J. Todd Billings. Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018. 217 pp. $20, hardcover.

Like the ghost of a dear friend dead
Is Time long past.
A tone which is now forever fled,
A hope which is now forever past,
A love so sweet it could not last,
Was Time long past.
There were sweet dreams in the night
Of Time long past:
And, was it sadness or delight,
Each day a shadow onward cast
Which made us wish it yet might last—
That Time long past.
There is regret, almost remorse,
For Time long past.
‘Tis like a child’s belovèd corse
A father watches, till at last
Beauty is like remembrance, cast
From Time long past.

“The Long Past,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

Though it is probably less of a unified movement than an ethos, the project of theological retrieval has increasingly featured in scholarship and the church over the last few decades. Whether in search of something solid and enduring amidst the fads and chaos of liquid modernity, disaffected with America’s consumeristic pop religiosity, or in search of historic resources to reform decadent, weak, or corrupt institutions today, a number of people have become interested in recovering wisdom and practices from the church’s past that have either been forgotten, distorted, or misunderstood and unnecessarily rejected.

Though promising in some ways, the project of retrieval faces numerous challenges. We might ask whether we are indeed retrieving something from the past, or arbitrarily cultivating a niche and antiquarian aesthetic for the obscure. Are projects of retrieval merely a more sophisticated form of the same consumerism or expressive individualism in modern religion, like theological hipsters at an atavistic buffet? As Tyler Wittman cautions in his review of The Culture of Theology by the late John Webster, “even recent turns toward tradition and ‘retrieval’ of our doctrinal heritage can become little more than social and political winds masquerading as theology.”

We also need to inquire whether the same roads that led us to our current dilemmas hold any promise moving forward, especially when facing new challenges. Beyond the madness of trying the same thing continually and expecting different results, there is also a grave danger of distortion. Where a certain insight in the past was inextricably linked with broader assumptions we no longer hold, or an integral part of a whole theological system and not easily disentangled from its original associations, our constructive work of retrieval might yield an imbalanced edifice that crumbles easily and injures people. In his classic After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre notes:

We are all of us inescapably inhabitants of advanced modernity, bearing its social and cultural marks. So my understanding of the tradition of the virtues and of the consequences for modernity of its rejection of that tradition and of the possibility of restoring it is indeed a peculiarly modern understanding. It is only retrospectively from the standpoint of modernity and in response to its predicaments that we can identify the continuities and discontinuities of the tradition of the virtues, as it has been embodied in a variety of cultural forms.

Testifying today to Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8), is not an exercise in wistful nostalgia. Because the church’s life is lived during the time when the City of God and the City of Man are intermixed, there are not only good but also dark and horrid parts of our past that we must have the courage and wisdom to diligently understand, learn from, repent of, and then humbly and relentlessly reform. Christian worship and witness inhabits the communion of saints, who are united in Jesus Christ not only geographically around the world today, but also united with one another across the centuries.

Even so, those inhabiting this communion must cultivate a watchful ethos, as these ages are nonetheless subject to the powers of Sin and Death, bequeathing nuggets of forgotten wisdom, haunted by evils subtle and overt. As John Webster remarked in the opening words of his 2007 Kantzer Lectures:

In part, Christian theology is an act of obedience to the fifth commandment. It needs to keep its eyes on the past, and on the dead, whether they be the long-dead, or those of recent memory. Theology is the work of reason in the society of the saints, and how that society lives and speaks the gospel now can’t be isolated from the gifts which are offered to us from the past … Tradition isn’t a dead hand; it is the presence to us of episodes, texts, ideas, and people, through whom we can be open to the full scope of the life and truth of the gospel.

As such, if the work of theology is to steward the church’s memory, recovering a robust Eucharistic theology and practices in our churches might be a powerful way to reinvigorate Christian worship, witness, and action today. Towards that end, Todd Billings’ recent book, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table, “presents readers with a wager: that a renewed theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper can be an instrument for congregations to develop a deeper, more multifaceted sense of the gospel itself” (1).

