Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Eucharist, Lord's Supper, Communion

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4 ESV) 
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17 ESV) 
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13 ESV)

Surrounding the passage from 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul indicts the Corinthians for unworthy participation in the Lord's Supper, there are these interesting descriptions of the corporate body of Christ. The descriptions speak of eating and drinking and of being baptized. The common thread in each of them is the unity. The whole of Israel in the wilderness partook of Christ in baptism and in spiritual food and drink. The whole of the Church is one bread, one body, partaking of one bread, which is Christ. The whole of the Church is baptized into one body, drinking of one Spirit.

The tremendous unity portrayed in baptism and the Lord's Supper stands in stark contrast to the practice of the Corinthians in taking part in the Lord's Supper:
For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (1 Corinthians 11:18-22 ESV)
Paul isn't simply arguing that there is a wrongful participation in the Lord's Supper, but that the Supper isn't even genuine because the necessary unity of the Body is absent. Notice that the emphasis is not upon what the Corinthians are contemplating during the Supper, but the fact that they are intentionally dividing themselves into factions and separating some of the Church out from the Lord's Meal. Immediately following this indictment, Paul gives the words of institution, followed by the stern warning:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32 ESV)
There seems to be two problems in what the Corinthians are doing. First, and I think foremost in the context, the Corinthians are effectively excommunicating one another from participation in the Body of Christ. An apt metaphor would be the willful amputation of a limb. The second problem is the lack of sobermindedness in their participation in the Lord's Supper. Instead of acknowledging the bread and wine as communion with Christ, through the Holy Spirit, by faith, in His body and blood (something immediately analogous to the Israelites feeding on Christ in the wilderness), they are eating and drinking as if the meal were common, thereby disdaining the Lord's Presence at His own meal.

Paul concludes the section with a command that addresses both issues:
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. (1 Corinthians 11:33-34 ESV)
The Corinthians are to participate as one unified body, and they are to participate not as though the meal is common, as though it is but a way to replenish their physical bodies, but for the spiritual nourishment of communing, by faith and by the Spirit, in the body and blood of Christ.

It is at this point where we can introduce the contemporary Presbyterian debate concerning children at the Lord's Table. Paedocommunionists rightly recognize that Paul's primary emphasis is upon the disunity created by the Corinthians' willful exclusion of their brothers and fellow members of Christ's body. Certainly, Paul's thought is not concentrated upon children, whose ability to sin in this way is extremely limited, if not impossible. Nonpaedocommunionists rightly acknowledge Paul's emphasis upon recognizing the spiritual meaning of the Lord's Supper that Paul desires the Corinthians to attend to faithfully. To take the meal as if it were any other meal is to profane the communion with our Lord.

The issue then becomes, is a child of the covenant profaning the Supper if they partake of the meal while lacking an adult understanding of what it means? I think the answer has to be no, and for the same reason that we don't consider covenant children heretics for having modalist or tritheist views of God, or of having a Nestorian view of the hypostatic union as we seek to guide their thoughts according to Scripture and our Creeds and Confessions. The meaning of the Lord's Supper is both simple and profound; simple insofar as we believe that Christ is truly and really united with us in our partaking, and profound in seeking to discern the fullness and precise nature of that union. A typical covenant child may easily accept upon the instruction of a parent that partaking in the Supper is not a "snack" or a "meal" like any other meal, but is our opportunity to "draw close to God our Father, through His Son, and by His Spirit". In fact, I would argue that the typical covenant child's good faith acceptance of such parental instruction is far less skeptical and "hard to swallow" than the new adult convert who has greater baggage of years of unbelief and autonomous, unbiblical thinking against which he must fight. The typical covenant child rests comfortably in his parents' explanation, not because he has laid hold of the full doctrine through a systematic and logical analysis of the terms, but because he loves and trusts the authority (i.e. parents) God has set over him, and that is precisely the sort of faith required, for it is how Jesus said those who believed in Him had access to the Father, and how those who believed in the testimony of the Apostles had access to the Son and to the Father, and how the Apostles told their ministers how the people would have access to the Apostle's testimony, and to the Son, and to the Father. In other words, those whom God appoints as spiritual authorities bear His name and are His representatives in whom faithful trust is received as genuine and obedient. It is upon those representatives' heads should they deceive those under them into unbelief and disobedience, causing God's little ones to stumble (perhaps this explains many adults' reticence to allow their children's faith in their instruction to count as faith in God, effectively hiding the "talent" God has entrusted to them lest they risk being blamed for its misuse).

A child's ability to articulate their faith verbally is far less developed than that an adult, but a child's ability to wholeheartedly accept and rest in the instruction of his parents is far more developed than that of an adult who is a new convert to trust in the testimony of the pastor or elders--far more developed, perhaps, than even an adult who is simply immature in the faith, and not newly converted. It is granted that where children are welcomed to the Lord's Table the parents bear a sober and weighty responsibility to shepherd their children in the proper posture and principles of participation. But that great responsibility is wed to minds that are supple, responsive, and, in general, delight to follow wherever the parents lead.

