Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

The Tension in Protestant Sacramentology; Sign-Reality versus External Word

It is noteworthy that the Reformed confessions used to have an article on the Sacraments before dealing with the individual sacraments. The Lutheran Church has no dogma de sacramentis. In the Augsburg Confession an article on the use (or purpose) of the Sacraments follows the articles on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Confession and Penance. At any rate, the attempts to understand the Sacrament of the Altar from the general concept of a sacrament should be abandoned; they have no biblical foundation. It is really astonishing that the churches which claim the sola Scriptura so emphatically, as e.g. the Calvinistic churches, have accepted so much from Augustine without asking whether or not these doctrines are truly scriptural. How amazing is the power of tradition in the church!

-Hermann Sasse, This Is My Body, Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar, footnote 10, p 21.

The Legacy of Augustine

For better or for worse, the Protestant Church is essentially a Western Church and has been shaped powerfully by the works of St Augustine. In this regard, Hermann Sasse is trying to emphasise  each particular “sacrament” upon its own particular terms directly from Scripture rather than “meditated” through the general concept of “sacraments” from which we deduce the meaning of each particular sacrament.

Whatever we may think of Hermann Sasse’s argument, it is important to note that St Augustine’s formulation of a general theory of the Sacraments is vital to helping us understand the subsequent tension and conflict within Magisterial Protestantism with regards to the Eucharist and the question of the Real Presence. Augustine’s theories basically spawned two distinct traditions for thinking about the Sacrament which would later define the Reformed-Lutheran divide.

I shall call one of the tradition the “Sign-Reality” tradition and the other the “Word and Element” for short.

Sign and Reality

The basic idea behind Augustine’s Sign-Reality theory of the sacraments is that the sacraments have two parts, an “outward sign” and an “inward grace” or reality. For example in the Lord’s Supper, the outward or external sign would be the bread and wine, and this bread and wine would be, in some sense, united to the “inward grace” or spiritual realities of the Body and Blood of Christ.

This theory can more or less be fairly to be said to virtually a matter of pure speculation on Augustine’s part. In this Sasse is right in pointing out that virtually nowhere in the Scriptures are baptism and the Lord’s Supper ever described in the terms of “sign-reality”.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of theoretical speculation and attempting to formulate a general theory to account for certain biblical datum. However, the problem is that the sign and reality conception of the sacraments has spawned an entire literature of scholastic metaphysical speculations with regards to how exactly is the “sign” united to the “reality”, e.g. how is Christ’s body and blood “present” in the Bread and wine? Locally? Transubstantiation? “Spiritually”? How can two distinct bodies occupy the same space? How can Christ’s body which is in heaven be present here on earth? Can the same body occupy two spaces? So on and so forth.

The Reformed and the Sign-Reality Tradition

With some measure of irony, the Reformed tradition on the sacraments would actually be nothing more than a continuation of Aquinas’s metaphysical speculations on the Sacraments. Thus when the Reformed denies that Christ’s body and blood can be in two places at once, they were merely repeating Aquinas who said:

That one body should be at the same time locally in two different
places is not possible, even by a miracle. Therefore, the Body of Christ is not on the altar locally.

Scriptum in Sent., lib. IV., dist. 44, ques. 2, art. 2, ad quar.

It is impossible that the Body of Christ should be made present under the Sacrament by a local motion, because if this were so, it would follow that the Body of Christ would cease to be in heaven whenever the Sacrament was celebrated.

Contra Gentiles, lib. IV., cap. 63.

Calvin himself would echo the exact same idea:

For this is the hope of our resurrection and ascension into heaven, that Christ rose and ascended… And this is the eternal truth of any body, that it is contained in its place.

Thus, if indeed Christ’s body and blood isn’t present in the sacraments “locally”, then how else is it present?

The traditional answer has been that Christ’s body and blood is present spiritually through faith. The bread and wine itself are but signs of the much more fundamental reality, the Body and Blood. The bread and wine touches the eye, inspires faith which lifts the mind up to heaven, where Christ’s body and blood truly dwells, and commune there by faith.

