Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sasse and the Lord's Supper

Sasse’s ‘This is My Body’ is a book that I first read (on the recommendation of the formidable Zdenko Zlatar) while studying history at the University of Sydney. It’s a book that I’ve returned to repeatedly, each time with a deeper appreciation of Sasse’s scholarship. It’s also true that each time I’ve returned to the book I have felt more acutely questions that seem to be unresolved in the Lutheran tradition. So, for example, have a look at this gobbet from chapter four:

‘Here lies the fundamental difference between the Lutheran and the Roman understanding of consecration…For Luther it is the word of Christ, and nothing but his word, which is the cause of the Real Presence of the body and blood in the Lord’s Supper; there is no secondary cause. The minister to whom the consecration is reserved is the minister of the Word and the Sacraments, the appointed administrator of the means of grace; he is not, however, a priest in any other sense that that which regards all believers as priests because they are members of the priestly people of God.’ (p137)

When I read Sasse on this point (and indeed whenever I read the Confessions and the Lutheran Fathers on transubstantiation) I feel a certain shame at my relative ignorance of Aristotelian philosophy. I assume that when Sasse uses the term ‘secondary cause’ he is employing it in a technical, Aristotelian sense, and I fear that I can not repeat accurately and in my own words exactly what Sasse is getting at. It is apparent that this insistence that there is no 'secondary cause' has its genesis in polemic against the views of certain late medieval Catholic theologians (I would assume particulalry as these views relate the priesthood to the sacrifice of the mass), and may be primarily rhetorical, rather than theological, in its force. Nevertheless I have a question that such an argument provokes in me, and to which I cannot find a clear answer in the Formula, Chemnitz, or in any writings from Lutheran theologians that I’ve had the opportunity to study. It’s this: what is the place (if any) of the body of the minister in the Lord’s Supper?

I’ll explain what I mean: In the Lutheran tradition the focus in the Lord’s Supper is on the Words of Institution not as historical report, but as the performative words of Christ that effect what they say they will effect: the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (although the word ‘change’ needs to be understood with some care so as not to give the impression that the Lutheran church has a particular theory as to how this change is possible, and so as not to give the impression that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine). But in all this the fact is that the performative words of Christ need to be spoken, to be somehow incarnated. From the point of view of the Augsburg Confession, the one speaking the words should be ‘rightly called’. But this, at least to me, immediately suggests that there is something other that the words of Christ that effect the change of the bread and wine; that is, that the words are spoken by a rightly called person.

Let’s say someone in the Lutheran church wanted to maintain that in fact any baptized person could, in an emergency, celebrate the Lord’s Supper (and, insofar as it was an emergency, be somehow ‘rightly called’). Presumably they would assert that the person should be baptized. Then it would be the word spoken by a baptized person that would effect the change in the bread and wine (and not simply the word). Let’s say they would not even insist on this, but that they would simply assert that it would need to be a person (and not, say, a synthesized voice) proclaiming the words. Then it would be Christ’s word spoken by a human being that effected the change in the bread and wine. But if they would not even insist on this, then what? What in the Confessions would provide a convincing refutation of someone wanting to propose a disincarnate ministry?

According to the Augsburg Confession Christ instituted the Ministry for the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, so that justifying faith may be obtained. The Ministry is an office that needs to be filled. But can we say, from the Confessions, that Christ necessarily calls particular people - that is, particular human beings- to the Ministry, or is it conceivable that the Confessions allow for a disembodied Ministry? If the Word and Sacraments could be delivered by other than human agency (say, by sophisticated robots), would this be problematic from a Confessional point of view? In the Confessions, what is the place (if any) of the body of the minister in the Lord’s Supper?

Now there’s a strong theme in Lutheran theology that the Lord’s Supper needs to be celebrated according to Christ’s institution, and I can see that a strong argument could be made that Christ instituted the Sacrament to be celebrated by human beings – that the Lord handed the leading of the celebration of the Holy Supper into the care of human beings (and indeed, some might add, male human beings), not robots. Fine. It’s just, if we make this argument, can we then go on to say that there is no secondary cause of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper?

Well I’m thinking about it, and would welcome comment.


William Weedon said...


Very good question. I think Sasse is overstating his case. The Ministry is indeed an Office and so has a task to do, but that Office is also an ORDO in the Church, and according to our confession, a DIVINE ordo (cf. SA III, Part III:XI:1). Where was it that Luther spoke about discovering "das dritte Ding"? Not only the Word, not only the element, but also the MANDATE. Or, as Dr. Nagel likes to say, "has it been given you to do?"

Fraser Pearce said...

