Hammett, John S. 40 Questions about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015). 331pp. Publisher’s description with Introduction and Chapter 1. (Amazon new price: $17.97, unavailable on Kindle , cheaper used.)
“There is… one baptism,” Paul told the church at Ephesus (Eph. 4:4-5). And to the Corinthians he said this: “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). And this: “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).
One body, united by baptism and bread.
Yet Christ’s one body today certainly does not share one understanding about either baptism or bread (the Lord’s Supper).
John Hammett’s new book might not solve this problem, but it does provide admirably balanced and irenic guidance for thirty-eight of the questions that divide us.
Hammett’s book is part of a series of “40 Questions” books published by Kregel. I’ve read one other in this series—40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, by Robert L. Plummer—which is, in my estimation, a very good choice for a first book on its topic (see here). Hammett’s book is equally easy to like.
I’ll summarize the book by posting the questions that form the chapter titles. Then I’ll make a few observations both positive and negative.
Summary of Book
Hammett’s book is well organized, with logically sequenced topics, discussion questions at the end of each chapter, a bibliography of related books, and a Scripture index. A curious reader could easily start with any question that interests them, find the relevant chapter, and jump in. There’s just enough repeated content to ease such reading (not too much) and occasional pointers to other relevant chapters for more detail.
Here is the outline from the Table of Contents:
Part 1: General Questions about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
1. Are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Sacraments or Ordinances?
2. How Many Ordinances/Sacraments Are There?
3. Who Can Administer Baptism or the Lord’s Supper?
4. Are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Only for Churches?
Part 2: Questions about Baptism
Section A: Introductory Questions
5. What Is the Origin of Christian Baptism?
6. What Is the Relationship of John’s Baptism to Christian Baptism?
7. What Is Spirit Baptism and How Does It Relate to Water Baptism?
8. Why Was Jesus Baptized?
Section B: Denominational Views
9. What Is the Roman Catholic View of Baptism?
10. What Is the Lutheran View of Baptism?
11. What Is the Reformed View of Baptism?
12. What Is the Baptist View of Baptism?
13. What Is the View of Baptism in Other Traditions?
Section C: Theological Issues
14. What Is the Meaning of Christian Baptism?
15. Does the Bible Teach Baptismal Regeneration?
16. Should Infants Be Baptized? (Part 1)
17. Should Infants Be Baptized? (Part 2)
18. Is Baptism a Divine Means of Grace or a Human Act of Obedience?
19. Is There a Proper Mode of Baptism?
Section D: Practical Aspects
20. When Should a Child Be Baptized?
21. Should Baptismal Beliefs Be a Cause of Division?
Part 3: Questions about the Lord’s Supper
Section A: Introductory Questions
22. What Is the Correct Term for This Rite?
23. What Is the Origin of the Lord’s Supper?
24. Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?
