Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 3

Pentecost by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308)

Pentecost by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308)

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The Intent of the Lord’s Supper

The Pentecostal Proposition

Historical, classical Pentecostalism is not at all sacramental; doctrine which can be called sacramental hardly enters into it.  From the beginning Jesus began to make objective promises concerning his provision of the Paraclete.  In John, chapters 14-16, Jesus promises that those who believe in him, love him, and keep his commandments (14:12, 15, 21, 23); who know the Spirit, and in whom the Spirit will come to dwell (14:17); who abide in the Vine, and whom the Lord calls friends (15:4-8, 15), can expect the following objective results:

  • They will be enabled to do “greater works than these” (John 14:12)
  • The Spirit will “abide with you forever” (14:16)
  • The Spirit will dwell “with you, and shall be in you” (14:17)
  • The Spirit will “teach you all things” (14:26)
  • The Spirit will “bring all things to your remembrance” (14:26)
  • The Spirit will “testify of me [Christ]” (15:26)
  • The Spirit will “convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment” (16:8)
  • The Spirit will “guide you into all truth” (16:13)
  • The Spirit will “not speak of himself, but whatever He shall hear, He shall speak” (16:13)
  • The Spirit will “show you things to come” (16:13)
  • The Spirit will “glorify [Christ]” (16:14)
  • The Spirit will “receive from [Christ], and show it unto you” (16:14, 15)

See lists and comparisons of charismatic gifts in the author’s Christ in Us: the Exalted Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2007), pp. 156-172.   See also discussion of the Paraclete promises and gifts in chapters 3 and 10 of the author’s Christ within You: the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Gods Trombone, 2011).

Before Christ ascended, He reminded the Disciples of “the Promise of the Father,” commanding them to “tarry in the city of Jerusalem” till they are “endued with power from on high” (Lk 24:49).  In a more extensive parallel, Acts 1:4-8, Jesus declared this Promise to constitute a “baptism” greater than that in water for repentance (i.e., John’s), but rather one of empowerment:  the “Holy Spirit and fire” prophesied by John (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16).  In “endued” (“clothed”) there is no hint of sacramental realism, but initiation into spiritual enablement.  Note that we have no “sacrament” of clothing, nor one involving fire (either of which would tend toward formalism and idolatry).  There is no “substance” in Holy Spirit Baptism, but raw spiritual power:  “enduement” as an analogy describing its instrumentality, and “fire” as a metaphor describing its nature and effect in naturalistic terms.

At no time leading up to Pentecost did Jesus instruct the Disciples to partake of a sacrament in order that they might become “one” with him and experience his Real Presence, nor that by taking a sacrament the “Promise of the Father” would come.  At no time during the roughly fifty days before Pentecost is there a record that the Church took a sacrament, not even in the Upper Room.  (Their activity, according to Acts 1:14, was prayer and supplication.)  Indeed, the idea of experiencing Christ’s presence and power via sacrament is in direct contradiction to the principles of the Paraclete promises:  such would represent an “alternative spirituality.”

The “Institution” of the Lord’s Supper

The Last Supper was in no way an institution of a “means of grace,” an alternative means to the indwelling, empowering, and outworking Spirit vested in Spirit Baptism (as if spirituality were “multiple choice”).

The Synoptic Gospels and First Corinthians 11 agree that Jesus took the bread, broke it, and identified it with the words, “This is my body.”  Only in Luke’s and Paul’s accounts did He command the Disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Then He took the cup and identified it with his blood of the New Covenant.  Only in Paul’s version did Jesus further command, “Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me,” followed by Paul’s explanation, “for … you proclaim the death of the Lord till He comes” (1 Cor 11:25 f.).

More questions than answers arise from these “words of institution” (so called by Sacramentalists) as well as the surrounding events.  The most obvious question is that upon which hinges Sacramentalism versus the symbolic memorial view:  does Jesus use the bread and wine metaphorically or literally?  In short, does the bread and wine literally “become” the body and blood of Jesus, by anyone’s definition, and why should anyone think so?  Moreover, did Jesus intend for the Church to ever after partake of the emblems with the expectation of activating divine grace or qualifying for grace through the act of doing so?

The Lord’s Supper as Passover

As suggested earlier, Jesus’ statements would normally be taken figuratively, but Sacramentalists claim this to be a special instance for a special purpose, namely, the institution of substantial “sacraments of grace” as part of the New Covenant.  Due to this and related concerns, many Sacramentalists resist the identification of the Last Supper as a Passover meal.

The most telling points made against the passover origin of the Eucharist are the two facts that the Lord’s Supper was held frequently, it was not a yearly feast; and that it exhibited distinctions between rich and poor, impossible at a paschal meal where master and servant sat down together.  The textual evidence in favour of the paschal theory is, at first, overwhelming. (James Thomson Shotwell, “A Study in the History of the Eucharist,” submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Ph.D at Columbia University (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1905), p. 32.)

