Friday, November 11, 2011

Four Points of Anabaptist Theology: Part 3 Communion


As with baptism, virtually the all Christian churches have some observance of Communion or the Lord’s Supper. The Greek word κοινωνία, transliterated koinonia, meaning communion is the term used by the Apostle Paul to describe the Lord’s Supper.[1] It is from this usage that many churches have come to use the term to refer to their own celebration of Jesus’ final meal with His disciples. The idea being expressed is fellowship with God (Gen. 18:17-33; Ex. 33:9-11; Num. 12:7-8), fellowship between Christ and His people (John 14:23), and with believers with one another (Eph. 4:1-6).[2]

There are many points of agreement concerning the Lord’s Supper. Among these points is that the Communion was established by Christ Himself on the night of his betrayal, the necessity of repeating the rite, it is a form of proclamation, there is a spiritual benefit to the person partaking, it is restricted to the followers of Christ, and there is a horizontal dimension to Communion.[3] As expected, there are a number of points of disagreement as well including how Christ is present in the Communion. It is these disagreements that separate the Anabaptists from the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church.[4]

There are three basic views of how Christ is present in the Communion maintained by various groups of Christians. The first view is that held by the Roman Catholic Church called transubstantiation. According to this teaching, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ at the moment the priest “this is my body” during the mass.[5] This consecration is considered a new offering of Christ’s sacrifice and by a partaking of the bread and the wine the communicant receives saving grace from God.[6] Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church refers to Communion as the Eucharist, a name that does not appear in the New Testament. The earliest evidence of this name is from secular writings such as the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Philadelphians, and in Justin Martyr’s Apologiae.[7]

The second view, advanced by Martin Luther, is called consubstantiation. Luther rejected the Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper yet continued to believe that the phrase “this is my body” required some sort of literal interpretation.[8] Rather than the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ respectively, Luther taught that the body and blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.[9] Luther rejected the notion of the Mass being a new sacrifice instead adhering to the belief that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and justification by faith in Christ’s one-time sacrifice eliminated the need for repeated sacrifices. Luther also rejected sacerdotalism stating clearly that the actions of the priest do not result in the presence of Christ’s body and blood. Though Luther did believe that a properly ordained minister should administer the sacrament, the presence of the body and blood of Christ is never to be attributed to the presence of the priest of his actions during the rite.[10]

The third view of how Christ is present in Communion or the Lord’s Supper is belief in a symbolic and spiritual presence of Christ. The Anabaptists, as well as most of the rest of Protestantism, hold to this view of Communion. Essentially, Communion is a rite instituted by Christ in which bread is broken and the fruit of the vine is poured out in remembrance of the atoning sacrifice made on the cross.[11] Though Anabaptists had a strong disagreement with Zwingli over paedobaptism, they affirmed his view of Communion and the fact that Jesus’ body ascended into Heaven and therefore cannot be in or transformed into bread.[12]

Where the Roman Catholic Church and Luther insisted on the literal presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist or Communion, the Anabaptists are aligned with the views of Zwingli. For the Anabaptist, the notion that the bread and the wine are the literal body and blood of Christ is to deny the incarnation. At the last supper when Christ stated “this is my body” and “this is my blood” he was making such statements in a literal sense. To do so would be to say that he was in two places simultaneously. While the Anabaptists would wholeheartedly agree that Christ is quite capable of such a metaphysic, this would have been contrary to the incarnation which limited His physical human nature to a single location.[13]

Anabaptists would certainly argue that Christ was not in more than one place during the incarnation, they also question how two different substances can be in the same space simultaneously. The Anabaptist mind has difficulty understanding how the bread and the body occupying the place at the same time or how a particular substance such as blood can exist without exhibiting any of its normal characteristics.[14] These difficulties, though not enough in and of themselves to determine interpretation, point to a symbolic rather than literal understanding of Christ’s words in the Upper Room at the Last Supper.

Anabaptists believe that the spirit of Christ is present in a special way during the Lord’s Supper. Anabaptist as diverse as Hubmaier, Marpeck, and Hoffman regarded the Supper primarily as an action whose symbols were the breaking of bread and sharing the cup with other believers.[15] This view of Communion as a full meal marked by sharing is certainly interesting from an exegetical standpoint. If one views the words of Christ during the last supper, He says “this” four times. Perhaps When Christ says “this is my body” and “this is my blood” he refers to the action of the breaking of bread and the action of sharing the cup. Finger states that it is possible that Christ was not referring to things but rather the activity of giving oneself freely in service to other believers.[16]

Such a view is consistent with the early setting of the Supper being marked as a full meal in which Christ’s presence is experienced throughout and not merely during the serving of two foods. If the Supper is an action then the elements are a means to a very special self-impartation. There is spiritual grace through the visible channel that is Communion and it is in this sense that the elements are not merely bread and wine but rather they become what they do.

[1] Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, and Archie England et al. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 324.

[2] Easton, M. G. Easton's Bible Dictionary. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[3] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1116-21.

[4] González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Vol 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1985), 54-56.

[5] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 991-92.

[6] Strong, Augustus Hopkins. Systematic Theology. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 965.

[7] Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 356.

[8] Grudem, 994.

[9] Erickson, 1125.

[10] Ibid, 1126.

[11] Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 708.

[12] Finger, Thomas N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 186.

[13] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1128.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Finger, Thomas N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 205.

[16] Ibid.

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