The December 2021 installment of the monthly RTS Jackson Online Discussion Forum features James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament, Guy Waters in conversation with Chancellor Ligon Duncan on a biblical theology of the Lord’s Supper.
Step Morgan: OK, gang, we’ve reached the top of the hour. We’ll still have others join us over the next couple of minutes, but let’s go ahead and get rolling. We have an exciting topic of discussion that I personally am very much looking forward to today, and so we want to give as much time to Dr. Duncan and Dr. Waters as possible. Before I turn it over to Dr. Duncan, just to remind you, we have an excellent stack of books that we’re giving away. That volume that Dr. Perkins held up a while ago on covenant theology is in the stack.  biblical introduction, biblical-theological introduction to the New Testament is in there. A commentary on Acts by Dr. Waters, a book that he [and] Dr. Duncan, collaborated on, Children and The Lord’s Supper, is in there, The Life and Theology of Paul, an introduction to covenant theology by Dr. Belcher from our Charlotte campus in there. And then we’ve got twenty-five copies of Dr. Waters’ little volume on the Lord’s Supper to give away as well. So be sure and at a minimum, say hello in that chat box so that your name goes in the drawing. Unfortunately, it is limited to those with a US domestic address, but if you’ve got a buddy in the US, they can [crosstalk] with their address in there, because we want you to have a stab at that. Well, as always, if you’ll just double-check, make sure your mic is muted, and remember that towards the end of the call, we’ll be taking questions from you. As they occur to you, go ahead and put them in the chat box. I’ll be getting those to Dr. Duncan over the course of the hour so that they’ll be all cued up for him. So be sure and put those there. Well, how about we begin our time together in prayer? Let’s pray. Father, we are so thankful to you for your many mercies. We are reminded that each day that we have is because you numbered it so for us. And we thank you that today we get to enjoy fellowship over the course of the hour, and the ministry of these two men, these ministers and teachers. We ask that you would give them wisdom and sharpness of mind as they lead us in a discussion of this sweet gift of Christ to His church, [a] sacrament that provides for us sensible signs to assure us of the certainty of his work, and your promises to us. So we ask that you would be glorified in this time and that we would be blessed. In Christ’s and we pray, amen. All right, Dr. Duncan, over to you.
Ligon Duncan: And again, I’ll just remind you if you will put your questions in the chat, Step will get those to me so that I’m not trying to watch chat. I can really concentrate on serving you in the conversation with Guy. And then as Step sends them to me, then we will get to your questions. So I always come sort of locked and loaded with my own set of questions that I want to learn from the person that we’re interviewing, and then I try to get to your questions as soon as possible. Let me first introduce Guy Waters to you. He’s almost a man who needs no introduction. Guy Prentiss Waters did his undergraduate work at Penn, studied at Westminster Seminary, and then did his Ph.D. in New Testament at Duke. And somehow, I am getting Catherine Cook’s, uh, thing on the share. Are you all getting that too, Step? The share screen?
Step Morgan: Yeah. So sorry. Let me fix that.
Ligon Duncan: OK, good deal. But welcome, Catherine. We’re glad to have you here. I think we can all hear, right, Step? Everybody can still hear me, even though the share screen is on? Guy has taught on the faculty, actually came to Belhaven College, which is now Belhaven University, and then to Reformed Theological Seminary. And he and I have partnered on a number of projects over the years. Guy has written volumes engaging with the so-called New Perspectives on Paul, the works of folks like Tom Wright and E.P. Sanders and James Dunn and others. He’s interacted with that work in a serious, scholarly level. He’s interacted with the Federal Vision controversy in print. But he is a churchman and a faithful preacher of the gospel, regularly supplying pulpits of churches here in the region. And he not only teaches New Testament, he teaches the ecclesiology and sacraments portion of our systematic theology curriculum in Jackson. So not unlike one of his mentors, Dick Gaffin, Guy teaches both in the area of systematic and New Testament theology. He is the James McKenzie Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament at RTS and he’s written, by the way, on the Lord’s Supper—at least two books. And so, he’s the perfect guy to have this conversation with. So, Dr. Waters, thank you so much for being with us today. I can’t wait to enjoy this conversation.
Guy Waters: Thank you for having me.
Ligon Duncan: Guy, let me just start out by saying or asking, “What got you interested in writing about the Lord’s Supper?”
