Define Irony: a Communion Supper which incites division. In The Lord’s Supper: Five Views, we are given an interesting spectrum of perspectives along the Christian spectrum. These range from the highly liturgical Catholic and Luther traditions, to the emphatically non-liturgical and underdeveloped tradition of Pentecostalism.
The following overview will be a combination of my perception of the traditions represented here by their respective representatives, and a brief summary of their positions.
Catholic Perspective – Brother Jeffrey Gros
Reading the Catholic perspective on the Lord’s Supper, I really get a strong sense and appreciation for the richness and seriousness of its tradition; and it’s easy to see why: in the elements Christ is physically present! It is not just a wafer and wine, it is literally the physical body and blood of Christ. In the Mass, the part of the service which climaxes in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented (not represented), and grace is bestowed. While I don’t share the view, I do appreciate the piety of it.
A second feature which impressed me was with Gros’ passion for union and economical dialogue, which was a matter of emphasis within his article.
Lutheran Perspective – John Stephenson
In striking contrast to the Catholic perspective which attempted to set a tone of humble dialogue, the tone and attitude of Stephenson for the Lutheran perspective came across as strongly divisive, dogmatic and arrogant (as does all of his responses to the other articles unfortunately). Of course he has confidence in his claims since he follows Luther, Paul and Jesus – unlike the other perspectives! (Who can argue with that?) According to Stephenson, when Jesus said that “this is my body,” he meant every syllable to be taken literally. This view also believes that divine grace is bestowed through the elements.
Roger Olson’s response to this article is sharp, if somewhat comical, (suggesting that Stephenson’s view of the Lord’s Supper puts the Incarnation in jeopardy). Stephenson does not just present a Lutheran perspective as divisively opposed to all others, Catholic and Protestant alike, but he goes on to attack other Lutheran’s who hold a slightly different view. Ironically, Stephenson admits that the view he presents is in the minority, even within Lutheranism.
Reformed Perspective –Leanne Van Dyk
Van Dyk’s presentation of the Lord’s Supper was very historically informative. She develops all three Reformed heritages of the Lord’s Supper: Zwingly, Bullinger and Calvin. Zwingly taught what Van Dyk refers to as the “memorialism” perspective (the Lord’s Supper is symbolic); Bullinger taught what is called “Parallelism”, and Calvin taught “instrumentalism” since the elements are instrumental in raising us up to where Christ is seated, in heavenly places.
Van Dyk decisively holds to Calvin’s perspective – a perspective of “ascension” – but gives fair hearing to all corners of the Reformed tradition and its various diversities. I appreciate the grace with which she, as a Reformer, has written this article.
Baptist Perspective – Roger Olson
Roger Olson certainly places somewhere prominent within my top ten favorite Biblical theologians to read. He’s not only intellectually sharp and well read, but I also feel I have many things in common with him. We both find ourselves comfortable somewhere within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. We both are sympathetic towards Open Theism (me probably more than he), and – for the purpose of this post – we both hail from a Pentecostal background!
Olson’s article reflects the grand diversity of the Baptist heritage, showing how it is nearly impossible to nail down any set unanimous Baptist beliefs regarding the Lord’s Supper. It is, however, possible to trace themes and to state emphatically what Baptist reject regarding the Lord’s Supper: 1. Contrary to Catholics and Lutherans, the Lord’s Supper is not a means of grace. 2. The elements are not Christ’s body and blood. 3. The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance or symbol (from its Zwinglian heritage) of Christ. 4. Christ is present when the believers are gathered for communion, but not bodily, only through the Spirit (the Spirit of Christ).
Pentecostal Perspective – Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Bravo! That is my opening response. Not because Karkkainen has shown the Pentecostal view to be superior to the others (on the contrary, he shows how the Pentecostal view is decisively deficient), nor because I hail from a Pentecostal background. But because in Karkkainen’s article and throughout this book, as he responded to the other contributors, he has show that there is hope yet for the Pentecostal Tradition (I suppose we can start calling it that). Hope, that is, in that I finally see in Karkkainen the same level of academia as in the other rich traditions of Rome and Germany (Catholic, Lutheran).
