Baptist Altar-ations

In his post “Fads and Fixtures: The Seven Deadly Trappings of Evangelicalism,” Joe Carter writes that one of the fixtures he finds troubling is the “altar call.” While I too find the altar call methodology troubling, this brings up a larger question in my mind for my own denomination:

Why do so many Baptist churches refer to the front of the church as the altar?

I’ve heard this terminology used in countless Baptist churches, even from pastors who should know better. The last time I checked, transubstantiation was not on any Baptist confessions of faith that I know of. Baptists believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all. In the Lord’s Supper Christ is not continually sacrificed, as Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and others believe. We don’t burn offerings, and I haven’t really ever seen any kind of elevated structure other than a pulpit.

It’s clear that in Baptist practice, the term “altar” has become synonymous with the front of the church sanctuary, but why do we retain the term? We’re Baptists, after all. We don’t do altars. Can any of you more studious church historians enlighten me?

18 thoughts on “Baptist Altar-ations”

  1. This might surprise you, but Catholics and the Orthodox also believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all. The sacrifice of the Mass is the same, once-and-for-all sacrifice, re-presented. As a Catholic (and by the way, “Roman” Catholic is simply one kind of Catholic, and all Catholics believe that Christ was sacrificed once and for all)I could hope that you would inform yourself about Catholicism’s beliefs before stating them. You’d save yourself making an erroneous assumption, as you have done here.

  2. Jean: Thanks for stopping by, and I apologize if I misrepresented your faith in any way. However, I think I may have made not so much an erroneous assumption, as a disagreement in doctrine. I’m well aware of the doctrine of the Mass. If you know anything about reformed views on the Mass, we see it as an affront to the once for all sacrifice of Christ.

    The Baptist view, along with that of many other evangelicals, is that since Christ was sacrificed once, it does not need to be “re-presented,” as you say. His sacrifice was presented to us once for the ages. In our view, this “re-presentation” is akin to “re-sacrfice.” After all, we would argue, why is there a need for an altar if there is no sacrifice?

    So, rather than an erroneous assumption, what I have is a historic disagreement with Catholic (Roman or otherwise) doctrine, which I’m sure you can appreciate, as you more than likely don’t see eye-to-eye with us on our view of communion.

  3. Jared, thank you for your apology, but despite what you are suggesting this is, in fact, a misrepresentation of what Catholics and the Orthodox believe. The misrepresentation is that, as you state in your first post, “Baptists believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all.In the Lord’s Supper Christ is not continually sacrificed, as Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and others believe.” As I mentioned, we believe that Christ was sacrificed once and for all, and you’re implying that we believe otherwise. That’s not a “historic disagreement” as you say, but a misrepresentation. And it’s very cheeky to arbitrarily decide that “re-presentation” is akin to “re-sacrifice.” That’s a distortion of the words. It’s the SAME, once-and-for-all sacrifice, not a “new” one at every Mass. The prophet Malachi foretold of a sacrifice (singular) that would someday be offered in “every place” (Mal 1:10-11). This is what the Mass is—is it a sacrifice? Yes. A new one, or a repeat sacrifice? No. We believe the one and only propitiatory sacrifice of Christ is “re-presented” or “made present” for our benefit and application today. It follows from the mandate: “DO THIS IN COMMEMORATION OF ME” (Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24) that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is to be a permanent institution of the New Testament. So, with all due respect, you have in fact misrepresented the views of the majority of Christians living today when you imply that Catholics and the Orthodox don’t believe that Christ was sacrificed once and for all.

  4. Jean: I think the key to our disagreement centers on transubstantiation. If I hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation, it follows that:

    “since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner”

    (from the Council of Trent and the Catholic Catechism).

    Therefore, while you believe it is the same sacrifice, you also believe that there is continuity in the sacrifice, i.e., the same sacrifice that occurred 2000 years ago occurs today in any instance of Mass in 2005. There is a continuity across time that links the Mass and crucifixion. Only with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in place is such a happening possible.

    Baptists and other evangelicals reject the doctrine of transubstantiation. If you like, I could give ample evidence for this, but this is not really the point of our disagreement. In any case, my point of view is that the “once for all” sacrifce really means once, a single occurrence in time. This is the meaning of the Greek “ephapax” in Hebrews 10:10. BDAG, the standard scholarly New Testament Greek Lexicon, defines it: “taking place once and to the exclusion of any further occurrence.”