Indeed, Paul’s version suggests that the Lord’s Supper was being “held frequently,” at least in Corinth, but is lone witness to any class distinctions, unless one wants to throw into the mix the washing of the Disciples’ feet, John 13.  John not only does not associate the foot washing directly with the Lord’s Supper, but does not mention the bread and wine at all.  In John’s version, taken in isolation, were there any sacramental practice intended to be “instituted,” one would presume it to be “foot washing” instead of partaking bread and wine.  Moreover, the foot washing appears to be by way of  demonstration, in order to convey a principle, in response to the Disciples’ personal dispute over “who will be greatest” — which is not, in a demonstrative sense, unlike the purpose of the Communion emblems themselves.

In the Last Supper accounts, there is no mention of lamb, bitter herbs, or other standard elements of Passover.  If nothing more than customary “table fellowship,” however, it was  enhanced by a “novel element,” namely, the explanations of the bread and wine.  If, on the other hand, it was a Passover observance, Jesus would seem to have substituted those explanations for the traditional Passover explanations of “the lamb, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs” (B. Klappert, citation “Lord’s Supper” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, Colin Brown, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), pp. 521 f.).

The Timing of the Lord’s Supper

Advocates also quibble over the timing of the Supper in relation to Passover tradition.  Yet these objections are superficial and — excuse the pun — unsubstantial.  Clearly, the Last Supper is a purposeful reflection of Passover.  It is without doubt prophetically significant that the Supper and Christ’s Crucifixion both coincide with Passover week instead of being associated with the Day of Atonement, which was a fast centered on repentance and substitutionary propitiation for sin.  Passover, in contrast, is a feast of celebration, recognizing the blood which marks (“seals”) those who have accepted the Covenant by faith and obey its ordinances.  One may postulate, further, that the ultimate prophetic fulfillment of the Day of Atonement is yet to come, when the “Lamb for sinners slain,” acting as our Great High Priest, having carried his own shed blood into the Most Holy Place, then presents his Church before the Father, “glorious” and “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27).  Meanwhile, those “sealed” for the Kingdom undergo an initiatory baptism in their own Jordan, journey through their own Wilderness of faith, looking toward their own Promised Land (“rest,” Dt 12:10, Heb 3-4 et al.), all the time receiving provision from the Rock, the Cloud, and the Bread from Heaven (1 Cor 10:1-4, Jn 6:31 f.).  Moreover, a “week of weeks” (“sabbath of sabbaths”) after Passover comes the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), also known as the Feast of Firstfruits, reflected and prophetically fulfilled in the outpouring of Holy Spirit:  that Baptism “with fire” providing power to witness and to overcome, as well as all the Paraclete promises.  Spirit Baptism represents the “Firstfruits of our Inheritance,” being a foretaste of the Kingdom yet to come in its fullness.

The demonstrably prophetic timing of the Last Supper, as well as of the Crucifixion and Pentecost, all militate strongly against the sacramental view.  That view vests spiritual efficacy in objects and/or ritual acts, beyond their clearly prophetic symbolism.  Moses’ Law specified sacrifices for sin, but those sacrifices “can never take away sins” (Heb 10:4-11, see also Ps 40:6, 50:13).  They were not sacraments, possessing in themselves some spiritual efficacy, but pointing symbolically and prophetically to the spiritual future reality of Christ’s atoning flesh and blood.

The Lord’s Supper as Fellowship and Worship

Then Sacramentalists like to identify every subsequent instance of the “breaking of bread,” such as the appearance of the risen Jesus to the men traveling to Emmaus (Lk 24:30) and the fellowship “from house to house” following Pentecost (Acts 2:46) as a sacramental celebration.  They even adduce the example of Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine” (Gen 14:18), as a prophetic type.  Such assumptions are tantamount to the sacramental claims already discussed, regarding the bread in John 6 and the wedding at Cana.  There was no wine in John 6, no bread at Cana; overidentification of every episode of “breaking bread” as Holy Communion is unwarranted; and no such episode other than Paul mentioned in First Corinthians can be assumed to be anything more than customary “table fellowship.”  Table fellowship was a common element of Hebrew hospitality:

Joining in table-fellowship meant sharing in Yahweh’s blessing.  ….  The head of the household took the bread and spoke over it the benediction on behalf of all those present (Ber. 6:1).  Then he broke the bread that had been blessed and gave each at the table a piece.  In this way every participant in the meal received a share of the benediction.  A benediction followed after the meal.  The head of the household took a cup of wine, the “cup of blessing” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16), and pronounced the prayer of thanksgiving on behalf of all present (Ber. 7:3; 46a ff.; 50a).  Then everyone drank from the cup of blessing, in order to receive a part of the benediction pronounced over the wine (Klappert, p. 521 f.).

