Rather than polemically reviewing every Christian tradition’s approach towards the theology and understanding of communion; this paper takes a logical approach starting from the early apostolic church; Roman Catholicism, Reformed traditions and finally into Pentecostalism. Ex-biblical and post-apostolic support will be drawn upon within the expression of each tradition, adhering to specific terminology in particular and finally proposals will be made for the practice with in the Pentecostal church today.
There are four expressions used in the bible and will be used accordingly throughout this paper; in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20), Communion (1 Cor. 10:16), Eucharist (1 Cor 11:24) and breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).
It is this paper’s defense that innovative practices cannot be determined until the theological nature of communion has been established.
The account of the Last Supper
The synoptic gospels present a similar account of the Last Supper (Mark 14:22, Luke 22:7 and Matthew 26:17); Jesus celebrated his last days on earth with a meal with his disciples. All three accounts collaborate that the meal holds traditional Jewish elements similar to that of the Seder Meal; conducted within the walls of Jerusalem on the day of preparation, unleavened bread, Jesus reclining with his disciples, the ‘dipping’ elements into bowls, cups of wine and finally the singing of hymns at the end of the meal.
However; when considering the interpretation and chronology expressed in John’s gospel, we could concur that while it contains similar attributes to the synoptic gospels it alludes to a different meal. He identifies it was “before the Passover” (John 13:1-2) and further identifies that it was an evening meal and not in the beyn ha’arbayim.
Some scholars suggest that the meal was not a Passover meal but rather a Haburah meal shared with friends (not family) and evidence is further supported as Jesus left his disciples to retreat in solitude to the mount of Olives, whereas the Seder meal would require them to return to their homes as cited in Deuteronomy.
Gavin highlights the importance of this in the development of the Christian movement as it develops in the book of Acts. The meal was characterised separately from Passover and often associated with meals such as engagements, funerals and marriages etc. and therefore made for easier marriage with Gentile fellowship meals. The Haburah meal makes the shape for the various liturgies today as it required a president and the minimum of three participants and a cup of thanksgiving.
Luke-Acts provides a theologumena approach to the scriptures and an apology towards the authenticity for the inauguration of the early church and its practices. Rowe identifies the book of Luke-Acts the ideal document for Christians to extract didactic and normative practices and not merely for historical reference.
Luke provides an in-depth account on the Lord’s Supper and is re-arranged slightly from that of Matthew and Mark. His stylistic approach moves the reader beyond an institutional framework as seen in Matthew and Mark bringing a literal connotation of Jesus’ sacrifice into the bread. Luke further parallels the cup with the New Covenant as a ‘remembrance’. Using a social-rhetorical approach the term ‘remembrance’ (anamnesis) enabled the believer to encounter all space and time mnemonically. One must not negate the role of Greco-Roman influence upon Luke’s deliberate usage of the term anamnesis which is also found in Paul’s writings.
Paul’s highlights the agape meal in communal settings, usually in private homes and provides a framework for the supper whilst aligning with Lucan narrative using the term ‘remembrance’ (1 Cor. 11:25). Once again, Paul’s depiction of the Last Supper must be seen through a social-rhetorical lens whereby Paul is seeking to unite the church and prevent divisive practices (1 Cor. 11: 27-34) Paul highlights an intentional gathering for a meal whereby all are welcome, an examination of conscience is sought and believers celebrate through using elements of bread and wine and in doing so the community proclaim Christ’s death until His return (1 Cor. 11:26). He does allude to a spiritual and physical healing for those who consume the elements due to their unworthiness. Paul’s interpretation of the Eucharist holds an eschatological setting and therefore holds a similar mnemonic understanding to Judaism rather than a sacrificial consumption of gods that would have been of common practice amongst pagans. However, it is indecisive if Paul determined a literal expression of Christ transformed into the bread and wine.
As Christianity progresses the fellowship meal becomes a normative part of Christian life and worship; it becomes ordered as the ecclesiology of the early church faces many challenges such as internal diversity, cultural-political nuances, persecution and cultic influences.
The first-century document the Didache gives a clear indication towards the liturgical designation of Eucharistic placement in Christian life;
“Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one”
While the document identifies the mystical and salvific nature of communion it states that the Lord’s Supper is for baptised Christians. While the author is unknown and exact dating and importance is questionable, it does provide us with the knowledge that Christians met in homes and there was a president who recited of Christ’s words at the Last Supper.
Other early church fathers such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch identify a distinct priesthood who offer eucharistic sacrifices to God upon an altar. Both early patraisic fathers highlight that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated using the elements of bread and wine. Ignatius specifically alludes to the eucharist as the “medicine of immortality” that aids the believer to escape death.
Justin indentifies that a requirement for the meal was baptism, using bread and wine that are transmutated into the flesh and blood of Jesus. He Ante-Nicene Fathers, p63to the celebration of the Lords Supper world and cultic practices. n the day of the Lord to give thanksoffers further insight into the celebration of the Lord’s Supper;
“this food is called among us the Eucharist of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes…washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins…we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh”
Tertullian, who became one of the most influencial writers in the West, identifies that communion was celebrated as a agape meal that is held in reverence and in a dinner setting. Tertullian hinges his argument upon his interpretation of John 6, suggesting that Christ’s inauguration and commands were a metaphor to “represent” his body and blood and would therefore dismiss any literal transfomation.
