Essay: Innovative practices cannot be determined until the theological nature of communion has been established

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  • Innovative practices cannot be determined until the theological nature of communion has been established
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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.

Post-Apostolic accounts

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.

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.

Lutheran Theology.

The ambiguous nature of Catholicism to surround the doctrine in “mystery” certainly proved a difficulty for Luther who acknowledges that Christ’s presence is present spiritually in the form of consubstantiation. Luther determined that the meal was to be called “The Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20) and was a paragon of the gospel and is for edifying the church, repentance and chastisement.

Focusing more on a biblical-evidenced approach and for equal rights to apostolic succession, Luther advocated that just as Jesus ordained the male apostles, the celebration of Holy Communion should be celebrated by male ordained ministers. The feast is to be conducted on an altar and is the daily supernatural manna that sustains the soul and brings healing to the body. Luther however had his own rhetoric to his fellowship table; a person must be baptised by water and the Spirit, instructed in the faith and have exercised an examination of conscience prior to receiving. However even today Lutheranism holds a closed communion but invites its congregants to participate on a weekly basis.

Pentecostals recognise the Christological focus of the Lutheran tradition but are unable to marry with the ambiguous understanding or distinction of the Real Presence from Catholicism. Certainly operating a “closed communion” creates a “insuperable wall of separation”.

Calvinist, Wesleyan and Baptist theology.

Holding onto a similar theme, Calvin and Wesley both advocated that the elements of bread and wine contained the spiritual presence of Jesus. The Holy Meal was conducted in a proper liturgical format supported with scriptural readings, prayers, offerings and Eucharistic hymns; presided upon an altar and required the believer to repent through fasting and spiritual observance.

The belief was that the Holy Spirit infused into the elements sacramentally and the believer is lifted to the healingly realm and is present before Christ body, spirit and soul.

Wainwright expresses that Reformed traditions teachings on the Eucharist, the incarnational and sacrificial approaches, suffer from an eschatological deficit and the orientation moves towards communal piety.

A similar understanding is held by the Baptists who understand that Christ cannot be consumed any other way than spiritually but Christ’s presence is founded by the faith of the individual not by any spiritual embodiment but is a symbolism of Christ’s presence in the communion of his faithful.

Strong highlights the common Baptist viewpoint that it has no self-generating or sanctifying power but is a symbol of communion with Christ. Baptists continue to return to the word anamnesis as referring back to remembrance and believers will experience Christ amongst them but it must be commented that there is no commonly agreed ‘doctrine’ like that of the Catholic or reformed traditions.

Zwinglian theology.

Probably one of the most influential traditions for Pentecostals is that of Zwingli who clearly established that the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to discover the presence of Christ amongst the hearts of believers and that the words of Christ as the Last Supper are to be taken metaphorically; a meal of joyful fellowship, non-sacrificial and holding equality with preaching yet only to celebrated three or four times a year. It must be recognised that Zwingli was a catholic priest and made great liturgical changes to emphasize his memorial meal. He stripped back the chalice and paten favouring for wooden plates and cups. In doing so he paved the way for the reformed traditions today. Zwingli perceived the meal as an expression of Gods covenant of salvation and a pneumatological orientation.

Zwingli did designate the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament which “was nothing more than an initiatory ceremony…to sustain our faith.” Holding that man stood in a state of depravity, Zwingli believed that Christ worked throughout the sacral universe and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper were tokens through which the community could spiritually feed upon. He further designated that the meal was to be conducted in an ecclesial setting as a gathered community and only those who were baptised could participate. His emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit as the operative in presenting Christ’s presence in the heart of the believer is of great influence in the Pentecostal tradition.

A pivotal influence for Pentecostal theology today is Zwingli’s separation from the other reformed traditions who used Latin or German translations in the interpretative process to adhere to the Greek translations. In doing so he redefined the expression such as sacramentum (with all its philosophical connotations) into memorialism.

Pentecostal Theology

We now turn the focus of this paper to the Pentecostal theological understanding of communion. Many reformed traditions prefer to use the term ordinance so as not to relate to the salvific grace of God and as it differentiates from that of Catholic-Orthodox understandings. However while Pentecostals do use both terms intermittingly, a commonly accepted term is ‘sacramental ordinances’ which demonstrates the charismatic Spirit encounter through the symbolic act.

