What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.


Thanksgiving – Eucharistic Man

Posted: November 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Thanksgiving – Eucharistic Man

I’ve been pondering what to write for Thanksgiving this year. I considered the usual list one often sees, but in truth such a list would have little on it beyond my family and other relationships. At the end of the day, it’s people who matter to me. As I’ve been reading (and blogging) Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, I’ve been struck by his image of man created to be eucharistic, that is offering thanksgiving for and on behalf of creation to God. It seems to me a better thing to celebrate than either our history of broken promises and conquest over the native peoples of this continent or our bloody civil war in which neither party to the conflict had a moral high ground.

Of course, as we reflect on man as eucharistic, we realize that none of us truly thank God with our being. None of us, that is, save one, the faithful man, the true Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. He is our Eucharist for he restores to mankind our true vocation. In and through Jesus the Christ, we can participate in the life of God, offering true thanksgiving for all creation.

And yet — even now we too often don’t. We become paralyzed by fear. We do not see God everywhere present and filling all thanks. We do believe that reality is as Jesus describes it. Ultimately, we do not truly believe that God is unfailingly good, that he loves mankind, that he loves us and will use all that we experience for our salvation. From the moment I read it, I understood what Paul meant when he wrote, “For we know that all things work together for the good for those who love God…” I understood the story of Joseph. What his brothers meant to be evil, God turned to great good.

I’m drawn to Jesus because I want to believe that God is good. But it can be a hard thing to believe, deep down in your bones where it really counts. Evil may be an ephemeral shadow next to the light of God, but it seems strong and powerful, very real and frightening. We learn early on that the world is a dangerous place and so we do not see reality through the lens that Jesus offers.

What would it mean if those of us who call ourselves Christians determined to become eucharistic in communion with Christ?

I wonder.

Perhaps instead of the usual lists, I would offer thanks for having celiac, trusting that the good God would use it for my salvation? I would look at the evil I’ve experienced or which members of my family have experienced and see the good God has already brought out of that evil and offer those experiences as my eucharist?

Perhaps. But if so, I’m not there yet. I want to believe that God is good, but that is easier said than done.


The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

Posted: November 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

In other posts, I’ve looked at the Eucharist in history, at the mystery of the Eucharist, at its place in liturgy, and many other questions. A conversation with my youngest daughter this past week left me reflecting on the elements or gifts themselves or, to put it more prosaically, the bread and wine. There have been a number of practices regarding both over the course of the centuries. I would wager many modern Protestants are unfamiliar with all but the most recent.

One of the variations of practice that sometimes rose to the level of dispute was the use of leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Over time, the West settled into a practice of using unleavened bread and the East leavened bread, but that did not happen all at once. For centuries, there was a mixed practice in both East and West. All too often today, the concept of leaven is conflated with yeast. While scientifically accurate, it fails to capture the ancient mindset well. It would be more accurate to think of leaven as what we might call starter, if you’ve ever made bread in some of the more traditional ways.

Unlike much of what you might hear people in some corners say today, neither in the Holy Scriptures nor in the Fathers is leaven ever simply synonymous with sin or evil. Rather, leaven more describes a process of one substance permeating and changing the nature of another. Sin often acts that way. But, if you remember Jesus’ parable, so does the Kingdom.

The theology developed by proponents of either perspective is varied and rich. It’s worth spending time to explore if such things interest you. But, to summarize and over-simplify, there did tend to be some noteworthy trends.

Among those who favored unleavened bread, the primary point was the connection of the Eucharist to Passover because Christ is our Passover. And on Passover Jews ate unleavened bread. Why? Because on the night of the tenth plague, the Israelites prepared in haste to leave. You have to wait for leavened bread to rise, usually more than once whereas unleavened bread is prepared quickly. It is the bread of haste and the bitterness of departure.

Those who made this connection often also saw the meal at which Christ instituted the mystery of the Eucharist as a Passover meal at which they would have been eating unleavened bread. From very early on, you can see that this is a disputed point. And, indeed, if you read the gospels some things are clear. The connection to Passover is evident as is the fact that Passover is near. The room was one in which Jesus said he intended to eat Passover with his disciples. That is also certain. It is unclear whether or not the actual meal was a Passover meal and, if it was, whether or not Jesus was celebrating it on the “right” day. If you try to figure out exactly what day each event occurs you’ll give yourself a headache. Trust me, I know.

