Friday, September 30, 2011

Debating the Eucharist -- Marburg and the Bible (Part 2)

In our continuing conversation about the nature of the Eucharist and the role it plays in Christian theology, I wanted to introduce into our conversation the debate that divided the Reformers.  Their debate had important implications for how the Eucharist came to be understood among Protestants.  Over time Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli essentially became the spokespersons for two poles of opinion.  Many followed one or the other, while others, including John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and Thomas Cranmer sought to find a place to rest somewhere in between the two poles.

The debate at Marburg illustrates differences of opinion on how to interpret Scripture, a reminder that even if you believe the Bible to speak the word of God, it has to be interpreted!

So we begin with Luther’s interpretation:


The name that has come to be attached to Luther's understanding of the Eucharist is  "Consubstantiation."  For Luther, the key to the debate was the interpretation of the word's of institution found in the synoptic gospels (Mt. 26:26; Lk. 22:19) and in I Corinthians 11:24.  Luther held to the literal meaning of the word est in the phrase, "This is my body."  

When the debate began, it appears that Luther was paired with the Reformed theologian John Oecolampadius, while Zwingli debated Philip Melanchton.  On the second day, however, Zwingli and Luther faced each other.  On this day, before the other participants entered the room, Luther apparently went and wrote in chalk on his table, the words: "Hoc est corpus meum."  The debate went as follows:

"It would be a shame to believe in such an important doctrine, teach, and defend it, and yet be unable or unwilling to cite a single Scripture passage to prove it."

Luther: (taking the cover from the inscription on the table)
"This is my Body!  Here is our Scripture passage.  You have not yet taken it from us, as you set out to do; we need no other.  My dearest lords, since the words of my Lord Jesus Christ stand there, Hoc est corpus meum, I cannot truthfully pass over them, but must confess and believe that the body of Christ is there."   [Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 150-53].

Zwingli and Luther had disagreed because they approached the text with two very different hermeneutical understandings.  While, Luther affirmed the symbolic nature of the elements, he also believed that the symbol did more than signify the presence of Christ.  Instead, he believed that Christ was, in truth, present in the Eucharist.  The symbol contained that which it symbolized.  While Luther rejected the Catholic understanding of literally eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, he did believe that in a mysterious way, the Christian partook of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper.  Luther, unlike Zwingli, retained a doctrine of real presence.  Luther rejected the Aristotelian basis of the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Luther rejected the idea that the substance of the bread and wine changed.  There was only one miracle in the Eucharist.  Christ became present "in, with, and under" the elements, but the bread and wine remained present.


Zwingli, on the other hand, insisted that est (is) meant "signified."  Therefore, the Eucharist served to remind Christians of the event of the cross.  To support his figurative understanding of the Eucharist, Zwingli pointed to other passages where Jesus referred to himself as a vine or a door.  For Zwingli the key passage in the debate was John 6:63.  "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail."  Zwingli insisted, against Luther, that since the Spirit imparted salvation immediately there was no need for the "husks of externals."  By distinguishing between body and soul, with the spiritual side being superior to the physical, Zwingli affirmed the primacy of the acts of the Spirit.  While the Spirit brought salvation and nourishment, the flesh brought very little.  One can eat and drink the elements of the Supper as a sign of thanksgiving for a work of grace already completed by the Spirit.  

Apparently Zwingli was concerned about idolatry.  Even as he rejected images, the invocation of the saints, and baptismal regeneration, he rejected the idea that the object of Faith could be seen in the bread and cup.  David Steinmetz makes this point quite clearly:
"To insist, as Luther does, that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ is to commit idolatry, to ascribe to the creature (namely, bread and wine) the glory that belongs only to the Creator (Romans 1:23)." [David Steinmetz, Luther in Context,   (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1986),  73-76.]
Zwingli pointed to the relationship of the wedding ring to marriage.  The ring may be a sign of the reality of a marriage, but it was not the same as marriage.  Even so, the bread and wine signified the body and blood of Christ, but they were different from the body and blood of Christ.  Thus, as one ate of the bread and drank of the cup, one remembered Christ's body and blood in one's mind.

(Continued in Part 3 -- Theological Implications)

Debating the Eucharist -- Thoughts on the Marburg Colloquy Part 1

With World Communion Sunday on the horizon, I’ve been trying to reflect on the important ideas that stand behind the ways in which Christians understand the Eucharist.  It should be evident by now that there isn’t just one Christian view.  And while Paul believed that the Lord’s Table should be a table of unity (1 Cor. 10), historically the table has been anything but a source of unity.  There is probably no better illustration of this than the debate that occurred on October 1-3, 1529, some 482 years ago, when Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the two leading figures in the Reformation to that point, faced off at Marburg Castle in Germany.  Philip of Hesse a Protestant prince invited the leading Reformers from Saxony and Switzerland to his castle to bring unity to their ranks.  That conversation, which got hung up on the question of the Eucharist, is a good illustration of the differences that exist within the Christian faith and the consequences of those differences.  

Philip had Martin Luther draw up a series of articles as the basis of the conversation.  He drew up a list of fifteen principles, fourteen of which all parties agreed to.  The one issue where they could agree came over the meaning of the Eucharist.  Luther later revised these fifteen articles to form the Articles of Schwabach, the first of the Lutheran confessions.

