Holy Communion

John Fesko
Hughes Oliphant Old, Holy Communion: In the Piety of the Reformed Church. Powder Springs: Tolle Lege Press, 2013. Hardback. 919 pp. $39.95


When I was in seminary I was introduced to what is perhaps the standard taxonomy of the different views of the Lord's Supper: Zwingli's memorialism, Luther's consubstantiation, Calvin's spiritual presence, and Roman Catholic transubstantiation. Every time that I have sat in on a licensure or ordination exams, I hear candidates rattle off these different views as if there are only four ways of looking at the Lord's Supper. Rarely, if ever, do I hear questions that delve into related questions of how these different views shape the worship liturgies that attend them. I suspect that with the latest entry from Hughes Oliphant Old, things might change. Old is arguably the foremost authority on the history of Reformed worship, which began with his published doctoral dissertation, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, continued through numerous essays and books, and most recently hit a pinnacle with his seven volume, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Old has put his pen to paper once again and produced a large volume on the Lord's Supper in the Reformed church.

The Book

Readers might be surprised at their initial perusal of Old's book if they are expecting to see the standard four-view taxonomy, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, and Roman Catholicism. This, in my judgment, is a good thing. Old does explore the various theological views on the Lord's Supper, but this is not the main focus of his book. Rather, he examines the theology and practice of the Lord's Supper in the liturgy and worship of the Reformed church. He examines questions about how the supper was celebrated. Did people sit, stand, did the supper come to them or did they go to it? Was it distributed to people in the pews or did they come to sit at a table? Old documents a number of different practices that have been employed in the Reformed churches since the Reformation. He also examines the different liturgies that surround the celebration of the supper, such as what psalms and hymns were sung, and the types and frequency of prayers that were offered. In addition to this he delves into matters related to the frequency of the celebration of the Supper. These different aspects of the worship surrounding the celebration of the Supper will offer readers much food for thought. I suspect that many in the church assume that the way their own church celebrates the Lord's Supper is the Reformed way. But they will likely walk away from Old's book with a much bigger picture and realization that within the bounds of the Reformed confessions exist a variegated liturgy surrounding the Supper, all of which fly under the Reformed guidon.

In many ways Old's book is a breath of fresh air because he avoids the traditional four-view taxonomy. Many in the Reformed church likely read Calvin's Institutes, hop to the Westminster Confession, and then leap into the present day and assume that Calvin's views alone have been determinative for the tradition. Old offers a far more nuanced and complex picture. Old does not, for example, treat the views of Roman Catholicism or Luther, as his book dwells upon the Reformed tradition. Though he does note that Luther restored the practice of the Benediction to Reformed worship (p.39). And while he does spend the first five chapters discussing Calvin's theology and liturgy of the Supper, he fans out into the rest of the Reformed tradition, theologically, geographically, and historically to paint his massive historical mural. Subsequent to treating Calvin, Old moves to the sixteenth-century Church of England, where he examines the writings of Cranmer, Ridley, Bucer, Jewel, Hooker, and Perkins. In subsequent chapters he treats Knox, Bruce, Rutherford, Ursinus, Bullinger, numerous English theologians, Jean Daillé, Matthew Henry, Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, à Brakel, Edwards, Gilbert Tennet, Hodge, Nevin, Warfield, Chalmers, Spurgeon, and Old's doktorvater Jean-Jacques von Allmen. To be clear, there are many other names I have not listed that Old covers. 

The sheer breadth of Old's treatment is a welcome new vista upon the liturgical history of the Supper in the Reformed tradition. One of the key players, for example, who is often marginalized in the contribution to the development of the tradition is Heinrich Bullinger and his Second Helvetic Confession (1566) as well as the Consensus Tigurinus (1549), which Bullinger created with Calvin in an effort to unite Geneva and Zurich on the theology of the Supper. I think that few recognize the influence of the Consensus, and how it later shaped the Reformed understanding of the Supper (p.216). Old, however, does not fall into this trap (e.g., pp. 6, 699). Given the massive sweeping nature of Old's study, therefore, readers will undoubtedly benefit from seeing how other Reformed giants, though perhaps unknown in our own day, played a part in shaping the various liturgical practices surrounding Reformed sacramental piety and worship.

Areas for Further Consideration 

In any large-scale study there are undoubtedly areas where some will demure or offer modest corrections or critique, and Old's book is no exception. I offer five areas for further consideration. 

First, I am grateful that Old's study is so large and sweeping and takes into account many other contributors to the tradition, but one nagging question regularly arose given how many times Old mentioned the subject. Namely, Old repeatedly mentions how influential Bucer's Strasbourg liturgy was upon Calvin's own Genevan liturgy, but he never explores the influential document (pp.13, 37, 46, 125, 138, 167, 184, 186, 200, 255, 474; cf. 204-14). Readers are left wondering what similarities and differences appear in both liturgies. Moreover, given Old's repeated mention of Bucer's influence, perhaps he should have started his study with Bucer and the Strasbourg liturgy rather than with his chapters on Calvin?