Thanks for the comment; I like your emphasis on ordo. You get me thinking more...
Much Lutheran theology on the Ministry seems to be anti-Donatist; that is, it emphasises the power of the Word of God independent of the holiness (or otherwise) of the minister (see, for example, FC SD VII, 24). But I find it much harder to find anti-Gnostic theology in writing on the Ministry. Luther, it is true, was very strong on his his own mandate as a doctor of the church. I'm trying to get a better picture of how the madate of any particular Lutheran minister is received -especially since 'God will not deal with us exceopt through his external Word and sacrament' (SA III, V, 9). I assume that the mandate is given in ordination (I get the feeling that you might assume this too) - but if this is the case, then much of the rhetoric of the Word being the focus in such things as the Lord's Supper needs to be tempered (and I gather that's what you mean when you say that Sasse is overstating the case). (Also: it makes me wonder about the form of ordination, of how it actually happens; there seems to be a rather carefree attitude to the actual way that a baptised body is 'rightly called').
In practice I find that people quote the anti-Donatist parts of the Confessions in a rather Gnostic way. I can't blame them, some of the texts lend themselves to Gnostic interpretations, it seems to me. At least I find it hard to produce clear texts that emphasise the necessity of the minister of the Lord's Supper to be an ordianed person.
This has practical results. In the LCA you get instances on non-ordained people leading the Eucharistic liturgy in situations that could hardly be called 'emergency'. How is it in the USA?

William Weedon said...

Pastor Pearce,

The LCMS, at any rate, is a complete mess on the question. Especially common here is for vicars to be asked to do this - in violation of the very Symbols they are in training to teach and uphold. But we also have a critter known as a "lay minister" that has been let loose on us since we undid AC XIV at Wichita in 1989. So, it's an ongoing problem among us.

We have to confess: the Eucharist administered by anyone to whom Christ has not entrusted this responsibility via holy ordination is simply an abuse and requires repentance, not justification and rationalizations. AC XIV is among the DOCTRINAL articles of the AC, not among the abuse discussions.

On your specific inquiry, I would indeed agree that ordination is what places a man "under orders" to distribute Christ's life-giving Word and Sacraments among His people. Such ordination is the Church's act of obedience to Christ to fill this office that He constituted so that she might be served up His means of grace.

I don't know if this is a helpful distinction or not, and I'm just thinking out loud here, but it seems to me that what Sasse was driving at was the notion that the pastor via his ordination has some "power" bestowed upon him which becomes an essential element in a "valid" Eucharist. I think he would have been more comfortable with the language that via ordination God through the Church bestows "authority" to administer the Word and Sacraments upon that man within the delineated sphere of his calling. Further thoughts?

Schütz said...

Dropping in here very quickly.

I think Sasse has taken a polemical line that is not quite true to Lutheran theology (although it is true to a tradition of Lutheran polemic against Catholic teaching). In Catholic teaching, the valid ordination of the priest is not a "secondary cause", but rather a necessary condition for the validity of the sacrament.

In Catholic theology, the sacramental change is confected by the Holy Spirit (Epiclesis--Eastern emphasis) through the consecrating Word of Christ (Words of Institution--Western Emphasis). Of course, the Word is always Christ's word and never separate from the power of the Holy Spirit.

But the priest--acting "in persona Christi capitis"--is almost what you might call a constituent element of the sacrament of the Eucharist itself. In the Liturgical celebration of the Marriage Banquet of the Lamb, the priest IS Christ, and speaks the words of Christ AS Christ present among his people, offering his body and blood to the Bride of Christ, the Church.

It should not be overlooked that the Church has always taught that Christ instituted the Priesthood at the Last Supper simultaneously with the institution of the Eucharist in the words "Do this" addressed to his apostles.

Thus, to do the sacrament "according to Christ's insitution" requires a minister who has received the valid authorisation, a "right call", as you put it. You are right in that you need to reflect more on exactly how that call (and authorisation) is given and received.

Because of this Nuptial setting the Eucharist is different from the Sacrament of Baptism in which the person of the minister is not essential to the validity of the sacrament. This is also indicated by Eastern rites which say "N is baptised" rather than "N, I baptise you."

William Weedon said...


No question about acting in persona Christi in the Sacrament. The question I have, though, is how ancient is the teaching that the institution of the Eucharist was the institution of the priesthood. I know Thomas refers to this explicitly in the Summa. But I honestly don't recall reading it in the earlier fathers. I probably just haven't read the correct father! Any helps or pointers about where the great Church fathers so teach?

Schütz said...

I am no Patristic expert. My knowledge of the Fathers is rather limited to what is referenced in the Catechism or what I find by googling.