On the question of the Eucharist both parties believed that their views of the Eucharist were wrapped up in broader understandings of who Christ is and the meaning of Scripture.  At the same time both sides were trying to come to grips with their medieval theological inheritance.

While both Luther and Zwingli, like Calvin after them, rejected the Roman Catholic understanding of the Mass.  Both agreed that transubstantiation was not biblical and did not convey the biblical understanding of the Lord's Supper.  During the middle ages the Eucharist became a central part of Catholic piety.  As transubstantiation became the accepted doctrine of the church, the emphasis was placed on the act of consecration.  This emphasis on the consecration of the elements led to an almost magical view of the sacrament, with the elevation of the host becoming the key element of popular Catholic devotion.  The Feast of Corpus Christi became a major holy day on the Catholic liturgical calendar.  During this feast the consecrated Host was paraded through the streets so that the crowds could worship the body of Christ.    

Therefore, both Luther and Zwingli believed that true reform required a reform in the church's understanding of the Lord's Supper.  However, they took two very different approaches to the problem.  

As to the points of agreement, both Luther and Zwingli rejected the view that the Mass was a spectator event.  Therefore, both agreed that the full congregation should receive the Eucharist in both kinds (cup and loaf).  They also agreed that the service should be in the vernacular.  They also agreed that the proclamation of the Word of God should stand at the center of the Sacrament.  Thus, they agreed that the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the Word through the sermon should be connected with the Sacramental event.  Both parties rejected the idea that the Eucharist was a sacrifice offered to God on behalf of the people.  Finally, both parties rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Thus, there was a strong foundation for unity, and finding unity between them had important political implications.

Now, Luther and Zwingli had been at odds over the Lord's Supper since 1523, when Zwingli began to develop a view of the Lord's Supper that tended in the direction of memorialism.  Zwingli believed that Luther's understanding of the Eucharist remained to close to the Roman Catholic view, and thus needed to be rejected.  Luther, on the other hand, believed that Zwingli's views tended in the direction of the Radical Reformers and Sectarians.

The two sides were miles apart.  They held each other with disdain.  Luther called Zwingli a "`clumsy carpenter' who `hacks rough chips'."  Later, Luther called Zwingli a "`un-Christian' theologian who `holds and teaches no part of the Christian faith rightly'."    The Reformed camp gave Luther the nickname of "Dr. Pussyfoot."  

The issue came to a head because the Protestants were being threatened by a renewed Catholic unity.  External events had prevented Charles V from enforcing Luther's condemnation at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  By 1529 Charles had pushed back the Turks, captured the Pope (who had been opposed to Charles' imperial program), and come to terms with Francis I of France.  This enabled Charles to prosecute action against the Protestants who had taken advantage of the disarray in European politics to spread their influence. 

Philip of Hesse called the meeting because he was trying to create an alliance between the German Lutheran princes and the city-states of southern Germany and Switzerland, which tended toward Zwingli's views.  He hoped that such an alliance could check the danger of a Catholic resurgence in the area.   The controversy over the Eucharist stood in the way of achieving Protestant unity.  While Luther opposed an alliance with the "sacramentarians," Zwingli was inclined toward the alliance, especially since Zurich stood somewhat isolated.  Only after Luther's own ruler, Prince John of Saxony, pushed him, did Luther agree, reluctantly, to attend the summit.  The fact that the two sides could not come to terms, may have led to the success of the Catholic Reformation over the next century and a half.

(Continued in part 2)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Law Abiding Citizens? A Lectionary Meditation

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

Law Abiding Citizens?

            I know there are anarchists amongst us, who believe that we can live without rules and regulations and government.  Even in this Tea Party era of minimal government, most people believe that society needs some kind of law and order.  Might I assume that we accept the premise that we should be law-abiding citizens, even if we “occasionally” exceed the speed limit as we speed down the interstate?

In a perfect world perhaps laws and government wouldn’t be necessary, but in a less than perfect world laws and governments provide protection for those who lack power and might.  Down through history we’ve seen all manner of society come and go – oligarchy, plutocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship.  These forms of “government” continue to exist today in one form or another.  There are places, like Somalia, where there is no government, and thus chaos is the rule of the day.  In the time of Moses, Pharaoh set the rules and did so to his own benefit.  In the time of Jesus and Paul, the Roman Emperor set the rules, and again, did so to his benefit.  There were no checks and balances, with the one exception of a military coups, which was a continual threat, as most Roman emperors were former generals.  They ruled their empires with a combination of a threat of violence, bread, and circuses.   Living as I do in the United States of the 21st century, I am a citizen of a representative democracy with certain checks and balances built into the system to prevent tyranny from taking hold.  Of course, there are ways of circumventing and controlling the system, so that a tyranny of the powerful can find ways of controlling even democratic institutions.  Nonetheless, unless asked to act contrary to the ways of God, we assume that it is best to be a law abiding citizen.

There are three texts before us.  In the first, Moses delivers the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel.  These laws provide define what it means to live in covenant relationship with Yahweh.  In the Philippian letter, Paul declares that he has been a law abiding citizen, a Pharisee among Pharisees in his embrace of the Law.  As for Jesus, he offers us a reminder of what it means to live as a citizen in God’s realm.  God has planted a vineyard and invited us to tend to it, so the question is – will we be mindful of the one who entrusted it to our care or not?  Is this not a question of good citizenship?

