29 June 2008

Protestants and "Spiritual" Means vs "Tangible" Means

I'm reading This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers The Real Presence by Mark Shea. It's a short read, only about 50 pages long. But it's really posing some interesting thoughts to me and one passage in particular stuck out. He's speaking of the Protestant suspicion of anything that smacks of “works” religion or falling back into the same error the Galatians made over the issue of circumcision. This same sense of unease or outright suspicion is felt toward the Catholic doctrine surrounding the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist and seeing it as a “means of grace.” And Mr. Shea felt much the same way at one point. But he had some interesting thoughts as his evangelical pastor preached on the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:

Do not misunderstand. My pastor was certainly no exponent of Catholic theology. Rather, in classical evangelical fashion, this good man held that “the teaching of Christ is the true bread from heaven” and that the passage had no Eucharistic significance...he urged, we must become mature in Christ “by eating His word” and relying on the grace of God working in and through fellow Bible-believing Christians. Only thus, he said, could we hope to grow.

...It suddenly bore in on me that this grasp of biblical teaching as “food for maturity” was strikingly similar to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I saw at once that regular biblical fellowship and regular Holy Communion are both a form of ritual, both “means of grace.” The only difference is that in the former, God transubstantiates paper, ink, and the human voice into His Word; whereas in the latter, according to Catholics, He changes the bread and wine into something even more impressive. My difficulty, then, was not with the idea of ritual “means of grace” as such, but with a God Who might touch me in a non-verbal, non-cerebral, non-spiritual way.

This really is a crucial point. Protestants think in terms of receiving grace “by faith” and what we mean without explicitly saying so is that “by faith” means “intangible.” Grace in the biblical sense is only experienced by believing and trusting in Christ, not by any physical means. And this does explain much of our reaction against the Catholic view of the Eucharist as a “means of grace” (literally, a physical manner in which God's grace is transmitted to us). Yet we also believe that we are spiritually fed and matured by tangible means such as reading our Bibles, sitting under solid Biblical teaching and fellowship and sharing life with other believers. What are these things if not tangible and physical? And in believing this, we certainly don't mean to convey the idea that God does not transmit His grace to us in other ways such as prayer, the Holy Spirit quietly working on our hearts and so on. But we affirm the notion that God works through things in the physical world He created to nurture and mature us. These are “means of His grace” to us.

So why do we have such a problem with the Catholic notion of Holy Communion being a tangible way in which God actually gives us a measure of His grace? Why are we so suspicious of means that are “non-verbal, non-cerebral and non-spiritual” yet have this glaring blind spot when it comes to other such “Protestant” means like the written Scriptures, the teaching of the Word by our pastors or fellowship with other believers?

What say you?

6 comments:

Qatfish said...

Protestants think in terms of receiving grace “by faith” and what we mean without explicitly saying so is that “by faith” means “intangible.” Grace ... is only experienced by believing and trusting in Christ, not by any physical means.

This is one of the reasons I became Catholic: the growing sense that what was distinctively Protestant was also, in some sense, intrinsically Gnostic. And I don't just mean Protestant ideas regarding the eucharist, but also ecclesiological concepts and ideas regarding justification. I could no longer, in good faith, stay a Protestant. I only figured out later that it was the intrinsically Nominalist bent of Protestantism that creates this problem.

Ragamuffin said...

Interestingly, coming from a Pentecostal/charismatic background, some of the very same people that believe in sending a prayer cloth to some TV evangelist so they can pray over it and send it back to deliver a blessing or healing (an act of grace) totally recoil at the idea that the act of receiving communion would literally, actually confer some kind of grace to them.

I'm finally getting to the meat of Bouyer's book where he discusses Nominalism and how it affected not only Luther's thought process but even the Catholics of that era that initially responded to him. Interesting stuff.

Qatfish said...

Yes, the prayer cloth example is definitely not Gnostic. It's very similar to Catholic practices in relation to relics. The major difference is that we'd prefer a cloth owned or touched by St. Francis or St. Therese to one from a TV evangelist, unless perhaps the TV evangelist was someone like Fulton Sheen. ;)

(You'll see, in Bouyer's book, sections about times and ways various Protestant traditions come very close to Catholicism.)

The Scylding said...

Of course, for Lutherans, this was never an issue. We believe in the Real Presence. I myself did not always believe it, however. But after I came to the realisation of the truth of this matter, going to a church who preached it became important. But there was no need to swim the Tiber. One thing about Catholic practice that has been a bone of contention (for me) is their withelding of the cup from the laity (for a number of centuries), and their insistence on explaining the mechanism of the Real Presence. These things are not fund in Lutheranism or Orthodoxy.

Qatfish said...

Right. Lutherans have the Gnostic problem with other doctrines, like justification, but not with their view of the eucharist.

Stacey said...

An interesting tidbit... Luther rejected transubstantiation because a priest was needed to bless the bread and wine so it could become the body and blood. He thought this centered the priest in the sacrament instead of Christ. Weird, huh?