Theological and Experiential Drama

Part I frames Billings’ wager “in a dynamic theological and experiential drama: the drama of the triune God uniting his people to Christ and one another by the Spirit through his instruments of Word and sacrament” (57). Chapter 1 notes that inevitably “Christians find themselves shaped by various forces and symbolic narratives” (28), necessitating awareness of the “functional theologies” of our congregations amidst the formative power of the symbolic world of Late Western Modernity.

Chapter II develops an Augustinian understanding of embodied human perception and desire for Christ, drawing attention to the historic practice of “holy fairs” among Reformed Protestants that are held forth as a useful resource for revitalizing Reformed churches and sacramentology today. Billings notes the decline of these trends due to many factors, such as Charles Finney’s “new measures” and the anxious bench.

Part II takes up more traditional theological questions related to the Lord’s Supper, drawing from the magisterial reformed theologians and confessions for an account of Eucharistic theology that can contribute to contemporary ecumenical concerns in a “gift exchange.” The key hinges of Billings’ “confessional sketch of the Lord’s Supper” are that “the Lord’s Supper, as a sacrament, is fundamentally a divine promise offered through covenantal signs and seals” (68).

After discussing the relation of faith to feeding upon Christ himself, Billings declares that “[t]he Lord’s Supper is a site for the action of the triune God – where God acts in and through the Supper, using the supper as an instrument of grace” (72). Herein, “[t]he substance and ‘matter’ of God’s promise signified in the Supper is Jesus Christ” (73), where “God not only signifies but also truly exhibits, offers, and communicates Jesus Christ in the Supper through the Spirit to believers by faith” (74). Simultaneously “at the Supper, believers both remember and commune with Jesus Christ by the Spirit. But, in recognition of the ascension, they also await the second advent of Christ” (76).

Finally, the eschatological work of the Spirit means that, “as a result of God’s action in and through the Supper, believers are empowered to mutual love in the church and love of neighbor, bearing fruit in acts of witness, mercy, and justice in the world. These actions flow from the joy and gratitude generated by the Spirit in sanctification” (81).

Divine Action

Ch. 4 is an extended meditation on the question “does God really act through the sacraments?” (84). Here Billings develops the ontology undergirding his proposal from Calvin’s Eucharistic theology. After briefly critiquing the amorphous ontology found in much evangelical theology and church practice, Billings responds to a likely objection from John Milbank and the self-described ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ movement, who have dismissed Calvin’s approach as a kind of nominalism. Incorporating insights from his prior book Calvin, Participation and the Gift (Oxford University Press, 2008), Billings argues that Milbank’s critique relies upon an oversimplification of, if not a misrepresentation of, the significant variation and nuance in Medieval ontologies. Next, Billings cautions against the ever-lingering influence of Marcion’s disregard for the Old Testament and of Christian anti-Jewish supersessionism. Billings’ conclusion is worth quoting at length:

Thus, a healthy theology of union with Christ at the Supper needs only a Trinitarian and covenantal ontology… it should be shaped by ongoing biblical exegesis on the pilgrim path of theology – seeking the mind of Christ for the church. It needs to draw upon the narrative of the whole of Scripture to show how, exactly, the story of creation, of Israel, of the covenant, of the temple is fulfilled in Christ, and thus the significance of union with this same Christ by the Spirit. Thus, for congregations, one cannot and should not simply focus on “union with Christ” passages in the New Testament in renewing the theology of union with Christ. One needs to read all of Scripture as fulfilled rather than displaced by Christ. As the risen Christ says to his disciples in Luke 24:44, “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (NRSV). Christ does not complete the Old Testament in a way that leads to its being set aside, but he fulfills it. As tempting as it is to settle for a one-sided gospel, or a one-sided Christ, we need to return again and again to the particularity of Scripture to discern how – in a nonreductionistic way – it is fulfilled in Christ Jesus, to whom we are united by the Spirit in the word of the gospel, both in preaching and in the sign-acts of the sacraments (105).

Part III reflects on past, present, and future dynamics of Eucharistic practice in order “to provide a Reformed entryway into a larger catholic space” by giving “biblical and theological insight into the gospel and the Supper that can help congregations to move more deeply into their personal and corporate identity in Christ” (112).