So, we start with the Law.  Moses comes down from the Mountain of Sinai and gathers the people together at the foot of the mountain, and the Lord God delivers to them the Law, which we know as the Ten Commandments.  Presumably it is through the voice of Moses that this word of God is delivered.  There aren’t any Tablets yet, so it’s a matter of hearing words that outline a way of living in covenant with God.  God declares to the people from the mountain:  “I am the Lord.   I brought you out of slavery and so you can’t have any other gods and you can’t make any idols.  Don’t abuse my name by swearing upon it (could taking oaths by saying “so help me God” be an example of such abuse?).  And keep the Sabbath.  These are all laws that define, presumably, the relationship between Yahweh and the people.  Based on these precepts, Moses then delivers some guidelines for living together as God’s people.  Honor your parents, don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness (wow, we sure do a lot of that these days), and don’t covet the things that belong to your neighbor.  Now, we moderns might have some problems with some of the elements of property listed in that last set of laws – are wives property?  And slaves?  Not something we would accept as an acceptable form of property.  As the word is delivered it is accompanied by a terrifying display of divine power – thunder and lighting and trumpets and smoking mountains.  The people are afraid and tell Moses – you talk to us and we’ll obey, just ask that this display end.  In response Moses says – don’t be afraid, God is just doing this so you will fear God.  Doesn’t that make sense don’t be afraid, just be afraid!  The point is – be a law abiding citizen (don’t sin) and you’ll have nothing to fear!   

As we look at these laws, especially the second set, the ones that define our relationship with another, it appears that they are designed not only to keep order in the land but to protect the other from violence, whether it is physical (murder and theft), verbal (dishonoring parents and bearing witness), or internal (coveting what belongs to the other).  Note that this last of the laws, the one dealing with covetousness really sets up all the others, including the first set.  To break the first set is to place one’s self in the position of God, doing violence to God’s place in our lives.  As for the second set of laws, when we so desire what belongs to the other that we must have it, we often resort to violence of some sort to get that which we desire for ourselves!

In the Philippian letter Paul takes up the issue of being a law-abiding citizen in a somewhat different manner.  Whereas, Moses cast the question of obedience to the law as a sign of one’s relationship to the covenant, Paul seems to have caught sight of our human tendency to turn what is good upside down.  Instead of being a guide to living faithfully in covenant with God, it had become a competition.  Who can be the best at keeping the law?  And if that’s the criteria, Paul seems to believe that he has few if any peers.   Indeed, “if anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.”  Now, if anyone has ever had a strong ego, it was Paul.  As to whether he was righteous according to the Law of Israel, he was blameless.  He had accomplished what every Pharisee sought after – to keep the Law in its fullness.  In spite of all of this, he considered this to be all for naught when compared to the richness of experiencing oneness with Christ and Christ’s resurrection.  Yes, the one whom he had once resisted, and whose followers he had zealously persecuted, was now the one to whom he would devote his life.  Anything else was rubbish, not worthy of his attention.  And so rather than strive for perfection in keeping the Law he will now forget what lies behind him and press onward “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  It’s not as if, however, Paul is embracing anarchy or antinomianism (no law), but rather recognizing that all of our righteousness is wrapped up in pursuing this heavenly call of God.

The tenants in Jesus’ parable are hardly upstanding citizens.  They agree to tend the vineyard planted by this landowner.   One would assume that the tenants had agreed to an arrangement where they would tend to the vineyard and at the appropriate time provide the owner with the produce of the land.  And so when the time came to bring in the harvest, the landowner sends representatives (slaves) to collect.  The tenants react in a rather inappropriate way – they beat one, kill another, and stone still another (as to the fate of this third person, we’re not given full details as to whether he or she survived).  When the landowner sends another set of representatives the same thing happens.  Finally in desperation, assuming that this lawless group of tenants would at least respect his son, he sends this son to collect.  But for some reason these tenants get the idea that if they kill the heir they’ll get the land.  Now, where they might get such a far-fetched idea is beyond me.  Why would tenants become the heir if they killed the heir?  But, parables aren’t necessarily meant to make logical sense.  Having told the parable, Jesus turns to his audience, which seems to be composed of priests and Pharisees, and asks them – what would the landowner do?  The answer is obvious, the landowner will come and kill them and give their leases to others who will not only agree to the terms, but live up to them.  And Jesus seems to nod in agreement, and then says, have you not read the scriptures that say that the stone the builders reject will become the cornerstone?  So, here’s the deal – you had access to the kingdom of God, but that access will be taken from you and given to others.  When they heard this, they realized that they were the target of this statement.  They would have arrested him, but they were afraid of the people who regarded him as a prophet.  So, if the religious leaders are the evil tenants who reject the envoys of the landowner (God), then who are the new tenants?   Could it be the people, the ones without power, who will now have access to the kingdom? 

We needn’t take this in an anti-Jewish direction so that God rejects the Jews in favor of Gentiles, though that interpretation has been proffered down through history.  But it is a warning to those who would seek power over others, who would use religion and faith for their own good at the expense of the other.    

