Friday, January 06, 2006

More Luther on Communion

In my previous post from The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, I summarized the basic presupposition of Luther's view of all of God's dealings with man: that they come through a promise to be received by faith. The sacraments, like preaching, follow this basic form.

Now I will summarize some of Luther's main points on the greatest sacrament, Holy Communion.

First, he notes that John 6 is not actually about communion. But note that this is not because Luther boggles at all at Christ's statement that Christians "eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood." Rather he is worried that verses 53 to 57 promise salvation to all who partake and damnation to all who don't. This is problematic since we know that many (Luther specifically mentions baptized infants) who don't partake are saved, and some who do partake fall away and are damned. Taking this promise at the letter, it seems contradictory to the other Scriptures. In any case, Luther also emphasizes that it isa not bodily eating and drinking of Christ's body and blood that saves, but faith in the promise.

This brings in the whole question about infant communion, which will come up under confirmation.

He then moves on to the three captivities of Holy Communion:

1) He then shows that denial of the cup to the laity was a grotesque abuse. It is enough here simply to remind ourselves that such a position was defended vehemently, in cold blood and in writing, by Luther's Catholic opponents.

2) The second is transubstantiation, in which Luther declares he had long found the opinion of Pierre d'Ailly, that the Sacrament is real bread and wine in uniion with Christ's real body and blood, to be more reasonable, and the dogma of transubstantiation involving numerous problems. But Luther is clear: transubstantiation is an acceptable theological opinion:

. . . the opinions of the Thomists, though approved by pope and council, remain but opinions and do not become articles of faith, even though an angel from heaven were to decree otherwise. For what is asserted without Scripture or an approved revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed. . . .

I therefore permit every man to hold either of these views [Aquinas's transubstantiation, or Pierre d'Ailly's view], as he chooses. My one concern at present is to remove all scruples of conscience, so that no one may fear to become guilty of heresy if he should believe in the presence of real bread and real wine on the altar, and that every one may feel at liberty to ponder, hold, and believe one view or the other, without endangering his salvation (p. 137-38).

Luther then expounds why he prefers the bread and wine to remain with Christ's body and blood on the altar, and concludes with a not very decisive affirmation:

Thus I will for the nonce understand it, for the honor of the holy words of God, which I will not suffer any petty human argument to override or wrest to meanings foreign to them. At the same time, I permit other men to follwow the other opinion, which is laid down in the decree Firmiter; only let them not press us to accept their opinions as articles of faith . . . (p. 143).

The main point is that the issue is one of who can make articles of faith: popes and councils or the Scriptures alone?

3) LUther then moves on to his big target, what he calls "the most wicked abuse of all," the idea that "the Mass is a good work and a sacrifice" (p. 143). It is this which he sees as the greatest Babylonian captivity of all. He is quite aware of how long a tradition has attached to this idea (much longer than to the other two), but dares to announce his own view.

He begins by going back to the Scriptures, with the ground-work assumption: For in that word [by which Christ instituted his sacrament], and in that word alone, reside the power, the nature, and the whole substance of the mass. All else is the work of man, added to the word of Christ; and the mass can be held and remain a mass just as well without it (p. 144).

Sidenote: The centrality of the words of institution, rather than any Eastern-style epiclesis or prayer to the Holy Spirit to transform the elements, flows obvious from this point of view. If one wants to see the Holy Communion is indeed a magic "hocus pocus," it must be Jesus's words which constitute the proper spell.

After citing the words of institution, he writes:

Therefore let this stand at the outset as our infallibly certain proposition: The mass, or sacrament of the altar, is Christ's testament [as in last will and . . .] which He left behind Him at His death, to be distributed among His believers. For that is the meaning of His word, "This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood." Let this truth stand . . . Christ, who is the Truth, says truly that this is the new testament in His blood which is shed for us (p. 145).

So what is a testament?

As testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, in which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs. Therefore a testament involves, first, the death of the testator, and secondly the promise of the bequest, and the naming of the heir (p. 146).

Luther refers to Romans 4, Galatians 3 and 4, and Hebrews 9 for Paul's discussion of testaments.

You see, therefore, that what we call the mass is the promise of the remission of sins made to us by God; and such a promise has been confirmed by the death of the Son of God. For the one difference between a promise and a testament is that a testament is a promise which implies the death of him who makes it. A testator is a man making a promise who is about to die; whilst he that makes a promise is, if I may so put it, a testator who is not about to die. This testament of Christ was foreshadowed in all the promises of God from the beginning of the world; nay, whatever value those olden promises possessed was altogether derived from this new promise that was to come in Christ. Hence the words "covenant" and "testament of the Lord" occur so frequently in the Scriptures, which words signified that God would one day die. For where there is a testament, the death of the testator must needs follow (Hebrews 9). Now God made a testament: therefore it was necessary that He should die. But God could not die unless He became man. Thus both the incarnation and the death of Christ are briefly comprehended in this one word "testament" (pp. 146-47).

It is worth noting first how Luther's concept of promise subsumes the central Reformed idea of "covenant" as a subset of divine promises, and secondly how, following Hebrews 9:16-22, Christ's death is seen as the supreme example of a general institution of covenants. This framework is parallel to, but not exactly the same, as the usual mode of expression of Christ receiving the penalty due the sinner. Augsburg Evangelicalism can thus subsume all that is valid in the Reformed idea of covenantal relations (with a more careful attention to Biblical realities, so that we do not try to force Adam into a "covenant of works" and so on, but adhere to the five ones mentioned in the Old Testament -- that of Noah, of Abraham, of Moses, of Phinehas (the high priest), and of David -- all summed in the New Testament/covenant of Christ. All of these, but that with Phinehas and his descendants, are mentioned in Luther's summary of the old promises on pp. 147-48, along with the promise to Adam of the seed of Eve who will crush the serpent. Luther himself prefers to speak of the wider concept of promise rather than covenant, but the later is only a special type of the former. (There will be more about this later.)

From the above it will at once be seen what is the right and what the wrong use of the mass, what is the worthy and what the unworthy preparation for it. If the mass is a promise, as has been said, it is to be approached, not with any work or strength or merit, but with faith alone (p. 147).

Upon this follows Luther's passages on faith and promise which I cited earlier.

What remains to discuss is:

1) Proper preparation
2) The significance of Christ's body and blood in this promise
3) How the notion of sacrifice, as found in the Fathers, is to be understood