Thursday, September 13, 2007

Making a Meal of It-- Rethinking the Theology of the Lord's Supper

The second book in my trilogy of small books on the 'sacraments' is on the Lord's Supper. You will find the picture of the cover on the right. When I say small book, I do mean it-- about 140 pages. What I have tried to do in this book, as I did in the baptism book, is to point out the problems with the various ways we currently practice the Lord's Supper, and all too often trivialize it. I review in this book the key NT passages that have a bearing on the theology of this sacrament, and then I take the discussion a few centuries further into church history to show where and how things went wrong in our praxis and theology of this important part of our religious life as Christians.

What can be said about the Lord's Supper is that there is actually a good deal more material discussing this ceremony in the NT itself, than there is guidance about baptism in the NT. It is ironic then that a 'one time only rite' like baptism would cause much more heat (and less light) in the course of theological debates over the centuries, than this crucial repeatable ceremony of the Lord's Supper.

In this study I argue that the Lord's Supper was originally part of a large meal, not a separate ritual or ceremony, and as such brought into play all the ancient understandings about hospitality, the welcoming of people to the table, and the like. I am also arguing that the early church did not see the Lord's Supper as merely a symbolic memorial ceremony. They actually saw some sort of spiritual transaction happening in the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and believed that partaking in an unworthy manner was spiritually dangerous, as Paul suggests in 1 Cor. 11. But what sort of spiritual transaction is going on in the Lord's Supper? This is discussed in some detail in the book, and I won't spoil it for you by dealing with that here.

The intent of this book and indeed all three in the series (the one on the Living Word of God comes out much later this year) is to tease your minds into active thought, and challenge some of the basic assumptions that lead to the practice of these things in ways that don't actually comport with what the NT says or suggests. In other words, they encourage a going back 'ad fontes' to the sources in the Bible and rethinking our basic assumptions about these things. Why is this important now?

There are a plethora of good reasons, but two can be mentioned here. In an age of increasing Biblical illiteracy there is a great danger of trivializing the sacred, of making the practice of these rituals and ceremony a sort of 'trivial pursuit' someone tacked on to worship, or being done in a tacky manner in worship. This does not honor the Lord to whom the elements in the Lord's Supper point us.

When we approach the sacraments we need to have the approach that Moses had with the burning bush-- it is God in Christ we are encountering here, and a high and holy moment is involved. Take off your shoes, and repent of your sins. Secondly, we have entered what is called post-modernism, and in a post-modern age mystery and ritual are already playing a much bigger role in various venues than in the past. There are many young people specifically choosing to go to churches where there is liturgy, drama, mystery, and the very regular practice of the sacraments. When worship, practically speaking, serves as the major calling card and tool of evangelism in our culture, it behooves us to figure out what moves us and leads us into the very presence of the Lord, and seek to better facilitate that.

Think on these things.


Grumpy Old Man said...

Why the scare quotes around the work "sacraments"?

Ben Witherington said...

I presume you mean around the 'word' sacraments, and I have no idea what you mean by the term 'scare'.
The answer for why the quote marks is of course that many Protestants don't regard these rites as sacraments. I do, but in deference to other opinions, and with multiple definitions of what constitutes a sacrament in play, that's why I did it.


Jeremy Myers said...


Looks good. I will buy and read it. Do you have a "Brethren" background or mention their practices in your book? I attended a Brethren church here in Dallas for a while, and they would have a meal every week as part of their Sunday services.

Also, here is an article I read years ago that convinced me of the truth you may be presenting in your book:

Rediscovering the Lord's Supper


Grumpy Old Man said...

Yes, I meant word.

Grumpy Old Man said...

Oh, and as to "scare quotes," Wikipedia says "Scare quotes are quotation marks used for purposes other than to identify a direct quotation, mostly as a flag to provoke in the reader a negative association for the word enclosed in the quotes."

I didn't know this term until someone, maybe Daniel Larison sprung it on me.

