Vos on the Connection between Word and Sacrament

Reformed theologians have regularly underscored the relationship between Word and sacraments.

The sacraments are appended to the Word for the purpose of confirming or sealing it.

The sacraments do not exist independently of the Word. It’s the Word that throws life into the sacraments.

Moreover, there is no grace that is unique to the sacraments. The same grace that is received through the Word is also received through the sacraments.

So Word and sacraments belong together as “two sides of the same divinely instituted instrumentality,” as Geerhardus Vos put it.

Even though Vos did not produce a lengthy treatise on the sacraments, he occasionally addressed the subject in his writings.

In a sermon entitled “The Gracious Provision,” Vos has the following to say about the relationship between Word and sacrament.

The word and the sacrament as means of grace belong together: they are two sides of the same divinely instituted instrumentality. While addressing themselves to different organs of perception, they are intended to bear the identical message of the grace of God—to interpret and mutually enforce one another….

Let us therefore be careful to key our preaching to such a note that when we stand as ministrants behind the table of our Lord to distribute the bread of life, our congregation shall feel that what we are doing then is only the sum and culmination of what we have been doing every Sabbath from the pulpit.

Paul’s Tricky Use of “Body” in the Lord’s Supper

If you’ve ever studied the letters of Paul, you know how difficult they are to understand. Christians in the New Testament era and apparently even the apostle Peter found Paul’s letters “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16).

Perhaps, the most difficult letter of Paul is 1 Corinthians. I’ve been preaching through the letter for several months, and nearly every text is a challenge.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time studying what Paul says about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 10 and 11.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. — 1 Cor. 10:16–17.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. — 1 Cor. 11:23–29.

These passages are rather difficult to interpret, partly because Paul’s use of the word “body” is ambiguous. He uses the word to refer to (1) the historical body of Christ that was sacrificed for our sins, (2) the sacramental sign of that body in the eucharistic bread, and (3) the ecclesiological body of Christ, namely, the church.

There seems to be a deliberate play on words when Paul abruptly shifts from using “body” in one sense to using it in another sense. For example, in 1 Cor. 10:16, “body” refers to the historical body of Jesus; in 10:17, it refers to the church. And the link between these two uses of the word “body” is the eucharistic bread (i.e. the sacramental body).

This play on words continues in 1 Cor. 11, and it creates some uncertainty (apparently by design) with regard to the meaning of the word “body.” Before eating the eucharistic bread, we must discern the “body,” says Paul, but what is the referent of the word “body” here? Is it the historical body of Christ given in the sacramental sign or is it his ecclesiological body, the church?

The context of the passage suggests that Paul has both ideas in view. One Reformed scholar has offered the following helpful summary of Paul’s use of the word “body” in 1 Cor. 10 and 11.

Dealing with the problem of food sacrificed to idols, Paul compares the idol feasts and the Lord’s Supper. If idols were real, eating sacrifices offered to an idol would result in κοινωνία [communion or participation] with these idols (10:19–20). Similarly, eating the bread and drinking the cup at the Lord’s Table is (somehow) a participation with Christ; more specifically, it is a κοινωνία [participation] in the blood and the body of Christ (10:16). In addition Paul relates the one bread with the ecclesiological community as one body (10:17).

Some exegetes have suggested an identification of the sacramental body of Christ and the ecclesiological body of Christ, implying that the church is literally the body of the resurrected Christ. I see no reasons to do so. The bread as κοινωνία τοῦ σώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ [participation in the body of Christ] is primarily combined with the cup of thanksgiving as κοινωνία τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ [participation in the blood of Christ]. Consequently, Paul refers in 10:16 to the body as the historical body of Christ, given in the death for us. However, in 10:17 ‘body’ denotes the communion of the church. Note that Paul does not say that the church is the body of Christ, he only emphasizes their unity as ἓν σῶμα [one body].

Nevertheless, it is still remarkable that Paul, playing around with words, uses both the sacramental and the communal concept of body. At least he suggests a relationship between communion with Christ and his (historical) body and the communion of the church as one body. The corporate communion of the believers, participating in Christ, is connected with a moment of (Eucharistic) union with Christ. This suggests the importance of a concept of union to refer to this moment. The ecclesiological use of the body-metaphor however says more about the corporate nature of the church than about union with Christ, although this corporate nature results from union with Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul returns to the theme of the Lord’s Supper. It is used in an unworthy manner: some remain hungry while others get drunk. The Corinthians did not eat together and despised the church of God. The problem is clear: a malfunctioning community. Within this context referring to the Lord’s Supper, Paul emphasizes that we should διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discern the body] (11:29). In 11:23–28, Paul refers to eating the bread and drinking the cup. As a consequence, it is reasonable that διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discerning the body] refers to the bread in the preceding verses as sacramental body of Christ.

