Old and New Testament Sacraments

One of the most controversial aspects of sacramental theology is the relationship between the Old Testament sacraments of Passover and circumcision (and some would even dispute that they are sacraments!) and the New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I am not going to treat this subject exhaustively at all. There are just two points that I wish to make, fueled by Vos’s discussions in volume 5 of Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 103-104.

The first point that Vos makes is that the Old Testament sacraments are types of Christ, not of the New Testament sacraments. There is, indeed, a correspondence between the two sets of sacraments. However, there is not a typological relationship between the two (p. 104).

The second issue is something that has bothered me for a while. Why is it that the recipients of the Passover have in an important way narrowed (those who can discern the Lord’s body versus all children in the Passover, thus making an age differene), while the recipients of baptism have broadened (all children and believing adults on their conversion, not just the male children)? Of course, it is merely a Baptistic assumption that the New Testament sacraments must be alike in how they work. There are several important differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we will not get into here. But why has the change to New Testament sacraments resulted in a seemingly opposite scope for circumcision giving way to baptism, and Passover giving way to the Lord’s Supper? Vos offers an explanation I have not seen elsewhere (though I would be surprised if this explanation originated with him: anyone know of sources from which this could have come?):

[I]n Israel the sacraments, besides their significance for the covenant of grace, also had a national aspect, from which a difference in practice arose between them and the New Testament sacraments on a few points. For us, one comes to the table of the Lord only after one has learned to discern the body of Christ. In Israel the children also ate the Passover. This was because the Passover together with its covenantal significance had national significance. The same is true for circumcision. Baptism in the New Testament is administered to both sexes of the children of believers. In the Old Testament, circumcision was only for infant boys. Indeed, in the national life of Israel only the men counted and represented the women, and this also had to come to light outwardly (p. 103).

There might be some fruitful ground here for answering both the Baptists and the Federal Vision folks, who both have the same error in treating the NT sacraments as working the same way. Indeed, as a friend of mine once said, the problem of the FV’ers in their sacramental theology is not that they have over-reacted to Baptistic theology in every respect, but that they have not thrown off the problems of Baptistic thinking enough. It must be born in mind that most FV’ers were Baptists before they became FV.

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Are Sacraments Fundamentals?

It seems rather common these days in the PCA for folks to deny that sacraments are gospel issues. The way the intinction debate went is an excellent example showing us how the PCA tends to think about the sacraments. So many people claimed that intinction does not threaten the gospel, so why should we bother? In fact, rather unkind words were thrown in the face of anyone arguing the opposite case (legalistic, Pharisaic, overly narrow, etc.). I have written a fairly comprehensive (all of the most important secondary literature was consulted) paper on intinction, arguing that the Bible is against the practice, because of the symbolism of separating body and blood being closely connected to death. Even intinction is a matter of the clarity of the gospel being preached in the sacraments.

The matter of the recipients of either sacrament is a fundamental of the system. We obviously hold that this is true with regard to the recipients of baptism, since we do not ordain credobaptists in the PCA. Yet, inconsistently, most of the PCA regards the age of the recipients of the other sacrament as non-essential. Why would the age of the recipients of baptism be essential, whereas the age of the recipients of communion not be essential? The only reason I can think of in this regard is that we have let pragmatics and precedent take over. The single most cited reason why we should allow people to believe and teach this (even if they are not allowed to practice it) is that we have allowed this in the past, and that, going back to Wolfgang Musculus, it has been “part of the Reformed tradition,” whatever that nebulous standard implies. To respond, there is nothing in the BCO that establishes past precedent as constricting future action.

As I have written in the past, there are 17 places in the PCA Constitution that assume credo-communion, such that an advocate of PC CANNOT claim a difference with only one part of our standards. The difference is FAR more fundamental. The PC advocate has a completely different view of how the sacrament works. Reformed theology has always claimed an active component in the reception of the LS, unlike what is required in baptism, which is wholly passive. The PC advocate denies the distinction between the sacraments, ironically demonstrating that he has not thrown off his Baptistic assumptions enough.

If the sacraments are not gospel issues, then why should we not ordain someone who holds to transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Memorialist? Usually, we’re not willing to go there. But then, that would mean that we view some sacramental issues as gospel issues, and other issues as not gospel issues. Perhaps this is true. I, for one, am not willing to die on the whole grape juice versus wine debate, though since Jesus used wine, I see no reason why we should ever have switched to anything else. But this is a different question from the recipients of the sacraments.