However, those who favored the use of leavened bread were not primarily concerned about whether or not the institution in the upper room happened in the context of a Passover meal or not. They drew from the parable of the leaven of the Kingdom and saw the leaven of Christ working itself into and through the people of God as the Kingdom spread into the nations. Although that last supper in the upper room was a night of departures, we do not eat in haste, ready to leave. Rather, we live in the Kingdom now and the Eucharist is as much about the Resurrection as it is the Cross.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, though I tend to lean in the direction of the arguments for leavened bread. They seem to hold more weight to me. Of course, as a diagnosed celiac, it’s largely a moot point for me in practical terms. Leavened or unleavened, I can’t consume the bread. But it is still a very interesting aspect of the practice of our faith to explore.

The other ancient dispute over practice which continues to this day revolves around the wine of the Eucharist. No, it’s not the dispute that would probably immediately spring to mind for most of my fellow modern American Protestants. We’ll get to that one later. No, this one is the practice of using pure wine in the Eucharist vs. wine mixed with hot water. Nobody that I’ve read on this dispute argues that Christ used anything but pure wine during the last supper. And on that basis, it became the standard practice in the West.

In the East, however, it has long been the practice to mix hot water with the wine. There are many different reasons given. One (from St. Cyril of Alexandria, I think) was that the water was the Church and in the Eucharist we take Christ into our body and become part of his body. Another makes reference to the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, arguing that it is thus appropriate for our Eucharist to be wine and water. Another perspective, especially in the Armenian and Ethiopian Churches holds that the water represents the Holy Spirit, since water is normally connected to the Spirit.

This debate became so heated that at one point in time anathemas flew. Personally, I can see both perspectives and find them both not without merit. I am also certain that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we receive either as the blood of our Lord, which is really all that matters.

The last dispute about the nature of the gifts themselves is the modern Protestant practice, connected to the 19th century temperance movement, of using grape juice instead of wine. I’ve heard and read myriad scriptural interpretations and theological circumlocutions to justify this particular innovation. If you think you have one that I’ve not heard, feel free to share it. This is a modern issue because it could only have arisen in our technologically advanced modern era. This is also where a dose of practical reality is needed more than theology.

In the modern West, we have become disconnected from the realities of food. We can have anything we want almost any time of the year. I know that personally, on those rare occasions I cannot find produce I desire at that moment, I’m irritated. But that is not how things have worked for much of human history. In the northern hemisphere, grapes are harvested in the fall. Oh, in some climates, like Cyprus, they might be harvested as early as late July and in Germany and some other places, grapes like icewine grapes might be harvested as late as January, but in general grapes are harvested in the fall. Passover is in the spring, all the way on the other side of the annual calendar. Moreover, there was no refrigeration or pasteurization in the ancient world.

What does that mean? It’s very simple really. That night in the upper room with Jesus of Nazareth, nobody had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the city had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the northern hemisphere had grapes or grape juice.

They had raisins and wine.

And the same realities carry through most of human history. There was not even the possibility of a question about whether to use grape juice or wine. All that anyone had available to use was wine. That’s why this is an uniquely modern dispute.

In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, dentist, physician, and Methodist Communion steward, successfully applied the process of pasteurization to grape juice producing an “unfermented wine” with a long shelf life when properly sealed. He used the product for communion in his church. His son Charles, the enterprising sort, saw an opportunity and began marketing their “unfermented wine” for use by other Temperance Movement minded churches. It’s on that basis that the Welch company and fortune was built. Good, bad, or indifferent, the possibility of using grape juice in communion dates from 1869. Before then, it was not possible.

My perspective? I’m skeptical of the claim that only Christians in the last 150 years have been able to do Communion the right way. I tend to distrust modern innovations in a two thousand year old faith, especially when I can specifically locate the person and events responsible for the innovation. I just can’t drink that particular koolaid. This particular practice has no connection to anything in Scripture or the historic practice of the Church. It’s a very recent modern novelty. And it seems that it’s primarily churches who hold the Eucharist in relatively low regard, at least to judge by the frequency of their participation in it, that adhere to this modern innovation.

