Wednesday 2 March 2016

Some thoughts on the Lord's Supper

The Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper isn’t having a great year so far. In one corner of the internet Peter Leithart has argued, in a “gleeful fit of reductionism,” that a Zwinglian view of the Supper is the reason Protestants can’t write good.  In another, Tim Ward argues that “default Zwinglianism” is distorting how we think about preaching.1

Having recently done some work on the Lord’s Supper I’ve been meaning to jot down some thoughts and these comments nudged me into it. So, here are a few notes on a Zwinglian theology of the Lord’s Supper that aren’t a direct response to either of these, but at least point towards the Lord's Supper as a celebration of storytelling and make a constructive suggestion as to how we think about preaching.
To begin with, it is crucial to appreciate the Passover setting for the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The Passover meal was no mere intellectual act of remembrance. It was a feast the sights and smells and tastes of which were all powerfully evocative of the story that gets narrated in the course of the meal: “We were Pharoah’s slaves in Egypt and the Lord our God brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  Within that narrative the elements lay their part: The bitter herbs a reminder of Israel’s bitter service (Ex 12:8, 1:4), the lamb is the lamb slain to redeem the firstborn. The bread is fast food – food on the go – remembering the forefathers and their haste to leave Egypt (Ex 12:11, Deut 16:3). 

In these ways the meal enacts the experience of their ancestors and its institution for Israel says this story is your story. As such it’s a divinely-instituted identity-forming rite for the community that gathers round the table. In that setting, of course, there’s no thought of the ‘real presence’ of the slain lambs or the leavened bread. But these are powerful, re-orienting symbols that speak to the people of who they are, whose they are, where they have come from, and by whose hand they got here.

Once that setting is in view then the significance of Jesus’ re-designation of some of those symbols becomes clear. There is massive shift in one sense. There is now a new Exodus and a new Passover lamb. A new rescue and a new covenant is being established through Jesus’ death and so there is a new story to tell and identity with. But established in that context, the Lord’s Supper has the same function for Christ’s newly redeemed people as the Passover meal. It speaks to us of who we are, whose we are, where we have come from, and by whose hand we got here. It is where we tell our story, remember our story, and are shaped a little more by it. 

That formative element is already there in Luke’s Gospel – the singular cup in 22:16 expressing the unity and common share in the new covenant and the subsequent squabble in 22:24-27 displaying a damning anti-Lord’s Supper disunity. A denial of the one who is among them to serve (22:27). But Paul is the one who most powerfully draws out the sense in which the meal is a formative one. The presenting issue is the Corinthian perpetuation of that kind of one-upmanship, squabbling and disregard for members of Christ’s body. The fact that these things are being expressed at the Lord’s Supper strikes Paul as the great contradiction. And so Paul recalls Jesus’ words of institution and then adds “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 

Whenever I’ve heard that phrase highlighted, the accent usually falls on “until he comes” because, as we often say, we look forward as well as back at the Lord’s Supper. But in the context of 1 Corinthians the accent surely falls on “proclaim the Lord’s death” because that has been a repeated emphasis in the letter. It is proclaiming Christ crucified that bursts every bubble of worldly pride and achievement, of status and greed for power, of boasting in anything other than Christ crucified. Paul’s point is that the Lord’s Supper proclaims that death as our story, as the source of our values, as our identity-defining moment. And so to eat the Lord’s Supper in a Corinthian spirit is like eating the Passover dressed as Pharoah. It is profoundly contradictory of who we are and where we fit in the story.

In summary then, the Lord’s Supper functions to ground God’s people in the reality of the new covenant, to confront and to conform them to its narrative and values. Thus “mere memorialism” will hardly do, even though the words of institution clearly emphasise remembrance. 

As to Zwinglianism’s responsibility for evangelicalism’s poetic and preaching failings I’m not so sure. One could certainly reverse the charge and say an emphasis on personal and individualised communion with Jesus all too easily allows the corporate and ecclesiological aspects of the Lord’s Supper (and preaching) to be side-lined. But this is only to say there are dangers on both sides. One could also recall that Zwingli himself emphasised the presence of Christ with his people and their communion with him through the Lord's Supper - on which see Bruce Ware's essay in Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R Crawford, The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes (B&H Academic, 2011).

More constructively, though, the kind of view of the Lord’s Supper I’ve described has a substantial appreciation for the power of stories and the power of divinely-instituted props in the telling of them. It should make poets of us all. This approach also highlights the formative character of narrative, which guards against the kind of cerebral and propositional preaching we easily fall into. In bread and wine, as in the teaching of the word, we are not giving assent to propositions so much as finding our place and identity in the story, the theodrama, as Kevin Vanhoozer might say, as God’s new covenant people.

1 The setting of these comments is an Anglican conference (audio here) at which Tim (an Anglican) was quite understandably encouraging Anglicans to be Anglican in their theology. His analysis of current Anglican theology describes a “default Zwinglianism,” adopted, not for exegetical or theological reasons, but because it puts most water between an evangelical and a Roman Catholic view of the sacraments. In that context, Tim is concerned that a wariness of affirming that we encounter God “through a divinely-instituted means of grace” in relation to the Lord’s Supper spills over into our view of preaching. The result is that we conceive of preaching as merely information transfer+exhortation. For what it’s worth, I agree with Tim that Anglicans should be consistent Anglicans, that Zwinglians should only be Zwinglians for good exegetical reasons, and that this low view of preaching is too widespread and expects too little. What perhaps needs emphasising is that if “default Zwinglianism” doesn’t think of God as present or at work through preaching and the Lord’s Supper then we should really call it defaulty Zwinglianism.