“Preaching is essentially a priestly function!” Thomas Torrance on the priestly character of the ministry

It has been silent here for quite a long time. There are good reasons for that, as I try to make progress in my studies. But this evening I discovered a sermon of Thomas F. Torrance, delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. I was struck by it. Of course, as readers of this blog may know, I’ve a weak spot for TFT. But it was more than that. And yes, in this sermon Torrance follows the lead of Calvin and his exposure of the priestly character of the ministry. Of course, I’m studying Calvin, but once again,torrance-big that’s not the whole story. The point is this: in a few words (it’s not a long sermon) Torrance uncoveres a deep spiritual insight about the nature of the ministry.

Let me explain why this struck me. In the Netherlands, some theologians call for a more prophetic stance in the ministry of the Word. But – as you will see – Torrance strongly disagrees. He offers a very convincing and thought provoking plea for the priestly character of the ministry. In what follows I will briefly summarize this sermon of his. But let me assure you: it’s worth listening!

Torrance opens his sermon about Malachi 2 with a reference to the munus triplex, the threefold office. But – he says – Calvin had become deeply aware that the priesthood is ‘the primary aspect of the holy ministry’. At the end of his life, he is reformulating his thoughts on the subject, as his prayers at the end of his lectures on the minor prophets show.

Calvin is now convinced that there is now a priesthood within the corporate priesthood of the Church, the Body of Christ. This thought determines his view on the ministry. Every young minister – Torrance says – believes he has to behave like a prophet when he gets up into the pulpit. No, he has to behave like a priest. “As a priest he has to be the messenger of God”. Torrance emphasises three aspects of this thought:

  1. The priesthood has to do with a unique and awful function to which some people are separated. The priest has to bear the iniquities of the people of God and to bear God’s judgment on them. As Calvin understood it, there was a intimate bond between the priest, the offerer and the offering. They were inseparable. And the priest can offer only the oblations and prayers of the people in so far as he himself takes their hurt upon himself and penetrates into their needs and himself bear, penitently, the judgments of God. You can’t be a minister of the Gospel unless you are prepared and willing to bear their sins upon yourself and offer yourself with them before God. That is a priestly aspect, says Torrance, which we have forgotten.
  2. Calvin was aware that where ever the Old Testament speaks about memorial it was always, without exception, a memorial before God. That too is something we (Protestants) have forgotten or changed. We think of the Lord’s Supper as remembring Christ’s death, of what He did. That is not ‘memorial’. The priestly cropped-supperlast2.jpgofferings in the OT are memorials before God.  It is in that sense we have to think about the Eucharist. As Calvin explains in his comments on Numbers 19: Christ is our Memorial and we offer Christ daily to the Father. And that’s what we do in the Eucharist. We are participants in Christ’s sacrifice.
  3. The ministry of the Word is a priestly function. The priest is God’s messenger. His prime task is to bring a Word of God to the people, but in such a way that he evokes or provokes or bring their offering toward God. The priestly function is dual. He ministers from God to man and from man to God. I don’t believe, says Torrance, that anyone can do that simply from the pulpit or simply through conducting the liturgy. He can only do that by visiting the people in their homes and bring the Word of God there and open up their whole life before God. So that he can share their hurts and needs, understand their responses. And then he can  proclaim the Word of God and in the worship of the church bring their true responses back to God.

Preaching is essentially a priestly function. It is in this light that Calvin understood the priestly character of the Word. Because it is only as you share in, by your prayer life, your intercession, your sympathy with people, in the priesthood of Jesus, that you can say in His Name: “Be reconciled to God”. As Calvin saw it, you are representing the person and the role of Christ as a minister.

Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

Rowan Williams on Vaticanum II and Henri de Lubac

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, adressed to the Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday. He spoke about the connection between contemplation and evangelisation. His whole lecture can be read here. In the introduction of his adress Williams touches upon the importance of Vaticanum II. The council was a rediscovery of ‘evangelistic concern and passion’. Then, he continues by saying:

But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.

It’s a remarkable passage in the Archbishop’s adress, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s in a certain sense brave. De Lubac’s specific view on the history of doctrinal development is by no means generally accepted in today’s Roman Catholic church. No wonder, as his words surely imply an incisive critique on the (neo-)scholastic tradition from Cajetan until the 20th century.

Secondly, the words of Rowan Williams imply a qualified view on the rupture between Catholics and Protestants. This rupture is, at least partly, ascribed to the doctrinal developments in the Catholic church of the late 15th and 16th century. Actually, the Reformation is in this view a re-action, instead of the initial action. Of course, opinions may vary about the nature of this reaction. De Lubac, for instance, was of the opinian that both the Reformation and Jansenism were deviations of the true Catholic doctrine, an ‘over-reaction’. J.H. Walgrave however, a Dutch Catholic theologian and philosopher, claimed the opposite, maintaining that both the Reformation and Jansenism were, in a certain sense at least, the legitimate continuation of (augustinian) Medieval theology.

Finally, the words of Rowan Williams evoque an augustinian anthropology of longing to God and the only possible fulfillment, by embracing his grace. As De Lubac in a number of writings underlined, there is not such a thing as ‘natura pura’, meaning a conception of human nature that is capable of reaching its natural potency. According to this doctrine, the supernatural longing for God does not properly belong to human nature. It’s an ‘extra’, an addition to human nature. The Archbishop certainly is right about the implications about our anthropology for evangelisation. But I suppose it has implications in the direction of sacramental theology as well. The sacramental debate in the Reformation period might be read in this light. In the theology of the Counter-Reformation we might detect a tendency to ‘supranaturalize’ the sacramtents, especially the eucharist, by emphasizing its mystery and incomprehensibility. The Reformation, on the contrary, seems to downplay the importance of the sacraments, may be not so much in theory, as well in practice. In the Swiss Reformation the habit of celebrating the Lord’s supper only four times a year became the standard practice, suggesting that it is an ‘extra’. For me, it’s an open research-question whether this tendency is also inherent in Calvin’s sacramental theology or not. Further study must show.

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!