Eucharist Reflections 1

One of my favorite young scholars is Brant Pitre, a Roman Catholic New Testament professor at Notre Dame in New Orleans, and so I’m excited to share with you his new book: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. Brant is a dedicated Christian and a devout student.

Recently I did a Sunday morning series on Eucharist through the eyes of a good theologian in the Restoration movement, and this book by Brant will get us going for another series.

When Brant was in college and ready to marry Elizabeth, they went to her pastor for pre-marital counseling. Her pastor was a Southern Baptist and the session turned into a lengthy (unresolved) debate and both Brant and Elizabeth ended in tears, and that day changed Brant into a quester. This book is in some ways the result of that encounter.

Here’s an opener: “Over the centuries, most Christians have taken Jesus at his word, believing that the bread and wine of the Eucharist really do become the body and the blood of Christ. Others, however, especially since the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, think that Jesus was speaking only symbolically” (14).

So, let’s start right here: What difference does this make? The real absence or the symbolic view. (My colleague refers to the symbolic view the “real absence” view.)

And I’ll tell you what I think, though I’m always willing to rethink this one: the later articulations in both the Real Presence tradition (both transubstantiation and consubstantiation) go beyond the New Testament into the mysteries that are not revealed, while the symbolic view tends, in my judgment, to get too flippant and irreverent with the sacredness of the bread and wine. But, do you think taking a position on this debate is necessary? important? why or why not?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.excitingwoodbine.org AlanC

    Scot, I think there is another option: Wesleyan Means of Grace. Wesley has a very deep and rich understanding of the Eucharist (He and Charles wrote over 200 hymns on The Lord’s Supper alone).
    Wesley said the LS is a memorial(looking back), a means of grace (God mysteriously present in the elements to convey grace), a pledge of heaven (looking forward, a foretaste of the Marriage supper of the Lamb) and a sacrifice (as we see the sacrifice of Christ in the elements, we offer ourselves in sacrifice, ie. the Great Thanksgiving)
    BTW Scot, thanks for your ministry, You have been my mentor from afar.

  • Bob Smallman

    Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving … a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ?” Somehow Christ is present with us in that process. In my view some in the Christian community have over-defined the nature of that presence but far too many have ignored it and have emptied the sacrament of much of its power.

    I don’t see how one can avoid taking a position on this debate because it goes to the heart of what is happening or not happening in the individuals and (perhaps more important) in the community of those who receive it.

    For me, both its power and its mystery are sources of great assurance and encouragement as I and my brothers and sisters try together to follow Jesus.

  • Peter+

    And, of course, The Wesleyan approach is a faithful articulation of a classical Anglican understanding.

  • Susan N.

    AlanC @ #1 – This broadly explains what I had been thinking on a more specific, personal level. My experience with Communion in the UMC has been something different, in a healthy and healing way. The invitation is “open”, as is common in many protestant churches, to anyone who has put their faith in Christ, regardless of whether they’re a member of the church or not. The emphasis, then, is on participation and belonging at the “table”. As the symbolic body and blood of Christ are served, a blessing is spoken over each person partaking. It’s a blessing as well as an exhortation to pass on that blessing to one another and outward into the world.

    This aspect of serving, sharing, and community has been the most sacred experience of Communion for me. So, I would have to say that it is not necessary or important for me to see the bread and grape juice as literally becoming the body and blood of Christ. It’s in the intention of the heart — joining Christ and the community of the church — that sanctifies the act and causes a supernatural (Holy Spirit) inward awareness and response to the presence of Christ and others. That has been my understanding of Scripture and tradition as it became “real” to me through the experience.

  • Dan

    Spent a lot of time reflecting on this having been raised Roman Catholic but having spent many years in Evangelical (Zwinglian) traditions and some time in Anglican circles.

    The central issue, I came to believe, was whether the “real presence” in the elements led to some sense of the Eucharist being a sacrifice offered to God “for the remission of sins”. That, to the Reformers, was blasphemous in the sense that scriptures do present Christ as having completed the work of atonement, having “sat down at the right hand of the Father” and settling that there is no other sacrifice for the remission of sins.

