Monday, October 6, 2014

Renew the Table: Does Frequent Observance Devalue the Supper?

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 on the Lord’s Supper I put forward that Scripture (as in, not the Pope, not Calvin, or Luther, but Scripture itself, based on 1 Corinthians 10:14-22) reveals that Christ is present in the partaking of the Supper in some way, thus rendering a mere memorialist interpretation of the Supper invalid. This plays into what we have already observed; that the infrequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper is an indicator of how healthy a Church’s worship is. In this case, if it is mere memorialism that is driving our understanding of the Lord’s Supper in such a way that causes us to partake infrequently, then one must conclude that the infrequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper is in fact unhealthy. Infrequent partaking indicates anemic, incomplete worship.

In the last post I tied the presence of Christ to the idea of ‘value’. Infrequent partaking devalues the Supper which in turn devalues our worship. If Christ is present then the Lord’s Supper takes on a certain weightiness. It is a weight heavier than just thoughts about what Jesus did once long ago. That weight, that presence is valuable. But here is where we meet a sizable roadblock for many in our debate against Memorialism. In this post my aim is to expose one of the main arguments I have found given for infrequent partaking.

Valuable Rarity: less is more?
If there is one thing that I learned as a Memorialist, it’s that the Lord’s Supper is extremely valuable. So valuable in fact that it must be reserved as a special occasion. At least this has been my experience as a child and a young man. On the surface, this idea that Memorialists value the Supper appears to defeat my multi-post argument entirely. It seems antithetical to my theory that infrequent partaking devalues the Supper and therefore Christian worship. The Supper, in this case, is observed infrequently precisely because it is so valuable. The idea being that if the Supper were to be observed on a regular basis it would lose its value.

I maintain my objection. I believe this argument to be nothing less than a ploy. A diversion. A wiggly maneuver to justify an unhealthy habit. Let me be quick to say that though I have used words that conjure devious intentions, I don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) that folks who utilize such an argument are disingenuous. I believe that they believe what they are saying is quite true. I believe they are not trying to pull a fast one. They really do believe the Lord’s Supper is valuable. They really do believe that frequent observance would devalue the Supper. This line of thinking needs a term to help us stay afloat. Let’s call this Valuable Rarity. The idea being that the Supper only maintains its value when it remains rare. The value of the Supper then is directly tied to its commonality. Valuable Rarity is undergirded by events like weddings and graduations and birthday parties. We can see that these events maintain their value, their specialness, because they don’t happen every day. If you were to celebrate your birth every day, then the specialness or value of the occasion would begin to wear off. Your actual Day of Birth would be just like any other day.

This idea of Valuable Rarity is interesting because it is pan-theological. Valuable Rarity crosses party lines. Memorialists aren't the only ones who justify infrequent partaking with Valuable Rarity; Transubstantiationists do as well. Or at least they have done so in the past. The Roman Catholic belief of transubstantiation, simply put, is that the physical elements of the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. This, for them, is how Christ is present in the Supper. There’s a whole heap of a lot more than that, but it doesn't make my summary any less true. That’s what they believe. I think it’s safe to say that Memorialists and Roman Catholics quickly and sharply disagree with each other regarding the Presence of Christ in the Supper. And yet, the worshippers in the late medieval Roman Catholic Church also infrequently partook of the Supper. They even partook less than Memorialists. Easter was nearly the only time of year a normal Christian would partake. And even then he may have only partaken of the bread.

Elevation of the Eucharist, detail from the Della Rovere Missal
Italy, Rome, ca. 1485–90 (note the onlooking parishioners)
Memorialists and Transubstantiationists both say that they are upholding the value of the Supper by partaking infrequently. Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking it is as simple as that. They are indeed on opposite sides; however they are holding the same rope. The Medievals feared that their frequent partaking would devalue the Supper because the Supper was, above all things, most holy. Here was the physical body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. How could such unholy people participate in such a holy act of worship? It contained so much value that the parishioners received grace by simply watching the act, gazing upon the elements and seeing the priest partake. Then on a special holy day, such as Easter, after the worshippers have spent weeks fasting and preparing themselves, they would partake. Maybe.

As a side note, I find it interesting to see that the infrequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the late Middle Ages parallels the hardening and defining of transubstantiation as official church doctrine. Further evidence that infrequent partaking of the Supper is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Valuable Rarity in both cases, is used as an argument for infrequent partaking, but for vastly (hugely) different theologies. I’ll not deny that it is more complex than I have presented. Because the motivations for rare partaking are different for each party it would be unfair to lump them together as it looks like I have done. In this case, it would be unfair to lump the Roman Catholics with the Memorialists because the Roman Catholics have since abandoned their infrequent partaking. That doesn't necessarily mean that their understanding of the Supper is any better. But it does reveal that they abandoned the idea of Valuable Rarity whereas the Memorialists doubled down on it.