Therefore the fundamental distinction between sign and reality and their theory of how the sign and reality are united leads to two propositions which would lead to a clash with the Lutherans:

(1) Since the body and blood is eaten and received only spiritually through faith, the faithless who do not bring faith to the Lord’s Supper eat nothing but bread and wine. They receive only the sign, but not the reality.

(2) The Body and Blood of Christ is not eaten “orally”, that is, with one’s physical mouth, but with faith only.

Luther and the External Word

However, Augustine had also postulated another theory of the Sacrament, that is, the idea that it is a “Visible Word”, a union of the element with the Word. The idea is that the word of Christ “This is my Body which is given for you” is true of this bread, the Word combines with the elements and thereby becomes “visible”.

While in the earlier phases of the Reformation Luther continue to theorise about the sacraments in the “sign-reality” fashion, however with the rise of the Anabaptists who “by-passed” the Word by claiming a direct experience or reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit, Luther abandoned the “sign-reality” mode of thinking about the sacrament in favour of the Word-Element fashion.

In order to understand Luther’s relentless polemics about the real presence in the Eucharist, it is necessary for us to grasp Luther’s obsessive emphasis upon the External Word. To quote his famous invectives against the Anabaptists:

And in those things which concern the spoken, external Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding external Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts,i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure…

All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the external Word of God to spiritualizing and self-conceit, and nevertheless he accomplished this through other outward words. Just as also our enthusiasts [at the present day] condemn the external Word, and nevertheless they themselves are not silent, but they fill the world with their pratings and writings, as though, indeed, the Spirit could not come through the writings and spoken word of the apostles, but [first] through their writings and words he must come…

Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.

Smalcald Articles

Therefore to understand Luther’s point about the sacraments, it is necessary that we understand his insistence upon the “External Word”. For Luther, the “External Word” is precisely in contrast to the “internal” spiritual state of the person. The “External Word” has an objective truth and reality preceding and anterior to the internal spiritual state or belief of the person who grasp and believe the Word.

It’s relation to the sacraments, this becomes quite obvious. If the Sacraments are nothing more than the “External Word” combined to the elements, then the Word concerning the elements must be objectively true anterior and independent of the subjective faith and spiritual state of the person who receives the sacraments.

Manducatio Impiorum versus the Oral Eating

From the above considerations it is easy to see why Luther was horrified by the proposition that the truth that this bread is “My Body which is given for you” is contingent and dependent upon the person’s subjective faith. To Luther this was nothing more than a subversion of the Gospel itself. For Luther, it is the Gospel promises, the Word of God which is the foundation of faith, not the other way round. The consoling words “This is my Blood which is shed for you for the remissions of sins” must be true anterior and independent of faith that my faith may rest upon these sure promise which precedes my faith. To make the truth of the Word of God depend upon my faith is to subvert the proper soteriological order, making the Gospel promise and truth depend upon me rather than the other way round. In short, this bread is not the body of Christ which is given to me because I believe it, I believe it because it is the body of Christ which is given for me.

It is interesting that Karl Barth actually acknowledges Luther’s thoroughly Protestant concerns. Unlike most of his Reformed contemporaries, Barth understood that Luther’s stubborn clinging unto the real presence wasn’t just some medieval hang over or conservative reaction but a logical necessity compelled by Luther’s very own distinctive understanding of the External Word and the nature of the Gospel promise. The fury which Luther insisted upon the real presence was ultimately rooted upon his very Protestant conviction concerning the primacy of the Gospel promise which must be supreme and above one’s subjective faith that one’s subjective faith may have  sure anchor. In Barth’s own words, “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.”

