Tag Archives: Eucharist

What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!


In my previous post, I showed how the essence of heresy is to resolve a biblical paradox in one direction or the other in order to satisfy the human need for a consistent rational explanation of things; and how the early church, on the contrary, used reason not to resolve or dismiss paradox and mystery, but rather to protect it. Examples included the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa against heresy (protecting the essentially paradoxical nature of the whole Gospel message), and the “four fences” of the Chalcedonian Definition (protecting the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human).

Now we move to the medieval period for two more examples of this use of reason to protect, rather than resolve or dismiss, the paradox and mystery at the heart of Christian theology – that is, the Incarnation.

The first example is the doctrine of transubstantiation, promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This explanation of how the Eucharist “works” extends the Chalcedonian explanation that one person (Christ) can indeed be both 100% God and 100% human, to a nuanced piece of (Aristotelian) scientific reasoning on how the same sort of “this and also that” reality can be true of the Eucharistic elements. In other words, transubstantiation tried to explain, in terms accessible to scientific reason, how Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” can possibly be true.

The second example comes from the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, both of whom we’ve already met, and looks at their reasoned explanations of the bloody scandal that was the Crucifixion. Why on earth would God have to redeem his human creatures in such a bizarre and painful way? If you’re a thoughtful Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith, then you’ve likely wondered this yourself. Again, Anselm and Abelard used forms of reasoned explanation that made good sense in their cultural contexts to explain this paradox: God died.

In other words, the divine Being who “has His own being in Himself” ceased, as all creatures do, to be! Anselm and Abelard, both brilliant dialecticians, both refused to use reason (in the mode of the early heretics) to flatten this paradox in one direction (Jesus was not really human and thus God did not really die–the docetist heresy) or the other (Jesus was not really God, and thus God did not really die–the Arian heresy). Instead, each used cultural materials to protect that central mystery while offering reasonable explanations for why the God the Second Person of the Trinity found it necessary to die on the cross–the ultimate Being submitting, however temporarily, to death, just like a sinful human.

Here’s how I work all of this out in the “theology chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Continue reading

Too catholic to be Catholic – Peter Leithart


As one who has heard, read, and appreciated Peter Leithart over the past few years, and who has recognize that Leithart values tradition and values a strong ecclesiology, I was particularly fascinated to read his account of why, in light of those values, he will  not become Roman Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox). I find this, on the face of it at least, a valid objection to a Protestant joining one of these older, closed communions. It seems a reason to pause, however much a Protestant (especially of the frustratingly amnesiac, hyper-pragmatic “evangelical” variety) may wish to affirm the greatness and integrity of much historic catholic theology and practice.

The executive summary of what Leithart argues here is this: true ecumenism is incompatible with joining either Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Here’s a sampling of his thought on this score:

“Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople?  Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? Continue reading

Embodiment, emotion, death, asceticism . . . an attempt to describe the legacy of medieval faith


The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...

A page from the Book of Kells

The book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, or as I think of it these days, Getting Medieval: A faithful tour of the Middle Ages with a little help from C S Lewis, is trying to be born, and I’m trying not to get in the way. I’m struggling to express an argument which will set up the medieval centrality of the Incarnation and Creation as that period’s most important legacy to us today.

What follows is just rough-draft wording of a short passage for the book’s introduction. Arguments and details still seem to pull in opposite directions, but I’m convinced of the truth, at least in outline, of what I’m struggling to express here.

Readers, I’d value your thoughts on this brief, rough, passage. Where can I go from here? How can I refine and add power to this argument? What am I missing? Where am I too negative about the modern church? Too positive about the medieval? Does this argument resonate at all with your experience or does it just seem to you to miss the mark?  Continue reading

Wine to grape juice: Why? And what else was involved in that decision?


David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and ...

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1989

OK folks, here’s my review of (the first half of) my friend Jennifer Woodruff Tait’s University of Alabama Press book, The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism (2011). Dr. Woodruff Tait  is (I say it frequently) the best writer I know, hands-down. She has 18th-century clarity and 19th-century passion for her topic.

True confession: This blog tour has hit me at an extraordinarily busy time. I did read Jenn’s dissertation all the way through several years ago—and not just because she cited my dissertation several times in her first chapter. I was fascinated by the story she tells. I can say that this time around, I read 69 of her 129 pages, and I remembered why I appreciate her historical scholarship so much, and why I hope she will research and write again, to our edification.

Without further ado, then: Continue reading

The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon!


OK, now that I’ve got the attention of all the Danny Kaye fans (yes, the headline quotation comes from the wonderful movie The Court Jester) . . .

Watch this space tonight for a brief review – part of a “blog tour” – of Jennifer Woodruff Tait’s fascinating book The Poisoned Chalice. All I’ll say now is that it’s about the 19th-century shift in American Methodism from wine to grape juice in the Eucharist. And if that seems a small or limited topic, you won’t believe how many other things come spilling out when Jennifer pulls that thread (or that cork?).

Glimpses into Benedict, his Rule, and Benedictine monasticism, from Columba Stewart


These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Columba Stewart, OSB, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998)

The whole Orbis Traditions series of which this book is a part is outstanding–short, affordable paperbacks that are meaty, wise, and quotable. And Stewart’s is the best of the series out of the 4 or 5 I’ve read so far. You will find here (1) a nutshell biography, (2) a lively exegesis of various sections of the Rule, and (3) succinct and penetrating observations on the distinctives of the Benedictine way: the lectio divina, the “work of God” (liturgy), silence, personal prayer, humility, obedience, and much else that I, at least, found illuminating. Continue reading

Jaroslav Pelikan: Glimpses into medieval theology


These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), Vol. 3. in his series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).

As with the David Bell “glimpses” posted yesterday, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. “D” means a definition of a term. “Use” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 3: “The Middle Ages may be seen as the period when the primary focus of Christian thought about Christ shifted from what he was to what he did, from the person of Christ to the work of Christ.” Continue reading