Now that I’ve gone through three major perspectives on Eucharistic Theology, I’d like to make some summary comments about how they differ. But first, I should re-introduce them.
The first perspective, which I said was entitled the Sacrament of the Eucharist, is the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, most Anglicans, and some Lutherans.
The second perspective, which I said was entitled the Sacrament of Holy Communion, is the perspective of John Calvin, most Reformed/Calvinist churches, and some Anglicans and Lutherans.
The third perspective, which I said was entitled the Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, is the perspective of Ulrich Zwingli, the Radical Reformers, and most Evangelical Protestants today.
In terms of Church History, early Christian writings indicate that the first perspective was the opinion of the Church from the start, with hints of the second perspective peppered in here and there. Typically it was connected to their Christology – because Christ was both human and divine, so too was Christ’s body & blood both earthly & heavenly food. The third perspective was only entertained by heretics who disbelieved the divinity of Christ, until the Protestant Reformation got started, and all of a sudden it started cropping up as a legitimate Protestant teaching. It was a fringe perspective at first, eclipsed by the second perspective (which was the classic Protestant view, the English and Lutherans excepted), but eventually over time that third view rose to prominence among Protestants, to the point where it seems to be the majority view outside the Catholic tradition.
From here I’m just going to comment on a few topics that were covered by the three previous posts, starting with the concept of sacrifice. The first perspective considers the Eucharist to be the Church’s perfect sacrifice, with the understanding that all worship is sacrificial. Of course, Jesus Christ is the true sacrifice for all sin, so therefore the Eucharist connects the Church to that in some way. The Orthodox, Romans, and Anglicans bring this out in different ways. What many Protestant reformers were concerned about was the suggestion that Jesus is being “re-sacrificed” in each Eucharist, as if the work of our worship is required to add to Christ’s atoning work. Thus the language shifted (in the second perspective) to a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” which is included in the first perspective, but is the limit of how the second perspective is willing to talk about sacrifices. The third perspective, from my experience, does not like to bring up the word sacrifice at all, however, preferring to consider the Lord’s Supper simply an act of worship that we do in order to remember Christ’s atoning work.
Then there’s the what’s and how’s of Communion. The first perspective asserts that the bread & wine contain the Real Presence of Christ, and therefore directly communicate God’s grace to us when we receive them. The second perspective cuts back the concept of the Real Presence to an otherworldly reality, so rather than the bread & wine communicating grace to us directly, they strengthen our faith, and then it’s our faith that grows us in grace. The third perspective takes this a step further and asserts that the bread & wine have no Real Presence of Christ, and therefore it’s our faith from start to finish that’s working within us. Sure, maybe the Holy Spirit is working on us and uses the bread & wine as tools (working with them), but not as instruments (working through them). As a result, the third perspective rejects the very concept of a sacrament (means of grace). Additionally, because in the third perspective the bread & wine are simply tools, they can be substituted for other things like grape juice. The first two perspectives are generally unable to substitute the bread & wine for other things precisely because they have a sacramental view wherein the bread & wine are filled with the Spirit of Christ in some way, to some extent.
Then there’s the question of who administers Communion. In the first perspective, the Church is an organically linked Body wherein Bishops carry the apostolic lineage, rather like a skeleton. Thus, the sacramental life of the Church also necessarily flows through them and those whom they ordain (priests). In the second perspective, there’s still a generally top-down sense of authority in the Church, but without the mandate of apostolic succession. The end result is similar: only the ordained Pastors can preside over Communion. In the third perspective, though, the Church is usually viewed primarily in its local bodies with democratic leadership. So although for them, too, the Lord’s Supper is normally led by the Pastors they elect/choose/hire, it can be delegated to any other Christian if there’s a need.
One of the most controversial passages of Scripture on this subject is John 6:25-59, where Jesus asserts that his body is true food and his blood is true drink. This is often used as the most basic “proof text” for the first perspective folks in asserting the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Martin Luther is an amusing exception: he adamantly argued in favor of the Real Presence just as strongly as the Roman Catholics, yet he also argued that John 6 was not the way to go about it. That aside, folks of the first perspective generally take John 6 literally. The second perspective prefers a spiritual reading of John 6, however, on account of verse 63, where Jesus says that his words are “spirit” and that “flesh counts for nothing.” The third perspective takes this even further and use verse 63 as a reason to take the previous passage entirely metaphorically such that it’s Jesus’ words and teachings that comprise the true food and drink of everlasting life.
In 1 Corinthians 10 & 11, we get what might be the heart of the Bible’s direct teaching on Communion. Specifically in 10:16-17, we get this concept of participation/communion/koinonia/sharing in Christ’s body & blood (depending on the translation). The first perspective takes this to mean that partaking in Communion actually binds us deeper into that communion. The second perspective takes this to mean that partaking in Communion celebrates that communion. The third perspective takes this to mean that partaking in Communion symbolizes that communion. Similarly in 11:24 (also like with John 6 above), the first perspective takes the statement “this is my body” literally, while the second perspective takes it spiritually, and the third perspectives takes it metaphorically. The caution in verse 29, then, is applied accordingly in each perspective: the first concerned that Christ’s Real Presence will be harmful (bringing judgment) to unworthy receivers, the second concerned that unworthy receivers have no faith on which the Sacrament can act, and the third concerned that unworthy receivers have no faith with which to make use of the bread & wine.
Then there’s all that weird stuff in the middle of the book of Hebrews talking about Christ’s heavenly sacrifice. The earlier discussion about how each perspectives does or does not identify a sacrifice in Communion plays directly in to how they deal with passages like Hebrews 9:11-28. The first perspective asserts that Christ’s High Priestly ministry in heaven is exactly what gives our Eucharist on earth its power: as Christ offers himself (and us with him) in the holy of holies, we offer ourselves with Christ’s body to Christ. It’s a communication of mutual love: Christ offers himself to his Church, the Church offers him (and us) back to Him, and He brings that perfected offering to the Father. The second perspective doesn’t like that, though, with concerns about how it might conflict with justification by grace through faith alone, and therefore would only go so far as to accept Christ’s heavenly ministry as a parallel symbol to our sacrifice of praise & thanksgiving in Communion. The third category, not wanting any sacrificial or sacramental language, will only go so far as to say that the Lord’s Supper commemorates Jesus’ sacrifice.
I haven’t gone very deep into any of these three perspectives in this series; that wasn’t really my intention. If you click on some of the tags on the right-hand column of blog, though, such as Sacrament and sacrifice and worship, you can find other things that I’ve written from my own perspective. If it was not already clear from how I presented the three perspectives in this series, I agree with the first perspective, 😛 but hopefully I managed to present a balanced and fair explanation of all three views. I’ve also attached a handout that I recently used to present this material to a small group: communion comparison.