So, what does it mean to be a law-abiding citizen when the rules seem to have changed, when there is no need to compete in the game of self-righteousness?  When the definition of power is different than the one we’ve been taught?  Ultimately we have to go back to Exodus, where God makes provision for living in covenant – love God and love neighbor -- that is the way to fulfill those commandments laid out at the foot of Sinai.  It’s not a game or a competition.  As both Paul and Jesus seem to suggest, this has something to do with how we live together in the presence of God.

Transitions: Leading Churches through Change -- Review

TRANSITIONS:  Leading Churches through Change.  Edited by David N. Mosser.  Foreword by Robert Schnase.  Louisville:  WJK Press, 2011.  Xv +248 pp.

            There is no shortage of books dealing with the idea that change is taking place within the church, but despite the plethora of resources there is still room for more contributions.  The fact is, even though change is constant, and the pace seems to be growing exponentially every year, none of us, no matter our age, is truly comfortable with the pace of change.   Just the other day, when Facebook issued another set of changes – pretty major ones – it seemed as if everyone, young and old, was upset.  How dare Mark Zuckerberg change Facebook.  Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that MySpace was the talk of the town, but it didn’t adapt and got left in the dust.  So, even if we don’t always like the changes that come our way, more often than not the only choice we have is to adapt.  

            Like the rest of the world these changing times affect the church, and it either adapts or dies.  Some churches have jumped into the chaos of our contemporary realities with both feet, and then look to see where the whirlpool will take them.  Others build walls, seeking to protect the faithful from the effects of the age, and this adaptation works, at least for a time.  We see this form of adaptation in significant number of Americans who reject the scientific theory of evolution, preferring to hold to the biblical storyline, despite the fact that this storyline is pre-scientific.  How long this adaption holds remains to be seen.

However we seek to approach this season of constant change, those who are called to preach have been entrusted with the job of leading the churches through this era of transition.  In a volume entitled Transitions, we find a series of essays and sermons edited by United Methodist pastor David Mosser.   Mosser notes in his introduction that while change is inevitable, and will impact the church, “too often ‘new and improved’ fails to deliver what it at one time had so hopefully promised”  (p. xv).   Preachers, therefore, are called upon to deal with the fears and the grief that comes with change, including their own.  They will have to help the church discern when to adapt and how to adapt.  With this task in mind, Mosser brings together the thoughts of preachers, professors, pastors and consultants to help we who are preachers to “think through how the church and our faith can help us in our times of high anxiety” (p.  xv).    Some of the contributors are likely well-known to many clergy – people such David Buttrick, Thomas Long, Ronald Allen, and Thomas Troeger.  Other contributors are not nearly as well known, but each contributor speaks to this most important topic facing the church and its leaders.

Mosser’s volume is composed of twenty-six chapters divided into four parts.  Part 1 covers the topic “The Clergy in Chaos.”  Eight chapters explore the complexity and realities of our time.   In seven chapters, essayists and preachers explore the realities that congregants face in adapting to change.  Topics include preaching to the elderly (something most of us do on a regular basis), divorce, death, and change itself.  Part three addresses the congregation in crisis (chapters 16-21), and finally in part 4, five chapters look at the community in transition.  Thus, preachers are guided through a process that begins with looking at themselves, moves to the congregants, and then on to congregation, with the community bringing the journey to a close. 

As with any volume like this different parts of the book will speak to different people.   I’ll mention a few that stuck out to me.  The first essay is a must read for all clergy facing transitions either out of a parish or into one.  E. Carver McGriff and his successor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Kent Millard have written about the nature of their transition.  How often have we seen pastorates undermined by the actions of one’s predecessors?  Theirs is the story of a successful transition, but not all stories are quite as successful.  McGriff writes that to make such a successful transition one must “lay down your life for your successor.”  It can be devastating to see loyalties transferred to someone else, but without this happening “your successor may fail, and so you will have failed” (p. 6).  Although there are differences of opinion on this matter, McGriff is likely correct in stating that “when you move away, stay away.  Stay away unless and until the person who follows you invites you back” (p. 7).  As for the new pastor, Millard notes that it is beneficial to all if one offers appreciation for the history and the ministry that has led to this opportunity.   

Buttrick’s essay on preaching to the elderly is another important contribution.  The future may rest with the younger generations, but if your congregation is like mine, you will have a significant number of members over sixty-five.  Many are strong leaders and givers.  They may have long histories with the congregation, and their spiritual needs are important as well.  The word that Buttrick offers the preacher is that the elderly deserve to hear the gospel and not just therapeutic words.   If Jesus’ message was one of God’s new social order, do we preach this message to the elderly, or do we simply preach death and resurrection, promising them heavenly sunshine?  Buttrick answers – absolutely.  That’s because Jesus’ new world coming offers the elderly a future. 

