Prof. Don Westblade
April 15, 2006
Eating of the Bread of Life:
Edwards and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table
“I have had difficulties for many years,” says Edwards in the first line of his Narrative of Communion Controversy, “with regard to admission of members into the church who made no pretense to real godliness.” The statement is straightforward enough—if a man is not a regenerate Christian, he ought not to be a member of the Church. There seems little to contest. And yet there is a weight of controversy and cultural significance behind these words of Edwards which grant them a sudden heaviness of meaning. On July 1, 1750, Edward preached a farewell sermon to his Northampton congregation in a parting that was anything but cordial. The congregation that had loved him so dearly, among whom he had raised the Great Awakening, and to whom he preached such resonating sermons as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, had turned bitterly against his decisions and asked him to leave. And at the doctrinal heart of the departure was the subject Edwards is addressing the opening of the Communion Controversy.
Edwards received the role of minister at Northampton from his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. There were few Puritans at the time who had enjoyed a wider influence than Stoddard, few who shared his powerful charisma and dynamic speaking style. Stoddard had been a natural aristocrat to the core—handsome, eloquent, and authoritarian. And, more significantly, he had introduced what became a highly controversial doctrine to the Northampton church. Stoddard had always felt that the focus of his ministry was conversion, and as a result had been willing to stretch some of the doctrines of the traditional New England Way to unprecedented extremes. Most notably, he argued that the Lord’s Supper was a sacrament not merely for the regenerate believer, but for any man who showed a propensity toward the gospel; that it was a “converting ordinance” and not merely a seal of the covenant for a genuinely confessing Christian. This stemmed from an understanding of the church that departed from standard congregationalism, in which the visible body was no longer a collection of separate entities, individually complete and covenanted with God, but a part of a conjoined church based on the national covenant of the Old Testament. Under this scheme, Stoddard redefined visible saints as those who “make a serious profession of their religion together with those that descend from them till rejected by God.”
Yet Stoddard had also commenced the spiritual fervor and revivalism in western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley which Jonathan Edwards perpetuated. Stoddard may have left a congregation of youth more than usually lax in morals (at least according to Puritan standards) and elders more than a little familiar with controversy, but without the spiritual “harvests” of his grandfather, Edwards would not have been placed in such a unique position for the furtherance of the gospel and the conversion souls. When Stoddard died, his son-in-law William Williams likened it to “the falling of a mighty spreading tree in a forest, which … makes all the trees about it to shake, and leaves a wide breach where it stood which may be long ere it be filled again.” From Stoddard, Jonathan inherited a patriarchy that bolstered his reputation, a religious zeal that fanned the flame of revival, and an intense, self-examining theological discipline that allowed him to fill the “wide breach” of his grandfather substantial vigor.
Why, then, the sudden displeasure of the Northampton congregation? Why would citizens exile from the pulpit a man who would later go on to become America’s most important theologian, and perhaps most influential philosopher as well? The doctrinal impetus for the controversy centered around Edward’s sudden departure from the system of his grandfather, already so influential in New England and boasting the title “Stoddardeanism.” Though he first accepted his grandfather’s guidelines, and directed the church according to the method established when he had been ordained, Edwards soon realized the inconsistent implications of “Mr. Stoddard’s Way.” Perhaps it he did not so much experience a doctrinal right-hand turn after preaching for a number of years, as he did the gradual realization that his doctrine had always been opposed to the fundamental discrepancies of Stoddardeanism. Church membership, Edwards found, was suffering from irreverence and apathy as a result of his grandfather’s innovation. And the issue of which men should be legitimate members of the church could go no deeper than the sacrament. Who ought to be present at the Lord’s Table? This was the defining, albeit heavily layered, doctrinal issue which ultimately instigated Edward’s departure from Northampton.
In 1746, Edwards published a treatise, broadly entitled: An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God, concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church. Here he first made it publicly known that he was departing from the doctrine of Mr. Stoddard:
My appearing in this public manner on that side of the question, which is defended in the following sheets, will probably be surprising to many; as it is well known, that Mr. Stoddard, so great and eminent a divine, and my venerable predecessor in the pastoral office over the church in Northampton, as well as my own grandfather, publicly and strenuously appeared in opposition to the doctrine here maintained.
Though hints of his opposition to Stoddardeanism had been evident in continually-appearing works for several years, A Humble Inquiry contained the first definite and confrontational departure from the communion practices of his grandfather, which the latter had detailed in his own treatise, An Appeal to the Learned.