Remembrance

Ch. 5 on remembrance is particularly significant for contemporary North American evangelical readers. After recounting earlier debates about the Lord’s Supper between traditions sympathetic to Calvin or Zwingli respectively, Billings then revisits debates in the 19th century between Princeton theologian Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin of the German Reformed Church’s Mercersburg Seminary after Nevin published The Mystical Presence.

Nevin and Hodge both opposed the individualism and subjective internalization of assurance associated with revivalism, which at least in Finney had come to replace God’s outward and ordinary means of grace. According to Billings, Hodge advocated a primarily introspective and more Zwinglian, memorialist-style account of the Lord’s Supper, while Nevin sought to recover Calvin’s vision whereby “the grace exhibited, the action of the Spirit is here present” and “Christ communicates himself to us… under the form of the sacramental mystery as such” (127). In sum:

Jesus’s call to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ is not a call to a mere mental recollection of the cross. The gathered are called to inhabit the story of God’s mighty acts of deliverance, the God of the exodus. Thus, at the table believers not only join in the Last Supper meal as they hear the words of Jesus instituting the meal, they also join the disciples in the Easter meal, with the Lord as host. In this sign-act at the table, remembrance with Christ occurs with the new household of God, a covenantal fellowship with people of different ages, races, and genders. All are incorporated into the drama of the triune God. As sharers in Christ, they embrace Christ’s death and resurrection as their own history, their own identity-forming events. Indeed, believers experience both pain and joy as they come to inhabit the story of Christ’s dying and rising as their own (136).

A Dual Encounter

Ch. 6 argues that “communion at the Lord’s Supper is other focused, entailing a dual encounter with Christ and with others around the table” (137), especially in reflection on passages such as 1 Corinthians 5–11. Here, Billings makes one of the more constructive contributions in the book by probing the question “who is invited to the table?” (150). Billings contrasts the “closed” communion practice of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, with Protestants who advocate for an “open table,” who reason that “just as Jesus had table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, shouldn’t congregations welcome the unbaptized and others without trust in Christ to the table?” (151). Billings calls his own view “a middle position” (150) between those two approaches, but ultimately his view is the common practice in many Reformed evangelical denominations, “that baptized Christians should be invited to the table regardless of denomination,” but that “a completely ‘open’ table… is simply unsustainable if we are to take Paul at his word” (151).

Perhaps one of the best contributions of this book is the rationale it provides for that middle position, in close readings of the abuses Paul sought to Reform in 1 Corinthians 10–11, but also recounting “a contemporary example [that] can illustrate this need for (temporary) exclusion for the sake of faithfulness to Christ and covenantal fellowship,” when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared racial apartheid to be a heresy (153). After the Dutch Reformed Church chose “to bow to the idolatry of racism rather than the Lordship of Christ” (154), WARC’s 1982 declaration of heresy was significant because “within several years of this exclusion, the DRC began making clear moves away from long-standing advocacy of apartheid” (154). “Thus, while it may sound ‘progressive’ to have a communion policy completely ‘open’ to anyone – believer and nonbeliever, never fencing the table for discipline – its profoundly naïve concerning the power of human sin and the all-encompassing allegiance those who are in Christ are called to offer” (155).

Accordingly, Billings makes a case against paedocommunion; instead we should “invit[e] baptized children with age-appropriate faith to the table” (157) on the basis of the need to discern the body in 1 Corinthians 11:28–29, but clarifying that this not merely a matter of intellectual ability. The admonition to discern the body is not so much about introspection or the worthiness of one’s piety, but ensuring one is not neglecting or exploiting the poor (1 Cor 11:21) or dividing the people of God into factions (1 Cor 11:18).

Another helpful discussion draws out the connection between the “long history of connecting the Lord’s Supper with spiritual marriage in Reformed circles” (162). Drawing on Sarah Coakley’s work on Dionysius, Billings suggests that “if our desire for God is ultimately more basic than our sexual desires, then rightly ordered love of God means recovering Christ as our first love, the proper end for our body’s desires for oneness, for delight, for fruitfulness. This means that all Christians – whether single or married – are called to testify to Jesus Christ as their true spouse, even as they live as desiring creatures in these present days” (163).