    Article 31 of the Anglican 39 articles makes the issue at the time of the reformation fairly clear: “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.”

    Strong words, but at issue is whether the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient and finished.

    If we bring a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, “the fruit of our lips”, in response to the completed work of Christ, we are doing well. No problem with some sense of Christ being present with us in a mysterious way or with our being united with him in his death and resurrection. But if the “real presence” leads to a sense that the once for all sacrifice is in some sense repeated, then we have gone too far.

  • BenB

    I was raised Southern Baptist and currently attend a contemporary non-denon. Bible church. In the last few years, I have discovered early Church history, and I would be inclined to label the historic view of the Real Presence (perhaps not in the Didache) apostolic.

    Both views honor Christ and are provide healthy times of reflection. (Catholics would say that since we don’t have a true priesthood in our church, our Communion is symbolic anyway!) Communion is one of the few times our rock music calms down. However, I have to sneak off to a high-church Episcopal service whenever I can because the RP belief makes the experience so much deeper and spiritually nourishing.

  • Travis Greene

    I don’t think we need to know what “this is my body” means. The practice of Eucharist is more important than the theory of it. That may by default put me in a more Protestant position, I guess.

    Real Presence articulations tend to get caught up in philosophical categories I don’t find helpful. They also redefine “body” to the point that i dont see much difference between that and “spiritual presence”. Hyper-Zwinglian views, I think, stress too much the idea that Communion is *only* symbolic. If “this is my body” is a metaphor like “I am the good shepherd”, it still means something.

    I’m far more interested in Eucharist as the radically inclusive social practice of the church than in 16th century debates.

  • JohnM

    Is calling to the symbolic view the “real absence” view intended to be as snarky as it sounds?

    SusanN #4 Explains it very well – “..it is not necessary or important for me to see the bread and grape juice as literally becoming the body and blood of Christ. It’s in the intention of the heart — joining Christ and the community of the church — that sanctifies the act and causes a supernatural (Holy Spirit) inward awareness and response to the presence of Christ and others.”

    I see nothing “flippant” in that rich understanding of Communion. If there is a “real absence” that matters it would be when there is an absence of that intention of the heart to which SusanN refers.

  • Matt

    This debate also surrounds understandings of sacrifice ritual in the OT. Some think that all that mattered in the OT with sacrifice, or all that matters now with the Eucharist, is the heart, which begins with a misreading of the prophets (who said rhetorically that God doesn’t want sacrifice AND trampling the poor) and a radical separation of the heart and body. The “only the heart” view, in my opinion, is one more way that we minimize the physical.

    So to address the main point, I think that views of the physical world are part of what’re at stake in this debate.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    The historical views, IMO, have been too mixed up with Greek philosophy and metaphysics. I would rather stay with Scripture in trying to understand. Bob’s comment above (#2) on 1Cor 10:16 is on the mark, I think. In addition, Luke’s simple words, “He was known to them in the breaking of bread”(Luke 24:35) speak of a real presence of the Lord with his people at the table. I think one of the problems in the “symbolic” tradition involves not fully grasping what “symbolic” means. It is not so much that the symbol (not real in itself) merely points to something else that is “real,” but that the symbol, when performed, is actually a physical means through which God mysteriously communicates spiritual realities. It is real bread and wine, but somehow, through these physical elements, we literally participate in communion with Christ. I don’t feel a need to define this philosophically. It is enough to know that Jesus meets me at the Table.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    One more thing, I would disagree that it is “in the intention of the heart — joining Christ and the community of the church — that sanctifies the act and causes a supernatural (Holy Spirit) inward awareness and response to the presence of Christ and others” as Susan N. (#4) says. While I don’t want to downplay the importance of faith in the reception of the sacraments, I think we are safer to say first that the sacraments are God’s work and not ours. It is God’s Word and Spirit that sanctify the elements, not the intention of my heart. They are first of all God’s means of extending grace to me, not my act of worship.