Guy Waters: Great question. So the two books that you mentioned, Dr. Duncan, the first you and I co-edited, it was a book entitled Children and the Lord’s Supper. You mentioned the Federal Vision controversy—that would merit an hour in itself just to explain what those issues were, and that lies somewhat in the rearview mirror. Not entirely, but within that circle, in conservative reformed circles, there was great interest in the practice of paedocommunion, which is to admit children who had not made what we term a believable or credible profession of faith, admitting the children of believers to the Lord’s Table as young as they were able to digest the elements. That was a troubling practice, remains a troubling practice within our churches, and that became a subject of much discussion. So we wanted to be constructive in that discussion, put together really a fine team of scholars across the disciplines—Old Testament, New Testament, theology, church history—to speak into that issue, why it is that the church hasn’t gone that route historically. Because we’re convinced from the scripture that this is a practice not sanctioned by scripture. And then, the second book is really a different type of book altogether. Our colleague, Miles Van Pelt, co-edits a series with Crossway, Short Studies in Biblical Theology. And they invited me, and I agreed to prepare a volume looking at the Lord’s Supper, not taking up the full range of systematic, historical, practical questions—though we get into that towards the end of the book—but looking at it in terms of the unfolding sweep of the history of redemption. And that book was a bit of a challenge, because obviously the Lord’s Supper falls at the end of the story, not at the beginning. But, looking at the Lord’s Supper as sign and meal of the New Covenant, I situated the Lord’s Supper within that grand scheme, going back to the Garden, the covenant of works, and looking forward to the consummation, the wedding feast of the Lamb. And so, a different look on the Lord’s Supper, but one I trust will help to enrich our understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper in the churches today.
Ligon Duncan: Guy, sometimes when we start a writing project, we have a pretty good idea of where we want to go. And then along the way, either we get surprised by something or we get informed by something. We’re, you know, even in the process of writing the book, we’re deepened and edified ourselves, you know, by the study that we’re doing. It’s kind of like sermon preparation. It’s speech that you’re preparing for the people of God. But if you’re doing it right, it’s edifying you while you’re preparing to do that speech. Are there some things that you were particularly edified by as you wrote that volume for Crossway?
Guy Waters: Yes. Well, this latter volume—I knew coming in that to appreciate the Lord’s Supper, you’d have to serve a covenant theology. There’s a mini-covenant theology at the beginning, and of course, the language of sign and seal. It’s biblical language, it’s longstanding theological language. I knew I was going to have to explore that language. But the thing that I didn’t anticipate being as significant as I found it to be, is looking at the Lord’s Supper alongside all of the meals that God institutes in scripture. And I was overwhelmed by how often God comes to his people and shares a meal with them. Of course, in our society today, getting a meal is going through the drive-thru and eating your burger on your lap while you’re on the interstate. That’s not how meals worked. It’s still not how meals work in most of the world today. A meal is an opportunity to enjoy fellowship with someone. And so, looking at that pattern throughout redemptive history, God calling his people, again and again, to sit down and enjoy fellowship and communion with him over food—the Lord’s Supper sits in that pattern and prepares us for eternity, which is going to be a great meal with the gathered people of God, and our triune God.
Ligon Duncan: Wow. Great example of how doing the work of biblical theology can bring home a particular truth of God’s Word to you experientially, even as you are doing that work. That’s terrific. Guy, you know, when I teach any course—but I’m thinking right now of systematic theology courses that I teach regularly—and I’m working through various topics or fields, I will have in my idea, in my mind, certain points of emphasis, topics that I really want my students to get. You know, you’re covering the doctrine of Providence. And one thing you just really want your students to get is a sense that God is sovereignly in control of all things comprehensively, for his glory and our good. So when you’re doing that topic, that’s just one thing you want to get. You teach this on a regular basis. You teach the Lord’s Supper, you teach the sacraments, you teach baptism, you teach ecclesiology. What do you really want your students to get when you are teaching on the Lord’s Supper?
Guy Waters: Great question. And I think that—and we can go into the reasons for this—but I think when we grasp what our Reformed tradition has understood about the Bible’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper, it brings many of us, myself included, through a Copernican revolution. And what I mean by that is that our default, I think, as American Christians, evangelical Christians, is to approach the sacraments fundamentally in terms of us coming to God. And of course, we are coming to God if we’re observing the sacraments the way they’re supposed to be observed. But scripturally, in the sacraments, this is God coming to us, in his Word, in his promise. Christ is inviting his people in the supper to sup with him. And so we come in the Spirit and by faith, to meet with our living risen Savior. Not corporally, carnally, but we are meeting with the Savior by the Spirit. And to think of the Lord’s Supper, as well as baptism, as God coming to us in his Word fundamentally, and we then responding to him in the strength of his grace, I think that enriches our understanding of the sacrament, and it makes us hunger and thirst for the sacrament. It puts a lot of the historical controversies in proper perspective, and it gives us the frame that we need. If the sacraments are going to be something that we stop being scared of, or running away from, and to embrace, not in the excess of some traditions in Christian history, but with the proper balance that’s found in scripture, and that the reformed tradition at its best has maintained.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. Guy, the doctrine of the sacraments has been a controversial doctrine for at least 500 years. And when you talk about the doctrine of baptism, you have to sketch out, “Well, this is a Baptist or a credobaptist view. This is a paedobaptist view. This is a Reformed paedobaptist view. This is a Lutheran paedobaptist view. This is a Catholic paedobaptist view.” But when you come to the Lord’s Supper, it doesn’t get less complex in terms of views, because there actually views even within the Reformed constituency. When you sketch out views—because I agree with you, I think, in larger American evangelicalism, and that actually, it crosses denominational and theological family lines—I agree with you, I think the sacraments are often viewed as, fundamentally, something that we do in order to either, express our allegiance to God, or express our desire to commune with God, and the effectual work of the sacraments. And the initiative of God in the sacraments is often downplayed. But sketch out for us—let’s say you know you’re going to introduce a Sunday school class to the various views on the Lord’s Supper that are out there. Just sketch out for us, quickly, some of the major views of the Lord’s Supper that you would want folks at the lay level to understand.