Ron Allen, who is a friend, writes helpfully about using one’s own story in helping congregations deal with transition.  I must say that I still struggle with this – I’m a fairly private person (despite my public persona) and my family is even more so.  And yet Allen is correct in noting that members benefit with knowing how we deal with change – both our successes and failures.  June Alliman Yoder speaks to a different aspect of the preachers task, and that is persuasion.   She asks a good question:  “What is the point of a sermon that doesn’t try to do anything, a sermon that is a speech about a religious topic rather than a powerful proclamation of the desire of God to make us into a new people? (p. 112).  In other words, though God can use our words in ways we may not expect, it doesn’t all fall on God’s shoulders.  One of the reasons for our problem with accomplishing a purpose is that many have abandoned the idea that preaching should persuade.  It is true, she notes, that preachers can manipulate, but how can we serve as catalysts for change if we abandon this calling and just tell stories or inform people about the content of scripture?  And so she calls for the redemption of persuasion. 

Robert Reid offers an essay dealing with ways in which the preacher can respond to resistance during the process of transition and change.  He notes that while reason has its place, it’s unlikely that logic will win the day.  Thus, the preacher must appeal to the heart, do the research necessary to explain one’s reason for change, and their call for change must resonate with the majority of the constituency.  It’s not easy work, but change happens when leaders become vision bearers. 

The final essay I’ll mention is written by Mary Alice Mulligan, who speaks to the task that many of us struggle with, and that is finding a way to embrace transitioning neighborhoods.  Many churches find themselves in neighborhoods that are changing dramatically.  But, if the congregation ignores its neighborhood it will die, and many are dying as a result.  She speaks of acknowledging from the pulpit that God is in the neighborhood, offers ideas for lay leadership, and then offers a suggested sermon series rooted in Jeremiah that might help prepare a congregation for being present in a redemptive way in the neighborhood.   She writes prophetically:

In all the changes our congregations and communities face, by trusting that God can bring life in all circumstances, we can preach messages of embracing the transitions.  When the surrounding neighborhood is deteriorating, with God’s holy power, we engage in ministry with the neighbors, for we are co-responsible for the welfare of the community surrounding our church building.  In fact, we are part of the community.   (p. 217).
Mulligan speaks primarily here to congregations finding themselves in urban and perhaps rural situations where change is happening that challenge the church.  I would add that there significant changes and challenges facing churches (like mine) that are present in the suburbs.  Are we ready to address the changes happening there, especially as economic instability hits these bastions of middle class life?

            In closing this review, I’d like to give heed to Wesley Allen’s point that we as preachers will fail in our calling if we do not connect the story of Jesus with our own stories of change.  He writes that “the hermeneutical move we preachers must make is to resist always stressing the unique aspects of the story of the Christ event” (p. 242).  If we take the idea of incarnation seriously, Jesus lived a real life that can connect to ours, and like us, he faced the realities of change, and out of his life and his message there is a word of hope.

            This is a book for preachers, and preachers would be wise to give attention to its contents.  One can read it from cover to cover or dip into areas of interest.  It will be, however, a helpful resource for all who pick it up.

And to purchase a copy, check Amazon here:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Medieval Catholic View of the Real Presence in the Eucharist

Since I posted a piece on the Eucharist that looked to the perspective of the Early Church on the question of presence, I thought I’d add a piece on the medieval church, which is when the doctrine of Transubstantiation came into play.  That doctrine remains standard in the Roman Catholic Church and is a cause of separation between Protestant and Catholic since the Reformation age. 

On the question of whether Christ is present in the elements or in the community, or in some other way, is open for discussion.  Because I would agree with such figures as Keith Watkins that the Eucharist is a normative center (together with the Word) of worship, I would affirm a spiritual presence in the gathering at the Table.  But, that is a different issue from the question of whether the elements are transformed into the real body and blood of Christ, a doctrine to which I do not hold.

Therefore, since the Eucharist has been seen as a source of spiritual nourishment for the recipient of the elements, since at least the second century if not earlier, the question remains – in what fashion?

  In medieval Catholic tradition this nourishment of the spirit, which involved the person of Jesus Christ, was mediated through the mass.   Although the doctrine of transubstantiation did not become official Catholic dogma until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the idea of a change in the elements can be traced back to the second century.  But this idea developed over time and ultimately served to undergird the medieval priesthood, which was charged with providing this means of grace to the people.

            The doctrine of transubstantiation has been a key area of disagreement between Protestant and Catholic.  Even Protestants who affirm the concept of the real presence of Christ reject this particular understanding of the real presence. 

The church of the middle ages, and even before that, believed that the sacred actions of the priest led to the transformation of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  One could understand Christ's presence either symbolically or literally.  Thus, Augustine defined the sacrament as an external, tangible sign of a reality that existed only in the realm of the spirit.  Thus Christ was present in the Eucharist spiritually but not physically.  Later theologians, however, desired to further define the Eucharist as being much more than a sign of spiritual reality. 

Paschasius Radbertus (ca. 831) wrote an important treatise entitled  De corpore et sanguine Domini,  (Of the Body and Blood of the Lord), which stated that after the consecration of the elements there was nothing there but the body and blood of Christ, though under the form of bread and wine.  Thus the body that is received in the Eucharist is the same as that which was born of the Virgin Mary. 

