Let’s Not Forget that the ELCA also Voted Full Communion with the United Methodist Church ““ This May be the Greater Error, A Post by Holger Sonntag, Part III

The Eleventh ELCA Churchwide Assembly According to Law and Gospel – Part III: The Issue with the UMC is a Matter of the Gospel – Particularly the Gospel in the Lord’s Supper

On a different note and as indicated at the beginning of this piece, one also needs to realize that, while the discussion regarding homosexual clergy is mainly one concerning the enduring validity of God’s law, the agreement with the Methodists touches chiefly on the issue of the meaning of God’s gospel. Clearly, while the law is highly important, the gospel is even more important than the former, because we are saved, not by being heterosexual, but by believing the gospel, the good news concerning Christ’s life and death for the sins of the whole world.

If Luther’s words in the Small Catechism indeed summarize or paraphrase God’s word on the nature of the Lord’s Supper correctly, then the agreement the ELCA and the UMC have reached in this area is possibly an agreement between each other, but a disagreement with God’s word. Their union is thus of a merely institutional not of a truly spiritual nature. For here is what Luther teaches:

 

Instituted by Christ himself, it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, given to us Christians to eat and to drink.

 

Expanding on this, he writes in the Smalcald Articles:

 

We hold that the bread and the wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ and that these are given and received not only by godly but also by wicked Christians.

 

The specific gifts of the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s true body and blood present in bread and wine (this being the “real presence” Lutherans teach), are thus orally consumed also by the unworthy, that is, by those who do not believe that these gifts are given “for you.” In other words, the gifts of the Supper are objective, not dependent on the receiver’s faith. The gifts result in blessing for the believers, in curse for the unbelievers (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

 

What do ECLA and UMC agree on when it comes to the Lord’s Supper? According to the abovementioned supporting document for the resolution, it is stated:

 

… we confess that the Lord’s Supper is one of the fundamental means of grace. Like Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper is an efficacious sign of God’s grace, including and giving real participation in Christ; we confess that the entire Eucharistic celebration expresses the real presence of Christ; we confess that Christ is really present, shared, and received in the forms of bread and wine in the Eucharist and that the blessings of this supper are received by faith alone; we confess that in the Lord’s Supper believers receive the benefits of Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross and his victorious resurrection; and we confess that the Holy Spirit uses the Supper to express and realize the communion (koinonia) of the people of God with Christ and with each other.

 

To be sure, there are many good things stated here. However, particularly the mode of Christ’s presence in the Supper as described here is troubling: where is it stated in God’s word (or the Lutheran confessions) that specifically the Lord’s Supper affords participation in Christ; that its celebration “expresses the real presence of Christ;” that “Christ is really present, shared, and received in the forms of bread and wine”? Where have the body and blood of God’s word and the Small Catechism gone? Are those just symbols of something bigger, namely, Christ’s presence? How is this understanding different from the Catholic notion of concomitance, that is, the idea that “the whole Christ” is present in the consecrated bread, so that the second element, the consecrated wine, is merely optional for a “full participation” in Christ?

 

These questions are not really answered in the Q&A section of the document, where it is stated concerning Lutheran-Methodist agreement on the Lord’s Supper:

 

Christ himself promised to be present in this meal, and through the Holy Spirit he establishes and strengthens our faith there. The Lord’s Supper is a sign of God’s grace. This means that Holy Communion is not only a visible sign that points to God’s presence in the world, but it includes and gives real participation in Christ. In this sharing (koinonia), Christ offers his life-giving body and blood through bread and wine to all who take part in the celebration of this meal. In the words of Christ that institute this meal stands a promise that he himself is truly present for us.

 

Again, good things are confessed here, but questions remain: where does Christ promise his presence in “this meal”? Are his body and blood the real deal, consumed orally, or are they mere symbols of something bigger, such as his person?

 

In the 2009 supporting document, positive reference is made to the 2004 report on the fellowship conversations between the Lutheran (State) Church of Norway and the United Methodist Church in Norway, Fellowship of Grace. In section 26 one reads there the following, which in part has been quoted verbatim in the 2009 document presented to the ELCA churchwide assembly in Minneapolis:

 

Holy Communion is not only a visible sign which points to God’s presence in the world, but it includes and gives real participation in Christ. In communion Christ offers his life-giving body and blood through bread and wine to all who take part in the celebration of this meal.

 

The presence of Christ is without doubt at the center of the Eucharist, and the promise which is contained in the words of institution is of fundamental importance.