25. What Is the Meaning of the Lord’s Supper?
Section B: Denominational Views
26. What Is the Roman Catholic View of the Lord’s Supper?
27. What Is the Lutheran View of the Lord’s Supper?
28. What Is the Reformed View of the Lord’s Supper?
29. What Is the Baptist View of the Lord’s Supper?
30. What Is the View of the Lord’s Supper in Other Traditions?
Section C: Theological Issues
31. In What Sense Is Christ Present in the Lord’s Supper?
32. Who May Properly Partake of the Lord’s Supper? (Part 1)
33. Who May Properly Partake of the Lord’s Supper? (Part 2)
34. What Does It Mean to Partake of the Lord’s Supper in an Unworthy Manner?
35. What Does God Do in the Lord’s Supper?
Section D: Practical Aspects
36. How Often Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed?
37. What Should Be Included in a Proper Observance of the Lord’s Supper?
38. What Can You Do to Improve Your Worship through the Lord’s Supper?
Part 4: Concluding Questions
39. What Is the Importance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper for Theology?
40. What Is the Importance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper for Christian Life?
Assessment of Book
There is much to praise in this book, but I’ll start with a few things I that disappointed me:
- Some rare logical lapses. For example, consider Hammett’s answer to the question “How Many Ordinances/Sacraments Are There?” First he rightly observes this:
Scripture nowhere gives us a list of how many sacraments to observe, or even explicit criteria by which to discern them. (p. 25)
How then can we resolve the question posed above? The answer to the question of the number of the sacraments is tied to one’s understanding of the nature of the sacraments. (p. 25)
But how does one come to a certain understanding of the nature of sacraments (as a category of rites, that is, not the nature of each individual rite) if Scripture provides no “explicit criteria by which to [even] discern them”? Apparently you lean on a definition from John Calvin:
“A sacrament is a seal by which God’s covenant, or promise, is sealed.” (pp. 27-28)
Then you claim “clear biblical basis” for that definition:
The lack of a clear biblical basis (a divine promise sealed by a sign with clear divine ordination of it as an ongoing rite for the church) has prevented anointing of the sick from being seriously considered as a sacrament by Protestants. (p. 30, emphasis added)
Finally, you critique Catholics for lacking a “clear biblical authorization” for five of their sacraments, while claiming your own are “deeply rooted in biblical teaching”:
A… deeper reason for Protestant rejection of five of the seven Catholic sacraments is the lack of clear biblical authorization… Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were never question [by the church, regarding their status as sacraments]; they were obviously deeply rooted in biblical teaching. But the others were dubious at best. (p. 32)
In this discussion Hammett seems to be confusing two questions: (1) Do we have biblical basis for observing these rites? (2) Do we have biblical basis for calling these rites sacraments? It seems to me that he critiques the Catholics based on the second question, but defends the Protestants based on the first question. A better answer, I think, would be to acknowledge that (1) we have good biblical basis for observing many rites—including ones like marriage and anointing with oil that the Catholics include as sacraments, along with others such as giving a blessing before meals—but that (2) we have no clear biblical basis for designating any subset of them by a term such as sacrament or ordinance.
Lacking any biblical list of sacraments or any meaningful biblical criteria by which to discern them, Hammett ultimately rests his case on Calvin, as the final two sentences of this chapter reveal:
Calvin repeatedly raised the question of a divine promise or a divine command authorizing a practice to be considered a sacrament. Lacking such divine ordination, they [Protestants] refused to recognize confirmation, penance and reconciliation, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, or matrimony as sacraments. (p. 32)
- Focus on the “local body” at the expense of the one, universal “body of Christ.” (This is the same problem that I critiqued strongly in Bobby Jamieson’s book.) The NT never speaks of a “local body” of believers. It does once address local believers as members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27). But Paul uses body imagery to depict the oneness of all who belong to Christ, not the division of Christians into local congregations. It seems to me that Hammett does not grasp this clearly, and that this misunderstanding skews his thinking as he considers who may properly partake of the Lord’s Supper:
Should we approach the Lord’s Supper seeking to affirm, renew, and celebrate our unity with all Christians (the universal body of Christ) or with a church (a local body of believers)? I think it is significant that the term for church in the New Testament is overwhelmingly used for local churches, and that Paul’s criticism of how the Corinthians were observing the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is due to the lack of unity in the local body. Moreover, if we want to affirm Christian unity, we have to accept that at present we simply do not have it yet in terms of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, so why not affirm our unity around the gospel, which is the proper boundary of Christian unity? (p. 271)
There are additional problems with this paragraph. For example, Hammett’s claim that “the term for church in the New Testament is overwhelmingly used for local churches” needs to be moderated by several facts. First, “church” often refers to all the Christians in one city, and each city often possessed multiple house church congregations. (This was likely the case with the “local body” at Corinth.) Second, often the term is used in the plural (“churches”) in such a way that the unity of all congregations is strongly emphasized, rather than their individual autonomy (e.g.: “This is the rule I lay down in all the churches”; 1 Cor. 7:17).
Also, Hammett’s suggestion that the universal body of Christ unite around the gospel rather than sharing the Lord’s Supper together is curious given that elsewhere he emphasizes “the general agreement that the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a visual proclamation of the gospel” (p. 208).
This failure to appreciate the NT emphasis on the universal body of Christ appears several other times in Hammett’s book, such as when he offers a false dichotomy between viewing the Christian life as primarily “individual” (“personal relationship with God”) or “corporate” (“the local church”) (p. 44). Why is this a false dichotomy? Because unless we commune with the broader church, the local church, too, will become ingrown. Corporate—a body word—must include Christ’s full body.
Later Hammett rightly underscores “the importance of unity in the body, with concern and respect for all the members, for worthy participation in the Lord’s Supper.” What do you think? Would this truth point toward open communion that welcomes all Christians, or closed communion limited primarily to local church “members”? What does Hammett conclude from this?
This would seem to fit much better with close or closed communion, in which those partaking have covenanted together as one body in Christ, than with a practice that allowed visitors and strangers to partake, with no knowledge of who they were or if they were prepared to partake worthily. (p. 275)
Why would a concern for unity lead one to restrict other Christians from sharing in the Lord’s Supper? Perhaps it would if one believes that it is the local church “covenant,” rather than (or in addition to) our shared baptism by the Spirit into Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), that joins us as “one body in Christ.” Craig Blomberg’s comment on 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 seems more on target:
If the Lord’s table symbolizes and promotes fellowship and unity with the risen Christ, then it should be open to all believers but to believers only.1
- Failure to sufficiently consider what the NT says about wrongfully withholding the Lord’s Supper. To prevent someone from communing in the Lord’s Supper is, quite literally, excommunication. The NT reserves this action for false teachers, unrepentant sinners whose immoral actions disqualify them from claiming to be Christians, and (perhaps) Christians who are temporarily under discipline because they need to repent from immoral actions. (See Matt. 18:15-17; 1Cor. 5; Tit. 3:9-11; 1Tim. 1:18-20; Rom. 16:17-19; and Rev. 2:2. See also 2 Thess. 3:6-15 for the solitary possible example of the last category.)