Radbertus wrote: 

"What is perceived externally is a figure  or mark, but what is perceived internally is entirely reality and no figure at all; and therefore nothing else is here  revealed  but reality and the sacrament of the body itself--the true body of Christ, which was crucified and buried, surely the sacrament of his body, which is divinely consecrated by the priest above the altar with the word of Christ through the Spirit:  whence the Lord Himself exclaims, `this is my body' (Luke 22:19)."[i]

Although Radbertus' position met with considerable opposition, especially from his contemporary, Ratranmus,  his position became the dominant position in the Church.  But, it is worth considering the response of Ratranmus, who espoused a more symbolic and Augustinian view.  In his response to Radbertus, Ratranmus wrote:

[I]t is clear that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in a figurative sense.  After the mystical consecration, when they are no longer called bread and wine, but the body and blood of Christ, as far as the external appearance is concerned, the likeness of flesh cannot be discerned in that bread, just as the actual liquid of blood cannot be seen . . .  How then can they be called the body and blood of Christ when no change can be seen to have taken place? . . .  As far as the physical appearance of both are concerned, they seem to be the things which have been physically created. However, as far as their power is concerned, in that they have been created spiritually, they are the mysteries of the body and blood of Christ.[ii]

 Ratranmus allows for presence, but it is figurative and the action of the sacrament happens inside the recipient not externally to the elements.    

The view of Radbertus, however, prevailed and was further developed by the Scholastic theologians, such as Peter Lombard wrote of the manner of conversion:

"To these we can reply as follows:  That the body of Christ is not said to be made by the divine words in the sense that the very body formed when the Virgin conceived is formed again, but that the substance of bread or wine which formerly was the body or blood of Christ, is by the divine words made his body and blood.  And therefore priests are said to make the body and blood of Christ, because by their ministry the substance of bread is made the flesh, and the substance of wine is made the blood of Christ; yet nothing is added to his body or blood, nor is the body or blood of Christ increased."[iii]

The Fourth Lateran Council gave further definition to the doctrine in 1215:

"There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation.  In which there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transubstantiatis) by the divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of him what he has received of us.  And this sacrament no one can effect except the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the Apostles and their successors."[iv]

Strongly related to the doctrine of transubstantiation was the doctrine of sacrifice.  Sacrificial doctrine came to be dominant in the middle ages as a definition of the Eucharist’s meaning.  The Eucharist was seen as superior to the Old Testament sacrifices, since it was the fulfillment of the earlier system and the inauguration of the new.  Whereas the Levitical sacrifices were an anticipation of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, the Eucharistic sacrifice was a participation in that sacrifice.  The two sacrifices were seen as being one since the cross was only truly efficacious sacrifice, and the mass could only be dependent upon that original sacrifice.  The Eucharist, therefore could not be a punishment for sin, rather it was the representation of the mystery of the cross.  In spite of the mystery involved, the material sacrificed is Christ's body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  In addition the mass was related to Anselm's doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  For Anselm, it is Christ who is daily offering himself as a sacrifice, but the priest acts as his agent.  But whereas the original sacrifice blotted out original sin, the sacrifice of the mass blots out daily venial sins.  The priestly office of the medieval priest was derived from that of Christ himself, who served as priest, sacrifice, and altar.[v]

The emphasis on Christ's real presence, as defined by the doctrine of Transubstantiation and the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice led to the church of taking the step of venerating the host.  If the host (bread) had truly become the divine body of Christ, then it like Christ could be worshipped.  Thus the host was elevated and venerated, and it came to be believed that simply being in the presence of the host was sufficient to cleanse one from sin.  This meant that actually consuming the Eucharistic elements was unnecessary, for in the host the person of Christ became tangible and this was sufficient.  Only the priests therefore need to take the elements.   

[i] Radbertus quoted in Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology, (Concordia, 1968), 156.
[ii] “Ratranmus pf Corbie on the Real Presence” in The Christian Theology Reader.  Alister E. McGrath, ed., (Cambridge, MA:  Blackwell, 1995), p. 296.
[iii] Peter Lombard in Ray Petry, History of Christianity, (NY:  Prentice-Hall, 1962), 1:321.
[iv] Canon I:  the Creed, the Church, the Sacraments, and Transubstantiation," in Petry, History of Christianity, 1:322
[v] Jaroslav Pelikan, Growth of Medieval Theology, 136-37, 188-90.  Reinhold Seeberg, The History of Doctrines, (Baker, 1977), 2:134-35.

Philippians as a Pathway to Spiritual Growth -- Philippians #7

What is the path to spiritual growth?  What practices will help us draw closer to God and empower us to live transformed lives?  Bruce Epperly suggests that Paul provides such a guide in these verses from Philippians 4.  I invite you to consider Bruce's reflections and add your thoughts.


Philippians 7 – 
Philippians as a Pathway to Spiritual Growth
Philippians 4:4-9
Bruce G. Epperly

Good theology involves the interplay of vision, promise, and practice.  It paints a picture of our world – God, humankind, grace and sin, creation, the future.  It tells us that we can experience the ultimate realities of life, and it gives us practices to align ourselves with the ultimate sources of meaning and value in our lives.

Paul presents a vision of reality in which God’s providence moves constantly through our lives, aiming toward a harvest of righteousness.  God rules by love and relationship rather than unilateral and coercive power.  We can share in God’s providence, responding to God’s grace, by “working out our salvation with awe and excitement.”

Paul promises a harvest of righteousness.  But, how do we cultivate the seeds of the spirit that will grow into abundant living for us and others?  Paul may remember Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed.  He may be asking himself and the community to ponder: “How do we provide the right circumstances for growing good seed?  How do we nurture the mind of Christ within us?”