While both the Baptist and Pentecostals hold similar understandings to that of Zwinglian beliefs, there must be an agreement as to whether the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, an ordinance or if it is to be rationally reduced to that of nothing more than a memorial meal.

Classic Pentecostalism is far from being structurally or doctrinally homogeneous. Compared to more established methodological tradition Pentecostal Hermeneutics can appear unclear and even confusing because of the variety of methodologies that have fallen under its historical umbrella, raising the danger of uncontrolled subjective use of Pentecostal methodological components.

Pentecostals have chosen to draw closely upon the reformed traditions of scripture, faith, grace and personal relationship with God. Pentecostals adhere to a pneumatic epistemology and the ‘continuity’ of God’s work, with reference to eschatological focus and in particular the use of narrative as didactic for personal emulation.

Within these hermeneutical elements the focus for Pentecostals is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the community. There is no universal doctrine on the Lord’s Supper although some can be found with organisations like Assemblies of God. According to Tomberlin, Classical Pentecostals held no formal liturgical structure; however, it was a common for a repentant sinner to receive communion at the altar call. This statement has been extremely hard to verify and would be more of a sentimental desire than an orthodox approach.

Classic Pentecostals believe that the sacramental ordinance of communion is an “opportunity to mature, reflect and edify themselves in the Spirit” and is a normative aspect of Christian living. Focusing on biblical truths, the Pentecostal church concentrates on the four main aspects as seen in early church; teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and dedication to prayers (Acts 2:42-47).

Pentecostals reject the need for apostolic succession but rather all believers have the right to exercise ordinances in fellowship with Christ who is the high priest.

The breaking of the bread is an intimate table meal demonstrating the koinonia between brothers and sisters, open to all who wish to partake in the Lord’s Supper and used as an opportunity for teaching and conversion just as Christ and the Apostles did (Luke 14:1-24; 7:36-50; 19:1-10). The Lord’s Supper was usually conducted after the common meal (1 Cor. 11:17-22) but one aspect is clear that the Lord’s Supper was an intentional meal (Acts 20:7-11). There is a clear influence of Zwingli within the Pentecostal tradition as the majority will agree that the meal quickens the soul of the man as it develops the spirit and holds the essence of a memorial meal. While Pentecostals will use the term sacrament and ordinance synonymously, it holds great ambiguity as to whether the act of taking communion brings spiritual and physical healing or the elements of bread and wine are in someway touched by the Spirit.

The challenge deepens as Pentecostals will advocate that the Holy Spirit can be transferred to material objects like handkerchiefs, anointing with oil and the laying on of hands- so why then does it become a challenge to consider that the Holy Spirit could do the same thing upon the elements of bread and wine?

Rogers offers an explanation to the confusion stating that the Holy Spirit is not entrapped but rather “touches” the elements paraphysically in the same way that He touches other elements. In doing so the Pentecostal does not have to accept doctrines of transubstantiation or consubstantiation but rather associates the meal with an indwelling of Christ and holds a distinctive pneumatic real presence. While participation in the Lord’s Supper is normative for believers it is not salvific and only nurtures the believer in their relationship with God through a heart transformation.

For the Pentecostal the key element to any ordinance or encounter with God is the Spirit, which resonates with Albrecht’s teaching on transcendental ecstacy. The memorial of the Last Supper does not simply resonate the fellowship of the church but holds the eschatological purpose of God. A further criticism of the Pentecostal pnemuatological approach is the subordination of the Spirit into a dispenser of Christ’s presence in a moment of encounter rather than an intergraded Trinitarian theology.

The Pentecostal belief presents that the feast “embraces every dimension. It looks backward to the cross, upward to the throne of God, outward to the fellowship of the saints and forwards to the coming of the King”. The eschatological focus of the Lord’s Supper is the only plausible through the work of the Holy Spirit. Zwingli’s influence approach advocated that the believer should not become held captive to the notion of sacramental theology but rather perceive communion as a celebration that not only commemorates Christ but also holds a communion amongst believers.
Conclusions and innovative suggestions for current church practice.