Hope in Union with Christ

Finally, ch. 7 on “hope in union with Christ” looks ahead to the Eucharist’s eschatological significance. Particularly in view of present suffering and the church’s lamentation, Billings criticizes the dispensationalist rapture eschatologies that continue to pervade North American Protestantism for desiring an escape from embodied life and the destruction of this world; he also critiques the inescapable pull of post-Kantian modernism to frame “religious faith as worthwhile only because of the benefits it brings here and now” (173). Instead, Billings offers an account of God’s now and not-yet kingdom of new creation and our hope for embodied resurrection with Christ (169).

A crucial structure in this account is Calvin’s theology of the ascension, whereby “the Lord’s Supper ‘is a spiritual communion with Christ’ – not because it is unreal or a projection, but because until the second advent, all our participation in Christ is always by the Spirit” (189). It is not necessarily that Christ comes down into the transformed elements, but rather we by the Spirit are brought into the presence of the ascended and glorified Christ who presently lives to intercede and reign at the Father’s right hand, and will return one day, giving us hope and urgency in the present:

Until then, we labor to bear witness to Christ, the true Lord, in this good yet corrupted world. We are freed to offer ourselves to God in seeking reconciliation, because we’ve tasted the end, and it doesn’t look like racism or sexism or injustice. We are freed to move toward the abused and the broken, because we’ve tasted the end, and sin and death don’t have the final word. We are freed to befriend the lonely and the forgotten, because we know that alienation doesn’t have the final word. Until then, we gather at the table and are sent into the world as children of the Father who have tasted heaven by the Spirit, and long for more. Thus we cry, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ Together we pray, ‘Come!’ (200).

Notably, Part III includes helpful “congregational snapshots” that flesh out examples of how this can take root amidst the vicissitudes of life in the church, but overall “at the feast of remembrance, communion, and hope, the Spirit enables the church to enact its true identity as a people constituted by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In their remembrance, dying and rising with Christ become a present experience of the community. In communion at the Supper, the Lord Jesus Christ offers his own person, his very presence, to his people, those who are hopelessly incomplete without him. In hope, God’s people enjoy a foretaste of heavenly manna, a taste that deepens our hunger and focuses our desires on the kingdom that only Jesus Christ can bring” (137).

Where Others Can Build Off Billings’s Work

Because Todd Billings has contributed an accessible, robust account of the Lord’s Supper for renewing congregational life, resourcing the best of Reformed catholic traditions for contemporary ecumenical vitality, his book raises several interesting questions and possibilities deserving of further reflection. The following are just four of the areas where I could see further work to be done, building off of what Billings has done in Remembrance, Communion, and Hope.

To be clear, adequately addressing each of these matters could be a book-length treatment in their own right, and might have distracted from Billings’ narrower project here. Nonetheless, precisely because my sympathies lie heavily with Billings’ proposal, I want to gesture towards a few areas where readers might profit from further reflection, or thinking with and beyond Billings’ work.

First, one of the congregational snapshots includes an example of practicing intinction (168), but the remainder of the book does not comment anywhere on the mode or medium for the Lord’s Supper. Whether and how Christians can drink from the cup has long been a point of contention in the history of Eucharistic theology in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and the practice of intinction has been variously, and sometimes quite vigorously, debated within North American Reformed churches. Thus, readers might profit from some further reflection on the differing hermeneutical commitments or historical sensibilities that undergird different theological conclusions drawn on this intensely practical question.

Second, because there is an inextricable connection between Christology and how we understand Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, recovering a robust understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper will necessarily involve a certain account of the person and work of Christ. Notably, John Williamson Nevin opened The Mystical Presence with an astonishingly bold claim:

As the Eucharist forms the very heart of the whole Christian worship, so it is clear that the entire question of the Church which all are compelled to acknowledge, the great life-problem of the age, centres ultimately in the sacramental question as its inmost heart and core. Our view of the Lord’s Supper must ever condition and rule in the end our view of Christ’s person and the conception we form of the Church. It must influence at the same time, very materially, our whole system of theology, as well as all our ideas of ecclesiastical history,” John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence and the Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper, Mercersburg Theology Series, eds. W. Bradford Littlejohn and Linden J. Debie (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 11, italics mine.