Those are the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head this week about the physical nature of the elements themselves. If anyone knows of any significant variation in the bread and wine which I’ve missed, let me know.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 25 – Conclusion

Posted: August 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This seems like a good place to bring this series to a close. I believe I’ve demonstrated what the Internet Monk called “the historical problem” with the Baptist understanding of the Eucharist. I’ve meandered through the writings of the early church, the church under persecution, from the first century to the third century. Consistently, from the writings of the Holy Scripture in the New Testament, to those taught by the apostles, those taught in turn by them, and onward from generation to generation, all those we would consider in any sense “orthodox” confess that the bread and wine are the body and blood of our Lord. It was a matter of great mystery and power. The Eucharist equipped the people of God so that they might stand under persecution. Even those like the early gnostics, who rejected the goodness of the material world and the Incarnation itself, understood the confession of the Church and so refused to partake of the Eucharist.

There is simply no place from the foundation of the Church and the writing of the Holy Scriptures, to the end of persecution in the fourth century where the teaching and practice of the Eucharist changed from one thing into something else. There is no point in time where the early Church believed anything different, taught anything different, or practiced anything different. Instead, there is a deep unity and consistency.

After this period, of course, Christianity became a legal religion and we have many more preserved writings, all of which maintain the same tradition. The oldest Christian liturgy still in use today is the liturgy of St. James the Just. We know it was certainly in use by the fourth century and may date much earlier in the Apostolic See of Jerusalem. This is the liturgy that St. Basil somewhat shortened and which St. John Chrysostom further abbreviated. This liturgy is thus the source for the Divine Liturgy most commonly used in Orthodox Churches. Spend time with the whole text (and remember that it is sung), but this tiny excerpt leaves no doubt about what those participating believed about the Eucharist.

Your same all-holy Spirit, Lord, send down on us and on these gifts here set forth, that having come by his holy, good and glorious presence, he may sanctify this bread and make it the holy body of Christ, and this Cup the precious blood of Christ, that they may become for all those who partake of them for forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. For sanctification of souls and bodies. For a fruitful harvest of good works. For the strengthening of your holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which you founded on the rock of the faith, so that the gates of Hell might not prevail against it, delivering it from every heresy and from the scandals caused by those who work iniquity, and from the enemies who arise and attack it, until the consummation of the age.

A great mystery? To be sure. Nevertheless, this was the confession of all Christians from the first century through to the sixteenth. Yes, in the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas used the language of Aristotle in an attempt to rationally explain the mystery. And because most people don’t really approach the world through the lens of Aristotle, the theory of “transubstantiation” has certainly been poorly understood and ill-used at times. St. Thomas was himself simply trying to make rational sense of the mystery of the Eucharist using terms and symbols with which he was familiar. Transubstantiation actually says that the substance or the true reality becomes the body and blood even while the accidents, that is the parts we can see, touch, smell, and taste, remain sensibly bread and wine. St. Thomas would probably have been better served to leave it a mystery beyond explanation.

As we observed earlier in this series, of the sixteenth century reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, only Luther maintained a perspective of the Eucharist at all consistent with the entire preceding history of the Church. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther probably would have been better served leaving the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood a great mystery. But he was a product of both medieval Roman Catholicism and the early modern era and felt constrained to attempt to rationalize it in his theory of consubstantiation. Nevertheless, he locates the body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a real way.

Calvin and Zwingli? They both essentially invented new ideas about the Eucharist. Their ideas are sixteenth century innovations that didn’t exist before they conceived them. Unfortunately, they ended up having more influence over Protestantism than Luther did. Luther’s teaching remained largely limited to Lutherans. Calvin’s had broader influence. While some version of Zwingli’s teaching on the Eucharist has become the norm for most of Protestant belief and practice. It can be fairly said that those who follow Zwingli or Calvin in their teaching of the Eucharist are practicing a faith that is less than five hundred years old rather than one that is more than two millenia old.

Is that a historical problem?

I would call it one.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 24 – St. Cyprian on Our Daily Bread

Posted: August 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This excerpt comes from St. Cyprian’s Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer. As ever, I do recommend reading the entire work, but I’ll focus on the part that directly relates to the topic of this series.

