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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

My Journey from Lutheranism to the Eucharist (part two)

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Sola fide was our first and loudest battle cry. This was the core of our Lutheran Christian faith. It is truly impossible to understand the protestant movement and any Protestant communion springing from the Reformation, without understanding the importance of sola fide as the fulcrum of the theology. Indeed, it was Martin Luther’s main objection to the established doctrine of his time that the grace of Christ was open to all who place faith in Him, and faith alone, not because of any merit of their own, but solely due to the free gift of Christ. Salvation (freedom from the debt that I owe due to the burden of my sin) is given, more specifically imputed, to me as a sheer gift.

The story line would have run something like this. Humanity after the fall (and that means each and every individual) is in a state of separation from God irreparable by human effort. God is infinite; He is infinite in Glory, infinite in majesty and honor, and infinite in goodness. When our first parents sinned and violated the balance of justice by failing to give that infinite goodness the obedience it demanded, they incurred a punishment that was equal to the one offended; they owed a debt that was equal to the grandeur of the offended goodness. In other words, by sinning against the infinite God they incurred an infinite punishment. There is now an infinite debt owed to the infinite God.

But finite creatures could never pay an infinite debt: only an infinite being, equal to the dignity of the one offended, could offer a payment worthy of sin. This is precisely why the suffering and death of Christ was necessary to atone for sin. Because Christ was fully God and consubstantial with the Father in every way, He could satisfy the infinite anger of the Father by His death. And, due to Christ’s nature as man, the payment offered for sin can be offered to each and every man or woman who accepts it. [2]  

But here is the crux of the matter (no pun intended). Accepting this payment for sin (what salvation consisted of for me as a Lutheran) is accomplished on the part of each individual through an act of faith and this act alone. Once I place faith in Jesus Christ and his saving death for me, my debt of sin is erased and the punishment owed to God by me because of my sin is wiped clean; in other words, I am saved! This is what salvation consists of; this is the meaning of receiving salvation; not that I have done anything for God, anything for which He now owes to me salvation, but only that He has done this for me. I was barred from Heaven due to my sin and, now that my sin is gone, this access has once again been granted.[3]

It does not take a reader with deep insight to perceive the profoundly legalistic tone that this understanding of salvation presupposes. The entire narrative of creation, sin, fall, incarnation, redemption, and salvation, is seen through the purely legalistic lens where the primary, if not the only, analogate to sin is that of the breaking of a law, not one of a disease of the soul, nor one of a rupture of relationship. The entire cosmic drama of sin and salvation is read through the lens of law, debt, and legal punishment. Through this lens, the reality that bars me from union with God is not so much an intrinsic quality welling up from the depths of my soul (or lack of such a quality), but an external statute that has been imputed to me, declaring me unsuitable for union with God.  For Luther, sin provokes not so much the rupture of a relationship with God that I was born to enjoy (the fulfillment of which is heaven itself), but the external legal declaration that I am guilty of sin and am not owed such a relationship.

From such a perspective salvation does not consist in the transformation of my soul, but in a legal imputation. From such a perspective, once this legal banishment from heaven has been lifted, there remains nothing more for me to do. There is now nothing in my power that can add to or subtract from my legal standing before God. This was my understanding of freedom in Christ. This was my understanding of what being a Christian meant.

One might ask, “I thought this was an essay regarding the Catholic belief in the Eucharist: what does this system of salvation have to do with a belief in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament?” The answer to such a question is, nothing! Absolutely nothing at all! And this is the whole point. There is no connection between the 16th century invention of a legalistic salvation in Christ and the belief in His real presence in the Sacrament. If I accept the system of sin and redemption posed by the 16th century reformers, a redemption that is played out entirely on the field of legal statutes and transposed punishment, where salvation occurs as a legal declaration external to me--if all this is the case, from where will I find a suitable meaning and purpose for Christ to come to me, flesh and blood? If the whole drama of my salvation occurs by a juridic fiat from God declaring me righteous, after which point He will only look upon me as possessing the legal requirements for heaven, what more could be effected in my soul by receiving the real presence of His Son?

Let me try to explain my point in another way, from the perspective of my personal experience of this dilemma. There was one point in my life, when I was about 19 years old, when the massive implications of belief in the real presence dawned on me. It was during a Lutheran church service where communion was being celebrated. I looked on the altar where the pastor was saying the words of institution and I realized that, if it is really true that Jesus is present here on the altar, if it is really true that He is here with the same intensity of presence by which He was present to the apostles, if this is really true, then what is happening on the altar in front of me is the most important thing in the world. If it is true that God has performed such a gesture of condescension that He comes down to me in His body and blood, no other point of the Christian faith could trump the meaning and significance of this event. What in the Christian life could be more important than being in this presence and receiving this presence? If it is true, what was happening there on the altar could never be a mere after thought to the Christian life or a mere supplement to the real heart of the faith. This event of Christ coming to us must be the true drama of the Christian life; this must be the source and summit of what it means to be a Christian.

