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Real Presence: A Review Article
Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper, by Keith A. Mathison. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002, xvii + 376 pages, $15.99, paper.
Keith Mathison, the director of curriculum development for Ligonier Ministries and assistant editor of Tabletalk magazine, provides a helpful book on the topic of the Lord's Supper in Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper. In his foreword, R. C. Sproul calls it "the best and most comprehensive treatment of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord's Supper I have ever seen" (x). While one might wish that Mathison relied more on primary sources, his purpose is to popularize, to digest important material for a wider readership. He explains his goal:
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, two distinct views of the Lord's Supper gained some measure of confessional authority in the Reformed church. The first view traces its roots to John Calvin, while the second traces its roots to Ulrich Zwingli's successor Heinrich Bullinger. Zwingli's own strictly memorialist view was generally disowned by the Reformed churches and confessions of the sixteenth century. However, from the seventeenth century onward, it has gradually become the dominant view in the Reformed church.
It is the thesis of this book that the gradual adoption of Zwingli's doctrine has been a move away from the biblical and Reformed view of the Lord's Supper. It is the thesis of this book that Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper is the biblical doctrine, the basic doctrine of the sixteenth century Reformed churches, and the doctrine that should be reclaimed and proclaimed in the Reformed church today (xv–xvi).
The Calvinistic View
The book is laid out in three parts. Part 1 traces the historical development of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord's Supper. He lays out Calvin's view. Then he shows how other sixteenth-century Reformed leaders and confessions advocated the same view. When he moves to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he demonstrates that the Westminster Standards also advocate essentially the same view. Then he explores some of the developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He particularly spends time summarizing the debate over the Supper between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin.
In my opinion, this first section of the book (4 chapters) is outstanding. It brings together material that one is hard-pressed to find in such summary form. I was particularly struck to see the slow but steady drift away from the supernatural Calvinistic view of the sacrament, that it is a means of grace by which the exalted Christ works in his elect, effectually applying himself and his benefits to them. Little by little, humanistic elements were embraced so that in its place grew a more naturalistic understanding of the Lord's Supper, that it is a devotional tool by which we internally examine ourselves and remember what Christ did for us long ago. What I found particularly sad is that some of our greatest defenders of orthodoxy—Charles Hodge and Robert L. Dabney—actually opposed the sacramental view of Calvin, the Reformers, and the Reformed confessions. Unwittingly, they in fact contributed to the drift away from the robust supernatural religion of the Protestant Reformation.
The Scriptural Basis
But is Calvin's doctrine really scriptural? Part 2 discusses relevant Scripture passages, first Old Testament, and then New. Mathison makes a particularly helpful observation when he notes the important connection and distinction revealed in the Old Testament between a sacrifice and a sacrificial meal. A sacrifice was offered to God for atonement; then it was eaten by the worshippers to signify their personally appropriating the benefits of atonement. Mathison points out that this important background to the New Testament Lord's Supper shows the connection and distinction between Christ's once-for-all sacrifice and our appropriation of Christ and his benefits by faith through his means of grace (like the Lord's Supper). There is other very helpful material here, but for the most part, these Scriptures—especially 1 Corinthians 11:17-34—are given too cursory a survey.
Application to Theological Controversies
Part 3 addresses theological and practical questions. Chapter 7 critiques the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian doctrines of the Lord's Supper. Chapter 8 recapitulates the salient points of the Calvinistic view of the Lord's Supper. Both chapters are outstanding.
Strikingly, the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinistic views agree that Christ is really present in the Supper. They radically disagree, however, on the mode of his presence. Mathison sets forth compelling arguments against "transubstantiation" (the Roman view), "consubstantiation" (the Lutheran view), and coins a new word "suprasubstantiation" to describe the Calvinistic understanding of Christ's presence in the Supper by the Holy Spirit. They also disagree on the manner of partaking of Christ. The Calvinistic view stresses faith as the "mouth" that feeds on Christ. Again, Mathison marshals potent arguments to vindicate the Calvinistic view as the scriptural view.