As the prayer goes forward, we ask and say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And this may be understood both spiritually and literally, because either way of understanding it is rich in divine usefulness to our salvation.  For Christ is the bread of life; and this bread does not belong to all men, but it is ours. And according as we say, “Our Father,” because He is the Father of those who understand and believe; so also we call it “our bread,” because Christ is the bread of those who are in union with His body. And we ask that this bread should be given to us daily, that we who are in Christ, and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not, by the interposition of some heinous sin, by being prevented, as withheld and not communicating, from partaking of the heavenly bread, be separated from Christ’s body, as He Himself predicts, and warns, “I am the bread of life which came down from heaven. If any man eat of my bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” When, therefore, He says, that whoever shall eat of His bread shall live for ever; as it is manifest that those who partake of His body and receive the Eucharist by the right of communion are living, so, on the other hand, we must fear and pray lest any one who, being withheld from communion, is separate from Christ’s body should remain at a distance from salvation; as He Himself threatens, and says, “Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye shall have no life in you.” And therefore we ask that our bread—that is, Christ—may be given to us daily, that we who abide and live in Christ may not depart from His sanctification and body.

As I mentioned when looking at the Baptist 1689 London Confession, it’s very strange to have a confession on the Eucharist that never references John 6. St. Cyprian, in his spiritual understanding of this line of the Lord’s Prayer, connects it directly to the Eucharistic chapter in the theological Gospel. And that, of course, makes perfect sense. When speaking of “daily bread”, in one sense we are drawn to the story of the people of God who received their bread, their manna, each day directly from God. Jesus teaches that the manna was a foreshadowing of his body, which is the true bread that comes down from heaven — the bread that gives enduring life.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 23 – St. Cyprian on the Importance of Holding Fast the Tradition

Posted: August 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

We conclude today our reflections on St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I want to end by looking one more time at the strength and passion with which St. Cyprian writes we should hold to the truth we have been given.

There is then no reason, dearest brother, for any one to think that the custom of certain persons is to be followed, who have thought in time past that water alone should be offered in the cup of the Lord. For we must inquire whom they themselves have followed. For if in the sacrifice which Christ offered none is to be followed but Christ, assuredly it behoves us to obey and do that which Christ did, and what He commanded to be done, since He Himself says in the Gospel, “If ye do whatsoever I command you, henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.” And that Christ alone ought to be heard, the Father also testifies from heaven, saying, “This is my well-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.” Wherefore, if Christ alone must be heard, we ought not to give heed to what another before us may have thought was to be done, but what Christ, who is before all, first did. Neither is it becoming to follow the practice of man, but the truth of God; since God speaks by Isaiah the prophet, and says, “In vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men.” And again the Lord in the Gospel repeals this same saying, and says, “Ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” Moreover, in another place He establishes it, saying, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” But if we may not break even the least of the Lord’s commandments, how much rather is it forbidden to infringe such important ones, so great, so pertaining to the very sacrament of our Lord’s passion and our own redemption, or to change it by human tradition into anything else than what was divinely appointed! For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered.

And this is the testimony of the sort of people who added to or changed the faith taught by the apostles? Color me unconvinced. I’ll close the reflections on this letter with St. Cyprian’s own closing.

Therefore it befits our religion, and our fear, and the place itself, and the office of our priesthood, dearest brother, in mixing and offering the cup of the Lord, to keep the truth of the Lord’s tradition, and, on the warning of the Lord, to correct that which seems with some to have been erroneous; so that when He shall begin to come in His brightness and heavenly majesty, He may find that we keep what He admonished us; that we observe what He taught; that we do what He did. I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 22 – St. Cyprian on the Inebriating Cup that Returns Us to Spiritual Wisdom

Posted: August 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 22 – St. Cyprian on the Inebriating Cup that Returns Us to Spiritual Wisdom

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord.

Since, then, neither the apostle himself nor an angel from heaven can preach or teach any otherwise than Christ has once taught and His apostles have announced, I wonder very much whence has originated this practice, that, contrary to evangelical and apostolical discipline, water is offered in some places in the Lord’s cup, which water by itself cannot express the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit also is not silent in the Psalms on the sacrament of this thing, when He makes mention of the Lord’s cup, and says, “Thy inebriating cup, how excellent it is!” Now the cup which inebriates is assuredly mingled with wine, for water cannot inebriate anybody. And the cup of the Lord in such wise inebriates, as Noe also was intoxicated drinking wine, in Genesis. But because the intoxication of the Lord’s cup and blood is not such as is the intoxication of the world’s wine, since the Holy Spirit said in the Psalm, “Thy inebriating cup,” He added, “how excellent it is,” because doubtless the Lord’s cup so inebriates them that drink, that it makes them sober; that it restores their minds to spiritual wisdom; that each one recovers from that flavour of the world to the understanding of God; and in the same way, that by that common wine the mind is dissolved, and the soul relaxed, and all sadness is laid aside, so, when the blood of the Lord and the cup of salvation have been drunk, the memory of the old man is laid aside, and there arises an oblivion of the former worldly conversation, and the sorrowful and sad breast which before was oppressed by tormenting sins is eased by the joy of the divine mercy; because that only is able to rejoice him who drinks in the Church which, when it is drunk, retains the Lord’s truth.

