Saturday, September 03, 2005

Dix on the Ante-Nicene Theology of the Eucharistic Sacrifice

In his comments of Martin Luther (see here for previous discussion), Dom Gregory Dix's Shape of the Liturgy points the reader to pp. 111ff. and 273ff. for his explication of the issue of sacrifice (in context, he means his refutation of Martin Luther's idea that no sacrifice, but only a sacrament, is involved in the Holy Supper.) Together, his comments on these pages do indeed set forth a theology of the Eucharist. And by theology I mean that 1) he believes this to be the dominant ante-Nicene understanding of the Eucharist; and 2) he is unmistakably promoting this is a, if not the, crucial theological insight into the Eucharist. His argument is not just historic, but clearly also normative/theological.

This post is in four parts:

I. Dix's general statement of the theology
II. His reading of this theology in the ante-Nicene fathers
III. My evaluation of his argument
IV. My evalutation of his theology

I. Dix's general statement of the theology

The account on pp. 273-4 is more general and worth examining first. Dix first emphasizes, against skeptical critics, that the sacrificial understanding of the crucifixion was not added on later, but the only possible interpretation of the crucifixion that could make sense and allow the continued existence of movement formed around Jesus:

We have to bear in mind that no belief whatever in Jesus as Messiah could make head against the ignominy of Calvary except upon the sacrificial interpretation of His death (p. 273).

This sacrificial understanding extended to the whole action of Christ's death, resurrection, and return to His Father:

In the light of Calvary, Easter and Ascension together (understood in combination as the sacrifice and acceptance of the Messiah) no other interpretation [except as a sacrificial action] of what Jesus had said and done at the last supper was possible for jews.

He then emphasizes the absolute centrality of sacrifice to the covenant-people of God. (This is not restricted to the Jews, either, but can be argued for humanity in general.) This he argues was not lost, but preserved in both the Jewish and Gentile churches:

For the purely jewish church of the years immediately following the passion, sacrifice was necessarily of the essence of a covenant with God,not only for the inauguration of a covenant but as the center of the covenanted life. . . . The fact that the Messiah by His sacrificial death had instituted a New Covenant did not destroy the inherited idea of the centrality of sacrifice in any divine covenant. On the contrary it enhanced it.

The center of the covenanted life: that means the Eucharist. Dix interpreted the Last Supper as the meal of a chaburah common in Judaism of the time (see pp. 50ff and 76ff). The chaburah are basically small groups which meet weekly over a meal, to which each member contributed. The meals of such chaburoth (the plural) began with "relishes" over which each person would say his own blessing, and then formally began with a short thanksgiving/blessing (beraka) on the bread said by the host or president of the chaburah, followed with a thangsgiving/blessing on all other foods as they appeared, and concludedwith a final, longer, thanksgiving/blessing said by the host over a special cup of wine.

What was new with the Eucharist was, then, not the idea of a weekly meal, or the idea of a blessing over bread and wine (the actual meal was rapidly separated from the Christian Eucharist and held separately as an agape meal or love feast), but the two ideas of doing it in "re-calling" or "in memory of" Christ and the idea that it is His body and blood of His covenant. Put them together (as Dix argues they almost immediately were) and the chaburah meal thus becomes a sacrifice, in rivalry with and superior to the sacrifice performed in the Temple with sheep and oxen (cf. Hebrews 13:9-14, esp. v. 10).

The prayer of thanksgiving/blessing, merging that said over the bread with that over the wine, is thus the start of Eucharistic theology. What elements were found in this theology? 1) The idea of a thanksgiving sacrifice a "Thanksgiving for the New Covenant." As he notes:

It was the common jewish expectation that the 'Thankoffering' alone of all sacrifices would continue in the days of the Messiah.

To the thanksgiving for creation as found in the bread and wine is attached the anamnesis or "remembrance/recalling" of Christ's death. This parallels the twofold interpretation of Christ's death could be compared to the Passover sacrifice, as the annual commemoration of the actual historical events by which redemption was achieved, or as the Day of Atonement, as the anamnesis, the re-calling of the effects of redemption (p. 274).

2) The idea of offering the food back to God, implicit in the berakah (thanksgiving prayer for meeting), which is then, by the blessing of the Name (of God) released back for consumption by the faithful.

II. Dix's reading of this theology in the ante-Nicene fathers

Moving on to his reading of the sources in pp. 111, he cites the words of Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and Hipploytus. As he summarizes their data, he finds great unanimity:

Every one of these local liturgical traditions at the earliest point at which extant documents permit us to interrogate it, reveals the same general understanding of the eucharist as an 'oblation' (prosphora) or 'sacrifice' (thusia) -- something offered to God; and that the substance of the sacrifice is in every case in some sense the bread and the cup (p. 112)

We can add that in the reading the sources he presents, nowhere do we see the idea that the Body and Blood of the Lord is actually being offered to God by the bishop or church.