Application to Practical Questions
Having laid the foundation with such outstanding chapters, one expects Mathison to really tighten the screws in his ninth and final chapter—"Practical Issues and Debates." But in contrast with the rest of the book, this chapter rather disappoints. Mathison addresses three areas: (1) the frequency of communion; (2) the elements of communion; and (3) the partakers of communion.
In regard to the frequency of communion, Mathison suggests that it should be observed at least weekly. But given the rest of the book, one might expect his urgings to be even stronger. For example, earlier in the book, he demonstrates how the Lord's Supper has been downgraded over the centuries from an objective means of grace—something that God gives to us—to an internal subjective devotional exercise—something that we give to God. This is an important pastoral insight. When people protest that having the Lord's Supper frequently will make it lose its meaning, what they are really concerned about is losing the intensity of this subjective exercise. But that is not the sacrament's biblical meaning. Nor is God's grace in Christ something that we have to work up. But somehow this insight seems to be forgotten in this chapter.
When the book deals with the elements of communion, it is more disappointing. Should we use leavened or unleavened bread? This book doesn't tell you. Should we use a whole loaf which is broken before the congregation, or is it OK to slice and dice it in advance? This book doesn't say. Does it matter whether we use a common cup or pour the wine into little separate cups? Again, there's no guidance. Who should administer the sacrament? No guidance. Does it matter if the people partake in their pews or come forward? Whether they sit or kneel? Nary a word. I don't mean to suggest that there is necessarily only one right answer to these questions. The disappointment comes in their not being discussed at all. The one-and-only issue addressed here is: should we use grape juice or wine? Mathison argues for wine. I tend to agree, but I think he blows the importance of this out of proportion. The Bible calls the liquid that comes out of the winepress "wine" (yayin or oinos), even when it is freshly crushed (i.e., before it ferments). Does that not permit latitude on whether the "wine" the church uses is fermented or unfermented?
When the book addresses the partakers of communion, it is more disappointing still. Here the issue is the debate between paedo-communion (the view that all baptized members of the church—adults and children—should come to the Lord's Table) and what Mathison calls "credo-communion" (the view that only baptized, professing members of the church should come to the Lord's Table and that covenant children are to wait until the elders admit them when they profess their own faith). The book does rightly point out that so-called "credo-communion" is the confessional view and it does give godly advice concerning what those persuaded of "paedo-communion" should do if they are members of a church (like the OPC) with Standards which do not permit it. This chapter also aims to give an even-handed account of the pros and cons on both sides, but here is where it so disappoints. The arguments for the confessional view are so feeble that I can't help but suspect either that this part of the book is poorly researched or that it is disingenuous, intending to tilt readers to favor paedocommunion. For this reason, the invented label "credo-communion" vexes. It alludes to the debate between "paedo-baptism" and "credo-baptism" and thus seems to come across as "spin" to give preferentiality to paedocommunion. Whether this is deliberate or inadvertent, it's a real tragedy, and that for two reasons. First, it undercuts the purpose of the book: to recover Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Mysteriously, all the excellent summary of Calvin's views, especially his insistence that the "mouth" by which we feed on Christ is faith, seems to be utterly forgotten at this point. Second, this weak chapter, especially this weak section, tempts one to forget the excellencies of this book.
Still, This Is a Good Book
Lest we do forget, let me rehearse some of its strengths. Its survey of the history and development of the Reformed view of the Lord's Supper is noteworthy. His collection of arguments against Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian views in vindication of the Calvinistic view is outstanding. His emphasis on the Old Testament background to the Lord's Supper, especially the connection and distinction between a sacrifice and a sacrificial meal, is very helpful. His summary of the components of the Calvinistic view, and his insistence that they are scriptural, is excellent. The book is nicely laid out, with footnotes at the foot of the page (where footnotes ought to be), a good bibliography, and good indexes.
Larry Wilson, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the organizing pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Indianapolis, Indiana. Ordained Servant, May 2008.