So it’s the testimony of not just Jesus and the Apostles, but the Holy Spirit that water alone should not be offered in the cup. The list of things the Lord’s cup accomplishes in its “inebriation” is quite impressive. It makes us sober. It restores our mind to spiritual wisdom. We recover the understanding of God. We receive respite from the oppression of sin in the joy of divine mercy. Why would we desire to settle for something less?

But how perverse and how contrary it is, that although the Lord at the marriage made wine of water, we should make water of wine, when even the sacrament of that thing ought to admonish and instruct us rather to offer wine in the sacrifices of the Lord. For because among the Jews there was a want of spiritual grace, wine also was wanting. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts was the house of Israel; but Christ, when teaching and showing that the people of the Gentiles should succeed them, and that by the merit of faith we should subsequently attain to the place which the Jews had lost, of water made wine; that is, He showed that at the marriage of Christ and the Church, as the Jews failed, the people of the nations should rather flow together and assemble: for the divine Scripture in the Apocalypse declares that the waters signify the people, saying, “The waters which thou sawest, upon which the whore sitteth, are peoples and multitudes, and nations of the Gentiles, and tongues,” which we evidently see to be contained also in the sacrament of the cup.

I love the way St. Cyprian marvels that whereas Jesus made wine from water, we are making water from wine. How absurd! But we live in similar absurdity today.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 21 – St. Cyprian on the Union of Wine and Water

Posted: August 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 21 – St. Cyprian on the Union of Wine and Water

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I’m going to skip around a bit to highlight the specific meaning that St. Cyprian sees in the Cup of water and wine mixed together. I’m going to skip past the references he uses from the septuagint. I do recommend reading that part, though. In it you will see the practice of the Church of reading and interpreting what we call the “Old Testament” in light of Christ. Of course, we are told that Christ himself said that he was the fullness of the revelation of the Law and the Prophets. And after Jesus’ resurrection, we are told he taught his disciples how to read the Scriptures through the lens of himself. We see that mode of interpretation over and over again in the pages of the “New Testament” from Peter’s proclamation at Pentecost onward. (Actually, we see Jesus himself doing it in the Gospels, but we don’t really see the Apostles doing it until Pentecost.) And we see it here as St. Cyprian expounds the tradition of interpretation of the Scriptures that he has received.

We then have a long treatise on the connection of water to Baptism. That will become important in this post. I recommend reading it as well. Finally, St. Cyprian says the following.

Nor is there need of very many arguments, dearest brother, to prove that baptism is always indicated by the appellation of water, and that thus we ought to understand it, since the Lord, when He came, manifested the truth of baptism and the cup in commanding that that faithful water, the water of life eternal, should be given to believers in baptism, but, teaching by the example of His own authority, that the cup should be mingled with a union of wine and water. For, taking the cup on the eve of His passion, He blessed it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Drink ye all of this; for this is my blood of the New Testament, which shall be shed for many, for the remission of sins. I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day in which I shall drink new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father.” In which portion we find that the cup which the Lord offered was mixed, and that that was wine which He called His blood. Whence it appears that the blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord’s sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblation and sacrifice respond to His passion. But how shall we drink the new wine of the fruit of the vine with Christ in the kingdom of His Father, if in the sacrifice of God the Father and of Christ we do not offer wine, nor mix the cup of the Lord by the Lord’s own tradition?

So the blood is the blood of Christ and our sacrifice cannot be legitimate or respond to his passion if there is no wine in the cup. But on that night, he did not use a cup of wine alone, but a cup of wine mixed with water. Therefore, we must not only offer wine, but mix the cup according to Jesus’ own tradition. Why?