He adds that in Clement's letter to the Corinthians we find the whole church involved in the prospheron/offering: the communicants/members bringing it up, the deacons/assistants presenting it, and the bishop/pastor offering it. It is thus "at all points, from being first placed on the table by the communicants to being distributed by the bishops 'the gifts of Thy holy church'" (p. 112) -- and not only so after being consecrated as the Body and Blood of the Lord.

Despite this picture of unanimity, he then acknowledges that there one can find two different theological understandings of the Eucharist in ante-Nicene sources, the Irenaean and the Cyprianic (p. 116).

For Irenaeus, the eucharist is an oblation offered to God, but with a peculiar sense (it should be noted that this sense is "peculiar" only in the context of subsequent "Cyprianic" understanding, but fully in line with the berakah prayer which Dix had argued was the origin of the Eucharist).

Primarily it is for him a sacrifice of 'first-fruits,' acknowledging the Creator's bounty in providing our earthly food, rather than as 're-calling' the sacrifice of Calvary in the Pauline fashion. It is true that Irenaeus has not the least hesitation in saying that 'The mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God and becomes the eucharist [i.e. thanksgiving] of the words 'in the New Covenant' to 'the first-fruits of His own gifts.' Irenaeus is clear, also, that the death of Christ was itself a sacrifice, of which the abortive sacrifice of Isaac by his own father was the type. But when all is said and done, he never quite puts these two ideas together or calls the eucharist outright the offering or the 're-calling' of Christ's sacrifice (p. 114).

By contrast for Cyprian, writing in Africa about sixty years later,

the whole question of how the eucharist is constituted a sacrifice is as clear-cut and completely settled as it is for a post-Tridentine theologian: 'Since we make mention of His passion in all our sacrifices, for the passion is the Lord's sacrifice which we offer, we ought to do nothing else than what He did (at the last supper) (p. 115).

He then goes on to state that while Cyprian's understanding was continued by Cyril of Jerusalem and came to prevail, that of Irenaeus virtually disappeared, remaining only as a kind of liturgical fossil, "though it passed out of current theological teaching" (p. 116).

III. My evaluation of Dix's argument

Thus far Dix's argument. In evaluating this, it is clear that he has in fact concealed in plain sight some facts of rather serious importance for a theological evaluation in terms of Reformation and post-Reformation categories accepted by Catholic and Evangelical theologians (see here). First of all let us return to his description of Irenaeus's theology. He says Irenaeus believes two things of the Eucharist: 1) that the offering of the created things by the church as a whole is a thanksgiving sacrifice for the gifts of creation; and 2) that it is the true Body and Blood of our Lord. Dix honestly points out that Irenaeus never identifies the Eucharist as the "offering or the 're-calling' of Christ's sacrifice." Now at this point, we can suddenly notice that the "offering" of Christ's sacrifice and the "re-calling" of Christ's sacrifice are in fact not the same thing, or at any rate, not the same words, and that by his own account, in Clement, Justin, and Hippolytus, the offering of bread and wine are offered and Christ's sacrifice is re-called. Dix himself throughout implies that offering the bread and wine is synonymous with offering Christ's sacrifice (as opposed to the church's own sacrifice of thanksgiving), but without offering evidence that any ante-Nicene father before Cyprian treated the issue in the same way.

When it comes to Cyprian himself, he notes the innovation but adds, "There is no reason whatever to suppose that Cyprian was the inventor of defining the eucharistic sacrifice, or in any intentional way its partisan" (p. 115). But there is not reason to suppose he wasn't either. There appears to be no evidence either way, since the idea that the Eucharist "offers the Lord's passion" is simply unknown in any previous source. He implies that this was the "African doctrine", but then honestly acknowledges that the only specific reference to a theology of the Eucharist in Tertullian, the only known previous African father, is closer to Irenaeus and in any case "we get no theory of the nature of that sacrifice from him" (p. 115).

Dix also argues that Irenaeus and Cyprian are simply emphasizing different sides of Justin Martyr's theology. In Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 117, Justin Martyr speaks of the Eucharist as a "pure sacrifice" and as "for the re-calling (anamnesis) of their sustenance both in food and drink, wherein is made also the memorial (memnetai) of the passion which the Son of God suffered for them." But is Justin's theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice actually unclear? In chapter 41, he writes:

"And the offering of fine flour, sirs," I said, "which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, 1) in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time 2) thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [prophets], as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: 'I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord: but ye profane it.' He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [emphasis and numbering added].