Yet I still held that the entirety of my salvation was settled and done. I was saved. I had faith in Jesus as my Lord and nothing more could be added. Yet, if this were true, what could be the meaning of this profound and earth-shattering gesture of God to come to me in His body and blood? If this event on the altar was a mere remembrance, as many Protestants claim, why the real presence? Could we not remember Christ’s passion without such condescension of God? And if the appearance of bread and wine remain the same to our senses, what greater value would they have as mere stimulants to memory if Jesus were to become their invisible substance? There must be something more going on here. There must be some greater meaning to the real presence of Christ in the elements, beyond a mere memorial. This event must be loaded with profound meaning and significance for the state of my soul, right now, as I receive the sacrament.

The only answer to the shocking reality of the real presence was that Jesus Christ is coming into my soul to transform me from the inside out. He is, in His very flesh and blood, conforming me into a little Christ (a Christian in the true sense of the word), by feeding my body and soul with His very life. Jesus Christ has not, at one single time in the past, declared me righteous before His Father in one transaction of justice. He is instead making me righteous by transforming me into Him. He is making me just by transforming me into a Saint. Justification and salvation are not two separate events with two separate causes, they are merely two aspects of the same reality; the very transformation of my soul into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Christian life: transformation in Christ.

What I was holding to as a Lutheran were two beliefs that were not synchronized with one another. In my struggle to sustain identity as a Protestant Christian I was pushing against two fronts, on opposite sides, with two very different arguments; arguments that, if one of them were true, would render the other difficult to explain, if not obsolete. Once I realized the profound meaning of Christ’s words when he said, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” I could never go back to believing the teaching that faith alone saved my soul. Christ’s true presence in the sacrament must be the source and summit of my Christian life. Christ’s life and presence in me is the salvation of my soul.

        

[2] This might sound similar to the reasoning of St. Anselm in his work “Cur Deus Homo” but there are subtle differences, the main one being the confusion and conflation of the terms “sacrifice” and “punishment”. It is our Catholic faith that Christ offered a “sacrifice” for sin, He was not “punished” for sin. But this is not an item for this present essay.


[3] This misunderstanding of salvation presupposes many errors regarding the notion of sin, the nature of heaven, the confusing of the terms “justification”, “atonement”, and “sanctification”, and the very nature of salvation itself. But it is beyond the scope of this essay to explain these matters.

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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

My Journey from Lutheranism to the Eucharist (part one)

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The history of the church is filled with examples of great heretics turned orthodox faithful, and great intellectuals who, after pouring over the profoundest questions, discover the timeless truths of the Catholic faith. I wish that mine were one more of those stories. However, my journey to the Catholic Church is much less heroic than my hubris would like to flaunt and, although my imagination and memory can weave back into my own story a theological depth and insight that I have only subsequently acquired, my story lacked the sophistication that my current pride would like to boast. Far from proceeding through these lofty heights, my journey to embracing the Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist is no more than one of a sincere believing Christian: trying to come to terms with his own beliefs, trying to take the tradition of Christianity that was handed on to him and distill out of its many tenants and beliefs the core of God’s message to him, trying to struggle with the God who he loves so much in order to grow closer to this God. Indeed (if there even is one) this is my only boast. All I wanted or desired, from the beginning of my path until the present day, was to understand God more deeply, to understand Him more so that I could love Him more, to love Him more in order to grow in union with Him.

I was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran in suburban Ohio and, like most Lutheran children, was very well educated in the faith. Perhaps it is a hangover from their Prussian and Teutonic roots that Lutherans take so seriously the catechizing of their young in the faith, but I did receive this blessing and, now as an adult, I am very grateful for it. I enjoyed a very thorough and systematic education in the scriptures and the propositions of Luther’s Small Catechism (the primary text that was studied second to scripture). When I was growing up, we had a strong identity as Lutherans. We were proud of being Lutheran. We were convinced that we knew precisely why we were Lutheran and why we were not anything else. Due to these strong convictions, the Missouri Synod Lutheranism within which I was raised was truly “Protestant” in the real sense of the word; that is, they had a strong sense of what they were NOT, of what they were pushing against and protesting. First, I learned that we were absolutely NOT Catholic; the Roman Church was the first enemy that needed avoiding. Second, I learned that we were not like the other non-sacramental reformed churches. We differed fundamentally from both of these groups and held a sort of golden mean between two radically different and erroneous extremes.

With regards to the first protest, that we were not Catholics, there were two pillars of our faith that identified us: sola fide, that salvation is by “faith alone” and not by righteous works; and sola scriptura, that all divine revelation is contained in the 66 books of sacred scripture (opposed to the Catholic 73 books) without deference to any magisterial hierarchical authority and only partial deference to church tradition which we saw as functioning merely as an interpretive aid for understanding scripture. For me, the more important of these two pillars, by far, was the belief in faith alone as the means of justification. Although Sola Scriptura was essential, sola fide was the core of my Christianity, as I will explain below.

