January 16, 2021

A Lord’s Supper Book for the Rest of Us: Making a Meal of It by Ben Witherington III

131-cover.jpgUPDATE III: If this post has been construed as anti-Catholic, I’m sorry. I assure you that was never my intention. Commending Dr. Witherington for offering up a theology of the supper for those of us who are not Catholics or Calvinists doesn’t seem to me to be ipso facto an attack on Catholics.

UPDATE II: A lot of the book is available in Google Reader.

UPDATE: If you go to “categories” and click “Baptists,” you’ll find several posts dealing with the Lord’s Supper. Here is the first one, which includes an interview with Professor Peter Gentry at the end.

I’m quite sure that when it comes to the sacraments, many of us feel overwhelmed by the amount of Roman Catholic dominated material that is on the net. (NOTE: Amen) Catholic apologists- almost all former Protestants and former Calvinists- are convinced that scripture and tradition are on their side on the issues of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Publishers either agree with them or there’s simply nothing being written that’s worth publishing.

(For example, why is Fred Malone’s devastating book on Believer’s Baptism not published by a major publisher? Thank God for Founder’s Press, but I’m sure no one would object if a publisher with greater firepower published a new edition.)

This is doubly true with the Lord’s Supper. Books from a non-Catholic and non-Calvinist point of view are virutally non-existent. A recent trip to Lifeway to find a book with a substantial Baptist-friendly presentation of the Biblical teaching on the Lord’s Supper yielded exactly nothing. Kregel Press had one book with one chapter. Broadman and Holman? ***crickets*** (Akin’s new book Theology for the Church is an exception, but it wasn’t available yet.)

I can now recommend an incredibly helpful book written by a major non-Catholic/non-Calvinist reviewing all aspects of the Lord’s Supper: Jewish background, Biblical background, Passover, the meal that Jesus instituted, passages in the New Testament (especially in I Corinthians), historical development and contemporary practice. This is a must-have book for anyone who feels shouted down by Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed.

Ben Witherington III has written Making A Meal Of It, and I echo Clinton Arnold’s endorsement: it’s the finest book on the Lord’s Supper I’ve ever read. Witherington says that somewhere between the extremes of magic and trivia, there’s a good view of the Supper for us in the Bible.

Making a Meal of It follows Witherington’s book on Baptism and precedes a book on Scripture. This small trilogy is being published by Baylor Press, but this book is distinctively helpful for those of us who would call ourselves historic evangelicals or post-evangelicals. Witherington is a New Testament scholar with few peers and is an authority on the New Testament who cannot be written off as a sectarian.

This book confirmed so many things in my own study that I couldn’t contain my excitement. For example, Witherington directly takes on the shift from house church meal to church building ritual, the development of an officiating class, the fencing of the meal for various purposes. All the time, he is firmly tied to the Lord’s Supper as the Passover meal that Jesus revisioned and retaught. He is blunt in his historical assessment of the hermeneutical errors made to turn the meal into the mass. He is comprehensive in showing the variety of views endorsed by the church fathers. He is enthusiastic about restoring the meal and the meaning to its rightful place in the life of the church.

I simply don’t have enough ways to tell you how essential, helpful and encouraging Witherington’s book will be. Purchase, review and recommend the book. It deserves the widest possible audience.

(By the way, I did NOT get this book as a review copy. I appreciate Witherington’s work and bought the book with my own money. Dr.Witherington: if you read this and have time for a five question follow-up interview about the book, I’d love to do it.)


  1. So…Jesus lied?

    He wasn’t with the Church always?

    He let it go violently off the rails in this most fundamental sense for hundreds of years?

    Not only do I disagree with the interpretation of the evidence, but the implications are ridiculous…that the majority of Christians throughout history have gotten the Eucharist wrong.

  2. OK. As usual, I’m going to have to say that if you want to go apoplectic over the fact that other Christians have another view different from your denomination’s view, then this thread isn’t for you.

    Discuss with some civility or I won’t publish the comment.

    If its unthinkable to you that you or your church could be wrong, this isn’t the blog for you. Move on.

  3. Lo I am with you always = the Eucharist?? Huh?

    So all those “I will come to you” and “I won’t leave you alone” texts in John aren’t about the Holy Spirit, but about transubstantiation?

  4. I suspect you haven’t read John Colwell’s book ‘Promise and Presence’ then! He’s a Baptist, teaching at Spurgeon’s College in London.

    The Witherington book sounds fascinating. I’ll get hold of a copy.