    Reformed Christians see the continuity of the Mass conflicting with the historical sacrifice of Christ. The crucifixion was a moment in history which remains efficacious for all time, before the cross and after it. Without the doctrine of transubstantiation, what else could the Mass be but an attempt to sacrifice Christ again?

    I never said in my post that Catholics didn’t believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all. I did juxtapose the reformed understanding of “once for all” with the Catholic view of continuity. This isn’t a misrepresentation of Catholicism — it is a disagreement with a Catholic doctrine. If I’m wrong, then it’s a misinterpretation rather than a misrepresentation, just as I believe that the Catholic view is a misinterpretation of Scripture.

    You shouldn’t be surprised that a Baptist would disagree with the Catholic Church on the Lord’s Supper. We’ve been doing it for years.

  5. Jared,

    I am not “surprised that a Baptist would disagree with the Catholic Church on the Lord’s Supper”—in my Protestant years, I attended Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis (the pastor was Piper). I’m very aware of the differences in doctrine, and from both perspectives. Perhaps one of the reasons I am taking you to task for how you have expressed Catholic doctrine is that I was guilty, prior to my conversion, of making very similar pronouncements about what Catholics believed. I was blissfully unaware of just how arrogant and condescending such misrepresentations are to Catholics, but, hey, now I know. Look, you can backpedal all you wish and construct different arguments, but like it or not when you write “Baptists believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all. In the Lord’s Supper Christ is not continually sacrificed, as Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and others believe”, you are misrepresenting Catholic and Orthodox doctrine and implying (I hope in ignorance) that Catholics and Orthodox do NOT believe in the once and for all sacrifice of Christ. I might respond with, “Catholics and Orthodox believe that Jesus is God, and thus eternal, and his sacrifice is the eternal sacrifice prophesied by Malachi. Baptists believe Jesus is not eternal, being unable to transcend time.” I wouldn’t say that, of course, because it would be a ludicrous and insulting interpretation of the Baptist view of Jesus, easily corrected by a complete understanding of Baptist doctrine. That is what you have done, and you wish to chalk it up to mere theological differences. I would have had much more respect for you if you had simply apologized instead of trying to explain it away.

  6. Jean: I regret our misunderstanding, but I stand by my statements. You have mistakenly implied a misrepresentation from my disagreement with Catholic doctrine. I neither stated, meant, nor implied any condescention or arrogance to the Catholic view. I simply think that it is wrong on communion, just as you believe that my position is.

    We’re viewing things from vastly different perspectives that are much more than “mere theological differences.” We’re obviously at an impasse here, so this will be my last comment on the matter.

    If you wish to add anything, feel free. Again, I’m sorry that I unwittingly caused you turmoil. I’ve enjoyed the discourse and I hope that you would stop by again in the future.

    May the Lord bless you and keep you,

    Jared Bridges

  7. Jared,

    I will respect your wish to end this discussion, and so these comments will be my last as well.

    Your latest post is an interesting nut to crack. You say that we are “viewing things from vastly different perspectives that are much more than “mere theological differences”,
    but you haven’t given me any indication of what, outside of theological differences, are those perspectives that are so different than mine. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to just what those “different perspectives” are?
    Our differences are obviously theological differences, which I accept: my contention has been (and nothing you have said ameliorates this) that you misrepresented the theology of Catholics and Orthodox: you implied that Catholics and Orthodox don’t believe that Christ’s sacrifice was the “once and for all” sacrifice. Don’t hide behind the flimsy excuse that you weren’t explicit, the implication is clear for all to see. I understand,(especially as a former Protestant), that you don’t believe in transubstantiation. But if one doesn’t believe in transubstatiation, then I would expect that the charge against Catholics and Orhtodox would be that of idolatry: look at those nuts who actually think that when Jesus said “This is My Body”, He meant it. But you accuse Catholics and Orthodox, by implication, of not believing in the once-and-for-all sacrifice at Calvary. We do. End of story.

  8. I just stumbled on this site and would like to add/clarify a bit if I may, as an Orthodox Christian.

    Orthodox do not believe in “substantiation”. We have NEVER attempted to determine when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. We just know that it does because that, in fact, is what Christ said and taught (Jn 6), and what the apostles believed and handed down through the epistles and oral teachings. Communion has, from the beginning of the Church (33 A.D.)ALWAYS taught that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, there have been many, many Christians who were martyred because they would not disavow this very fact.