So, this blog post is addressed to the evangelical middle of the PCA: I plead with you to consider the evidence, dig through the material, and recognize that the Reformed tradition has always viewed the sacraments as fundamental to the system. They are not peripheral. Our forefathers were willing to die over differences regarding the sacraments. That is because the sacraments preach the gospel. They are gospel issues.

A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

Embracing Kantian Divides in the PCA

Overture 22 is asking a question that embraces the Kantian divide. What do I mean by this somewhat cryptic comment? The overture asks for a study committee on whether a person can hold to women’s ordination as an exception while agreeing not to practice it. The Kantian divide is the idea that what we believe is in a completely different realm from what we do. Put another way, the realm of belief is not an object of knowledge in the way that the realm of what we see is. We can’t know what is “up there” in terms of belief. We can only have faith. We can have knowledge about the world that we see. That is the Kantian divide: stuff “up there” can only be believed, whereas stuff “down here” can be known. Kant wound up with the categorical imperative: It has resulted in many other divides that have been hurtful not only to the church, but even to entire fields of knowledge. It has resulted in the increasing fragmentation of knowledge.

The overture asks if we can allow someone to hold to a belief without practicing it. The very question of whether we can do that on any issue is a highly problematic assumption that is not spelled out in the overture. The Puritans would never have dreamed of separating doctrine and practice in this way. The apostle Paul makes it crystal clear that the commands for us to do something are always based on doctrine. The imperative (the command) is always based on the indicative (what has already happened in Christ). Overture 22 would separate this biblical connection, and allow us to hold a belief that we agree not to practice.

Of course, the other major example of this in the PCA is the issue of paedo-communion. Many Presbyteries allow men to hold (and even teach!) paedo-communion without practicing it. I would strongly challenge whether we can separate belief and practice this neatly and this completely. Sooner or later, the age of children allowed at the table gets earlier and earlier until they are playing footsie with their vows. It is utterly naive to think that a person’s beliefs will not affect his practice. Besides the fact that paedo-communion actually runs contrary to about 17 places in the Westminster Standards, our current practice in the PCA is Kantian, and not biblical. Kantianism is the underlying assumption of all modernist philosophy and the secular West.

Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.

Connections

While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.

Conclusion

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Finitum Non Capax Infiniti

This Latin dictum means “the finite does not (or cannot) comprehend the infinite.” The phrase originated in the Lutheran-Reformed debates about the Lord’s Supper as it related to Christology. The Reformed typically accused the Lutherans of transferring divine qualities to Jesus’ humanity such that Christ could be everywhere, including the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes this resulted in the charge of Eutychianism (mixing Christ’s human and divine natures). The Lutherans typically accused the Reformed of rationalism as well as Nestorianism. The former was thrown at the Reformed because they thought the Reformed depended too heavily on philosophical pre-commitments. There was also the problem of supposedly separating Christ’s human from His divine nature (Nestorianism).

The phrase “finitum non capax infiniti” is related to what is called the “extra Calvinisticum.” The latter phrase refers to the fact that Jesus as God is everywhere, whereas Jesus as human is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. The “extra” then refers to the omnipresence that the divine has outside the human body of Jesus. I just read a brief but interesting article by a Lutheran pastor on this issue, and his claim is that the Lutheran view does not entail a change of the human nature, but rather a display of the very infinity of the divine. He defines the Lutheran capax this way:

In order to see this, it is important to observe what is meant by the Lutheran capax. As the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén notes, the Lutheran argument is not that the finite has some sort of inherent capability of containing the infinite, but rather that the infinite God is capable of communicating himself to the finite.

This is how he attempts to avoid the communication of divine attributes to the human. He says further, “if the infinite is truly infinite, then it must logically contain an infinite number of possibilities and one of these possibilities must be being contained by the finite.” There are several things that need to be said in response. Firstly, there is simply no way for the infinite to communicate itself to the finite without bursting the boundaries of the finite. We are talking here about the incommunicable attributes of God. So, while initially sounding plausible, the author has not answered the question. Instead, he has tried to shift the question.

