Take & Eat
Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper: Five Views
reviewed by Thomas A. Baima
In the last couple of years, two books have taken up one of the most important doctrinal issues that separate Christians: the Eucharist. I believe that both books are significant both in their content and in their methodology. In this review, however, I will avoid discussing the content of the volumes because I was a co-author of one of them. Instead, I will offer a review of the books’ equally important contribution in the area of theological methodology, which was the work of the editors, John H. Armstrong and Gordon T. Smith.
The content is worth separate review, and I hope someone will take up that task. At the same time, I believe the methodology is worthy of consideration on its own merit, for it represents a step forward in what some have called the new ecumenism.
For those unfamiliar with the term “new ecumenism” it will help to define first what its practitioners understand the “old ecumenism” to be. The old ecumenism is an “official” enterprise, done by theologians mandated by their churches to conduct bilateral and multi-lateral dialogues. This form of ecumenism has produced a large body of literature in the form of joint statements and agreements. It is largely the work of those communities which have strong national and international associations, such as the Lutheran World Federation, the Anglican Communion, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Catholic Church.
The old ecumenism tended not to include those communities which did not have membership in international associations such as these. This represents an important self-exclusion, since it meant that many conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal communities, which account for quite a significant number of Christians worldwide, did not enter the conversations.
The new ecumenism seeks to engage especially these communities through “non-official” dialogues. Rather than by officially mandated delegates, this new ecumenism is practiced principally by interested theologians and pastors—in other words, by individuals rather than churches. Both of these books are expressions of the new ecumenism.
Friendly but Firm
Both John H. Armstrong and Gordon T. Smith have chosen authors who generally hold to both a high Christology and a high view of the authority of Scripture (and in the Catholic authors, Scripture and Tradition). Said another way, although the Protestants and Catholics still do not agree on the sources of authority, all of the contributors to these two volumes appear to agree that theology is about Revealed Truth, to which all doctrine is accountable. This creates a fairly robust dialogue between the various views presented in both books.
While the essays are respectful in tone, based on the authors’ mutual recognition of each other as Christians, they nevertheless give no quarter on matters of truth. Each contributor asserts that the view of his theological tradition is most in conformity with Christ’s teaching. The conversation is, at times, quite passionate.
Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper is the second of a two-book set in Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, following Understanding Four Views on Baptism. John Armstrong directed each contributor to attempt a full-fledged treatment of his tradition’s view of the Lord’s Supper, including the following in his outline: the meaning and significance of the Supper, who should participate, how to handle practical pastoral issues, the frequency of the Supper, where it should be served, whether the table should be fenced, who is allowed to serve the Supper, whether preaching must accompany it, how people should prepare for it, and whether the Eucharist should be worshiped.
While remaining as comprehensive as possible, and touching on almost all of the neuralgic points of division, each author was free to engage these questions from the genius of his own tradition. There are thus differing points of emphasis in the four essays, as revealed by their subtitles: “Christ’s Presence as Memorial” (Russell D. Moore, Baptist), “The Real Presence of Christ” (I. John Hesselink, Reformed), “Finding the Right Word” (David P. Scaer, Lutheran), and “Christ’s True, Real, and Substantial Presence” (Thomas A. Baima, Catholic).
Gordon T. Smith took a different approach in The Lord’s Supper: Five Views. He asked his authors to concentrate on Christology, ecclesiology, and pneumatology, taking as their starting point the product of one of the official dialogues: the World Council of Churches’ great document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. The contributors were thus directed to present the insights of their tradition through a consideration of “the person and work of Christ, the nature and mission of the church, and the nature of the Christian life and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”
In addition to Catholic (Jeffrey Gros), Lutheran (John R. Stephenson), Reformed (Leanne Van Dyk), and Baptist (Roger E. Olsen) views, Smith’s book also includes a Pentecostal view (Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen), which, he correctly argues, is essential to the conversation, both because the Pentecostal view has been a missing dimension of ecumenical dialogue for the reasons stated above, and because of the growing significance of this theological tradition in the global church.
Entering the Conversation
The structure of both books is the same: Each chapter contains an essay by one author presenting the particular view of his tradition, followed by responses from each of the other contributors. Central to this method for both editors was to have theologians who are personally committed to their respective traditions anchoring each chapter.
This method of presentation/-response, so typical in ecumenical conversations, is rare in books on doctrinal themes, but makes for rewarding reading. It allows the reader to enter into an extended conversation between four or five theologians, who can probe into, qualify, and analyze the material in a way that a single author could never do. In particular, the incisive questions found in the responses offer much to both the student of theology and the interested general reader. One wishes that a second volume of each book could be produced, with the chapter authors responding to the responses.
If these two books are an example of what the new ecumenism is capable of offering to Christians, then the ecumenical future is bright.
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“Take & Eat” first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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