For because Christ bore us all, in that He also bore our sins, we see that in the water is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the blood of Christ. But when the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people is made one with Christ, and the assembly of believers is associated and conjoined with Him on whom it believes; which association and conjunction of water and wine is so mingled in the Lord’s cup, that that mixture cannot any more be separated. Whence, moreover, nothing can separate the Church—that is, the people established in the Church, faithfully and firmly persevering in that which they have believed—from Christ, in such a way as to prevent their undivided love from always abiding and adhering. Thus, therefore, in consecrating the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered. For if any one offer wine only, the blood of Christ is dissociated from us; but if the water be alone, the people are dissociated from Christ; but when both are mingled, and are joined with one another by a close union, there is completed a spiritual and heavenly sacrament. Thus the cup of the Lord is not indeed water alone, nor wine alone, unless each be mingled with the other; just as, on the other hand, the body of the Lord cannot be flour alone or water alone, unless both should be united and joined together and compacted in the mass of one bread; in which very sacrament our people are shown to be made one, so that in like manner as many grains, collected, and ground, and mixed together into one mass, make one bread; so in Christ, who is the heavenly bread, we may know that there is one body, with which our number is joined and united.

So, as water is our Baptism, in the cup it is the people, and the comingling of the wine and the water make real the comingling of Christ and the Church. The same is true of the grain and water used to make the bread. There is an immense richness and depth in all of this that so many of us today have simply … lost.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 20 – St. Cyprian on the Necessity of Wine

Posted: August 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 20 – St. Cyprian on the Necessity of Wine

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I find it likely my reflections on this letter will need to be broken into several posts. Concerning the necessity of wine, St. Cyprian writes the following.

Know then that I have been admonished that, in offering the cup, the tradition of the Lord observed, and that nothing must be done by us but what the Lord first did on our behalf, as that the cup which is offered in remembrance of Him should be offered mingled with wine. For when Christ says, “I am the true vine,” the blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine; neither can His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup, when in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures.

Notice how St. Cyprian explicitly outlines the interpretation of John’s Gospel he was traditioned. When Christ calls himself the true vine, he is connecting his life (which as the Holy Scriptures say is in the blood) to the wine of the cup. As such, if there is no wine, Christ’s blood cannot appear in the cup. That would be a very odd thing to write if those to whom he was writing did not believe we drank Christ’s blood in the Eucharist for our healing and to receive life.

While I don’t believe we have any instances today in which anyone uses water in the Eucharist, I know my own tradition uses grape juice rather than wine. Of course, St. Cyprian would have had a hard time conceiving of unfermented grape juice preserved for any significant length of time past the harvest. But if he had been posed with that question, do we honestly think his answer would have been significantly different? I tend to doubt it. It’s not what the Lord used. It’s not what he taught. And it’s not what the Apostles taught.

Of course, when you don’t believe that the ritual of the Eucharist actually accomplishes anything in reality, then I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much how you do it or what you use for the elements. I’ve even heard of an Eucharist performed with Dr. Pepper and Oreos! Nevertheless, the replacement of wine with grape juice was a 19th century innovation in the practice of the faith. It incidentally made the Welches quite wealthy as they cashed in on the temperance movement. Unfermented grape juice is a technology enabled innovation in the practice of the Eucharist. It wouldn’t have even been possible before we learned how to safely preserve unfermented grape juice for extended periods of time.

It’s also a good illustration of the manner in which we innovate at will today. This contrasts sharply to the ancient church which here we seeing resisting innovation. As I wrote yesterday, I think we tend to project ourselves into the place of the ancient church and assume they must have done what we would have done in their place. But I don’t find that the evidence supports that conclusion. Rather, under sometimes tremendous pressure and persecution, they clung to the traditions, practices, and interpretations of the Holy Scriptures they had been given. I tend to think that many times the sort of gentle reproof we find in this letter was all that was necessary to correct an errant practice.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 19 – Intro to St. Cyprian on Preparing the Cup of Our Lord

Posted: August 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

In this letter St. Cyprian of Carthage addresses an issue on the proper preparation of the Eucharistic cup. I believe it would be extremely beneficial for anyone interested in this topic to read the entire letter. Some were preparing a cup with only water rather than water mixed with wine. However, in his fairly gentle reproof, St. Cyprian lays out the fullest preserved, written theological explanation of the Cup that we have from the early church. (It appears that the Eucharist itself was not often the central topic of controversy in the early centuries.)

