Saturday, October 27, 2007

More Thoughts on Closed Communion

I've been delving into Robert Jenson's theology of the sacraments, as found both in his Systematic Theology and in Visible Words (1978). I hope to write a post outlining his overall sacramentology soon, but for now I will simply share his thoughts on the open vs. closed communion debate:
"Disagreement about the interpretation of Christ's presence has been a profound and continuing occasion of the church's disunity, especially at the table itself. There is a terrible irony in this; since in fact Christ's presence as the bread and cup is not separable from the unity it creates as those who share the meal.

Many rationalizations have been attempted, all of them sophistical. The simple case is this: if I and my group celebrate the Supper, and do not admit you, this is excommunication; and if we indeed belong to the body of Christ, as we claim merely by our celebration, it is excommunication from the body of Christ. If you then otherwise celebrate the Supper with a group of your like, we are bound to maintain that this celebration is a mere attempt, in which Christ is not present. If we fail to maintain this, either we are merely being inconsequential, or we revoke our right to exclude you in the first place.

There is no middle ground. If you acknowledge that I belong to the church, you must admit me to your Supper. If you will not admit me to your Supper, you should not then talk about my nevertheless being your 'fellow in Christ.'" (Visible Words, 113)
It is worth noting that Luther held essentially the same position as Jenson, although to much different effect. For Luther, the anti-sacramentalists, whether Reformed or Anabaptist, were genuine heretics and not Christians in the least, as dramatically emphasized by his refusal to accept Zwingli's hand in Christian brotherhood at Marburg. So Luther would have no problem with the logic of Jenson's thinking; that is, for Luther, the table was indeed open to all Christians, as he defined it. You can call him divisive and intolerant, but at least he was consistent.

The same cannot be said of modern Lutherans who practice closed communion. They are guilty of what Jenson calls "inconsequential" thinking - they forbid table fellowship with baptized Christians not in communion with their denomination, but they do not deny that such people may be Christians. That this is the case is amply evident in Missouri Synod documents that explain their stance on closed communion. For example, in response to the question whether the sacrament can be provided to "relatives who are very close to us but who are members of other church bodies", the LCMS writes: "This question is often a very difficult and sensitive one on an emotional level, because we feel united with those whom we love - especially when they are fellow Christians!" (emphasis mine). In the same document, we find the following Q&A:
Question: How can we possibly say that all those Christians from other church bodies are unworthy to receive the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t that what we are saying?

Answer: Absolutely not! There are two reasons why people can be refused admission to the Lord’s Supper. The first has to do with faith and discerning the body. Those who do not have such faith and discernment would commune in an unworthy manner and thereby receive God’s judgment. But the second reason has to do with the need for a fitting confessional unity among those who commune together. Roman Catholic Christians, for example, may be perfectly prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper in their own churches in a worthy manner and so to their own great blessing. But it would be unfitting for them, as confessors of their church body’s error, to receive the Sacrament in our churches.
This is an interesting position. The LCMS does not deny the validity of the Roman sacrament; quite the contrary, they call it a "great blessing". But this is only true for Catholics! The same sacrament is presumably damaging for a Lutheran participant, hence the prohibition against LCMS members communing in other church bodies. But isn't the same body and blood of Christ present at both altars? And if so, must it not be acknowledged that some form of unity does indeed exist between the Lutheran and Catholic churches, even if there is disagreement on non-sacramental matters?

I have previously expressed reservations about "wide-open" communion and I generally stand by those statements. But I also think there are serious theological problems with closed communion as practiced by the LCMS and RC churches. For me, the decisive point is whether a given church group "recognizes the body of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:29), that is, whether they acknowledge the Real Presence as generally understood by Luther. If they do, then I see no problem with permitting table fellowship, regardless of other differences. As Jenson says, "The old question about whether fellowship is a means or consequence of fellowship in the faith is an entirely perverse question; fellowship at the Supper is fellowship in the faith."