I know that it is a teaching of the Council of Trent (DS 1752), and I have trouble believing that Aquinas just "made it up." (I know that he is not an "early" Church Father, but surely he ranks as a "great" one?)

I know also that it is a universally acknowledged teaching in the Catholic Church, and seems to follow fairly logically from everything that is explicitly taught in the early church fathers about the eucharistic sacrifice.

I wonder if the doctrine does not follow naturally from the doctrine of the Eucharist as a sacrificial banquet, and upon the analogy of the Old Testament? The Levitical Priesthood was instituted simultaneously with the institution of the sacrifices of the Law, where they were given instruction to "do this". I can therefore understand well how the doctrine of the institution of the priesthood of the New Covenant would be tied to the institution of the Sacrifice of the New Covenant.

In fact, wherever I have looked for "proof" of the doctrine that the priesthood was instituted at the Last Supper, I have found the support given to be BIBLICAL rather than PATRISTIC. Interesting.

I also wonder about the historical origins of the Chrism Mass and its association with Holy Thursday. Did this always have the character of a commemoration of the priesthood that it does today?

AND I found this by Jerome: "Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge men to some extent before the day of judgment, and guard the chastity of the bride of Christ." (To Heliodorus,Epistle 14:8(A.D. 379),in NPNF2,VI:16)

I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase given the current discussion: "who by THEIR holy words"...

Schütz said...

Actually, thinking about it in the light of day, I realise that as I was searching the Fathers last night I found nothing at all about when the office of the ministry/priesthood was instituted--let alone whether it was at the Last Supper. I wonder if it developed as part of the overall development of sacramental theology?

Only an approach which believes the development of doctrine closed with the seventh ecumenical council would preclude something being true just because it only received theological attention after the end of the Patristic Age.

William Weedon said...


I want to search some more myself because I do NOT believe that Thomas would come up with something whole cloth.

But I was reacting to the statement that the Church "has always taught" that the institution of the Eucharist was the institution of the priesthood. I don't know if that is a true statement or not, but I know that I have not encountered it in the fathers - but like you, I am no patristics scholar.

I do not believe that the Church's understanding of the faith or the way she articulates that understanding ended with the 7th council, but I do believe that everything she teaches must be grounded in the Sacred Scriptures or must harmonize with them. I'm not saying that the union of the two institutions doesn't do that, of course. It is not a part of the Lutheran understanding of the Office of the Ministry, which finds the essential nature of the Office not primarily in the celebration of the Eucharist but in the preaching of the Gospel, and therefore looks more to the texts in John 20 and Matthew 28 and Mark 16.

The idea of investigating the Chrism mass is exactly what occurred to me also. That's where the thing comes to liturgical expression in Rome, I believe, and so I'd dearly love to have the history of that puppy laid out. More reading for another day! Sigh. So many things to read, such little time to do so!

Past Elder said...

Maybe I'm joining the party too late. And if my information is out of date, no doubt der alte Schuetz will jump in with his duelling pistol.

What is lacking, from a Roman viewpoint, in the Lutheran Eucharist is valid Orders -- the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which a bishop in succession from the Apostles by episcopal ordination in turn ordains a man to carry out some of his functions such as "saying Mass", an ordination which imparts an indelible character to the man that is also the source of his ability to pronounce the words of Christ.

In this view, then, the concern of "confessional" Lutherans about lay administration of Communion is beside the point, since ALL Lutheran Communion is lay administration since laity and clergy alike in Lutheran churches lack valid Orders therefore cannot validly celebrate the Eucharist.

It is was in Babylonian Captivity, I think, where Luther took up the subject of "Holy Orders", in sum, decribing it as a false sacrament that complicates, for the purpose of serving a power structure, what is simply the manner in which the Church calls her ministers.

I can vest and say Mass. But the Mass is not valid by either Roman or Lutheran lights. By Catholic lights (at least at one time) this is so because I lack Orders, I do not have the indelible character. By Lutheran lights (I think, but I leave it to Pastors Weedon or Pearce to correct me if I am wrong) the mass may be a true mass but it is absolutely wrong for me to do it since I have no call to do so. For the one, I like you lack Orders. For the other, I unlike you lack a Call.

I think the real issue is, is there or is there not a Sacrament of Holy Orders. A sacrament to be true must be correct in matter, form and intent. If the Catholics are right, our mass fails because while we are close we do not intend what the Church intends but more than that we lack correct form lacking Orders.

It might be well to remember too that in Catholicism, a sacrament may be valid sacramentally but still illegal, wrong eccleciatically, which is why their concern about priests leaving is a little different than ours about pastors leaving.