Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist: Part I

In a recent posting on MissionalCOG on the contextualisation of Communion, the thread turned from how to contextualise it to what it meant, and specifically whether it was sacramental or simply an ordinance. Related to this question is the nature of the Eucharist.

It’s always bothered me that Evangelicals, who are generally solicitous about their idea as the Bible being authoritative and literally true, consistently regard the Lord’s Supper as purely symbolic, when the New Testament doesn’t support such an interpretation. Yet the usual competitor in this discussion—the Roman Catholic idea of transubstantiation—has difficulties of its own, as this thread is evidence of.

On the same MissionalCOG thread, Darrell Buttram made the following comment:

A Greek Orthodox minister once told me, “Somewhere between the Orthodox belief and the Church of God belief is where we will find what the Lord’s Supper is truly about”.

Since then I’ve wondered what the Church of God belief really is.

That got me to thinking: what is the Orthodox belief? The Orthodox will always tell you that their belief is defined by the Scriptures and the Councils. The former hasn’t stopped Evangelicals from their idea on this subject, and the latter can be hard to wade through.

But many Orthodox people will refer you to John of Damascus’ The Orthodox Faith as a reliable compendium on the subject. I’ve discussed him elsewhere on this blog. He discusses the Eucharist in that book (4, 13.) As with virtually all of the Fathers of the Church, John is deeply conversant with the Scriptures, and there are many allusions to or quotations from them, most of which are not annotated.

Rather than “re-inventing the wheel” what I plan to do is to reproduce his exposition on the subject with my own comments. To make it easier to digest (sorry!) I’ll break this up in to a series. So let’s begin:

God Who is good and altogether good and more than good, Who is goodness throughout, by reason of the exceeding riches of His goodness did not suffer Himself, that is His nature, only to be good, with no other to participate therein, but because of this He made first the spiritual and heavenly powers: next the visible and sensible universe: next man with his spiritual and sentient nature. All things, therefore, which he made, share in His goodness in respect of their existence. For He Himself is existence to all, since all things that are, are in Him, not only because it was He that brought them out of nothing into being, but because His energy preserves and maintains all that He made: and in especial the living creatures. For both in that they exist and in that they enjoy life they share in His goodness. But in truth those of them that have reason have a still greater share in that, both because of what has been already said and also because of the very reason which they possess. For they are somehow more dearly akin to Him, even though He is incomparably higher than they.

Man, however, being endowed with reason and free will, received the power of continuous union with God through his own choice, if indeed he should abide in goodness, that is in obedience to his Maker. Since, however, he transgressed the command of his Creator and became liable to death and corruption, the Creator and Maker of our race, because of His bowels of compassion, took on our likeness, becoming man in all things but without sin, and was united to our nature. For since He bestowed on us His own image and His own spirit and we did not keep them safe, He took Himself a share in our poor and weak nature, in order that He might cleanse us and make us incorruptible, and establish us once more as partakers of His divinity.

The business about “…being endowed with reason and free will, received the power of continuous union with God through his own choice” is one I’ll come back to. Augustinian theology, which the Reformers took to its logical conclusion, tells us that our free will is irrelevant. But John’s statement implies that our union with God is (at least to start with) volitional, which butts into some of his sacramentalism below.

For those of you who are preparing to call me Pelagian, I should refer you to this, from my presentation of the gospel.

But there’s more to come…

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