77. Where has Christ promised, that He will thus feed and nourish believers with His body and blood, as certainly as they eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup?
In the institution of the Supper, which says: “The Lord Jesus the same night in which He was betrayed took bread: and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, Take eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had eaten, saying, This cup is the New Covenant in my blood: this do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you show the Lord’s death till He come” (1 Cor 11:23–25). And this promise is also repeated by St. Paul, where he says: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor 10:16–17). (Heidelberg Catechism 77)Way back when I was a seminary student, between my middler and senior years, Mrs Heidelblog and I spent a summer in Bakersfield, California, at Grace Reformed Church, where I had my ministerial internship, where we lived just a few feet from the parsonage (the house owned by the congregation, where the minister and his family lived). During this internship my job was to shadow the minister, teach Bible studies, help with vacation Bible school, and to exhort (preaching performed by a man licensed to preach but not yet ordained to pastoral ministry). I also spent a fair bit of time in nearby Shafter, CA with the Ebeneezer Reformed Church doing the same things with Pastor Jim West. The church and the parsonage shared the same parking lot and the two of us lived in a fifth-wheel trailer, just behind the church. The Rev Don Treick was my principal mentor for the summer. He was extraordinarily generous with his time. Since 1986 I’ve learned that some pastors take the opportunity of an internship to take a break. This is understandable but it’s not ideal for the intern. As I look back on that internship I mostly remember moving. We were in the hospital, at the nursing home, in a counseling session, a consistory/council (elders and pastors) meeting or knocking on doors inviting people to church. As folk sometimes say, Don invested himself in me and, to switch metaphors, he made a big impression. One of the things he says, in that distinctive Wisconsin way, “it’s in the Bible.” If there is something that Christians ought to believe, it is the Bible. In seminary I learned that the liberals and the higher critics were wrong and why. I learned a bit about how to interpret Scripture (hermeneutics) in its original setting, how to do text criticism (looking at the ancient manuscripts when there’s a discrepancy between texts to discover which reading is most likely), and other technical skills in handling holy scripture. We had homiletics (preaching) courses, so I had some instruction in how to preach but this was the first time I followed a pastor around to see how he applied Scripture to and with God’s people in various settings. It was the first time I got to see how daily pastoral ministry really was. It was, in a word, intense. It was also biblical. Don was constantly referring back to Scripture or quoting Scripture and reading it or studying it. It was very impressive. I had heard that Scripture was essential but in Don I saw right away that the Bible is at the center of pastoral ministry.
What does this all have to do with Heidelberg 77? Everything. We confess what we do about the promises and realities of the Holy Supper because they are biblical. In Holy Scripture (in the gospels and in 1 Corinthians) the Holy Spirit has preserved for us our Lord’s institution of the Holy Supper. We know nothing of a secret, unwritten apostolic tradition because it does not exist. When the early Christian fathers appealed to apostolic tradition, they referred to public teaching and practices handed down in Scripture. That talk of tradition was gradually transformed into an allegedly secret, unwritten tradition. Late medieval and today all Romanist Christians are asked to place implicit faith in the Roman communion, in her officers (e.g., the Pope), in her councils, and in her alleged apostolic traditions. The Reformed Churches believe in implicit faith (fides implicita) but we place it in holy Scripture. Implicit faith is impossible for mere mortals to avoid. None of us knows everything about anything. We always rely on some authority, somewhere. That reliance is implicit faith. We do not know but we trust that someone else knows. Rome asks us to trust her implicitly. As a church historian I say that’s bad advice. That certainly is not how the earliest fathers regarded the church. They put their implicit faith in Scripture. They, as we, understood that the Word (Scripture) forms the church. The Word is the canon of the church and not the other way round. Thus, we ought to trust Scripture implicitly. Yes, there are difficult places is in Scripture. Who knows what Paul meant by “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15? I do not know and I do not know anyone else who knows but Paul knew what he meant and God knows what he meant and perhaps one day we shall find out. In the meantime I am content to trust God’s Holy, inerrant word. Popes and councils err but Holy Scripture does not. Holy Scripture has never lied to us. It has never manipulated us or the facts to suit an agenda. That’s not true with popes and councils. One year Vatican II is great. The next year Vatican II is not as much in favor and, wait for it, after a while, with a new pope, Vatican II is back in style again. By contrast, Scripture has always always told us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about God’s holy law and his holy gospel.
Thus, when we are determining what we ought to believe about the promises of the gospel contained in, represented by, and sealed by the Holy Supper we go only to God’s inerrant, infallible Word. How do I know that Christ has made such wonderful promises to believers in the Supper? I know it from Holy Scripture. The same Holy Spirit who operates through the Supper to strengthen our union and communion with Christ also gave us the gospel and epistle records of its institution. That same Spirit operates through the Supper to renew our assurance and to draw us back to Christ and to his promises (and away from ourselves, our doubts, and our fears). How do I know the Supper is what it is? It’s in the Bible. How do I know the Bible is true? The Holy Spirit testifies to and through Scripture that it’s true. There’s further confirmation in history. Is the tomb empty? Yes. Were there witnesses? Yes, hundreds of them. It’s all true and it’s true for us, in particular, who believe. Just as certainly as we eat and drink so certainly are the gospel promises for us. As Don says, “It’s in the Bible.”