Monday, June 7, 2010

"Feeding on Christ" isn't a helpful phrase

Thirty Nine Articles; Article 28 'Of the Lord's Supper'
“partaking of the blood of Christ” … “Transubstantiation … is repugnant” “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.”
Westminster Confession; Chapter 29:7  'Of the Lord's Supper'
"Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, ..."

So we're all keen, like everyone else except weird Fred who lives in a cave, to avoid a purely cannibalistic reading of communion.  With all the Christians eating communion around the world it'd get pretty silly, sort of like relics of the true cross adding up to be more then one true cross!  But the phrase "feeding on Christ," even if intended spiritually, can also get us into trouble, if we think that we actually eat Christ at communion, albeit spiritually, then these three problems present themselves:

    a) What is the actual difference between feeding on Christ physically and spiritually?  If there are any parallels, aren't all the complications of a cannibalistic reading repeated?  If not, how can eating, chewing and digesting be retained in the phrase?
    c) If it's feeding on Christ, why wouldn't we be permanently at the table?  Why would we tolerate even a week's break or day's?  
    b) What is gained by feeding on Christ that our union with Christ hasn't already achieved?

This is why participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16) needs to be understood as an expression of the broader soteriological category of union with Christ and the way we'd interpret John 6.  This explanation also makes better sense of God's objective activity.  “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." (Luke 22:15)  The parallels with Passover are clear, God's objective saving activity remains a historical reality with or without an annual reenactment.  Furthermore "feeding on Christ" in a narrow sense implies we need to do or experience something.


Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying all your posts on the Big Meal Deal!

I haven't followed too closely, so my own thinking isn't quite up to speed...

I guess the stuff you're quoting here is all a bit down the consubstantiation line...

And I think this is usually about the point at which I end up blurting, 'Vive la Zwingli!' (Or something.)

Are there any confessional statements you know of that do a better job of this?

But I suppose I can accept an emphasis on 'feeding' if it really is symbolic in the fullest sense.


1. 'Feeding' could be legitimate if communion symbolises the wider Christian life or the stance of faith, etc -- so the actual 'feeding' isn't just limited to the event of communion, because we are really all feeders all the time.

2. The 'feeding' isn't something new itself but a corporate, tangible re-statement (symbol) of present, past, and future realities.

Would this rescue 'feeding', or do we just need to take it out back and shoot it?


Luke said...

Hi Arthur,

Thanks for following my train of thoughts, I trust life at Ridley is as peachy as ever!

Good question about confessional statements, no I don't although that's not suprising because they are usually written drawing on a particular theological subset of shared assumptions.

"Feeding on Christ" has to be understood as a broad allegorical reference to our union with Christ otherwise it leaves all those problems I mentioned.

I like both your points and your final question. However I think we should keep it because I don't want to muck with the confessional statements.

Andrew Bowles said...

You could just as easily make similar criticisms about the phrase 'union with Christ'. I don't think this line of thinking is a strong argument either way, particularly since it relies for its force on a caricature 'cannibalistic' conception that no-one holds except weird Fred.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Weird Fred! You heard the man! :D


Luke said...

(Thank God for an iPhone)

How so Andrew? Union with Christ is more of a category then a discrete step and more of a state of being than an activity.

Andrew Bowles said...

It's about how we read metaphors. Union with Christ is a metaphor about being 'joined' to him, and if you wanted to you could critique it because it could be read in a strange literal way whereby we drag Christ around with us like we are attached by a rope. And how is he united with billions of different people at the same time, wouldn't that tear him up in to lots of little pieces as we all move around? I'm saying that just because 'feeding on Christ' as a metaphor can be interpreted in funny ways isn't a strong criticism of it, because any metaphor has the same problem.

Luke said...

I meant more then "it sounds weird" so this is a good chance to restate my criticisms of the phrase.

a) The metaphor brings to mind a physical activity: eating. This can only be meant in the loosest sense.
b) The metaphor must be more of a theme then a discrete event.
c) Unless there something else, the phrase is essentially the concept as Union with Christ.

I agree that "feeding on Christ" is a loose metaphor, that's how I'm reading the Westminster Confession and the 39 Articles, however without restrictions the metaphor can be taken too concretely.

Andrew Bowles said...

I think what I'm reacting to is the assumption that eating is a purely physical act and therefore we need to get away from or restrict metaphors that relate to it. Of course we can differentiate between inserting calorific matter into our mouths and the spiritual union with Christ. But 'eating' itself is at least a kind of quasi-spiritual act, since it involves recreating our bodies, accepting God's provision, sharing with others, etc. So eating as a spiritual act (in some sense) naturally lends itself to giving a metaphor for the spiritual reality of our relationship to Christ. I presume that was why he instituted the Lord's Supper and spoke this way in John 6. So I think that your dilemma 'a)' is based on too sharp a distinction between physical and spiritual realities. How can anything be 'purely' physical after the Resurrection?

And yes this ambiguity leaves difficulties in avoiding people taking it too concretely, but I presume that's why they ordain teachers of the Word and give us a set prayer book to use. :)

Jill said...

I'm interested in (if not convinced by) your argument against the term 'feeding on Christ'. How would you relate this to the equally common expression 'feeding on the Word' as applied to the reading of Scripture?

Luke said...

A Good question Jill,

It also would have to be a metaphor, useful as far as they go but some of the same criticisms would have to apply.

Perhaps, to nuance my comments, I'm reacting to the phrase in isolation and the way its employed as almost a folklorish explanation of communion. Maybe as a broad and loose theological phrase it stands quite strongly.