The Real Spiritual Presence of Christ at the Table (A Dialogue with John Davis’ Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence)

What is real? Davis begins his book with three possible answers to that fundamental question: scientific naturalism (modernity), digital virtualism (postmodernity), and trinitarian supernaturalism (eternity). “In the first, there is one ultimate reality (matter-energy); in the second, there are many ‘realities’ (‘pick one; construct your own’); in the third, there is one ultimate reality (the triune God) and many lesser (natural and simulated) realities” (21). Davis argues that the key to true “worship” (by which he generally means the gathering of the community of faith on Sunday morning) is to understand God—along with the church and the self in relation to God—within this trinitarian supernaturalistic framework.davis worship

Davis outlines five levels of reality (87–89):

1) the triune God as the “source and ground of all else that constitutes temporal and created realities” (87)

2) the spiritual realm of angels and demons, etc.

3) humanity in the image of God

4) symbolic and cultural artifacts created by humanity

5) “material (but subhuman) entities,” including both animate and inanimate objects (88)

While these levels do exist in a hierarchy, Davis is less concerned with their right ordering than with the ways in which symbols and material objects (#4 and #5) enable humanity (#3) to engage, experience, and worship God (#1) (#2 receives relatively little attention). Central to his argument regarding the intersection of these ontological planes is, unsurprisingly, the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/communion (113–70). In what sense is Christ present with his church, which is—by the Spirit—a divine-human reality representing the intersection of levels #1 and #3 (63)?

His answer to this question may be summarized as follows: Christ is really spiritually present at the table. First, he is really present insofar as Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity is the grounding for all reality; to speak of the “real” presence of Christ is necessary but redundant, for how could his presence be anything but real? Second, he is spiritually present because his resurrected body has ascended to heaven; contra Zwingli, “the ascension changes not the fact and the reality of Christ’s presence with the church, but its mode” (162). Finally, he is present at the table through the Spirit, rather than on the table through the elements—the living Christ is the host, “the true celebrant” in whose honor the church gathers to partake (146, 164).

Davis then offers some more particular nuances of the church’s practice of the table. It is a reenactment rather than merely a commemoration, just as we are not acknowledging Christ’s presence with his original disciples but his presence with us (138–39; 161). It should be joyful rather than somber, insofar as it points to the resurrected Christ (142–43). It should emphasize our union with Christ, insofar as it recognized his presence not only “above” us (as the exalted head of the Church) but his presence “among” and “within” us (148; 173). And it should, in accordance with its central place in the NT and the early church and its particular ability to draw our attention to the presence of the resurrected Christ, be the climactic event of every weekly gathering of the church (114).

Finally, Davis points out several benefits of this way of understanding Christ’s presence at the table. First, practicing the Eucharist in this way “focuses the church’s attention on the core realities of the Christian faith: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection and the return of Jesus Christ” and therefore enhances spiritual formation (165). Second, communion highlights the “distinctiveness of the church in relation to the world” (166). The otherworldliness of the ritual, in other words, draws the attention of both the church and the world to something fundamentally different between the two. Third, the visual, tangible, and kinesthetic elements of the ritual communicate the gospel in ways beyond the capability of the spoken word (168).

In the last chapter Davis outlines a number of ways to teach and practice the key ideas in the book. Such discussions often bring to mind the academic theologian who tries to leap the gap from theory to practice but instead falls headlong into the chasm between the two (Bloesch’s claim that “there may be a place for bands or orchestras in the church, but these should never be substitutes for the organ, which through the power of the Spirit seems to convey at least some intimation of the grandeur of God” [The Church, 124] comes to mind). Davis, in my view, has done much better than this, especially in his suggestions for preaching on ontology and worship (173ff.), his discussion of the use of technology in the church (192–93), and his argument on behalf of a blended worship style (185–91). On the topic of technology, to give one particular example, Davis urges not an “anti-media” stance, but one that takes seriously the need for “understimulation in an already overstimulated society” (193). needs to hear what Davis is saying!

Four relatively minor points warrant criticism. First, Davis says almost nothing about how worship and awareness of the presence of God work outside of the church gathered on Sunday morning. I do not think he intends to divide life into sacred and secular spheres, but the book certainly leaves itself open to such a misunderstanding.[1]

Second, his use of “metaphor” and “analogy” as opposed to “literal” vis-à-vis what constitutes “reality” is sometimes unclear. At one point he commends an author who distinguishes between “ontological” and “merely metaphorical” understandings of union with Christ (149), but later states that “metaphors” are closer to the real world of human experience than “the abstractions of scientific language, mathematical formulas or the generalized statements of systematic theology” (158). He also cites approvingly Robinson’s claim that the “analogy” of the body of the Christ works because we “are in literal fact the risen organism of Christ’s person in all its concrete reality” (149).