  • David Gallaugher

    We’ve already mentioned the hyper-Zwinglian view. It might be worthwhile to mention that Calvin was very keen on the celebration of the Eucharist whenever the church meets, and while he was convinced of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist through the power of the Holy Spirit, he didn’t believe it was either possible or necessary to explain how this could be. He also was very clear about the Eucharist as a primary means of grace.

  • John W Frye

    Do you think taking a position on this debate is necessary?
    Yes, because…
    1. It is a central, enduring communal behavior of the church.
    2. As the Passover called Israel to remember the source of their salvation (Exodus), the Lord’s Table exhorts believers to remember Jesus and the ‘exodus’ created by him.
    3. By the Spirit, the real presence of Jesus is made known to us through the meal (Luke 24). It is not purely ‘symbolic.’

  • Nathan C

    I suspect the metaphysical difference often ends up a proxy for wider disagreement about who the primary actor is in the Eucharist and what the rite accomplishes. If you think “the action” is mostly psychological and social (community, remembrance, feelings of inclusion, etc.), doctrines about Real Substance or Presence will probably seem weird, unnecessary, or just overly intellectual. On the other hand, understanding the sacrament as a transmission or declaration of grace will push you to ascribe more and more to the Eucharist.

    That all sounds abstract, but those kinds of beliefs have a big effect on how a congregation worships, so taking a position on this debate is both necessary and important.

  • John Mc

    The problem in taking a position is that whatever position one takes is a guess. There is no way to determine the truth; as the nuns used to say to my questions: it’s a mystery. And I am old enough now to accept that answer as adequate. Whether my faith allows me to discern the real presence or my wife’s faith celebrates the symbolism of the communal Eucharistic event, we share the Lord’s table, together with our neighbors, at the invitation of Jesus. The truth of the matter IS a mystery. In the meantime we partake as best we can of the Eucharist, and give praise and thanksgiving for the living body of Christ, whether discerned in the bread, or discerned in the body of believers united around the table.

    There are serious questions here, I don’t deny that, but on a practical level, there are no answers, only theories, no matter how ancient, and no matter how clearly articulated. God is not sending any faithful Christian to hell because they failed to properly grasp the one correct theological understanding of the Eucharist. No matter what we believe, no matter how well we understand the operative theory of our chosen Christian tradition as to the Eucharist, only the intercession of the Holy Spirit can perfect our effort and render our worship sufficient.

    In the end, we act on our faith, and trust in the grace we receive from heaven. God takes care of the rest.

  • Jeff L

    Scott wrote: “the symbolic view tends, in my judgment, to get too flippant and irreverent with the sacredness of the bread and wine.” This resonates with me.

    A few years ago I returned to Christianity after a 30-year absence. One of the things that has shocked me is the frivolity with which many (though certainly not all)in my Presbyterian Church participate in the Lord’s Supper. It seems to be rooted in a larger problem of shallow Biblical and theological understanding. Does this happen in anyone else’s church? Perhaps I’m being snarky and pharisaical

  • EricW

    My thoughts:

    The earliest liturgies do not mention a changing of the bread and wine. See, e.g., The Didachê, the Apostolic Tradition, The Liturgy of Saints Addai and Mari, etc.

    What Jewish/OT precedent is there for eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Deity?

    When the Jews gathered to celebrate their appointed feasts in YHWH’s presence, the foods they ate didn’t become God, but God met with them there.

    To this day the Jews at the Passover say, “This is the bread of affliction” and “This is [that].” If the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, or even if it was a pre-emption of a Passover Seder, I suspect that the attendees would have known what Jesus meant by “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” and they wouldn’t have understood Him to be saying what later Christians came to believe and what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches believe. Nor do I think Jesus meant what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach about the Eucharist.