That said, it seems to me that where there is no agreement concerning the Lord's Real Presence, there can be no table or pulpit fellowship. So, as you can imagine, I am not a fan of the ELCA's full communion agreements with Reformed bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ. Does this mean that I regard members of these denominations as non-Christians? I won't go that far, but it may be true that by failing to recognize the body of Christ in the sacraments, these denominations forfeit their claim to be part of the body of Christ that is the Church (for Jenson, it is axiomatic that the existence of these two "bodies of Christ" are interdependent. However, it is not my place (or nature) to make drastic statements. I will leave it to others to decide whether the ELCA's agreements with the Reformed churches go too far and thus establish nothing but a false unity. But I don't think it's extreme to maintain that the celebration of the Lord's Supper in these churches is "a mere attempt, in which Christ is not present," and that this must have severe consequences for ecumenism.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Barth on Luther's Doctrine of the Eucharist

In relation to my previous post, I've been reading and enjoying Karl Barth's article "Luther's Doctrine of the Eucharist", written in 1923 and published in Theology and Church. Barth, of course, ultimately disagrees with the direction that Luther took regarding the Lord Supper's, but he remains astonished at the force and boldness of the Reformer's thought. At one point he writes, "It is possible to understand the step which Luther took [with regards to the Lord's Supper] as the act of pure Christian faith in revelation, or as an act manifesting truly demonic force... Actually it was both." Nevertheless, with his penetrating intellect, Barth is able to cut to the heart of the matter as few can. One might even say that he understands Luther better than Luther understood himself, even if he ultimately rejects the Reformer's position.

Barth rightly dismisses the notion (common among Reformed) that Luther's insistence on the Real Presence is an inconsistency in his overall thought, a lingering hangover from medieval Catholicism. "There can be no doubt that what we find here is not a slip in logic, but the purpose which manifests itself with compelling inner necessity... One can say confidently that he would not have been Luther if he had not taken this step."

So what drove Luther irresistibly to the Real Presence? The answer, for Barth, is to be found in Luther's dynamic understanding of the Word. But this insight is misunderstood if the Word is thought to refer only to Christ's words at the Last Supper, "This is my body,... this is my blood." Luther's doctrine of the Eucharist was not merely the product of simple-minded biblical literalism, although later generations of Lutherans have often understood it this way. No, the reason lies deeper. Luther can see Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist because God's Word is a creative word that establishes the reality it promises. "The word brings with it everything of which it speaks, namely, Christ with his flesh and blood and everything he is and has."

Barth sees this as the truly original aspect of Luther's thought. It is the "predicate of identity", "the identification of the signifying with what is signified, of the sign with the signification." Whereas others played the signum and res of the sacrament against each other, Luther held them tightly together. Another way to say this - citing my earlier post - is that Luther emphasized the signum et res of the sacrament, although he never used this exact formulation. Take the following quote:
"So that this divine promise [of forgiveness] may be to us the most certain of all and render our faith most secure, he set upon it the token and seal which is the most trustworthy and precious of all, as he himself was the price of the promise, his own body and blood under the bread and wine. By this he guarantees that the riches of the promise are given to us; and this requires our acceptance of the promise."
Here it is clear that Luther regards Christ's body as both signum and res: it is what is signified by the bread and wine and it is a "token and seal" of the divine promise of forgiveness. This is not a trivial point for Luther, since it reflects the fact that it is only through Christ's humanity, his body and blood, that we have salvation and the forgiveness of sins. The connection between Christology and the sacrament is clear here. As Luther says, "he himself was the price of the promise." This is the essence of his insistence on the "identification of signifying with what is signified", on the signum et res, and ultimately on the Real Presence itself. The "predicate of identity" is derived from the Incarnation, where the body of Christ both is and signifies our salvation. A disembodied, "spiritual" Christ does not save. Thus, Luther's belief in the Real Presence is nothing more than his belief in the saving power of the Incarnation, where the promise is true because it is "in, with, and under" the flesh.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Augustine and the Sacraments