If Stoddard had argued for an open communion, Edwards, then, was contending for a closed. The sacrament was for visible saints only, he charged, and those visible saints were men and women who “made a true profession” of Christ—whose external actions reflected the internal state of their heart. In accordance with the old New England Way, Edwards viewed the sacrament with grave seriousness, as a seal of the covenant with Christ. The sacrament was sign of a mutually-receptive union, something like a ring in an earthly marriage. Yet Edwards also approached a “high church” stance in particulars of language. Confessional Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, treated the sacrament as far more than the mere representation, and Edwards stood somewhere between Roman Catholic transubstantiation and Zwinglian symbol. In one of his sermons, he said: “There is a presence of Christ by special manifestation of himself and tokens of his presence whereby Christ may be said to be present with Christians and not all others.” Partaking of communion, he maintained is like re-enacting the drama of redemption, in which the minister stand sin the place of Christ and offers his body and blood, while the redeemed saint accepts and renews his covenant through the outward sign. In the end, though, Edward’s high church understanding of the sacrament manifested itself according to low church setting and form, and not only remained consistent with, but hinged upon the subtleties of reformed or covenant theology.
The starting place for Edward’s argument against Stoddard is his grandfather’s division of the visible and invisible church. “There are not properly two sorts of saints spoken of in Scripture,” Edwards says, and yet Stoddard’s definition required that the visible church be composed on the one hand of real or professing saints, and on the other of visible or appearing saints. Because he felt that there was no “certain rule, whereby those who admit them may know whether they have those qualifications or not,” Stoddard had argued that the church must accept all men, and hope that the profound experience of partaking in the sacrament would work a sincere grace in the sinner’s heart. Yet Edwards says openly:
[T]he practice of open promiscuous admission—or that way of taking all into the church indifferently, as visible saints, who are not either ignorant or scandalous—and at the same time that custom taking place of persons publishing their own their own conversion in common conversation; where these two things meet together, they unavoidably make two distinct kinds of visible churches, or different bodies of professing saints, one within another, openly distinguished from one another, as it were by a visible dividing line.
This is not the practice of Scripture, Edwards argues. It is not upheld by the precedence of the nation of Israel, by words of the Christ, by the dictates of the apostles, or by the example of the early church. Rather, the most essential part of Christianity is contained in profession of the heart. The church cannot be a combined mixture of those who profess Christ with their lips and those who hold him in their hearts, for “we cannot in any propriety be said to profess Christ’s religion, unless we profess those things wherein consist piety of heart.” Visible saints are not those who profess the externals of religion while rejecting an inward conversion, but those whose profession pours forth from a heart openly regenerated. Visible saints, then, are real saints, and there should be no distinction made between them.
This is not to say that the church will never contain hypocrites, or those who express an outward faith without the reality of an inward conversion. Indeed, Edward’s definition of the church admits as much without reservation:
I can therefore think of no other sensible meaning of the phrase “true Church” or “truly God’s Church,” than either those that are truly and really God’s people, or those that truly have the outward appearances of being God’s people, they are so in the eye of a Christian judgment and, according to gospel rites, are to be looked upon, respected, and behaved toward as such. And, by a particular true church, must be meant a society of men that are visible God’s people, or so, really, in the eye of Christian judgment, and that are indeed joined together in the Christian holy public worship.
So long as it is an institution composed of earthly men, the visible church must be a combination of regenerate and unregenerate believers. Yet that does not mean that the Scriptures leave men without standards by which to judge their saving faith. “Not there is a certainty, but a profession and visibility of these things, must be the rule of the church’s proceeding,” Edwards says. The heart may be hidden, but actions are the visible manifestation of the heart.
Nor does this mean that communion is expressly for the hypocrite believer. Quite the opposite, in fact: the Lord’s Supper was instituted for the professing saint. The sacrament may serve as the final means of conversion, as Edwards agrees was the case with Solomon Stoddard. But this should never function as its highest end, and no pastor should admit a person knowing that he is unregenerate, toward the object of his conversion. The purpose of the sacrament is primarily an expression of the intimate obedience of the believer, containing preciousness profound enough to serve as grounds for the highest offense should a man approach the table without a due sense of the justice and mercy of God.