 

The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is expressed in the celebration as a whole. Nevertheless, the real presence is expressed in a special way through the anamnestic character of the meal. Anamnesis as the remembrance of God’s saving act in the death and resurrection of Christ refers to the continual efficaciousness of Christ’s saving work. The real presence of Christ is also expressed through the emphasis on the Spirit’s activity for us through the communion meal. It is by the living word of Christ and by the Holy Spirit’s power that the bread and wine become the sacramental signs of Christ’s body and blood.

 

Methodists have placed special emphasis on the point that Christ’s presence in communion is conveyed by the Holy Spirit. For Lutherans also it is essential that the Spirit is given through the sacraments. Lutherans, however, have placed particular emphasis on the point that Christ’s body and blood are received in the elements of communion. Both church families agree that Christ is really present, that he is shared and received in the form of bread and wine of the Eucharist.

 

Now, here a few enlightening statements are made. However, even though the ELCA is in fellowship with the Church of Norway, one cannot necessarily assume that the same is meant here as in the American document. So long as there is merely a difference of emphasis etc., church fellowship is not shattered. According to the Norwegian report, “Christ’s presence” now is the main thing in the sacrament. Compare that to Luther’s: “These words [“given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”], along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.” In other words, the concrete offer of forgiveness in the gospel words of the Words of Institution along with the bodily eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of communion mark the center of the Lord’s Supper and define its specific character for Luther, not some vague presence of Christ.

 

It is worth noting that the idea of “Christ’s presence” was first injected by Reformed theologians into the discussion of the Lord’s Supper, as can be learned from a brief paragraph contained in F. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 355ff. He writes:

 

Reformed theologians assure us that they retain Christ’s true body and blood in the Sacrament, inasmuch as that body and blood stand synecdochically for the whole Christ, the entire humanity and entire divinity, the whole Person, etc. The Romanists are also ready to let the “whole Christ” be the materia coelestis [heavenly matter of the Lord’s Supper], to enable them to prove that, in spite of the refusal of the cup to the laity, the lay folk are not being cheated in the Roman Sacrament. Modern theologians, too, including those who call themselves Lutheran, glibly substitute the “whole Christ” for the body and blood of Christ, prompted to some extent by the notion that they are thus enriching Christ’s sacrament.

 

In a quote by one of these modern theologians, one can read in Pieper:

 

The conception of materia coelestis has entirely changed. Instead of the substances, namely, Christ’s body and blood, the living Personality of Christ and its actions have come to the fore; an unio sacramentalis [sacramental union] in the old sense between this and the earthly elements, however, is impossible.

 

Given this historical background, it is interesting that the Norwegian document, when speaking about the work of the Holy Spirit in consecrating the elements in addition to God’s word, confesses in a way that sounds very Reformed: “It is by the living word of Christ and by the Holy Spirit’s power that the bread and wine become the sacramental signs of Christ’s body and blood.” Now, it is true that the Augsburg Confession and its Apology in particular speak of the two biblical sacraments as “signs” of God’s grace toward men (e.g., art. XIII). To this extent, the use of the word “sign” is certainly justified. However, nowhere are the bread and the wine positively called “signs” in the Lutheran confessions; instead, “sign” in this context refers to the visible ceremony as a whole (Apol. XXIV, 69-70). When sign is used as a reference to the bread and wine, then this is done in later confessions to describe the doctrine of the Sacramentarians according to which the absent body and blood of Christ are merely signified by the present bread and wine, e.g., in SD VII, 2-7, 116-117.

 

In a word, given the Reformed predilection for a symbolic understanding of Christ’s words, the sentence as it stands in the Norwegian document is much too open for misunderstanding to be acceptable to Lutherans.

 

The last paragraph quoted from the Norwegian report reveals the method of the kind of dialogue that is going on here: some vague agreement is stated; where even such vague agreement could not be formulated, different emphases of the partners are then listed without any attempt to reconcile them or to arrive at joint position; then these different emphases are declared to be not church-divisive.

 

Methodists have placed special emphasis on the point that Christ’s presence in communion is conveyed by the Holy Spirit. For Lutherans also it is essential that the Spirit is given through the sacraments. Lutherans, however, have placed particular emphasis on the point that Christ’s body and blood are received in the elements of communion. Both church families agree that Christ is really present, that he is shared and received in the form of bread and wine of the Eucharist.

 

The adverb “also” expresses addition. How the first two sentences can be joined in this way is difficult to understand, if one wanted to maintain the original Lutheran position according to which the presence of the heavenly matter in the Lord’s Supper is effected by the word of Christ alone (SD VII, 74), not by the Spirit or by the word of Christ and by the Spirit, as held by the Norwegian report and the Eastern Orthodox churches. This is something entirely different from giving the Spirit through the sacraments, but maybe something got lost in translation from the Norwegian. At any rate, one wonders: do Methodist also believe that the Spirit is given through the sacraments, or is this a Lutheran specialty? What about the Methodist notion of an Arminian prevenient grace communicated to all people prior to any contact with any means of grace and Luther’s warning about teaching the Spirit’s operation without the word and sacraments of God (Sm. Art. III, VIII, 10)?