    When the crowd in John 6 expressed difficulty with what Jesus had said, Jesus did not respond to them as if they had a problem with Him saying that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood (the whole chapter seems to be about coming to Him and believing in Him, not about eating his sarx and drinking his haima). Rather, He responded to their difficulty in believing that He had come down like manna from heaven from God: “What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” Just like the manna, man does not live by bread alone but by everything or every word (rhêma in the Greek of Matthew 4:4 and in the LXX of Deuteronomy 8:3) that comes from the mouth of God. It is Jesus’ spiritual words that give life (John 6:63), not His literal or “transubstantiated” flesh and blood.

    1 Corinthians 10 seems to suggest that more is going on among the communicants at the Lord’s Table than merely eating bread and drinking wine, or merely having a meal. On the other hand, I think a good argument can be made that the discerning/evaluating/distinguishing “the body” in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is about recognizing the body of Christ in and as the gathered believers and therefore respecting and treating them as equal brothers and sisters, rather than failing to recognize that the bread somehow becomes Jesus’s body/flesh.

  • AHH

    I’m probably Calvin-like Real Presence 3 days of the week and symbolic Passover-like commemoration the other 4.

    But the thing that really strikes me from this post is that if the author starts by equating transsubstantiation with “taking Jesus at his word”, it is unlikely to lead to fruitful dialogue.
    It’s the same sort of question-begging as when a woodenly literal 6-day creation position is equated with “taking God at his word” without considering that there might be some interpretational issues.

  • Jorge L

    Eric W.: the earliest actual description of a Eucharistic celebration, Justin Martyr’s Apology, does presume a transformation. It says as clearly as possible that the bread no longer is bread but is Christ.

    Liturgies aren’t helpful because they prescribe words to be said, rather than giving theological explanation.

    Indeed, it’s highly significant that Justin is writing for non-Christians, explaining what Christians do in worship to defend against false claims made about them. Christians had no need to explain to themselves what everyone already knew: that the bread was transformed, really. You only need to explain something if people are present who don’t know. But we know beyond any doubt that no unbaptized person was admitted to the Eucharist. So there was no need for explanation at the service.

    You’ve depended on the argument from silence, which tells you only that the liturgies are silent. IT does not tell you why they are silent. I’ve given an explanation why they are silent.

    And precisely in the genre in which we would expect to find it, we find an explicit statement of real transformation. Surely if the early Christians believed in a merely symbolic presence, Justin would not have written what he wrote.

    Ignatius of Antioch and Irnaeus make arguments about the reality of the Incarnation based on the reality of the Eucharist.

    The early tradition is about as solid on this point as it gets. The first enunciated symbolic presence arguments arrive 1000 years later (Berengar, and Henry Chadwick thinks even Berengar was not a symbolic presence advocate). It’s advocates of symbolic presence that have a huge gaping silence to explain.

  • JohnM

    A quick survey of early tradition shows it to be something less than solid in support of transubstantiation. At most we can say the controversy started early. Even Justin Martyr in the Dialogue with Trypho seems to express something less than a transformational view when he speaks of the bread and the cup as being prescribed by Christ in remembrance of His flesh and His blood given for us.

  • http://anderslundblad.blogspot.com Anders Lundblad

    #10 “It is not so much that the symbol (not real in itself) merely points to something else that is “real,” but that the symbol, when performed, is actually a physical means through which God mysteriously communicates spiritual realities.”

    Yes, because if it’s only “symbolic” than why do we even need the symbol? We could just as well conjure up a picture of bread and wine and meet the Lord through that. I don’t believe in transubstantiation but I do think the physical bread and wine are important. I guess I think of them as carriers of His presence, much like “the hem of His garment”.

    Philosophical speculations aside I believe a greater problem with the Eucharist is the mediating role of the priest.

