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The Lord’s table and humility

Posted by on Jan 31, 2008 in books, ordinances/sacraments, unity | 4 comments

As I’ve mentioned previously in the posts “A Spiritual Remembrance” and “The Lord’s Supper as Communion“, I’m reading through Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, edited by John H. Armstrong. The “Reformed View” of the Lord’s Supper is presented by I. John Hesselink.

While there is much that I would agree with in Hesselink’s presentation, I would disagree with some of his conclusions as well. (Interesting, since I could say the same thing about Moore’s presentation of the “Baptist View” of the Lord’s Supper.) However, I was very encouraged by one part of Hesselink’s presentation. In these paragraphs, he quotes John Calvin as Calvin considers the “secret”, “mystery”, and “wonder” that we call the Lord’s Supper:

I urge my readers not to confine their mental interests within these too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. For, whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express (Inst. IV.17.7).

Hesselink then comments on the quote above by John Calvin:

Since this heavenly mystery is beyond comprehension but is at the same time such a precious gift of God’s generosity and kindness, our proper response should not be frustration because of our inability to understand the mysteries of the sacrament, but rather gratitude and a reverent openness to what God would give us through it. We should emulate the spirit of Calvin, who was not “ashamed to confess” that the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper is “a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare.” In short, he concludes, “I rather experience than understand it” (Inst. IV.17.32).

After years and years of battles with words and swords concerning “the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper”, it is encouraging to read these words of Calvin and Hesselink. Calvin held very strongly to his convictions concerning the Lord’s Supper, and yet he was able to voice (at least) his inability to understand the mystery and wonder of the Supper. Perhaps this is a good starting place for those who disagree about “the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper”.

I’ve found that most disagreements concerning the Lord’s Supper do not begin with Scripture. Instead, they begin with someone’s interpretation of Scripture – whether a patristic writer, or a reformation writer, or a modern day writer. Those who hold to certain views of the Lord’s Supper defend their favorite authors. In the meantime, they often ridicule (at best) or condemn (at worst) those who disagree with their favorite author. Thus, the common table of the Lord becomes a shouting match or even an ultimate fighting arena for those who hold different interpretations of the Supper itself. These fights – with words or with swords – end up dividing what Christ brings together.

However, if we can approach the table with humility – holding to our convictions and yet admitting that our convictions may be wrong – we will find that the table ceases to be a weapon and becomes the communion for which it was intended. We may find that we can stop dividing over Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et. al. and instead find common grace, mercy, and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Of course, that means that we will have to admit that we (and our favorite interpretation and author) may be wrong. We also have to admit that we can learn from other followers of Jesus Christ who come to the table from different perspectives and hermeneutical traditions.

As long as we try to find unity in the writings and interpretations of men, we will only find factions and divisions. We will only find unity in the person of Jesus Christ. That unity may display itself more when we stop trying to prove ourselves right, and instead use the freedom that we have in Christ to serve others – even those who disagree with us about the table of the Lord.

At the table, the Lord lowered himself to the position of a slave and washed the feet of his followers. Those disciples did not understand him completely. Peter would soon deny him. Yet, Jesus served them. May we follow his humble example.


4 Comments

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  1. 2-2-2008

    Alan,

    But what if I’m right and everyone else is wrong? ;-)

  2. 2-2-2008

    Then, I guess, you don’t have to be humble. :)

    -Alan

  3. 10-24-2012

    Thank you for calling attention to the starting place of humility when discussing, of all things, the meal which represents our Lord’s selfless sacrifice!

    Our fellowship has explored this topic in great depth over the years. We’ve listed several resources related to the Lord’s Supper under “Christianity 101″ and one fine resource (a free 80-page PDF book by Dr. Eric Svendsen, “The Table of the Lord”) under “Advanced Studies” on this page: http://lambblood.com/resources.html

  4. 10-24-2012

    Rick,

    It has always amazed me at the number of arguments that have broken out about the Supper… which was obviously intended to unite.

    -Alan

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