J. Todd Billings wagers that a renewed approach to the Lord’s Supper will deepen our experience of the Gospel. The reason why, he explains, is that “the Supper is God’s own instrument for conforming believers to the image of Christ” (2018: 1).
Yet he does not offer an unprecedented argument since he repeats and synthesizes the Reformed consensus on the Lord’s Supper. At the same time, he aims to be “catholic” in the sense of offering this theology to all Christian traditions, Reformed or not.
And this becomes obvious when we consider that, for example, even C. H. Spurgeon held to a spiritual presence view of the Supper: “We firmly believe in the real presence of Christ which is spiritual, and yet certain” (“Mysteries Visits,” 1894: 17; in Billings 2018: 3).
So the argument that Billings advances had, has, and still can find a home in various denominations of Christianity.
Billings argues that the Lord’s Supper engages our desires to taste and see that the Lord is good. By faith, we partake of the Supper and experience our union with Christ and with his body the church.
In Part 1, he discusses functional theologies and desiring the Word. The second part details a catholic and reformed theology of the Supper. And in the last part, he outlines the Supper and the Gospel in remembrance, communion, and hope. These latter three ideas influence how Billings understands the biblical view of the Supper.
For him, the Supper looks backward (remembrance), experiences something in the present (communion), and hopes for something to come. So the Supper intersects with past, present, and future.
As a Calvin scholar, Billings shines. In particular, his excavation of Calvin’s argument that God created humans to desire him through sensible signs like the tree in the garden clarifies how and why the Lord’s Supper is good (e.g., 2018: 79).
Further, Billings focus on forming our desires rather than merely passing along information brings a refreshing perspective. Too often books of this sort focus merely on how to learn facts. Granted, facts and intellectual beliefs are important. But God created us to be loving and desiring creatures. Billings delivers here.
Finally, his biblical paradigm of remembrance, communion, and hope not only makes it easy to articulate the meaning of the Supper but it also comes clearly from the biblical text.
While no obvious vices sneak their way through Remembrance, Communion and Hope, some of his chapters do feel like lists of evidence (Chs 5, 6, 7). Of course, these chapters provide helpful arguments.
I wonder if Billings attempted to write a broadly appealing book but fell into an academic mode of providing evidence. While I greatly appreciated these chapters, some readers may find them hard to work through.
Even so, I still recommend this book to those seeking a Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper that also can integrate with many other Christian traditions (Baptist, Anglican, etc.). Besides, due to the topic’s importance, we need good evidence. And Billings ties together his argument through keen use of sources and biblical texts.
If I were to give it a rating, I would give it a 9.0 out of 10. And I believe Billings’ wager will, in fact, lead to a deepening of the Gospel by tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. For the icon of the Gospel is the bread and the wine through which the Spirit unites us to Christ and his body.
Disclaimer: Eerdmans provided me with a review copy of this book without any obligation to give it a positive review.