Second, Old claims that the Reformers tried to move away from scholasticism (pp.110, 264), that it was a profound cultural influence upon medieval culture (p.229), and that Bullinger developed a covenantal theology to replace scholastic sacramental theology (p.235). In a number of places Old associates scholasticism with the theology of the medieval Roman Catholic Church (p.406), and he claims that Protestant scholasticism failed because "it was an ill-conceived attempt at trying to understand Scripture in terms of Greek philosophy" (p.230). Old chides one of the Westminster divines, Edward Reynolds, for his use of scholastic rather than biblical terms in his explanation of the supper (pp.334-35). Such an understanding of scholasticism is factually incorrect. Much work in recent years has been offered by, among others, Richard Muller, to demonstrate that scholasticism is a theological method, and does not determine doctrinal conclusions. Aquinas, Arminius, Turretin, and Owen were all scholastic theologians, but immediately apparent are their widely divergent theological views on a number of subjects. Moreover, scholasticism was not an attempt to understand Scripture in terms of Greek philosophy, but rather, depending on the theologian, was an effort to be precise through the use of distinctions and carefully crafted definitions. In fact, Karl Barth once wrote, "Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet. The true prophet will be ready to submit his message to this test too" (Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 279). In other words, precise theological statements cannot be twisted to mean something else. Everyone uses biblical language, but not everyone agrees as to what that biblical language means.

Third, there are times when Old's analysis runs deep into a number of sources but other times when it runs a bit shallow. For example, in his examination of Charles Hodge's views on the Supper, Old relies exclusively upon Hodge's Systematic Theology, but never explores Hodge's sermons on the subject (Princeton Sermons, 331-37), and he does not interact with Hodge's popular work The Way of Life (1841), where the Princetonian devotes a significant portion of the eighth chapter to the sacraments. While Hodge undoubtedly offers rich material in his Systematic Theology, I believe that his audience (the academy vs. the church) would affect the way he expresses his doctrine and the different things that he might emphasize for each audience. Interaction, therefore, with additional sources at certain points would have proved helpful.

Fourth, there are a number of places where I expected Old to interact with relevant and essential secondary literature. As important and vital as it is to allow one's research to rest solidly upon primary sources, interfacing with relevant secondary literature can prove to be rewarding. In several places, for example, Old ponders an unproven thesis of his that Vermigli may have influenced the development of the doctrine and liturgy of the Supper, but he has been unable to verify it (p.226). I expected works such as Jason Zuidema's Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) and the Outward Instruments of Divine Grace to be mentioned in the footnotes, but this was not the case. Zuidema's work references numerous secondary sources that might prove to be a trove for proving or disproving Old's hunch about Vermigli's influence. I have a similar observation concerning the absence of Lyle Bierma's, The Doctrine of the Sacraments in the Heidelberg Catechism: Melanchthonian, Calvinist, or Zwinglian. Bierma's work is excellent and would have certainly bolstered Old's own project (pp. 305-12).

Fifth, one of the burs under my saddle was Old's repeated use of the term Puritan. He denominates the Westminster divines as the "Westminster Puritans" (pp.355-403), for example. But what many do not realize is how highly controverted this term is. In popular literature the term denotes someone who sought to purify the Church of England and who generally held to Reformed theology. Yet, history is a bit messier, as many so-called Puritans remained within the Church of England and others left it because of its lack of theological purity. Moreover, William Perkins, a staunch Reformed theologian, and John Goodwin, an Arminian or Remonstrant theologian, have both been called Puritans. In fact, Old acknowledges the problems with the term, explaining, "Another difficulty with writing these chapters is the question of deciding who is to be regarded as Puritan and who is not. It would be a mistake to treat only the Nonconformists as the true Puritans. If that were taken as the measuring stick, many of the early Puritans would not make the cut" (p.327). In light of this ambiguity, it would have been helpful, in my mind, either to excise the term entirely or define historically the specific criterion by which one might be denominated a Puritan.


My minor quibbles notwithstanding, Old has given the church a tremendous essay on the theology and liturgy of the Lord's Supper in the Reformed church. This book not only deserves a place on every minister's shelf, but it should be carefully read and studied so that we can discover and rediscover our rich theological heritage on this vital subject for Reformed worship and piety. I also believe that people in the pew should buy and read this book. Granted, it is quite long, but some of the best journeys are those that take a long time. In this case, people in the church can read small sections each week and finish it in under a year. I heartily recommend, therefore, that people buy and read this book. It is well worth the money and investment of time to study and reflect upon our rich theological heritage. Great thanks are due to Dr. Old for this wonderful contribution.

Dr. John V. Fesko is academic dean and professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is the author Water, Word, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013) and Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).