Response to the Comments on “Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist”

My four-part series on this subject got a few comments, which will enable me to expand on some things that obviously weren’t clear in the first part.

First thing to note: I got no responses from my Pentecostal bretheren on this subject, after the considerable back and forth on this subject here.  Sooner or later this will be an issue but, like everything else, Pentecostals have an entirely different dynamic in which doctrinal matters are discussed.

Let me first turn to two comments at Part II.  First Abu Daoud:

I wonder if your judgment of the sacramental system is not too rigid. “God is bound to the sacraments, but he is not bound by them.” Hi grace can operate outside of their visible signs. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition there is a baptism of blood (martyrs who do not receive water baptism, but are still saved) and the baptism of desire, for those who do not KNOW that they should be baptized, but would desire the sacrament had they known.

And then there’s Father Greg:

But then, you write above: “John tells us that our new birth is via baptism. This is something I cannot agree with.”

However, as with the Eucharist, the New Testament does not support such an interpretation. In the New Testament, beginning with John 3:5 and including Titus 3:5, “new birth” or “regeneration” is always associated with baptism.

The more I think about this issue, the more it’s apparent that the trout in the milk of this issue is infant baptism.

Let’s consider Holy Communion.  We agree that the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist validates many of the claims made for receiving the Holy Communion.  On the flip side the consequences of unworthy reception are as strong of an argument against a purely symbolic Eucharist as one could want.  As Pat Robertson pointed out last Sunday, people don’t die for unworthy reception of just a symbol.

In both cases, however, the benefits or curses of the sacrament are dependent upon the spiritual state of the recipient.  Now the Roman Catholic would come back and say that this in turn is dependent upon proper reception of forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.  But that also is dependent upon valid contrition of the penitent (unless you’re Cardinal Richelieu, in which case only the fear of hell (attrition) is necessary.)  So the proper spiritual state of the recipient is still important.

In the case of infant baptism, however, such a state is irrelevant, because the infant cannot make such a spiritual decision for him or herself.  There have been many arguments advanced to try to fix this problem, from the “infant faith” business to shifting the responsibility to the godparents to the Augustinian solution of original sin.  All of this doesn’t take away from the core problem with infant baptism: the infant makes no decision, so you end up on relying entirely on the efficacy of the sacrament for whatever infusion of grace (in this case, the inheriting of eternal life) comes with the sacrament.

Once you have this with one sacrament, you compromise the whole system.  To directly address Abu Daoud’s remark, I don’t know of any responsible Catholic or Orthodox writer who would say that one could achieve eternal life solely on the reception of the sacraments, but on the operative level too many people are acting as if that is the case.  If it works in infant baptism, why not everywhere else?

Eliminating infant baptism and only baptising people subsequent to a turning to God through Jesus Christ eliminates this problem.  It sets up the same type of volition/sacrament pairing you have in the Holy Communion.  It also solves the relationship between baptism and salvation which Fr. Greg rightly points out is inherent in the New Testament.

Ultimately people have to decide whether they are Christians or not.  A church that ties that conscious decision to baptism makes a powerful statement with both.

As an aside, I should mention that the secular import of that decision is easier to see in some cultural settings than others.  I’m primarily thinking of secular cultures, but Islamic ones also come to mind.  That’s one reason why I lament the attitude that Evangelicals take towards Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic believers in the Middle East.  Same believers have to make a serious decision to remain a Christian in a culture whose pressure to become Muslim increases all of the time.  Evangelicals should take the time (as I did last weekend) to watch a Coptic priest like Father Zakaria lead Muslims to Christ on television.

But let me address Fr. Greg’s last comment:

“It is my prayer that this exposition will be enlightening, helping to patch a lacuna in the garment of Pentecost that has covered the world.”

Okay, but I have to ask: are we sure that the Lord’s Supper, as celebrated in the Church of God and in similar places, is in fact the same as that which is being celebrated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches?

One of the purposes of this series is to move things forward to the point where the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is widely acknowledged by Pentecostal churches, at which point we can answer this question, if not in liturgy or perhaps in detailed theological explanation, in the affirmative.

