Category Archives: Church History

2017 Symposium Recap: Joshua Colson on Calvin’s View of the Supper

 Matt Pinson

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

Addendum: Another Favorite Book from 2017

W. Jackson Watts

Usually I manage to read a book or two during the holidays. Recently I read one I had wanted to read for years, but finally had an excuse to read it due to its pertinence to a  current research project. It was Alister McGrath’s The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Though I had not read this book in time to be included in our Commission members’ recent post on our favorite books from 2017, I thought I would briefly comment on it since I found it incredibly stimulating and theologically significant.

McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. He has held numerous other notable professorships throughout the years, and has published voluminously in the fields of historical theology, and especially in the relationship between science and theology.

This volume is a project in “doctrinal criticism.” On its face this may sound threatening to some. But McGrath is not trying to pick apart Christian doctrine. He is not only a scholar, but a committed Anglican Christian. Doctrinal criticism here refers to an attempt to evaluate the nature of doctrine as a historical phenomenon. He wants to consider how doctrinal statements are developed, communicated, and what they presuppose. He is especially interested in how our understanding of the past and its authority comes to bear on contemporary views of doctrine.

To put McGrath’s project in his own words, “The discipline of doctrinal criticism seeks to evaluate the reliability and adequacy of the doctrinal formulations of the Christian tradition, by identifying what they purport to represent, clarifying the pressures and influences which led to their genesis, and suggesting criteria—historical and theological by which they may be evaluated, and if necessary, restated” (vii).  Let me try to add my gloss to the background against which McGrath is working, then return to his argument.

When we consider the nature of the biblical text, we recognize that it does not present itself in the form of a contemporary systematic theology textbook. Instead it is divinely given in the form of poetry and prophecy, wisdom and narrative, oracle and history. There are no doubt places in the New Testament that appear to be part of early creedal formulations. However, by and large the theological heritage we have has come to us by way of post-canonical interaction with the apostolic doctrine, and believers formulating those teachings in a contextually appropriate way.

These claims in no way diminish the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. But they do put our treatment of key doctrines such as justification by faith or the Trinity in a historical perspective. We know that there were early church councils which contributed significantly to how doctrines have been formulated, and then transmitted by way of witnesses throughout the ages. We know that theological errors, in part, are what required the church to clarify particular doctrinal views. Recognizing the historical and social context of doctrinal development then gives us a better understanding of how our statements came to be what they are, and helps us evaluate them afresh and anew in light of the biblical text.

McGrath is motivated in part by a desire to avoid reductionist accounts of doctrine. One of the main examples he uses of such reductionism is George Lindbeck, the very influential Yale theologian. Lindbeck’s seminal book on the subject is The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984). McGrath appreciates some of Lindbeck’s aims and concerns, but he spends the early portion of his book showing where Lindbeck himself fails to understand the complexity of Christian doctrine.

Lindbeck chided propositionalists for focusing merely on the truth claims of doctrine, and experientialists for focusing solely on the emotional or experiential aspects of doctrine. Yet Lindbeck offered his own reductionist account with his “cultural-linguistic” model of doctrine. McGrath’s critique is fair, but pointed.

McGrath’s alternative, which is an effort to help readers appreciate the breadth of Christian doctrine, includes four theses about doctrine. First, doctrine functions as a social demarcator. Second, doctrine is generated by, and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. Third, doctrine interprets experience. Fourth, doctrine makes truth claims (37).

Space does not permit me to explore or fully define each of these, but if one reads these theses carefully they can see that McGrath is trying to avoid reductionisms when it comes to defining what doctrine is and how it has functioned historically.

I suspect most Free Will Baptists will focus primarily on point number four. As important as this is, if we think carefully about the lived experience of the church today and in the past, we realize doctrine is even bigger and more significant than simply in what it affirms to be true or false.

What we believe does in fact set us apart from other groups (thesis 1). It helps distinguish our views from other, potentially harmful views, and provides social cohesion. We believe our doctrine does arise from the narrative of Scripture (thesis 2), yet it also enables us to reread Scripture in light of our doctrinal heritage (think here about the idea of “the hermeneutical spiral”). And we also believe that Christian doctrine makes sense of our experience. It gives us a language, concepts, and categories to make sense of what happens to us, and what is happening around us.

