Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Real Presence of the Christ

This post is somewhat a response to Mr. Robert Arakaki on Orthodox Bridge, a usually delightful site of Reformed-Evangelical and (Eastern) Orthodox dialogue (with, naturally, an emphasis on some prosyletism towards Orthodoxy). Since seminary at Trinity School for Ministry I have developed an interest in the possible connections between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy. I realize, after having many conversations both on the internet and off, that there are some unbridgeable parts between the two. Yet, hope springs eternal. I continue my quest to "rethink it all," albeit with a twist. I have changed -- dramatically -- since I started working on this train of thought. The problems that started it still remain (people my age leaving the Church -- this weighs always heavily on my heart and my mind), but my view towards many issues has, hopefully, matured. Part of that (possibly the majority of that) comes from a relatively recent rejection of cynicism. My own words from another journal aptly capture this:
I do not wish to be cynical any more. There is nothing more blinding than to believe that we see clearly when we assume that all operate only under the terms of power, sex, and wealth, or that all but we are ignorant. It is we who are blind and mad for the passions -- Christ is the Other under whom we must submit and learn, whether that Other manifests himself as poor, or woman, or black, or sexual sinner. "He came in the likeness of sinful flesh" to make our bodies like unto his glorious Body...
In other words, when I am cynical, I am enslaved to a point of view that blocks off the world: I can only see what my eyes see, believe only what my rationality leads me to, and so on. It was a logical outcome of my original hyper-Biblicism: I could only believe what I could see in the Bible. In other words, I could only believe at the level of my (paltry) rationality, which given the Reformed emphasis on the noetic effects of sin, led me to despair and cynicism. I remember one day (I shall never forget it), when I shouted out to my wife in despair, "Either God has abandoned His Church since the Apostles died or He has abandoned me!" Turns out, thank God, there were more paths than the dialectic rut I had carved (as I've related elsewhere).

When the scales fell off my eyes and I was allowed to read the Church Fathers sympathetically, I started to notice that many of the things I read in them were, yes, the same that I was finding in Scripture. There was (and is), as it were, a regula fidei, a [T]radition, behind the text that spoke volumes in these few recorded words. However, this has made me an ill-fit as a representative of the "Reformed tradition" (whatever, exactly, that may entail). As much as I long for institutional continuity and support, I am both a Protestant and an academic, which means that where I see the Reformed tradition as being in error, I must take exception (this strikes me as eerily familiar to the position I had previously concerning an over-rationalism: this gives me some food for thought). So, when Mr. Arakaki connected me to the Reformed tradition, and the possibility of Platonism lurking in the background of it, I was taken aback a bit. The branch of Reformed theology that I am most closely allied to, the Amsterdam School of Kuyper, Bavinck, and Dooyeweerd, views Platonism as the ultimate insult to any thinker. This has caused me, as all criticism (hopefully) should, to rethink and return to my own thoughts. Everything posted here at Withdrawals should be understood to not be a hard-and-fast dogmatic ruling (for I have no such authority), but rather meditations that I pray God will forgive me for -- they are meant for His glory, but are presented in decidedly earthen vessels.

Allow me to go through my own train of thought:

If, as Paul seems to say (and I've argued in my Chalcedon series) and Irenaeus definitely asserts, "Christ became what we are, so that we might become what He is," then we must ask what He is. While it took me years to come to and understand, I must confess that he is both man (that is, he has a full human nature, including a will, passions, a mind, a body, etc.) and God (everything that belongs to the essence and nature of divinity He has). However, we cannot stop there, because we would miss what he has become because of his sojourn among us. It is obvious from John's Gospel that the humanity which Christ assumed at the beginning of the Incarnation is transformed (or, better yet, transfigured) via the Resurrection: he can pass through walls, he has no need of eating, he can appear and disappear at will, etc. This is not "normal" humanity. It has gone "beyond" in some way, even if how is hard to conceive or describe. Paul, I think, sums it up nicely in his discussion of the "heavenly body" (I Cor. 15): certainly still a body, still corporeal, but suffused with the Glory and Life of God to such an extent that it breaks up our normal categories (just as the Kingdom itself does). It is a fully saved humanity. This assumes, though, that salvation is more than having sins forgiven (although that certainly is a part of it, thank God); rather salvation is a conquering of death, of misguided passions, and a sharing or participation (and I realize that is a Platonic term -- the use of a term or many terms does not equate with an endorsement of a system, one only has to sympathetically read the Cappadocians or Athanasius to understand that) in the Life that is Jesus Christ the Word of God (John 1 -- "in him was Life and that Life was the Light of the world). The body that Jesus has is the body that we shall get at our own Resurrection (Come quickly, Lord Jesus). But how do we share in this Life now and into the future?