Secondly, in answer to his hypothetical situation of the infinite needing to have “being contained by the finite” as a possibility, this fails to take into account the other attributes of God. He is singling out one attribute and separating it from the others. The other attributes include an inability to deny Himself. That God would not communicate divine attributes to the human is not due to inability, but rather to character. This question is in the same category as the age-old conundrum “Can God build a rock so big that He cannot move it?” The answer is no, but not because of a lack of ability on God’s part, but because it is not in God’s character to contradict Himself.

If God communicated the divine to the human, the simple fact remains that the human would no longer be human. It must be noted here that very few Lutherans seem to grasp Calvin’s actual doctrine as expounded by, say, Keith Mathison. We have all the divine and the human that we need in Calvin’s construction of the mechanism of the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit bridges the gap between us and Jesus such that Christ’s humanity is fed to our souls by faith. So Christ is physically given to us in the Supper, but not in the bread and wine. Our reception of it is (S)piritual.

New Book on the Lord’s Supper

I received a review copy of this book two days ago, and read it the day I got it. Imagine a Baptist arguing for the LS as a means of grace! Of course, that is their original heritage, as the author well proves.

I have been eager for more books on the Lord’s Supper for two reasons. Firstly, I plan on preaching a series on the Lord’s Supper in the near future, and secondly, the Reformers talked more about the Lord’s Supper than about any other topic, including justification by faith alone. I have been realizing that the Lord’s Supper is a much larger and much more important subject than I had thought previously (being infected previously, I suppose, with some of the general evangelicalism’s memorialism). It is a gospel issue, since the Lord’s Supper preaches the gospel to all five senses. It is a means of grace fully equal to Word and Prayer. And yet, in today’s Christianity, it gets a measly third place to Word and Prayer. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that most people do not see the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace.

Enter Barcellos’s book. His thesis is fairly circumscribed: it is to prove that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, and to show from Scripture how the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. He is explicitly aiming his thesis at those who tend to follow the early Zwingli in their memorialism. Barcellos certainly proves his thesis (not that I took a lot of convincing!). Certain points he makes here and there are worth the price of admission, and I will point those out. The book is geared towards pastors. The average layperson will not be able to follow the serious Greek exegesis of various passages.

The best things about the book (for me) were the careful exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10:16, and the description of the tenses of the Lord’s Supper. The former is a lynchpin verse for the case that the LS is a means of grace, and not just a remembering. The latter was a fascinating point that also helps greatly in proving the thesis: the LS looks back to Christ’s finished work, looks at present to our Savior in heaven (and by the power of the Holy Spirit we commune with the risen Lord now), and we look forward in time to the wedding supper of the Lamb (“until He comes”). If the LS is only a remembering, then only the past tense matters. Barcellos also ties in the tenses with the tenses of the Lord’s Day in a very intriguing way (noting that “kuriakos” only ever describes two things in the NT: the LS and the Lord’s Day). I think one could even go farther than Barcellos here and connect it all back to the covenant via Vos’s description of the change of covenants as related to the Sabbath (in his Biblical Theology).

So, overall, I am very enthusiastic about this book, and will use its insights in my sermon series with gratitude. There are a couple of points where I think the book might be improved. Firstly, the book is a bit short (128 pages including indices). There were many times when I thought he could have expanded his arguments and included more data. I wanted more exegesis, too! Secondly, although he mentions the connection of Word and Sacrament towards the end of the book, I felt that this topic deserved its own chapter. He has a whole chapter devoted to comparing the LS with prayer as means of grace. To me, it seems just as important, if not more so, to compare and connect Word to Sacrament. This was a very important connection to the Reformers. Barcellos mentions it, and says some very good things about it, but I felt that it deserved a whole chapter to itself. Thirdly, though I know he knows Mathison’s book, I get the feeling he is not quite convinced by everything that Mathison says. Now, that’s perfectly fine. But I do think that Mathison’s book provides enormous ammunition to those arguing Barcellos’s case for the LS as a means of grace. Calvin’s position on Christ’s presence in the LS may be hard to understand at times (Hodge, Dabney and Cunningham all rejected it, though they agreed with Calvin that the LS is a means of grace), but to me it seems the most biblical position. Especially in the discussion of 1 Corinthians 10:16, it seems to me that Calvin’s position makes eminent sense of the text there. Here’s to hoping that Barcellos is already thinking about a second edition. This book is already a very worthy addition to the discussion and well worth the purchase.