Thus, it is my thesis that is “External Word” emphasis was actually the key most important issue with regards to the question of the real presence in the earlier phases of the Reformed-Lutheran dispute. It is instructive to note that in the Wittenberg Concord 1536 negotiated by Martin Bucer and briefly agreed to by the Lutheran and Reformed, the Concord makes no mention of the question of “oral eating” or whether the body and blood of Christ is eaten with the mouth. Rather, the main emphasis is on whether the unworthy do truly receive the Body and blood of Christ, or the manducatio impiorum, to which the Concord affirms in these words:

Secondly, they hold that the institution of this Sacrament made by Christ is efficacious in Christendom [the Church], and that it does not depend upon the worthiness or unworthiness of the minister who offers the Sacrament, or of the one who receives it. Therefore, as St. Paul says, that even the unworthy partake of the Sacrament, they hold that also to the unworthy the body and blood of Christ are truly offered, and the unworthy truly receive them, if [where] the institution and command of the Lord Christ are observed. But such persons receive them to condemnation, as St. Paul says; for they misuse the holy Sacrament, because they receive it without true repentance and without faith.

Thus, there was really not much discussion upon whether the unworthy “eat” the Body or Blood of Christ, or even for the matter, whether the worthy do. The question is whether the unworthy do receive the Body, not how he does. Although the question of the manner of “presence” was an important one for the Reformed, it wasn’t much of a concern for the Lutheran who were only concerned that the “sacramental presence” be identified with the use of the sacraments and had no other further interest in this metaphysical discussion as Luther puts it in the Smalcald Articles:

As regards transubstantiation, we care nothing about the sophistical subtlety by which they teach that bread and wine leave or lose their own natural substance, and that there remain only the appearance and color of bread, and not true bread.

Thus, it was not important to Luther how the Body or Blood of Christ is present in the elements, spiritually or locally or whatever. The metaphysics of it were not as important as the question of the relation of the truth of the promise in relation to faith, the true Gospel point and one of the bedrock of the Reformation. It is interesting to observe that there was not much Reformation contention with regards to the manner of the presence of Christ’s body in the bread as even Archbishop Cranmer’s Roman opponent, Stephen Gardiner, himself acknowledges a spiritual presence in agreement with Cranmer!

by the holy communion in the sacrament we be joined to Christ really, because we receive in the holy supper the most precious substance of his glorious body . . . [but that] we say Christ’s body to be not locally present . . . but in such a spiritual manner as we cannot define and determine . . .

If indeed the later Lutheran scholastics insisted upon the oral eating, it is simply as what they believe to be a necessary corollary to the much more fundamental point of the manducatio impiorum.

Conclusion: Manducatio Impiorum as the External Word

Therefore after the breakdown of the Wittenberg Concord, the Reformed would essentially return back to the “sign-reality” mode of theoreticising about the sacraments and continue to discuss the sacraments in metaphysical terms of presence and the manner of it as well as the relation between the outward sign and the inward reality and how the latter is communicated through the former. The Lutherans would continue to stubbornly insist upon the “literal” Word element and formulate a scholastic theory to accommodate their convictions, the “omnipresence” of the Body of Christ, etc.

In the end as a good metaphysical minimalist and nominalist, I have honestly very little interest in the question of the “manner of presence” or the question of whether Christ’s body is orally or “spiritually” eaten or whether Christ’s body can be one place or another. These are quite frankly metaphysical disputes which aren’t matters of direct theological concern. (Here is an interesting puzzle: Quantum Mechanics postulates that matter doesn’t exists in a single location but is “spread out” in a probabilistic cloud over the entire universe. Does that mean that a body can occupy more than one place? Can Christ’s body therefore be in multiple places at once?)

What is important to my Protestantism however is precisely Luther’s concern of the External Word. Whether or not the word “This is my Body which is given for you” is true for the person who eats the bread and wine, that is, whether the person who eats the bread and wine truly receives the given Body irrespective of his subjective faith and irregardless of how metaphysically this happens.

To that end, I cannot help but think that the Leuenberg Agreement of 1973 does capture these fundamental concerns very well in these words:

18. In the Lord’s Supper the risen Jesus Christ imparts himself in his body and blood, given up for all, through his word of promise with bread and wine. He thus gives himself unreservedly to all who receive the bread and wine; faith receives the Lord’s Supper for salvation, unfaith for judgement.

19. We cannot separate communion with Jesus Christ in his body and blood from the act of eating and drinking. To be concerned about the manner of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper in abstraction from this act is to run the risk of obscuring the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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