Omnipresence, Covenant Presence, Spiritual Presence: A Catholic, Reformed, and Baptist Account

This essay will present a distinctively Baptist account of the Reformed spiritual presence view of the Lord’s table with catholic sensibilities. I will argue that the Lord Jesus, who is covenantally present in his divine nature in the midst of the assembled congregation of regenerate believers, produces sanctifying remembrance in believing participants by means of the elements of the Lord’s table.

Many associate the Baptist tradition with the memorial or Zwinglian view of the Lord’s supper. There is, however, a long Baptist tradition that has held to the spiritual presence view of the table, as articulated by Calvin and many others in the Reformed tradition. This view is codified in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. The late Seventeenth Century leading lights of the Reformed Baptist tradition defended the spiritual presence view at the time (e.g., Keach), and it has growing number of explicit defenders among Baptists today (e.g., Renihan, Barcellos, Haykin).

The argument will begin by retrieving the classical account of divine omnipresence that the Reformed Orthodox (e.g., Turretin and Van Mastricht) and their heirs (e.g., Hodge and Bavinck) have in common with the late patristic and medieval doctors (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas). I will demonstrate that the notion of omnipresence as causative power allows the Reformed to speak of the “special” presence of God in terms of a variety of created effects. From there, the essay will develop the terminology of covenant presence as a more precise designation for special presence, observing that this special presence of God is what Reformed theologians have in view when they speak of the spiritual presence of Christ at the table. In the inaugurated New Covenant, the covenant presence of the omnipresent Lord is realized in a particular way when the regenerate congregation is assembled in the name of Christ (Matt 18:20). Thus, when the Lord’s Supper is taken in a gathered congregation of baptized believers, the Lord effectually produces in the saints that which he requires of them when they take the meal: remembrance. This remembrance has a sanctifying effect on the believer who participates in that corporate event.

This dogmatic account of the spiritual presence of Christ at the table is catholic in that it draws on the classical tradition, as shared by Christians before and after the Reformation, to account for the widely held doctrine of omnipresence. The account is Reformed in that it appropriates catholic sensibilities regarding divine presence to understand the Reformed doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ with the elements of communion. Finally, this account is distinctively Baptist because it grounds the particular spiritual presence of Christ at the table in the congregation of living stones assembled as a dwelling place of God by the Spirit. The congregation is made up of baptized believers who partake of the elements of the table by faith and have the commanded remembrance effected in them by the Lord who is spiritually and covenantally present with them.

3 thoughts on “Omnipresence, Covenant Presence, Spiritual Presence: A Catholic, Reformed, and Baptist Account”

  1. Roman Catholic or Protestant?
    The Baptist Faith and Message articulates the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic act of obedience. It is a memorial. Southern Baptists reject transubstantiation. As written, the thesis needs some clarification for a Southern Baptist.

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  2. minority view
    This view represents a small minority of Southern Baptists. It is attempting to impose a more Calvinistic view on the traditional Zwinglian “memorial” view, as acknowledged in the proposal.

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