Philippians 4:4-9 provides a pathway to spiritual growth.  Listen to Paul’s counsel:
 Rejoice* in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.* 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. God is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 
 Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
While Paul’s list is not exhaustive, it provides a holistic pathway to spiritual growth, grounded in a sense of connection with God and one another.  Spiritual growth is not an individual path, but emerges from our relationships within the body of Christ. We cannot be saved on our own; we require a community of supporters and prayer partners to produce a harvest of righteousness.  We hold ourselves accountable, cheering each other on, sharing each others’ joys and sorrows as we seek to embody practices of faith such as:
  • Rejoicing – opening to the fullness of life and the dependability of God.  Joy is not accidental but the result of cultivating a sense of God’s nearness and providential care.
  •  Gentleness – having the mind of Christ, responding to conflict with spiritual strength and empathy, with a care for the other, rather than anger or coercion.
  • Prayer – connecting with God throughout the day, practicing the presence of God through attentiveness to God’s movements in our lives.
  • Supplication – asking, seeking, and knocking, bringing our deepest needs to God and letting God move through our lives to fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts in light of the well-being of the whole.
  • Thanksgiving – living a life of appreciation, giving thanks for every gesture of kindness, living by appreciation, and honoring the interdependence of life from which all good gifts emerge. 
  • Affirmative faith –focusing on God’s bounty, living by a sense of “learned optimism,” attending to the goodness of life rather than focusing on life’s limitations and our personal failures.  Renewing our minds by opening to the deeper realities resident in the limits of life, living by possibility not limitation.
Paul doesn’t give us a formula for spiritual transformation, but points us to spiritual guideposts along the way. The whole universe is waiting to provide our needs – all of our needs – if we awaken to God’s abundant life within our daily lives.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Partaking of the Bread of Life

48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 Common English Bible)

Jesus says “I am the bread of life.”  These words are spoken in response to those seeking  seeking free bread (after he feeds the 5000 plus).   Free bread had always been used by the powers to be to keep the masses quiet or to buy their support.  The crowd seems to be saying to Jesus – you give us bread and will give you our allegiance.  

Jesus will have none of it.  He’s not asking for their allegiance in a bid for political power, but is inviting them into a spiritual relationship. But of course it’s more than simply that.  As with the story of the woman at the well (also in John), Jesus offers himself as the means of achieving union with God – eternal life.   The way this conversation plays out gives us an Eucharistic picture, and historically this text has been used as a means of defining real presence in the Eucharist.  Since John doesn’t have an Institution narrative, many believe that this text provides John’s definition of the Eucharist.  

As developed by later interpreters, as we partake of the Eucharist, we take into ourselves Jesus’ real body and blood.  By doing so we receive the means of eternal life.  In participating in this sacrament we essentially achieve union with God.

I realize that many in the Progressive Christian community have problems with Eucharistic language, especially when it has sacrificial tones.  Indeed, many have issues with speaking of eternal life, believing that such talk takes away from the important work to be done on earth.  But, having hope for eternity need not take away from commitment to the transformation of this world, but it does provide a broader picture of reality.

I share the concern about some of the language as well, especially when it gets too graphic, but I wonder – is the Lord’s Table simply a communal meal?  Or does participation in this meal have even deeper spiritual impact?  That is, by participating in this meal, might we, by faith experience oneness with Jesus, and thus with God, as we gather at the table?

Monday, September 26, 2011


            As we look ahead toward this coming Sunday, at which time Christians from across the theological and geographical spectrum will celebrate the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper, it is worth giving attention to the meaning of this sacrament of the church and to its practice.  If you do a search through this blog for the word Eucharist, you’ll find much to ponder.  Being Disciple, a tradition that celebrates the service of the Table each week that may not be that surprising.  I’m going to try to add in other materials as time allows to further the conversation.

            Being that I’m using the John 6:41-51 passage as the basis of my sermon this coming Sunday, using the title “Bread of Life,” I began looking at what I had written or thought about over the years.  One of the major issues that emerges in any conversation about the Eucharist is the matter of Presence.  This is especially true of any reflection on John 6, where Jesus speaks rather boldly about being the “Bread of Life” and that salvation comes as one eats his body and drinks his blood.   The question that has long been pondered concerns what all this means – how realistic should we take this?  There have been, historically a number of directions this conversation has taken.  So, to begin I’m sharing just a few words about this conversation as it developed in the first few centuries of the church’s existence, starting in the early second century.     
The idea of a realistic presence in the elements comes as early as Ignatius.  In his conflict with the docetists, who denied that Christ came in the flesh, Ignatius insists that the bread and wine are in reality Christ's body and blood.  He accused the Gnostics of avoiding the Eucharist because they refused "to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised" (Smyrnaeans 7:1).  Justin Martyr spoke of the bread and wine in similar terms:

For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. (1st Apology, 66). [i]

            The sense of presence becomes even clearer in Irenaeus:

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that the flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? (Against Heresies, 5:3).[ii]

            By the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem has developed a more mature view of the real presence.  He urges the readers to partake of Christ's body and blood in the figures of the bread and wine.  In that action, Cyril believed that the participant became one body with Christ. 