I've been reading and thinking a great deal about the sacraments lately, which has been interesting due to the sheer variety of positions that have been adopted by Christians through the centuries regarding what the sacraments are and mean. It seems that sacramentology is an area of theology where confusion has generally trumped consensus, often because people can use the same language but mean something entirely different (just think, for example, of the various ways that the word "presence" can be (mis)understood). Despite this diversity, no matter which book I turn to, I invariably encounter St. Augustine's definition of a sacrament: "The Word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word." That is, every sacrament has two components: the physical object(s) - the sign (signum) - and the invisible reality (res) that is thereby signified and proclaimed. Thus, in baptism, the element of water signifies the res, which in this case is the word of justification (or participation in the church of Christ).

At first glance, Augustine's definition of sacraments as "visible words" seems admirably straightforward, until one realizes that every faction in the history of Western Christianity - regardless of their sacramentology - has claimed to be faithful to it. Of course, by the standards of modern ecumenism, this may be considered a good thing; after all, if everyone agrees with Augustine, then perhaps we can leave behind the divisive battles of the past. But, to my way of thinking, such universal consensus merely points to the inadequacy of Augustine's thinking on the sacraments. Any definition that can encompass both Luther's and Zwingli's positions on the Lord's Supper is dangerously vague.

The medieval scholastics implicitly acknowledged this shortcoming when they introduced a third sacramental reality that is both sign and res (signum et res). This signum et res is most obvious in the case of the Lord's Supper, as concisely described by Robert Jenson in his Systematic Theology:
"There are of course many sorts of signifier-signified relations, most of them involving nothing remarkable beyond the wonder of language itself. The relation between the bread and cup as signum and Christ's mystical body as res is exceptional in the way called sacramental in that there is a middle reality between what is simply sign and what is simply res; this is the body and blood of Christ. The body and blood are at once signum et res: they are the thing the bread and cup signify but in turn they are signs, the visible Word of God that promises our communion with God and with one another.

To be signs Christ's body and blood must be there, available to our apprehension. Yet they are no more apparently present than is the mystical body they signify; they are visible only as the bread and cup that signify them. It is this identify between being visible only as signified and being visibly present so as to signify that makes the peculiar sacramental reality."
Jenson thus locates the essence of sacrament in the "middle reality" of the signum et res, and he goes on to show how it applies to all traditional sacraments.

Of course, this raises the question: why is it necessary to invoke this middle term, the signum et res? Why isn't Augustine's definition sufficient? The complete answer to these questions, which I hope to provide in a latter post, is grounded in Christology and our understanding of the incarnation. But suffice it to say, the signum et res is essential for any doctrine of the sacraments that affirms the real presence of Christ's body. As Jenson puts it, the signum et res is the sacrament's true "character," its "potentiality." It is that thing "in, with, and under" the element that makes it an effective sign, and not just a sign. It thus allows the elements to actually "contain the grace they signify" (a formulation from the Council of Trent that Lutherans can also affirm).

From this, we can conclude that any account of the sacraments that takes Augustine's definition as exhaustive is bound to end-up with a non-realist (Zwinglian) sacramentology. The common feature of all such teachings is that they dismiss the signum et res, leaving only the signum and res of Augustine's formulation. But this vitiates the sacrament. The signum is inevitably regarded as secondary to the res and eventually the element is trivialized or discarded altogether. It is no wonder, then, that Hermann Sasse in This is My Body blames Augustine for the anti-sacramentalism that has been so prevalent in the Reformed tradition from Zwingli to Barth.

Much more needs to be said, particularly concerning the intimate connection between the sacraments and the incarnation. But this post is already too long, so it will have to wait.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Jüngel: God's Being is Realized in Contradiction

For those of you wondering what I've been doing lately in my free time, I've been working my way through Eberhard Jüngel's Theological Essays II. That partially explains my lack of posting, since, among modern theologians, Jüngel is perhaps the most difficult to blog about. This is due to the depth and rigor of this thought, which is impossible to summarize in short posts, combined with his lackluster prose. Simply put, he's not quotable! Regardless, I would like to discuss some concerns regarding the most thought-provoking essay in the collection: "The Revelation of the Hiddenness of God."

