Evangelicals need to thicken our theology of the Lord’s Supper, first by drawing more of the Bible into the discussion of the Supper, and second by drawing more of the Supper into discussion of the Supper.
Even a fine recent treatment of Reformed sacramental theology, Todd Billings’s Remembrance, Communion, and Hope, is still too thin on both counts. Billings does discuss the key New Testament passages—the institution narratives, Jesus’ resurrection meals, 1 Corinthians 10-11—and makes passing references to Passover and other Old Testament passages, meals, and festivals. But the richness of Old Testament theology still feels lacking. Billings observes that Paul sees manna as a type of the church’s covenant meal, but he doesn’t follow up the clue. If manna is a type, might there be others?
Many examine the Supper through a “zoom lens,” focusing narrowly on the most disputed point in historic debates—the metaphysics of the bread and wine. Much to his credit, Billings pulls back the camera to give us a wider view. In several “congregational snapshots,” he reminds us that the Supper involves people gathered to say and do, eat and drink. He rightly shows that a theology of the Supper must be integrated with the theology of the church.
But we need an even wider angle. Communion bread doesn’t fall from heaven. Wine doesn’t come tricklin’ down the rock. As one Eucharistic prayer puts it, the bread and wine are “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.” Bread and wine represent nature transformed into culture by human action. A thick theology of the Supper needs to broaden beyond the theology of the church into a theology of culture. So, I offer a suggestive, not definitive, picture of what a thicker theology of the Supper might look like—a pencil drawing, not a portrait.
Supper, Communion, Eucharist Mass
First, a word about terminology. Different Christian traditions assign different names to the Lord’s Supper—Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Mass. Each spotlights a facet of this liturgical event. Calling it a “Supper” reminds us that we eat and drink; it’s “Communion” because our eating and drinking deepen our fellowship with the Lord Jesus in the Spirit; it’s “Eucharist” (from Greek eucharisto, “give thanks”) because we thank our Father for the gift of his Son, and we eat and drink in gratitude.
Because of its association with Catholic errors, many Protestants resist describing the meal as a “Mass.” But the word captures an important dimension of the meal. Mass is, apparently, a contraction of the dismissal of the Latin Mass, which ends with ite, missa est – “Go, you are sent.” Calling the Supper a “Mass” reminds us of the rhythm of the church’s life: We gather so that we can be dispersed; we eat and drink so that we may be satisfied and sent. To put it in contemporary idiom, “Mass” highlights the missional force of the Supper.
Bread of God
Food is a central theme in the Bible. As the Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, God created man a hungry being and invited him to eat “every seed-bearing plant ... and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen 1:29). It’s notable that the menu comes immediately after the command to fill, rule, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). We need food in order to rule, but the text points in the other direction: We rule so we can eat; we subdue the earth in order to enjoy its fruits. Food is more than fuel. Food is for feasting.
God placed two fruit trees in the garden he planted in the east of Eden. G. K. Beale, James B. Jordan, L. Michael Morales, and others have pointed out that the garden was the original sanctuary, the designated place where the Creator would meet with the man and woman. From the very beginning, God met with human beings over a meal.
Adam broke our Edenic table communion with God by eating the wrong fruit, but Jesus comes as Last Adam to restore communion. He eats and drinks with prostitutes and sinners and finally gives his body and blood for the life of the world. On the tree of the cross, he becomes life-giving fruit. Communion will be consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb. From Eden to new Jerusalem, food and word are the media of our fellowship with God.
Bread was the staple of ancient Israel’s diet, common as dirt. Yet long before Jesus took bread and gave thanks, bread was more than bread. In the wilderness, Israel ate the bread of angels (Ps. 78:25). Priests offered cakes and loaves on the altar (Lev. 2), and animal offerings are described as the “bread of God” (Lev. 21:6, 8, 17, 21–22 in KJV, ESV and others). The tabernacle and temple were partial restorations of Edenic table fellowship. The Lord consumed his bread in fire, while Israel ate, drank, and rejoiced before him.
Some Christians call the Lord’s table an “altar.” Others vehemently argue that altars are for sacrifice and that sacrifices ended with the final sacrifice of Jesus. Both sides misunderstand altars. Altars are tables (see Ezek. 41:22), where priests serve bread to God and where God graciously shares his bread with his people. Once we recognize this, we can see that worship has always taken place at an altar-table—from Abel to Abraham to the tabernacle to the temple to Jesus to the church to the consummation. In Scripture, worship without food, a temple without a table, is unthinkable.
Sacrifice, in short, was a food rite. When an ancient Israelite brought a bull or a goat to the altar, he was bringing “bread” to the Lord’s table. The Lord received his food as smoke, a soothing aroma. At times, priests ate portions of a sacrificial animal, and sometimes non-priestly Israelites received their own slab of meat. Sacrifice includes killing, but the slaughter culminates in communion. Ancient worshipers slaughtered animals to feast with God and one another. So too in the new covenant: Jesus sacrifices himself to his Father as the bread of God, and then gives himself to us as spiritual food.
