Eternal Word in Broken Bread (Letham)

Letham, Robert. The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2001.

The Reformers wrote more polemics on the Lord’s Supper than anything else, yet you wouldn’t know this from a survey of American Christianity today.  This booklet should be on every Reformed church table.  

He briefly surveys the New Testament data on the Lord’s Supper and then moves into a historical survey.  He notes the problems with transubstantiation. I won’t spend too much time on transubstantiation, since refutations of it can be found in most good dogmatics texts.  I do want to show some problems in memorialism, though.  Let’s first start with a good Calvin quote:

“Accordingly, he shows that in his humanity there also dwells fullness of life, so that whoever has partaken of his flesh and blood may at the same time enjoy participation in life…

…in like manner the flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing from the Godhead into itself” (ICR 4.17.9).

Memorialism, by contrast, asserts that there is nothing “more in the Lord’s Supper than the action on the part of the recipients in focusing their minds on Christ” (Letham 25).  Letham lists some problems:

1) If by the Holy Spirit Christ is present everywhere, it seems odd to stress his absence in the Lord’s Supper.
2) It can’t make sense of Jesus’s realism language in John 6.
3) It divorces sign from thing signified.

Letham, following Calvin probably, advocates “Real Spiritual Presence” (28ff). We do more than just think about Jesus.  Rather, “Christ gives himself to be eaten and drunk in faith.  This eating and drinking is not physical but is nonetheless real and true” (28). Christ is present to us by his Holy Spirit, yet he is also united to his flesh.  This is the objective pole.  The subjective pole is that we must receive him by faith.

More on the Reformed Doctrine

The supper signs and seals in our consciences the promises of the gospel. As Christ “is the sum of the Supper, the true communication of Christ is vital to understand” (33). Even though the bread and wine are signs, “the name and title of the body and blood are attributed to them since they are instruments by which Jesus Christ distributes them to us.”

Christ “pours his very life into us,” even if we don’t get his flesh (Calvin 4.17.32).

Reformed Practice

1) The Word creates the sacraments.

2) Single loaf (Letham 50).  This is where Letham probably loses people.  I get the argument for a single loaf. I just don’t know how that will work in a huge church. That said, we should do away with the “chiclets” approach to the Supper, which having no resemblance to bread (or even food), cannot function as a sign.

3) Single cup.  Same thing.

4) Wine. 

5) Leavened bread.  If the Lord’s Supper is not the continuation of the passover, then there is no point in using unleavened bread. Rome, by contrast, needs unleavened bread because the bread, being Jesus’s body, would crumble if it were leavened.  Further, the NT consistently uses artos, not azymos.

Letham ends this chapter by commending the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. I am not arguing for weekly communion.  I am simply arguing against bad reasons opposing it.  Please don’t say it sounds too Catholicky. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s