Jüngel's goal is to rectify misconceptions regarding the deus absconditus that have historically appeared in Lutheran theology (those familiar with this blog will know that this has also been a concern of mine; see here and here). Jüngel begins by saying that if God is hidden and dark to us, "it cannot imply that God himself is dark." Instead, God is concealed because he "dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6.15).
"The absolute invisibility of God is, therefore, the expression of the excess of light that God essentially is. This light, one might say, is unbearably intense and blinding in its pure illuminating power. In this light, in the light of his own being, God is not visible, he is hidden. If there is in him an inaccessible depth, it is in no way a dark depth or a murky abyss, but rather the depth of his glory, the unfathomableness of primal light. It is the majesty of God that lets him be hidden for us."
Here, Jüngel discredits the notion, which can be traced to Luther, that there exists a terrible and wrathful God behind (or separate from) the God we encounter in Christ. For Jüngel, it is of the utmost importance that the God we meet in Jesus Christ be fully and truly God, such that there is no deus absconditus contrary to this revelation. But, in agreement with Luther, Jüngel argues that it is proper to speak the hidden works of God. These alien works of God (opus dei alienum), manifested as wrath, serve the purpose of God's proper works (opus proprium). "The work of God's left hand is always related to the work of God's right hand. God kills so that he can bring to life. Luther can also say: God annihilates, so that he can create the new out of nothingness."

It seems to me that Jüngel is walking a thin line here. Is it so easy to separate God's nature from his works? Is it not a contradiction for God to act in a manner "alien" to his being? Jüngel doesn't say, but the issue becomes even more problematic when, drawing on Barth, he writes:
"God does not contradict himself... Even in the greatest of all imaginable contradictions, even in the contradiction of eternal life and earthly death [in the crucifixion], God corresponds to himself. The being of God is capable of this contradiction. Indeed, God's being is realized in this contradiction without being destroyed by it. God endures it. And this endurance of the contradiction of life and death is God himself, it is the depth of God's glory."
Jüngel seems to be saying that contradictions cannot contradict God because he is contradiction. But how is this consistent with the statement of 1 John that "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all", which Jüngel himself cites in the essay? Moreover, how is it compatible with his earlier remark that "if there is in him an inaccessible depth, it is in no way a dark depth or a murky abyss, but rather the depth of his glory, the unfathomableness of primal light"?

I'm not convinced that Jüngel's efforts have resulted in a gain over Luther's original position. Luther understood the hiddenness of God under its opposite (the essence of his "theology of the cross") as an inscrutable paradox that could not be resolved dogmatically. But Jüngel, who shares Barth's distrust of paradox, attempts just this. In the end, he merely succeeds in moving Luther's paradox into the very heart of God's being.

Interestingly, towards the end of the essay, Jüngel appears to circle back to something akin to Luther's anti-speculative position. He writes:
"The ancient need for an explanation of evil and so for a justification of God in the face of evil, the ancient human need not only to pose, but also to solve, the question of theodicy, does not in fact stop outside the sacred halls of dogmatics. Dogmatics cannot ignore this ancient need. But neither can dogmatics satisfy it. And dogmatics should not act as if it could do so. Dogmatics must not even want to satisfy this ancient need."
Exactly! But Jüngel then goes on to say :
One can only speak of God as the uncompromising enemy of evil. There is only one, but one decisive, connection of God and evil. And that is the cross of Jesus Christ, the fundamental fact of Christian faith: that God conquers evil in that he suffers it himself."
Which raises my final question: does God really conquer evil (and death) if evil (and death) become part of the very being of God, even in such a way that they lose their power over humanity? Would it not be better to say that God remains free of contradiction even in the horror of the cross, although this statement involves a seeming paradox?