Thursday, February 03, 2005

Response to Dave Armstrong on Transubstantiation 1 

The following is an open response to Dave Armstrong's response to my posts on the subject of transubstantiation (I, II, III). Dave, Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my posts. I was heartened to observe areas of common ground and would like to probe some of our differences a bit further. I am trying to understand some of the key things that you are seeking to maintain in order that we may arrive at a better mutual understanding on this issue. To this same end I will try to more clearly articulate some of my fundamental concerns. I will probably write a few posts (provided that I can find the time) designed to tease out some of the roots to our differences. Hopefully any remaining misunderstandings will be uncovered in the process. I appreciate the frankness of your response. I see little benefit in a feigned agreement or false peace between positions that remain opposed. There is no single area in which my theological understanding would not benefit from the corrective provided by other Christians. There is a significant possibility that there are some correctives that you can provide to my position on the Eucharist. Whilst I see little hope of either of us persuading the other of our opinions in their entirety, I seldom leave a discussion without my view having been refined and challenged by the process of debate. I trust that this will prove to be no exception. Lord-willing, the following post will serve to identify areas of difference more closely. I intend this post as an extended expression of one of my root convictions about the Eucharist. I hope that you will regard it in this light, rather than as a direct challenge to your position. Ideally you will be able to respond by revealing to what degree the following points represent shared convictions, and to what degree your convictions in this area differ from my own. Finally, I would value your patience. I will probably not be able to respond to you as quickly as either of us would like. At the moment I am sorely lacking in both the time and the energy that I require. You describe transubstantiation as a ‘miracle’. I would resist using such language to describe what happens in the Supper, not because we do not eat of Christ’s body and drink of His blood, but because it generally presupposes a purely extrinsic relationship between some realm of ‘nature’ and another putative realm of ‘super-nature’. A miracle is an invasion of the former by the latter. I am trying to reject the idea of an extrinsic relationship in favour of a more intrinsic relationship. Chief among my problems with the doctrine of transubstantiation in many of its common forms is that the Supper is perceived as possessing some ontology peculiar to itself as ‘sacrament’, something that sharply separates it from the form of sacramentality possessed by the world in general. Rather than standing in a very clear continuity with the Passover that precedes it and the daily meals that surround it, the Eucharist ends up becoming something quite alien to these things — a miracle. Once again, I am not denying that we feed on Christ in the Supper. What I am denying is the idea that the Supper is somehow some radically different entity from the Passover and our day-to-day meals. The manner in which the Eucharist is practiced in many churches serves to present the Supper as separated from the rest of life. Rather than being the fulfilment of all that our daily meals were designed to be, the Supper soon loses all resemblance to any other supper. I strongly believe that the Supper should be regarded as one of one daily meals. For this reason, I am firmly in favour of the practice of celebrating the Eucharist within the context of a meal that the gathered assembly of the church all partake of. Sometime in the course of the meal, the bread should be taken by the head of the assembly and he should offer a simple prayer of thanksgiving (e.g. ‘Lord, we thank You for bread, which You have given to sustain men’s hearts’); then, after pronouncing the words of institution, it should be distributed by the deacons. At the conclusion of the meal the head of the assembly should take the cup, offer another simple prayer of thanksgiving (e.g. ‘Lord, we thank You for wine, which You have given to make men’s hearts glad’); then the words of institution should be pronounced and the deacons should pass it around to the congregation. All the baptized (but only the baptized) should partake, young children included. Such a practice is far more preferable to partaking while on your knees in front of a communion rail. This is a strange way to eat a meal. Once transubstantiation has been elevated to the status of ‘miracle’, it is effectively sundered from the OT rites that preceded it. Transubstantiation is ‘supernatural’ in a manner that the Passover meal never was. As a result the focus of Eucharistic theology is drawn away from the OT background to elaborate philosophical constructs designed to articulate the precise ‘mechanics’ of the miracle of transubstantiation. I am arguing that the ‘substance’ of the sacrament does not change from the old to the new covenant. In some sense or other, the ‘substance’ is Christ in both covenants (this is not to deny that we have a far deeper participation in Christ in the new covenant). The new covenant Eucharist is a ‘conjugation’ of a number of OT rites. The Eucharist is the fulfilment and consummation of the Passover as it is a manifestation of, and participation in, the new covenant order, where Christ is all in all. The Eucharist will one day itself be fulfilled and consummated in the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist is a foretaste of the Marriage Supper in a similar manner to the manner in which the Passover was a foretaste in the Eucharist. What is my point in all of this? My point is simply that the Supper is woven into the fabric of the whole of our lives. The Supper is somehow continuous with the meals that we eat from day to day; the Supper is somehow continuous with all of the God-ordained eating rites in the previous history of the people of God. As James Jordan and others have observed, the basic form of the action in the Supper (i.e. taking, thanking, separating, renaming, distributing, evaluating, enjoying) is one that is more or less applicable to almost every series of actions in our lives. Man takes parts of the world, restructures them, renames them, presents them in some form or other to different people, who evaluate these restructured parts of the world and (hopefully) go on to enjoy them. This pattern is exhibited even in the most mundane actions of life. Sinful man consistently approaches the sequence as follows: take, give thanks, restructure, rename, distribute, evaluate, enjoy (Romans 1:21). The ritual of the Eucharist is designed (among many other things) to impress upon us this second element in the sequence in order that we might live the whole of our lives eucharistically. The Eucharistic elements are some of the most common and fundamental elements of human life and culture. If they are drawn into the new world order, somehow the entirety of human culture is implicated also. By construing transubstantiation as a ‘discrete miraculous exception’ (Catherine Pickstock’s phrase), the fabric of this world is no longer implicated in the same way in the Eucharistic celebration. This is one of the chief things that concern me about the position that you seem to be articulating. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you here. The Body and Blood that we eat and drink are not just ‘phenomenologically’ bread and wine, but are completely continuous with the reality of bread and wine. The bread is not evacuated of its substance (as if it were a container) to make room for the Body; rather the bread now subsists in the Body and the Body is present in the bread. The bread now ‘lives and moves and has its being’ (for want of a better way of putting it) in Christ. The manner in which the bread is taken up into Christ and receives its substance from Him (by the work of the Holy Spirit) makes the language of ‘transubstantiation’ appropriate. As Pickstock expresses it in her defence of Aquinas’ doctrine, ‘the substantiality of the bread is not so much destroyed as more utterly constituted by being taken up into God.’ I find little to object to in this statement. I do not believe in impanation. What takes place in the Supper is not a matter of Christ coming into our world in order to inhabit it (as was the case in the Incarnation), but is a matter of our world being drawn into and grounded in the resurrected and ascended Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a matter of the Church drawing its being from Christ. We are ‘transubstantiated’ from a gathering of faithful believers into the Body of Christ as we draw our substance from Him in the celebration of the Eucharist. Such a form of ‘transubstantiation’, which is the position that I essentially hold to, is totally consistent with the claim that adoration of the elements is unbiblical and idolatrous. The analogy between the manner in which the Christ is the body of Christ and the manner in which the bread is the body of Christ is also thoroughly appropriate within the form of transubstantiation expressed above. The Church gains its substance from Christ — we are bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh — but the Church is still in some manner distinct from Christ. In the same manner the bread and wine take their substance from Christ, but are not to be worshipped as Christ. The change in substance is not a sufficient proof for the validity of the common forms of Eucharistic adoration.

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