Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Red Book on sacraments

This is the seventh and last look at the volume I have been called “The Red Book”. The first post of mine on the book can be found here. And at the risk of “blowing the gaff” of anonymity, a review of book by an Evangelical Protestant can be found here. For now I would like to examine the chapter of The Red Book on sacraments—which for these Protestant authors of course means baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

To my delight and surprise, the authors recognize the saving importance of baptism as “the way someone came to the Lord”. With their customary willingness to jettison their own ancestral Evangelical tradition, Valentinus and Marcion write, “Nowhere in all the New Testament do we find any person being led to the Lord by a sinner’s prayer...Instead, unbelievers in the first century were led to Jesus Christ by being taken to the waters of baptism.” I quite agree. The authors however go on to fault the church for requiring “in the early second century” a “period of instruction, prayer and fasting” before baptism (i.e. a catechumenate). For Valentinus and Marcion, then “baptism became a rigid and embellished ritual that borrowed much from Jewish and Greek culture—elaborate with blessing the water, full disrobing, the uttering of a creed, anointing oil with exorcism...it had devolved into an act associated with works rather than with faith.” It is difficult to understand why insisting that converts be instructed before baptism would be problematic. It is even more difficult to understand why liturgical prayers or full disrobing (did they suppose that converts in the first century were baptized fully clothed?) should make baptism into “an act associated with works”. Once again, it seems that any development in liturgical or pastoral praxis is automatically ruled out of court. The authors of The Red Book seem to demand that nothing should change after the first century—a demand which, if met, would mean that the New Testament canon would not exist.

My guess is that they saw from the New Testament that the apostles did not wait until new converts were instructed before baptizing them (e.g. Acts 8:36-38), and so they concluded that this must be our practice also. It misses the point that the apostles’ ministry was sui generis, a category all by itself. Paul, for example, baptized his converts immediately because he was not in town for that long, and had no other choice. For the same reason he ordained some of his converts right away, without waiting for them to mature (see Acts 14:23). But after the local churches he founded were established, a different praxis immediately came into play, and new converts were not ordained right away, but had to wait until they had matured somewhat (see 1 Tim. 5:22). Doubtless it was the same with baptism, and new converts were not baptized until they were instructed. When The Red Book dates the catechumenate to “the early second century”, it might as well date it to the late first century, since the change happened then. A change in baptismal praxis did not occur in the early second century after the apostles had all died, but when the apostles left town in the first century, and the churches they established were left on their own.

In their analysis of “the Lord’s Supper”, Valentinus and Marcion have little to offer beyond polemic. They correctly note that originally the anamnesis or memorial that the Lord commanded to be made (Lk. 22:19-20) was part of an actual meal (hence Paul’s designation of it as part of a “supper” in 1 Cor. 11:20). They date the separation of the Eucharist from the meal to “the late second century”, whereas it was in fact separated by the apostles in the late first century (see the post on church buildings here). Oddly enough, they quote Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy to support their late date, whereas Dix himself contends that it took place “before the writing of the first of our gospels” (Shape, p. 101).

Valentinus and Marcion nowhere explain their understanding of the Lord’s Supper; they say “ we cannot concern ourselves with the theological minutiae that surround the Lord’s Supper”. We are therefore left to guess what they believe. All that they say is that “the Lord’s Supper was a festive communal meal... when believers...broke the bread and passed it around. Then they ate their meal, which then concluded after the cup was passed around...The Lord’s Supper was essentially a Christian banquet...a joyful, down-to-earth, nonreligious meal in someone’s living room”. The point of meal seems to be that it provided “a dramatic and concrete picture of Christ’s body and blood”—i.e. a visual aid illustrating the fact that Jesus died for us. Students of “theological minutiae” will recognize this understanding as classic Zwinglianism, or a merely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.

It seems that for the authors of The Red Book this Zwinglian interpretation is so obvious that it needed no defense (or even clear statement). They accordingly saved their ink for polemic: the Eucharist of the post-apostolic church is “a study in abstract and metaphysical thought”, the result of “the growing influence of pagan religious ritual”, “a priestly ritual that was to be watched at a distance”, influenced by “pagan mystery religions, which were clouded with superstition”, something “taken with glumness by the priest”. The priest “was believed to have the power to call God down from heaven and confine Him to a piece of bread”.

Since Solomon says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), I will not say much in response. Instead, I will only point that the Eucharist was called a sacrifice by the Didache as early as 100 A.D. (earlier than this, Clement of Rome spoke of the clergy as “offering the gifts”); and that St. Paul referred to eating the bread as sharing not just bread but the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), so that to profane the Eucharist by partaking unworthily was to “be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). People who did this became sick, and some even died (1 Cor. 11:30). None of this sounds like merely “a dramatic and concrete picture of Christ’s body and blood”, but rather of a sacramental sharing of Christ’s actual Body and Blood. St. Ignatius of Antioch, dying a martyr in about 107 A.D. and therefore serving as bishop in the first century, was emphatic that the Eucharist was a sacrifice and was Christ’s true Body and Blood. For him, it was only heretics who “do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father raised up” (Smyrnaeans, ch. 7). All of this witnesses to the apostolic tradition of the Eucharist as sacrificial and as the true Body and Blood of the Lord.

To sum up this and all the other reviews of The Red Book in this series, I suggest that everyone, including the authors whose work I have been examining, has a choice—a choice between trusting that God guided His Church as it went through history, or that He abandoned it as soon as the apostles died. The apostolic trajectory we see in the pages of the New Testament continued without a break as the mid-first century became the late first century, and then as the late first century became the early second century. Attentive readers of that history can see an unbroken continuity—a continuity preserved even today in the Orthodox Church. When Christ promised that His Spirit would guide His Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18), He was making history into the arena in which He would work. We can trust His Church as it progresses through history, because we can trust His promise. To confine our faith in the Lord’s guidance to the first century alone and to reject everything that followed as if it were betrayal and apostasy, is ultimately to refuse to trust the Lord Himself. The issue is not The Red Book (for which reason I have used pseudonyms both for the book and its authors). The real issue is the reliability of the promises of Christ.

1 comment:

  1. Father,

    How good to see a review of "The Red Book," which I happen to have read. A friend offered me a copy about a year ago, claiming it had changed his life and asked me for my impressions. After reading 100 pages and taking 32 pages of notes (in the first 30 pages), I returned the book with a "this book isn't for me-I'm sorry" comment. He asked me why, to which I replied, "At a minimum it is historically inaccurate and reveals an author who doesn't know what he's talking about."

    I'm impressed that you've spent time discussing this book. I didn't have the strength to work through all the issues I encountered--I'm not a learned man. I was very disappointed to hear of families at my former church (Evangelical Protestant) buying into this stuff.

    Unfortunately, some feelings of frustration have re-emerged. Thankfully, I can share these thoughts with my priest (Orthodox). I only wish Valentinus and Marcion had such a resource!

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