Josh Colson presented a well-written paper at the 2017 Theological Symposium on Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the paper was to study Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and make applications to the Protestant debate on the Supper, with special reference to the General/Free Will Baptist tradition.
Colson briefly discussed the main views against which the Reformed churches were reacting. He summarized the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, which sees the bread and the wine in the Supper as being transformed into the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrates it at the celebration of the Mass. He also considered the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper, that, although the elements are not transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ, Christ’s body and blood are still really, mysteriously present in the elements.
Colson followed this discussion with a summary of the Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper, which is known commonly as the “memorialist” view. He described Zwingli as advancing a view of the Lord’s Supper that emphasizes “this do in remembrance of me” to the exclusion of any consideration of the presence of Christ in the Supper.
The paper then explained Calvin’s view, which differs from all the above views and says that Christ’s body and blood are spiritually present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Colson sees Calvin’s view as a via media (middle way) between Luther’s and Zwingli’s views.
Though the historical summary was helpful, the most thought-provoking part of Colson’s paper was the application section. His comments were particularly applicable for Free Will Baptists since he quoted from some English General Baptist sources that seem to espouse a view of the Lord’s Supper that sounds closer to Calvin’s “spiritual presence” view than to a mere memorialism. Colson rightly quoted John Hammett’s clever statement that often the modern Evangelical and Baptist (mis)understanding of the Lord’s Supper is an over-reaction against “real presence,” resulting in “real absence.”
The application part of Colson’s paper justly brings into question the way many modern Evangelicals have relegated the Lord’s Supper to an unimportant, rote practice that is unceremoniously and often unthoughtfully tacked on to the end of a service occasionally, one that robs the ordinance of its reverential, ritual significance in the life of the church. Colson was effective in making the argument that our Free Will Baptist ancestors approached the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with far more gravity and far more spiritual preparation than many modern Evangelicals.
“This line of thinking,” Colson argued, “has reduced the Supper and the other ordinances of the church to ‘bare’ symbols—a far cry from the traditional Baptistic understanding of the ordinances noted earlier. The key, then, is not to strip the ordinances of their spiritual significance (i.e., explain how Christ is not present); rather, Baptists should state positively how Christ is present in the Supper and the other ordinances which He and His apostles instituted.”
This is, unfortunately, a not-uncommon occurrence. One often hears a sermon before a baptism or before the Lord’s Supper describing what the ordinance is not rather than what the ordinance rightly and powerfully and beautifully is. Colson and others might wish to examine the rich history of “preparatory sermons” which were practiced by Puritans of various types and by Free Will Baptists (including my own ministerial grandfather into the 1980s), which were designed to prepare the congregation for “rightly” eating the Supper of the Lord together. Interestingly, the Puritan minister and poet Edward Taylor turned some of his own prose preparatory sermons into exquisite poetry; such poems reveal a great deal about the significance that was attached to preparation for this regular ritual observance—both by the Puritans generally and by our English General Baptist ancestors also. (I owe these insights to my colleague Darrell Holley.)
While space and topic did not call for it in this paper, in a future study, Colson will no doubt want to probe more deeply the Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord’s Supper—which is certainly more than “bare memorialism.” The key difference between Zwingli (and the early Anabaptists and Baptists that followed his lead) and Calvin was not that the former denied that Christ was spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. Instead, it was Calvin’s unfortunate sacramentalism that they balked at—the view that the Supper was, in some way, a vehicle of saving grace, as seen, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s statement that in the Supper we are “nourished to everlasting life.” Zwinglians (and Anabaptists and Baptists) have usually avoided this sort of language. Nonetheless, when at their best, they have always wanted to stress that Christ was indeed present in the Supper—indeed, in all of the appointed practices (ordinances) of the church when properly prepared for, when properly observed, and when properly used as obligatory liturgical “dramas” presenting in powerful symbolic form some of the most profound doctrines of the faith.
Mr. Colson has served us very well by forcing us to think deeply about the Lord’s Supper and our practice of it. Prayerful reflection on these matters will no doubt motivate Free Will Baptists to treat the Supper with the awe-filled reverence and dignity and spiritual mystery that historically accompanied the ordinance in our tradition. In this—as in so many other areas—right thinking will lead to right acting, and then right acting will reinforce right thinking. With the right preparation, all the teachings of the Lord for His Church—including the Lord’s Supper—can result in theological instruction and spiritual nourishment. We can begin to see the Supper truly as communion: on the horizontal level, as a communion of Christ’s people together and, on the vertical level, as a communion with the Lord Himself in a spiritually nourishing feast, a feast which compels them to remember the sacrifice of His body and blood, and the spiritual change that sacrifice has wrought in their lives.
Joshua Colson: Calvin’s View of the Supper