Finding Eucharist in the Bible
by Alvin Kimel
Over at the Triablogue Steve has presented his critique of the Catholic and Orthodox assertion of the eucharistic real presence. He’s not at all impressed by the exegetical foundations of catholic eucharistic belief. He concludes his piece with these words:
It is upon this utterly Mickey Mouse tinkering and tweaking and retrofitting and gerrymandering of Scripture that hundreds of millions of Catholics as well as Orthodox are staking their faith–not to mention a rag-tag band of “Reformed” Catholic and Federalist stragglers who gobble up whatever stale crumbs fall from, and lick up whatever wine-stains adhere to the soiled apron of Mother Church.
The problem, of course, is that Steve is reading the Scripture as a Protestant and not as a catholic. A catholic doesn’t come to the Bible with a blank slate, as if one can simply read the text and determine what the Church believes and teaches. A catholic reads the Bible within the context of the Holy Tradition and most especially within the eucharistic liturgy itself. Why does the catholic Christian connect the words of Jesus in John 6 to the bread and wine of the Eucharist? Because the Eucharist itself identifies the offered bread and wine with the Body and Blood of Christ. Hence the significance of the priestly recitation of the dominical words over the offered bread and wine. The catholic Christian, in other words, interprets the Scripture by the Eucharist and the Eucharist by the Scripture. As St Irenaeus wrote, “Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching” (Adv. haer. 4.18.5).
Needless to say, I do not expect the generic Protestant to read the Scriptures and find that they clearly teach the real presence. He does not live in a Church that celebrates a truly catholic Eucharist. He does not sacramentally partake of the Body and Blood. He therefore lacks the necessary liturgical experience and knowledge to read the Scriptures rightly. Perhaps he might attend a Catholic or Orthodox liturgy some time to see what’s happening, but he has not been formed by it and therefore has not received its truth. Outside the Eucharist the Scriptures cannot be read in a catholic sense.
At this point, of course, the Protestant will accuse the catholic of violating sola Scriptura. Yep.
I confess I am struck by Steve’s easy dismissal of the beliefs of “hundreds of million” of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The catholic conviction of the real presence (or real identification, as I prefer) has been consistently confessed and believed by catholic Christians for two thousand years. Yet here is the Protestant accusing the Church catholic of tinkering, tweaking, retrofitting, and gerrymandering the Scriptures. On what basis does he decide that his interpretation of Scripture is superior to the interpretation of the Church? By his private judgment. This, and this alone, is the ground of his conviction. He can’t even invoke Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, to support him.
In disputes like this, it is appropriate to invoke the solemn authority of Pontificator’s First Law: “When Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree, Protestantism loses.” Perhaps Pontificator needs to formulate a new law: “When an interpretation of Scripture violates Pontificator’s First Law, it just can’t be right.” Hmmm, I need to give that some more thought before putting it in stone.
i) As Kimel has chosen to frame the debate, the issue here is not Protestant v. Catholic or sola Scriptura v. tradition or even Zwinglianism v. sacramentalism.
Rather, as Kimel as chosen to frame the debate, the issue here is simply argument v. non-argument, exegesis v. non-exegesis.
There are, after all, Evangelical Anglicans, not to mention all the confessional Lutherans, who also believe in the Real Presence.
They do not, however, justify their belief by appeal to liturgy or tradition. Rather, they justify their belief by argument and exegesis.
ii) But Kimel doesn’t offer any exegesis to justify his belief. In fact, he doesn’t offer any argument at all.
He offers an apparent argument, but all it amounts to is circular reasoning. And that, folks, is what an appeal to tradition is: circular reasoning. Why should we believe it? Cuz we’ve always done it this way.
Really, what kind of argument is that? I should believe it because you believe it, and you should believe it because I believe it. What he’s done is to make faith the grounds for faith.
iii) Couldn’t a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist use exactly the same argument? Appeal to tradition? Strength in numbers?
iv) Could Irenaeus be right and I be wrong? Sure. But by the same token, I could be right and Irenaeus could be wrong.
God has given me his word. He has made me answerable to his word. I am answerable to God by being answerable to his word. That holds true for every believer. Indeed, it holds true for many an unbeliever as well.
This is not a duty I can shirk and shuffle off by contracting out all the tough questions to a second party. God has a direct claim on my life, on my allegiance. I have no right to delegate that to a deputy. When I face my Judge, I will be in no position to say, “Don’t look at me, Lord! Don’t ask me! Don’t you question me! I turned your questionnaire over to this nifty test-taking agency to circle the true and false questions and check the multiple-choice questions for me. If some of the answers were wrong, that’s not my fault, that’s the fault of the agency for giving the wrong answers. Blame them!”
No, I’m a grown-up. And part of being a grown-up is the assumption of adult responsibilities. I may make mistakes, but they’re my mistakes. Everyone gets to make his own mistakes in life. Everyone has his own exam to take. You don’t get to fill out my exam for me. If I flunk the exam, that’s my doing, my fault. You can’t be faithful for me.
You can see this throughout the Bible, from Cain and Abel, Enoch, Noah, the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Judges, the Exodus generation, Saul and David, Elijah and Elisha, &c.
v) What about private judgment? Is Kimel exempt from private judgment? Doesn’t he exercise private judgment in interpreting the church fathers? Doesn’t he exercise private judgment in deeming them to be correct? Doesn’t he exercise private judgment in deeming the Roman Church to be truer than the Orthodox Church, and deeming the Orthodox Church to be truer than the Evangelical Church?
What is tradition if not a compilation of private judgments? Didn’t Athanasius and Chysostom and the Cappadocian Fathers exercise their private judgment in the controversies of the day? Private judgment is inescapable and unavoidable.
When Jesus debated with the Jewish establishment, as well as when the Apostolate debated with the Jewish establishment, this is what it always came down to--direct appeals to Scripture. Whoever had the best argument carried the day.
vi) What about his argument from experience? In Orthodox epistemology, there is no bright line between general and special, public and private revelation. It is possible for the saint and the mystic to directly experience the truths of special revelation—to experience the experience of St. John or St. Paul. Although Kimel is Catholic rather than Orthodox, he seems to be piggybacking on Orthodox epistemology at this key juncture.
vii) This is, of course, subversive of special revelation, subversive of historical revelation.
It goes back to a Platonic epistemology and Platonic mysticism. Historical particulars are unrepeatable. But abstract universals are accessible and repeatable without respect to space and time.
viii) Ultimately, then, this is not a debate between Scripture and tradition, but between sola Scriptura and nulla Scriptura.