However, the logic of the entire passage 11:17–34 necessitates that διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discerning the body] refers also to the ecclesiological body. It is undeniable here that Paul again plays with words and uses διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discerning the body] deliberately in an ambiguous way, hence relating the historical or sacramental body of Christ with the ecclesiological body. He sticks these two concepts of the body of Christ together on purpose. Laying this semantic relation by deliberate wordplay, he makes clear that those having communion with Christ by eating his body form together at the same time the body of Christ. Again we find a moment of union with Christ. Now the corporate union of the church and the union with Christ are related more explicitly.

The Eucharist in the Didache (Clary book)

In 1975, Hughes Oliphant Old published his dissertation entitled The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship. Old persuasively argues that we have every reason to take Calvin and his colleagues seriously when they claim patristic support for their liturgical ideas.

The Reformers deliberately developed their approach to worship by returning, first and foremost, to the scriptures but also to the fathers of the church, whom they regarded as fallible, though generally reliable, interpreters of the bible.

Unfortunately, the Reformers did not have at their disposal one of the earliest Christian documents that describes various liturgical customs in the ancient church, namely, the Didache.

With the fortuitous rediscovery of the Didache at the end of the 19th century, we have access to a critical resource for doing precisely what the Reformers aspired to do, namely, to reform the church’s worship in light of holy scripture and the customs of the ancient church.

My dissertation entitled The Eucharist in the Didache, which you can read here, is a modest attempt at continuing the important work of reforming the church’s worship in light of patristic customs.


Cullmann Answers Barth’s Rejection of Infant Baptism

Oscar Cullmann wrote several treatises on the subject of Christian worship. His treatise entitled Baptism in the New Testament was originally published in 1950 and was intended as a rebuttal of Karl Barth’s infamous rejection of infant baptism (see Barth and McMaken).

Cullmann treats the subject under the following four heads: The Foundation of Baptism in the Death and Resurrection of Christ; Baptism as Acceptance into the Body of Christ; Baptism and Faith; Baptism and Circumcision.


Calvin on Union with Christ through Word and Sacrament

In his “Summary of Doctrine Concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments,” Calvin articulates the idea of union and communion with Christ through the means of grace.

The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God … communicate Christ to us who are disunited by sin and hence ruined, that we may from him enjoy eternal life; that in a word all heavenly treasures be so applied to us that they be no less ours than Christ’s himself.

We believe this communication to be mystical, and incomprehensible to human reason, and Spiritual, since it is effected by the Holy Spirit [by whom] he joins us to Christ our Head, not in an imaginary way, but most powerfully and truly, so that we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and from his vivifying flesh he transfuses eternal life into us.

To effect this union, the Holy Spirit uses a double instrument, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.

When we say that the Holy Spirit uses an external minister as instrument, we mean this: both in the preaching of the Word and in the use of the sacraments, there are two ministers, who have distinct offices. The external minister administers the vocal word, and the sacred signs which are external, earthly and fallible. But the internal minister, who is the Holy Spirit, freely works internally, while by his secret virtue he effects in the hearts of whomsoever he will their union with Christ through one faith. This union is a thing internal, heavenly and indestructible.

In the preaching of the Word, the external minister holds forth the vocal word, and it is received by the ears. The internal minister, the Holy Spirit, truly communicates the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ…. so that it is not necessary that Christ or for that matter his Word be received through the organs of the body, but the Holy Spirit effects this union by his secret virtue, by creating faith in us, by which he makes us living members of Christ, true God and true man.[1]

[1] Jean Calvin, Theological Treatises, ed. J.K.S. Reid (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 170-77.

Catholic Describes Communion Service in Calvin’s Church

What was the Communion service like in Calvin’s Geneva? One Catholic who attended a service gave the following description.

Three or four times a year, according to the will of the authorities, two tables are set up in the church, each covered with a tablecloth, and a lot of hosts are set on the left, and three or four cups or glasses on the right, with lots of pots full of either white or red wine below the table. And after the sermon the preacher comes down from the pulpit and goes to the end of the table on the side where the hosts are, and with his head uncovered and standing places a piece in each person’s hand, saying ‘Remember that Jesus Christ died for you’.

Each person eats his piece while walking to the other end of the table, where he takes something to drink from one of the Lords, or another person deputized for this task, without saying anything, while sergeants with their head uncovered pour the wine and provide additional hosts if they run out. Throughout all of this, somebody else reads from the pulpit in the vernacular with his head uncovered the gospel of Saint John, from the beginning of the thirteenth chapter, until everyone has taken their piece, both men and women, each one at their different table.[1]

[1] Description taken from Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed.

Warfield on the Fundamental Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

According to some Pauline scholars, 1 Corinthians 10:14–22 “has been remarkably underused in most churches’ theology and liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.”[1] Theologians and liturgiologists tend to focus on what Paul says about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11 rather than on what he says about the sacrament in 1 Cor. 10.

To some extent, this asymmetrical analysis of Paul’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is warranted by the text itself. In 1 Cor. 11, Paul is directly addressing the practice of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Cor. 10, he is not. Rather, he’s addressing the issue of eating food offered to idols. What he says about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 10 is incidental to the main point of the text.

