Baptists, Eucharist, and History – Series Intro

This past weekend a discussion with the Internet Monk, which began for me at least on twitter, emerged in two different posts. In the first, the iMonk posted a link to a sermon by David Chanski on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper and his own thoughts on the sermon. The second post responded to someone who asked what the problems are with the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. If you’re interested, you will find some comments by me on both posts. The first problem he listed was a problem he called “the historical problem”. He posed the issue this way:

How do Baptists relate their view of the Lord’s Supper to the ancient church’s far more eucharistic, real presence language? Do we believe the ancient church was wrong until the Baptist reformation? Yes? No? What?

It’s hardly a new issue to me. As a Christian (a clarification I have to make since I have been a lot of other things over the course of my life), I’ve only really been a Baptist sort of Christian. Oh, I’ve experienced many different flavors of Christianity from childhood on and know a pretty decent amount about many of them. But to the extent I’ve been anything in the midst of modern Christian pluralism, I’ve been a Baptist. I’m also the sort of person who enjoys history and who doesn’t just love reading, but for whom reading and breathing come close to being synonymous. And that combination means I encountered this issue sooner rather than later. I was able to set it aside for years to see if a resolution would emerge. I’m often able to do that when faced with tension in a belief. That worked for a decade or so. But it’s been increasingly ineffective over the last four or five years. Since there isn’t much in Christian life, practice, and belief that is and has always been more central than the Eucharist, that’s a problem.

I will point out that this is not uniquely a Baptist problem today. Many “nondenominational” churches (or denominations of one as they tend to be counted) have a perspective that is at least similar to the Baptist view. The Baptist, or more properly Zwinglian (Zwingli originated the memorial, symbolic theology of the Eucharist in the 16th century), view is also similar to the view held by many in the charismatic wing of the modern church. Presbyterian and other Reformed churches have a somewhat similar, though not identical, problem. As I consider the Protestant branch of the church, Lutherans and Anglicans have much less of a historical problem with the Eucharist than many. I honestly don’t remember what Methodists teach, but since they are offshoots of the Anglican Church, they may also have fewer historical issues. I can hardly claim to be familiar with the tens of thousands of distinct sects into which Protestantism has devolved, but I would wager that the majority of the larger Protestant tradition shares at least part of this particular problem with the Baptists.

In this series, I have no plans to resolve the historical problem. I don’t have any answers and I don’t expect a revelation. Instead, I plan to explore the nature of the problem itself. What is the history of belief about the Eucharist? What are the ramifications of that history? I’ll be exploring questions like that.

If it does not matter to you what your predecessors in the faith believed and practiced, if you are unconcerned about those whom Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses, then you don’t share this historical problem. If innovation in the faith, even in its most central aspects, is something that doesn’t bother you, then you will probably not find much of interest in this series. This is for those like me for whom such things do matter, and perhaps matter a very great deal.

In this series, I will be discussing excerpts from Christian writings throughout the first millenium. I’m not really fond of trying to “mine” those writings for a topical discussion. I’ve seen a lot of that done pretty badly over the years. Those writings don’t really lend themselves to that sort of approach. With much ancient writing, you have to try to understand the perspective, setting, culture, and situation from which someone was writing and then try to absorb the whole of what they are saying which will then illuminate the parts.  It’s very different from most Western scholastic works where you try to understand each piece in order to grasp the whole. The pieces often build on each other, but usually in a structured and orderly manner. I will always provide a link to the whole work from which I quote. And if you have any question about the way I am reading something, please go read the whole thing. Even better, read as much by that particular author as you can find.

I will caution readers up front that it is impossible to discuss the Eucharist from the writings of the first millenium without also running headlong into the issue of unity and oneness. That’s probably not what a Protestant wants to hear. But the two trains of thought tend to be deeply intertwined in most places. There are many writings over the centuries addressing schismatics (which is not the same thing as heretic) and there were schisms to address. Nevertheless, I don’t think any writer in the first millenium could have ever imagined schism on the scale that we’ve managed. So be warned.

I will generally assume that everyone reading this series has read, in their entirety, preferably multiple times, perhaps even using the techniques of lectio divina certain key portions of the Holy Scriptures. Of course, that includes the accounts of the last supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The other two passages are John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. There are other scriptures, and I will provide specific references when needed. But the Scriptures above will permeate the discussion and sit in the background at all times.

Since my focus will be specifically on the historical problem with the Baptist perspective, the 1689 London Confession is as good a reference for that perspective as any. I immediately noted when I read it that it never references John 6. I’m not sure how you can develop a theological confession of the Lord’s Supper without ever referencing the Eucharistic chapter of the theological Gospel. But there you go. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

In the series I recently completed on the Didache, you might want to read post 31, post 25, post 26, and post 27. I don’t plan to revisit the Didache in this series since I just reflected on the entire Teaching.