Guy Waters: Absolutely. And I think—just thinking of a small congregation that I serve, you could find people who were reared in most, if not all, of these traditions that I’m about to summarize. So it’s an historical issue, an issue of an historical importance, but it continues to be an issue of practical importance as we survey these issues. I think our starting point historically, as sons and daughters of the Reformation, is, we have to think about where the church was in the 16th century, what came to be codified at the Council of Trent—though it was well in motion before— and that’s Rome’s doctrine of transubstantiation. It’s a very complex doctrine, and you have its technical formulation, and then you have its popular expressions, and we don’t have time to get into all that. But very simply, it simply says that the substance of the bread and wine is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, his flesh and blood. When the priest is officiating at the table in the mass, and then, when the worshiper receives from the priest’s hands the host, though you’re seeing bread on the outside—to your senses, that is—what you’re really ingesting is the humanity of Jesus Christ, is Jesus Christ bodily. And that’s crucial to Rome’s understanding of the grace that we receive in the Lord’s Supper. That’s crucial to her sacramental system generally. And it was at that point that the Reformers came, in very strong terms, to respond to. Luther responded to that most conservatively. He said, “Look, transubstantiation is in error.” He advanced a view that is expressed, for instance, in the wording of the Westminster standards, that Christ in his humanity is ‘in, with, and under’ the elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. So he didn’t go the route of transubstantiation. The view is termed ‘consubstantiation.’ Now, Lutherans are pretty peaceable folk, but if you want to get a Lutheran upset, call their view consubstantiation. They’re not terribly keen on that. I think it’s much easier to glean what consubstantiation is not, than what it is. John Owen terms it the “younger brother” or “younger cousin” of transubstantiation, and that’s not a bad way to get it. You then have what’s commonly known as the memorialist view. This is often tied to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich. I think many historians judge unfairly, but that’s the association. This is an understandable response to Rome. It says that the bread and wine are to be taken as bare signs, that the significance of the Lord’s Supper is as an ordinance. It summons thoughts about Jesus Christ, prompts us to renewed faith and love to him, but it stopped short of saying that there’s any communing, any fellowship, any kind of engagement with Christ personally, even by his spirit. The Reformed tradition didn’t go either of those directions. Calvin, I think in part because he was trying irenically to find common ground with Lutherans, unsuccessfully, has some expressions that he’s used about the presence of Christ in the supper that have caused a lot of later Reformed folk to scratch their head and be pretty unhappy. But we can talk about that. The Westminster standards, however, give us, I think, a very clear and a very bounded understanding of the Lord’s Supper, which ministers and elders in Presbyterian and Reformed denominations subscribe. And what it says is that, yes, Jesus Christ is present to faith in the Supper. We’re not arguing for any kind of corporeal or carnal presence. He is present by his spirit. He’s not present to all alike. He’s present to faith. And the believer who comes to Christ in faith, worthily communing, meets with Christ, receives grace in that sacrament. And when you look at the theology of the Supper and the Westminster standards, the way I explain it to students is this: that the Lord’s Supper—and baptism, for that matter—work no differently than the preaching of the word. You benefit from them the same way you would from the preaching of the word. There’s no magic, there’s no superstition. There’s no credit just for showing up. But it is a means of grace. It is an instrument God has appointed in the case of the Lord’s Supper, not to bring people to faith, but to mature and grow them in the faith that has once been wrought. So that would be a sense of the spectrum of the views of the Supper. And again, because many people in the churches that I’ve served come out of so many different traditions, you can be pretty confident that you’ve got folks sitting in the pews who have been reared in, or have had significant exposure, to views of the Supper other than what is being taught in your particular church.
Ligon Duncan: That leads nicely into the first—and we’ve already got a slew of questions from folks. I’m going to go right into those questions. Note, friends, that it’s only twenty-two minutes after the hour, and I’m already asking your questions. I am an entreatable man! Steve Barninger asks this: “Dr. Waters, please comment some on the detail of Calvin’s distinctive view.” You know, where the believer by the spirit is lifted up to the presence of, and in communion with the Logos-in-sarkos? Talk a little bit about that.
