Eucharist and suffering

Six years ago, in 2006, Marilyn McCord Adams, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, published her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press). The book is based on her Gifford Lectures from 1998-1999 and is rich and provocative. In this book McCord Adams pleads for an understanding of the eucharist, which does justice to the intense suffering in this world. This understanding is part of her larger project to provide a christological answer, not only to the problem of sin, but principally to the ‘more fundamental problem of horrors’. In short, in her proposal, Christ is our horror-defeater. His suffering and resurrection are the guarantee that in God’s future ‘the plot will resolve for everyone’.

But what about the meantime? That’s where the eucharist comes in. McCord Adams argues for a very strong notion of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. Because we, human beings, are embodied persons, we are in need of embodied encounters. Christ shares the table with us and gives Himself to us. But, ‘because we are horror-participants, He sets a specific agenda: all conflicts out on the table, immediately!’ (294).

“God in Christ crucified offers us His Flesh to chomp and bite and tear with our teeth, invites us to get even, horror for horror, urges us to fragment God’s own Body in return for the way God has allowed horrors to shred the fabric of our lives.” (294)

It should be evident by now that McCord Adams needs a stronger notion of eucharistic presence than Calvin’s. Indeed, while she is fairly critical about Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, calling it ‘philosophically underdeveloped’ (299). Luther’s notion of ubiquity won’t do either, because it’s ‘philosophically incoherent and un-Chalcedonian, insofar as it confuses the Divine and human natures’ (303). Her own proposal is an analogy with the incarnation, namely ‘impanation’: “Christ’s Body is present on the altar without being extended according to its human nature, but present and extended according to its bread nature” (305).

As I said, her book is rich and provocative. It raises quite a few questions and objections, but I’ll leave them aside for the moment. Instead, I will point to a counter-proposal from Nicholas Wolterstorff. Like McCord Adams, he both sacrifices the doctrine of divine impassibility and links God’s suffering love to the Lord’s Supper. Unlike McCord Adams however, he thinks that Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is especially valuable in this regard. In one of the articles in his recent book Hearing the Call, Wolterstorff shows that Calvin repeatedly speaks of the wounds of God in the context of people being wronged by others. He cites Calvin’s comments on Genesis 9:5-6 and Habakkuk 2:5-6 in support of this view. It is not an isolated thought in Calvin, but firmly rooted in his conceptions of human nature, the way to deal with suffering, and so forth. Then Wolterstorff writes:

“Though I do not propose to develop it here, it is worth noting that this theme of the wounding of God is also given a specifically christological and sacramental development in Calvin. At one point in his discussion of the Eucharist he says: “We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; … that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren… (Institutes IV,xvii,38).”

What is happening here? Wolterstorff’s approach provides us with a notion of divine suffering that is in a sense even stronger than McCord Adams’s. He makes God not the opponent of the horror-participant (like McCord Adams does), but her companion in her suffering. And the Eucharist is no longer the place to deal with our conflicts with God, but a place of consolation and sharing of Christ’s ‘shalom’. In the Lord’s Supper we are assured by Christ that He participates in our brokenness (cf. Lament for a Son, 39,40).

While McCord Adams’s approach suggests that our suffering could – at least to a certain degree – be compensated by ‘biting and chomping’ God, Wolterstorff’s proposal is more modest. There is no solution, no real answer to  the problem of suffering. He simply claims that Christ is there, participating in our brokenness, in our suffering. Do we really need more than that?

Vermigli, Incarnation and our Resurrection

The sixteenth century was filled with intense debate about the eucharist. By the 1550’s the divisions between Roman Catholics, Lutherans and the Swiss Reformation were largely defined by the difference in opion about the eucharist. The religious dialogues in the late 1530’s and the early 1540’s hadn’t resulted in mutual agreement about the eucharistic doctrine, despite intense efforts from Bucer, Melanchton and Calvin, among others. Neither the doctrine of justification, nor the doctrine of predestination, were the principal stumbling block. However, the eucharist was.

In the 1550’s a second round of the eucharistic debate started. Hence, it’s called the ‘second eucharistic controversy’ (the debate between Luther and Zwingli being the first). It became an intense discussion between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran Joachim Westphal ignited the debate. The discussion between Westphal and Calvin caught the eye, but there were far more theologians involved. It was the ‘trending topíc’ in their correspondence.

Peter Martyr’s letter to John Calvin (Strasbourg, 8 March 1555; Calvini Opera 15, p.492-497) is a fine example of this kind of correspondence. In this long letter Vermigli appears to be an highly original theologian. He proposes his thoughts to Calvin about the communion we have ‘with Christ’s body and the substance of his nature’ (cum corpore Christi, atque substantia ipsius naturae). First of all, he says, we have a very general communion with Christ, because he shares in our fles and blood, ‘by the benefit of his incarnation’ (beneficio incarnationis eius). But because this kind of communion is very general and feeble, there must be another one. In that second kind of communion share the elect, in whom faith is incited, by which they not only are reconciled to God, but also share in the restoring power of the Holy Spirit, by which also our bodies, flesh, blood and nature are ‘made capable for immortality’ (immortalitatis capacia fiunt). In this way, Vermigli says, we become more and more ‘like Christ, as I may say so’ (Christoformia, ut ita dixerim). 

According to Vermigli then, there are two kinds of communion with Christ: one is natural, the other spiritual. But, he continues, ‘in between these two (communions) there is a middle one’ (inter has duas mediam esse). This ‘mediating’ communion he calls the communion with the Head, Christ himself. This communion is prior, ‘at least in nature, be it perhaps not in time’ (saltem natura, licet fortasse non tempore). I suspect that what Vermigli is after, broadly corresponds with what Calvin calls the mystical union with Christ. It’s the spiritual bond with Christ through faith. Vermigli then draws a comparison between the human body and the communion with Christ. The point he wants to make, seems to be this: the spiritual bond (mystical union) with Christ opens up the way for another communion with Christ, by which our nature becomes renewed from within. We’re made fit for immortality!

What’s so special about this? Vermigli clearly agrees with Calvin (and many others) about the location of Christ’s body: He is in heaven. But, he seeks a way to prevent that the communion with Him would become mere spiritual. The key to his thinking is Christ’s incarnation. The incarnation is the guarantee for, both the natural and the spiritual communion. But this last way of communion is also a bodily communion. It’s the sharing in the resurrection of Christ in which we share by the Word of God and the sacraments, received by faith. There we are: the sacraments as preparation for our resurrection!