I had actually planned to write a series of reflections on the latest encyclical, CARITAS IN VERITATE, by Pope Benedict XVI next. But this cropped up and it somehow seemed like the series I should write at this time. I may still slip in some thoughts on the encyclical in additional posts.

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  1. Posted July 15, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Scott, very much looking forward to this new series. It’s a great idea.

  2. Posted July 15, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to it, I need to start getting more knowledgeable about church history beyond the realm of Calvinistic thought. Interestingly, when I hit Seminary in a year, there’s a class on Baptist history (I’m planning on Southern Baptist Sem.), so perhaps this will evn give me a bit of a boost there 🙂

    One note about the belief in Baptist teaching in the early church; the early Church also (as far as I know?) have any structured teaching of Calvinistic thought until Augustine, but we consider that to be right as well. So perhaps both doctrines are in the same boat — though, granted, there were deterministic groups even in the Jewish groups (the Essenes, if I recall correctly; Josephus wrote about that somewhere), though this isn’t exactly the same thread.

    It’s funny you brought up the part about unity — the post I just wrote for today is actually centered around the concept 🙂 Check it out if you get a chance:

  3. mike
    Posted July 15, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    ..this is going to be good…….thanks in advance

  4. Posted July 15, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m hardly the poster child for Baptists. After I lay a little bit of groundwork, it’s mostly going to be a bit of a journey through church history. There’s no way to really be comprehensive. And as I warned, the best way to understand ancient writers is more immersion than analysis, at least at first. I’m certainly not up on Baptist history. I know some, of course. But even before I was Christian, I always had a love for ancient history.

    Actually, it’s a considerable stretch to call Augustine Calvinistic. He pretty much stood alone in the first thousand years and probably in error on his particular idea about original sin (sadly the West ended up adopting it though not as strongly until the early parts of the second millenium), without which you can never even begin to get to total depravity. And Augustine’s struggle with the idea of free will comes out on the wrong side more often than not. Again, he largely stood alone on that among the Fathers. And many of his works were not translated into Greek until much, much later (I’ve heard even a thousand years for at least some). And that’s sad, because while he had no peer at his time in the Latin West, there were a number in the Greek East who could have read and possibly corrected him.

    However, I don’t tend to spend a lot of time with Augustine, though I have read significant parts of his writings. (I have not read the full Confessions — just excerpts.) He was schooled before his conversion in the neo-platonism of his day and it really shows through. His construction of original sin owes more to the philosophical idea of seminal reasons than anything in Jewish or Christian thought or the Holy Scriptures. It didn’t help that he didn’t like Greek and worked from Latin texts of the Scriptures that were either questionable or simply wrong in their translation in some places.

    If you’re going to read my thoughts, I should warn you that I’m not a particular fan of Calvin. I encountered Calvinism fairly late and have never been attracted to it in the least. My reaction to total depravity was immediately pretty much like that of C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. And while I understand the attraction to determinism, which almost ruled modern Western scholastic thought until the 20th century, I’m really not interested in it at all. On the scientific level, I agree with Stephen Hawking that Laplace was flat out wrong. I find no basis for the idea in reality at any level. Further, Calvinism is at its core virtually a form of monism. And if I’m going to take that route, I’ll take Brahman any day of the week. At least Brahman is impersonal. A personal God who is for all practical purposes the source of both good and evil is simply an evil God.

    I have interacted and continue to interact with both Calvinists and people with Calvinistic leanings. A good friend of mine leans that way. And some of my family are Presbyterian, though I didn’t really know anything about that belief system until fairly recently. My aunt was in many ways probably a better Christian than I’ll ever be. So Calvinists don’t usually bother me at all. Calvinism does.

    I’ll go check your post. As I reflected on some of the writings, I realized that oneness and the eucharist are very often interwoven ideas in the ancient church. I just thought I warn people up front. Especially the Baptists. I do love them and am always grateful that I “found” (doesn’t feel like exactly the best word, but can’t think of another) the faith among them. But they do tend to be a fractious lot. 🙂

2 Trackbacks

  • […] Here’s a link to the series’ intro–look for the other installments in Scott’s sidebar or on the first couple pages of his site. […]

  • By Evangelical Is Not Enough 7 on February 10, 2010 at 5:40 am

    […] almost without interruption on the heels of the text of the New Testament. In my series on Baptists, Eucharist, and History, I covered the first couple of hundred years or so of Christian writing on the topic in a fair […]

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