I listed Chan's main supporting arguments for his position in the first post. But since you may or may not have read that, let me state the three I will be engaging with in this post:
3. According to Acts 2:42 the early believers devoted themselves to the breaking of bread the same as the Apostle’s teaching, so it is right to prioritize the Lord’s Supper over other elements of corporate worship.
4. Pre-Reformation, communion elements weren’t thought of as symbolic; that came during the Reformation.
5. Globally, Christians gather for communion, not for preaching. (Granted, Chan didn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to be implied by his mentioning his Indian pastor friend.)
Is it Biblical to elevate Communion to central status in worship?
3. Yes the earliest church devoted itself to the breaking of bread alongside of the apostles’ teaching, fellowship together, and prayer (Ac. 2:42). But doesn’t that suggest that the teaching of the Word takes at least some level of priority? That may explain why it is that in Acts 6, the apostles take a step back from serving tables in order to give themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word, NOT to administering communion. You may say, “They didn't need to focus on communion, because it is simple and doesn’t require study.” Yes, exactly. Preaching/teaching is not simple; thus, it requires time to prepare.
Further, why is that Paul only explicitly references the Lord’s Supper ONCE in his letters (1 Cor 11:23-28)? It could be said, again, that this is because the Lord’s Supper was simple and understood in its importance, and the Word wasn’t. Still, if the Lord’s Supper is to be at the center of church life, why doesn’t Paul mention it in the Pastoral Epistles once? Instead, his emphasis in every pastoral epistle is on right preaching and doctrine. Read 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (particularly 1 Tim 4, 2 Tim 2-4, and Tit 1) if you want proof. Note that in every single epistle, attention is given to correcting error in what is being taught and making sure the teaching is faithful. How could this be the case if preaching and teaching isn’t the priority?
This also shows why preachers give time to preparation – so they aren’t in error. One might wish that Arius and Pelagius would have spent more time studying and less time talking; perhaps they would have seen their errors and repented. Maybe not. Billy Graham, the great evangelist of the 20th century, famously said toward the end of his life that he wishes he would have studied more and preached less.
The Reformation didn’t fix the church. It pointed out errors that had taken the church off the path for a long time. But let’s not act like it ruined the church. The church had error before, and it has errors now. Thus, one of the great mottos of the Reformation is Semper Reformanda: Always reforming. Because we need to be always growing, maturing, and moving into more and more Biblical fidelity.
Was the Ancient and Medieval church entirely literalistic in its understanding of Communion?
4. As mentioned earlier, I’m not so sure that pre-Reformation, communion elements were never thought of as symbolic. Earlier I mentioned the conflict between Ratramnus and Radbertus, which gave way to the official Catholic position. Again it was struggle that gave way to the official position. This is probably why later Protestants like Thomas Cranmer cited Ratramnus as a source for a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper (see the quote on the bottom of his Wikipedia page). But also consider Augustine, who stated in no uncertain terms that it is a “servile infirmity” to take the signs of “the sacrament of Baptism and the celebration of the Body and Blood of the Lord” for “the thing that they signify.”^^* In other words, at least to some degree, Augustine took these things as symbolic. Later, Augustine refers to the Lord’s Supper as, “a memorial of the fact that His flesh was crucified and wounded for us.”^** I am not suggesting that Augustine definitely held a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper – merely that some of his writing suggests that he did, so maybe it is not as simple as it’s stated often to be.
Regardless, let’s for the sake of argument assume that every pre-Reformation church figure held to a literalistic view of the Lord’s Supper. Isn’t it possible that the church could at times fall into error, and need Scripture to correct it? I’m included in this. What error am I suggesting needs corrected? The notion that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” he was saying, “Communion is my literal body.” Instead, I’d suggest that you consider that the apostles were looking at his body when he said this. Therefore, how could he not be saying the meal is symbolic of his body which sits before them? He was pointing to was the Passover meal that had always been thought of as a symbolic representative of the Passover lamb, blood, and bread, and here He was, taking it and saying, “You are to now consider me as your Passover Lamb when you partake of this. Remember me when you take this.” And doesn’t this mean the elements symbolize him, just like it had done for the Passover? Hence Paul’s statement that, “Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Jesus took the Passover meal and told the disciples that it points to him. Now when they take it, they are to keep this in mind.
John 6 will not do as a proof that the Lord’s Supper is literally Jesus’ body. Right before saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life (6:53), in almost the same breath, he said that whoever believes in him has life (6:47). Well, Jesus, which one is it that gives us life? The Eucharist or believing in you? I believe that his answer is this: “Who said anything about the Eucharist? Eating my flesh and drinking my blood IS believing in me. To believe in me is to receive me into your heart, like eating food; and when you receive me, you have life.” This sounds a lot like what He’d said in the previous chapter: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24).
This is why the typically accepted Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper isn’t that it is a bare symbol (as many have suggested). Rather, it is that the risen Christ who is in heaven on our behalf brings us up to himself during the Lord’s Supper, so that we enjoy His presence spiritually.*^ It is not a bare symbol, but it is also not a real sacrifice. Instead, it is a spiritual blessing, enjoyed by us who are spiritual (1 Cor. 2:15).
Does American evangelicalism overvalue preaching, while the global church values the Lord’s Supper?
5. I’m blessed by Chan’s mentioning his Indian friend who says that he and his fellow Christians love to gather for communion, not necessarily preaching. I’m glad they treasure communion like they do. But I could easily counter with the fact that I have a pastor friend in India who has a growing church which emphasizes the preaching of the Word above all else. Apparently people in his church love preaching. It is easy to research and find church traditions in Africa, China or anywhere else that place the emphasis on preaching.
I say all of this because I’m a little afraid that Chan’s point will be taken by multitudes to mean that everywhere else, Christians rightly value Lord’s Supper, while here in America we value preaching, and wrongly so. That is not my understanding in studying global Christianity. I am far from an expert. But I know that preaching is highly valued elsewhere.
That said, I agree that preaching can become an overemphasis, to the point that people will wrongly only go to a church if there is a “dynamic” speaker. Hence, my prep-time as a pastor is less and less as the days go by, not because I know what I’m doing better now (though I hope to be growing), but because I want more time for shepherding, evangelism, writing, and other tasks. I don’t see Paul spending hours and hours preparing to preach. But not everyone is gifted like Paul, and some need extra time to prepare. Further, Paul received a lot of criticism for the fact that he wasn’t a particularly eloquent preacher (see 2 Cor 10:10, 11:6). But the rest of his ministry, and the power of the Spirit on him, made up for it. For the rest of us, we try hard to preach and teach well, because we’re not Paul. And God has called us to fulfill our ministries (2 Tim 4:5).
Again, I’ve been a Chan fan for a long time, and still am. But his narrative of the unfolding of church history appears to be a little simplistic and shortsighted. I’d caution you before you start to do the very thing it seems that he might be suggesting, that is, questioning everything. Asking questions is good, and so is being critical (for how can we discern truth from error any other way?) But let us not question everyone and everything else before we question ourselves too. It may be that our being edifyingly critical depends on being critical of our own ways of thinking first. I heard Tim Keller say once, “Let’s be skeptical, but let’s make sure we are skeptical of our skepticism, too.” This way, if our brothers really do have specks in their eyes, we’ll see clearly to help them remove it.
^See John Piper, Contending For Our All, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 50.
^*See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: 3. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 74-80.
^^* Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 87.
*^See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.31.