With regards to the second protest, that we were not like the other non-sacramental churches springing from the protestant reformation, we rooted our identity in a great Lutheran teaching drilled into my head like the great “hear, O Israel” of the old testament, a truth that Martin Luther himself fought long and hard to preserve, the truth of the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. It might come as a surprise to many Catholics, but orthodox Lutherans place great stress on this point; there is emphasis placed upon Christ’s literal words at the last supper, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” I was taught that, when I receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion (for this is what we called it; the word Eucharist was unknown to me until adulthood), I was truly receiving the “real” body and “real” blood of the Lord, Jesus Christ. This is what I was taught. This is what I understood.

As a child and as a teenager I did not question the word “real” in the phrase “real presence”; I just accepted it. I did not demand theological nuances like I later would; I did not demand an ontological explanation for how Christ’s presence could be “real” and yet the taste, smell, sight, and texture of bread and wine remain, as if they also endured as “real” as well. Luther’s Small Catechism expresses this reality by saying that Christ’s presence is “with, in, and under the bread.”[1]

Such a statement might seem simplistically metaphorical now, but at that time, it seemed good enough for me. I questioned no further. It is indeed true, as I would subsequently learn, that there are profound differences between the Catholic understanding of what takes place at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass designated by the word “transubstantiation” and what Lutheran and Anglican theologians understand as “consubstantiation,” but this is beyond the scope of this short essay. The point is this… I believed it. As a Lutheran, I believed that, in Holy Communion, the true body and blood of Jesus Christ came to me.

This was the Lutheran position, as I knew it; we were engaged in a two front battle for self-identity, perched, as the sole bearers of true Christianity, between two errors. On one side, we maintained a belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, in opposition to the bulk of reformed Protestantism, and on the other we maintained that our salvation was by “faith alone” and not works in opposition to the ancient Church of Rome. As I mentioned above, it was on this latter front, the protest against the Catholic Church’s understanding of salvation as being a matter of faith and works, that our first and primary identity as Protestants rested. To understand this, let me focus on what the sola fide aspect of my faith truly meant.

To be continued in "My Journey from Lutheranism to the Eucharist (part two)"


 [1]"For the reason why, in addition to the expressions of Christ and St. Paul (the bread in the Supper is the body of Christ or the communion of the body of Christ), also the forms: under the bread, with the bread, in the bread [the body of Christ is present and offered], are employed, is that by means of them the papistical transubstantiation may be rejected and the sacramental union of the unchanged essence of the bread and of the body of Christ indicated." The Book of Concord: The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, (VII:35). http://bookofconcord.org/index.php, (referenced January 27th 2013).

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Br. Isaiah Mary Molano, O.P.'s picture

Fourth Sunday of Lent

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This past weekend, I preached at Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Concord, CA. I hope you enjoy.

During the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, the Catechumens undergo the scrutinies. These are times in the catechumens’ lives where the Church asks them why they want to enter the Catholic Church, testing their resolve.

At the end of each scrutiny, the Catechumens go through an exorcism to purify their intentions. The scrutinies are moments in which catechumens’ souls are exorcised in order to prepare them for the Easter Vigil.

Exorcism.

We don’t talk about the Devil anymore. We generally think that the Devil can be explained through a bad childhood or a bad situation.

Yet the Devil exists.

Lucifer spends his time keeping us from Christ. Lucifer tells us that we cannot pray more, that going to Mass once a week is enough, or that we don’t need Confession. Lucifer tells us to think that praying 5 minutes before Mass is sufficient for spiritual growth. He tells us that what we do behind closed doors has no ramifications in family life or in the public sphere.

This is the work of the Devil.

The work of the Devil is to keep us from God. Lucifer paints a picture of the God of Wrath and Destruction, as though God were sitting atop Mount Tamalpais, waiting to strike us down.

This is not God.

Moses reminds the Isrealites that God has made them “dearer than any other nation”. The prophet Hosea talks about God as the Seducer of Hearts. Tradition has interpreted the Song of Songs as God wooing the soul into a loving and passionate relationship.

This is God our Father.

The Prodigal Son is useful here. Like the father in that story, God the Father has let all of us go in order to allow us to understand what God the Father has to offer us. We might go to Church every Sunday. We might give a lukewarm Confession to Father so-and-so. But we live a life where God is uninvolved, compartmentalized on Sunday, whereas our real life is everything except Mass and prayer.

But as the story of the Prodigal Son shows us, the moment we turn back to Him, God the Father chases us like a little puppy. The Majestic, Glorious, All-Knowing, All-Powerful King, the Creator of the Heavens and Earth, losing all of His dignity in order to grab our attention. God the Father waits impatiently for our attention, and does not want to let us go.

When the catechumens are scutinized, they will be given grace from the Father to live in compassion and love.

This is the work of God our Father.

This grace is offered to us also. The Prodigal Son teaches that God yearns for our attention. Let us give the Father our attention. As Lent continues, let us offer the Father fervent prayer and thanksgiving. As we go to Reconciliation, let us resolve to turn our hearts to the Father with zeal and passion. As we receive the Eucharist, let us be like God the Son, who always had the Father in the forefront of his mind. As we live our lives, let us offer everything to God our Father.

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