Guy Waters: Well, with without affirming every one of Calvin’s expressions—because, you know, Calvin says things about the presence of Christ in the Institutes, for instance, that at best leave me scratching my head, “Calvin, what did you mean?”, and at worst, leave me uncomfortable. I would never speak of the Supper or of the presence of Christ in that fashion for fear of being misunderstood, holding a position that I don’t hold. But I do think—and when I was taught the doctrine of the Lord’s Prayer by Sinclair Ferguson at Westminster Seminary, he did impress on us, here’s a place to be sympathetic to Calvin, setting aside the particular statements to frame his view, that what Calvin was wanting to emphasize—and this puts him in a category other than what both Rome and Luther are teaching—is that we’re communing with Christ, one who is a genuine, authentic human being. Rome and Luther compromise the humanity of Christ in different ways. Luther resorts to the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity to explain the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Rome does something very similar, in a different fashion. And the Reformed, Calvin included, reject that because, Calvin stresses and Westminster stresses, we are communing with our Savior in his glorified humanity, to be sure. But we are communing with a person, and we are receiving benefits, not an abstraction, but from our mediator through the means of his appointment. I think that’s the core insight that lies at the heart of Calvin’s view, one that was, of course, picked up and articulated more precisely, more thoroughly in, say, the Westminster standards. But I think the root of it’s going to be found in Calvin.
Ligon Duncan: Here’s another question that comes from Matt—I guess it’s Allhands? You can correct me and tell me, how do I say it, Matt?
Matt Allhands: It’s “Allhands.”
Ligon Duncan: “Allhands.” Excellent. I didn’t know whether I had a silent “h” in there or not, Matt, so. And he asks a great question, and that is, “Can you comment on the continuity or discontinuity between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover? And is the relationship between those two similar to the relationship between circumcision and baptism?”
Guy Waters: Good question. Great question. Certainly, just to frame the question, we have in both Testaments, Old Testament and New Testament, we have an initiatory sacrament, circumcision and baptism, Old and New. And then we have a sacrament of what we might call nourishment, Passover and the Lord’s Supper. And those are recognized to be comparable to one another in in each covenant. Clearly, circumcision and baptism, that’s a different discussion. They bear certain similarities which touch on the question of who may be admitted to the sacrament of baptism. What about Passover and the Lord’s Supper? Well, I think a couple questions come from this, and it touches on the question again of the relation of children of believers to the church. Our friends who argue for paedocommunion are going to say, “Look, you recognize a covenant child to be a member of the church, invisible church,” which we do. “Would you not then admit them to the Lord’s Table? How can you not do that and not be inconsistent with your position?” And they’ll make appeal to the Passover: “Look, this was a family meal. Weren’t children at the table? Didn’t they eat the Passover? Why would we deny a child, covenant child, a seat at the table, at the Lord’s Supper?” And then at this point, my Baptist friend looks at this discussion and just smiles and shakes his head, saying, “You paedobaptists, you’ve painted yourself in a corner here. If only you recognize that this isn’t something—the children have no relation to the church, period, until they may come forward and are received into church membership. This is a problem of your own making and we’re not going to help you out.” So it raises some really good and important questions. Let me say, to begin, that I do affirm that the child of at least one believer is, by birthright, a member of the visible church, part of the covenant community. Now that having been said, a child being a covenant member of the visible church doesn’t mean that they are entitled to the exercise of all the privileges that come with church membership. So, my son is 15 years old. He is an American citizen. He cannot go to the polls on Election Day and demand to vote. They’re going to say, “You’ve got to wait three years because in our country, in the United States, you have to reach a level of maturation before you are deemed eligible to vote.” Well, it’s something comparable in the church. But then, what about the argument that, look, children were admitted to the Passover. Why wouldn’t you admit a child to the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t that being inconsistent? Well, I’d say in the first place, it’s not altogether clear that children were admitted to the Passover. Old Testament scholars dispute the issue. Calvin vigorously disputes that in the Institutes. So let’s just set that, too, aside for a moment and let’s just grant for the sake of argument the children did come to the Passover. It would not be inconsistent to say to a child who is not made professional faith, “Do not come to the Lord’s Supper,” for the simple reason that 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 lays down explicit qualifications to come to the Table. And my child is only to be admitted to the Table when they are recognized to have met those qualifications to discern the body and blood of the Lord, to be able to examine themselves. Now, think about it, think about what the Lord’s Supper is. It’s not interchangeable with Passover. Passover was looking forward to Christ who was to come. The Lord’s Supper is looking back to Christ who has come, and his finished work. So would it surprise us that the Apostle Paul should lay down qualifications and criteria, given what this covenant meal is, what it represents, its significance? Are we surprised that he wouldn’t say, “Look, if you’re going to come to this table, you can’t come unthinkingly, you’ve got to come prepared and ready. You have to demonstrate a certain level of maturity and readiness to come and receive what this meal is. It is a commemoration of and fellowship with the risen Christ, who has finished his work in his obedience, death and resurrection.” That makes perfect sense if you think about the Lord’s Supper at the end of redemptive history, and the movement from Passover in the shadows, to the Lord’s Supper representing Christ in fulfillment. So I don’t see it as an inconsistency at all, but in fact, befitting what the Lord’s Supper is.
