Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #5—
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Symbolic Ordinances (not Sacraments)
By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common (orthodox Nicean Christianity plus key Reformation beliefs) than beliefs on which we differ. Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of agreement on which theological discussions tend to focus. In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians, on the one hand, and Calvinists/Presbyterians, on the other. As evidence for this claim, I listed twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and many Arminians. Now, in this series, I am pointing out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/ Reformed tradition.
These nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five point summary of Reformed soteriology (best known in the TULIP acronym–for a critique of five-point Calvinism from a centrist Baptist perspective see our book Whosoever Will). In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. The second Baptist distinctive addressed was the age (or state) of accountability; the third Baptist distinctive I addressed was believer’s baptism (or “the gathered church;” and the fourth Baptist distinctive was baptism by mode of immersion. The fifth Baptist distinctive (in contrast with Presbyterian Calvinism) is baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbolic ordinances, not sacraments.
Distinctive Baptist Belief #5:
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Symbolic Ordinances, Not Sacraments
The Magisterial Reformers rejected the Catholic notion of transubstantiation (that the blood and body of Jesus is literally and physically present in the bread and wine), but they differed in the alternative view they advocated. Luther affirmed “consubstantiation,” in which the substance of Jesus coexists with the elements of the Supper, like a hot iron and the fire are united and yet remaining unchanged as separate things). The meaning of the Supper (Mass, communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper) was the sole point that Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli could not agree upon in their consultation at Marburg in 1529 – Luther advocating the real physical presence of Christ in the Supper and Zwingli affirming just the Lord’s spiritual presence in the Supper. Calvin’s perspective on the Supper changed over his various versions of the Institutes, and some theologians consider him to be inconsistent in his use of the word “substance” (substantia). However, Calvin is usually considered to be in a mediating position between Luther and Zwingli, arguing for the Lord’s “spiritual presence” without being physically present in the elements of the Supper.
The Radical Reformers, however, felt that all of these magisterial reformers had retained too much of Roman Catholicism in their belief and practice, rather than deriving their teachings directly from the New Testament. In the Second Zurich Disputation (also known as the October Disputation), the issues of infant baptism, retaining religious icons, and the Mass were discussed. In each of these, the Anabaptists wanted to practice only that which was commanded in the New Testament, and thus eliminate or replace each of these practices, while Zwingli was more conscious of public outcry about changing long-held traditions too quickly. Zwingli agreed with the Anabaptists that “this is My body” (Mark 14:22) was metaphorical rather than literal, and that the Supper is best viewed as a “memorial supper.” Although Zwingli was closest of all the magisterial Reformers to the Anabaptists in his perspective on the Supper, he still retained a hint of the “spiritual presence” view advocated by Calvin, and he wanted to move slowly in making changes because of political expediency. In the Disputation, he conceded that Conrad Grebel was right in his litany of abuses of the Mass, but asserted that “these things cannot be abolished all at once.” Zwingli deferred to the town council to determine any instructions about the degree or timetable for abolishing the Mass: “My lords will decide whatever regulations are to be adopted in the future in regard to the Mass.” This led the Anabaptist leader Simon Stumpf to exclaim in frustration, “Master Ulrich, you do not have the right to place the decision on this matter in the hands of my lords, for the decision has already been made: the Spirit of God decides.”
The early Baptists saw no evidence in the New Testament that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were sacerdotal or sacramental in character. The Anabaptists therefore strongly insisted that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordinances (we do them in obedience to the command or ordaining of Christ), not sacraments. The Anabaptists also insisted that the Lord’s Supper was symbolic, not the “spiritual” presence of Christ or “consubstantiation,” the real physical presence of Christ with the celebration of the Supper. Because of the crucial nature of these ordinances commanded by our Lord, the appropriate practice of them is not a peripheral question.
While the Second London and Philadelphia confessions copy word for word much of the Westminster Confession regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is one very obvious change in wording: the Presbyterian confession consistently refers to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacraments,” while the Baptist confessions describe them as “ordinances” appointed by Christ. Sacraments are, according to the Westminster Confession, “holy seals and signs of the covenant of grace,” and “in every sacrament there is a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the effects of the one are attributed to the other.” The Baptist confessions omit this sacramental language altogether, substituting statements that these ordinances were “appointed,” “ordained,” or “instituted” by Jesus Christ. The ordinances are thus seen by Baptists as symbolic rather than sacramental in character.
Perhaps some might ask the “so what?” question about this doctrinal distinctive. What difference does it make between holding either of these views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? From the Baptist perspective, the answer is that while the ordinances are profoundly significant events, they are not salvific in any sense. The ordinances are outward symbols of what is going on spiritually inside the person and reminders of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. The ordinances are not sacraments — that is, “means of grace.” God’s grace comes directly to humans through the Son and the Spirit, not indirectly through the intermediary means of the bread and the wine. And that is a big difference in doctrine, a difference that really matters.
 To preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39, available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11. It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues. The next scheduled article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #6: Congregational Church Polity.”
 James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2: 608-610.
 Garrett, 2: 610.
 “The Second Zurich Disputation,” in The European Reformations Sourcebook, ed. Carter Lindbert (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 127.
 Cited in William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, rev. 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 16-17.
 The comparison is between the Westminster Confession, Art. 27; with Second London Confession, Art. 28, par. 1; and Philadelphia Confession, Art. 29, par. 1.
 BF&M, Art. 7.
 For more discussion of this issue, see J. B. Moody, “Why Baptism as Symbol and Not a Saving Ordinance,” in J. M. Frost, ed., Baptist Why and Why Not (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1900), 181-192.