07 August 2004

the eucharistic memorial - part i

I've written here before regarding Reformed understandings of our true partaking of Christ's body and blood in the eucharist, focusing particularly on the views of Calvin and Bucer. That is not my immediate topic.

Instead, I would now like to give some consideration to Reformed understandings of the eucharist as a memorial of Christ's passion and death - a sacrifice of our thanksgiving and praise and of ourselves, in union with Christ and the benefits of his sacrifice, a eucharistic offering by which we receive the forgiveness of sins unto salvation.

It is, of course, well known that Calvin, along with the other Reformers, most strenuously objected to the understanding of the "sacrifice of the mass" that they perceived to be present in the Roman Catholic church of their day, maintaining that the Roman mass attempted to supplement Christ's sacrifice on the cross with an action of our own, offering up, through the Christian priest, our own atoning sacrifice of Jesus in addition to what Christ had already accomplished once for all.

Whether or not this was the official teaching of the Roman church, or remains so today, is not my present concern. It was the teaching that the Reformers thought they faced and which they opposed. In their estimation, the prevalent abuses and the aberrations from apostolic and patristic teaching necessitated a break from dominant understandings and practices.

In making such a break, however, they did not throw out every understanding of the eucharistic memorial and sacrifice, but attempted to retrieve what they believed to be authentically biblical, apostolic, and patristic doctrine. While, in light of their own context, Luther and Calvin only paid passing attention to framing a positive doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice, later Reformed theologians made a significant effort to explicate the Reformed doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice in conversation with Scripture and church history, particularly the Fathers.

The following is not an attempt to prove that Reformed understandings of the eucharistic memorial and sacrifice are biblical and apostolic, nor is it an attempt to prove that Reformed theologians genuinely recovered the teaching of the Fathers and some medievals on the matter. Rather, I simply am presenting and explicating the views of a few representative Reformed thinkers as I find them and understand them, in roughly chronological order.

John Calvin

Before turning to later Reformed explications (of the later 16th century and up into the early 18th century), we can briefly consider what John Calvin himself wrote on the matter. In his Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Calvin writes:
The bread is his body. For we have it for this reason, that it may be a covenant in his body, that is, a covenant which has been once for all ratified by the sacrifice of his body, and is now confirmed by eating, namely, when believers eat that sacrifice...For the blood was poured out to reconcile us to God, and now we drink it spiritually in order to have a share in that reconciliation.
For Calvin, when the bread and wine are set apart by the Word, the Supper becomes the means by which we partake of Christ, substantially, so that, feeding upon him, we,
by the power of the Holy Spirit, may be united to him, in order that the death and passion that he has undergone may belong to us and that that sacrifice, by which we are now reconciled to God, may be attributed and imputed to us now as if we had offered it ourselves in person. (Sermon 7 on 1 Corinthians)
Calvin does not want to do anything to eclipse the unique, once for all sacrifice of the cross, by our adding something to that sacrifice of our own doing or by claiming to sacrifice Christ anew. But he is happy to say that the whole benefit of that sacrifice is made present in the eucharist in the Person of Christ so that the reconciling benefits of it are received by us as if we had offered Christ up to the Father ourselves. After all, "the Lord does not offer his body to us, just his body with nothing else said about it, but his body as having been sacrificed for us" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians).

This eucharistic movement, in which we, by union with the whole Christ, share in the benefits of his sacrifice as if we had offered him up ourselves, is a movement that Calvin places in the context of the eucharist as a sacrifice of all possible praise and thanksgiving. He writes:
This kind of sacrifice is indispensable in the Lord's Supper, in which, while we show forth his death, and give him thanks, we offer nothing but the sacrifice of praise. From this office of sacrificing, all Christians are called "a royal priesthood," because by Christ we offer that sacrifice of praise of which the apostle speaks, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name (1 Pet 2:9; Heb 13:15). We do not appear with our gifts in the presence of God without an intercessor. Christ, our Mediator, by whose intervention we offer ourselves and our all to the Father; he is our High Priest, who, having entered into the upper sanctuary, opens up an access for us; he is the altar on which we lay our gifts, that whatever we do attempt, we may attempt in him; he it is, I say, who "has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father" (Rev 1:6). (Institutes 4.18.17)
Thus, any kind of offering that we make in the eucharist - of ourselves, of our praise, and even, in the sense specified above, of Christ himself - is an offering that we make only in union with the glorified Christ as our Mediator and Priest, caught up into his own self-offering and priestly intercession before the Father, as our heavenly altar.

Though Calvin never explicates this teaching in any great detail, the outline of a robust theology of the eucharistic memorial and sacrifice lies incipiently within Calvin's teaching. Once the initial polemics of the Reformation passed - with their attempts to distance themselves from perceived Roman errors - Reformed theologians continued to develop this theology of the eucharistic sacrifice, building on these few suggestions of Calvin and in dialogue with the wider Christian tradition.

William Perkins

Among English theologians, the Elizabethan Puritan divine, William Perkins (1558-1602), wrote extensively on various topics of theology, including the sacraments, on several occasions interacting with what he took to be the teaching of Roman Catholicism and arguing for his own understanding of the catholic faith, appropriately reformed in light of Scripture and in conversation with the Fathers of the church.