3 thoughts on “Response to the Comments on “Reflections on an Orthodox View of the Eucharist””

  1. Yes, indeed. Infant baptism is here “the trout in the milk.” And, in the case of the Orthodox (both Byzantine and Oriental), the communion of baptized infants and small children as well. But these questions, along with the status of the Lord’s Supper in Protestant churches, raise the issue of ecclesiology:

    What, and where, is the Church of New Testament, described there in the highest terms, as “the fulness of [Christ] who fills all in all” and the “pillar and ground of the truth,” the Church against which “the gates of hell will not prevail,” the Church whom Christ promised to be with “until the end of the age”, the Church founded by Christ and the Apostles, the Apostles to whom Christ gave the authority to “bind and loose,” both in terms of governance and the forgiveness of sins, the Church which, because “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” abrogated the need for circumcision for Gentiles who became Christians, the Church which is governed by bishops who are, quite literally, the successors of the Apostles, the Apostles who, using the above-mentioned authority, instituted said episcopal office, along with that of presbyters and deacons, and who endowed these bishops with the authority given them by Christ Himself?

    This is the Church of the New Testament: a visible, historical community which must be continuous in time until now and from now until “the end of the age” if the words of Christ are not to be proven false.

    Now we know that this historical Church has been baptizing infants from the beginning, and, in the East, chrismating (confirming) and communing them as well. Therefore, one would have to say, if one rejects infant baptism, that this Church has somehow erred on a radically basic issue. Further, this Church, today represented by a number of different bodies (both types of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Continuing Anglican, and the Assyrian Church of the East are the main ones), while divided over various issues, is unanimous in affirming that if a celebration of the Eucharist is not presided at by a validly/canonically ordained priest, that is, a bishop or presbyter, no consecration of the bread and wine occurs. They remain merely bread and wine. Then, of course, there is the question of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. Same thing applies as with the necessity of a validly ordained celebrant.

    Concerning volition with regard to infant baptism: all of the arguments/explanations which relate to this are posteriori. IOW, they try to explain the practice of the Church, which is taken as a given. The most famous such explanation, of course, is that of St. Augustine, who argues for his view of original sin from the fact that the Church baptizes infants. He did not argue for infant baptism from his view of original sin.

    From an Eastern perspective, John Chrysostom takes a different tack: “Why,” asks Chrysostom, “do we baptize infants when they are sinless?” (Hello!) “Because,” he says, “so that they can share in the benefits of being citizens of the Kingdom of God.”

    From my perspective, baptismal regeneration in the case of infants only becomes a problem when one thinks that regeneration necessarily entails final perseverance (i.e., “once saved always saved”). Further, while I in general am sympathetic with your concern that human free will (such as it is, given the effects of the Fall) be preserved, I would note that we don’t ask our children a)if they’d like to come into the world in the first place; b)if they wish to be citizens of the country in which they are born; and c) most relevantly, if they wish to be bathed and to eat and drink.

    Finally, a personal note: growing up in a faith environment which rejected infant baptism and downplayed baptism for children under a certain age (and in general), while I accepted Christ at age 7, I was not baptized until age 19, when I became (temporarily) Roman Catholic. However, around age 13, I came under an intense spiritual attack which lasted for over a year. Looking back, I think that had I been baptized before that time (and had I had access to the sacraments/mysteries of Reconciliation and valid Holy Communion), the dynamics of that spiritual struggle would have been entirely different.

  2. You make some good points Don. I want to agree however with Fr Greg regarding infant baptism. I also want to use the speech of the English Reformation in terms of baptism and Communion being generally necessary for salvation.

    Regarding the grace conferred in baptism I wonder if we should not focus it more on the church, which indeed is something I see as a healthy aspect of Reformation theology: Baptism is the incorporation of a person into the Church. By that it is nothing less than an incorporation of a person into Christ. It is in many ways an exercise of God’s sovereignty and the sheer power of his Word, who in all the sacraments is the actual agent.

    That the child has not chosen it is not important. But sooner or later they will have to choose to own what they were given or to discard it. That seems to me much more realistic and healthy than the experience that Greg described above.

    I would like to hear both of your thoughts on this definition of sacrament: A sacrament is a sign that effectuates what it symbolizes.

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