At the very least, we must recognize that however we understand the two natures of Christ, human and divine, as united in one person, is not easily disentangled from our view of the Lord’s Supper. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism, in Q&A 48, asks “are the two natures in Christ not separated from each other if his human nature is not present wherever his divinity is?” and answers “Not at all, for his divinity has no limits and is present everywhere. So it must follow that his divinity is indeed beyond the human nature which he has taken on and nevertheless is within this human nature and remains personally united with it.”

That Christological vision funds the Catechism’s later statement on the Lord’s Supper in Heidelberg Q&A 75–79, on being united with Christ’s ascended flesh and blood by the Holy Spirit. Billings’ project similarly draws upon Calvin, such as the account found in Calvin’s Institutes: “Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space” (Institutes XV.XVII.10; McNeill-Battles 1370).

However, such an account will remain suspect to Roman Catholics and Lutherans, and possibly some Eastern Orthodox Christians, who disagree about the Christology involved. The Lutheran affirmation that there is a communicatio idiomatum, “a communication of properties” between the two natures of Christ means that Christ can be present everywhere in the Lord’s Supper because the human nature of Christ can have divine properties. Roman Catholics adhering to transubstantiation and the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council will be unsatisfied with such an account for numerous reasons. We cannot settle these Christological disputes here, nor should we expect an all-satisfying answer from a short book. However, that might prove challenging for those who take up Billings’ wager.

A recovery of Nevin’s vision of the Lord’s Supper would be a welcome breath of fresh air in North American church life in general, and also in contemporary efforts towards ecumenism. But because of the stark and long-held Christological differences between communions, such dialogue will likely need to explore these Christology questions further, perhaps by creatively clarifying what exactly our differences are, and possibly retrieving an account of Christology that invites us further into Christological Oneness in the Lord’s Supper, rather than retrenchment along existing lines of long-held Christological differences.

Third, Billings’ project assumes and articulates a rich Reformed doctrine of the church. Those who wish to constructively build on his proposal will need to reflect on whether our ecclesiology is congruent with all that is required by a robust understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. In his concluding chapter Billings makes a particularly incisive – and jarring – appraisal of the practices and self-understanding of many Reformed churches:

Reformed and Presbyterian churches often miss key aspects of their tradition. For example, many churches in the Reformed tradition follow Zwingli’s standard of celebrating the Supper only quarterly (even though their confessions are not simply Zwinglian). Yet, if the Lord’s Supper is nourishment, and if it provides a foretaste of the sweetness of our spousal communion with Christ, then celebrating quarterly seems utterly inadequate. Do you want to eat dinner quarterly? Or receive a kiss from your betrothed once every three months?

As a Reformed Christian, my friendships with Pentecostal and charismatic Christians have often helped me to rediscover aspects of the Reformed tradition that others had missed, such as the key role of religious affections in the Christian life. In a different way, my friendships with Lutheran and Anglican Christians have helped me to rediscover the power of Calvin’s imperatives for frequent communion. The ‘retrieval’ of the Reformed tradition in this book actually opens doors for deepening ecumenical learning and friendship (203).

To some extent this book is as much a call to scrutinize and enrich our view of the church as the Lord’s Supper. Notably, while Nevin devoted sustained attention to the doctrine of the Eucharist as inextricably connected with the church’s mystical union with Christ, and Calvin devoted the longest of the four books that make up the final edition of his Institutes to “the holy catholic church,” Charles Hodge chose not to devote any chapter or section of his three-volume Systematic Theology to the doctrine of the church, while promoting a more memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper.

Anyone who takes up Billings’ summons to recover a Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper will simultaneously find him or herself retrieving a Reformed doctrine of the church. To heed Billings’ call will not merely be a matter of adding something else to the Sunday morning schedule, but is an exhortation to cultivate an ethos in the DNA of our “congregations… that the Triune God [is] actually enabling their worship, that the Spirit was praying through those who are in Christ to the Father” (84).

