This post will likely take three installments. First, I will deal with some of the difficulties which drove me away from a Baptist view of the Lord's Supper. Than I will talk about the benefits and value of weekly communion. Lastly, I will discuss a Lutheran theology of the Lord's Supper and why I was finally convinced of the "real presence." [that we can have a weekly encounter with Christ through something other than a subjective emotional experience.]
I will endeavor to avoid misrepresenting the Baptist view. That will not be too difficult, since it is the view I used to hold.
For the purposes of this essay, the term "Baptist" will broad enough to encompass all generic evangelicals, including EV Free, Charismatic, Bible and community churches, Calvary Chapels, Vineyards, etc… All these churches have a practically identical theology of the Lord's supper [or lack thereof] and at least fall under the same historical category of Zwinglianism. Now, to their credit, Baptist have a rich theology of the Lord's supper, as successors of the teaching of Swiss reformer Zwingli. Some outstanding writing on the Baptist view can be read by authors Dr. Timothy George (including a brief article on internetmonk.com) and Dr. Russel Moore, in the book "4 views on the Lord's Supper." The view taught by historically aware theologians like these are the epitome of everything right in Baptist theology. If all Baptists thought as deeply and with the same priority about the Lord's supper as these examples, there would be much more fraternity between them and the rest of the Christian universe. (Dr. George is particularly ecumenical in his work and teaching.)
Instead… I will go into a detailed description of the Baptist teaching as the vast majority of participants experience it on the ground level. I highly encourage you to check out those authors, they leave me nothing left to say about the "good side" of Zwinglianism. Instead, I will focus on my experience as part of this tradition and expose what I consider to be the weak underbelly of this line of theological thought.
When teaching on this tradition, most Baptists will spend considerably more time explaining what the Lord's supper is NOT than describing what it actually is. 400 years after the reformation we are still beating the drum of "The Catholics are silly and superstitious, and we are so much more enlightened and intelligent than they are!" We get the point: Everyone knows you think that. I've heard more Baptist teaching on what Catholics believe about the supper and how wrong it is than I've heard Baptists actually defining their own view. It's almost as if we've defined our stance on this by being the complete opposite of "them," which is usually a bad way to do theology.
Traditionally, Baptists believe what is called "memorialism," that the Lord's supper is done in remembrance of Christ's death, and for the purpose of remembering. Catholics teach transubstantiation, that the bread and wine actually transform into the body and blood of Christ. Baptist are so determined to convince you how wrong that is that their teaching has been nicknamed "the Doctrine of Divine Absence." Its just a memory device, you do not actually receive anything other than bread and wine.
I almost begin to wonder if holding to memorialism itself is what causes this wrong emphasis of defining the sacrament in negative terms. As much as Baptist teach about the Catholic view, I have, to this day, yet to hear a single one of them describe it correctly. Their disdain has always been based on misunderstanding and false caricature. I even heard Dr. MacArthur give an abysmally prejudiced presentation on this. A man of his scholarly standards owes it to his opponents to represent their view from a more informed stance. Dr. MacArthur surely has the resources to learn the true Catholic teaching, yet he refuses to consult it. As such, the highest end of Baptist preaching on this doctrine has been to strengthen division in the body of Christ.
Whats worse is, when, in an effort to distinguish itself from other views, Baptist preach the sacrament as simply a memorial exercise, it becomes merely an intellectual device. Once this happens, how are the bread and wine even necessary whatsoever? If the purpose is simply to remember the death of Christ, how are bread and wine even important for that? Why can't I simply meditate on the event and dispense with the snack? The answer: you can, if you believe that. "God said to use bread and wine," isn't compelling enough if we are going to insist that He commanded it for no reason.
The other fruit of the "doctrine of divine absence" is the practice of complete neglect. Since the elements themselves have been relegated to superfluous peripherals, the ceremony has become of marginal importance. Case in point, how often do Baptists typically celebrate communion? In many churches, it is once or twice a year. I certainly hope the death of Christ is at least preached more often than that! In one Baptist church I worked for, we actually went two years without celebrating on a Sunday, once. There was a midweek celebration one time. After repeatedly suggesting it, we finally began practicing it again. Two years! I hear many evangelical megachurches have even completely abandoned it altogether.
Well, what's the problem with that? If these churches are still preaching the death of Christ, than surely the people are still meditating on the death of Christ without the ritual, right? Well, lets see… Is the emphasis of your average generic evangelical church "Christ crucified for sinners," or, "practical steps to life a fulfilling life?" I know these are two extremes, but my experience with hundreds of churches says that the second is by far a more accurate and prevalent stereotype. Do you doubt this? Ever heard the Bible called "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?" For pete's sake, God's message to us has been turned into a to-do list! Its all about what we can do rather than what Christ has done.
When you teach that the Lord's supper is only a memory device, it is natural and logical to de-emphasize its practice, if not abandon it altogether. When the Lord's supper goes by the wayside, so does, often, the preaching of the gospel itself. Worship services become focused on self rather than the One who was perfectly selfless.
Another disturbing fact is that this teaching has NO historical precedent before Zwingli. Nowhere in church history has this understanding of scripture ever been taught before the 16th century. Were the first 1500 years of Christianity completely wrong on this topic? I doubt it. I've learned that whenever a preacher comes across with a new doctrine and claims he is finally the one who figured out where the church has been wrong all along, he's selling something. Guarantee.
Lastly, Baptist teachers, for all their emphasis on exegetical teaching, play very fast and loose with the text of scripture when it comes to the words of institution. When reading Jesus' words "This is my body" and "this is my blood" in the gospel account, it is common for a Baptist teacher to just re word it, as he is reading from scripture!!!! to say, "This represents…" For pete's sake, when it comes to this issue, can we not at least save the interpretation for after the reading of God's word? The word is "IS," not "represents." The word "represents" is read into the text; it is not what the text clearly says. This is aside from the fact that their is absolutely no grammatical, contextual, or etymological reason whatsoever to suggest that "is" is more accurately rendered or understood as "represents."
Like I said earlier, I used to hold this view. For years, I assumed that surely Jesus meant "represents." I couldn't ever figure out why he didn't just say what he really meant the whole time. But then I came to realize why I saw the words that way: I had underlying rationalistic epistemological presuppositions that refused to allow me to see it any other way, reality or not. My rational intellect kept shouting: It can NOT possibly be one thing AND something else at the same time! It's logically impossible!" …well, I guess so much for the hypostatic union. You see, the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord's Supper is rooted in the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus Christ became 100 percent God and 100 percent man, and feeds us with his own body and blood through the simplest of physical means, with the ultimate goal of finally reconciling us fully to God.
This just in. I heart an Issues Etc… podcast on this topic where they brought up another interesting point: If communion is a memorial exercise, than its truly about what we are doing: remembering, meditating. Sure its remembering and meditating on what Christ did, but in the actual celebration, we are the ones doing it. That puts the focus back on self. In the Lutheran doctrine, God is the one who is working and we do nothing but receive. However, that will have to wait for another post.
Next up, I will discuss the value of weekly celebration, regardless of understanding...