Ligon Duncan: Guy, Elias—or, Elias Reed, depending on how you pronounce that, my friend—asked a great question: “What Old Testament passage would you say teaches us the most about Lord’s Supper in the New Testament?”
Guy Waters: Well, great question. I think the passages addressing the Passover would be the place that you would first go, in part because our Lord is going to institute the Lord’s Supper at a Passover meal. And so thinking about the Passover meal in Exodus, and what it was intended to commemorate—the redemption of Israel from Egypt by the work of the Lord—is simply foundational to the Passover meal. And so, those would be the passages that would be go-to. But I think we could expand the search. There is a variety of meals that capture a number of dimensions of what God has done, and is doing to save, to deliver his people, and that draw out various affections. So on the Day of Atonement, we mourn for sin. On the Feast of Tabernacles, we rejoice as a pilgrim people in God’s provision. And I think that gives us, each in its own way, a glimpse into the Lord’s Supper. It is a time of somber reflection on our sin and our savior’s death for sin. It is also a time for rejoicing, spiritual rejoicing, at what God has done for us and at what He has prepared for us in redemptive history.
Ligon Duncan: Now this question turns completely practical, but it’s, I think, widely applicable given what we have been experiencing the last year or so. And it just slipped right past me here. There we go. Michael Morris asks, “In the midst of COVID, what are your thoughts about prepackaged communion elements in the worship service?” And this, actually—Harrison Perkins asks a little bit more detailed question with a historical background, which I’ll get to later. But take that one up first, Guy, and we’ll come back and address this again.
Guy Waters: Sure. And I’m assuming that we’re talking about the little hourglass figures. You’ve got the horrid gluten-free cracker top, and you’ve got the liquid that’s supposed to be wine or juice. At least that’s what it says. And you flip accordingly. I’d say to begin, as we think about this, that we’ve begun using these fairly widely in many churches, from what I can tell, not because we thought this would be just a wonderful thing to do, but because we’re under pressure from circumstances that have come about through the pandemic. There are public health considerations. There are many other considerations. And so, I think it’s right. We take those into account in the life in the church, and that may introduce some irregularities in our worship and other things that we do in the church, which are not to be elevated to the norm or thought to be the norm, but are appropriate given those circumstances. And I think, so long as you have the fundamentals of the observation of the Lord’s Supper, God’s people gathered together, the minister with the elders, in the worship of God’s people on the Lord’s Day, and you have the minister who is administering the Supper, according to scripture. You have the elements that are being distributed, according to scripture, the people partaking and receiving. I think so long as those things are in place, then we can—recognizing all the irregularities that we have noted—we can say, “This isn’t ideal, but this is something, in light of where we are, that will allow us as the gathered people of God to observe the Lord’s Supper.” I’ve purposefully left out what’s been termed “virtual,” or what have you, “communion.” It’s a strange conjunction of words to begin with. I’m really positing the people of God coming together.
Ligon Duncan: Now let me just go ahead and jump to Dr. Perkins’ question, because it’s similar. It’s different, but it’s similar. And I resonate with this, because having worshiped in the Free Church of Scotland for three years, this issue was a big deal. So it kind of doesn’t surprise me, Harrison, that this would have been. And here’s what he says: “I ran into pushback in my church when we switched from one cup at communion to individual cups. As a New Testament scholar, is there anything in the circumstances of observing the Lord’s Supper that demands one cup as the only proper format?”
Guy Waters: Great question. In my judgment, no. I think the the baseline requirement, what you need for this to be an observation of the Lord’s Supper, is a cup, and I don’t see the distribution of several cups to, in any way, touch on the the essence of the cup and its distribution in the Supper. So just to draw in some more technical language, I don’t see the option, one cup or many cups, as getting at the element, but I see it, rather, as circumstantial. And there would be any number of reasons that prudence and wisdom could dictate where the distribution of the cup through individual smaller cups would be fitting and would not impair the integrity of the ordinance. So for my part, I wouldn’t see that as something that would violate what’s at the very heart or core of the Supper.
Ligon Duncan: Joshua Seibert asks, “Does the Reformed tradition have a practice or teaching on what to do with the elements that are left over or not used after the observance of the Lord’s Supper?”
