Saturday, January 15, 2022

Saturday Synaxis

Oh, let Your love enkindle mine,
Set all my soul on fire;
Exalt my voice to strains divine,
And utmost praise inspire.
And while with tuneful tongue and heart
I celebrate this grace,
Let all my actions bear a part,
And my whole life be praise.

- Simon Browne

Friday, January 14, 2022

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Historical Theology: Sacraments or Ordinances? (Part 1: Communion)

Question: What’s really going on in the Lord’s Supper?

Our Baptist answer to this seems pretty standard to us: communion is symbolic, and is usually practiced as a communal way to “remember” the sacrifice of Christ. However, even within the stream of Protestant tradition, this is not necessarily the standard answer. In the process of breaking off from the Roman Catholic church in the 1500s, several new views about communion arose.

Communion in the New Testament - It is clear from the New Testament that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a regular and focal part of Christian practice. The first three Gospels all prominently record its institution by Jesus, and the Gospel of John has a long teaching of Jesus about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” (John 6:25-59). It is mentioned again in Acts 2:42 and 20:7, apparently as a common practice, and Paul teaches about it extensively in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. In these passages, we can see that…

- Celebration of communion was a standard, frequent part of Christian worship

- It was understood in terms of “Christ’s body” and “Christ’s blood,” but whether this understanding is literal or symbolic is not made clear

- It was understood as a representation of the unity of the church

- It may have included just the elements of bread and wine, or it may have been a more substantial meal—a “love feast”

- It was a foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom-feast at the end of time

Communion in the Early Church

The first few Christian centuries had a fairly high view of communion. It came to be seen as the definitional practice of Christian assembly—i.e., it became a focal part of every Sunday worship service. It quickly became known by the name “Eucharist” which means “thanksgiving.” Most of the early church fathers seem to have felt that the actual presence and power of Christ was manifest in the elements of communion, but they did not specify as to how or when or by what means this happens. (This continues to be the view of the Eastern Orthodox churches—communion is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, but its function is “a holy mystery.”) Early in church history, communion was not seen as being, in and of itself, a “sacrament” (that is, an independent means of grace), but rather as being the fullest expression of the sacramental nature of the church itself.

Roman Catholic view on Communion

During its medieval development, and especially under the scholastic theologians of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Roman Catholic church spelled out a very specific, very literal view of communion: that when the priest invoked the Holy Spirit and said the words of institution “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body,” etc.), the bread and wine were actually transubstantiated into the actual flesh and the actual blood of Jesus Christ. Even though the outward form of the elements did not change, their inner essence did. As such, the receiving of communion itself became emphasized as the most important aspect of worship, and certain other practices followed: since this was truly the physical presence of God the Son among them and must be accorded the respect it deserved, laypeople were barred from receiving the cup—only priests could take communion in both elements (this practice has since been corrected in modern times); and the consecrated elements could be set aside in “adoration chapels” as objects of private veneration, apart from the actual communion service of the church.

Lutheran view on Communion

The Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther reacted against the highly-specific Catholic view of communion, but did not want to throw out the early church traditions. Luther, then, described communion as a mystery and a sacrament (that is, a means of grace), but did not hold to the physical transubstantiation of the elements. Rather, he described the presence of Christ as being “in, with, and under” the elements.

Reformed view on Communion

Somewhat similarly, John Calvin and the other leaders of the Reformed churches developed a view of communion that rejected transubstantiation but kept a sense of the “real presence” of Christ in the communion rite. They described Christ as being “spiritually present” at each enaction of the Lord’s Supper—or, to put it more accurately, that in the Lord’s Supper we are spiritually united to the sacrificial feast of Christ in heaven itself.

Zwinglian view on Communion

The third major reformer in terms of influence, after Luther and Calvin, was Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss pastor. After rigorous study of the New Testament, he came to articulate the position that most evangelicals hold today: that Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic rite. Thus, there is no actual change in the elements themselves, and while the mystical presence of Christ is indeed present at the Lord’s Supper, it is because Christ is always present with the gathered church, not because of any special powers attributable to the bread and cup. As such, the Lord’s Supper is practiced as an ordinance, not a sacrament: i.e., we practice it because the Lord ordered us to do so, but we believe that his grace is freely available to us in the entirety of our Christian lives, not only in this one rite. It is a symbol that reminds us of Christ’s death, affirms our unity, and looks forward to Christ’s return.


Although our tradition tells us that communion is symbolic rather than literal, we do it a disservice when we talk about it as “just a symbol.” The original meaning of “symbol” refers to something that can bring together two realities in one—in this case, heavenly realities and earthly realities, brought together in one ritual (interestingly, the opposite of “symbol” in Greek is “diabolos,” the word for “devil”). A symbol is something of great power and solemnity, and it should not be treated lightly. And even though we do not agree with some other traditions that communion is a source of special grace in and of itself, we should take seriously the fact that we believe that the spiritual presence of Christ is always with his church and that his grace and power is freely available to us when we seek him with sincere hearts—exactly how we should approach the practice of holy communion.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Evangeliad (23:31-35)

Section 23:31-38 (corresponding to Matt. 16:13-16; Mark 8:27-29)

They went to the villages clustered around
A Roman, Gentile, Herodian town--
Caesarea Philippi was its name,
With shrines to cater to the pagans' ways.

And there Jesus asked his disciples this:
"Who do people say the Son of Man is?"
"Some say you're Elijah, or John returned,
Or one of the prophets, come back to the world."

"And what about you?" Jesus pressed then,
Asking them, "Who do you say that I am?"
"You," said Simon, "are the Anointed One;
You are the Messiah, the living God's Son."

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Photo of the Week

Praise the Lord! God’s glories show,
Saints within God's courts below,
Angels round the throne above,
All who see and share God's love:
Age to age, God’s mercies trace;
Praise God’s providence and grace!

- adapted from a hymn by Henry Francis Lyte

Monday, January 10, 2022

Quote of the Week

 As a rule, I don't use my own quotes for these Monday Maxims. However, I'm making an exception this week, since my new book--my first theology book--just came out (Who We Were Meant to Be).

"Weekly church services are the main venue for our main responsibility as human beings. In our role as God's royal priesthood, we serve as worship leaders for all of creation, representing the chorus of nature's praise before the Father. We serve as intercessors, bringing the needs of the world before him. And we serve at the forefront of the eternal, angelic symphony of worship beyond all space and time. If we abscond these high and glorious duties, no one else may do them for us. There are no other creatures in all the universe endowed with the same grand vocation." (p. 112)

Friday, January 07, 2022