Bread to Wine
Wine adds another dimension to the Bible’s theology of food. Noah was the first vintner and the first to drink wine (Gen. 9:20–21). Wine is the drink of new creation, enjoyed in a world cleansed by the flood. For this reason, the use of wine was restricted in Israel’s worship. Out in the temple courts, Israel drank wine and strong drink (e.g., Deut. 14:26), but the priests inside the sanctuary were prohibited from drinking wine (Lev. 10:9). It was a dramatic sign that the new creation had arrived when Jesus told his disciples to drink wine in the presence of God (Matt. 26:27–29, also Isa. 25:6). Unlike the priests of ancient Israel, we’ve entered the Sabbath of new creation and so drink Sabbath wine. Like Noah, we drink wine after passing through the recreating flood of baptism.
Bread and wine aren’t discrete “elements” of the Supper. They go together, in sequence, from bread to wine. That sequence mimics the natural progress of human life. We begin the day with bread; we end it with wine. We can bake bread in a few hours; wine takes years of cultivation, preparation, aging. As James Jordan has put it, bread is alpha food and wine is omega drink. Bread is protological, wine is eschatological.
Eucharistic wine gives us a taste of the good things of the age to come, the joy that flows as the Spirit from the broken Bread of heaven. Natural food is digested and turns into us. Spiritual food, Thomas Aquinas said, does the opposite: It turns us into itself. Receiving bread, we become bread for the world. Drinking the blood of the grape, we are conformed to Christ’s suffering witness, called to take up our cross to follow him.
Eucharist as Theology of Culture
Evangelical theology of the Supper needs biblical thickening. It also needs to be thickened, we might say, phenomenologically. We are so concerned to answer deep questions about real presence that we ignore the surface of the Supper. That’s a mistake. The surface has a lot to teach us.
Paul didn’t ignore the surface. His most extended treatment of the Supper isn’t about metaphysics; he doesn’t whip out a zoom lens to focus on the “elements.” Paul’s teaching on the Supper is part of a pastoral exhortation to the Corinthian church. As a communal meal, the Supper forms community: We who are many are one body because we partake of one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17).
The Supper also serves as a criterion for evaluating the church’s faithfulness to the gospel. Since those who share the loaf are one body, division falsifies the Supper: A Supper riven with rivalry is “not the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). We who share the Lord’s cup and table provoke him to jealousy if we also eat at the table of demons (1 Cor. 10:21–22).
Keeping our eyes fixed on the surface helps us see how the Supper contributes to a Christian understanding of culture. Bread and wine are, after all, cultural products. The Old Testament sacrificial system testifies to the link between cult and culture. Ancient Israelites never sacrificed raw materials. They brought roasted grain, flour, or bread, not raw grain; they didn’t offer newborn lambs or goats, but animals nurtured for at least a year. They didn’t pick up the materials for sacrifice from the neighborhood grocer. A shepherd brought a goat he had midwifed, fed, protected, led. A farmer planted and harvested grain and turned it into flour or bread suitable for the Lord’s table. God didn’t ask for his talent back; he wanted Israel to multiply talents. Israel’s tokens of liturgical exchange represented their labor. So do ours.
Given their liturgical preeminence in the church, bread and wine are representative cultural products that exemplify the telos of our labor. Work always transforms raw nature. Some transformations improve; some degrade. Bread is an elevation and glorification of grain. We remake the earth when we plow, cut grain from the stalk, pound grain into flour, knead dough, and fire up the oven to bake a loaf. To turn earth and seed into bread, we need to become like cherubim who wield sword and fire. Wine is a glorification of grapes, requiring analogous skills.
Fruits of earth and work of human hands, Eucharistic bread and wine are destined for shared festivity. Personal profit is good, but we don’t thrive if we eat and drink alone. Everything we make is a loaf, formed to be broken, distributed, shared. We work to meet practical needs but not only that. We build for beauty, cook for taste, shape stone, and smear paint to give visual pleasure. The Eucharist reminds us that we transform creation in order to make a delightful world more delightful.
Of course, this delight has a transcendent dimension. We eat and drink the products of our labor in the presence of God. The Father accepts us and our works in Christ, and the works of our hands, used in accord with God’s Word, become, by the Spirit, means of communion with Jesus. We discover that our works are ultimately his gifts to us, for which we offer thanks. As Schmemann emphasized, the Eucharist isn’t a strange exception to the normal pattern of work and culture. It unveils the deep truth of culture, that everything is a gift from our Father’s hand, a token of his love by which we enjoy continuous communion.
Thin Eucharistic theology is a practical as much as a theological problem. Eucharistic theology isn’t a substitute for eating and drinking. We do Eucharistic theology to whet our appetite for the real thing, to enhance our delight in the doing. The thicker our theology of the Supper, the more heartily we’ll be able to sing, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” The proof will be in the eating.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. His most recent book is a two-volume commentary on Revelation in the International Theological Commentary series (T&T Clark, 2018).