  5. I think Mark might have bin refering to “Lo I am with you always” as Gods promise to “Build his Church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it”, that He would “Guide them into all truth” and that “the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth”.In light of this I find it interesting that all the church fathers, that gave their life for the truth, believed without exception, in the Orthodox teaching of the Eucharist.

  6. Some of you need to accept that Michael is set in his heretical ways. The sooner you make peace with this, the sooner you’ll be able to get along with him.

  7. This is what I’ve done with Josh, and it works.

    Hey Josh…can you possibly come up with an email addy for Al Kimel? I want to try an get a blog interview with him on Protestant converts turning into internet apologists for the RCC.

  8. Michael, This book sounds like a great read. Thanks for the recommend.

    All I have to say about people getting the supper wrong is this: good thing we are saved by God’s grace alone and not our understanding/practice of His ways.

  9. Sounds an interesting read. One that I found useful is “The Table of the Lord” by Eric Svendsen…but I lent it to someone and it never returned.

    If you are interested, it’s at http://store.biblesoft.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=TableOfTb00187.

  10. “If its unthinkable to you that you or your church could be wrong, this isn’t the blog for you.”


    Is it equally not unthinkable that Christianity could be wrong? Is it equally not unthinkable that Jesus is not who Christians claim he is? Must we rethink Christianity? As the saying goes, when “Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold”. If the individual doctrines of Christianity could be wrong, Christianity itself must be questionable. To say that Christianity is true but that no one knows for sure which of Christian doctrines is correct will not surfice; there must be the need to return to the drawing table – to rethink Christianity. No?

  11. Dozie:

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I understand the essentials of Christianity to be CREEDAL (Apostles’ and Nicene) and the negotiable to be CONFESSIONAL. (As in Westminster, Book of Concord, etc.) Of course, members of a particular confession give some level of essentiality to confessional agreement, but few would deny that those who affirm the Creeds but disagree with the confessions are unbelievers.

    I believe the Christian always says to the unbeliever, “If you are right, then I will adopt your beliefs.”

  12. So does Witherington propose that the Supper is a Passover meal without a Passover lamb to eat?

  13. I think a well served distinction is always in order. Neither Creeds nor Confessions are negotiable but in different ways. The later is by definition non-negotiable per the one under it, it is firm. The former are ng per can you still be Christian. Some though would take creeds as far as Calcedon. However, even that gets a bit sticky with Eastern Orthodoxy for example. Which leads to issues two.

    Issue two, is that even this being said, the later for sure, Confessions and the former less often – no one can say legititmately that a person (individual) ‘is not a Christian’. Hypothetically, a person could be even as far off as a JW, yet somehow at the end of the day trust in Jesus as their sole Salvation and equally hypothetically a person could have his/her WCF,Augs,LBCF,etc…ducks all in a row perfectly and yet not be trusting from the heart in Christ alone.

    Intellectual accuracy of doctrine is in reality just another form of mental pietism and works righteousness. NOW that being said, that does not mean we can be just loose as a goose and not in pursuit of THE truth under the Cross in all things. Perfect doctrine saves no one, neither does imperfect doctrine damn a man.

    Best to not try to “read a heart” and say, “Hey, I don’t think so and so is a Christian”. That’s VERY dangerous for the one doing that assessment for HE/SHE is the most in danger of not trusting themselves in Christ alone.



  14. Dozie, if you’ve never even thought through whether or not the claims of Christianity could be wrong, I wonder if you really believe in it. If you want to go somewhere where questions are utterly forbidden, and asking them seen to be intrinsically undermining the faith, Islam is a much better religion for you.

  15. I’m not Witherington, but he probably believes that Christ, our passover lamb, has been slain.

    We’re not going to have a debate in this thread folks.

  16. Can this be considered a statement rather than a debate-
    All those that were recognized as having the authority and the wisdom by the Church to write the the Creeds and to choose the canon of scripture,(Athanasius,ect.),to a man, believed in the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist.
    When one picks up a bible,weather they know it or not, they are recognizing this authority.

    Do you think this statement set the tone for the comments made? “He is blunt in his historical assessment of the hermeneutical errors made to turn the meal into the mass.”

