Friday, May 17, 2013

Lutheranism 101: Partaking in a worthy manner

I recently came across a book distributed by a pastor of a local LCMS1 church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The book is titled Lutheranism 101, and it's a fairly basic book even though it fills almost three hundred 8"x10" pages with "official" Lutheran dogma (which I think is a fairly large sized book of basic "essentials"). I was especially caught off guard by a few "official" doctrines in the book, not that I had never heard of them before. It's just that I never heard contemporary answers to basic questions answered this, well, basically. For instance, in the section on the Lord's Supper, the question is asked, "Who Is Worthy?" with regard to participants in the sacred meal itself. The answer to that question is as follows:
Being worthy and well prepared to receive the Lord's Supper involves believing the words "given and shed." What is given and shed? Jesus' body and blood. In other words, worthiness involves believing that you are receiving Jesus' very2 body and blood. In the previous chapter, we mentioned that some believe that they receive only bread and wine, not Jesus' body and blood. To believe this is to contradict what Jesus Himself says in the Words of Institution; and that makes one unprepared for the Sacrament.3
Here are a few of my thoughts on this matter. First of all, I find it interesting that the author inserts the parallel phrase, worthy and well prepared, as he defines worthiness. Clearly, the author did not consider Paul's own words to be clear enough -- words which only warn Christians to not partake "in an unworthy manner" (I Cor. 11:27).  This author felt the need to add to what Paul actually said and to emphasize that additional concept. After all, neither Jesus or Paul made any mention of being "well prepared." In the last sentence of this definition, the author again mentions being "unprepared" for the Sacrament. And so, being "unworthy" is doctrinally and conceptually synonymous with being "unprepared." 

But what is another oddity of this view (besides adding terminology to what Paul actually said)? One other oddity is that Paul is the only one who mentions worthiness. Jesus doesn't mention that at all. Now, I realize that the doctrine of plenary inspiration necessitates Paul's canonical words to be the authorized words of God, and since Jesus is God, Paul's words are the authoritative words of Jesus. However, isn't it a bit odd that the author insists that Christian beliefs should not contradict what Jesus Himself really says, yet the author doesn't even reference the actual words of Jesus regarding "worthiness"? Let's not forget that he adds to Paul's terminology as well. 

But this operating definition looks even more suspicious when viewed much closer. The author says that receiving the Lord's Supper involves "believing the words 'given and shed.'" Well, I certainly believe that the meaning of Jesus' words "given" and "shed" were in some sense involved in receiving the Supper. But the author of Lutheranism 101 simply takes for granted what that sense is without clarifying that Jesus' statements don't necessarily share the same assumptions as this Lutheran author. It's a subtle maneuver, but it's definitely there; and this traditional Lutheran assumption is arbitrary as well. Let's see how this plays out practically.

Notice carefully that this author sneaks in two ideas while assuming that they both share a literal one-to-one correspondence in meaning. The author doesn't prove it. It is assumed in advance and taken for granted. On the one hand he says that worthiness "involves believing the words 'given and shed,'" but on the other hand he says that worthiness "involves believing that you are receiving Jesus' very (i.e. real or genuine) body and blood"; which is to say that if you don't believe you are receiving Jesus' real or genuine body and blood, you are not believing the words "given and shed." Did you catch that slight-of-hand too? He is assuming that the meaning of Jesus' words must share a literal one-to-one correspondence, but he's not telling you that the Words of Institution can mean something else, only one of which is that Jesus mysteriously amalgamated the real bread and wine with his real body "given" and his real "shed" blood. There are, in fact, other potential meanings to Jesus' Words of Institution. One does not need to adopt this traditional Lutheran assumption, especially if the Scriptures themselves do not infer that such assumptions are necessary to partake worthily or unworthily. 

Let's keep in mind what Jesus actually said in his Words of Institution:
This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me. ...This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:19-20)

Let's now think of some alternatives. One possible meaning could be that Jesus mysteriously turned the bread and wine into his literal human flesh and blood. That is to say, those who partake of the bread and wine don't really partake of real bread and wine at all. They partake of something which appears to be bread and wine, but really is Jesus' flesh and blood. This, to me, seems to be an exaggerated claim. It assumes all sorts of things, one of which is that eating literal human flesh and blood would be lawful in God's sight, even though God strictly prohibits drinking sacrificial blood (Gen. 9:1-6; Lev. 17:10-14). Likewise, the Bible illustrates cannibalism in a handful of places, but it never condones it (Lev. 26:29; Deut. 28:53-57; 2 Kng. 6:28-29; Jer. 19:9; Lam. 2:20; Ezek. 5:10); rather it treats eating human flesh as a curse from God, which is probably why the Jews were abhorred by Jesus' words in John 6:52. They thought Jesus was speaking literally when he spoke of eating his flesh and blood; and so they thought, "How can this man [Jesus] give us his flesh to eat?"

Another possible meaning could be that Jesus mysteriously turned the bread and wine into his real body and blood, but only for his twelve apostles. That's at least possible. After all, he does say "this is my body...for you ...This cup is ...for you." And who was that particular "you"? It was the twelve apostles! Of course, because that seems to conflict with Paul's address to the Corinthian church, which included more participants in the Lord's Supper than just the twelve apostles, it's reasonable to conclude that such an interpretation would be completely arbitrary. Now, if there was a worldwide tradition which held that view, would you believe it just because it's traditional? I would hope not. Scripture itself should be the final authority for the Christian, not tradition.