  • EricW

    The Didache might be mid-1st century, per some scholars, which would precede Justin Martyr by decades, as do the Gospels and 1 Corinthians. And a later mid-2nd century date for The Didache would affirm the variety of eucharistic understandings and practices. I concur with @Anders 21. that sacerdotalism and the belief and practice that the “priest” stands in persona Christi is more disturbing than whether or not the food changes. Does it matter or mean anything that in 3+ years of participating in priest-officiated Eucharists in the Orthodox Church I cannot recall one instance where the Presence manifested Himself/Themselves, whereas in informal leaderless non-EOC gatherings around the shared and prayed-over loaf and cup, there have been times when He was there with us and in us?

  • Jorge L

    Eric W. You miss the point. Sure, the Didache is earlier, but it’s a different genre. It’s not at all clear that it’s a prescribed liturgical formulary, but even if it is, that’s not the place you’ll find a statement for or against transformation. It remains a fact that the first and only direct statement in the first few centuries about what happens in the Eucharist is in Justin Martryr’s Apology. And it clearly states transformation and that tells us that people outside the Christian Church needed to be informed, in Justin’s eyes, about what happened. The Apology was designed to defend Christians against charges of immorality. He could have left his account of worship at a sober description of “first we do this, then we do that.” But no, the single doctrinal note he added was to say in no uncertain terms that “we believe that the bread, after the prayers have been said over it, IS no longer common bread but is by transmutation the body and blood of Jesus Christ who was made incarnate for us”; he then goes on to quote the Institution Narrative. The way he ties it to the realness of the Incarnation mirrors Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus, a generation before him and after him.

    JohnM. Sorry, but the tradition is solid. Cite for me please one instance of a clear symbolic presence affirmation from the first centuries, one as utterly clear as Justin’s? The Dialogue with Trypho (different genre) does NOT affirm MERE symbolic presence. You want to read it is less than full transformation but you are arguing from silence (no full transformation in Trypho, therefore = mere symbolic — sorry, fallacious reasoning, esp. given the utterly clear statement in the Apology, which is the genre where one would expect clarification.

    There is no controversy over real/symbolic presence until Berengar. No serious historian of theology would disagree. Apologists for confessional positions do, of course. And I am aware of those who read Augustine “Believe and you have eaten already” as mere symbolic presence. Read Alasdair Heron, _Table and Tradition_ on that–Heron is Scots Reformed, taught at Erlangen–even he recognizes that Augustine is a realist and that the whole early tradition was.

    And “transubstantiation” is not an interchangable term for real presence. I really wish people would grasp this. Transubstantiation is one way of trying to describe the means by which real presence takes place. So far it’s the best way to explain it (pace Luther). But transubstantiation explains “how” not “what” happens. It has no relevance to the early centuries. Unfortunately, a lot of people use it when they mean “real presence.”

    Finally, the larger issue is not real presence or real absence or spiritual presence etc. The Reformers disagreed about presence. They all agreed in rejecting the Mass as a mystery of the ever-presentness of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. They had adopted a new (modern) view of history and time that they thought forced them to relegate the cosmic redemptive act of Christ to the past. The original Christians had a richer and deeper view of historical time and “remembrance”–as did the Jews, for whom Passover is both “back then” and “right now.” So too for Jesus’ Sacrifice. It is “back then” and “right now” in the Eucharist. Orthodox use different terms but affirm the same understanding of time.

    All the Reformers abandoned that understanding of time, to their detriment, in my view.

    So, when JohnM cites “remembrance” in Justin’s Trypho, he is already putting a modern, anachronistic gloss on it. Justin would have understood “remembrance” as an active, existential Reality of the Presence of the Crucified Christ in the Eucharist Mystery.”

  • Jorge L

    EricW. wrote “Does it matter or mean anything that in 3+ years of participating in priest-officiated Eucharists in the Orthodox Church I cannot recall one instance where the Presence manifested Himself/Themselves, whereas in informal leaderless non-EOC gatherings around the shared and prayed-over loaf and cup, there have been times when He was there with us and in us?”

    Surely you don’t want to go there, do you? What criteria are you using to decide whether the presence “manifests” Itself? By definition, those who believe in Real Presence say it is not perceived by the senses.

