Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Renew the Table: The Root and Fruit of Memorialism

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

In my last post I said that the infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper was a symptom of a deeper problem. I said that infrequent observance indicates a low or inadequate view of the Supper. In this
post I want to dig into what I believe is one of the major contributing factors for this problem. My aim is to show that celebrating the Supper as a mere memorial of Christ ultimately devalues the Supper which causes or contributes to a low or inadequate view of the Lord’s Supper. Admittedly, this is a rather large bite. What we’re about to chew on here has literally been debated for 500 years. But in this case, our advantage is that we get to see how this certain view has played out over half a millennium. So there’s that.

The Root 
To sift through 500 years of weighty theological debate is pretty tough, but we can still summarize with a degree of accuracy. Since the Reformation, there are 4 views on what is happening during the Supper. Basically, we can summarize like this:

1)      Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation – when the physical bread and wine turn into the physical body and blood of Christ – Christ is physically present
2)      Lutherans believe consubstantiation – essentially Christ’s physical body is present but the substance of the bread and wine remain the same. Christ’s body is over, through, and under the bread, but doesn't turn into the actual bread.
3)      Calvin and other reformers believe in that Christ is present in a special way, namely spiritually present at the Supper, but not bodily present.
4)      Zwingli held the view that the Supper is a memorial; that Christ is not present in any special way at the supper.

For our purposes in this post I’m not about to jump into the ins and outs of the first three views, other than to say that, while vastly different, each one believes that Christ is present in some way in the Supper and because of this, something happens. Some form of grace or benefit is obtained by the partaker.

On those grounds the fourth view makes a stark departure. And it is this view—we shall call it the Memorialist view—that most Baptists and many evangelicals adhere to (whether they know it or not). Now when we use our chronological perspective and look along the timeline from when Zwingli and Luther mouthed off at Martburg until our present day we see an undeniable development. Those who have maintained that Christ is present in some special way in the Supper have continued to celebrate the supper frequent and often and weekly and every time they gather for worship even, (to say nothing of whether or not their practice is correct).

Now this is not to say that it has been a steady line of frequent observance from 1517 until today. Hardly. There are definite peaks and valleys. But it is important to see that when these Churches began to infrequently observe, the reasons were due to either outside restrictions (via the State or financial hardship) or internal necessity (such as the pastoral need to battle a real superstition…something we'll discuss in a future post). The point being, infrequent observance was not the result of their theology, but of things that, for a season, triumphed over their theology. One of the reasons I can say this is that we have the teachers and theologians from these traditions on paper defending the frequent observance of the Supper and speaking against falling into a habit of infrequent observance. Those congregations whose theology affirms the presence of Christ in the Supper, unhindered by outside influence, have maintained a frequent observance.

Memorialism, on the other hand, from its beginnings has maintained an infrequent observance because of (rather than in spite of) its theology. Memorialism teaches that there is no special presence of Christ and no benefits from Christ in the Supper. The Supper is purely symbolic and is observed with the understanding that it is merely a memorial; a time set aside to remember. The bread and cup help aid the memory of those who partake. By stating that Christ is not present in any special way in the Supper, Memorialists, to their credit, believe that they have removed (at most) a heretical or (at least) an unhelpful doctrine from the Supper, therefore restoring the Supper as intended. A rather bold claim even during the Reformation which was undeniably a time for bold claims.

All the Reformers desired to restore and purify the Church and Her worship practices. They were often appealing to both the authority of Scripture and the example of the early church. Most of the theologies and practices they sought to reform were beliefs and practices (good or bad) that had been added to the church that were not derived from Scripture, nor exemplified in the Early Church. Stripping and removing false beliefs and unhelpful practices was essential for a reformation. In this way the intentions of the Memorialists really were noble, but the reason this was a bold claim in a time of bold claims was because it stripped and kept on stripping. The phrases like, over the line, tossed the baby out with the bathwater, you doth protest too much, come to mind. The Church for 1500 years before Memorialism actually did have a belief that Christ is present at the Supper. The early church simply accepted that Christ was present, but as the ages passed the medieval church began to investigate how Christ was present. And it was the conclusions the Roman Church made that many of the Reformers protested. They objected to the definition of How, not the involvement of Who. The Memorialists protested both. Get rid of the presence of Christ and the question of How evaporates altogether.