Guy Waters: Well, of course, this is where my Roman Catholic and Lutheran friends get themselves into a lot of trouble. Because in Roman Catholic theology, any leftover bread or wine, that is the body and blood of Christ. It doesn’t revert to bread in substance and accidents after the mass is complete. So you have to deal with that. Similarly, with Luther, the story’s told of the question being put to Luther, “Look, if a piece of bread falls on the floor and the mouse goes and eats the piece of bread, what do you do?” And, “I guess you eat the mouse.” What choice do you have? And I think because the Reformed tradition has said, “When we speak of the presence of Christ, we are not talking about the corporeal, carnal presence of Christ in the bread and wine in the Supper. He is present spiritually to faith.” Now that having been said, I don’t think that means we just treat the elements casually or disrespectfully. They are set apart from ordinary use. And so after the sacrament, after the service, we treat them with all the respect that anything set apart from ordinary use is entitled. But I don’t think that that’s going to require us taking unusual or extraordinary measures that would be necessitated, say, theologically, by a Roman Catholic position.
Ligon Duncan: Joshua also asked the question, “What’s the Reformed view on closed as opposed to open communion?”
Guy Waters: So, three views: you have closed communion, you have close communion without the “d” at the end, and you have open communion. Closed, with a “d,” communion would say that only the members of the congregation, professing members of the congregation, those who profess faith, may come and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Close communion would say that the members of the congregation, those who profess faith, and any who’ve been interviewed by the session and admitted, those who are not members of that congregation—say, you’re visiting from another church—you’d have to be interviewed and admitted by the elders before coming to the table. And then there’s open communion, which would extend an invitation to any genuine Christian who meets the biblical criteria, to come to the table. And there wouldn’t be a requirement of an interview with the elders. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, open and close communion are permitted. Closed communion would not be an admissible practice. And I think most congregations in the PCA would practice open communion. And I suspect that would be the case for many contemporary Presbyterian denominations today.
Ligon Duncan: Guy, Rick Franks says, “Paedocommunion is a common practice among some Reformed churches in our area. So we get families from time to time who come to our church expecting the practice of paedocommunion. Which one of your books would be good to go through with them? Or is there some other resource that you recommend?”
Guy Waters: Well, the volume that Dr. Duncan and I edited, Children and the Lord’s Supper, would be, I think, for the pastor or elder who’s meeting with the family. A good resource to begin with. It’s not a long book. And the book is—I think the contributors did a great job digesting scholarship in an accessible way. You can read the individual essays, but the editor’s introduction gives about a 10-page overview of the argument against paedocommunion. And then, the editor’s conclusion gives about a 10-page summary of some of the practical issues, theologically, that are at stake in paedocommunion. So if you were to pick that book up, read the first 10 pages, read the last 10 pages. Depending on the people you’re talking to, you could share that material with them, or you could read it in such a way that you can have an informed conversation with them.
Ligon Duncan: Tyler Brown asks, “What things do you tend to say about the Supper, as you explain it, in an actual church service?”
Guy Waters: Well, one thing that I’m concerned to do—I think, when I was a younger minister than I am now, being very sensitive to the polemics, and especially of Rome, wanting to make sure that nobody thought that I was anywhere close to Roman Catholicism. And I realize now, OK, that’s a laudable impulse. But both the tone and content of remarks at the Table need to be positive. This is what the Supper is. But of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t say what it’s not. You do have to say that, but the point here is to come, not to hash out some controversy, but to set forth, “This is what it is. This is what we’re doing.” I make an effort to tie the Table to the word that’s been preached. And what that does, is it compels me when I preach, as I hope I do every time I preach, to get to the gospel. Because that’s what the Table is, it is a visible demonstration, a sensible demonstration, of the gospel: Christ for sinners, Christ for his people. And wanting to impress that at the table for people who know they’ve messed up this week, who don’t feel worthy of anything, much less to approach the Table. And as an aside, Paul says, “We don’t come unworthily.” He’s not saying, “Make yourself worthy to come.” Those are two entirely different things. But really trying to persuade people, “OK, you’ve messed up. That’s why you need to come to this Table. You need to meet with your savior. You need to find forgiveness and grace and help from him. And he—this Table shows you that he is willing to do that. Don’t refuse him.” So, really trying to emphasize the Lord’s Supper positively as a help to God’s people who need it. We need this.
Ligon Duncan: And by the way, I would—when I was in seminary, the man who taught our pastoral theology course actually made us memorize an old Presbyterian Lord’s Supper liturgy out of the old United Presbyterian Book of Common Order, and I highly recommend either using a historical form like that that does some of that work for you in terms of explaining the Lord’s Supper, or collecting and writing some brief things so that you can be succinct, but that you can be substantial and pastoral and helpful to your people in doing exactly what Guy is talking about. It’s very easy to get in that moment and ramble. I know this. Two minutes, you know, can seem really short to you. And then lo and behold, you’ve spent seven explaining something. So doing some work to really serve your people well, is good. And let me say, at that moment, I do like to be able to look at my congregation and not just read to them. I want them to know, when I’m telling them the things that Guy Waters just said, I want to look them in the eye, and I want to tell them from the bottom of my heart that Jesus wants to meet with them, and that we are here because of his worthiness, and that he wants to grant forgiveness and restore the joy of their salvation and such. And I don’t want to just read that to them. I want to look them in the eyes, and tell them that. But that’s a great answer. Now, Jonathan Hunt also has a very excellent, practical question, Guy. He says, “You’re interviewing a young person to come to the Lord’s Table. When we recognize that, in the Presbyterian Church, communicants vote at congregational meetings. Should that be a factor when you are determining a credible profession and interviewing someone to come to the Lord’s Table?”