Forgive me if I sounded snarky. In fact I appreciate your post and find much to agree with in it.

Ross said...

Ben, I await with eager anticipation the publication of your book. Both in my personal visitation of many churches and discussion with my students representing over 25 different denominations, the Lord's Supper is but a skelton of what is theologically appropriate. There is often no reading of Scripture, no 'epiclesis' - a call upon the Holy Spirit to act before the words of institution, no thanksgiving prayer, and no symbols, ie. no loaf of bread and no chalice and the significance is usally reduced to a mere memorial -an academic recall of what Jesus did. Believe it or not, I have personally attended churches where the sacrament is treated in a cavalier fashion - a "self-serve" station is available throughout the service; or a declaration there is no time in their worship services for the Sacrament - do it if you wish in your small group!

There is an urgency for teaching especially to students preparing for ministry. Masy your soon top be published book find its way into the church.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jeremy: I taught at a Brethren seminary for 11 years in Ashland Ohio, and appreciated their thoughtful practice. I am a lifelong Methodist, and until then I had never seen this practice, particularly the footwashing with the Lord's Supper.



Ryan said...

I was recently made aware of "the Remembrance cup" product for "on the go" communion (perhaps on an airplane?). Wow.

Ben Witherington said...

Ah yes, the Remembrance cup. I was once handed one at a Christian music festival and I had no idea why as I was behind the stage in the performer's tent and had heard no words of preparation or prayer. I passed over the passover cup on that day.

But I can imagine a use for it on a plane... The stewardess comes on the intercom and says: "Well that little bit of turbulence was actually us losing an engine, so we're handing out the remembrance cups now, just in case. And after you drink it, well bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your posterior goodbye....."


Brian said...

I was pleased to see you mention the Living Word of God as the third part of your sacrament series because I've been wrestling with the meaning of the Lord's Supper from my Baptist background. In your opinion, is there an inconsistency when a Baptist pastor waves his living, breathing, inerrant Bible aloft as he expounds on the mere symbolism of the bread and cup?

Jeremy Myers said...


I am recommending your book on my it better be good. ha ha.

But I know the quality of work you do and always appreciate it. I'm not trying to brown-nose (yes I am), but I think I have all your
"socio-rhetorical" commentaries, and always value your reseach and approach. I have recently been really appreciating your commentary on Matthew from S&H. Keep 'em coming!

Liam Thatcher said...

Excellent! I'm looking forward to getting this. I've recently been thinking a lot about communion since I read Tom Wright's "the meal jesus gave us" and attended a lecture by Archbishop Rowan Williams on Communion.

I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject...

Being part of a Church that by and large doesn't use liturgy, I think we need to be careful that we don't trivialise communion by not handling it correctly, I'm conscious that sometimes when we take the Lord's Supper at our Church we seem a little unsure of how we should be doing it and where it fits in the life of the Church.

Ben Witherington said...

It is an odd thing, isn't it that some conservative Protestants actually have a quite magical view of the Bible (take for instance the Bible code nonsense based on verse numbers and counting syllables when: 1) there were no chapter and verse numbers in the Bible for centuries after the documents were created and 2) you can't deduce anything about counting syllables or letters when in the Hebrew OT when THERE WERE NO VOWEL POINTINGS IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT, only consonants). But whilst holding those kind of magical views of the Bible they buisly denigrate or just trivialize the 'other' sacraments.


Ben W.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben;

really enjoy your blog and thinking

do you know where i could get the books in South Africa, where i live...

Ross said...

Hi Liam. You state you are "a part of a church that by and large doesn't use liturgy ..." Unfortunately this in my mind is a misunderstanding of the word 'liturgy'. Liturgy is "the public and representative work of the people of God" and every church has a liturgy!