In light of this history, I want to briefly reveal how the removal of Christ’s presence in the Supper has influenced many churches today. What are some of the fruits Memorialism has produced? In what ways has the removal of Christ’s presence devalued the Supper?

The Fruit
The major fruit by which Memorialism devalues the Supper is that Memorialism produces an “it doesn’t matter as long as we meet the bottom line” mindset. Christ commanded we do this in remembrance of Him. So long as we do it, that’s all that really matters. The stripped down mentality of Memorialism encourages the least amount of effort. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t become a valuable part of worship so much as a box to be checked off. In this way, Memorialism is the prime option for pragmatists.

If the only thing Jesus requires is that we do it in remembrance of Him then LOTS of things don’t matter; when we take it, how we take it, what we use to take it, who takes it, etc. All of these things now fall under the umbrella of “It doesn't matter”.

We might touch on this more in a later post, but for now let’s see how Memorialism approaches the elements of the bread and wine. First, if the only thing that matters is that we do it in remembrance of Christ, then it doesn't really matter what we use to do it. We've all heard about the churches that have used Cookies and Coke, or Pizza and Pop in place of bread and wine. Although this is simply the logical outcome of a memorialistic mindset, yet, I think it’s safe to say that most Memorialists believe those options are a bit out of line. Surely going so far as to replace the actual element that Jesus commanded with something else is going a bit too far, right? (They say with Welch's on their breath). And this highlights how deep the problem goes. The only reason the Memorialist can justify grape juice over Coca-cola is because grape juice does a better job than Coke in helping us remember. It has nothing to do with whether or not coke is permissible. It has everything to do with the grape juice being good enough to meet the bottom line.

The danger (and further devaluing) here is this: who gets to determine the bottom line? And this leads us no our next example. Memorialism devalues the Supper by shifting the emphasis from Christ to the Christian. Who determined that grape juice was good enough? Was it Christ or the Christian? The scary thing is that the honest Memorialist will come to the conclusion that ultimately “it doesn't matter”. This is because the only thing that matters is that we remember Jesus when we eat and drink. That’s the real issue for the Memorialist. Grape juice became popular during the Temperance Movement. For Churches that made the switch from Wine to Welch's, the truth of the matter is that the culture actually had more sway on what the elements should be than Christ. This abstaining spirit entered the church and has stuck around to this very day, touting its authority over Christ at least four times a year. But wine and alcohol tend to get folks cranky and I don’t want it to overshadow the point, so let’s look at this from a different angle.

I said that Memorialism devalues the Supper by shifting the emphasis from Christ to the Christian. In Memorialism, the Supper becomes less about Christ and more about the individuals partaking. In case you missed it, the key word is ‘about’. There is no doubt that the Supper is certainly for the church, but we venture onto dangerous ground when we start to act as if the Supper is about the church. Just as the Bible is for you, not about you, and the sermon is for you, not about you, so too the Supper is for you, not about you. But the fruit of Memorialism is a highly individualistic and introspective preparation and partaking. A time to sink deep into you own thoughts and examine your life. Just you and God. No one else. The Supper has become a type of private, internal, confession booth. The antithesis of communion. The only unity we see in such as service is that everyone is united in acting individually. In this way the Memorialist cuts the nose from its own face. We remember more about our sins and our worth than we do about what Christ did with our sins and His worth. Jesus might as well have said, “Do this in remembrance of thee.”

In Memorialism, the fruit of removing Christ from the Supper is that something else has filled His place. His authority is usurped when it is deemed that changes to the commandment don’t really matter. His place as the Guest of Honor is filled in by the individuals pondering themselves at the table. This is the fruit of Memorialism and the reasons I give to support my claim that it devalues the Supper.

I’m still not out of the woods yet. Removing the presence of Christ from the Supper only devalues the Supper if Christ really is present. If Christ is not present, then the Memorialists are vindicated and my claim that it devalues the Supper is false. So in my next post we will look to see what Scripture reveals about all this.

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