In my last post, I briefly discussed a controversy that occurred nearly two centuries ago, which involved the nature of the Eucharist (also known as "communion"). And many of us who hear or read about religious controversies of the past may simply feel that these controversies are tedious, even boring. Everyone from pastors to popes have managed to argue about some aspect of our faith ever since the origin of Christianity itself. Same story, different century...right? We've got plenty of controversies in our own time. Why do we need to worry about an age-old argument that occurred between two dudes tucked away in their offices back in the 1800's?
Well, for starters, the bottom line of this old communion controversy is something that we as church goers are all very familiar with today. And it goes like this: What is the meaning of communion? Here we find two men, both pastors, professors, and theologians, both part of the same faith tradition, yet vehemently opposed to each other's view on the meaning of communion. Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin were both esteemed and educated men of their day, and they each shared a Reformed faith and heritage (the heritage of today's Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). Yet neither one of them could agree on the meaning of communion.
Generally speaking, Hodge tended to emphasize the more symbolic and memorial aspects of communion, feeling that these most adequately represented the faith of the Reformed tradition. Hodge believed that it was simply common sense: a finite thing (the bread and wine) could not contain an infinite being (the body and blood of Christ). Therefore, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember Christ's sacrifice for us but are not actually eating His body or drinking His blood. Whereas Nevin, on the other hand, strongly disagreed. He tended to emphasize the more mysterious and mystical aspects of communion. He believed in the "real presence" of Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist, believing that both Christ's human and divine nature are present in the bread and wine we eat today.
The legacy of this controversy and others like it have left Protestants in American largely confused about their communion beliefs. The beliefs of both ministers and lay people alike in the PC(U.S.A.) fall upon a great spectrum, ranging anywhere from what Hodge believed to what Nevin believed. And somehow... both are right! Because as both Presbyterians and Protestants, we have both things as part of our heritage. Crazy, huh?
Yes, communion is a complex and beautiful gift of grace. We will never fully understand it---at least not in this lifetime. But we should attempt to understand the variety of beliefs that our forebears have held in order for us be better informed about what we believe ourselves. Blindly coming to the Lord's Table to receive the elements of bread and wine is something that neither Hodge nor Nevin would have accepted. And nor should we. Ministers have a duty to teach---and congregants have a duty to learn. Communion is a wonderful blessing that equips us to go out and to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. It is mysterious and humbling. It has incited far too many debates and disagreements in our history to count. To "remember" what Christ has done for us is an undertaking not to take too lightly. But it is up to us to learn and to grow in understanding---with God's help--- so that we will never again come blindly to the Table.