In addition to the excelent small book by Tom Wright, there are a number of excellent books on the sacraments from a variety of traditions. One is Leonard J. Vander Zee's 'Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship: Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper'. Laurence Hull Stookey in 1993 wrote 'Eucharist: Christ's Feast With the Church.' Gordon T. Smith in Canada has recently written in 2005 'A Holy Meal: The Lord's Supper in the life of the church' which is a call to Christians to reconsider and embrace the holy meal ordained by Jesus.

Andy Miller III said...

From probably a different perspective, as an officer (pastor) in The Salvation Army, I am looking forward to you book. For those who don’t know we are a non-practicing denomination as it relates to the sacraments. Among other social and ecclesiological reasons, William Booth largely dropped the practice because of the way it was observed in the Church of England in the late 19th century. I am interested in learning about the non-ceremonial aspects of early churches practice at large meals.

I can’t help but think of last Sunday, after I was done preaching (to a racially, economically mixed congregation), my wife and 4 months baby and I were eating at the church with a dozen homeless guys. We spoke about Jesus and his sacrifice, and about how hot it can get here in Texas. I think we had a form of communion that afternoon.

Then the next day I found myself eating a meal in our family shelter where 15 families found a place to sleep last night.

Yeah…I think the Salvation Army wouldn’t be better if we included that sacrament in our regular worship service, but I don’t want to give up meeting Jesus in what Booth called the “sacrament of the good Samaritan.” Looking forward to reading your book.

Liam Thatcher said...

Well, that's not what I meant... I meant it in the sense of a defined, structured form for public worship, a prescribed body of rites. That's not a misunderstanding of the term... just a different, yet legitimate understanding.

Incidentally, I always grew up in churches that did make use of a particular liturgy, which I found helpful because it provided a good framework for understanding how the sacraments fit within church life. It also provided a good explanation of why we do what we do.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jonathan:

You can get the books from Amazon, try their International direct service--- see the listing at their website as follows---

International Direct by

* International Direct provides customers with duty and tax estimation during checkout, as well as customs clearance through the courier. With this unique service, your order will arrive at your door without surprise duty charges.


Ben W.

Donner said...


Could you shed some light on the practice of 'epiclesis'? Two questions: 1. Howard Marshall in his book on the Lord's Supper concludes that 'epiclesis' cannot find support in the books of the NT. Where else apart from church tradition do we find a theological basis for this practice of invoking the Spirit? 2. Is the language of asking the Spirit to 'come upon the church' appropriate in light of the fact that the Spirit already resides _within_ us?

Appreciate your comments. Thanks.


Falantedios said...

I don't come by in a few days and look at all this stuff!

From a Stone-Campbell Reformation perspective, John Mark Hicks wrote a book a few years back called "Come To The Table" that seems to mesh well with the points you're raising in this book. John Mark Hicks anchors his theology in the OT tradition of God's people eating together with him. I agreed with him then and I'd probably agree with you now.

I get so frustrated when I hear people say something like, "That'd be as wrong as adding meat to the Lord's Supper." That's actually a common cliche in the Churches of Christ/Christian Church circles, and I wonder if any of them have actually read a WHOLE Lord's Supper account and not just the parts we snip out to proof-text our version of it.

in HIS love,

Andy Miller III said...

For what it worth I had a typo earlier. In my last paragraph I meant, "I think the SA would be better off..." not "wouldn't."

Josh said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,

Last weekend, my family and I returned home and attended the church I grew up in. The pastor, a wise and loving man who has supported me in my call more than anyone else, knew that I am in the ordination process for the UMC and asked my wife and I to serve the Lord's Supper/Communion. It was the first time I had ever done so and it will be one of the most memorial experiences of my life. It was such a blessing handing the cup to children and adults with the statement "This is his blood given for you." I almost choked up as I looked into my four year old's eyes and told him that this sacrement was accomplished on behalf of him. Also, seeing the other children's big and innocent eyes as I served them really brought the power of the gospel home. Looking at those children receiving the gift in a child-like way brought home to me "why" Jesus suffered as he did. It reminded me of Isaiah's statement that the Christ would see and be satisfied.

