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Witherington on the Supper

Posted by on Oct 1, 2007 in books, ordinances/sacraments | 10 comments

I have been enjoying Ben Witherington’s Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper. I’m reading through slowly, primarily because I’m reading so many other books for school. Reading this book has prompted some of my previous posts, including “A Common Table” and “Meeting and Eating“.

Chapter 3 is called “The Table of the Entitled and the Table of the Lord”. In this chapter, Witherington discusses 1 Corinthians 10-11 and the implications on the Lord’s Supper. His conclusion is very interesting. He suggests that based on 1 Corinthians 10-11, 1) the Lord’s Supper was taken in homes, 2) any Christian meal should be distinguished “the usually socially stratifying customs of a pagan meal”, and 3) the Lord’s Supper was not just a reenactment of the Passover meal.

Then, he says the following:

One of the most important conclusions one can draw from a close reading of 1 Corinthians 10-11 is that Paul does not assume that the Lord’s Supper is a purely symbolic meal. He believes there is a spiritual transaction going on in this meal just as there was in the meal at the pagan temple. The right sort of spiritual communion between Christ and his people can be contrasted with the wrong sort of spiritual communion between demons and their worshipers. In short, Paul was no Zwinglian, but as it turns out, even Zwingli was not an advocate of a purely symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. (pg 62)

As of Chapter 3, Witherington has not explained what type of spiritual transaction he believes takes place during the Lord’s Supper. I’m looking forward to reading his views on this.

For those who may be uncomfortable with the language of a “spiritual transaction” taking place during the Lord’s Supper, John Hammett says something similar in his book, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches:

Yet for all their [Baptism and Lord’s Supper] importance, there seems to be a lack of interest in, and even a sense of embarrassment by, these corporate acts of commitment among Baptists. To some degree, this may be due to the fact that Baptists have regarded these acts as symbolic and thus intrinsically less important than the realities they symbolize… There is, thus, considerable need to rethink the Baptist views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and considerable room for improvement in Baptists’ celebration of them… In a sense, the debate over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper is unfortunate, for it often detracts from a proper appreciation of what is offered to us at the Lord’s Table. As many have noted, Baptists have been so concerned to deny Christ’s physical presence that they have often in effect seemed to teach a doctrine of real absence. (pg 257-281)

While Hammett prefers the language of “renewal” instead of “spiritual transaction” when it comes to the Supper, he still believes that something beyond the “symbolic” occurs during the Lord’s Supper.

What do you think? Is there some type of “spiritual transaction” or “renewal” that takes places during the Lord’s Supper? If so, what do you think takes place? If not, why not?


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  1. 10-1-2007

    Frankly, if the possibility exists of eating and drinking judgment on oneself by not discerning the body, then of course, there is a spiritual transaction. I hate to cast it in the negative, but when people take the life out of something by saying it’s “merely” symbolic, they make presumptions that God did not see fit to put in the language of scripture. And taking away is as dangerous as adding.

    Jesus said, “is”. I’m fine with that. There are all sorts of possible spiritual implications when I eat His body and drink His blood. But the spiritual transaction does not take place in my defining or discerning what happened. It takes place in the faithful obedience of following the Lord’s command. When we obey, we are “in Him”, and He is “in us”.

  2. 10-1-2007


    It does seem that if one can eat and drink in an unworthy manner such that the person is judged, then there is something going on beyond a symbol. I like the way your brought in the idea of being “in him” and his being “in us”. The Supper is closely related to our abiding in him, and thus our fellowship with God and our mutual fellowship with one another. I don’t know exactly what type of “spiritual transaction” takes place, and since I don’t see where Scripture explains that, I am quite content not knowing.


  3. 10-2-2007


    I contend that if there is a “spiritual transaction”, that transaction is horizontal and includes what Heb.10:25 encourages. The vertical transaction “is finished”.

    That is why each gathering of a congregation ought to practice of the Lords Supper, as against the Lord’s Snack, and is a necessary part of allowing that transaction to take place, as is the “discerning of the body (Body).

  4. 10-2-2007


    This same type of thing is discussed in detail re: water baptism in “More Than a Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism” Here’s the url:

    Here’s the book that also discusses the Lord’s Supper. It is also in the same vein as the one above:

    Both books make for some interesting reading and the one on baptism has surely changed my views, especially when coupled with Beasley-Murray’s book “Baptism in the NT”.

