The Table of the Lord
Eric Svendsen, Atlanta, GA: New Testament Restoration Foundation, 1996
The Table of the Lord is the published form of Eric Svendsen's Master's thesis about the Lord's Supper. At once scholarly and pastoral, this handy volume covers every piece of relevant evidence from the specific wording of Jesus' instructions to the general practice of the church as recorded in Acts, the Epistles, and the early Church Fathers. The results of Svendsen's meticulous survey are both enlightening and surprising.
The 200-page paperback begins with a detailed study of the Corinthian problem Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, with Paul's primary concern about the church's unity. Then follows a carefully crafted account of the form of Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 10:16,17, where Paul writes that sharing one cup and loaf not only symbolizes but causes church unity ("because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf," NIV). Furthermore, one purpose of the Supper during which the loaf was eaten was to create an atmosphere of intimate communion between all the members of Christ's body, regardless of social class or ethnic group. The rich were to provide for and share with the poor. In chapter three, Svendsen traces the preservation of Paul's communal unity teaching through some of the Church Fathers.
But wasn't the Eucharist separated from the community meal at an early stage in the life of the church? In chapter four Svendsen carefully wades through all the arguments that this separation had already begun in the New Testament, but concludes that this did not happen until the second century. The early church in the New Testament always celebrated the Eucharist in the context of a fellowship meal, known variously as the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:20) and the Agape feast (Jude 12; cf. 2 Pet. 2:13).
Was this also what Luke had in mind in Acts 2:42,46 and 20:7,11? Chapter five argues persuasively that it was. Svendsen shows the links between the Jerusalem church's "fellowship (koinonia) in the breaking of the loaf" (tou artou, Acts 2:42) and "the loaf (ton arton) which we break" which "is a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 10:16). That the church's "breaking of bread" in Acts 2:42,46 and 20:7,11 relates to the church's entire meal and not just the cup and the loaf is apparent from its meaning in 27:35, where the phrase is used to describe a common meal. The chapter concludes by considering the New Testament's various forms of the Last Supper instructions (in the Synoptics and Paul) and concluding that they represent a sole tradition and a unified practice in the church.
In chapter six Svendsen cites material from Hellenistic culture to demonstrate the social stratification observed in secular dining practices and contrasts Paul's instructions about the rich sharing with poor. He also considers the ramifications of the Judaizers' refusal to eat with the Gentiles in Galatians 2, and concludes that "The Lord's Supper as a meal forces its participants to erase all social, ethnic, and economic barriers" (p. 109).
Without a doubt, however, Svendsen's most arresting chapter is chapter seven, where he considers the Lord's Supper as a prefigurement of the Messianic banquet promised in the Old Testament (Isa. 25:6) and in the New Testament (cf. Matt. 22:1-14 and par.; 25:1-13; 26:29 and pars.; Mark 14:25; Luke 12:35-38; 22:29,30; etc.). Svendsen conclusively dismisses the Lord's Supper as a solemn, backward-looking memorial, establishing the joyful, forward-looking element of anticipation. In Acts 2:46, the disciples "broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (NIV). The "gladness" (agalliasis) with which they ate "often denotes the exultation that accompanies messianic expectations" (p. 123). Moreover, the context of the Lord's Supper itself is clearly eschatological (Luke 22:14-20; 29,30). The phrase translated "do this in remembrance of me" is better translated "do this for my remembrance." We are not reminding ourselves of Jesus; we are reminding (petitioning) Jesus to return speedily so that we may join him in the full Messianic banquet which we are anticipating in our communal meal. Svendsen establishes his case both on lexical grounds (anamnesis means "reminder," not "memorial," elsewhere in the New Testament [Heb. 10:3] and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and on contextual grounds: Jesus spoke these words in the context of the Passover celebration, which not only looked back to their deliverance from Egypt, but petitioned God to send His Messiah. Jesus' point was that though he, the Messiah, had come, his disciples were still to petition him to return. Hence when we eat the Lord's Supper we proclaim the Lord's death "until the goal of the proclamation is reached - namely, his coming" (p. 140; cf. 1 Cor. 11:26).
In Svendsen's final chapter he discusses the frequency and centrality of the Lord's Supper. The event was the focal point of the Christians' assembly and hence was celebrated on a weekly basis. Furthermore, they celebrated it in the intimate settings of their own homes, where they assembled. In adapting the Lord's Supper to our modern church settings, we have pared the most meaningful aspects of the event; we have lost the intimacy, the unity, and the joy of anticipation. "The house church was conducive to the kind of intimate table fellowship demanded by the Supper. Because this setting is absent in most evangelical churches today, the intended theology of community at the Supper is also conspicuously absent. What is needed is not more adaptation of the Supper to accommodate our contemporary settings; what is needed is more of a willingness to conform our structures to accommodate the Lord's Supper. Until we do, much of the theology of the Supper will remain lost to us - and with it, its benefits for community" (pp. 165,166).
Mark M. Mattison
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