A Hidden Assumption in the Paedo-Communion Position

I wrote a blog post last year on how many places in the Westminster Standards (and the PCA’s BCO) that are contradicted by the paedo-communion system. Paedo-communion is contrary to our system of doctrine and strikes at the vitals of religion. Sacraments are not adiaphora. They proclaim the gospel. Issues about the sacraments are gospel issues, therefore. The Reformers understood this much better than we do today, probably because of the implicit Zwinglianism (and worse) infecting the church at large. Most of the Reformers did not agree with Zwingli on the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

What I wish to do in this post is to examine a usually quite well-hidden assumption in the paedo-communion position concerning the benefit of the Lord’s Supper to those who do not participate. The assumption is implicit in the title of Leithart’s book, Daddy, Why Was I Excommunicated? The hidden assumption is that (in the credo-communion position) the Lord’s Supper has not only no benefit for those not old enough to participate, but actually causes harm to children when they do not participate on the basis of their age. The harm caused is usually phrased in terms of the exclusion they feel when they see others participating but they cannot.

I want to challenge this assumption rather strongly. The nature of the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel of our Lord’s death until he returns (1 Cor. 11:26). Anyone who sees it without participating can potentially benefit from it, because it is gospel proclamation. It has been known to happen that people are sometimes converted by seeing what they are missing. Furthermore, the Lord’s Supper is a great opportunity for teaching people. Everyone who hears that teaching can benefit from it. So, not only is minister preaching the gospel through the sacrament, but he is also teaching the congregation about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

What effect will that have on the young child who cannot yet participate? Well, he will have the gospel preached to him such that conversion might happen. Further than that, he will learn about the Lord’s Supper. Both of these things should help create a longing for that communion. This creation of a longing for deeper communion with the Lord can be the very thing that prepares him to receive the Lord’s Supper properly. So, far from excommunicating our children, we are preparing them for that communion.

Retrieving the Lord’s Supper

A very common attitude that I have seen these days is that the Lord’s Supper is not a gospel issue. Therefore, issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper are peripheral, not central. I wish to challenge this assumption rather sharply. It came to a focus for me after reading this outstanding book on the Lord’s Supper. The fact is that the Lord’s Supper is gospel proclamation. Take 1 Corinthians 11:26 as proof of this: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” That word “proclaim” is a preaching word. The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel every bit as much as preaching itself is, though the mode is different. Reformed theology has always tied Word and Sacrament together. Calvin believed that not only does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal the Word of God, but the preaching helps us to understand the sacrament.

A second swath of evidence is the myriad of books that the Reformers wrote on the Lord’s Supper. They wrote more books about the Lord’s Supper than they wrote about justification, Scripture, or worship. Obviously, the Reformers did not think of the sacraments as peripheral at all.

Mathison argues that one of the reason why the Lord’s Supper has become a peripheral issue for evangelicalism is that the true view of Calvin has given way to the early Zwinglian view. We have relegated the Lord’s Supper to something we do in our own minds as a pledge of our devotion to Christ, almost completely forgetting that it is a means of grace. Of course, the Lord’s Supper (abbrev. “LS”) is not something in which we are passive. However, the LS is a means of grace, not just a pledge. The LS is therefore in the same category as prayer and preaching, NOT in the same category as recitation of creeds, or profession of faith, or singing of hymns.

Mathison also posits that Calvin’s view is not something actually held much today (though he sees a resurgence), even by those who claim to hold to it. Calvin’s view can be summarized this way: 1. Jesus Christ is physically located in heaven; 2. Therefore we do not masticate Christ with the physical mouth (we don’t have bits of Christ floating around in our intestines), but the spiritual mouth, which is faith; 3. We feed on Christ’s actual body and blood, though not in the bread and wine; 4. The Holy Spirit bridges the distance between Christ and us through our union with Christ; 5. God communicates Christ to us through this means of grace; 6. The sign is connected to the thing signified, but is distinguished from it, such that unbelievers get nothing, but believers get Christ; 7. By “spiritual presence” Calvin does not mean that Christ is present to us only in a spiritual way, but rather that the whole Christ (including His physical body!) is given to us by the Holy Spirit through our union with Him.

Before you jump on this summary by saying that it is absurd, you should read Mathison’s book. It is an excellent cure for the incipient memorialist, pietist (as opposed to pious), non-means-of-grace understanding of the LS that is so prevalent today.

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