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Reflection on Eucharist Tradition

Reflection on Eucharist Tradition

It seems I am forever bouncing between books on Lutheranism or Karl Barth. Having just finished a number of books on Barth, it was time to read something Lutheran. The book on the top of my pile happened to be The Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord's Supper.

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The Lutheran position on the Supper is quite simple. The Lord's Supper is what the Lord Himself says in the institution in the upper room. The opening of Schmidt's defense is to tie the Lutheran position to that of the early post-Apostolic witness (15-23). The quotations themselves are relatively plain and straightforward. For Schmidt, the work and effort of Luther returned the doctrine of the Supper to its proper place reverting the error(s) of Roman Catholic additions.

I'm not at present able to confirm or deny Schmidt's claim. In part, because the critical work of Russian Orthodox theologian Father Michael Pomazansky expressly denies Lutherans the roots they claim. Written in the middle of the 20th century, Father Pomazansky's Orthodox Dogmatic Theology is one of the most revered and concise articulations of Orthodoxy in the English language. 

In his section dealing with the Eucharist, Father Pomazansky describes the Orthodox view and then contrasts it with the failures seen in Protestantism:

"Thus the sanctified Gifts 1) are not only signs and symbols, reminding the faithful of the redemption, as the reformed Zwingli taught; and likewise 2) it is not only by His 'activity and power' ('dynamically') that Jesus Christ is present in them, as Calvin taught; and finally, 3) He is not present in the meaning only of 'penetration,' as the Lutherans teach (who recognize the co-presence of Christ 'with the bread, under the form of the bread, in the bread'); but the sanctified Gifts in Mystery are changed or (a later term) 'transubstantiated' into the true Body and true Blood of Christ" (279-280)

It can be shown that the Orthodox use of "transubstantiated" reflects none of the Roman Catholic meaning, but what is telling is the wholesale rejection of Protestant articulations of the Eucharist. The language of Father Pomazansky is merely commentary from the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (itself dating from 1848). For them, the Eucharist truly does change entirely (hence the use of the word transubstantiate without reference to how) and only their articulation does justice to the early Church witness. Father Pomazansky quotes further that "the followers of Luther explain it rather awkwardly" when they speak that "the Divinity of the Word should 'enter' into the bread offered for the Eucharist" (280).

Now, whether Father Pomazansky is fair in his criticism of the Lutheran doctrine is beside the point. It is the formal position of the Eastern church that Lutherans have misread the citations of the church tradition. This is the struggle with obvious and plain citations from the Patristics. Many of them are vague enough to read in our understanding of the Supper—something Father Pomazansky notes when he states:

"However, in several of the ancient writers, this teaching is not expressed in completely precise terms, and in some expressions there seems to be almost a symbolic interpretation (something which the Protestants point out)." (281)

Or as Jaroslav Pelikan states in The Christian Tradition Volume 1:

"The same cannot be said [reference to conclusion on baptism] in any sense about the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which did not become the subject of controversy until the ninth century. The definitive and precise formulation of the crucial doctrinal issues concerning the Eucharist had to await that controversy and others that followed even later. This does not mean at all, however, that the church did not yet have a doctrine of the Eucharist; it does mean that the statements of its doctrine must not be sought in polemical and dogmatic treatises devoted to sacramental theology. It means also that the effort to cross-examine the fathers of the second or third century about where they stood in the controversies of the ninth or sixteenth century is both silly and futile." (166-167)

The early fathers provide a range of speech on the Eucharist in which the doctrine of the Real Presence—which both Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans who claim—certainly seems to be the inexplicit and non-precise doctrine of the church. It remains unclear if Luther returned to the doctrine of the early church or truly added to it as the Orthodox theologians claim.

I conclude with another quote from Pelikan:

"The theologians did not have adequate concepts within which to formulate a doctrine of the real presence that evidently was already believed by the church even though it was not yet taught by explicit instruction or confessed by creeds." (168)
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