    But reliance on your subjective non-sense-perceptible spiritual/inner sense that He manifested Himself or did not manifest Himself is going to lead down the road to fragmentation. How will EricW deal with EricaY who claims that, no, EricW, the Presence did manifest Himself at that Eucharist at which you said He did not?

  • EricW

    Nope, I don’t.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Thanks for this post. This discussion is always welcome, in my opinion

    In the Nov/Dec of Books & Culture, Hans Boersma wrote an article, “The Eucharist Makes the Church,” in which he uses Henri de Lubac’s views on the Supper as a grand moderating position. I started to unpack it here, but stalled out for the time being.

    At any rate, while the article isn’t necessarily about figuring out the Eucharist, it nevertheless presents de Lubac as the figure who would straddle the fence as you have here: “. . . the later articulations in both the Real Presence tradition (both transubstantiation and consubstantiation) go beyond the New Testament into the mysteries that are not revealed, while the symbolic view tends, in my judgment, to get too flippant and irreverent with the sacredness of the bread and wine.” I’d take issue with lumping consub. with transub. as an example of saying too much on this point, though.

    In reading Boersma’s piece, I couldn’t help also thinking of David Daube and his work on the afikomen, which itself highlights the “Jewish roots of the Eucharist.” If I’m reading Daube correctly, he too ends up with a “biblical” moderating position, one that accentuates the participatory nature of the Supper in the context of union with Christ through the eating and drinking of the bread and the wine.

    Personally, I adhere to a real presence view, even if I don’t at all agree with the scholastic way the late medieval theologians got us there.

  • Resi

    This is an important issue. My main problem is that I have a hurdle to pass before I can even step into this debate. Being from a family line of alcoholics and the child of one, for peace of mind I’ve chosen abstinance for myself. Fear keeps me from doing more than touching the cup to my lips unless I’m certain it’s alcohol-free juice. I don’t feel right, good or comfortable inviting some family members who are struggling to stay sober or need get sober to church services that include real wine. And please don’t tell me about the little cups in the middle with grape juice for them. Sure, no pressure there. Riiiiiight. Give me a break.

    I’ve been wrestling with this for several years now and have yet to hear a truly satisfying answer.

  • Resi

    I truly would just like to understand why God would institute a practice/ceremony/sacrament using wine w/alcohol when some of us trying to follow Him have a real problem with it.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Resi, just last week, while serving as a subdeacon at the Cathedral, the celebrant, himself a recovering alcoholic, received only the bread as I came by with the cup. I understand that at most he may touch the wine to his lips.

    It’s perfectly acceptable to receive, in your circumstance, communion under one kind (i.e., the bread only). Substituting grape juice for the ordained fruit of the vine, however, is another matter . . .

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    “at the Cathedral” = of St. Luke. Sorry.

  • Resi

    Chris,
    I’m sure you mean well. It just doesn’t answer it for me. What if I had an allergy to wheat also? Would I just watch from the sidelines?

    Scott,
    I have to go with “symbolic” for now. I just can’t imagine God instituting something that is so important, but designing it in such a way that leaves many believers without a full place at The Table or with no place.

  • EricW

    Jesus doesn’t need bread or wine or a priest to make Himself present to the believer, whether individually or in a church gathering. The endless and centuries-long parsing and debating about the elements and their essentiality or non-essentiality and whether or not they change or become the “Real Presence” or whatever just shows the silliness of much of it all. The Lord shows up in meetings where people simply gather together to worship Him and take the one loaf and the shared cup out of devotion to Him. Come to Jesus. Believe in Him. Love Him. Worship Him. Gather with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Take time together to honor and remember Him and encounter Him in communion. It’s awesome.

  • Resi

    @32 EricW, Thanks for your kind words. I think He can even show up for those who can’t afford bread or wine, too.

  • EricW

    @Resi 33.:

    +1

    :)

  • http://patheos.com jason greene

    very real, very spiritual, very present, and a true sacrament and means of grace…..


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