The Lord's Supper in the Reformed Tradition

The Lord's Supper in the Reformed Tradition

by John W. Riggs


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In the Reformed tradition, the Lord's Supper is a sacrament that draws on a rich and deep tradition in its theology and practice. In this new volume in the Columbia Series in Reformed Theology, John Riggs provides a comprehensive overview of the most important Reformed theologians and confessions on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Riggs identifies the theology of true mystical union with Christ in the Supper as both a theological legacy the Reformed tradition inherited and a theological achievement that it refined. Ideal for studies in Reformed and liturgical theology, this is an important resource for investigating the eucharistic theology of the Reformed tradition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780664260194
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication date: 08/24/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 9.80(w) x 12.30(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

John W. Riggs was, prior to his retirement, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of Baptism in the Reformed Tradition, also published in the Columbia Series in Reformed Theology by Westminster John Knox Press.

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Because of the complexities of both primary and secondary material; and because of the numerous disciplines covered (New Testament, church history from prior to the common era in the Mediterranean basin through the twenty-first century, historical theology, liturgical history, liturgical theology, and constructive theology); this study has taken almost ten years to complete. It serves as a bookend to its sibling book, Baptism in the Reformed Tradition, which appeared in the Columbia Series in Reformed Theology in 2002, so that the two books encompass Reformed sacramental theology. The final chapter of this Supper study also completes sacramental ideas that were already present in the baptism study, but that had no appropriate place there, and that took some time to develop as fully as are given here. First, a few retrospective comments on the baptism book; then some comments about this Supper book, noting advances that it tries to make along the way; and, finally, the many thanks that are owed to so many people.

The baptism book was a shot across the bow of the modern, Protestant liturgical renewal: “You are going the wrong direction and do not even know it.” The argument was relatively simple. Among the remarkable achievements of the Roman Catholic liturgical renewal movement was its description of ecclesiology. The church is fundamentally built from the initiation of believers into the Paschal Mystery and sustained by the Spirit. The Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which has very specific liturgies that work together and that incarnate a particular theological grammar of initiation into the Paschal Mystery, was uncritically adapted by Protestants as initiation into the visible church. (No Protestant can possibly ascertain initiation into the invisible church because no one can see human faith; but more on that below.)

The only broad Reformation-era tradition that has ever thought of baptism as fundamentally an entrance rite into the church is the Baptist tradition. When Karl Barth in IV.4 of his Church Dogmatics embraced baptism as initiation into the visible church, he realized (much to his credit) that for him baptism no longer was a sacrament. Barth realized that he had placed himself rather more in the Baptist tradition of an ordinance; and done so under considerable influence from the much overlooked work of his son, Markus Barth, in Die Taufe—Ein Sakrament?

For the Reformed tradition baptism remains not an ordinance but a sacrament that is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Baptism primarily communicates the divine presence that claims this or that particular person as a beloved child, always and forevermore. Baptism cannot fail to do that, because God’s grace does not fail to do that. Baptism secondarily initiates someone into the visible church; but whether that person is, or has been, initiated into the invisible church that is comprised of believers, and is thus initiated into the body of Christ, can in principle never be known by any human being. Why? Because whether someone has faith, and thus takes to heart the prior self-communication of the Divine that claims her or him, can never be known by any human being. (Here a foundational difference about “faith” exists between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, a difference that lies at the heart of being “initiated into the Paschal Mystery.”)

As a Reformation example of exactly this point, Martin Luther, in his essay on rebaptism, protested that Anabaptists think that they are God and that they can see someone’s heart when they rebaptize, because some- one claims to have come to faith. Baptism, argued Luther, is grounded in the divine offer of grace, not in someone’s putative coming to faith. You may know someone’s public confession, Luther rightly observed, but you can never know whether another person has faith.

A Reformation example also exists for the distinction between the primary and secondary aspects of a sacrament. John Calvin complained that Huldrych Zwingli, by construing a sacrament to be an outward and pub- lic confession of faith, had made primary what ought to be secondary. Pledging faith is consequent upon the prior divine offer of grace, which should always remain its primary aspect.