    I ordered Witherington’s books about a week ago (on baptism and the Supper) and am looking forward to reading them.

  5. 10-2-2007


    Hammett says: “To some degree, this may be due to the fact that Baptists have regarded these acts as symbolic and thus intrinsically less important than the realities they symbolize…” As far as I am concerned, all symbols are intrinsically less important than the realities that they symbolize. That’s the difference between a symbol and reality. Even when Jesus took the last supper, the act of eating bread and drinking wine was intrinsically less important than the God-man’s actual broken body and spilt blood. If he had keeled over dead from a heart attack immediately following the meal, would we be so bent out of shape about the symbol that he instituted to represent an ordeal which he had every intention of enduring but just never got the opportunity? I think not, because the reality of dying on a cross is intrinsically more important than the mere thought of dying on a cross. It is the very nature of a symbol to be less important than the actual event. We institute a less important symbol to represent the more important reality.

    In regards to a “spiritual transaction,” I’m with you. I don’t think that Scripture addresses the topic directly; but even further, I don’t think there is enough evidence to support that conclusion in the same way that we conclude, for instance, that God is three persons in one nature (i.e. a trinity).

    I would like to conclude by stating that I don’t understand what people are trying say that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should mean to us. What are we missing? Every time I take the Lord’s Supper, I stop and reflect deeply on the fact that God became a bond-servant and hung on a cross so that I might be saved. What more is there? What do I need to “rethink?” Where is the “room for improvement?”


  6. 10-2-2007

    I appreciate everyone’s input on this topic. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. As Gary said, there is something intrinsically different between a symbol and the reality that it symbolizes – that the reality is greater in that sense. I agree with Aussie John that there is a horizontal dimenstion to the Supper, though I would not separate from the horizontal dimension from the vertical dimension. I think they go together, much like the Great Commandment: Love God and love others.

    Please feel free to add more to this discussion.


  7. 10-2-2007


    I also would not separate the vertical and the horizontal. What is important is that the horizontal declares that the vertical is true. One without the other is impossible!

    Isn’t that a part of what Jesus was referring to when He told the disciples to “Show the world that you are my disciples BY YOUR LOVE FOR ONE ANOTHER”?

    For the genuine believer, the vertical is an ongoing 24/7 relationship/interaction with the Godhead AND the Body, Christ in me the hope of glory, guaranteed, sealed and maintained by the Holy Spirit, which is evidenced and encouraged by, what I call, the Hebrews 10:23-25 principle, which includes the Lord’s Supper,which the Holy Spirit uses to maintain and develop the individual AND the congregation, to maturity.
    Obviously, the function of every member of the congregation during these times, however often they may be, is essential for a proper discerning “of the body”.
    In my opinion, it is dangerous for us to try to deal with our understanding of these matters in a piecemeal way, that is by regarding the Lord’s Supper, and loving oneanother, and assembling with each other, and encouraging each other as separate issues.

    Again, in my opinion,those who need to resort to all kinds of artifices, in which they believe their is some mystical content (which often amounts to nothing more than superstition), to continually encourage him/her that what he/she thinks he/she believes, is true, very likely have mental assent to Biblical truths rather than a Holy Spirit given and maintained faith in the finished work of Christ.

  8. 10-2-2007

    “I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. As Gary said, there is something intrinsically different between a symbol and the reality that it symbolizes – that the reality is greater in that sense.”

    I agree. I think the oft frustration and confusion occurs between professing believers when folks do the pendulum swing; meaning they end up going well beyond Scripture by overemphasizing the sacramentalistic aspects of the ordinances whereas on the flip side of this issue many brethren are doggedly adamant that the ordinances are only memorials or symbols outwardly representing an inner spiritual reality.

    I think the balance is struck when we really strive for contextual exegesis while being willing to crucify our own sacred cows on the altar of said exegesis.

  9. 10-2-2007

    There is a wholeness to being human in Christ.

    Meals together remembering the Lord as the Host of the banquet and as the One whose sacrifice made the banquet possible, while also involved in being with others in a relaxed, enriching atmosphere is a whole spiritual experience.

  10. 10-11-2007


    Have you read over Eric Svendsen’s recent series on this?
    It starts here and you can read the rest by looking a little ways down the page on the sidebar on the right under “The Lord’s Supper.”

    Grace and peace,