Now that I have tackled this incident regarding the Lord’s Supper from Church history and intentionally highlighted points I think are relevant to it I want to draw some general conclusions about the subject of theological convictions. And then particularly about how to positively grapple with understanding the Lord’s Supper. A general conclusion is simply this: The faithful practice of the Eucharist as part of worship is a mystery. Further it is prudent to leave mysteries as such and not insist upon intellectual certainty regarding our convictions (that is, theological convictions).
In the process of writing this series of blogs I was reminded of the Genesis narrative about Adam. After he was created by God he was tasked with naming the animals in Eden. “So from the ground God shaped every wild beast and every bird of the air, bringing them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called any living creature, that was to be its name.” (Genesis 2:19, Moffatt) I imagine that in order to arrive at a name for each of the creatures he had to first observe them carefully and begin to characterize them. Then he could come up with a suitable name for each one.
I assert that this is the process by which we human beings attempt to comprehend and categorize all things in our experience. And this also applies to the interpretation of Scripture and the development of theology convictions. There is a grave danger of pride for anyone gifted with a keen intellect in that one can be self-deceived by one’s comprehension of ideas and ability to sort through the relevance of information. The most intellectually gifted persons in the world cannot fully understand the natural world and how it operates at the most basic levels. (For even the names given by them to phenomena in the world are more descriptive than anything else.) Thus human discovery will continue because of the complex nature of the world God created.
How much more do theologians need to be reminded of the necessity of humility! This task of studying, naming and explaining the meaning of the teaching of Scripture is complex because human beings themselves are complex. And the development of theological convictions, in order to be helpful to the Church, must be rooted in worship of the Triune God. A person cannot understand the living God with his or her mind; at best humans can search through the Scriptures and use language to attempt to describe God—his character and attributes, his mighty deeds—in the context of their life experience. This is why the Holy Spirit must be our teacher and guide!
For the reasons I have laid out above I assert that it is folly to think that any of us can really know how God operates to give the grace of life to believers when they receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The different views are, in my opinion, essentially guesses based on different theological interpretations of Scripture and Church tradition. And further, one’s understanding the nature of God’s work in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is dependent upon other theological convictions—notably Christology.
Zwingli was right to question the Roman Catholic teaching. Both he and Luther were right, in my opinion, to reject the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation. On the other hand, I do not agree with either of their conclusions. Zwingli tended to minimize the mystery of the Sacrament. Luther tended toward a literal-physical understanding of receiving the Sacrament that has no clear basis in the Scripture texts relevant to this subject.
My own conviction is that Calvin stated as much as can be reasonably affirmed about the Sacrament—that in receiving it by faith the believer receives true spiritual nourishment for growth in godliness.
“The sacraments duly perform their office [of confirming and strengthening believers’ faith] only when accompanied by the Spirit, the internal Master, whose energy alone penetrates the heart, stirs up the affections, and procures access for the sacraments into our souls. If he is wanting, the sacraments can avail us no more than the sun shining on the eyeballs of the blind, of sounds uttered in the ears of the deaf. Wherefore, in distributing between the Spirit and the sacraments, I ascribe the whole energy to him, and leave only a ministry to them; this ministry, without the agency of the Spirit, is empty and frivolous, but when he acts within, and exerts his power, it is replete with energy.” (John Calvin, cited from The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol 2 [Eerdmans: 1964], Book IV, chapter 14, paragraph 9, p.497)
These are the opinions of men and what I have written is my own opinion. While I do have definite theological convictions about this matter I hold them loosely. The reason for this is simply because, in my view, Scripture says almost nothing about the nature of God’s divine operation in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
I try to keep in mind two principles which Paul impressed upon the Corinthian believers and the Roman believers (respectively):
“I have made the things I have said apply to the special case of myself and Apollos, and this I have done for your sake, so that, taking us for an example, you may be taught the truth of the words, ‘Nothing beyond what is written’, and may be prevented at the same time from becoming full of arrogance, favouring one man to the disparagement of another.” (1 Corinthians 4:6, God’s New Covenant, Cassirer)
“Therefore let us no longer censure one another, but rather do you come to this decision, not to put any obstacle or stumbling-block in your brothers’ path.” (Romans 14:13, The New Testament in Modern Speech, Weymouth)
We in the Body of Christ who have been gifted with knowledge and teaching God’s people must be humble and not exalt our own ideas. The Scripture must be our authority and we must be attentive to what it affirms and fear to tread where it does not—for that is the territory of heretics. Matters that are genuinely open to different theological interpretations—because Scripture does not plainly teach on them—should be respected as matters of conscious. For the primacy in the heart of God is upon believers practicing righteousness in relationships. This means that we need to show love and respect for one another. The expression of this is humility and openness to learn from one another even if we cannot reach uniformity in all theological matters.