Guy Waters: I think, yes. We need to remember that when we’re, as in company with other elders, when we’re meeting with someone who is pursuing communicate membership, that if we admit them to the Table, we’re admitting them as full communing members of the church. And so they have the right to do anything and everything that a full communing member can do. Why would one say to someone, “Oh, you can come to the Lord’s Table, that’s fine, but we’re not sure we trust you to vote in an election.” I think if they have the maturity and wherewithal to come to the Table, if you’ve made that judgment, then they’ve got the judgment and maturity to participate widely as communicant members in the church. So I think, keeping that in the back of your head—let me also say, just as a coda to that question, that Presbyterians have been very clear. There is no set age before which or after which you may not or must come to the Table. The phrase that we have used historically is, “when a child comes to the years of discretion”—not “age of accountability,” That’s something a world apart—but, “years of discretion.” And so, as an elder, what you’re looking for in a young person is, do they have the maturity, intellectually, in terms of their will, in terms of their life, to come to this Table and to do all the things that a full communicant member ought to do? And we can’t set an age for that. Some arrived at that point younger, some arrive at that point older. Some seem never to get there at all. But that’s why that decision is left to the elders, plural, to make—who know this person, who know this person’s family—so they can make an informed decision.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah. And I think it’s worth noting that in this age, both among Baptists and Presbyterians, that age has gotten younger. Whereas, among both Baptists and Presbyterians, that age typically would be in the mid to late teen years, and among Dutch Reformed, almost never before 18. So it’s just, it’s probably just good for us to be aware of the age ranges over the course of the last 500 years of the Reformed tradition when that happened. That’s very helpful. Now Paul Bankson asks an interesting question, and it’s, “Should we think about the Lord’s Supper as a covenant renewal meal?” Talk with us about that a little bit.
Guy Waters: Yes. It’s obviously a big question, bigger than we have time, fully, to get into. There are a lot of associations tied into that phrase, “covenant renewal,” that I think would give me some pause to using that expression in the life of the church or in the classroom. I certainly think it’s true that the Lord’s Supper is a meal for the covenant people of God, that when God’s people come in faith to the Table to commune with Christ by the power of the Spirit, that we are renewing our faith, our love, in covenant with God, that much is certainly true. And that would be a point I would want to press and impress again and again in public teaching and administering the Supper. But I wouldn’t want to saddle those core gospel realities with what I understand to be as a lot of extraneous baggage, and unhelpful baggage in many respects. So I would refrain from using that expression, while affirming this as a covenant meal and God’s people are coming for strength, grace and renewal.
Ligon Duncan: Great. Now, Eduardo asks a challenging question here, and it’s, “How do we not see the Lord’s Supper as only subjectively efficient?” When we, you know, when we say that it’s that Christ is present to the faith of the believer, and that we commune truly by the work of the Spirit, you know, when we reject and an “ex opere operato” view of sacramental efficacy, how do we keep from falling into just subjective efficacy?
Guy Waters: Well, I think, bearing in mind that we are talking in the Supper about communion between person and person, and so we’re not—and the Reformed tradition has never urged an understanding of communion that would be restricted to the inner life of the mind of the individual. We’re very clear that the inner life of the individual has to be engaged, but we’re not saying that in the Lord’s Supper, what’s transpiring is simply the sum total of the thoughts in your head. That’s not where we are at all. You are meeting with the Savior the same way that you meet with the Savior on any other occasion, by the Spirit through faith. What we’re saying is that what makes this special, is not that there’s any magic or superstition attached to it, not that you’re getting something that we couldn’t get through another ordinance, but rather this is an occasion where Christ has pledged himself and his presence. And we need that. And so we’re going to take him up on that every time he makes that available to us. And when we do, we are meeting with our Savior the way we meet with our Savior on any other occasion.
Ligon Duncan: That’s good. I think it’s also—Eduardo, it’s good to remember that in the sacraments, there is always an objective and subjective dynamic, and the subjective dynamic is always tied to the response of faith to the promise. And the objective activity is the same as in preaching. You know, God always, through preaching, accomplishes his purposes. He either gathers and perfects the saints through preaching, or he increases your deserving of judgment at the final day through the declaration of the word. Whether you listen or not, believe what’s said or not, there’s an objective administration of God’s purposes in the preaching of the word. The same is true in the sacraments. So there’s an objective-subjective dynamic in all of these things. Boy, the questions are terrific that are coming in. Let me put this one. Nate Thompson asks, and this just bounced off because what happens when they come in, they bounce up, and I had it right in front of me and then it bounced up. So Nate, give me a second and I’ll get back to your question. Nate says, “In the PCA, we fence the table to believers who are members in good standing in an evangelical church. How would you explain to a new member that dynamic?” What about the fencing of the table, what do we mean by that?