For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His body and blood are diffused through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature. (Catechesis, 4:3).[iii]

Still a question remains as to the means of transformation.  Cyril advised his readers on this issue.

Contemplate therefore the Bread and Wine not as bare elements, for they are, according the Lord's declaration the Body and Blood of Christ; for though sense suggests this to thee, let faith stablish thee.  Judge not the matter from taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that though hast been vouchsafed the Body and Blood of Christ. (Catechesis, 4:5).

            While the Fathers definitely had an idea of change they did not specify the nature of the change.  They did not hold a doctrine of Transubstantiation.  That doctrine would wait for several centuries and the discovery of Aristotelian and Platonic categories. 

            Western and Eastern Fathers disagreed, however, about the timing of the change.  Whereas the West connected the change with the words of institution, the East connected the change with the prayer of Invocation of the Spirit.  In the second century, however, the Fathers believed that the Prayer of Thanksgiving as a whole consecrated the elements.

[i] Cyril Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970), 286.
[ii] Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 388.
[iii] Cyril of Jerusalem, Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, F. L. Cross, ed., (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimar's Press, 1986),

Papal Headlines -- Sightings

It has been interesting watching the papacy of Benedict XVI.  He's really not any more conservative that John Paul II, but he lacks the charisma of his predecessor.   And so a visit to Germany suggests warm greetings on the part of some, protests on the part of others.  Benedict makes nice at times with Protestants, but he has no energy for it, so a visit to Luther's Germany doesn't bolster confidence.  But, as Martin Marty suggests, the protests that accompanied the papal visit to Germany are in themselves signs of life in an era when apathy is more likely to be the response to the church and to faith.  At least they still care.  I invite you to read and then consider the issue of apathy in the religious world.  Do people really care?

Sightings  9/26/2011

Papal Headlines
-- Martin E. Marty

Random headlines from daily newspapers which reached our door last Wednesday to Friday: “Pope Ventures Into Land of Luther, and Criticism,” “A Papal Homecoming to a Combative Germany: Benedict Faces Calls for Change,” “Pope to Visit Germany Amid Turmoil,” “Protesters, Faithful Greet Pontiff in Native Germany,” “Faithful Flock to See Pope in Berlin, as Thousands Protest,” and “Pope Warns Against Religious Apathy: On German Visit, Pontiff Addresses Falling Church Influence, as He Is Met with Reverence and Protests.”             
Almost all of the headlines have ambiguity or tension written into them, as the stories they banner or the issues on which they report tug in opposite directions. One side reflects tender themes: “Homecoming,” “Faithful,” (twice), and “Native” give reason to picture the German Pope heading happily for Germany, where he spent most of his years. The other side is just the opposite: “Combative,” “Turmoil,” “Protest” and “Protesters.”
Were this a report of 500 years ago, the most traumatic challenge would be “Luther,” and the name and legacy may leave the Pope half-fulfilled with an agenda calling for “Change.” Today it troubles him less than all the rest. True, the headline cited includes the positive word “Reverence,” but even that headline points to a benumbing motif which outweighs almost everything else said: “Apathy.”
Popes, especially those as intelligent, experienced, and surrounded by counsel as Benedict XVI is, can argue their way out of challenges, ignore what does not please them, or offer softeners against the blows. What one thinks of critics and challenges depends upon who is looking in or looking on: aggrieved and outraged parents who feel they have not been heard or who are thwarted when they protest clerical abuse. These include women denied ordination, and some other intra-Catholic issues which needn’t directly concern the five-sixth of the world that is not Catholic of the Roman obedience.
Get past these, and then observe Catholics, Europeans, Christians in most parts of the world—half paralyzed or shaken by that word “Apathy.” The stories, taken together, suggest that the grievances and protests of the faithful should be at least signs of life. They are the voices of the faithful who still care enough to rise above apathy and inertia. The problem of which the pontiff is assuredly aware is that apathy has led millions of Europeans to vacate the pews, check out of the liturgies, stop participating in church-inspired works of love and maybe, as they exit the chapels and cathedrals, forget about those works of love entirely.
Knowing about apathy is one thing, but as these stories and all reports of the lead-up to the papal visit suggest, knowing what to do is another. The pope can be friendly to Lutherans, an ecumenical signaler of hope to those called “the faithful,” a greeter to people of other faiths. But he should have learned by now that “warning” does little in complex situations. German and European Catholics argue: does the Pope’s discouragement of the hopeful people who once flocked to the movement of aggiornamento and to generous ecumenism four decades ago contribute to the problems? He does not pretend that things are going well: all the statistics and cultural evidences challenge him. This apathy is not merely an isolated sign of a short and mild setback, but a symptom among populations which have simply lost faith in God, love for the Church, and the ability to care about them.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Curtis L. Thompson asks how dance helps us to understand both the relationship of God to the world and the reality of religion. Thompson seeks to challenge Christian thought to account for experiences outside the church—not only dancing, but also “music, theater, film and television, play, work, food and eating, [etc.]."  Thompson also wants to confront our present dis-ease with the body. “The goal,” he writes, “is to lift up a God who embraces the creation in all its variegated particularity and to regard creation’s fulfillment as taking place within the God-enveloped network of connectedness.”

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.