Another issue, which would take more space than I'd will end up using here, is whether or not the contemporary church, including and especially  the Presbyterians for whom this debate is most relevant, have a proper grasp of the importance and vitality of the Lord's Supper in the life of the Church. Robert Letham, in his book, Union with Christ, gives two thesis about the Lord's Supper that indicate, in brief, the significance of what participation entails:
The body and blood of Christ are not materially, corporeally, or physically present in the Lord's Supper. . . .As surely as we eat the bread and drink the wine, so Christ enters our souls. As WCF 29.7 says, the faithful receive and feed on Christ in the Lord's Supper really and truly. No amount of stress on the spiritual aspect of the Supper, which is of course a correct stress, can ever diminish the real and true feeding that takes place there. As Jesus said, "my flesh is true meat and my blood is true drink" (John 6:51-58). Or in the words of Paul, in union with Christ we are given "one Spirit to drink" (1 Cor. 12:13). . . .In the Lord's Supper we are lifted up to feed on Christ. This is real and true, for it is communion with the Son in the Holy Spirit and thus entails personal access to the Father. We are given to share in the life of the Trinity. In the Supper, the Spirit lifts us up to feed on Christ. Since he is God, he joins things separated by distance, as Calvin said, uniting those that are spatially far apart. The Spirit and the Son are indivisible with the Father in the unity of the Holy Trinity. Moreover, the Spirit's distinctive work is to glorify Christ and lead his people to him through the faith he gives them. Indeed, Paul regards the Spirit as so close to the risen Christ that he can call him "the Spirit of the Lord" and "the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:17)
Presbyterians who wish to emphasize that the gospel ought to be the central message of every sermon should find in Letham's description of the Supper the visual analogy of the centrality of the gospel preached. Augustine called the Supper, "a kind of visible word of God." Where the gospel is preached through the sermon, it is also displayed and partaken of through the Supper. What Christian would knowingly flee from the opportunity to have the closest foretaste of the new heavens and earth offered this side of its realization--the Spirit's drawing us directly into the presence of Christ, by faith? What father who loves his child, and trusts God's Covenant promise to his child, would not desire his son or daughter such sublime access to the Triune God? What father who has accepted and acknowledged the promises of God for his child in the waters of baptism would want to refuse a chief benefit of those promises in the spiritual nourishment of the Son in union with Father and Spirit that is accomplished at the Table of Christ? This is no check-mark on the list of "good Christian achievements," nor is it a competition to see how young a child's "progress in understanding" can be accomplished. It is a real and true union and communion with our Triune God. It makes no sense to objectively regard our children as possessing fellowship with God and to keep them from the meal by which they are drawn closest to Him by faith. The historic, common Presbyterian confessions regarding the Covenant, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper are so far from precluding children from the spiritual realities set forth in the Supper it is baffling to me that the debate exists at all, much less that it is the paedocommunionist who stands in the minority position.

I am in genuine consternation and anguish over these things, and though I believe that I understand the majority position on the matter, I am far removed from comprehending the conviction it carries with so many.


Jacob Haynes said...

Hey Joshua,

Haven’t commented in a while and I had a little extra time today so I thought I would add some thoughts. I’ll start off by stating I am in agreement with you on this position. If we are to baptize our children, if we are to consider them part of the Body of Christ, why is it a problem to give them communion? In this light if my church switched to paedo-communion then I wouldn’t balk in the least.

However, I do see one good reason to withhold communion and I don’t see it used very often so I will try to articulate it the best I can. Though I now disagree with my Baptist brothers about credo baptism – I can see why it is appealing. Once a believer takes on the faith as his own, once he makes his own commitment to the Body of Christ, he has a human need to mark the occasion – to enact a ritual that serves as a psychological anchor that he can look back to as he spiritually matures. So when we practice paedo baptism (marking the commitment of God and the Body to the individual), we desire something besides baptism in which to mark the occasion of the individual’s commitment to God and to the Body.

Currently in most Presbyterian churches this is now marked with entry to the table. It may be technically inconsistent but because it is tied to a strong moment in the story of the individual and the Body it is hard to let go of. Or rather some see it naturally filling the role of the marker of one’s individual profession of faith. I find this hard to argue with as Presbys don’t have any other important symbolic gestures to bestow upon the completion of confirmation. So I am content with credo-communion.

Just my thoughts. Hope you and your family is doing well out in Florida.

Joshua Butcher said...

Jacob! I'm so glad you've blessed me with a comment. I've missed your presence here.

I think you're consideration makes even better sense for Credobaptists who have converted to Paedobaptism, since there lingers some of the baptistic notions of marking a point-in-time-conversion or commitment as significant. However, there is no Biblical justification for requiring, or even expecting such conversion/commitment moments. In his letter to Timothy, Paul doesn't encourage him to make good on any moment of conversion, but upon the basis of the investment of the faith handed down to him by his mother and grandmother. There is just as much psychological validity to marking the good deposit of faithful covenant parenting as the is in making a moment of conversion or commitment to the faith. We are all members of one Body, after all, and the investment of those members in one another is as much ours for encouragement and renewal as any particular contribution or reception of our own as individuals.

God's works are manifold in Creation AND Redemption, and to emphasize one particular way in which God's grace is manifest to the exclusion of others is not only unnecessary, but can lead to dangerous results (such as in some credobaptist and pentecostal communions where individuals are not considered as Christian unless they have a specific conversion moment to which they can point).

There is a sense in which a symbolic gesture that involves the deposit of our forefathers and mothers can carry greater psychological weight than a moment of individual conversion, since the scale of participation in the milestone is grander (would anyone, for example, consider the prayers of Augustine's mother of less significant to Augustine had he been faithful from his youth?).