When I returned home and related the experience to my one of my friends(a Baptist), he got all over my case for allowing kids to recieve Communion.

Ben, how should one view children particapation?

I look forward to reading your book. God bless.

Ross said...

Hi Andy: You might be interested to know the Salvation Army in Canada is considering embracing the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Recently I had a student do extensive research on the issue and contended it was indeed fitting for the Army, now considered a denomination, to offer the Lord's Supper. For years many Salvationists - officers and the rank and file have participated at the Table in both ecumenical settings and in other churches.

Ryan said...

Ben wrote... "It is an odd thing, isn't it that some conservative Protestants actually have a quite magical view of the Bible (take for instance the Bible code nonsense...). But whilst holding those kind of magical views of the Bible they busily denigrate or just trivialize the 'other' sacraments."

I agree, this does seem to be a contradiction. While I don't think that God intended to prove His word was true by embedding secret codes in equidistant letter sequences, I realize that there are things we do not know because they have not been revealed to us: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law" (Deut 29:29). What has been revealed is sufficient for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). What I think has been revealed concerning food and drink is that "...the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17).

I am wondering how you scripturally reconcile Rom 14:17 with a mystical aspect to the Lord's supper. It seems to me that the Lord's supper is something like the passover meal of the Old Covenant, and it doesn't seem that there was anything mystical to that. It was a reminder of what God did for the Israelites in passing over them in the time of judgment. In the same sense, what we have in the New Covenant practice of the Lord's supper is only to be practiced until He returns, and is a reminder of God's passing over of us who put their trust in Christ.

I would also like to hear your response to Donner's questions regarding epiclesis.

JM O'Clair said...

Along with Nick (Falantedios) to make mention of John Mark Hicks' book, Come to the Table -- may be a thoughtful supplementary read along with Dr. W's book. I had Hicks in seminary. Here are some additional thoughts he probably would have liked to include in his book. Found at his blog:
(Scroll down to Thurs., Dec. 01)

J. Clark said...

Dr. Witherinton,
Do you make a connection with the "seder" meal? Is communion the new meal of rememberance for the new covenant? Did the early Jewish Christians continue the Jewish elements of the meal? Is family the better context for the meal? If not how do you conduct a meal within a large group context?
I guess I might just read the book. But any answers would be enlightening.

James Pate said...

Hi Ryan,

You raise a good point when you say that the Passover was a memorial of a past event (the Exodus), and therefore the Lord's supper (as the new Passover) is also. At least that's how I'm understanding what you are saying. At the same time, Ben may have a point when he says that the supper was like a meal with God. I Corinthians 10:20-21 contrasts eating at the Lord's table with eating at the table of demons. He says that eating at the table of demons is fellowshipping with them. I think a logical conclusion is that eating the Lord's supper is fellowship with the Lord, not only a memorial. I'm not sure if that is what's called consubstantiation, but it might be.

Ross said...

Hi James:

"Consubstantiation" - a view traditionally associated with Luther. Of the reformers, he stood closest to the Roman Catholic position of "transubstantiation. However, he doubted a change occurs in the substance of the communion elements. The communicants ingest bread and wine, he taught. Nevertheless, Christ's body and blood are present in the elements. Christ is not present instead of bread and wine, but with them. The communicants ingest the Lord's body and blood under and with the communion elements, with the substance of the physical realities. Hence, Luther proposed the term 'consubstantiation" to denote the mystery of the Eucharist.
Although Luther and Catholics disagreed concerning the means, they found basic agreement concerning the result: Christ is physically present at the Lord's Supper, present in the communion elements. For Luther, the human Christ, who is both in heaven and everywhere in the universe, is localized in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. These elements reveal Christ's presence here for us.