  17. Michael,

    I think the issue with the ECFs is that we pretty much got the “essentials” (the creeds, basic orthodox christology, the canon of Scripture, etc.) from them. Now I don’t think that we necessarily need to seem them as individually or collectively infallible, and it’s not like they agreed on everything in the first place.
    That being said, I would argue that we must see the ECFs, especially the very early ones, as somehow generally reliable. If the ECFs’ orthodoxy was as shaky as the standard fare one sees on TBN, then it does, in my view, throw the “essentials” into question since the people that handed them down in the first place can’t be trusted all that much.
    And that in part is what really bothers me about the Baptist approach to baptism and communion. I just don’t see how they can remotely be squared with the ECFs. One could throw in worship here as well. Most Baptists I know would consider things like baptismal regeneration and the real presence heretical and liturgical worship questionable. Ignatius of Antioch just wouldn’t fly for example. In other words, at the end of the day, I don’t see how Baptists, if they knew what the ECFs believed, could logically see the ECFs as generally reliable. I don’t think the same is true with say conservative Lutherans and Anglicans, and I don’t think affirming the generally reliability of the ECFs necessarily means become Eastern Orthodox, or especially Catholic (indulgences were foreign to the ECFS).
    For what it’s worth, I attend an SBC church plant started by a group of young pastors who have been deeply influenced by John Piper. They are Reformed, but not Truly Reformed. It’s a great church, and from reading your blog one you would really like, including how they do communion. But if it wouldn’t cause an enormous rift in my marriage (I tried to convince my wife for years to become Lutheran), this issue alone would send me to the LCMS or a conservative Anglican church. I can’t even bring myself to take communion where I am now because of this, not to mention because I think the Lutheran interpretation of what the Bible says on communion makes more sense.
    Sorry for rambling, but just out of curiosity, how do you explain this dissonance with respect to the sacraments/ordinances between the ECFs and Baptists of any stripe. I’m not trying to high jack your post or turn it into an apologetic argument, just wondering how you deal with this.


  18. I’m interested that a Baptist would call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrament.” Sacrament implies a means of grace and wouldn’t the Baptists refer to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as mere ordinances, not means of grace? Or are Reformed Baptists coming closer to accepting them as sacraments?

  19. Paul Findlay says

    Thanks Mr. Spencer for putting me onto Ben Witherington III by your mention of him.. some time ago. This new book looks more interesting than his “Jesus the Seer” which I just ordered. Oh well.

    Off topic?:

    “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” – GK Chesterton

    I don’t want to be inflammatory, but am I wrong to sometimes wonder if some ‘conservative’ versions of Christianity (including some of my Roman Catholic friend’s understandings of their faith) have a lurking nihilism? We must have all things right, or the whole project must be thrown away. Well anyway, I appreciate your christian humanism Mr. Spencer

  20. rr:

    No way to answer your question without inflaming the RC apologists that are monitoring this thread.

    D.H. Williams has articulated a free church approach to the ECFs.

    The Bible has articulated the answer to the question how far god’s people can wander from the truth in a short period of time.

    peace, MS

  21. One can use the term sacrament and not be a Roman Catholic.

    A sacramental view of reality does not necessitate accepting RC theology of transubstantiation or infallibility of the pope/church.

    I take my sacramental views from CS Lewis and Robert Capon, both Anglicans.

  22. >When one picks up a bible, weather they know it or not, they are recognizing this authority.

    I thought the scriptures were inspired and made authoritative by God the Holy Spirit?

    I recognize the role of the early church, but I don’t recognize the authority of the early church. The early church recognized scripture was inspired. They didn’t confer authority.

    I don’t see the connection between theology believed but not in the creed and theology believed and in the creed. If its not in the creed, who cares if all the Fathers believed or assumed it. There is no specific Eucharistic theology in the creed.

    TO ALL: If this discussion doesn’t become about the book, I’m closing the thread. Using my blog to evangelize me to a denomination simply needs to stop. I have my choices and you have yours. The arguments are hundreds of years old. I’m not Baptist because I’m ignorant of the claims of the RCC/EO, but because I reject them.

    Apparently the existence of a non-RCC/EO point of view is distressing. Sorry. The existence of a church that tells me I am not a minister and not in communion with Christ and millions of my fellow Christians with whom I share the creeds is distressing to me. Trent Canon IX is distressing to me. Remember who is excluding whom at the Lord’s Table and who is telling me I must exclude family and fellow Christians in order to truly commune with the true church. No amount of argument, history or theology is going to get me over being viewed like a Mormon and an unbeliever at the Lord’s Table.

    peace, MS

  23. While the rest of you are trying to convince Michael to dissolve, I’d like to talk about this book.

    I am especially interested in the extent to which he talks about the Eucharist morphing from “house meal” to “temple rite.” This is a topic of interest to me because to me, it seems the way Lutherans talk about liturgy and Eucharist depends on the temple rite paradigm. That is, if real bread were used rather than little wafers made of glue, and it were celebrated at a table in a house rather than a high altar adorned with candles in a temple, it would be viewed as fundamentally deficient, and the orthodoxy of those celebrating would be in question. For the record, I do not believe this attitude is necessitated by the Confessions, but it has become an intrinsic part of Lutheran “high church” culture.