Why Valuable Rarity is False
The reason the Value of the Supper cannot be tied to the Rarity of the Supper is because the Value of the Supper is tied to something else: Jesus Christ. All Christians agree that the Supper is Valuable. If the Value of the Supper is derived from Christ, then we must view the Rarity or Infrequency of the Supper in light of Christ as well. Here’s what I mean: We derive value from the Supper because (1) Christ commands that we observe. (2) We partake of Christ in the Supper; that is when we eat in faith, we participate in his broken body and poured out blood. (3) In the Supper we proclaim Christ’s death until He comes again. I’m sure we could dig up some more reasons, but I believe these are enough to reveal that the Value of the Supper is linked to Christ. So, if these are the reasons the Supper is valuable then what does that reveal about those who think Rarity has a say? In other words, when Rarity is linked to the Value of the Supper, what we are saying is that our observance of Christ’s command is valuable because we infrequently observe the command. Our participation in the body and blood of Christ is valuable because we rarely participate. Our proclamation of Christ’s death is valuable because we rarely proclaim it in such a way. Does this sound right to you? Do you see why it is foolish, if not dangerous, to untie the Value of the Supper from Christ and tie it to Rarity? 

The Value of the Supper is not only derived from Christ, but it is also fulfilled and protected by Christ. In both views, the Medieval and the Memorialist, Value is fulfilled or protected by Rarity. In both cases the eyes have moved away from the sufficiency of Christ to uphold the Value of the Supper among His people. Because the eyes have moved from Christ, both views inevitably lean on what WE must do to uphold the value of the Supper. The Memorialists successfully rooted out Transubstantiationism, but wound up offering the same results. Today, here and now, there are folks with good intentions leaning on the idea of Valuable Rarity, not realizing that it is built on mortal foundations. The reason it sounds good is because it makes sense in the world of economics. We see this everyday with gas prices. The less oil the higher the value. But, Rarity is a value only when a thing is finite. When a thing is infinite, rarity has nothing to say about value. It disappears. And here is where the argument implodes: The Value of a thing is not dependent upon rarity if the thing is infinite.

If given the option, take one and leave the other, to choose between the world’s most rare, most finite, gemstone or the very air that you breathe, which would you choose? You would choose the (vastly abundant) infinite air to breathe. Do you see how your understanding of Value has changed? The value of the air, though free and infinite in normal situations, is immensely more valuable than the rarest of gemstones. This is because the Value of air is tied, not to its Rarity, like the gemstone, but because it is tied to Life itself. The same goes for the Supper. The Value of the Supper is tied to Christ not to Rarity. This is why the argument is a ploy. It’s a subtle trickery, deceiving the very mouths that shout it. And this is why I maintain my objection. Infrequent participation of the Supper is unhealthy for Christians in the same way infrequent breathing is unhealthy for humans.

When we argue that the Lord’s Supper must be infrequently observed to preserve its value, we have said something about the value of Christ. If we argue that the Supper must rarely be observed so it doesn't become a meaningless familiarity, we have said something about our understanding of what it means to be familiar with Christ. It would be like saying we should preserve the value of air by infrequently breathing. We shouldn't breathe so often because it could become a meaningless ritual. All the while missing the point that the value of air isn't based on the rarity in which we breathe it, but the value of air is that it gives life. Would anyone doubt that the infrequent breathers value those times in which they allow themselves to breathe?

This leads to a serious consideration of the very thing Christ commands us to do. Eat and drink! The Supper itself declares to us the necessity. We are to sustain ourselves on Christ just as we sustain ourselves with food and drink. Do we chiefly derive the value of food because it is rare or because it gives life?

Because Christ is infinite, and because Christ is infinitely valuable, the value of the Supper cannot decrease the more we observe. The only way the Supper can decrease in value is when the Supper is about us and not about Christ. And as we have seen, this is what exactly what Memorialism does. When the Supper becomes not simply for us, but about us then the value most assuredly will begin to decrease. I mean, there is only so much remembering that we can actually do. Only so much inward confession we can muster until we start to think about bills or the football game. Only so many times we can eat and drink without it becoming a mindless action. Is it any wonder why these observances are few and far between? A Supper where Christ is emphatically not present is a cheap meal. Memorialism places us in Christ’s seat at the table and we are boring dinner guests. We've set the table according to our own standards; spartan, small, and alcohol free. We are the party poopers. In this case, in our observance of the Supper we come dangerously close to the description in 2 Timothy 3:5: “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Yikes.

I have heard others adequately argue that the Word of God doesn't lose its value through frequent preaching of it. Amen. Why didn't I just say that from the get go and save us some time? I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to take the scenic route. I wanted to open the clock to see how it ticks. To show folks why it could be dangerous to hold on to something that looks solid. Because while a simple comparison argument might be enough to convince some that the idea of Valuable Rarity of the Supper is false, there is still a large portion of evangelicals (80% in the SBC!) who have either ignored it or have explained it away, and I cannot help but be haunted by the words in 2 Timothy 3:5.

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