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Saturday, February 12, 2005


Yet again, I'm provoked to blog by the discussion over at Pontifications, where some of the issues that most concern me are being hashed out in some very thoughtful ways. There's been some discussion recently about Eucharistic theology and practice among Protestants, and I have been defending the view that Christ is truly present (whatever the true meaning of that presence may be) wherever the Lord's Supper is celebrated, whether or not the proper minister (i.e., an episcopally ordained priest) is presiding. This is obviously subject to criticism on a number of fronts. There are two objections that most concern me.

The first is that this position contradicts the historic stance of the Church. I'm not sure this is quite as evident as is often claimed. Most of the insistence on proper ordination of the minister of the Eucharist can be interpreted as referring to proper order rather than necessarily to validity (in Catholic terminology, to the licit or illicit character of the sacrament). Occasionally there are positive bits of evidence that validity is not the issue at stake. For instance, William Durandus's Rationale Divinorum Officiorum tells the story of two shepherds who said the words of institution over some bread which they had placed on a rock. As a result, the bread was miraculously transformed into flesh. Granted, Durandus adds that they were immediately struck by lightning for their blasphemy. But the clear implication is that the words _themselves_ have power irrespective of the person using them. This isn't particularly the view of the sacrament I'm trying to defend. But neither is it what passes for Catholic orthodoxy today. Yet the Catholic Encyclopedia, that bastion of pre-Vatican-II respectability, informs us that Durandus is "one of the most important medieval liturgical writers."
The pre-Reformation Church's position was not as clear-cut as it is made out to be. Of that much I'm certain. And when you throw into the mix St. Jerome's well-known denial that bishops were more than presbyters given a certain preeminence of jurisdiction for pragmatic and historical reasons, I think the case for some kind of emphatic, universal consensus on this question looks rather shaky.

In the second place, I have found myself accused of "subjectivism." In other words, my view allegedly amounts to saying that Christ is present where He is believed to be present. Well, that isn't entirely true, since I believe that Christ is present sacramentally even where no such presence is believed in. But it's certainly true that for me the fact of Protestant sacramental piety (however vague and insufficient by Catholic standards) is a strong argument for the reality of sacramental grace among Protestants. I myself came to believe in the Real Presence largely through my experience of weekly communion in Plymouth Brethren assemblies in Romania (about as "low church" and anti-sacramental as you can get, except for the fact that they celebrated the "breaking of bread" every Sunday). One poster on Pontifications asked me if I would similarly say that Muslim piety must have some objective correlation.

I've been thinking about that, and my answer is yes. That doesn't mean that I accept all the things Muslims claim about their religion, of course. I don't believe that the Qur'an is divinely inspired (except insofar as any book containing truth and goodness is divinely inspired), for instance. But I would never say that Muslims (or, for that matter, Hindus) are worshipping a God who exists solely in their own minds. Insofar as there are elements of truth in what they believe, their piety _does_ in fact relate to something "objective," something outside the psyche of the worshipper. There are forms of "spirituality" that do appear to be almost entirely subjective. But I certainly would not bring this charge against Islam.

Similarly, I am not claiming that everything Protestants claim about themselves is true. Clearly, for instance, many evangelicals, especially Pentecostals and charismatics, are deceived when they claim special revelation from God--this is an almost unavoidable conclusion, given how mutually contradictory and often self-refuting many such "revelations" are. More broadly and relevantly, many Protestants claim a kind of perspicuity for Scripture, and an ability to determine its meaning with certainty, for which I can see no warrant. I do not even accept the versions of inerrancy upheld by many conservative Protestants. So I'm very far from maintaining the ridiculous proposition that because good and pious people believe something, it must be true. Rather, I'm saying that the existence of a form of piety that produces fruit is an argument for the existence of something real giving substance to that piety. Not an irrefutable argument, but an argument nonetheless. I would have to see very strong arguments indeed to be persuaded that Christ was not sacramentally present in Plymouth Brethren, Restorationist ("Campbellite"), and Methodist Eucharists (the three non-episcopal traditions among whom I've most often partaken of the Lord's Supper--leaving aside the question of Anglican Orders!). And so far I have not seen such arguments--rather, I've seen a lot of assumptions and jumping to conclusions, built largely on the assumption that since Protestants don't believe in the kind of sacramental grace Catholics/Orthodox (and Anglo-Catholics) do, therefore denying validity to their sacraments is doing them no injustice.