Ryan M. McGraw
Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table, by J. Todd Billings, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018, xix + 217 pages, $25.00, paper.
If the risen and ascended Christ is not present in our worship services, then our worship is empty. Believers look back to what Jesus did in his earthly ministry to save his people, to what he will do when he returns in glory, and to what he is doing now in the church as she looks to him in faith. Todd Billings challenges readers to renew their affections for the triune God when observing the Lord’s Supper. The book is gripping and helpful, even while it raises some problematic questions. It will benefit Reformed pastors as they read it with discernment and draw from it to minister to their congregations.
This work presents a helpful re-evaluation of the Lord’s Supper as affective and not merely cognitive. Billings proceeds on three premises. First, people have functional subconscious theologies of the Lord’s Supper. Second, the Reformed tradition can help us re-evaluate these functional theologies by self-consciously looking to the presence and power of the triune God at work in the sacraments. Third, the Lord’s Supper keeps the gospel at the center of Christian experience through the themes of remembrance, communion, and hope. These three terms are adopted from the Lord’s Supper liturgy of the Reformed Church in America (110). With regard to functional theologies, Billings shows that most people come to the Lord’s Supper with the assumption that the only thing necessary to profit from the sacrament is catechesis or right thinking. This unintentionally shifts our attention in the Supper from the divine act of communicating grace to believers to the human act of remembrance. While arguing that we should not jettison remembrance (113), he notes that we need present communion with the ascended Christ in the sacrament and we need future hope in the Lord’s return. This means that the Lord’s Supper must be affective and experiential and not merely intellectual and cognitive (18). He makes his case that the Lord’s Supper is the true “icon” of Christ in which we remember him who came, we commune with him who is present (by the Spirit), and we look to him who is absent (in body) by appealing to the Reformed confessional tradition and to Scripture (186). In chapter three, he describes nine aspects of the Lord’s Supper drawn from many classic Reformed confessions (though, surprisingly, he devotes little attention to the mature statements of the Westminster Standards, which make most of his points even more clearly). He draws positive examples of the affective aspects of the Lord Supper from the Scottish “holy fairs” (45–65) and he seeks to illustrate principles with positive examples from modern worship services. In the third section of the book, Billings shows that we should understand the Lord’s Supper in light of the contours of Scripture as a whole as they relate to Christ rather than merely focusing on a narrow set of texts treating the sacrament (though he examines these as well). This has the advantage of making the Lord’s Supper a more integral part of Reformed worship by tying it to the acts of the triune God in the gospel. In addition to these features, almost the entire book is full of striking statements and profound insights that make it gripping reading.
Though this book has few limitations overall, two of them are important to single out. First, Billings’s aim is to promote catholic unity across denominational lines (63). Without seeking to persuade Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals to adopt a Reformed position on the sacraments, he seeks to show points of convergence that “can be a way of swimming in catholic waters that leads us to the waterfall of the triune God’s love” (202–3). This is not necessarily a compromise of Reformed convictions (66), especially in light of the length to which he goes to establish them from Scripture and from Reformed confessions. The problem lies with his examples of what these convictions look like in practice. For example, he depicts a worship service in which a woman from Cameroon leads in the confession of sin (133), a boy from the youth group does the Old Testament reading, and a middle-aged woman reads the New Testament (134). Ironically, in a book that stresses the Reformed tradition, readers are left wondering whether Billings has any place for ordination and public ministry in relation to administering divine ordinances. This not only militates against the Reformed tradition, but against the ecumenical overtones of the book. While his examples leave room for modern Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, they exclude historic Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox liturgical practices and views of office in relation to public worship. This partly undercuts the value of this book, both in terms of Billings’s ecumenical aims and in terms of readers adopting his (otherwise solid) Reformed perspective on the Lord’s Supper.
The other area of concern is the author’s treatment of paedocommunion. While denying infant participation in the Lord’s Supper without conscious faith in Christ (155), he also denies that children should profess their faith before the elders of the church before participating (156). He argues that the real issue in 1 Corinthians 11 was not personal self-examination, but corporate participation. While children must have an “age-appropriate” confession of faith, this does not entail self-examination, in his view. He adds that excluding young children from the Supper represents failing to discern that the church is the body of Christ (157). While I agree that it is inappropriate to set a specific age at which covenant children should come to the Lord’s Table, Billings’s approach raises the question as to who determines whether they have “age-appropriate” confessions of faith. If ministers of the gospel dispense ordinances including the Lord’s Supper, then should they not have a part in admitting people to such ordinances as well? This reflects the same ecclesiological problem raised with regard to who leads worship above. He admits that 1 Corinthians 11 has individual and corporate ramifications (149) while he undercuts the individual ones, to a large extent, in the case of children. Communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper is, as Billings notes repeatedly, an act of corporate worship for the whole church. However, he appears to leave little theological room for ordained officers as representing the church and ministering on Christ’s behalf.
This is a great book for those desiring to grow in their affections for the triune God through the Lord’s Supper. It drives readers to remember what Christ did even while they experience the presence of the One who is absent and coming again. While the faults noted above should not detract from these facts, they are substantial nonetheless. Recovering a robust Reformed sacramental theology cannot be divorced from Reformed ecclesiology. Like many good books, this one offers pure gold mixed with some dross. Nevertheless, the author issues a timely call to the church today in relation to the value of the Lord’s Supper.
Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, October 2018.