    So how much detail does he go into on this matter?

  24. Another good one: “Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper” by John Mark Hicks

    I’ve just added Witherington’s book to my Amazon wishlist, though. Looks great.

  25. Nicely said, MS!

  26. Michael:

    I like Martin Marty’s quote in Chapter 8. He describes the tension surrounding discussing this topic with other Christians. We see this tension on your blog all the time 🙂

    I will add this book to my Amazon wish list – looks like an interesting read.



  27. That’s what I was wondering in regards to sacraments. Reformed, Anglican, Lutherans and Methodists talk about the sacraments, but usually Baptists take the approach that nothing happens in the Lord’s Supper or Baptism, thus they are ordinances, not sacraments which means they do something.

    The 1689 Baptist Confession calls them “ordinances” and “appointments”, in the Westminster Confession calls them “ordinances” and “sacraments” and “have efficacy” in the words of the Westminster Confession

  28. Michael:

    Apparently the existence of a non-RCC/EO point of view is distressing. Sorry. The existence of a church that tells me I am not a minister and not in communion with Christ and millions of my fellow Christians with whom I share the creeds is distressing to me. Trent Canon IX is distressing to me. Remember who is excluding whom at the Lord’s Table and who is telling me I must exclude family and fellow Christians in order to truly commune with the true church. No amount of argument, history or theology is going to get me over being viewed like a Mormon and an unbeliever at the Lord’s Table.

    This paragraph is full of ridiculous misstatements. Catholic and Orthodox teaching does not say that Protestants are not in communion with Christ. That’s just silly. Read Dominus Iesus, written (it is said) by our current Pope.

    I have two points to make:

    1) You don’t address the legitimate points being raised about the ECFs. What gives a modern Christian the authority to pick and choose from their statements and teachings? What gives a modern Christian the authority to say…they were correct on Trinity but wrong on Eucharist?

    A straight answer to that question would be appreciated. That’s not an apologetics question, either. It’s just a question about the terms of the discussion.

    2)This complaint of exclusion is odd coming in a post which celebrates a book which basically says that the RCC and Orthodox views of the Eucharist are incorrect and unScriptural. Because, you know, that’s what you’re saying that BW is saying, and you’re lauding that.

    So…why is it a beautiful thing for RCC’s and Orthodox to be “excluded” from true and authentic Christianity?

  29. Uncle Mikey says

    Such tension over an element that our Lord insituted to unite beilivers of all time. The Lord’s Supper (or 3rd cup in the Passover) is for us to be reminded of our Lord’s sacrifice. My question is should we wait for the Passover to have the Lord’s supper or shall we have a meal and intertwine the Lord’s supper?
    I pray and hope that our tradition does not trumph the purpose of the Lord’s Table to unite those that are in Him.

  30. Sounds like a good book to read after Alistar McGraths “A Dangerous Idea”. (which is a great book, thanks MS for the recomendation)

    If we are truly always reforming, then we need to take an honest look at what BW has written (I would buy it but I have allready exceeded my book allowance for several months)and consider its words – so the sample chapters is all I have read so far)

    On a side note, my family enjoys celebrating Passover every year – even my adult children make an effort to come home for it.

  31. Elaine:

    >What gives a modern Christian the authority to say…they were correct on Trinity but wrong on Eucharist?

    Because I don’t buy your view of infallibility. I love Luther but I don’t hate Jews. I love Augustine but I’m not warped about sex. Origien is great but I’m not for castration.

    Does this really need to be said? Protestants judge by scripture. Catholics tell us we can’t use the Bible for anything except to prove what the RCC teaches because it’s their Bible.

    This isn’t news to me or to you.

    And as to communion, with the exception of the fundamentalists, you can commune with me in 90% of evangelical churches and 90% of Protestant churches any time you want. Your church says you can’t but we aren’t barring you.

    Witherington isn’t barring you either. He’s not denouncing the RCC or polemicizing against it. He’s doing what a Protestant scholar does and coming down with his position.

    It’s the RCC that says I can say the Apostle’s Creed, belong to Christ, come to be blessed but bars me from Christ himself because I won’t submit to the doctrine of infallibility. I’m a brother, but I’m outside the church in a separated community of heretics and I belong to Christ but can’t receive communion.

    Well….since I’m in invincible ignorance, it’s not a big deal 🙂



  32. Josh: He spends lots of time on the house church setting in Corinth and the influence of Greco-Roman dining culture on the I Cor passages. Spends less on the transition from house church to big church.

    BtW Josh…I don’t want you to become a Baptist.