Third, I find mildly troubling the placement of (created) spiritual realities at a higher ontological level than humanity (see the five levels given above). If eschatological physical humans will rule as God’s stewards in the eschaton, and if a single eschatological physical human (i.e., Christ) is exalted over the angels (Hebrews 1–2), I do not think this hierarchy holds.

Fourth, at the risk of making an analogy walk on all fours, Davis’s frequent depiction of the Holy Spirit as the “avatar” or “hologram” of Christ (109, 159, 164) needs some clarification. Insofar as the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, I suppose the analogy works. But insofar as avatars and holograms are virtual symbols of a different kind of reality than themselves, the implication is that the Spirit is ontologically inferior to Christ. Davis certainly does not believe this, so my complaint regards a weakness in his analogy rather than in his theology.

The upside of this book is far more substantial. My own ecclesial background is certainly Zwinglian with respect to the Lord’s Supper, and, regrettably, involves little reflection on my own part on the significance of the table.[2] For me, then, three elements of Davis’s discussion of the Eucharist stand out.

First, he suggests that a strict limitation of our understanding of the table to 1 Corinthians 11 misses the broader biblical witness concerning the presence of the risen Christ with his people; such an approach takes its cue from the Corinthian situation rather than from Scripture as a whole (205). This ties into his more fundamental point that the presence of God is the ontological basis of the church. It is a (if not the) central biblical-theological theme, and our worship is proportionally enhanced with our recognition of this fact.

Second, he mourns the lost connection between the Lord’s Supper and the meal that accompanied it, and astutely asks how we may instruct the church in the benefits of a communal meal when its family units so rarely eat together in the first place (137). He does not say enough, in my view, about how to go about this—but the question itself is profound.

Third, Davis incorporates some texts near to my heart (or, rather, to my dissertation research—which is almost the same thing) when he argues that the Eucharist is a reenactment rather than a mere commemoration. He points to the Mosaic re-presentation of Sinai on the plains of Moab (esp. Deuteronomy 4–5) and rightly notes that Moses did not simply tell the Sinai story to a new generation; rather, he suggested that they themselves stood on its slopes and (metaphorically?) reenacted its covenant exchange. Likewise, he argues, the “remembering” prescribed in the Lord’s Supper is a reenactment rather than a commemoration.

While Scripture applies this principle to the covenant inauguration ceremony (Exodus 19–24; Deuteronomy 4–5; Hebrews 12) and not to the Lord’s Supper per se (though note the reference to Christ’s “blood” and the “new covenant” in Heb 12:24), it strikes me that the analogy holds: when we “remember” the atoning work of Christ, we are not merely saying “oh yeah, that happened way back when.” We are rather placing ourselves anew under his authority and recommitting ourselves to the mission to which it calls us. As a further analogy we might say that the Lord’s Supper is a revolutionary war re-enactment, rather than a mere reading of the Declaration of Independence.

A concluding point: I am struck by his insistence that the table be the climax of every resurrection day gathering. On the one hand, I take seriously his suggestion that no ritual draws our attention to the presence of Christ with and in his church as fully and dramatically as the Eucharist. I also understand his argument that the table and the waters are the sacraments of the church. But on the other hand, I am less convinced that the Eucharist must have such a central place every week. First, Davis admits that the table is not the only means by which God is present with his people (or by which we recognized his presence). Second, did not Israel have many rituals to celebrate different acts of God on its behalf (Passover, Yom Kippur, etc.), just as the church has many festivals and holy days and rituals to do likewise (holy week itself demonstrates this, not to mention the rest of the liturgical calendar)? Should an Ash Wednesday service conclude with the elements? Good Friday? Davis speaks in particular of Sunday gatherings and the Eucharist as the festival of the resurrection—but why? Is the risen Christ present with his people on Maundy Thursday? Does not Scripture tie Good Friday more closely to the Supper than any other day of the year? So my question goes both ways: are there not days other than Sunday on which communion would be appropriate, and are there not Sundays on which some ritual other than the Eucharist would appropriately conclude our worship?

In all, this is an excellent book. Thanks, IVP Academic, for sending along a review copy. For more reviews, see what Marc Cortez, Brian Borgman, and Greg Peters have to say.

[1] This potential for misunderstanding is exacerbated by his claim that “authentic Sunday worship, because of the real presence of Christ by the Spirit in the midst of the assembly, is more intensely real than ordinary life” (110, italics original).

[2] I do not say my heritage includes little reflection—the fact that I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the table does not necessarily imply my pastor(s) have been likewise guilty.


About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Historical Theology, New Testament, Reflections, Sacraments and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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