All other examples of excommunication in the NT (such as Peter refusing to eat with Gentile believers) are strongly condemned. (See Gal. 2:11-16. See also Acts 11:2-3; 1John 1:9-10; Rom. 14:1-13; 15:7; 1Cor. 11:17-34.)
Hammett effectively draws on the positive NT evidence about the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. But, like most authors I’ve read who wrestle with the question of who may commune, he does not sufficiently consider this negative evidence regarding the use and abuse of excommunication. Both strains of evidence are crucial for a balanced theology and practice. (I hope to write an essay sometime on what the NT says about who should or should not be excommunicated.)
There are other such weaknesses in this book, but none of them are so central that they detract from the book’s general success. Here are some things I really like about Hammett’s book:
- Hammett doesn’t waste your time. Daniel L. Akin’s endorsement is right on target: “John Hammett has the wonderful gift to say more in fewer words than most any theologian I know” (back cover).
- Hammett is admirably fair to other theological camps. Some Baptist books critiquing Catholics quote from other Baptists describing Catholic positions; Hammett repeatedly quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He achieves his own goal well:
I am in the Baptist camp, both by heritage and conviction, and want to acknowledge the possibility of bias in my evaluations. Still, I will try to listen to the case made by others, critique them fairly, advocate the views that seem soundest to me, but leave the final evaluation to the reader. (p. 115)
- Hammett includes a wide range of perspectives. While he clearly has favorite theologicans (Calvin and Beasley-Murray among them), he includes Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Pentecostal, and Methodist views on various topics. Each of these bring something useful to consider. For example, consider this Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist):
“The basic ecclesiological rule that goes back to the fathers… wherever the Eucharist is, there is the church. Or, the church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the church.” (p. 244)2
If you wonder where Anabaptists fit in, he counts them among the Baptists and actually briefly quotes the Schleitheim Confession and Balthasar Hubmaier.
- Hammett is able to laugh at and critique his own church tradition. For example:
Attempting to describe the benefits Baptists see in celebrating the Lord’s Supper is difficult for two reasons. The first is simply the diversity of Baptists. They rarely speak with one voice on anything. The second is that Baptist discussion of the Lord’s Supper has often focused on errors Baptists saw in other views they wanted to deny. (p. 201)
Or this, quoting Millard Erickson:
In the past, in their zeal to deny the physical or bodily presence of Christ in the elements, some Baptists were accused of teaching ‘the real absence of Christ,’ the idea that ‘the one place where Jesus most assuredly is not to be found is the Lord’s Supper.’ (p. 238)
- Hammett is irenic (peaceable) and appropriately cautious in presenting his conclusions. Here are some typical concluding sentences, with peacemaker words emphasized:
I think that those advocating a move to acceptance of multiple views on the proper mode and subjects of baptism are contributing to an undue diminution of the importance of baptism. The arguments for immersion and believer’s baptism, presented in earlier chapters, still seem to me strong and persuasive. I think Baptists can learn and incorporate much from those who see baptism as a sign and recognize divine activity in baptism as well as human response, and we need to do much better in putting our theology of baptism consistently into practice. But I agree with those who see other views of baptism as open to some troubling tendencies, and remain an advocate of believers baptism most of all due to its importance in maintaining a principle I think very important, that of regenerate church membership. For if, as is widely accepted, baptism is the rite of initiation into church membership, baptizing any but believers cannot but undermine that important principle. (pp. 178-79)
Obviously I disagree with Hammett on a variety of points. But I still really like this book. It is an excellent resource to help us listen to each other across our theological divides, and should help careful readers find common ground in Christ. Timothy George, whose book on The Theology of the Reformers I found so helpful (and discussed in an earlier blog series), summarizes my thoughts well:
This book surveys and treats with fairness a variety of competing views on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A good resource for all Christians. (back cover)
This book is achieves its author’s purposes very well.
I give it 4-1/2 out of 5 stars.
What are your thoughts? Which of Hammett’s questions sound most interesting to you? Do you agree more with me or with Hammett on the points where I’ve critiqued him? What ecclesiological tradition do you think conservative Anabaptists could learn most from? Do you have another favorite book on these topics? Share your insights in the comments below.
Disclosures: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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