However, Paul’s sayings regarding the sacrament in 1 Cor. 10, despite the fact that they are purely circumstantial, are, nonetheless, profound. It is unfortunate that this text has been underused in eucharistic theology.

Several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that B. B. Warfield had preached a sermon on this text one Sunday afternoon to a group of students at Princeton Seminary. Warfield’s exposition clearly illustrates the importance of 1 Cor. 10 for a Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

In Warfield’s analysis of this remarkable passage of scripture, he seeks to explain the fundamental meaning of the Lord’s Supper according to the apostle Paul. Continue reading

Hughes Oliphant Old Sums Up His Life’s Work


Hughes Oliphant Old has been publishing articles and books on the subject of worship since the 1970s. [See select bibliography below.]

His book entitled Worship Reformed According to Scripture is hands down the best volume on Reformed worship in print.

His magnum opus is his seven-volume series on The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. This is the most comprehensive study of the history of preaching ever produced in the English language.

In September of 2014, I had the enormous privilege of hearing Hughes Oliphant Old give his last public address. I was brought to tears when he called it his “swan song.”

Even though his body was frail and he had a difficult time recalling his lecture points, his passion for the glory and worship of God clearly came through.

In this talk, Hughes Oliphant Old summarizes his life’s work in five main points.

The funny story he tells at the end of the lecture underscores his total commitment to the ministry of Word, sacraments, and prayer.

Select Bibliography

The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship. American Edition. Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press, 2004.

Worship Reformed According to Scripture. Revised and Expanded Edition. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002.

The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century. Eerdmans, 1992.

Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology. Eerdmans, 1992.

Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers. Eerdmans, 1995.

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Seven Volumes. Eerdmans, 1998-2010.

Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church. Tolle Lege Press, 2014.


Calvin on the Realities & Signs of the Sacraments

In Calvin’s thinking, the signs of the sacraments should be distinguished from the realities which they signify, but they should not be separated from them. First Corinthians 10:1-4 says,

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

In Calvin’s commentary on this text, the Reformer makes the following observations about the signs and realities of the sacraments.

When [Paul] says that the fathers ate the same spiritual meat, he shows, first, what is the virtue and efficacy of the Sacraments, and, secondly, he declares, that the ancient Sacraments of the Law had the same virtue as ours have at this day. For, if the manna was spiritual food, it follows, that it is not bare emblems that are presented to us in the Sacraments, but that the thing represented is at the same time truly imparted, for God is not a deceiver to feed us with empty fancies.

A sign, it is true, is a sign, and retains its essence, but, as Papists act a ridiculous part, who dream of transformations, (I know not of what sort,) so it is not for us to separate between the reality and the emblem which God has conjoined. Papists confound the reality and the sign: profane men, as, for example, Suenckfeldius, and the like, separate the signs from the realities. Let us maintain a middle course, or, in other words, let us observe the connection appointed by the Lord, but still keep them distinct, that we may not mistakenly transfer to the one what belongs to the other.

So Roman Catholics err by confounding the reality and the sign. Anabaptists err by separating them. Calvin argues that sign and reality must be kept distinct, but they must not be severed.

The sacraments are signs, but they are not empty or bare signs, nor are they signs of something absent but of something present, given, and received.

Ultimately, the reality signified by the signs is Jesus Christ himself and all the benefits of redemption which are found in him.


Baptism in the Didache

Here’s my very brief introduction to baptism in the Didache. This topic deserves several articles, and I plan on following up with it in later posts. Stay tuned!

What does the Didache teach us about the theology and practice of baptism in the ancient church?

Chapter 7 of the Didache addresses the topic of Christian baptism.

In verse 1 of this chapter, we see a connection between baptism and catechesis. Those who were about to receive baptism were first of all instructed in the way of life.

Secondly, we learn that whenever baptism was administered, God was invoked by his triune name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The recipient of baptism was being baptized into union and fellowship with the Triune God.

Thirdly, baptism ordinarily would have taken place outdoors in living water, meaning running or flowing water. This was the ordinary setting for Christian baptism, but verse 2 tells us that if such water was unavailable, Christians were free to baptize with other water, preferably cold water.

Next, we see that pouring water on the head three times—which is known as trine baptism—was an acceptable mode of baptism, even though it may not have been the ordinary mode of baptism.

Finally, we see that the rite of baptism was preceded by a short period of fasting. Those who were about to be baptized should fast, and the one who was going to administer baptism should likewise fast, as well as any others in the congregation who were able to do so. This fast ordinarily lasted one to two days.

The Didache does not explain the reason for the pre-baptismal fast, but it was most likely understood as a sign of repentance.

So there we have a brief introduction to what the Didache says about Christian baptism in the ancient church.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Didache, I recommend the following resources. I would start with O’Loughlin’s short commentary. That’s the best introduction to the Didache available today. For more detailed study, you’ll need Milavec and Niederwimmer.

The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary by Aaron Milavec

The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. by Aaron Milavec

The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians by Thomas O’Loughlin

The Didache by Kurt Niederwimmer