How Does the Lord’s Supper … Work? Reclaiming the Beauty of the “Ordinance”

This presentation considers the benefits of the Lord’s Supper for a believer and proposes a paradigm for better understanding and promoting those benefits.

It does so by situating two paradigms of influence—external and internal. The first paradigm, the Roman Catholic paradigm of ex opere operato, emphasizes the efficacious nature of the external elements upon the partaker, identifying the elements as instrumental causes of grace. The presentation traces ex opera operato from the Donatist Controversy and Augustine through the Council of Trent. Protestants argued against this view (e.g., Westminster Confession, Ch 27, Art. 3; and Article 26 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles). Some insisted on a second paradigm, that internal faith and cognition were needed prerequisites to receive the benefits of the Supper, which were primarily a greater comprehension of salvation. But this insistence opened the Protestants (especially evangelicals) to the criticism that emphasizing the individual’s faith rendered the Lord’s Supper too subjective.

These two positions—belief that the benefits of the Lord’s Supper either came externally through the elements, or they were formed internally through an individual’s comprehension—form two competing camps. While few held to these extremes, navigating the treacherous terrain between leaves evangelicals more comfortable via negativa—explaining what’s not happening at the table rather than what actually happens.

This treacherous navigation has been exacerbated by an escalation of “sacramental” language. As western culture skews increasingly toward materialistic naturalism, what Charles Taylor calls an “imminent frame,” the pull to “re-enchant” the world has increasingly used sacramental language. While this strategy may help a secular world recognize the transcendent, it muddles rather than clarifies the liturgical work of Christians at church.

This paper proposes a robust, low-church map to this topography drawing from the paradigm of “ordinance.” Exploring insights from Peter Leithart, Michael Horton, D. C. Schindler, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roger Scruton, and Socrates’s conversation with Euthyphro, the paper considers the effects of the Lord’s Supper with the paradigms of beauty, symbol, and authority. It concludes, via media, that the Lord’s Supper (and Baptism) benefit the believer neither through coercive eternal powers, nor autonomous internal consent, but instead through the Spirit’s work to provide aesthetic agreement with Christ’s authority—both true mark and cause of growing Christian faith and discipleship.