    God is outside time. Orthodox Christians believe that we are celebrating the Last Supper with Him at THAT TIME. We also believe that we are celebrating not just the Last Supper but are also at the Banquet Table in the future. Just as I was saved when Christ died on the cross, I am being saved while I live, and I will be saved when I stand before the Judgement Seat of God, so it is Christ’s “once and for all” sacrifice when saving me He died on the cross in 33 A.D., today while I live, and when I am before the Judgement Seat of God. These are what the Orthodox call “Mysteries” and we have chosen to not attempt to explain them. Who, after all, can know God?

    In addition, we believe that the whole entire Church, both the living and the “dead” (those Saints who have gone before us), along with the principalities and angels are worshipping together.

    This is why, after receiving communion (for the reminssion of sins and life everlasting) we sing “We have found the true Light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us!” And also “Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise, O Lord, that we may sing of They glory; for Thou has made us worthy to partake of Thy holy, divine, immortal and lifecreating Mysteries. Keep us in thy Holiness, that all the day we may meditate upon Thy righteousness. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

    We can all celebrate together Christ’s dying on the cross for the salvation of the world (cosmos), entering Hades, conquering sin, binding Satan, and releasing those faithful held captive and arising from the tomb on the third day!

    I can also say that what I believe now, was what was taught 1000 years ago when there was but one (united), holy, catholic (for all – not Roman) and apostolic Christian Church, and what was taught 2000 years by Christ to His apostles! God is the same yesterday, today and forevever. I thank God that He brought me to the True Church whose gates Satan has not been able to prevail against!

    Let us give a sacrifice of praise and worship the Undivided Trinity!

  9. Good debate going on here between Jean and Jarred. On balance I think I have to agree with Jean. Not trying to be onerous in terms of Jarred honest opinions, but it seems to feel different than my growing up years in the Greek Orthodox Church and what I understand now as a believer now in a Protestant Church (the Vineyard). …….stevereenie

  10. “Therefore, while you believe it is the same sacrifice, you also believe that there is continuity in the sacrifice, i.e., the same sacrifice that occurred 2000 years ago occurs today in any instance of Mass in 2005. There is a continuity across time that links the Mass and crucifixion. Only with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in place is such a happening possible.”

    Let’s unpack this sentence, because I think if we do, we can arrive at the logical flaw that’s been frustrating this entire discussion.

    1. You believe it is the same sacrifice
    ^– Correct, “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” (CCC 1367)
    2. You also believe that there is continuity in the sacrifice, i.e., the same sacrifice that occurred 2000 years ago occurs today in any instance of Mass in 2005.
    ^– Not exactly. The sacrifice that occurred 2000 years ago doesn’t occur again. It already occurred 2000 years ago, how can it occur again? The Mass doesn’t re-sacrifice Christ, it gives Christ — the Sacrifice — to the faithful, that they may eat his bread and drink his blood and thus have eternal life.

    The Council of Trent wrote:
    “[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.”

    Note that it does not say that Christ is _re-sacrificed_ or even that Christ is _continually_ sacrificing. No, it says clearly that Christ “once and for all” offered “himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross.”

    So what happens at Mass, if Catholics aren’t sacrificing Christ again and aren’t continually sacrificing Him?

    Well, let’s look at what the Mass says.

    The people bring forth bread and wine to the altar. The priest says:
    Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

    Note that the bread is still bread.

    Only later, during the Eucharistic Prayer, does the celebrant say, in the closing of the Epiclesis (The Calling Upon of the Holy Spirit):

    Father may this Holy Spirit sanctify these offerings. Let them become the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord as we celebrate the great mystery which he left us as an everlasting covenant.

    After this the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine — they (usually) retain the external appearance of bread and wine, but through transubstantiation, they are now the Consecrated Host — the Body and Blood of Christ — not Christ _re-sacrificed_ but the Body and Blood of Christ who Died on the Cross and Rose Again. The Sacrifice of the Mass does not _re-sacrifice_ Christ. The Sacrifice of the Mass _is_ the Sacrifice of the Cross, because Body and Blood of Mass _is_ the Body and Blood of Him who died on the Cross.

    Immediately the Priest recalls the Last Supper:
    On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:

    Take this, all of you, and eat it:
    this is my body which will be given up for you.

