Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Real Presence and Modernity

In This is My Body, Hermann Sasse notes that Lutherans, at nearly all points in their history, have been tempted to abandon their adherence to the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. Even Melanchthon succumbed to this temptation after Luther’s death, as he sought to harmonize the Lutheran position with Calvin’s theology of the sacrament. Although his compromises were eventually rejected by the Formula of Concord, which affirmed Luther’s belief that “in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine”, the controversy never went away. In the European situation, the debate over the Real Presence would arise whenever churchmen and politicians sought to merge the Reformed and Lutheran churches. Such ecumenical considerations have also played a role in America, as evidenced by full communion agreements negotiated by the ELCA. But part of the motivation for ditching the Real Presence has also come from rationalists who argue that “modern man” cannot tolerate this absurd doctrine, which is supposedly a stumbling block to faith. It is undoubtedly true that the Zwinglian approach, which regards the bread and wine as nothing more that signs of Christ’s body and blood, is more palatable to the modern scientific mind. But while reading This is My Body, it occurred to me that, in at least two respects, the Lutheran doctrine is actually more in tune with current theological and intellectual trends than the Reformed position.

First concerns the flesh/spirit dualism that was central to Zwingli’s understanding of the sacrament. In the Marburg Colloquy (which is reproduced in Sasse’s book), Zwingli and his ally Oecolampadius return time and time again to John 6:63: “It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.” For them, it is axiomatic that “spirit can only be influenced by spirit.” Thus the tangible elements – the bread and wine – are essentially worthless, since they can only feed the body, not the soul. As Sasse writes, “of all the absurdities which Zwingli found in Luther’s doctrine on the sacrament there was none greater or more dangerous than the idea that a bodily eating can help the soul… Such an idea seemed to be a violation of the spiritual character of Christianity.” For Zwingli, Christianity is a spiritual affair in which our bodies are mere spectators. Thus, the Reformed churches teach that the Supper only involves the “spiritual eating of faith” (As Oecolampadius said at Marburg, “As we have the spiritual eating, why should there be any need for bodily eating?”).

Luther’s position is very different. In response to Zwingli’s persistent claims that the “flesh profiteth nothing”, Luther asserts that “I do not know of any God except Him who was made flesh. And there is no other God who could save us”. Luther is capable of distinguishing between spirit and flesh, but he never separates them for fear that the reality of the Incarnation will be compromised. Thus, “the idea that the sacrament is meant for the whole man, body and soul, is one of the fundamental elements of Luther’s doctrine of the Supper… Luther knew that according to Holy Scripture not only the human soul, but also the human body, is the object of God’s redemption.” (Sasse, 184, 186).

I would argue that Luther’s refusal to radically separate the soul from the body is more consistent with our current scientific understanding of the body, as well as modern theological approaches to our corporeality, then the Reformed dualism. It is also more Biblical. As Sasse points out, the separation of body and soul is really a Platonic concept that has no foundation in the Scriptures. This type of dualism has fallen out of favor today, not only among scientists, but among those who advocate a holistic approach to human body. Thus, I suspect that Luther’s position on the Real Presence would be appealing to many “moderns” who reject an other-worldly spirituality. It is the Lutheran contention that Christ incarnate comes to us in the lowly things of this world - bread, wine, and water.

As I mentioned above, there is another area where I think the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper is more congruent with our current ways of thinking. This involves the Reformed contention that Christ’s body is physically located in heaven, and thus cannot be present on the altars of the world. But since this post is already plenty long, I’ll save that discussion for another time…


Chris TerryNelson said...

Hi Thomas,
Stay tuned for George Hunsinger's new book, Let Us Keep the Feast, which should be published within the next year or so by Cambridge University Press in the Current Issues in Theology series. I'm currently in Hunsinger's "Theology of the Lord's Supper" class, where he's basically giving us his book in lecture-form. We'll read Sasse soon, but first we're reading Kilmartin's "The Eucharist in the West." I think what you've said about real presence is not only in tune with current conventions of thinking holistically, but it's also deeply important for moving towards a view that will be palatable for Orthodox and Catholics alike. I'll post more on this later, but the secret lies in moving from the Catholic/Aristotelian system of transubstantiation to a more 4th century Greek notion that George Hunsinger calls "transelementation." And it's built heavily on the incarnational analogy, with some chalcedonian logic too! I have to go read, but thanks for this thought-provoking post.

Thomas Adams said...

Chris -- I'm looking forward to Hunsinger's book and a bit jealous that you get a sneak peak in class. I'm curious to know what Hunsinger, as a student of Barth, thinks about the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence. If I remember right, Barth himself essentially adopted Calvin's understanding of the Lord's Supper, although the section in the Church Dogmatics on the sacraments was never finished. Does Hunsinger believe that the traditional Reformed position is a dead-end when it comes to ecumenical progress?

Chris TerryNelson said...

Hi Thomas,
Again, I haven't heard anything about the real presence from the Lutheran side yet. However, the two things I've heard so far regarding Luther himself have been:

A. Any discussion of the bread "literally" being the body of Christ is a waste of time. Luther saw the imprecision of this word by liking its claim to saying that the bread is "literally" like eating real flesh like "pork on a plate."

B.) Luther used the metaphor of iron in the fire, whereby iron is the bread and the fire is the glorified body of Christ. By putting the iron in the fire, the iron undergoes real transformation while remaining essentially iron, while the fire remains fire. Apparently Luther didn't stick to this metaphor throughout his arguments with Catholics and with Zwingli, but it is extremely helpful.

Hunsinger's view is closer to T.F. Torrance's found in his essay in Theology in Reconciliation entitled "The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist," which keeps Barth more in Calvin's trajectory. Again, whatever Hunsinger's viewpoint is, his focus is on getting an ecumenical minimal view across the board, which means everyone has to stretch some without giving up anything that is essential to them. The point is that the 4th century view allows us to keep both the symbol and the real presence. The other areas of contention are eucharistic sacrifice and the ministry of the sacrament.

Once I read more on Luther's own view, and if I hear Hunsinger say anything more about Luther.

CPA said...

Good points, Thomas. Of course one would not want to get boxed into a view that "Luther was write and that over-spiritualizing, Cartesian John 6:63 passage is wrong." 8) The flesh of the sacrament, without the faith of the Holy Spirit that it is the flesh of the sacrifice and hence bears forgiveness to its eater, does indeed profit nothing.