

Read More

Book Review

Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice (ed. Kelly M. Kapic)

Martin Salter

Associate Pastor, Grace Community Church, Bedford, UK

Read More