Perkins addressed the nature of the eucharistic sacrifice in his book The Reformed Catholike (in Works, vol 1; I've modernized the spellings in the following texts, for ease of reading). After discussing biblical sacrifices in general, he draws two main conclusions, the first of which is the following:
I. That the Supper of the Lord is a sacrifice, and may truly be so called as it has been in former ages; and that in three respects:

[1] Because it is a memorial of the real sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, and contains withal a thanksgiving to God for the same, which thanksgiving is the sacrifice and calves of our lips (Heb 13:15).

[2] Because every communicant does there present himself body and soul a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice unto God. For as in this sacrament God gives unto us Christ, with his benefits: so we answerably give ourselves unto God as servants to walk in the practice of all dutiful obedience.

[3] It is called a sacrifice in respect of that which was joined with the sacrament, namely, the alms given to the poor as a testimony of our thankfulness unto God. And in this respect also, the ancient Fathers have called the sacrament, an "unbloody sacrifice"; and the table, an "altar"; and the ministers, "priests"; and the whole action an "oblation," not to God but to the congregation, and not by the priest alone, but by the people.

A canon of a certain council says, "We decree that every Lord's Day the oblation of the altar be offered of every man and woman both for bread and wine." And Augustine says, that women offer a sacrifice at the altar of the Lord, that it might be offered by the priest to God. And usually in ancient writers the communion of the whole body of the congregation is called the "sacrifice" or "oblation."
Therefore, for Perkins, the eucharist is a sacrifice in the sense that it is an objective memorial representing Christ's sacrifice, it is a means by which we offer ourselves up to God in union with Christ and all his benefits, and it incorporates the collection of alms for the poor, from which the eucharistic elements are also drawn.

Perkins goes on to draw a second conclusion:
II. That the very body of Christ is offered in the Lord's Supper.

For as we take the bread, to be the body of Christ sacramentally by resemblance and no otherwise: so the breaking of bread is sacramentally the sacrificing or offering of Christ upon the cross. And thus the Fathers have termed the Eucharist an "immolation of Christ," because it is a commemoration of his sacrifice upon the cross (Aug. Epistle 23).

Neither does he lie which says Christ was offered. For if the sacraments had not the resemblance of things whereof they are sacraments, they should in no wise be sacraments: but from a resemblance they often take their names.

Again, Christ is sacrificed in the last supper, in regard of the faith of the communicants, which makes a thing past and done, as present. Augustine says, "When we believe in Christ, he is offered for us daily. And, Christ is then slain for everyone, when he believes that he is slain for him." Ambrose says, "Christ is sacrificed daily in the minds of believers, as upon the altar." Jerome says, "He is always offered to the believers." (593-94)
There may be difficulties with Perkin's doctrine of Christ's presence in the Supper here (another topic for another time), but his idea that the bread of the eucharist is called "body" by way of resemblance should be understood in the context of his belief that the bread remains bread as to its material constitution, that Christ's body and is not localized or circumscribed within the bread, and that, nonetheless, Christ's body is received by communicants with the receiving of the bread, if they believe in faith what God portrays in the sacrament. Thus, there is a resemblance, but a sacramental resemblance that communicates what it resembles. This is not exactly how all Reformed divines would word things, but let's focus on the notion of sacrifice that is operative here, as a sacramental resemblance that communicates what it resembles.

Perkins' notion of the eucharist as a sacrifice also functions by way of resemblance, so that the action of the eucharist represents the sacrifice of the cross and is, thereby, rightly called a "sacrifice." This approach has parallels, for instance, in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas writes regarding the eucharistic sacrifice:
The celebration of this sacrament is called a sacrifice for two reasons.

First, because, as Augustine says (Ad Simplician. ii), "the images of things are called by the names of the things whereof they are the images; as when we look upon a picture or a fresco, we say, 'This is Cicero and that is Sallust.'" But, as was said above, the celebration of this sacrament is an image representing Christ's Passion, which is His true sacrifice. Accordingly the celebration of this sacrament is called Christ's sacrifice. Hence it is that Ambrose, in commenting on Heb. 10:1, says: "In Christ was offered up a sacrifice capable of giving eternal salvation; what then do we do? Do we not offer it up every day in memory of His death?" (Summa Theologiae III, 83, 1)
Aquinas goes on to say that the eucharist a sacrifice also "in respect of the effect of His Passion: because, to wit, by this sacrament, we are made partakers of the fruit of our Lord's Passion." Perkins could, it seems, easily enough agree with both of Aquinas' affirmations.

A remaining question, however, is whether the eucharist, as a representation of Christ's sacrifice, works only with reference to the faith of the church as those who offer and receive it, or does Perkins also believe that the eucharist objectively represents Christ's sacrifice, even before the face of God?

Perkins clarifies this matter when he writes elsewhere that:
...the Sacrament is called a sacrifice by a metonymie, because it is a commemoration, and also a representation unto God the Father of the Sacrifice of Christ offered upon the cross." (Works, vol 2:551; emphasis mine)
Perkins is not alone among English Puritans and Reformed in taking such a position, but similar discussions of the eucharistic sacrifice can be found among the French Reformed and other Continental theologians, whom I will go on to discuss in a subsequent post.