 

Furthermore, what does it mean that Christ is said to be “shared and received in the form of bread and wine of the Eucharist,” which is the distilled agreement between “both church families”? Where are his body and blood now, just some Lutheran special emphasis? Are they mere representing, symbolical expressions of “Christ” for the Methodists and really also for the Lutherans? Where else, if not here in the “This is …” words, would the presence of Christ, so central to the Lord’s Supper for the framers of the report, be promised in the words of institution? Questions abound.

 

As was stated above, the “real presence” meant in the traditional Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper has always been understood to be the presence of Christ’s true body in the bread and his true blood in the wine. This has apparently been redefined in these documents of dialogue, according to which, to be sure, Christ’s body and blood are offered, but Christ is present. It appears that the Lord’s Supper has effectively been merged with what the Lutheran confessions call “spiritual eating” and what they distinguish from “oral or sacramental eating.” The former is nothing but the apprehension of the whole Christ, true God and true man, and all his benefits by faith, as both he and his benefits are objectively present in the gospel (John 6, see Sol. Decl. VII, 61-62). In other words, wherever the gospel word is proclaimed and believed – and this includes the Lord’s Supper – there participation in Christ and his benefits happens. The latter, however, takes place specifically and exclusively in the Lord’s Supper and is not dependent on faith but on opening and closing one’s mouth (hence “oral or sacramental eating”); to be sure, faith is needed for this kind of eating to be beneficial to the eater, as stated above. Thus, the Lord’s Supper has been robbed of its specific gifts that God intends to give through it, namely, Christ’s body and blood.

 

 

 

 

 

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.

Comments

Let’s Not Forget that the ELCA also Voted Full Communion with the United Methodist Church ““ This May be the Greater Error, A Post by Holger Sonntag, Part III — 1 Comment

  1. “Where have the body and blood of God’s word and the Small Catechism gone? Are those just symbols of something bigger, namely, Christ’s presence? How is this understanding different from the Catholic notion of concomitance, that is, the idea that “the whole Christ” is present in the consecrated bread, so that the second element, the consecrated wine, is merely optional for a “full participation” in Christ?”

    That just HIT ME of the connection of the Reformed argument with its lavish “real presence” argument which I came from and the doctrine of RC of concomitance with which I was less familiar. Sasse warned that the Reformed gloss over the real issue that took place at Marburg when they argue about the real presence being real and “just a difference in mode”. You still hear that today from the Reformed. Yet, Sasse points out that the issue was never about the real presence per se or mode of Christ’s presence. But the real and true body and blood of Christ present specifically and thus the whole Christ, which gets back to the two natures of Christ.

    One sees a pattern when the real and true body and blood of Christ are somehow in doctrine and words made to “disappear” for a slow shift over to Christ’s presence “somehow”.

    In RC with its doctrine of concomitance the clergy slowly steered away from the laymen taking of the wine and gave only the bread of which was argued you receive the whole Christ.

    In Protestantism you have the shifts to less frequent communions, grape juice for wine, or nearly no communion at all, and a shift to other things, etc…

    Within their own respective doctrinal systems I suppose it’s a logical outcome. If the sacrament is only symbolic or symbolic of Christ’s presence and symbolic of the Gospel then it’s not really different than any other symbolism good or bad. A crucifix will do, or an ichthus, as would any “reminder” of the Gospel be. Those are not in and of themselves bad but when the Lord’s Supper is reduced to basically the same thing as these are then it is being marginalized and reduced. And it follows that the LS would change form and frequency so as to really no longer be the LS. Reminders are reminders and at the end of the day all on equal ground. And reducing the LS IS a bad thing, it is to loose it altogether and it’s particular power and Gospel! Thus, shifting or doctrinally making the LS no different than symbols and reminders would be like leaving the body and blood of Christ and returning to the OT Temple, after all it can remind me of the Gospel in its own way.

    I guess another way to attempt to say this is this: The LS should not be reduced to mere signs and symbols of or some spiritual real presence of Christ that basically end up dispersing us to other signs and symbols like the temple or ichthuses and such. That is to say send us away from the body and blood of Christ to the beggarly symbols. Rather these things, the temple OT historically, and other things that remind us of Christ and the Gospel today, should be sending us to the LS to the real and true body and blood of Christ (not vice versa). To do the former is to return to the old and beggarly things that are of no value. To do the later is to come to that which is eternal life.

    I don’t know if I was able to make that make sense or not.

    Larry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.