Guy Waters: And let me make a pitch for something Dr. Duncan has said a little earlier about preparing and writing out the words of institution, the prayer of consecration, words of warning, and invitation. There are lots of good reasons to do that. But for one thing, very thoughtful Christians have been doing this for a very long time. And our directories for worship, PCA, OPC, Church of Scotland, other denominations, have given us really the cream that’s risen to the top. So that’s been my practice from the start, and I warmly encourage that. And that’s a good tie-in to this question. I write out words of warning and invitation, because you have to warn certain people who are not invited to come, not to come, but you also want to invite those to come who are invited. And I—because the word evangelical is a word that is becoming blurrier and broader by the day—it’s still a word I use, it’s a word I use to describe myself proudly—but in this context, what I do is I break that word down. And so, I don’t speak of a member of an evangelical church, but a member of a church where in word and sacrament, the fundamentals of the gospel are maintained in their integrity, in their fundamental integrity. And what that does, it’s to give an objective definition to a church, and it’s not so broad that it would include what we wouldn’t deem a church. But it’s not so narrow that it wouldn’t include non-Presbyterians. Because I want to admit to the Table everyone whom Jesus Christ would have come to his Table. It’s not my Table, and I don’t want to keep anyone away whom Jesus Christ has said, “I want that child at my Table.” So the words have to be bounded, but they have to be sufficiently catholic, small “c.” They also have to be clear and objective, not because my church has this label in its name, but because, oh yes, my church meets these very basic criteria that any Christian can recognize. OK, I am a member of a Christian church. I can come.
Ligon Duncan: That’s good. Boy, I’ve got probably 30 more questions that we haven’t gotten to, but one that I haven’t asked that has been asked about four times is, “What about frequency of Lord’s Supper?” Or, “How frequently should we observe the Lord’s Supper?”
Guy Waters: It’s tempting simply to say I agree with the Westminster standards: it should be observed frequently. There are going to be pros and cons. Of course, the range in our tradition is from quarterly, and in some cases less frequently, all the way down to weekly. And I think if you’re a younger minister coming into a church, you don’t want to make agenda item one changing how often you observe the Lord’s Supper, your first month. But I think if you wish to move a church in a different direction than it’s in, I think you just keep in mind that in the first place, the Reformed tradition has not been dogmatic on this issue. And remember, there are pros and cons to each issue. There are pros and cons from relative infrequency. There are pros and cons to relative frequency. So if you’re going to observe the Lord’s Supper, say, weekly, you better make sure that that’s not going to cut into the preaching of the word, that the ministry of the word, preaching of the word, isn’t diminished. In the same way, if you’re going to observe the Lord’s Supper less frequently than that, you need to make sure that it’s frequent enough that a member who happens to be out of town on a given week doesn’t find themselves taking the Lord’s Supper once or twice in a given year. That defeats the purpose for which it was given. So I think just keeping all of those in mind, recognizing if you’re in a Presbyterian setting, it is a sessional decision. It’s not the minister’s decision by himself. Yeah, you go about this carefully, gradually, pastorally, and slowly.
Ligon Duncan: Guy, thank you so much for your time with us today. This has been rich. I wish I could have gotten to all the questions. I was edified just by reading the questions, Step. But Step, back over to you, my friend.
Step Morgan: Thanks, Dr. Duncan. So I just posted in the chat a link there. We are still working on the date for next month’s event. There are a lot of things happening behind the scenes at RTS right now. And so pinning down Ligon Duncan is a little challenging today. So we don’t want to announce a date prematurely, but I have posted a link to onerts.com. You may have seen on social media earlier this week, an announcement of something Dr. Duncan and the board and many of the leadership at RTS have been working on for over a year. We’d love for you to hear about that. So you can visit that, and then we hope within the next few days to have the firm date for our January event. We’ve got some great things in the work for our spring events, and we’ll be announcing the whole semester worth in early January once we’re all back from the Christmas break. Before you guys sign off the call, if you have other questions which were not listed in the chat, please go ahead and put them there. There were a number of fantastic questions that Dr. Duncan and Dr. Waters were not able to get to. We’re going to look for an opportunity to still address those in this format or another. So if there was a question that was on your mind, and you didn’t see it come to the chat, go ahead and put that in there before the call ends. So then I’ll have a record of that, the transcript, and we can be working on a way to get those responses to you. Everyone, thanks as always for joining us. These events are one of the highlights of my month. So glad to have had you on. Hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, and we look forward to seeing you in January.