As with most Eastern writings (including the whole of the Holy Scriptures, I might point out) it can seem to leap from point to point in ways that jar our Western scholastic inclinations and formation. It makes use of the Holy Scriptures in ways very much like the way Jesus and the Apostles used Scripture, which fits the claim throughout that it was received from them. However, it is not the way we typically read the Holy Scriptures in the West, so that too can be jarring.

St. Cyprian stresses repeatedly the importance of holding to the teaching and practice of Jesus and the Apostles. We’ve seen that same thing expressed in much that we have so far explored, of course, but nowhere as clearly and as often as in this letter. Protestants often seem to imagine an early church running wild with innovations of the faith, adding things, and changing things willy nilly over a relatively short span of time. In truth, I think we Protestants are taking the reality of our approach to the faith and superimposing it on the early church. We innovate and change wildly, as our ever-increasing schism and fragmentation illustrate. Something is considered “old” if it was done two generations ago.

There is not really any evidence that the early church acted in that manner at all. Rather, they seem to cling to what has been traditioned to them in even some of the smallest details. They stand repeatedly against those who do introduce innovations and denounce those innovations in belief and practice. We know through study that oral cultures are remarkably effective at conserving oral tradition over long periods of time, especially in matters of belief and religious practice. Why would we believe that early Christians would be any less effective, especially if we believe they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, which is to say that they were empowered by God?

I see no reason to disbelieve St. Cyprian when he states repeatedly that what he writes is what was traditioned by Jesus and the Apostles one hundred and fifty to two hundred years earlier. That’s just not a very long time when we’re talking about the oral tradition of a core religious perspective on the nature of reality — one for which people were willing to die. That’s right up there near the top of the things you want to be sure you have right. And it was self-correcting. St. Cyprian points that out in the beginning of his letter.

Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord.

The tradition does not pass through any single line of individuals. It is maintained by the many bishops set over the churches, lest any one of them go astray. This broad practice of traditioning makes it even less likely that the oral tradition was significantly altered in two centuries or less. This is how the faith taught by the Apostles was transmitted. Remember, there still was no New Testament canon. Churches had the septuagint and by this point in time it’s reasonable to assume every Church had the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Beyond that, it’s still hit and miss what letters a particular church did or did not have.

But they all had over them a Bishop who had received the oral tradition of the Apostles and who taught it to his presbyters, deacons, and people. And the Bishops did not act in isolation, as we saw in the letter to Rome from the whole African synod. To the extent possible, the met together and corrected each other. As necessary, they acted more strongly. We see St. Cyprian expressing the strength with which he held to the tradition he was given.

Nor must you think, dearest brother, that I am writing my own thoughts or man’s; or that I am boldly assuming this to myself of my own voluntary will, since I always hold my mediocrity with lowly and modest moderation. But when anything is prescribed by the inspiration and command of God, it is necessary that a faithful servant should obey the Lord, acquitted by all of assuming anything arrogantly to himself, seeing that he is constrained to fear offending the Lord unless he does what he is commanded.

The only way that we can assume that the faith radically changed in this environment over a short period of time is to assert that the process of oral transmission of tradition radically failed.

But if it did fail, how can we even trust that the New Testament canon we have is the correct one? After all, the NT is also a product of that oral tradition, not the other way around. I think many of my fellow Protestants seem to have a somewhat confused perspective on the Bible. That’s one of the reasons I like Ben Witherington III so much, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions. I have nevertheless learned a lot from him.

As we’ve seen so far in this very focused look at the Eucharist, the Church did consistently preserve and conserve what it had been traditioned on this one topic. Why would we not believe it retained the whole of the faith under duress without innovation or radical change? I’ll go all Western here and bring out Occam’s famous razor. We know that in oral cultures the process of oral tradition conserves rather than innovates, especially in matters of faith and religious practice. Even in the things that were reduced to writing and to which we have access (a tremendous amount has been lost, though we do sometimes have an archeological find and recover something previously thought lost) we see consistency. We do not see radical innovation and change. So which is more likely? The only reason I can discern to conclude that the early church innovated and changed the faith is because you don’t like the answer if you say they did not.

Well. Clearly my reflections on this letter will involve at least two posts. See you tomorrow!