By taking over a liturgical approach from Roman Catholicism, for which “initiation” means initiation into the Paschal Mystery, and by applying it out of its native ecclesial, theological, and historical context to Protestant baptism as initiation into the visible church, Protestant liturgical scholars had inadvertently made what was secondary into what was primary. They had unwittingly turned the sacrament into an ordinance. Roman Catholic scholars, both in print (see the review by Jeffrey Gros in The Christian Century) and in the Catholic-Reformed Dialogue group of which I was a member for eight years, saw this point easily and clearly.

The baptism book found acceptance among Protestant historians, historical theologians, and systematicians; but not all Protestant liturgical scholars were happy, as one might imagine, since the book had caught them with their diptychs exposed. One liturgical scholar even criticized the book for having a chapter on Luther, “baptizing” him into the Reformed tradition, as I recall. Such lack of familiarity with (especially Continental) Reformation secondary scholarship, with Calvin, who thought himself a true follower of Luther in sacramental theology (as compared to the epigones who frequented Lutheranism), and who subscribed to Augsburg (Variata), sadly happens too often within the liturgical field.1

The most helpful criticism of the baptism study was that I had not sufficiently clarified what Reformed theology understood by the validity of a sacrament. I have tried to address that issue in the first chapter of this Supper study. Whether I have succeeded in clarification is, of course, another issue.

Sacramentally speaking, this Supper study makes the same point that the baptism book insisted upon. For the Reformed tradition, with a few exceptions, the Supper is a sacrament and thus primarily and truly communicates the Divine. Whether the recipient opens her or his heart (faith) to the divine self-communication, and realizes saving well-being, cannot be told from the outside; and this remains the basic issue that distinguishes the validity of a sacrament from the efficacy of a sacrament. Historically speaking, this current study shows that the Reformed tradition, deeply humanist in its approach,2 discovered in Augustine a eucharistic theology as ancient as any: when believers receive the bread and cup, Christ engrafts them yet deeper into his mystical body and thus truly nourishes them with his body and blood. Biographically speaking, I first came to see this Augustinian tradition by reading German Roman Catholic historians such as Josef Geiselmann and Johannes Betz, whose works were introduced to me by my doctoral teacher, Edward Kilmartin. Whether Kilmartin would approve of where I went with that scholarship is quite another matter.

By looking back to the earliest days of critical theological reflection upon the confession of Christ’s presence in the Supper, back not only to Augustine but to writers such as Tertullian, this study argues that Reformed eucharistic theology holds a teaching that can be found among the breadth of the earliest known catholic eucharistic theologies. No eucharistic theology can claim to be more anciently catholic than the position held in the Reformed tradition. In the concluding constructive chapter, this study argues that Reformed eucharistic theology is also utterly apostolic by its appeal to the Jesus-kerygma.

The final chapter also offers a re-visioning of Christ’s mystical true presence that (on my view) is thoroughly Augustinian and Reformed. In the aspects of the (Augustinian) mystical true presence, and of re-imagining that tradition for Reformed theology today, I realized late in this study that John Williamson Nevin really was my ancestor in Reformed theology. I never intended that to be the case. Nevin simply was right, and he remains the watershed person in the study of Reformed eucharistic theology, even with the very helpful corrections of Thomas Davis, most of which I have followed.

