Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Roman Catholic “Eucharist”: Accretions, Equivocations, and Anachronisms

This is not the Lord’s Supper
This is not the Lord’s Supper
Roman Catholicism is a bankrupt system in many ways. In recent years I’ve written extensively about the nonexistent early papacy and the relative lateness of “apostolic succession”. One of the other really big themes upon which Roman Catholicism hangs its hat is “the Eucharist”. However, I’ve been reading about that topic recently, and I hope to publish more on it in the near future.

While Roman Catholicism confidently asserts that it offers “the fullness of the faith” in these matters, more likely it is offering accretions from the fourth century, equivocations on words, and historical anachronisms, void of any real connection with the teachings of the New Testament.

To be sure, Rome made many of its confident claims at a time when any real historical understanding of the earliest church was lost. The right thing to do would be to say “oops, we goofed”, and to move on with it. However, Rome’s confident assertions were made “infallibly”, and so, a mere apology is not workable. Instead, there are claims of “development” and still more different kinds of dissembling.

In essence, the Lord’s Supper (the “agape” meal) from New Testament times probably through the fourth century was based on “common meal traditions” of the Roman empire of that time period, and as it was observed, it probably looked more like a Baptist pot-luck dinner than a priest doing a “consecration” and lines of sour-faced “communicants” waddling down the center aisle to get their little white chips (This latter model was a much later invention.)

Without getting into too much detail today, I’d like to just preface what I expect to be a recurring theme in what will be an occasional and ongoing series with the following couple of examples.

First, here’s a selection from Larry Hurtado’s essay on New Testament Christian Worship:

The Sacred Meal
A shared meal formed a key part of numerous religious occasions and gatherings in Roman antiquity (Smith). This is reflected in Paul’s response to questions about Christian participation in the meals that formed part of what he terms “the worship of idols” (eidololatria – [note the root word “latria” here]) in 1 Cor. 10:14-22. Here, Paul makes a direct comparison/contrast between meals held in the name of this or that deity and the church-meal as “a participation [koinonia] in the blood/body of Christ” (v. 16), and as “the cup/table of the Lord” (v. 21). The “Lord” in these statements is obviously the exalted Jesus. So, given the typical place of a shared meal in religious gatherings in that time, it is not unusual at all for a meal to figure centrally also in Christian gatherings, and probably from the earliest years. There may well be additional influences, but the early Christian sacred meal also reflects the wider cultural environment of the time.

From these church-meals derived the later forms of eucharist familiar in Christian traditions. But the NT rather consistently refers to a full meal, and the domestic setting typical of earliest Christian corporate worship obviously facilitated this sort of event. E.g., Acts refers to the Jerusalem church “breaking bread” in their homes (2:42, 46), probably meaning a practice of group-meals held as part of Christian gatherings, and Acts 20:7 pictures such an occasion. Moreover, the sorts of behavior that Paul criticizes in1 Cor 11:17-34 reflect a full meal in which, e.g., one can be drunk from excessive wine or left hungry by other inconsiderate participants (vv. 21-22, 33). Similarly, the stern condemnation of certain people as “blemishes [spilades] on your love-feasts [agapais]” in Jude 12 reflects shared meals in Christian assemblies…

In sum, the Christian sacred meals reflected in the NT and other very early Christian texts likely were varied in what was done and in what they meant for participants. But in all cases, Jesus was the central figure for whom and with whom thanks were offered to God, and the meal itself was a central feature of Christian corporate worship across various circles of the Christian movement. Further, as a group-meal, there was an emphasis on the solidarity of those who partook; it was a corporate action, and not that of individuals in some private act of devotion. Finally, the meal seems typically to have been interpreted as an anticipation of eschatological redemption, which could be portrayed as a great banquet (e.g., Rev 19:9).

Here’s some commentary from Paul Bradshaw, a Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame (a Roman Catholic university) from his work “The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship” (Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ©1992, ©2002). He suggests that a growning number of scholars now share the following conclusions:

1. [W]e know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries of Christianity than we once thought we did. A great deal more is shrouded in the mists of time than we formerly imagined and many of our previous confident assertions about ‘what the early Church did’ now seem more like wishful thinking or the unconscious projections back into ancient times of later practices

2. [W]hat we do know about patterns of worship in that primitive period points towards considerable variety more often than towards rigid uniformity. Nowadays, when we talk about ‘what the early Church did’, we need to specify where the practice in question is encountered (Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Rome, or some other region( and when (first second, third, or fourth century, for each of these might be very different indeed from one another), and whether it is the only form found in that place at that time, for variant traditions could have coexisted alongside each other

3. [T]he ‘classical shape of Christian liturgy’ that we have so often described is to a very large degree the result of a deliberate assimilation of different Christian traditions to one another during the fourth century rather than the survival of the one pattern of Christian worship from the earliest apostolic times, perhaps even from Jesus himself.

4. [W]hat emerges in this post-Nicene era is frequently a liturgical compromise, a practice that includes a bit from here with a bit from there modified by a custom from somewhere else, rather than the triumph of one way of doing things over all the others, although this latter phenomenon is not unknown in some instances. This means that what then becomes the mainstream liturgical tradition of the Church in the East and West is often quite unlike what any single Christian group was doing prior to the fourth century. A real mutation had taken place at that time, and many primitive customs had either disappeared or had been greatly altered from their former appearance.

My hope is to spend some time with the texts of the New Testament (and relevant commentaries), as well as the writings of the early church on the topic (and relevant commentaries on those), and to make these citations in conjunction with what Roman Catholicism currently teaches about these sorts of things.

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