Zwingli in contrast claimed the Lord's Supper was a memorial meal, a vivid act of remembrace through which we memorialize Christ's sacrifice. Moreover according to Zwingli our participation in the communion elements does not mediate communion with the real flesh and blood of Jesus. Christ's presence is not 'in' the bread and wine at all. The glorified body of the risen Lord is localized in heaven at the right hand of the Father, therefore he cannot be present on earth in the elements. Rather than Jesus being physically present in the bread and wine, Zwingli argued Jesus is spiritually present. His presence resides in the believing community who remember the Lord's sacrifice.

James Pate said...

Hi Ross,

So consubstantiation says that a Christian is literally eating the body of Jesus, but because the body is in the bread, not because the body is the bread. Is that right?

Ryan said...

James wrote... "I Corinthians 10:20-21 contrasts eating at the Lord's table with eating at the table of demons. He says that eating at the table of demons is fellowshipping with them. I think a logical conclusion is that eating the Lord's supper is fellowship with the Lord, not only a memorial."

Interestingly, Paul concludes the above by referring to how Israel, when they partook of the sacrifices at the altar, were sharers or partners in the altar. Perhaps we might have wanted this verse to say "...were sharers of (or with) the Lord" but it doesn't; instead it is the altar being referred to. That doesn't mean that Paul is not saying we are not in fellowship with the Lord here, but we are always to be in fellowship with Him, and not just at the table. It seems to me that this puzzle may be solved by thinking of the following points:

1. Baptism is only once and represents the turning point of entrance into the kingdom.

2. However, Jesus tells us to "take up our crosses daily and follow Him" which is a daily following, a consistent endurance in dying to ourselves.

Since baptism is symbolic and we don't think that Jesus is literally dying with us as we are immersed, I don't see how we interpret the bread and the wine differently, assuming that He is in or with the bread and wine. It seems to me that these are all symbolic of our spiritual acts of worship to God, the offering of ourselves to His service. One is done once and the other is performed repeatedly. Perhaps the author to the Hebrews puts it best when he writes:

"Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (Heb 13:9-13).

I believe that the table of the Lord is our showing unity with Him in bearing His reproach for the sake of the gospel. Just as we symbolize unity with Him in His death by baptism in water which is once, so too we continually bring to remembrance the offering Jesus made of His body to the Lord and we unify with Him in His reproach.

Ben's comments have certainly got me thinking, as I haven't thought so deeply about this before. What do you think?


James Pate said...

Thanks for your comments, Ryan.

I've been thinking about this issue some as of late, since I've been exposed more to the Catholic position on a Christian dating site. He's been referring to the passage about discerning the body and blood of the Lord, using that to support transubstantiation. And, then, I've heard Protestants who agree with him and admit that Protestantism treats the Lord's supper as a "mere" memorial. I'm not entirely sure what they have against memorials. Maybe they think that saying the Lord's supper is just that disregards God's presence and power in it.

I have problems with transubstantiation myself, but I may not entirely understand it. After all, Jesus said "This is my body." That bread was not Jesus' body, was it? He was right there holding the bread.

James Pate said...

P.S. I think that, in the context of I Corinthians 10, the table of the Lord is the communion table, since vv 16-17 mention the bread and the wine.

Ben Witherington said...

Holy Mackerel:

It is impossible to keep up with all of you. A few telegraphic response: 1) there is no Scriptural basis for epiclesis so far as I can see; 2) there is also no Scriptural basis for thinking that Christ is somehow physically in or attached to the communal elements; 3)equally the Lord's Supper is not a Passover meal, it is a modification of a Passover meal, a thanksgiving meal, and a few other things. So far as I can tell, the Corinthians were not sitting around eating 'the bread of haste' or dipping it in the 'bitter herbs'. Much of the modern Christian reinterpretation of the Jewish seder is pure allegory which represents neither ancient Christian practice nor proper Jewish practice either ancient or modern.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. There is nothing in 1 Cor. 10-11 about discerning the blood of Christ in the elements, and the phrase 'discerning the body' does not refer to the elements, it refers to being sensitive to your fellow Christians in the body of Christ and thus waiting for them and partaking with them. That's what partaking in a worthy, and unifying mode refers to.


Ryan said...