There is more theological meat here than Dix seems to have recognized, meat which clearly aligns Justin's understanding of the Eucharistic sacrifice as a thank-offering for creation and redemption. In fact, Justin is clearly not saying that this rememberance of Christ's sacrifice is a re-presentation, a renewed propitiatory action (to use Tridentine terminology) of Christ's death. So far from being some sort of intermediate between Cyprian's doctrine of the Eucharist as a propitiatory offering of the Lord's passion, and Irenaeus's doctrine of it as a thank offering for creation and redemption, Justin Martyr is clearly simply expounding the Irenaean viewpoint. Assuming, as would seem legitimate, that Irenaeus certainly accepted that the Eucharist was a memorial/re-calling/remembrance of the Lord's Passion, one can thus say that all of the ante-Nicene authors, except Cyprian, understand the Eucharist in a three-fold way:

1) as a thanksgiving sacrifice of created things by the church as a whole to God for the gifts of creation and redemption;
2) as a remembrance/re-calling/anamnesis of the Lord's passion
3) that it is the true Body and Blood of our Lord

None link sacrifice to anamnesis so as to make it an offering of Christ's sacrifice. As far as pre-Cyprianic writers are concerned, it is indeed the prayer of the Eucharist that sanctifies the offering, but as a thanksgiving and as a setting aside of the offering from a common use to a holy one, just as in the Jewish berakah (blessing) over the bread and wine of the chaburah meal.

It is worth noting that the Didache (ch. 14) which uses the same typological reading of the same passage of Malachi 1: 11 (with a further citation from 1:14) about sacrifices being offered from the rising to the setting of the sun, again clearly associates the sacrifice solely with the offertory, and not with any consecration:

On the Lord's Day of the Lord, come together, break bread and hold Eucharist/thanksgiving, after confessing your sins that your offering may be pure; but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice not be defiled. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord, "In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king," saith the Lord, "and my name is wonderful among the heathen."

The references to the defilement of the offering by the offerer's quarreling makes it clear that the sacrifices predicted in Malachi is not an offering of the Lord's Passion, but of the individual Christian's goods, his bread, wine, and first fruits to the church (cf. Didache 13). The difference here from Justin Martyr's reading of Malachi is purely in nuance; he too speaks of the value of the offering lying in the sincerity of the offerer, not the consecration of the church:

Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit [chap. 117]

Here he is agreeing with his Jewish opponent Trypho. Far from drawing any contrast between the unreal nature of "spiritual sacrifices" of praise and thanks and the "real sacrifice" of the Eucharist, he is in fact arguing that Christian sacrifices achieve most truly the rationalist Jewish ideal, found since the time of Philo, of a ethnically universal and purely ethical idea of sacrifice.

IV. My evalutation of Dix's theology

In conclusion, coming back to Luther, Dix has in no sense proven his point that the propitiatory offering of the Lord's passion, to use a combined Cyprianic-Tridentine way of speaking, is either a part of the pre-Cyprianic Christian doctrine, or that Luther was a bizarre exception in holding to the Real Presence apart from a propitiatory-sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist. In fact, read critically he does quite the opposite. His argument for such an understanding ultimately boils down to a word study of anamnesis (pp. 161-162, and repeated on p. 245), emphasizing that it refers to a re-presentation, not just a remembrance. Since this word is of course found in the words of institution, the crux of his argument is then not something that depends on great patristic erudition to address one way or the other.

The three elements of the Eucharist found in the pre-Cyprianic sources -- as a thanksgiving sacrifice of the church to God in the offertory; as a remembrance of the Lord's Passion; and as the real Body and Blood of our Lord: all of these are fully consistent with justification by faith alone. The second two are of course explicitly endorsed by the Augsburg confession and Apology, and while the first element is not explicitly found there, it is consistent with them and implied in Melanchthon's category of eucharistic sacrifice, as opposed to propitiatory sacrifice.

Dix is certainly correct that justification by faith alone is absolutely inconsistent with a priest (even acting in the role of Christ) participating in the propitiation of God. This synergy of sinner and Christ in propitiation is exactly what Luther taught as the blasphemous and abominable aspect of the Mass. But Dix's theology of the Eucharistic sacrifice generates a result more wildly synergistic than anything that came out of Trent. Dix emphasizes the "liturgy" in which every Christian played a part in the early church, the organic link of the offertory with what he insists is the offering of Christ's passion, and the identity of the body of Christ with the Body and Blood on the altar, in the offering up of propitiatory sacrifices to God the Father (as he [mis]interprets 1 Peter 2:5). In effect he combines the ante-Nicene theology of the thank offering in the offertory with the Cyprianic and Tridentine idea of the propitiatory sacrifice of the priest in offering in the stead of Christ His passion to the Father. But let us compare: if having a single select man, ordained in the apostolic succesion, and subject to a strict and rigorous discipline of life that sets him apart from his fellows, participate in the propitiation of God be a disastrous synergism, then what will we say about a doctrine that implicitly sees every communicant Christian in the church, regardless of his life, participating in the propitiation of an absolutely holy God? And this by as little as writing a cheque that will buy the bread to be consecrated as the church's offering of Christ's passion? Dix's view may be very "communal" and give an "active role for the laity" and emphasize "the people of God", but it has a far more abominably low sense of sin than even the worse of Tridentine ritualism.

No wonder it's popular!

More thoughts on sacrifice here.