Francis Chan recently implied that the reformers relegated the Lord’s Supper to a “symbol,” elevated the pulpit and preaching in its stead, and caused division in the church—which now has 30,000 denominations. Any clip excised from a full message (as this one) almost necessitates miscommunication. Almost certainly this is the case here.
Still, many cite narrative that Chan gave above concerning communion to criticize the Reformation. For this reason, it is worth asking whether or not the argument about the Lord’s Supper is correct. As I see it, the major problem with the Lord’s Supper narrative is that it is entirely wrong.
The reformed did and do believe in the real presence of Christ, the pulpit did not replace the Lord’s Supper but complemented it, and there is no where near 30,000 protestant denominations. And besides, a denomination in Protestant theology means a denomination of the whole—it is a practical subgrouping of the catholic church.
First, the real or spiritual presence of the Supper is the reformed view
The reformed almost without fail all believed and believe in the spiritual presence of Christ. Obviously, some outliers and now many baptists have a memorial view. But that is not the historical position of the reformed nor even of all baptists!
In fact, the great baptist minister Robert Hall once wrote: “To consider the Lord’s supper . . . as a mere commemoration of [our Lord’s death and passion] is to entertain a very inadequate view of it.” Charles Spurgeon likewise promoted the reformed view of real presence.
As an exemplar of this view, John Calvin once wrote: “So the bread is Christ’s body, as it assures us certainly of the exhibition of what it represents, or because the Lord in extending to us that visible symbol, gives us in fact along with it his own body; for Christ is no juggler, to mock us with empty appearances.”
For a fuller discussion and definition of the reformed view of the supper (often called the spiritual presence view), consider Brad Littlejohn’s essay linked here. But suffice it to say, the accusation that the reformation denied the real presence of Christ at the Supper is false—very false.*
Second, the reformed did not replace the supper with the pulpit
The reformers did elevate preaching. Yet anyone who has ever entered an Anglican or Lutheran church will know that the Lord’s Supper is not relegated to a mere symbol! The other reformed communions following their reformed forebears also promote the importance of the Supper.
Many reformed churches placed the pulpit at the front towards the side of the church (not in the centre of it where the table lies). Some baptists too would celebrate the Supper not at the front of the church but at the centre of the building!
I grant that in the 19th century even many Presbyterians bought into the idea that the Supper was a sort of internalized spiritual act. Even Charles Hodge criticized the real presence of Christ as the Supper—at least as presented by John Nevin.
Thankfully, due to the availability of historical documents now freely distributed through publishers and the internet, many reformed believers are again reclaiming their heritage—the doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ at the eucharist has once again been put into its rightful place.
Besides, the testimony of the first millennia of the church shows how central preaching was to the worship of the church. Many sermons from Gregory of Nazianzus have been preserved, and they could easily have taken a large portion of time to preach. The same goes with Augustine or even later fathers like Photius.
The point here is that preaching had been central. And it may have been the medieval, Western European context of the Reformation that perhaps gave the impression that preaching was not central. This can be seen for example in the Latin Mass, which many could not understand since it was not in the vernacular of the people.
The pulpit did not replace the Supper, although we must grant that the march of naturalism did harm the doctrine of the Supper in the 19th century so that now the memorial view has taken hold in many baptist or non-denominational churches.
Third, there are not 30,000 denominations
The statistics here are fairly clear, and I will link to this article and this article for further reading. I would also like to register an affirmation that a denomination is just that a denomination of the whole.
The protestant understanding of the church is that it is birthed by Word and Spirit. Hence, any true church is united spiritually to one another by the Holy Spirit. Denominations are generally local and agreed upon rules for union. Yet the real union is Spiritual.
Hence, a denomination is a part of the whole. Granted, many in North America (and likely elsewhere) practically ignore the catholicity of spiritual unity, which we should lament. But many do not. A number of organizations like T4G, TGC, and others work hard to evince the unity won by the central affirmations of theology rather than by denominational allegiance.
These organizations, I think, do have the potential to show what is true about denominations—namely, that they are parts of the whole, a unity by the Spirit and Word.
*Note: the reformed understood real presence as a real spiritual presence.