As to the question whether the Lord’s Supper was in fact “held frequently” in the primitive Church, or intended according to Christ’s meager instructions to become a regular part of worship rather than an annual observance (perhaps a Christian replacement for Passover or an “enhanced” Passover) — the traditional view and practice cannot be confirmed, however early might be its origin.  “The disciples met ‘to break bread, with thanksgiving,’ but nowhere is it stated that they met to repeat the ceremony of Christ’s last supper,” wrote James Thomson Shotwell.  “The common phrase ‘the breaking of bread,’ (η κλασις του αρτου) seems sometimes to have a technical sense, underlying such sentences as that of Paul, ‘The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?’; but it does not imply that distinct institution, separate from the meal, consisting of the consecration of bread and wine, which is later known as the Eucharist” (Shotwell, p. 26).  Indeed, after the Resurrection,

Such a [fellowship] meal would be a real “Lord’s Supper” as much as any specific repetition of the ceremony which Christ performed at the last supper.  And when the apostles had become conscious of the presence of Christ with them after they had come back to Jerusalem, every meal would be like that at Emmaus.  Whenever they met to break bread, he would be with them; there would be no need of any memorial when the person commemorated was present.

Such, as well as we can make out, was the character of the meetings of the early disciples. There could be no regularity nor system, no set rules nor rites to perform.  They varied widely in both character and in form as the Spirit came and went.  There is no evidence that they repeated Christ’s actions in a set ceremony, but might we not surmise that the words of Christ were repeated as part of the formula of blessing? (Shotwell, p. 27).

Percy Gardner wrote, as well, “It was exceedingly natural that in this way every common meal should become a banquet of communion with the risen Lord” (Percy Gardner, Exploratio Evangelica: A Brief Examination of the Basis and Origin of Christian Belief [NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899], p. 455).

Sacramental Realism Not in Evidence

Shotwell further notes that the Didache, dated to the late First or early Second Century, describes in chapters 9 and 10 the rules for the Lord’s Day thanksgiving ceremony, yet contains no hint of Sacramental Realism:

The Lord’s Supper, the “breaking of bread” which is here described, is apparently not a mere rite but a real meal.  The expression “after being filled” shows distinctly that this is the case.  There is no express repetition of Christ’s last supper, and no reference to its prophetic import.  But the simple meal itself is transformed into something that bears a close resemblance to it.  If it were not for that one phrase, it might have been possible to interpret the rest of the description as implying a repetition of the Last Supper.  For the cup and the bread after all suggest, if they do not expressly symbolize, the blood and body of Christ.  Yet as it stands there is no memorial of Christ’s death.

The main thing, however, in the eyes of our author is the thanksgiving.  His whole concern is to teach that proper thanks be given at the breaking of bread.  This idea so overshadows all others that he calls the whole ceremony a “Thanksgiving” or “Eucharist.”  This is the first time we come upon the word used in this wide sense, and it is a strange fact that the first historian of the Eucharist does not describe the Last Supper, our Eucharist, at all! (Shotwell, p. 30).

Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan (10.96-97, A.D. 111-113) likewise makes no mention of a sacramental rite, only a meal following a dawn service, at a secondary location.  A later installment of this study will feature a review of additional early testimony for or against the sacramental argument.

A Shift from Passover to Communion

The known evidence suggests that the Lord’s Supper developed from a Passover observance to a regular practice early on.  Certainly some development is reflected in the tradition taught by Paul to the Corinthians.  Since “The Synoptic narratives agree that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal” (Klappert, p. 527), it would appear that the expanding Gentile church soon left behind the Passover trappings.  That celebration, a vestige of Moses’ Law, likely seemed irrelevant and incomprehensible to them.  It is hardly sensible, after all, that a Christ-centered observance, and in particular a purported sacramental rite, would regress toward the Passover theme presented in the Gospels.

Since the Lord’s Supper, celebrated daily or weekly from the beginning, had no reference to the Passover as an annual feast, an original connection of the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper is more likely than a development in the opposite direction (Klappert, pp. 527 f.).

Although the rash claim of Klappert and his sources that the Lord’s Supper was “celebrated daily or weekly from the beginning” is unsupported, it would seem to be true that

The historically probable information given by the Synoptics, which describes Jesus’ Last Supper as a Passover meal, diverges from the rite of the primitive church, for there is not the slightest evidence that the Lord’s Supper was ever celebrated as a Passover, only once a year (…).  Rather, the original Passover motifs were removed in the light of the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  In primitive Christian usage, therefore, there is no ground for a subsequent interpretation of the Lord’s Supper as a Passover meal (…) (p. 531).

Thus it has been postulated that early worshippers, in their enthusiasm, combined the fellowship meal theme of the Lord’s Supper with the “Love Feast” of the primitive church, adding also the apocalyptic motif of the Lord’s “once for all” sacrifice for sin, into one observance.  “The regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the primitive church arose from all these [themes] taken together” (Klappert, p. 524), yet the observance cannot be shown to have developed a sacramental component or emphasis until a later timeframe.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

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