Fourth, any project commending a recovery of earlier Christian practices will need to also account for, or perhaps warn against, the deforming potential of Christian (mal)practices as well, including the Lord’s Supper. The apostle Paul so excoriated the Corinthians for their discriminatory and humiliating treatment of some members in the Corinthian fellowship as to declare “I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse,” even adding that “when you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (1 Cor 11:18, 20)! On the possible problems of Christian practices, it might be helpful to bring Billings’ project into conversation with another book published in 2018, Lauren F. Winner’s The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018). Winner explores “some of the ways beloved Christian practices deform,” examining “how Christian practices, like the Eucharist and prayer, are damaged and extend damage” (1). In short, Winner argues:

When a Christian practice goes wrong, often it does so not incidentally but rather in ways that have to do with the practice itself. Although twenty-first-century Anglophone Christians often speak of practices like Eucharist and prayer only to commend them and laud the benefits they bestow upon practitioners, Christians need also to give accounts of, rather than evade, the damages Christian practice sustains by sin (1).

Winner urges Christians not to turn our eyes away, but to directly see, understand, and provide a theological account of such egregious historic realities as Medieval host desecration pogroms against the Jews, the use of intercessory prayer by slave-owners for the proliferation of slavery and obedience of slaves, and the privatization of baptism in 20th century England. Along such lines, Willie James Jennings notes in The Christian Imagination, that

as performed in the slaveholding Christian West, baptism enacted no fundamental change in the material conditions of Christian existence” (182).

Constructively, Winner suggests understanding the means of grace as “gifts” given by a good Giver that nonetheless have a propensity for harm, concluding that “even damaged gifts make possible goods that would have otherwise been impossible (163).

How might Billings’ proposal address these important, and increasingly urgent, concerns? Hopefully, Billings himself might further develop this line of inquiry in his future work. But to offer a suggestion of how his project might navigate these questions, I want to revisit Billings’ orienting description of the sacraments as “gift.” Framing the sacraments as “gifts” from God, and our Eucharistic fellowship between traditions as a “gift exchange,” is capable of recognizing that gifts can be nurtured and nourishing, or distorted and damaging. Gifts can be used responsibly for health and harm, and gifts can be used recklessly to harm others.

If abusus non tollit usum, abuse of something does not necessarily preclude or negate proper use, then we ought all the more diligently to retrieve these gifts, aware of their potential for healing and harm in ages past and present. Such a disposition of continual repentance and resolve towards reform of our worship and witness is not dismissable as pandering to a zeitgeist. It is of one accord with the church’s very nature as sinners judged and made alive by the Word of God, as those continually confronted in judgment and grace by the God who is for us in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Todd Billings has given the church a rich gift in this book. It will be valuable for theological students and church leadership training, and will be of interest to those pursuing a theology of the Lord’s Supper in a Reformed catholic mode. It will also be of interest to those who are seeking to renew and reform the church after becoming disillusioned with abusive sacramental practices, shallow or trite liturgy, and who seek a mystical and spiritual experience of God connected with the beliefs, practices, hopes, prayers, and struggles of the communion of saints in ages past. It will aid those training in the art of dying well in a distracted age of digital media and celebrity influencer spirituality; it will prove useful for pursuing quiet faithfulness in a time of fads both progressive and conservative. It is an invitation to worship God and love our neighbors, work towards ecumenicity, love the orphan and widow, welcome the stranger and outcast, work against personal and systemic injustice, and to feast with Jesus in remembrance, communion, and hope.

The work of theological retrieval as modeled by Billings is neither a wistful nostalgia for some lost, mythical golden age, nor an exercise in arbitrary or niche aesthetics, nor repristinating paradigms ill-suited for our rapidly-changing contexts today. Attentiveness to “time long past” in this vein can yield enormously generative resources for constructive work on the extraordinary challenges we face today, especially as we strive to build something healthy in the church that will long outlive us.

Yet, unlike Shelley’s poem, the memory we are entrusted with stewarding of time long past is not reducible to a survey of history’s wreckage, grief at the entropy of all things, nor being haunted by our own phantoms, all terminating on ourselves. We aim to make contact with realities transcending time and space, not least in the past, present, and future of the Eucharist. As Calvin put it: “the Lord so communicates his body to us there [in the Lord’s Supper] that he is made completely one with us and we with him. Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation” (Institutes IV.XVII.38 MB 1415).

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Posted by Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin is from the flatlands of the Texas Panhandle, attended Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University, and wrote his doctoral dissertation at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.