I can’t say enough about the depth and extent of McGrath’s work. I admit it is probably to be seen as more of a graduate-level treatment of doctrine, and so it probably isn’t the place to start for those looking to simply refresh themselves on Christian doctrine.

However, for those who may be wondering about how modern Christian thought has come to be what it is, and perhaps those interested in historical theology or philosophical hermeneutics, this may just be a book for you.



Symposium Recap: Jesse Owens on the English General Baptists

by Rodney Holloman

Jesse Owens’ excellent presentation at the 2017 Symposium countered the “ahistorical” assertion that all seventeenth-century Arminians were rationalists. This seemingly unchallenged dogma is represented as he takes issue with (among others) Richard Muller and his book God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy. Muller’s book claims that “Arminius’s theology of God, creation, and providence led to an openness among later Arminians to Enlightenment rationalism” (29). Owens argues that that the “early English General Baptists were firm in their adherence to the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice” (29).[1]

Granting that there was rationalism among the Remonstrants in the first part of his presentation, Owens disagrees that the parts indicate the whole of the theological spectrum, or that Arminianism inherently produced the rationalistic views of so many in the eighteenth century. After reviewing the spurious views of perspicuity of the Scripture, Owens argues that “neither Arminius nor the English General Baptists followed the Remonstrant approach, despite contrary claims” (30). He addresses the claims by Geoffrey Nuttall that “the Arminianism of the General Baptists, and of the Dissenters at large, was an Arminianism of the head” (30). He then cites the work of Bass to refute Nuttall, which dovetails into a discussion of the Caffyn controversy as well as the debate at Salter’s Hall in 1719. He then rightly characterizes the “undue attention” regarding these historical inferences from these two events as he finalizes the background portion of his presentation (31).

It is at this point that the paper shines brightly as we begin to focus on the writings of Thomas Grantham and Thomas Monck. After some brief biographies and bibliographies of both men, Mr. Owens illustrates concisely and effectively how that their views in the late seventeenth-century were fully orthodox and not in step with Enlightenment Rationalism as has been repeatedly suggested. Using primary sources such as Monck’s Cure for the Cankering Error of the New Eutychians and his help developing An Orthodox Creed, and Grantham’s magnum opus Christianismus Primitivus, he leads us to understanding and agreeing that Muller, et. al. are incorrect concerning their claims about seventeenth-century Arminians. It is a helpful and masterful section as objections are raised and answered using these works to show the thoroughgoing Reformed nature of their theology and epistemology.

Jesse Owens concludes his presentation forcefully with the following lengthy quotations:

“There is no strong evidence supporting a pervasive rationalism amongst English General Baptists until the eighteenth century, when many General Baptists did in fact join the Presbyterians in rejecting essential Christian doctrines. The point here is not simply to say that General Baptist heterodoxy in the eighteenth century had Reformed company, thereby softening their defection. The significance of Presbyterian and General Baptist (one being Calvinist and one being Arminian) heterodoxy in the eighteenth century, is that it demonstrates that it was not the theological system of Arminianism that proved more open to Rationalism than either the Lutheran or the Reformed, but the philosophical and theological milieu of the era.

It should be apparent at this point that Thomas Monck and Thomas Grantham, two of the foremost leaders of the English General Baptists in the late-seventeenth century, firmly adhered to the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice. . . On these points they do not deviate from the Reformed tradition in general, or Calvin and The Westminster Confession of Faith in particular. The significance of this is that, contrary to claims that seventeenth century Arminians were predominately driven reason or were the most open to it, the representative figures of Monck and Grantham utterly reject a rationalistic approach to Scripture and the acquisition of religious knowledge (37).”

Overall this was an excellent representation of historical research along with addressing contemporary writing on these subjects. It is well worth your time to read and digest. Thank you, Mr. Owens, for sharing your research and excellent work with us.


[1] All page numbers are derived from the Symposium Paper Digest, which is available for purchase on our site.