Indeed to partake of the Lord’s Supper without admitting the reality of the work it represents—the death and saving resurrection of Jesus Christ—is to actively lie in the presence of God Himself. Those who do so are like the wicked of the Psalms, whom God will destroy fiercely and by the worst of means. “But unto the wicked God saith,” and Edwards quotes, “What hast thou to do, to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?” (Ps. 1) George Marsden cites a typical passage from Edwards (one in which communion is not the central point, but nevertheless informs his primary argument) that illustrates his sacred understanding of communion:
What a horrible piece of mockery it is to engage and promise themselves explicitly at owning the covenant…when they actually…do live allowedly in things directly contrary: contrary to the gospel, contrary to the holy religion of Christ! [These hypocrites] go on in the indulgences of their filth lusts and come away from them, and pretend, like saints, to commemorate Christ’s death and to eat his flesh and drink his blood and give up themselves to Christ, and then go from the table of God to their old courses again.
Edwards’s departure from Stoddardean pratice is not, for him, mere whimsy. It is a matter of terrifying significance, and, in the end, perhaps even worthy of expellation from his beloved church.
Why, then, is the sacrament full of this “high church” weight of significance for Edwards? Why is violating the Lord’s table such a serious offence? And what, in the end, does he really understand the true nature of the sacrament to be? The answer lies in Edward’s consideration of the covenant. In accordance with traditional Puritan theology, Edwards conceives of salvation as a solemn and mutual transaction between God and man, in which each side receives something of the other. Faith is, for him, both passive response and active obedience, though the credit for justification lies wholly on the side of God. It is not his actions which procure salvation for a man, but the unmerited grace of God, a conjunction that fulfills the natural fittedness between deficiency and sufficiency.
Edwards, then, understands the role of the sacrament within the framework of the covenant: “There is in the Lord’s Supper a mutual solemn profession of the two parties transacting the covenant of grace, and visibly united in that covenant.” Here is where he differs from a more formalist conception of the sacrament, and takes on the robes of covenant theologian. For him, communion is an affirmation of the covenant between God and man which first occurred at the point of the sinner’s salvation, and as such is reserved for the most sincere believer. If a man takes the sacrament, he is then attesting that he understands the terms of the covenant completely and has vowed to keep them eternally, and at the same time is professing that he receive the benefits of the covenant in the form of the body and blood. Neither true knowledge of God nor the dear blessings of adoption are available for the unregenerate heart, and it would thus be a disgrace of the highest order for one such sinner to willfully partake.
Not only is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper a willing affirmation of the terms of the covenant, but it also serves as a continual, visual representation of the eternal scheme of salvation:
The administrator of the ordinance acts in the quality of Christ’s minister, acts in his name, as representing him…Christ, by the speeches and actions of the minister, makes a solemn profession of his part in the covenant of grace: he exhibits the sacrifice of his body broken and his blood shed; and in the minister’s offering the sacramental wine and bread to the communicants, Christ presents himself to the believing communicants, as their propitiation and bread of life; and by these outward signs confirms and seals his sincere engagements to be their Saviour and food, and to impart to them all the benefits of his propitiation and salvation. And they, in receiving what is offered, and eating and drinking the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, also profess their part in the covenant of grace: they profess to embrace the promises and lay hold of the hope set before them, to receive the atonement, to receive Christ as their spiritual food, and to feed upon him in their hearts by faith.
Here, again, Edwards is expressing a sentiment surprisingly confessional. He understands the sacrament as a dramatization of redemption, in which the minister stands for Christ and the congregation for the universal Church, and yet he once more places it within the realm of covenant theology. He goes so far as to say that “the established signs in the Lord’s supper are fully equivalent to words,” which serve as a visual renewal of the covenant already been established between Christ and the Christian, and adds that the act is done “only with this difference, that now it is done by speaking signs, whereas before it was done by speaking sounds.”
The best analogy Edwards can make for this visualization of an invisible covenant is that of the earthly marriage contract. Indeed, he clothes his description in the same terms that the Scriptures continually use: Christ is bridegroom to the Church. He has wooed and won his bride, and their mutual reception is manifested at a wedding through the exchange of signs. So, too, in communion “the covenant-transaction of this spiritual marriage is confirmed and sealed.” The sacrament is like the ring which the bride and groom exchange, and to accept the Lord’s supper is to profess fully as much desire and commitment as a bride who receives the symbol from her husband. It is in this sense that Edwards, in keeping with Puritan theology at large, refers to the sacrament as the “seal” of a union.