    When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said:

    Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
    this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.

    This is straight out of the Gospel.

    Consider these verses from John 6:

    52 Then the Jews started arguing among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
    53 Jesus replied to them: In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
    54 Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day.
    55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
    56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person.
    57 As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me.
    58 This is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.


    Now, I realize that you do not accept transubstantiation. Alas. But even so, the Mass doesn’t make sense without transubstantiation. Thus you can’t say that Catholics continually sacrifice Christ in the Mass — that is a misrepresentation of Catholicism. They do not.

    You wrote: “I did juxtapose the reformed understanding of “once for all” with the Catholic view of continuity.”

    The Catholic understanding of once and for all: Christ’s sacrifice took place once and to the exclusion of any further occurrence — Christ’s sacrifice took place _once_ — on the Cross — and for all — the Mass _celebrates_ that sacrifice, it does not re-sacrifice Christ.

    I’m not sure how this differs from the Reformed understanding of “once for all.” It seems the same to me — Christ died once, we can all agree.

    But then you toss in the “Catholic view of continuity.” It might be better called the “Reformed understanding of the Catholic view of continuity,” because you remove transubstantiation from the picture. But you can’t understand the Catholic view of continuity with transubstantiation!

    I see how you wrote “Catholics continually sacrifice Christ” and feel that this squares with your belief that “Catholics believe Christ died once and for all.” It me that looks like a logical incompatibility — how can Catholics sacrifice Christ continually and yet believe he has been sacrificed once and for all? It doesn’t make sense, either it happened once and for all or it didn’t happen once and for all.

    The problem with your understanding is that Catholics _don’t_ continually sacrifice Christ. But, because you’ve taken transubstantiation out of the picture, you’re left with no way of making any sense of the Catholic view — if the bread and wine do not become Body and Blood, then what are Catholics doing at the Mass? If they’re not re-presenting the Body and Blood of the Once and For All Sacrifice (because the only way to do that is through the Mystery of Transubstantiation), then what are they doing?

  11. I have found this an interesting exchange, and while I may be out of my depth I think the discussion has missed the point of contention entirely, with the exception of transubstantiation.

    The bone of contention, as it relates to the original posting, was over what the priest did after the words of consecration. I don’t have access to a missal from the 1500s, but a more recent publishing seems to suffice:
    “And now, O Lord, we, Thy servants, and with us all Thy holy people, calling to mind the blessed Passion of this same Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, likewise His Resurrection from the grave, and also His glorious Ascension into heaven, do offer unto Thy most sovereign Majesty out of the gifts Thou hast bestowed upon us, a Victim which is pure, a Victim which is holy, a Victim which is spotless, the holy Bread of life eternal, and the Chalice of everlasting Salvation.
    “Deign to look upon them with a favorable and gracious countenance, and to accept them as Thou didst accept the offerings of Thy just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which Thy high priest Melchisedech offered up to Thee, a holy Sacrifice, an immaculate Victim.
    “Humbly we beseech Thee, almighty God, to command that these our offerings be carried by the hands of Thy holy Angel to Thine Altar on high, in the sight of Thy divine Majesty, so that those of us who shall receive the most sacred Body and Blood of Thy Son by partaking thereof from this Altar may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing: Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    This is what the Reformers (at least those of the Reformed group) objected to for they felt it overstepped the bounds, negated the completed work of Christ, and was in direct conflict with what was declared in Hebrews 9:12 & 20:
    Hebrews 9:12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

    Hebrews 9:24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.

    This re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ to God the Father, not the re-presentation to the people, was the bone of contention for they believed it failed to glorify the completed work of Christ and in effect left him on the cross in perpetuity. Transubstantiation worsened this point for the Reformers for there could be no retreat into symbolism. Mind you they objected to Transubstantiation beyond this as being rooted in Aristotelian frameworks.

    Anyway, this re-presentation of body and blood of Christ to the Father was how the Table got the name Altar; and this is why Christians who find a home in the Reformed tradition and strive to be catholic insist on the term Table.

  12. @tucker:

    That’s interesting. I can see how that would cause a problem! I’m Orthodox, and we don’t have that part about offering the Victim in the Liturgy.

    This is important to point out, I think, because the article, and the following debate, lumps Orthodoxy in the with Romans. But this ought not to be.

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