Remembrance, Communion, and Hope

Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's Table

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J. Todd Billings
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , February
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802862334.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Protestant Christians have long disagreed about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper as well as the proper mode of its practice. A line of Reformed theology—stretching from John Calvin to John Williamson Nevin to T.F. Torrance—would view the Supper as an essential complement to gospel preaching, and therefore, as a vital resource for spiritual formation. The accounts of the Supper offered by these thinkers typically accent the action of the risen Jesus, such that participation in the meal serves, symbolically but truly, as a means of uniting oneself to Christ through his body on earth: the church. An alternative Reformed view (historically identified with Huldrych Zwingli, but now the default position of many American congregations) sees the Supper as symbolic only in a weak sense: far from conveying the “real presence” of Jesus, the meal offers an occasion for believers to be reminded of Jesus’s death on their behalf. In effect, communion serves as a pointerto divine grace, not as a means. It is tempting to view such intramural debates as intractable and therefore, pointless. Can anything good come from revisiting this well-worn doctrinal territory? Actually, yes. A new book by J. Todd Billings offers proof.

Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table is a theological and pastoral intervention directed to “near-sighted churches” (16)—that is, to congregations whose stated beliefs are orthodox, but who fail to live as if the Holy Spirit is present and active in their worship. The author makes it his aim “to move beyond a myopic perception of the gospel to embrace the depth and breadth of the good news of God’s action in and through Jesus Christ” (28). In practice, this means breaking down some of the theological concepts and categories that have hardened over time, and re-minting them in service of a more expansive vision. A few examples: Billings lays a heavy stress on the priority of God’s Word within worship—as expected from a Reformed theologian—but goes on to explain how that Word comes to fuller expression in ritual practice. He pairs the classic Evangelical theme of personal conversion together with themes of corporate renewal and festivity. He then supplements detailed biblical exegesis with an affective anthropology, as if to say: desiring and delighting in the Supper is just as necessary as thinking rightly about it.

A second virtue of this book involves what might be called a “here I stand” approach to ecumenism. Rather than surveying the Supper from a stance of scholarly neutrality, Billings has opted to argue unapologetically from one ecclesial location. The result is a maximally particularist account of the Supper, grounded in scripture and in the eucharistic theology of Calvin and the Reformed confessions. This is a risky strategy. How does one extol the beauty of one’s own tradition without alienating or excluding readers who otherwise might be inclined to agree? Fortunately, Billings’s tone is eirenic, not polemical. Rather than seeking to foreclose other ways of making sense of the Supper, he posits a depth of doctrine—calling it “the ecumenical water table” (67)—where different Christian traditions may discover a surprising unity. An excellent example is Billings’s discussion of the sacramental significance of Jesus’s ascension (76-77). Seen through this lens, the Supper is fittingly celebrated with a forward-looking, hope-filled sense of expectancy. The more typical modes of Protestant practice—an intellectualistic form of memorialism, perhaps, or a human-centered revivalism—simply fall short on biblical and theological grounds. The force of Billings’s discussion is to challenge his readers to expand their understanding of the meal.

In the eyes of this reviewer, at least, Billings has succeeded in highlighting the winsomeness of the Reformed tradition and its untapped potential for sacramental renewal. The problem I foresee is one of audience; after centuries of controversy and conflict, who is still teachable about these things? Perhaps the best argument for eucharistic reform must come from congregations whose reverent integration of Word and Sacrament provides a living demonstration of the theology this book so ably sets forth.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bo Helmich is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. His other books include Calvin, Participation, and the Gift (winner of a 2009 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise), The Word of God for the People of God, and Rejoicing in Lament.

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