When to Stop Interpreting the Lord’s Supper

A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul.  If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.

How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.

The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.

When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.

Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.

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Christ Abolished the Dividing Wall: Aquinas on the Old Law

Wailing WallMany theologians don’t want to interpret Paul’s statement in Eph. 2:14, 15 about Christ breaking down the “wall of hostility” as referring to an actual abolishing of the Old Law.  Some are also afraid of viewing the passage in terms of Jew/Gentile relations because those within the New Perspective on Paul camp interpret similar passages in that light.  The latter see within 1st Century Judaism an exclusivism that Paul finds more problematic than an apparent legalism.  I found it interesting that Thomas Aquinas includes both of these ideas in his commentary on Paul’s statements in Ephesians 2.  He affirms that the “wall of hostility” is the Old Law and that Christ has broken down this wall, causing the rift between Jew and Gentile to be removed:

What is said here should be understood in this way. For the world is likened to a field, “and the field is the world” (Mt. 13:38); this field of the world is crowded with men, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). A barrier, however, runs down the field, some are on one side and the rest on the other. The Old Law can be termed such a barrier, its carnal observances kept the Jews confined: “Before the faith came, we were kept under the law shut up, unto that faith which was to be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). Christ was symbolized through the Old Law: “Behold, he standeth behind our wall” (Cant. 2:9). Christ, however, has put an end to this barrier and, since no division remained, the Jews and the Gentiles became one people. This is what he says: I affirm that he hath made both one by the method of breaking down the middle barrier.

St. ThomasThomas views the Law in cosmic terms.  The Old Law divided the whole world into different classes.  He goes on to explain that this “dividing wall” was never meant to be permanent because it was a wall that lacked mortar: 

I say a barrier of partition and not a wall. A barrier of partition is one in which the stones are not mortared together with cement; it is not built to last permanently but only for a specified time. The Old Law was a barrier of partition for two reasons. First, because it was not mortared together with charity which is, as it were, the cement uniting individuals among themselves and everyone together with Christ. “Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Old Law is a law of fear, persuading men to observe its commands by punishments and threats. While that law was in force, those who kept it out of love belonged by anticipation, as Augustine holds, to the New Testament which is the law of love. “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons” (Rom. 8:15). Secondly, the Old Law is a barrier of partition because it was not meant to last permanently but only for a definite time. “As long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father. So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:1-3). (Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, II. Lect., 5.)

Moses and Ten CommandmentsIn this passage Thomas affirms that there is not a stark distinction between the two testaments, as if those living under the Old Testament were merely required to meet certain external conditions without any internal motive. Rather, those who lived under the Old Testament participated in the New Testament by keeping the Old Law out of love.  Matthew Lamb explains Thomas’s view of the relationship and difference between the two covenants:

[Thomas borrows from] St Augustine’s De Gratia Christi et Peccato Originali, 2, 24-25 (P.L. 44, col. 398-400); also Contra Adamantum Manich. Discip. 17, (P.L. 42, col. 157-62). In St. Thomas’ view of salvation-history the Old Law had an embryonic relationship to the New: “As the effect is in its cause, or the perfect is in its less perfect beginnings-just as the whole tree is contained in the seed-so is the New Law contained in the Old Law.” S.T. I-II, 107, 3. This is a corollary of the general pattern of God’s salvific revelation to man, it is gradual in order for man to better assimilate it (ibid., 99, 6). Thus the New Covenant fulfills the Old by realizing its deepest potentialities (ibid., 107, 2); they both have the same goal while they differ as less perfect and more perfect in their methods of attaining that goal (ibid., 107, 1). This is why Aquinas characterized the Old Law as one of Fear and the New as one of Love. For a genuine supernatural love could only be offered to God by God himself become man and communicating his love, the Holy Spirit, to other men (S.T. II-II, 24, 2c; III, 8, 6c). Hence Christ is the head of all mankind (ibid., III, 8, 3) and those who observed God’s commands out of supernatural love in the Old Testament really belonged to the New, while those in the New Covenant who still practice virtue out of fear of punishment are acting as though they were under the Old Law (ibid., I-II, 107, 1 ad 2). (Matthew Lamb, Ibid. footnote 56.)

Glorification of ChristThis cosmic and eschatological understanding of the relationship between testaments is essential to understanding Paul’s view of the Old Law.  Those who keep the Old Law under the New Testament are acting as if the dark age of Moses has not been superseded by the light of Christ. Those who attempt to live in the old age are bound to keep the whole law. The faithful who lived before the New Testament were given supernatural charity which actually belonged to a future age. God has providentially guided his people through salvation history in an upward pattern.  The virtues of the new age existed in seed form in the old age and came to full bloom with the incarnation of the eternal Word.  Thomas believed that God is moving his world from death to glorification.

Aquinas on the Order of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians

The order of this epistle is fitting in that, after the two epistles to the Corinthians, in the first of which it is a question of the sacraments of the Church, and in the second, of the ministers of these sacraments, there should necessarily follow the epistle to the Galatians, treating of the termination of the sacraments of the Old Testament. (Commentary on Galatians, I.1)

This is interesting for two reason:  First, most scholars today recognize Galatians to be the earliest of Paul’s epistles.  Second, he sees the main issue in this epistle as the problems of passing from one age to the next – this is also the opinion of Augustine – which I believe is the correct perception.