So what, then, is communion? Edwards sums it up at the end of his discourse on the marriage covenant:
Thus the Lord’s Supper is plainly a mutual renovation, confirmation, and seal of the covenant of grace: both the covenanting parties profess their consent to their respective parts in the covenant, and each affixes his seal to his profession.
The covenant is both mutual and binding, both an expression of love and of obedience. The sacrament is the visible “seal” of what has occurred between the sinner and his redeemer, or, in other terms, between the bridegroom and his love, and is a constant and tangible renewal of the glorious covenant of redemption. It is fully equivalent to a verbal profession of faith, and weighted with the same significance as a contract.
This, then, is why Edwards find himself taking such offense at his grandfather’s practice of open communion. Stoddard admittedly held that the conversion of souls was the most essential facet of Christianity, and was willing to admit all unregenerate rather then exclude one true believer. When he calls the Lord’s Supper a “converting ordinance,” his primary purpose in doing so is to further the kingdom of Christ. And yet Edwards reveals that it does God no glory to enter sinners into the visible expression of the highest manifestation of His love. Such an act is rather to cause them to sin the more, for it is forcing upon the unregenerate the terms of a covenant that they have not professed to keep, and damning them the to the fiercest consequences for the deception.
Edwards, especially under the hard eyes of modern scholarship, is no stranger to the charge that his theology contains traces of Roman Catholicism. He gives works a special place in justification. Does he, also, give communion a heightened significance which moves him outside the realm of the Puritan theology? While Edwards does agree that the sacrament reveals a “special presence of Christ,” such a view does not place him within the ranks of confessions who claim that it becomes Christ. Certainly he moves beyond the understanding that communion is nothing but symbol, yet such a concept, introduced by Zwingli during the throes of the Reformation, is less prevalent within orthodox Protestant theology than many have been led to believe. Rather, Edwards, comprehends of communion as something more than mere bread, something less that physical body, but in both case a definite renewal and affirmation of the covenant.
Edwards’s theology of the sacrament is consistent with everything Puritan, and yet A Humble Inquiry put immediate distaste into the mouths of his parishioners. Whether or not the communion controversy proved the primary issue of expulsion from the Northampton church—everything from Edward’s authoritarian attitude to the town’s economic situation has been blamed for his departure—there is no doubt that doctrinal dispute centered on his understanding of the sacrament. Is the Lord’s Supper an issue important enough to reject one’s own livelihood for its sake? Edward’s answer, it appears, is yes. The meat and drink of the Table is the drama of redemption set before the Christian’s eyes. The minister who offers the bread and wine delineates Christ offering his own body, and the congregation takes the place of the entire Church receiving His gift. The significance of the sacrament depends upon the significance of the covenant it seals, and its weight upon the weighty terms it stamps. Every believer who tastes the substance of the feast should bear its import of that inside his mind, and thus make of the act a deliberate affirmation of the cause of Christ. But the Lord’s Supper is also a great reward for the faithful Christian, and a manifestation of His redemption in a precious, visible, tangible sign. It is a constant, renewing reminder that Christ will never depart from the terms of his covenant, that his love and sacrifice is perfect and abundant, and that what his children partake of and enjoy in their spiritual hearts is nothing less than His own divine nature.
Coffman, Ralph J. Solomon Stoddard. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978
Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1. Peabody, Massachusetts:
Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005.
____________, Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 12. David Hall, ed. New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 1994
Jamieson, John F. “Jonathan Edwards’s Change of Position on Stoddareanism.”
The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 74, No. 1. (Jan., 1981), pp. 79-99.
Schafer, Thomas A. “Jonathan Edwards’ Conception of the Church.” Church History,
Vol. 24, No. 1. (Mar., 1955), pp. 51-66.
Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven & London: Yale University
Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids:
 Hall, 507
 Coffman, 110
 Marsden, 124
 Humble Inquiry, 431
 Sermon on Matt. 9:15, ed. Danaher. Quoted in Marsden 354.
 Humble Inquiry, 437
 Ibid., 469
 Ibid., 479
 Ibid., 440
 Miscellanie, 339. Quoted in Schafer, 58.
 Humble Inquiry, 469
 Self-Examination, 291. Quoted in Marsden, 297.
 Humble Inquiry, 458
 Ibid., 459
 Humble Inquiry, 459
 Ibid., 460
 These charges may, certainly, be refuted, though it is not the purpose of this paper to do so.