Overcomplicating Anglican Eucharistic Theology

I’ve been reading with interest the Rev. Ben Jeffries’ Is the Eucharistology of the Anglican Reformation Patristic? As those of you who follow this blog and Positive Infinity know, this is of special interest, as it was to the great Bossuet.

In my day job I teach Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. One of the things I try to do with my students is to steer them away from overcomplicating things. This tendency was evident in Jeffries’ presentation. Although I think his heart is in the right place it’s obvious that he’s taken the hard way to get there. Some of that comes from his opponents, mostly those who try to turn Anglicanism into a purely Reformed type of Christianity. My experience with these people is that this is a exercise in futility, and trying to convince them otherwise is likewise futile.

I think an easier way to get where we’re going is to note the following.

The first is that, as I point out in my piece Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology: It Depends on What ‘Is’ Is, until the Reformation messed things up the Church was pretty much univocal on what the Eucharist meant:

For it’s part the New Testament is pretty clear in its concept of what the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) really “is”:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

Matthew 26:26-29 KJV

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

Luke 22:19-20 KJV

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 11:23-27 KJV

Until the Reformation Christianity uniformly confessed that, when Our Lord said “is” he meant “is”, up to and including the concept of transubstantiation, which Aquinas details in the Summa.

This should be enough to settle things, especially given the Scriptural basis. That it isn’t is a clear sign of the sad state of our theology.

The second is that the thinking of many in the ACNA isn’t influenced by Anglican history (Lutheran, Reformed or in between) but by people coming in from Evangelical churches, which uniformly confess the Zwinglian idea, which I refer to as Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology: It Depends on What ‘Is’ Is. Jeffries himself is a Wheaton graduate, something that would have been rare in the Anglican/Episcopal world a generation or two ago. I think some time should be spent addressing that issue as well. Article XXXVIII pretty much puts paid to that:

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Article XXXVIIIa

The third thing also goes to Article XXXVIII: the issue of transubstantiation. That article has a strong invective against that:

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

Article XXXVIIIb

Transubstantiation is a technical, scholastic term, beloved amongst those of us who are fans of that kind of theology and odious for those who aren’t. It’s possible to describe the transformation of the elements–something which is hard to avoid with a literal reading of Scripture–without it. Trying to get around it, however, by characterising it as “heavenly and spiritual” brings us to an occupational hazard of Anglican divines: the tendency to downplay or miss the objective reality of such things. The business of Eucharistic devotions–so beloved of the Trads–can be easily dispatched by noting that the purpose of the Eucharist is that it be taken and eaten, by Our Lord’s command.

This, I think, is the simple way of moving forward. I don’t think that comparing early Anglican divines with the Fathers of the Church is either fair or instructive, perhaps from a historical standpoint but not one to settle a dispute such as this. Doing otherwise risks putting us back into the same morass Bossuet so effectively skewered long ago.

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