James wrote... "P.S. I think that, in the context of I Corinthians 10, the table of the Lord is the communion table, since vv 16-17 mention the bread and the wine."

Indeed, however there are some intriguing scriptures which seem to connect the altar and the Lord's table together in some way:

Ezek 41:22: "The altar was of wood, three cubits high and its length two cubits; its corners, its base and its sides were of wood. And he said to me, 'This is the table that is before the LORD.'"

Mal 1:7,12: "You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, 'How have we defiled You?' In that you say, 'The table of the LORD is to be despised.' ... But you are profaning it, in that you say, 'The table of the Lord is defiled, and as for its fruit, its food is to be despised.'"

It is also fascinating to observe the statement in Heb 13:10 that "We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat." However, I think that Heb 13 clarifies that it is not foods that benefit the heart, but God's grace through the sacrifice of Christ at Golgatha. William L. Lane in his excellent commentary on Hebrews (Word Biblical Commentary series) says that "'Eating from the altar' is a figurative expression for participating in the sacrifice. The act of eating from the altar in Jerusalem gave those who participated in the meal a share in what had transpired on the altar." He also explains how "'altar' appears as metonymy for 'sacrifice.'... By metonymy, the altar that Christians possess is for them an impure place where there can be no sacrificial meal." In Lev 6:30 we read: "No sin offering shall be eaten from which any of the blood is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the holy place; it shall be burned with fire" (cf. Lev 16:27). So, if the point of Heb 13:9 is that grace is not mediated by sacrificial meals, then it seems straightforward that the bread and the wine have no mystical or spiritual benefit.

Ben, I appreciated your comments. You wrote... "So far as I can tell, the Corinthians were not sitting around eating 'the bread of haste' or dipping it in the 'bitter herbs'."

You may be correct about the Corinthians (although how would you know this?), however Jesus didn't modify the passover meal when He initiated the Lord's supper. It seems that Jesus wasn't changing the passover meal in its details, but providing its true meaning in light of the shadow the passover represented of what was to come concerning Himself.

Ben also wrote... "...the phrase 'discerning the body' does not refer to the elements, it refers to being sensitive to your fellow Christians in the body of Christ and thus waiting for them and partaking with them."

I agree with you that this had nothing to do with discerning the body in the bread and that this was the direct application Paul was making for the Corinthians, but I don't think Paul intended it to be limited only to being sensitive to your fellow Christians and waiting for them. If we take the first half of 1 Cor 10 into account, it would seem (at least in the larger context) that Paul is admonishing the participants to each one judge his own body rightly according to his heart's motives and the seriousness with which he treats the sacrifice of Christ on his behalf. In fact, this is precisely what 1 Cor 11:28 says, "But a man must examine himself..."

Good discussion.

Leslie said...

I gave a lesson a few months ago on the Lord's Supper, and suggested that we have many problems in how we take it today. In my congregation, we usually take about 5-10 minutes to do the whole thing, which has greatly bothered me as I've done more and more study on the topic. But, when I suggested we should perhaps give it more time and even separate it from our normal services, and stressed the idea of Christian fellowship within the meal itself, I was met with several dissatisfied looks and comments. I suppose it will take some time to push past some of the traditions which have made this sacrament so trivial. Anyway, I look forward to reading this book.

CP said...

I think that fundamenatlly we need to see Communion as a means of Grace. I dont agree with certain views about what actually takes place in the bread and the wine, this does not really concern me. I think the key concern is to see that it is a means of grace that is extended to all who participate no matter where the in the journey.
Anyway just some thoughts.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen Ben reply to the question about children. A few years ago as I was serving communion, Dr. Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, Professor of Church History at Houghton College, and her husband Mark brought their two young children (ages 4 and 2, maybe) to receive the elements. Some people were shocked. She explained later, "If the ability to comprehend the mystery is the criterion for receiving, I will never be able to take communion!" Childlike faith in Jesus' gift of himself for our sake suffices.