Certainly here is where Paul's doctrine of justification of faith comes in. We enter Christ's Life by swearing our allegiance to him. However, there is more. To share in his body we must share in his Body. We must contextualize that allegiance in the life of his community, the Church (Cyprian and Calvin were right to say that there is no salvation outside of the Church, although I would qualify that a bit to allow for the mysterious and altogether merciful movements of the Spirit). We enter the Church, get ingrafted into the Body (Romans 11), through baptism, and once we are in, we can partake fully of Christ through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the height of Christian sanctification, then, since we are sharing in the sacrifice of the Son, once for all completed, but always effectual and on offer for us. But there is more. This too easily can be seen as a social club (and, alas, in all parts of Christianity this often seems to be the ruling assumption) that magically guarantees us a "Get out of Hell free" card. How can we start living the Resurrection Life of Christ now? We partake of his Life through his Body, that is, through the Bread and Wine. We must eat Christ if we are to be his Body the Church and if we are to live in the "newness of life" that Paul talks about. For this to happen, it is a necessity that the Bread and Wine be more than mere symbol or "mystical feeding," but rather the Bread and Wine must be the actual, real resurrected and glorified Body and Blood of Jesus Christ himself. "What is not assumed by God is not healed," one of the Gregorys said, yet what is not partaken of cannot heal us. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no Life in yourselves" (John 6).

I don't, at this point, find anything particularly un-Reformed about this: certainly most Reformed (probably a large majority) have viewed the supper as either entirely symbolic or as entirely spiritual, whence comes "mystical feeding." The problem often seems to be "how can Christ's humanity be present in more than one place at a time?" However, this is only if we understand heaven as a "place" and not as a state of existence (and I am guilty of this confusion -- I have difficulty thinking outside of my own creaturely constraints): Christ, in his theoanthropic unity, "fills all things" (Eph. 1) so it is very possible for him to transform (how this happens, I do not care to know) bread and wine into Bread and Wine, Body and Blood. His humanity, while still being created by God, is a different sort of humanity not constrained by time and space. However, we are. That is why, in the reality of worship, we are transported to the heavenly state, which does transcend creaturely limitations without obliterating them (for which I am thankful). Our worship, then, is a mirroring of, and I would argue a participation in, what Christ is, the union of Creator and creature, while still maintaining the proper distinctions. There is, in my mind, nothing particularly Platonic about this: rather it respects the Creator-creature distinction while leaving room for true unity: the principles of that unity are the holy Spirit (Christ's Life) and the glorified flesh (Christ's Body and Blood).

This may sound different than what I posted in the comments section over at the OB. Certainly, it is. I've had time to think and read the Scriptures and see why it is so necessary for us to partake of the actual humanity of Christ (the question has been piqued because of recent sermons I've heard about how to live the Christian life -- I don't think it is possible without having Christ's Life regularly in us, which happens during worship -- although the Spirit, His Life, is always with us -- a mystery I cannot explain, but I also cannot avoid it). Reformed folks who don't think like me, though, aren't necessarily in danger of Nestorianism, as I (and, by extension, the whole Reformed community) was accused of. If we are in heaven, in the state of existence where Christ theoanthropically dwells, the question of "localized presence" becomes a non-issue. Even if Christ's humanity cannot leave heaven (which I'm not arguing for -- God forbid), our presence there in worship means that we feed on that humanity "whenever we do this".

This has not been a point-by-point response to Mr. Arakaki. I do apologize for that, but I thought it would be more helpful to just lay all the cards out on the table. It is not particularly scholarly either, even though that was what Mr. Arakaki presented for me. Again, I apologize, but the constraints of creaturely existence (time and space) necessitate a more personal and stream-of-consciousness approach.


Canadian said...

I love the spirit with which you write here. Thank you.
A couple thoughts...
It seems that even before the resurrection the union of Christ's humanity with his divinity reveals already the deification of his humanity. He sees Nathanial while not present, he walks on water,he disappears amidst a crowd, his flesh glows brighter than the sun on the mount etc.

Regarding the eucharist, though, if we need to be transported out of time to Christ's glorified humanity to partake, why are the unworthy judged in the act of eating and drinking and "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord"?
Are the unworthy transported to heaven also?

Russ said...


