The second major topic of the Defenders podcast’s “Doctrine of the Church” is the Lord’s supper or the Eucharist. Again I enjoyed hearing a theological case for the ordinance view. After presenting the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist views Craig settles for the Baptist view according to which Christ is present at the Lord’s supper spiritually in his divine nature as he is everywhere else, but not in his human nature, in which he is in heaven.
Craig’s main arguments against the sacramentalist view are again rather philosophical in nature. First, how could the bread at the Last Supper be Christ’s body, since Christ’s body was right there in front of the apostles? Obviously he didn’t mean the words of institution to be taken literally. Second, the sacramentalist view doesn’t take Christ’s resurrection body seriously enough: he has a concrete risen body, and clearly we’re not eating parts of that body in church.
Craig also pointed out that insisting on the words “this is” like Luther did fails to take into account the metaphorical use of language and that John 6 comes before the Last supper and thus the bread of life discourse is not plausibly about the Eucharist. He also said that there was some diversity in the early Church and in medieval times about this doctrine, and so there is room for differing theological opinions.
During the Q&A session there was a Catholic who gave the usual popular Catholic apologetics arguments from John 6, “this is” and the consensus of the early Church fathers. Craig didn’t have time to respond to everything but said that we should simply agree to disagree. To another question about the necessity of orthodoxy in this issue for salvation, Craig answered with an emphatic negative. Finally, I liked Craig’s point that symbols are not unimportant (like wedding rings), even if the Lord’s supper is merely a symbol, it can still be sacred and it can still be a sacrilege to take it lightly.
Some Thoughts in Response
As with baptism, here too Craig seems to elevate philosophy and human reasoning above the sources of faith. Craig said that one’s theology will depend largely on one’s interpretation of 1 Cor 11, but he didn’t give any explanation as to why Paul calls the Eucharistic elements the “body and blood of the Lord” if it is only Jesus’ divine nature that is present at the Eucharist. Even more astonishigly he totally left out 1 Cor 10, where Paul presents a rich theology of the Eucharist as spiritual food and drink, a sacrifice (comparing it to Jewish and pagan sacrificial meals) and communion (the very thing that makes the Church the Body of Christ).
Craig also tried to get around the teaching of Ignatius of Antioch the same way James White did, by making reference to the anti-docetic context of the words. But that context simply strengthens the point that the earliest followers of the apostles believed Christ’s humanity was present in the Eucharist. Craig said Cyprian and Augustine favored a spiritual view of the Eucharist but cited no texts.
In fact Augustine said that Christ carried himself in his own hands, contradicting Craig’s main argument against the real presence. The argument might appeal to common sense, but Jesus was a miracle worker after all. I have no idea how Padre Pio could bilocate, but with God everything is possible, and similarly I guess Jesus’ body and blood can somehow be present in the Eucharist although Jesus in his resurrected body is exalted in heaven.
The Really Interesting Issue
The really interesting and decisive question here is, however, not the interpretation of this or that scriptural or patristic text. What is more important is the question about unity and heresy. I think Craig is right to point out that there was diversity in both patristic and medieval times – transubstantiation should not be absolutized. Second, I think Craig is right to say that one does not need to have the correct doctrine of the Eucharist in order to be saved. I think Vatican II affirms this by granting that the Holy Spirit works salvifically in Protestant communities, even though these communities don’t hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation.
But the problem here of course is that historically speaking the medieval Church did dogmatize transubstantiation, and Trent anathematized Protestants who rejected its teaching on the Eucharist. The larger picture is this: there are many doctrines over which both sides of the divide anathemized and condemned each other originally, but which now are dismissed as secondary. Craig himself lists only a few doctrines that a person must believe to be a Christian: the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ…
The problem is that Craig’s list is simply an opinion of Craig’s, and it sounds a lot like – surprise surprise – a compilation of the main points of interest in Craig’s own apologetics. By contrast take James White for whom “the gospel” is almost equivalent to Reformed soteriology and excludes from salvation a much larger group of people than does Craig’s thin list of “dogmas”. The problem in Protestantism is that there is no objective way to tell the difference between theological opinion, doctrine and dogma.
Not that present-day Catholicism solves the problem, either. For the Catholic Church the problem is at least as acute – what on earth are we to make of preconciliar anti-Protestant “dogmas” after Vatican II and postconciliar ecumenism? If Protestants who still deny Trent but affirm the Joint Declaration, or who don’t care about any official documents but simply live the Christian life to the full, do in fact possess the Holy Spirit and are expected to get to heaven, then how are any of the medieval and modern preconciliar Catholic “dogmas” dogmas in the technical sense?
It seems to me that they are not. If we look at how the Church officially treats Protestants since Vatican II, if we look at what the recent Popes have thought and taught about Protestants, we cannot really avoid the conclusion that what used to constitute heresy does not do so any more. In other words, the Church has been too harsh, too blind to its own fallibility, it has made secondary issues and developments dogmatic in an unjustified way. The task for Catholic theology now is to figure out the mess and look for credible and tenable criteria for orthodoxy and unity.