2008-04-03

A Proposal for a Chalcedonian view of the Eucharist


This last week I have been blessed with a wonderful debate about the Eucharist which included two generous Catholics and another brother from the Church of Christ.

In it, we tried to hash out in detail (often nitpicky and scholastic detail) what exactly is going on the Eucharist. Everyone confused each other (and probably ourselves too). And I am not entirely sure that we fully heard or understood each other. But, we were generous and kind, which is a lot better than most blog debates.

In the debate, we bumped up against the genius and the limits of Thomas Aquinas several times. We also talked at length about what types of errors must be avoided in understanding the Eucharist.

I would like to put forward a proposal about understanding both the Eucharist itself, and the understanding St. Thomas' role in helping us understand the Eucharist:

1. Following Anglican Theologian Francis Hall, I would like to take the whole catalogue of Christological errors and apply them to the Eucharist. I believe they are helpful guides to steer us toward a "Chalcedonian Eucharistic Doctrine".

Following Chalcedon's definition to protect the Mystery of the Incarnation, I would PROPOSE the following "Chalcedonian Eucharistic Definition" to protect the boundaries of the Eucharistic Mystery on four "sides":
1. Eucharist is really, truly, and fully the Presence of Christ: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
2. Eucharist is really, truly, and fully the created elements of Bread and Wine.
3. These two Realities are truly joined, through the consecration, so that as long as the Bread and Wine last they cannot be separated.
4. These two Realities cannot be mixed, or confused, or subsumed into each other.

The first boundary protects us from "Eucharistic Arianism", where the Divine Christ is not really present in the sacrament, but it is merely a sign pointing to Christ. This is, of course, a protection from mere Memorialism.

The second boundary protects us from "Eucharistic Docetism" where the bread and wine merely appear to be real (even to the deepest levels of observation), but are not real. It also protects us from "Eucharistic Apollinarianism" where some part of the Reality of the Bread and Wine is destroyed and replaced by the Divine.

The third boundary protects us from both "Eucharistic Nestorianism" (where the two natures exist side by side, but are really separate at a deep level) and "Eucharistic Adoptionism" (where God comes to be present in the host, but not in a permanent, truly participatory type of way).

The fourth boundary protects us from "Eucharistic Monophysitism" (or Eutychianism) where the Divine nature of the Eucharist subsumes the created nature and obliterates it (another error that Transubstantiation could creep into). It also protects the Eucharist from becoming some type of mixed substance- a tertium quid- that is really neither creation nor Creator. It finally protects us from a crude magicalism by reminding us that the "sign" aspect has not been obliterated, so that the meal must simultaneously be treated as the sign (bread and wine) and that which it signifies and inheres with (the Divine Christ).

This is my version of a "fully sufficient" definition to protect the Mystery of the Eucharist. I do not, however, have a metaphysical theory of HOW this is so. But even if I do write a theory about HOW it works some day, it would still be inferior in quality and necessity to the definition above. It would still be a mere hunch at HOW this is so. The important thing, however, is THAT it is so.

The important thing is THAT Eucharist IS a real means of grace through which the Risen Christ REALLY becomes present and nourishes us with His grace so that we grow into all the fullness of Christ. And, it is this LAST POINT THAT WE AGREE ON- ALL OF US. We may disagree on HOW it is so, and what terminology is sufficient to describe the Mystery. But we AGREE on what is most important.

2. Regarding St. Thomas: I wonder- in light of our debate- if it was not a coincidence that St. Thomas Aquinas quit writing after a mystical experience at the Eucharist, after which he said "All I have written in but straw". A lot of people use this to dismiss Thomas completely (Well, he realized his work was worthless- don't you???). But, I see it as precisely the opposite.

Thomas- using his incredible off-the-scales genius, and the finest education, science, and philosophy available- took us to the absolute limits of human understanding and rational coherence. He took us to the VERY TOP of the mountain of transfiguration and dropped us off up there. Up there, we could see the stars. We could see the world far below, in all its created glory. St. Thomas is the BEST of tour guides.

But, there is one thing that Thomas can't do: He can't deliver to us the Shenkiniah Glory of the Transfigured Christ, robed in Glory and Majesty, with a beauty that outshines the Sun. He can take us to the top of the mountain, but we still have to WAIT on God's glory to descend. Thomas saw the glory, a glory that far eclipsed all of his work as a "tour guide", but also fulfilled his work as a "tour guide".

His efforts to bring us to the top of the mountain are JUST AS WORTHWHILE as the work of Peter and John to climb with Jesus to the top of the mount of transfiguration. Worthwhile in the same way, for the same reason. Worthwhile, and indispensible. Because, just as God made man to climb with his muscles, He also made man to climb with His mind, with His heart, and with His soul (cf. "Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength" Mat 22.37-40). Without striving with all our human effort, we are not ready to appreciate the fullness of God's grace and glory.

Without Thomas' striving and work, he would not have been in the place to fully appreciate the glory revealed to Him. And, for those of us wired like St. Thomas, we need to mentally exert ourselves to the full extent to be ready for the Mystical glory of God.

As I have pointed out before, I think the Eucharist in particular slammed Thomas up against the wall of His metaphysical system and pushed His concepts to the breaking point. But, it was only at that point that He was ready for the Glory. And, I believe, it is no mistake that the Glory occurred in the context of Eucharist.

May we all be slammed with the Glory like St. Thomas was!

St. Thomas, pray for all of us who feel called to strive hard to understand the deep things of the Risen Christ. Pray that the Lord would pour out His Spirit of wisdom upon our feeble minds, that we would understand in such a way as to unite Christ's Divided Body, and spur us on to complete His Mission in the world. And pray that at the completion of our striving, we would be slammed with all the fullness of Glory of the Risen Christ, just as you were, that we may know, love, and follow Jesus, just as you do. Amen+

[Random thought: If Thomas wrote a blog, I wonder what the title would be?]
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.