That's a very good point. I did realize that we have glimpses, culminating in the Transfiguration, but hadn't factored them into my thoughts.

The other one, about the unworthy, I'm going to have to put careful thought into. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Philip said...


As far as the unworthy being transported to heaven, what are heaven and hell but our responses to the eternal and perfect love of God which will fill all things at the Parousia?

If the Eucharist is our participation in this life of the Eighth Day, the "never-ending Day of [His] Kingdom," why should the unworthy not be lifted up as well?

"It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God.... But love acts in two ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed!"
-St. Issac of Syria, Mystic Treatises

Canadian said...

But what you say actually supports my point.
The same eucharist is life-giving for worthy partakers and yet unto judgement for unworthy partakers, not because both are transported to heaven where Christ is locally present, but because the elements themselves have become the deified body and blood of Christ! The Reformed position does not account for how the unworthy are guilty in the act of eating and drinking.

Russ said...

Mr. Arakaki asked me to post a response from him. It is very insightful.


Thank you for your irenic and gracious response to my posting on the OrthodoxBridge.

I don't question your belief in the real presence, but I would like you to consider the fact that the localized real presence was something the early liturgies affirmed. If the early church affirmed a localized real presence, and you and other Reformed Christians do not then one has to wonder if there is not a theological divide between the Reformed tradition and the early church. Similarly, there is the issue of the Reformed tradition omitting the epiclesis – praying for the Holy Spirit to come down upon the bread and the wine -- in the celebration of Holy Communion. In other words your actions (how you celebrate Holy Communion) speak louder than your reflections in this post.

Part of what I have been trying to show on the OrthodoxBridge is that while the Reformers made ample use of the church fathers, they ended up creating a separate church tradition. You mentioned earlier in this posting a recognition of "unbridgeable parts" between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy. When it comes to the real presence you can choose to be part of the Reformed tradition or you can choose to be part of the Orthodox tradition, but you cannot do both at the same time. I admire your eloquent reflections in this posting but it seems that you are seeking to bridge the unbridgeable. This difference cannot be bridged by a theological reflection that seeks to encompass both ends, but by choosing which side you choose to be on. Ultimately, because the Reformed and the Orthodox have two distinctive understandings of the real presence, one needs to decide which church tradition one will belong to. I tried to hold the two together, but in time realized that I needed to cross over to Church with ancient apostolic roots.


Russ said...

Now here is my response:

I agree with you. Part of the reason that I affirm the real presence (other than its reality!) is that the early liturgies affirm it. While there seems to be some disagreement among the Fathers as to what exactly the Presence entails and "how" it happens (I prefer mystery here, myself), there is a consensus in the "lex orandi, lex credendi" that Christ is present. The Reformed tradition has lost that, by and large. However, I don't think this is unbridgeable. The greatest strength of the Reformed tradition is its ability to reform: that is, if an error is pointed out, there is hope that it might be made right. This doesn't often happen, but the possibility is there. That is the hope I have and the mission I have, in some ways. I want to direct the Reformed tradition back towards the Scriptures and the early interpretations of the Apostolic Deposit. I hope for eventual communion with the larger ecclesial world (to use Leithart's phrase), even if I don't think it will happen in my lifetime.

It is hard, in other words, for me to choose sides. I don't want to abandon the work of the Spirit that I see in the Reformation tradition (He is there!), but I also don't want the historical-liturgical-theological disconnect that comes only with it. All I can ask from anyone, whether Reformed, Orthodox, or anywhere in between, is prayer.

Thanks again, Robert, for engaging and starting a good dialogue for the sake of the Church and the world.

Canadian said...

I know how hard it is to choose sides. I was there as a Reformed Baptist. The problem though, is that sides aught not to be chosen as if both are valid options, but rather we are to find the church Christ established and submit to her. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Schism is forbidden in scripture.

I once agreed with you about the idea of "always reforming", but semper reformanda is actually a divisive curse in practice. The willingness to Reform when corrected from scripture has perpetuated the multiplication of Reformation bodies and cannot bring unity. Sola Scriptura ALWAYS reduces to Solo Scriptura and the individual will only "reform" his position if he agrees with the interpretation. He never actually submits to an authority because it is the ground and pillar of the truth, he only submits when he agrees, so his own interpretation of scripture is the final authority for submission. This is why converting to Orthodoxy is not like changing denominations and also why semper reformanda is just an excuse for the inability of Reformed churches to pronounce with authority what is binding and normative dogma and practice for the people of God.