Friday, November 04, 2005

Against Shane Rosenthal's Attack on the Lutheran Teaching About Holy Communion

Josh S., speaking on behalf of someone hesitating between the Reformed and the Evangelical teachings, has asked us all to respond to this critique of the Augsburg Evangelical teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Here are my thoughts for his consideration:

The first big mistake of this critique is right there in the first line: treating the Holy Supper as simply a species of the genus sacrament. The writer goes on to define sacrament according to the Paul's view of circumcision: which is not actually a sacrament, but a typological ritual of the Old Covenant. So right there in the first couple of sentences, we have already assumed that baptism and the Lord's Supper cannot have any more real significance than any OT typological shadow. Sasse already made the point in This Is My Body that Augustine’s idea of sacrament as a sign (something nowhere asserted in Scripture about either baptism or the Lord’s Supper) can have all kinds of pernicious effects if taken too seriously.He then adds later the idea that since the Lord's Supper is like the Passover it must be ontologically similar -- forgetting the fact that the New Testament Lord's Supper is part of the reality of which the Old Testament Passover is the shadow. Shadows and realities are ontologically different.This foundational argument is basically circular, assuming what needs to be proved.

The Biblical argument of 1 Corinthians 10:2-4 is likewise invalid. In that passage, where Paul speaking of Moses and the peregrinations through the desert, he says "the rock was Christ." This is then a use of "is" (actually "was", which as a predicate of someone who is the same yesterday, today, and forever already has an inherently figurative sense, but never mind) which is indeed figurative. Now the use of "is" as figurative demands something very specific: a series of relations between multiple symbols and multiple things being symbolized. For example, one could say, "This bread here, see? This is the body of Christ, this knife here is the cross, and just as I break this bread on the knife, so His body was broken on the cross." In such a case, where something is acted out, or else where a scriptural type has multiple parts, context makes it clear that "is" is being used to identify the various parts in the metaphor. For example, I might say, "This ark is the church, see? And the clean animals, they represent Lutherans, and the unclean animals, well, those represent the Zwinglian blasphemers of the Holy Sacrament." (Sorry, I couldn't resist that naughty little comparison.) But "is" can only be used in this sense if there are multiple symbols in question and you need to know which one "is" (i.e. signifies) Christ’s body (as opposed to this other thing which signifies something else). Since only one thing is in question in the words of institution, it is not rational usage to use the verb "to be" in that way. If Christ wanted to set up a metaphor, he would have done it the other way around: "My body is bread."

Much of the rest of the argument is simply guilt by (pseudo-)association. So our division of truly efficacious sacraments from Old Testament shadows and signs is "proto-dispensationalist"? Big deal -- it is abundantly confirmed by Biblical evidence. If admitting that makes me dispensationalist, then good, I'm a dispensationalist.*

The irony is, of course, that dispensationalism came not out of Lutheranism, but out of Reformed Christianity.

And it is not the Augsburg Evangelical church and tradition that boggles at the full truth of the incarnation, or virtually ignores the Ascension, or has spawned a doctrine teaching a set of multiple returns of Christ, or turned the communion of the saints either into some invisible nothing that no one can see or touch, or else divided it in practice into a thousand sects each more pure than the next.

Finally, Shane Rosenthal is also simply ignorant of Evangelical Lutheran Biblical interpretation. When he writes: "Now they argue that we cannot truly feed on Christ unless it is by way of the physical mouth." this clearly a reference to John 6, which Luther himself concluded did not refer to the Lord's Supper (for the reason that baptized infants, etc., certainly are saved without partaking of the Supper, and others who do partake are certainly not saved). The word "cannot" here is a misrepresentation of Lutheran doctrine. "Ordinarily do not" would be the correct formulation, with "ordinarily" understood in the Christian, doctrinal sense of God's appointed means.

As for why it is good, right, and salutary for our Lord to have ordained a way in which we could receive objectively the benefit of His atoning death, just as those in Israel received typologically the benefits of the typological deaths of lambs and bulls, I’ve offered my thoughts here.

*For some arguments that Old-New Testament continuity can be over-emphasized, see here. Also relevant here is Luke 7:28, in light of John 3:5-6, and Rev. 7, which describes the already accomplished number of Old Covenant believers in the Christ to come, and the numberless multitudes who will believe in the Christ already come.

Originally posted at Here We Stand.