It is important to note that fellowship meals or cultic gatherings were not solely reserved to that of Judean-Christian communities but rather were a common expression the Greco-Roman world.
Witherington identifies that these meals were hierarchical, official protocol was to be served by the ministri, exclusive, didactic and had an abundance of food and alcohol. Hellenistic deities were soothed by bread offerings in a sacramental-emotional expression and therefore sensationalising the act in mystery. This could be a suggestion as to why Paul highlights ‘elemental spiritual forces of this world’ (Col. 2:8).
In conclusion of this section, the post-apostolic church present that Christians met in homes, regularly on the day of the Lord to give thanksgiving together with both elements of bread and wine. If anything we can determine that theological understanding is diverse and confusion emerges in both wording, philosophical understanding, political fears and the Christian meal is heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman world and cultic practices.
TRADITIONS AND EXPRESSIONS
Roman Catholic Theology.
The Roman Catholic expresses the Eucharist as the heart of Christian life and holds its liturgy extremely close to that of the Jewish Passover. Just as the Israelites were freed from the slavery of the Egyptians, Jesus through his inauguration of the Eucharist, frees people from the enslavement of the world and frees mankind into the freedom of God’s kingdom. Through the formalisation of Christianity into the state religion in 313AD, the Eucharistic meal became ritualised and was referred to in sacramental and sacrificial language.
As Osborne notes, the sacrificial worship to Roman deities often required watching rather than participation and what once was considered as an ordinary agape meal of inclusion became heavily influenced into something of an extra-ordinary significance of sacramental and sacrificial observance.
In 1140AD the institution of the sacraments begin were established as acts that were “ordained by Christ”. The enumeration by Peter Lombard was necessary due to heretical and schismatic teachings and therefore all other cultic expressions that had crept into church practice were rejected. By 1158 seven sacraments were formally written down into the Book of Sentences through which Eucharist was formally regarded as a sacrament.
The Catholic church expresses that the Eucharist is a sacramental thanksgiving meal through which those who are in communion with the church are permitted to receive this sacrament of grace. Christ is believed to be intrinsically present in the bread and wine, an continuous offering of grace and a “salvific well of our salvation”. Through the institution of the Last Supper, Catholics believe that Christ literally gave himself in the feast and through which they unite themselves “with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate the eternal life”.
The Roman Catholic doctrine is supported by the ‘incarnational argument’ whereby the “bread and wine, by words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood”. This is called transubstantiation through which the “real presence of Christ” endures in so far as the Eucharistic species (bread and wine) subsists.
The term transubstantiation was expressed by Aquinas in 1270AD, heavily persuaded by Aristotle’s categories of substance and accident as a model to explain the true presence of Christ.
The celebration of the Eucharist is to be offered only under the divination of a bishop and further through a rich heritage from the apostles, patristic fathers under the authority of Rome today. Unapologetically, the Catholic church do not allow other Christian tradition to share in their agape meal nor permit their believers to share in other traditions of table fellowship.
Certainly the Catholic church can validate their understanding of the Eucharist through apostolic and postapostolic writings however Reformed traditions and Pentecostals would challenge their theological interpretation as reading beyond the text of Luke-Acts and the Pauline expressions of communion.
Dodd highlights that the literal reading of “this is my body” is an interpolation of cultic practices and expressions in order to transmit the significance of the remembrance of the meal. The problematic words of Luke, remembrance and covenant, must be read through a historical-socio and religious prism of Greco-Roman and Palestinian environments. These words would have evoked images that held sacramental significance for both Jews and Gentiles. Luke’s deliberate usage of the word anamnesis was to trigger a persuasive eschatological focus to the meal. He further adds that Luke specifically chose provocative words, to enforce a “continuous interplay between behaviour and vocabulary…to imitate, encourage in order to develop a persuasive eschatological thought of the time”. Theologians and Philosophers like Tertullian and Epiricius identify the pagan bread offerings at the temple of Mithra and other cultic practices that were held in commemoration for the dead.
While postapostolic and traditional sources may give weight for theological understanding today, it is supplanted by the cultic aetiology from other pagan ‘sacrificial meals’ that were present amongst the Gentiles.
Pentecostals reject the doctrine surrounding transubstantiation and align it with the historical growth of superstition, occultism and mysticism of society in the 10th century. While Catholicism perceives the institution of the Eucharist is a perpetual sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages, Pentecostals perceive the New Covenant solely in relationship to Jesus’ death on the cross and promise of the outpouring of the Spirit. Köstenberger highlights that Catholicism has forgotten that throughout the Hebraic scriptures when covenants were cut they were always ancillary to the oath and therefore a bloodless sacrifice is not necessary as it was already achieved through the cross.
Vander Zee indicates that the blood covenant is an expression Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, memorialised through breaking bread together and further notes that the presence of Christ is expressed relationally in the heart of the believer in the form of transignification.
The Greek understanding of remembrance calls to mind the ancient conceptions of being able to “see” through an ontological connection between the image and the representation- something that emerged in the iconoclastic disputes in the 8th and 9th century. Therefore, one could argue that the greek understanding of recalling Christ in the Eucharist was an act of envisaging the real presence of Christ in the act of communion.
Finally, Heron expresses that the catholic church’s dogma on the Eucharist has been led astray through Augustinian philosophical influence, and marriages to occultism, philosophical ontology, Platonic dualism and mysticism- whilst attempting to balance political hierarchical power in the world.
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