Along the way, and as unintended consequences of pursuing this material, the study offers a number of nuanced contributions to some different areas of liturgical history and theology. Among them are:

  • A careful explanation of how the table-sharing of Jesus be- came a sacrament that embodied a Last Supper Passover narrative: Jesus’ table-sharing became retold as a Noble Death tradition, transmitted to Corinth by Paul, and woven into a Passover narrative by Mark.
  • A resolution of the discussion whether 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 represent the same or different events. The answer is both. The similar language owes to both events being Corinthian table-sharing; the differences owe to one having the Jesus ritual as its symposium (1 Cor. 11) and the other having an ecstatic, tongue-speaking, “séance” as its symposium (1 Cor. 14).
  • A resolution of the discussion whether Augustine was real- istic or symbolic, by noting that binary categories are insufficient. A more adequate parsing requires realistic (metabolic), realistic (nonmetabolic), and symbolic categories. Augustine was realistic (nonmetabolic).
  • A renaming of the principal medieval, reforming, eucharistic positions.
  • A rethinking of the categories proposed by B. A. Gerrish, in his seminal essay on the Supper in the Reformed tradition. This study argues for four categories, therein agreeing with, and supporting with further study, the Swiss argument that Zwingli was not a “mere memorialist”.
  • A correction of an overcorrection made by Thomas Davis in his superb study on Calvin’s eucharistic theology, a study with which I frequently agree and follow. Davis follows the great Dutch scholar G. P. Hartvelt, who took a comment by Calvin about medieval baptism out of context and applied it to Calvin’s sacramental theology in general. Both Davis and Hartvelt are mistaken that in 1536 Calvin did not argue for sacramental efficacy, even if Calvin’s arguments were still developing.
  • A suggestion (p. 233, n. 141) about the theological poverty of preaching textbooks currently available to Reformed graduate students. The suggestion arises from the (chap. 5) discussion between John Williamson Nevin and Charles Hodge, and the observation by Gerrish that for Calvin preaching, like the sacraments, brings the real presence of Christ.
  • An extension of Willy Rordorf’s point that the origin of Sun- day is the postcrucifixion celebration of the “Lord’s Sup- per”—hence, the “Lord’s Day.” The final chapter points out that the entire church year, therefore, is grounded not in a resurrection as such but in Jesus’ table-sharing.
  • An application of an insight from Willi Marxsen’s book The New Testament as the Church’s Book. This study argues that the Jesus-kerygma that proclaims Jesus’ table-sharing is apostolically normative for both Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions about the Supper/Eucharist. This means that the Reformed/Roman Catholic debate, whether the normative origin for the Supper is “scriptural warrant” or “priestly inception,” is answered with “Yes—the table-sharing of the Jesus-kerygma.”
  • A careful explication, in the final chapter, of an insight that Marxsen makes in passing. The eucharistic tradition handed on, and embodied again and again in new ways, is not Jesus’ table-sharing as such but “the Jesus-business” (Die Sache Jesu). This “Jesus-business” was embodied as table-sharing in Jesus’ ministry, and it was embodied as divine food offered in the Eucharist in some patristic traditions.
  • A suggestion in the final chapter of how Barth’s Reformation insight—and that of Charles Hodge as well—that grace is personal, not material, can be understood as the mystical true presence of the Divine, given in and to each moment and then re-presented in the Supper.
  • A brief sketching of a nonsubstantialist view of the Supper as a triune event (pp. 235–36, n. 17).

Table of Contents


1. From Jesus' Table-Sharing to the Protestant Reformation

The Lord's Supper through the Late New Testament Period

Patristic and Early Medieval Periods

High and Late Medieval Periods

Excursus: Historical Overview on Jesus and "Sacrament"

2. The First Generation: Martin Luther

Martin Luther

3. The First Generation: Huldrych Zwingli

and Martin Bucer

Huldrych Zwingli

Martin Bucer

4. The Second Generation: John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger

John Calvin

Heinrich Bullinger

A Closing Observation on Sixteenth-Century Reformed

Supper Theology: Sign and Reality

5. The Reformed Trajectory

The Reformed Confessions

Friedrich Schleiermacher

John Williamson Nevin and Charles Hodge

Two Twentieth-Century Voices:

Karl Barth and Donald M. Baillie

6. Retrospect and Prospect

Historical Summary: From the Table-Sharing of Jesus

History, Apostolicity, and Encountered by God

The True Presence at Supper Today

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