Hillsong Church do not have a set liturgy or format to the Lord’s Supper but rather hold to a pneumatic empowerment within home groups. Hillsong UK, an altar call is requested at the end of every service offering those who have been touched by the Spirit to give their lives over to Christ but communion is not offered in these service and there is no sign of a physical altar either. This will be approach in the latter part of this paper. This however does leave believers with a sense of ambiguity which some may regard as careless or doctrinal abuse.

Before suggestions can be made towards current church practices in the Pentecostal church, there must be an affirmed response as to why communion is to be enacted. Other than the fact that this is an ordinance from Christ it needs to be more than an obligation or a mechanical performance. As Christians celebrate communion there is a transcendental union with Christ through the Spirit and mirrors the ultimate perfection of koinonia as expressed in the Trinity. It is a meal that commemorates the sacrifice of Christ for humanity and a expression of the grace of God.

Therefore, communion is to be celebrated, as the early church did in the Apostolic era, with intent, sharing in a common meal prior and in the intimacy of their homes. Communion is should be open to all who believe. Like the warnings in Paul, the common meal must not be lavish meals but one that inclusive to all (1 Cor. 11:21).

In order to focus the minds and hearts of the fellowship, the ‘liturgy’ should be conducted by a leader who ‘above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not dependent on wine, not violent but gentle, peaceable, and free of the love of money’ (1 Tim. 3:2). While the text identifies a male as an overseer, in terms of progression and equality (Gal. 3:28)- it should not stop the presider being male or female. In line with common sense and tradition, there should be a minimum of two participants and both elements of bread and wine.

The liturgy should be guided by the Spirit holding a didactic teaching or reflective biblical passages and therefore will prevent wavering theology. I his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that the communion meal is to be conducted in “a proper and orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:10). It would only be suitable that the correct “remembrance” atmosphere was introduced in order for the participants to consciously reflect upon their own actions and upon Christ’s sacrifice. Once again Paul explains that an individual is to approach the table by considering their hearts, minds and behaviour so as not to bring irreverence to the meal (1 Cor. 11:11).

Communion is to be celebrated with bread that is “set aside” and not replaced with inappropriate elements that would demean the importance of the meal. Wine or grape juice is to be used as consideration must be taken into account for those with addictions or health-orientated intolerances. Symbolism does not require a large amount of wine or bread to be consumed.

As seen through the history of schisms, communion needs to be simple, not to be prescriptive to the point of legalism or romanticism. Romanticism and legalism will move the communion service beyond memorialism towards a pseudo-theological disunity.

Children should be permitted to participate in the communion meal provided they feel convicted by the Spirit and are of a suitable cognitive ability. Scripture explains the importance of training a child in the ways (Prov. 22:6), therefore it is only just that children are admitted to the Lord’s Supper. The frequency is to be determined on the regularity of when the home-group meet or when the Spirit inspires them to do so. There is no issue to celebrating in a congregational setting and is certainly an outward expression of an inward grace and fellowship.

The table of fellowship is to remain open to all traditions as a symbol of koinonia and as a meal that reflects the sovereign fellowship of the Trinity. It is important for the communicants to be aware that the presence of Christ resides in the heart of the believers, in their communal presence as they break bread together. The early act of breaking bread was clearly celebrated with those who were believers. It is further the proposal of this paper that non-believers can come to the table and should they feel convicted by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is Lord. An open table is an opportunity for salvation. Only God can determine the disposition of the heart.

There is no issue to celebrating in a congregational setting; adhering to the principles outlined above. There still remains a danger that the Pentecostal pneumatological focus on communion can become lost in a sense of Christian piety and individualism.

Communion can be taken in times of hardship and illness with the understanding that the bread and wine do not cure the individual but it is in the act of breading bread together that a person becomes more aware of the presence of God and it is their faith that will bring healing.

Finally, in line with Hollenweger’s thoughts, there is a need for a global constructive Pentecostal theology surrounding communion (and indeed the sacraments) without binding rules that quench the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore in light of the traditional and systematic approaches, there is a need for a unique and clear doctrinal approach for Pentecostals that could implement the conclusions into different cultural settings.

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