  33. Michael,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and I can’t thank you enough for the inspiration you have been to me on my Christian walk. It is a shame that you have encountered overzealous Catholic apologetics on a host of issues.

    The Eucharist is not something that can be proved, verified, debated, or anyone conviced about; but for faithful Catholics the Eucharist is the “source and summit of Christian life”. If the Eucharist is not Real, none of this other stuff really matters (mary, justification, sanctification, sola scriptura, etc).
    I think some Catholics just have a hard time dealing with the natural frustation that there’s nothing we can say to make anyone believe, and a real sadness in seeing other Christians apart from the Eucharist.

    I think [Flannery O’Conner] described it best:
    “. . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
    Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
    That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

  34. Michael thanks for saying I don’t have to become a Baptist…my left pinky toe had just dissolved, and I was worried what would happen next.

  35. Hmm…interesting comments. I’m a Wesleyan with some Anglo-catholic leanings. The Wesleys were both influenced by the Reformed view of Sacraments, and also held a very high view of the Real Presence of Christ in the Communion (understood as “presence, but not transubstantiation”). The United Methodist Church’s own liturgy calls on the Holy Spirit to “make them [bread and wine] be for us the body and blood of Christ…” which is, a pretty high view, no matter how you qualify it. I wonder if Witherington (a Methodist) holds as high a view so as to sing with Charles Wesley

    “Come and partake the gospel feast,
    be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
    O taste the goodness of our God,
    and eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

    (Come, Sinners, to the Gospel feast, Hymnal # 616); what do you think (since you’ve read his book)?

    Also, I was also fairly certain that (with various free-church traditions) the Baptists by and large DID reject explicitly the language of sacraments which is shared by Roman Catholics and Protestants of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican (including Wesleyans) traditions. I think the Eastern Church does not typically speak of “sacraments” at all, but of “mysteries.”

  36. Patrick Kyle says

    Josh S

    As an interesting aside, in Volume 53(pg 63-64) of Luther’s works, Luther, in a discussion on various types of church services says ” The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacraments, and to do other Christian works.” He goes on to discuss a simple liturgy, church discipline and training young people for evangelism, and says he won’t do it of himself for his own need because it might result in a sect. He says “For we Germans are a rough,rude and reckless people,with whom it is hard to do anything, except in cases of dire need.”

    I need to check out Witherington’s book. I have long suspected that returning the LS to a house/meal setting might be of great value, and there really is nothing in Scriptures or the Lutheran Confessions that would prohibit it.

  37. There is a great quote from Witherington on his blog ( http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/) in “The Word as Sacrament” post:

    “This brings me to a crucial point. Every Christian needs a more sacramental, and sanctified life than they currently have, even if you are in a church that downplays the traditional sacraments. There is one thing you can do about that every day—add more Word to your diet! I promise it will be beneficial in many ways. Unlike Special K, Special W (the Word), really is special.”

  38. O’Connor’s quote is absurd: If the eucharist is a symbol ordained by God, then who are we to say the hell with it? Symbols matter. If only because they are symbols, in this case, of the most important reality in the world. Whether they become what they signify is secondary, since that *what* already exists in the person of Christ. Her dinner table dramatics are good rhetoric but lousy logic. Typical for a novelist, even a very good one.

  39. Does Witherington interact with The Epistle to the Hebrews in his discussion? Specifically, in terms of the liturgy being a reflection of temple worship that is happeing in the heavenlies?

    BW3 is good guy by the way. Had him for a class on Acts while at Asbury Seminary. We had to read his commentary on Acts, so he did not take the time to lecture through each passage. Instead he spent the classes preaching Acts to us. We could have had an altar call every day! BW3 is a motivated, inspiring and serious Christian man.

  40. A question about the book (which I’ve now ordered) – does he engage with Margaret Barker’s work? I’ll have a search on his blog site to try and find out an answer as well. (Barker is also a Methodist, but it sounds like she has the polar opposite perspective to BW3)

  41. Nicholas Anton says

    The True Church should be the Hebrew mind fulfilled in Christ, the Greco-Roman mind reborn in Christ, and not the Christian mind remolded by Rome (Empire, not church), which is precisely what happened after 70 A.D. to form the Roman Church. If we see the Lord’s Table from the pre Roman, Hebrew perspective, it becomes a family affair regularly enjoyed by the church, rather than a bureaucratic institution.

  42. OK. I’ve had it. Not with the comments I’m allowing, but with the ones I am not posting.

    I just got my third message of “Since you’re not Catholic, how do you now anything you believe is true?”

    When I write “How my mind has changed about Roman Catholicism,” you people can consider it dedicated to you.