Turning to the article, Karkkainen frankly admits the undeveloped (or underdeveloped) theology of Pentecostalism. (Progress begins when we admit we need it.) Following this vein, it is interesting to see, point by point, how Karkkainen affirms that Pentecostals believe in, say for example, the “spiritual presence of Christ” in the meal, but then states: “but how this is affirmed theologically, is not usually discussed.” [p.123] This fear or unwillingness or whatever it is that keeps Pentecostal theologians and pastors from working out their theology is a major hurtle to be overcome. As Karkkainen seems to suggest, classical Pentecostalism has aligned itself with fundamentalism and its tendency towards anti-intellectualism. But – and I cheer! – Karkkainen ends his article by taking a “brief look at emerging constructive Pentecostal theologies… coming from a new generation of academically trained thinkers.” [p.119] Amen! It’s time to mature.
In summary of the Pentecostal view, Olson points out in his response that there is almost no difference between the Pentecostal and Baptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper with but one exception: Pentecostal atonement theology provides for physical healing. Thus at Pentecostal Communion services healings are supposed to be a common occurrence. (Interestingly, this doctrine was one of the catalysts which provoked Olson to join the Baptist camp.)
Reflections on the Articles:
Here’s irony, the two most ecumenically geared contributors are Brother Jeffrey Gros (Roman Catholic), and Veli-Matti Karkkainen (Pentecostal). They both write with the most grace, they dialogue with one each other’s tradition implicitly (if not explicitly) and they both understand the sheer complexities of the debates revolving around the Lord’s Supper.
Contrary to these we have John Stephenson whose mind seems to be about as intellectually open as a holey parachute. He is the most dogmatic and consequentially the most arrogant and frustrating to read. Properly paired is Roger Olson, much more open minded, but never the one to back away from a fight should a proud contender present himself.
Reflections on the Lord’s Supper:
I am very thankful for this book and the views presented here. I have learned much more about the different perspectives then I knew prior. My own theology of the Lord’s Supper remains in development but I do have a few questions to pose to the respected traditions.
Both the Lutheran and Catholic traditions hold as a basic assumption that some sort of grace is given through the meal. Where does this assumption come from? Simply put, I don’t see why we need to assume this at all and then build theology around it if the scriptures do not say as much.
Secondly, both of those traditions affirm the Lord’s Supper as in the ecclesial sense, a “communion”. Why is it then that both traditions refuse to “communion” with other Christian traditions? As Stephenson put it so boldly, “Till we all agree which Supper [Jesus] actually founded, though, here below we cannot partake of the same bread and the same cup.” [p.139] I do not understand this divisive mentality. If there is one body, the body of Christ, the Church, then while we may understand terms and nature of the Lord’s Supper differently we cannot say to each other, “leave this Table” as though I could easily say to my hand or my eye or my mouth, “leave me while I eat”.
As a people we are, by God’s design, distinctive. We should not allow our distinctiveness prevent us from communing together as one agreed Body.
To the Reformed perspective I have a different question. In preserving the Incarnation of Christ, they rightly recognize his centrality in bodily form. He cannot be in heaven and in the meal at the same time. Yet Calvin taught that when we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we are “ascended” to heaven in spirit. However, my question is this: if we who are bodily can in spirit ascend to where Christ is, why can he not descend in the Spirit to where we are when we have communion? Is he not wherever two or more are gathered together? How much more during the Lord’s communion Supper will he be present in his Spirit?
So I am left agreeing with the Baptist/Pentecostal position with, still yet, another question for them as well. If the Lord’s Supper is purely symbolic and if it has no more spiritual significance than any other Christian gathering or activity, than why is it that those who partake in an unworthy manner will face consequences of sickness and even death (1 Cor 11:30)? There must be more to it than mere symbolism and rememberance.
I’ll leave you with these thoughts which I feel obliged to work out in my own theology and life regarding the Lord’s Supper:
- In it we remember the Past
- In it we experience the Present
- In it we anticipate the Future