Now let's consider the traditional Lutheran view again, only in more detail. The traditional Lutheran view is that Jesus' statement, "this is my body," was literally and mystically united with the bread in it's physical essence. I will admit, this is a possible interpretation. After all, when referencing the bread, Jesus does say "this is my body." Martin Luther himself is famous for this belief. There is even a famous incident at a meeting in Marburg, Saxony (modern day Germany) where various church leaders could not come to an agreement about Jesus' Words of Institution, and in the midst of the dialogue Luther began to pound his fist on the table, saying over and over again, "Hoc est corpus meum, hoc est corpus meum." ("This is my body, This is my body.")  In contrast with this famous incident, I find it very interesting that Luther did not insist in a literal interpretation of the phrase, "this cup is the new covenant in my blood." Luther interpreted the first statement as literal, but the second statement as representative and figurative. In other words, Luther assumed that the first statement was literal, and excused himself from needing to interpret the second statement as literal too, even though Jesus uses the exact same words to consecrate both elements. Jesus said "This [bread] is my body" and "This cup is the new covenant." 

Moreover, if Lutherans who hold to these traditional assumptions were consistent, they would need to argue that Jesus mysteriously united his real (physical & spiritual, human and divine) body and handed it (his real body) to his disciples in the form of bread, and that he did the same thing with the cup too. That is to say, with the cup, they would need to argue that Jesus mysteriously united the physical cup of wine in his hand as the literal new covenant itself. No other physical substance, other than the "cup" of wine, could possibly become mysteriously united with the new covenant. Jesus must have meant that the cup of wine would become the new covenant every time Christians partook of his blood "in a worthy manner." But what would it actually mean to literally unite a physical/non-spiritual cup of wine with a non-physical/spiritual covenant? Lutheranism 101 doesn't give an answer to that question, and I suspect that the traditional answer (if there even is one) would be arbitrarily based upon mere Lutheran tradition. Furthermore, why would anyone insist that such a distinction is essential to partaking worthily? One might expect Jesus or the Apostle Paul to have been a bit clearer in their presentation of the facts. (Were they clear enough?)

But let's get back on track with how serious the meaning of these Words of Institution are. Are these meanings the only viable options? The author of Lutheranism 101 is aware of at least one other optional tradition. He insists that,
...some [Christians] believe that they receive only bread and wine, not Jesus' body and blood. 

He then asserts with great confidence that, 
To believe this is to contradict what Jesus Himself says in the Words of Institution. 

That's quite an assertion. One would think that arbitrarily interpreting the bread as becoming his literal body, but the cup of wine not literally becoming the new covenant, would be a more blatant contradiction. And as far as I can tell, it's not contradictory at all to interpret both the bread and the cup of wine as representing Jesus body and blood. That, actually, would be very consistent and reasonable because the bread would represent his "given" body and the cup of wine would represent his "shed" blood. Neither the bread nor the cup of wine become anything other than sanctified bread and wine. Nothing mystical or supernatural invades or transforms the elements themselves. 

Moreover, if the bread and the wine of the new covenant represent the broken body and shed blood of Jesus which was given for us, then there would also be no need to strain the meaning of Jesus' words beyond what was actually spoken by Jesus and reiterated by the Apostle Paul. We wouldn't need to conjure up some rationale for Jesus uniting his "real" body and blood with a "real" loaf of bread and a "real" cup. We also wouldn't need to conjure up some strange "spiritual" extension of his dual-nature (as though the Scriptures allude to some extension, addition, or subtraction from his human & divine essence). And so, one very rational and reasonable meaning of the Words of Institution is actually what the author of Lutheranism 101 falsely claims to be contradictory, namely that the bread which Jesus broke represented Jesus' broken body, and that his blood shed on the cross was represented by a cup of red wine, and because of that participants in the Lord's Supper receive real bread and wine, not Jesus' real body and blood. Paul certainly seems to have interpreted it this way when he concludes, saying:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.4

Notice, Paul does not even come close to hinting in agreement with this claim of Lutheranism 101. Paul doesn't spend any time distinguishing between those who receive the real body and blood, and those who merely receive real bread and wine. Instead, what he says is that by eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord's Supper, they proclaim --they show forth-- their Lord's death. They don't receive the "real" body and blood of the Lord who died. They proclaim the Lord's death. They commemorate the unique covenantal meal in which Jesus and his disciples participated the night he was betrayed, leading to his death. In other words, when the Christian church eats the bread and drinks the cup, they don't proclaim the death of a literal Passover lamb, thereby renewing the old covenant. Instead, they proclaim their Lord's death over and over again as often as they do that together. They proclaim what the Passover lamb represented and what the old covenant anticipated. They ratify their covenant --the new covenant-- with Jesus. They receive a real covenantal meal, with real bread and wine, and they proclaim the real sacrifice for their sins -- Jesus Christ. One might even get the acute feeling that through faith, the Spirit of our risen Lord is present in the midst of his people as they feast on bread and wine together, uniting them in one love, one faith, and one baptism. If so, then thanks be to God.

1.  LCMS stands for Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod
2.  "Very" means real or genuine.
3.  Scot A. Kinnaman [General Editor] Lutheranism 101 [St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010] p. 155
4.  I Corinthians 11:26

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