Saturday, September 10, 2005

More on Sacrifice

Well, my previous post on Dix and the "sacrifice of the mass" (abominable or not) generated not a whole lot of comments (thanks, Eric, for yours!), so I am giving the ungrateful blogosphere a second chance.

What's going to follow is a brief restatement of the issue and some comments raised by the conclusions I've reached so far.

The Issue
In the ante-Nicene church, sacrificial language is routinely applied to the Eucharist. The question is, can this language of sacrifice be squared with the Lutheran Evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the understanding of the sacrament as a gift or promise of God which needs only faith to be received.

Dix said, No it can't, and that's why justification by faith alone is inconsistent with the apostolic Christian faith. Dix then went on to advocate the idea that through the offertory+eucharist the church as a whole participates in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, thus through her actions propitiating God.

My answer is yes it can, but only under the fairly stringent conditions:
1) the material of the sacrifice be understood as the gifts of the offertory, which are then used (in part) as the elements of the Eucharist, and not the Body and Blood of Christ. That understanding, that the priest re-presents Christ's passion as a propitiatory sacrifice cannot be found before Cyprian (c. AD 255) although it soon swept the boards.
(Here it must be remembered that in the ante-Nicene church, the actual bread and wine used in each Sunday's Eucharist were brought that day by the congregation and put on the altar during the offertory by the congregation. The switch to special communion wafers and wine laid by in the church has broken this visual-liturgical link of the offertory with the Eucharist proper.)
2) the nature of the sacrifice be understood as a thanksgiving sacrifice, not a propitiatory sacrifice. While the ante-Nicene fathers are pretty vague on this whole distinction, the preponderance of early evidence shows that thanksgiving is indeed the strongly dominant note.
3) The thanksgiving sacrifice of the offertory be kept conceptually and theologically separate from the benefit of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ -- forgiveness of sins, peace, and immortality. And indeed, the major ante-Nicene authors who write on the Eucharist, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Justin, show no sign of connecting these elements.

Let us note another point: both the Lutheran and Tridentine understanding of propitiation have benefitted from the immensely greater theological precision and the higher view of sin introduced into the Christian churches in the Middle Ages. Neither Evangelicals nor Catholics can go back to the cloudy, perfectionist ideas of St. Irenaeus or Justin Martyr and both have adopted dogmatic formulas that no one before Cyprian, let alone St. Anselm, would recognize.

William Tighe has very generously sent me a copy of an article by Oliver K. Olson, in the Lutheran Quarterly 19 (2005), pp. 199-207, in which he argues against any sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist on the grounds that it would be a betrayal of the Lutheran confessions. His occasion of disagreement is principle 43 in ELCA's new "Principles for Worship":
The biblical words of institution declare God's action and invitation. They are set within the context of the Great Thanksgiving [note: eucharist is simply "thanksgiving" in Greek]. This ecuharistic prayer proclaims and celebrates the gracious work of God in creation, redemption, and sanctification.

Olson makes a lot of good and blessed Evangelical points. He rightly points out that "participation in the redeeming deed of Christ" is downright blasphemous. Agreed -- I said the same at the conclusion of my previous post. He adds that such "participation" implies that the crucifixion is still going on, but "that the atonement is finished is clearly reflected in Luther's doctrine of the mass as testament. At communion, the believer does not participate at Calvary. Instead, the believer is granted the results from Calvary." I agree wholeheartedly, adding only that the results of the world's one truly propitiatory sacrifice are given in precisely the form that they are given in the general sacrificial practice of humanity, a share of the meat and contact with the blood of the sacrifice. I would not support principle 43 as it stands. Practically speaking, our offertory hymn gets it just about right:

Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord, and fill to the brim our cup of blessing.
Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life.
Gather the hopes and dreams of all; unite them with the prayers we offer.
Grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.

I find the third line a bit treacly in phrasing, but theologically this stands firmly on the common ground shared by Martin Luther and Irenaeus.

What this illustrates is that the distinction between communion which is purely a testament, a gift, a promise, in which we give nothing but purely receive from God by faith, and the service of the sacrament as a whole, from the offertory to the dismissal, which also has an aspect of a thanksgiving to God in which we do something (i.e. we offer to God our tithes and offerings, including the bread and wine used in communion). No language of sacrifice of any nature can be allowed to infect our understanding of the former. Holy Communion is not something we do. But we do need to be aware of the sacrificial aspect of the latter, because not just the ante-Nicene fathers, but the apostles themselves treat the offertory as a spiritual sacrifice.

As it says in Romans 12, when Paul moves from expounding the accomplished nature of our salvation to our response, he says:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

What is the content of that "living sacrifice"? Well he enumerates it, beginning with the renewing of our minds, and including

Distributing to the necessity of saints

which distribution comes from the offertory. When he receives such a gift from the offertory of the Philippians, sent by Epahroditus to him in prison in Rome, he writes

But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God.

Likewise in Hebrews 13:16, after exhorting us that we have an altar which the Jews who offer sacrifice in the Temple cannot approach, the apostle asks us:

By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

And Peter likewise speaks of the church as a spiritual priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices:

Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.

The generosity of our offering is miserably inadequate to be acceptable to God in itself, but when we have faith in the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 4:10) then even our thank offerings are a sweet savor to God.

It is common in anti-"Gnostic" polemic to emphasize the earthy, practical, ritual nature of Christianity. But we must also remember that the early Christians inherited and largely agreed with a long-standing Greco-Roman critique of Jewish ritual practice. This critique focused on Jewish rituals, arguing that they were unworthy of the highest religious ideals, by being ethnocentric (limited to a particular people, like the Sabbath) and also simply irrational (such as the idea that a sinner offering the blood of a bull can propitiate God). This latter critique had a long history in the prophets of Israel (e.g. Psalm 50, Is. 1:11, Hosea 6:6, Jer. 7:21-22) and many Jews, such as Philo, in the intertestamental period had set about reinterpreting the food and calendar laws, as well as the sacrifices, as fundamentally ethical, teaching institutions, expressing spiritual ideas and gratitude to God, not ritual actions possessing inherent efficacy.

It is common today for anti-"Gnostic" Christians to ridicule such "spiritualizing" interpretations, but this is in fact the background from which, for example, the writer of Hebrews is coming, when he points out the uselessness of the Jewish sacrifices. Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho relies fundamentally on this skepticism about ritual propitiation of God. The Evangelical categorical rejection of the idea that anything a sinner does, week after week, no matter how divinely commanded, can propitiate a holy God is so fully in line with this long-standing critique, one which the apostles so clearly accepted, that the burden of proof lies with those wishing to claim that in fact the apostles would have accepted any propitiatory action in the Eucharist.

Now this skepticism about ritual propitiation can go in two directions: 1) toward ethical propitiation (we turn aside God's anger by doing right), and 2) substitutionary penal atonement -- the CROSS of CHRIST. Philo and the philosophical critique of Mosaic ritualism went toward the first, and regrettably early Christian apologists such as Irenaeus and Justin followed. But in the apostolic writings, no one can deny that it is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross only, accomplished once for all time, which is treated as the propitiation, the turning away of the wrath of God. In the wake of this once-for-all atonement, we have only two ways of response: 1) to return to it, repenting of dead works -- this is receiving communion; and 2) to follow God's commands by diligently attending to prayer and thanksgivings, both verbal and material. This is our worship, the thanksgiving sacrifice, the offertory, and our songs. But as always, the once for all atonement is the sole basis for our acceptance by God.

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