Saturday, May 19, 2007

the mystery of communion

Once a month at our local church we partake of the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion, Eucharist). Our church’s teaching on communion is that it is merely a memorializing, a remembering Christ’s death and sacrifice. Communion is a very important public act that is spiritually symbolic. There is no spiritual element to it outside of the symbolism. Memorialism or the Zwinglian view is the label put on this theology of the Lord’s Supper; a view held by Baptists and common among many Evangelical churches.

This is what I was taught. However, it never really seemed right to me. Although not incompatible with Scripture, it did not hang together or seem convincing to me. I could never put a finger on it but it did not seem to me a remembrance was the whole story.

Watch people take communion in a modern Evangelical church. They tend to partake of the elements in a manner that indicates that this is something more important than just remembering. Could it be that there is some witness in their spirit that there is, or should be, more to this?

The alternatives to memorialism presented were the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation or its cousin consubstantiation. Transubstantiation implies that the bread and wine literally become the blood and body of Jesus and implies another sacrifice each performance of the mass. It is obvious that this view was incapable with Scripture. Even the consubstantiation view that the physical presence of the Blood and Body are in the elements seems strange; you’d think it could be verified with physical analysis of the Elements. (Consubstantiation is often associated with Lutherans but their official doctrine is a quite similar and called “Sacramental Union.”)

Our local church also teaches a restoration view of church history. That is, God is restoring His Church to what it was before the apostasy. That is, the Church should be returning to its NT roots of the first century.

Sorry, but that just does not jive. Memorialism is not compatible with the beliefs and practices of the early church. That is, you can have the restoration view of church history and you can view communion as a merely a memorial, but you cannot have both.

The early church took the Lord’s Supper far too seriously for it to be merely a memorial. First, communion was an important part of every Resurrection Day (Sunday) service. Second, only leadership could bless the bread and wine – and the elements needed to be consecrated. Third, communion was closed and only those known to be believers could partake, and only those who were baptized. (In fact, visitors would have to have written certification from their home church in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper.) Fourth, the task of the deacons every Sunday was to take communion to those absent from the meeting.

Can you imagine the deacons in a modern Evangelical church going around to visit and administer the elements to everyone absent on a communion Sunday? Why do that if it is just to remember the death of Christ? Today, we would view all the necessary running around by the deacons to do this as ridiculous. However, the early NT church viewed it as important and necessary.

Could it be that the early NT Church had a different view of the Lord’s Supper than modern Evangelicals? Unless we dismiss the church leaders of the first and second centuries as stupid or superstitious, their practices concerning communion are clearly at odds with memorialism or the Zwinglian view.

I have been mulling this over for a couple of years. The more I learned about the early church, the more I suspected that we who hold that the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbolic memorial were missing something quite important.

As the semester wound down (as well as being inspired by a communion Sunday at my local church), I made time to do some studying. I discovered there is another view of communion called the Doctrine of the Real Presence. That is, there is a real spiritual presence of Christ in the elements; what John Calvin called a ghostly or pneumatic presence. The presence is real but not physical. This is the traditional doctrine of most Reformed, Calvinist, and Presbyterian churches. It is also the view of John Wesley and traditional Methodism; what Wesley called “The Holy Mystery” of Christ’s real, spiritual presence in the elements. Many Anglicans/Episcopalians also hold this doctrine but you will also find the other doctrines represented as well.

Thus, there are four main views or doctrines of communion: 1) Transubstantiation, 2) Consubstantiation, 3) the Real Presence, and 4) Memorialism. All four recognize the obvious symbolic significance of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, as commemoration. Only memorialism denies the spiritual reality of communion. The first three views recognize that something real is going on in the spiritual realm. These three see the real presence of Christ in the elements.

The Doctrine of the Real (Spiritual) Presence is mainstream theology! Here Holy Communion is remembrance, but remembrance is much more than simply intellectual recalling. There is something real, some spiritual transaction, taking place. It avoids all the pitfalls of doctrines involving physical presence. This doctrine answers all my nagging doubts; it clears up all the historical and spiritual contradictions inherent in the Zwinglian view taught by my local church.

This also makes the Lord’s Supper much more significant. It validates the feeling that we share in our inmost spirit that communion is more than intellectual ascension to the reality of Christ’s sacrifice. I can now understand why the early church called it the Eucharist (literally, the Thanksgiving).

This is really opening up blessings for me in ways I am only beginning to understand.

Be blessed!

P.S. If you view this as a merely minor theological issue, please be mindful of the implications. Not only may you be missing significant spiritual blessings, but you are also implying something about the early church leaders. They viewed the Lord’s Supper as exceedingly, fundamentally important. Are you wiser, more spiritually insightful than they were? If so, I'd like to know why.


Anonymous said...

Johnny__M says:

It is possible to reconcile restoration theology and the memorial view.

One would only have to take the argument that that particular truth has not been restored YET.

It seems that little by little, the truths that have been restored have been restored by an individual seeking God's truth over an issue.

Go Bob!

richard said...

The problem with con- and sub- is that those doctrines attempt to explain metaphysically what happens to the bread and wine/water mixture. This, of course, goes beyond the Bible and was more believable before the scientific age.

The Apostolic church has always taught that the bread and wine/water mixture "is" the body and blood of Christ - as Jesus himself claimed.

The early rumor mills even claimed Christians were practicing cannibalism. This was denied by Church leaders, but is evidence that the Early Church taught it was more than mere memorial.

Paul said...

Just some thoughts.

I suspect that, when pressed, many memorialists would admit to a some sort of "real presence" and "grace conferred." I find, as you, a disconnect between practice and doctrine at times in the Lord's Supper with this view. What I do see is a deliberate distancing from R.C. dogma that understands forgiveness of sins directly connected to the event, and rightly so. But it at times seems to go a bit far, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, e.g. Zwingli.

Two things point me in this direction.

1. For the Charismatic (especailly those like me who lived through the 1980's) there is a teaching and expectation of a "real presence" in praise and worship. He is enthroned upon the praises of his people. His manifest presence is peculiar at these times to touch and bless. To expect a real presence for worship but not the Lord's Supper seems like a head-scratcher.

2. Communion served once a month is intended to keep it special, thinking that if it were weekly, it would become ritualistic. In my understanding (and Dr. Wilson's), the only things that become ritual are the things that cannot be or are not taught. If, therefore, regular teaching were to surround the event, it would be just as any other spiritual engagement that is enjoyed weekly, or even daily. All this is to say that the problem should not be fear of dead religion, but fear of insufficient teaching.

I could go on to tell stories, but have not the time. I merely conclude by saying that I have not fully studied it out and have mostly odd feelings that something is missing in a strict memorial view.

Anonymous said...

two things I would like to point out but first I'm truley glad to hear that more Evangelicals are starting to "awake" themselves to the Eucharist (Holy Communion)

First is the Catholics view of Transubstantiantion. It is not another sacrifice of Christ each time the Eucharist is held. but a Re-Presentation of Christ Only Sacrifice. IOWs we are partaking in the actual Sacrifice Christ made for us. This view is held by Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and by the United Methodist Church.

The second point is the person who has stated the reason for a once a month communion. Actually that is a tradition that was held over mainly from the early Methodists in early America and the Episcopalians. There were not enough Ministers to give out/oversee the distribution of Holy Communion, so the Revs. had to make their round which in some cases was once a month some even longer. But this wasn't by choice.
If the resoursces of the Early Clergy were plentiful, Holy Communion would more than likely have been held each week.

Thanks and God bless you on your awaking to what a great joy is to have "Real Presence" of Christ in Holy Communion.

Which more and more Evangelicals could come to this reasoning.