Posted by: mattcolvin | October 14, 2008


This post is an appreciation and a criticism. And while I’d like it to be 90% appreciation, and 10% criticism, it’s probably closer to 50-50.

I really appreciated Jim Jordan’s post on the BH blog about The Lord’s Supper. His point is that our churches are in the grip of ideology, so that rather than obeying what Jesus said to do in worship — the rituals he prescribed to shape our habits, thoughts, and persons — instead, we theologize and then script our own rituals to express our theology. This is the triumph of ideology, and it is gnosticizing Christianity (Fr. “Christianisme”).

I disagree only about Jim’s comments about Passover. He says, in the comments on that post, that “the business of reading the Supper in terms of a Passover ritual means making extra-Biblical Jewish customs the rule by which to read the Bible. It does not matter how Passover was done in Jesus’ day, because the Bible says nothing about it. What Jesus is doing is fulfilling the Word of God, not Jewish customs.”

In my opinion, the one main problem with Biblical Horizons theology (Jim and Jeff Meyers) is that they abstract the creation of the Bible from the life of the people of God, and from history. They treat it as a closed semiotic system that operates in only one direction: it tells us how to act in the world outside the Bible (text into world), but somehow, the extra-Biblical world, the world of history, cannot be taken up into the text (world into text). The life of God’s people cannot furnish any background for the rituals that Jesus instituted for the Church. The antecedents of the rituals must instead be sought exclusively in the pages of the Bible itself. Thus, Jim and Jeff reject out of hand the idea of David Daube that the bread that Jesus used in the Supper was already a known Messianic symbol to His disciples, because it is not specified as such in Scripture. The very idea of such a pre-existent, but hitherto unrecorded ritual conflicts with the presuppositions of the Biblical Horizons school’s approach to the Bible.

Daube makes an interesting claim in He That Cometh that speaks directly to this point: “[T]he institution of the Eucharist as recorded in the New Testament of necessity presupposes a ritual essentially (not in details, to be sure, but essentially) like that of ‘The Coming One.’ Jesus could not at the same time have introduced both the general idea of eating a cake of unleavened bread as the Messiah and the specific identification of the cake with himself. This is just not how rites come into being. The ceremony — some ceremony — of eating a piece of unleavened bread as the Messiah must have been practised before; the new thing was the identification, the self-revelation, the proclamation that the Messiah had now found bodily, human presence — ‘This is my body.'” Daube reckons with how the historical Jesus communicated with His historical disciples.

Thus, the intelligibility of the ritual Jesus instituted is not a matter of a hermetically sealed semiotic system in the pages of Scripture. Rather, it is a matter of real first century Jews communicating with each other. And real human beings just don’t devise rituals out of Biblical theology in their heads. Ironically, that is precisely what James Jordan decries: theology driving ritual rather than the other way around.

But this is a minor criticism, despite the space it took me to write it. What Jim is saying about ritual and ideology desperately needs to be heard by the churches:

… the bread was passed hand to hand and the disciples ate as soon as they broke off a piece. How many churches respect this? Precious few. A new ritual has been added of having everyone wait and then the pastor says something he’s made up and everyone eats and drinks together. Instead of each of us drinking and offering to die for the person next to us, we all drink in abstraction.

This fits perfectly with David Daube’s understanding of the bread and wine. Jesus’ words “This is my body” identified Himself with the Messiah represented by the bread. When He adds the words “given for you”, He is indicating that he would offer himself for us. The cup that he takes is His blood of the covenant. He is indicating that He will die for us. Recall that He asks the sons of Zebedee if they can drink the cup that He drinks? We are to drink that cup. Our union with Christ requires it. We are to offer to give up our lives for each other.

Consider: Jesus clearly ate the bread first, since He broke off His piece first. And it’s clear that the conception of the Cup is that Jesus drank of it first. Just so, in the prescribed ritual, the minister eats and drinks martyrdom for his congregation and sets the example. How many churches do this? Incredibly, it is now the custom for the minister to be served last of all!!

Consider: The elements are passed hand to hand, though the minister begins the ritual and speaks the words. How many churches do this? Denying the priesthood of all believers, the ideologists insist that each person be served individually by the minister. Plus it just feels holier and more meaningful. Understand: It is ideology that produces this perverted rite. It is an ideology so powerful that the churches are simply blind to the fact that they reject Jesus’ example and disobey Him.

Quite so. I’m in the Reformed Episcopal Church. It has an awful lot of things right — not least, paedocommunion. But communion at the front, served by the pastor and two helpers, takes away from the congregation the priestly role of offering themselves to each other in the ritual of the Supper. Peter Leithart puts it this way in a eucharistic meditation for his own church:

In most Reformed churches through the centuries, the minister and elders receive the bread and wine first, and then distribute it to the people. Though we don’t do it that way, it makes theological and liturgical sense. At the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus blessed the bread, broke it, and the apostles distributed it to the people.

This is a picture of the order of the church: Jesus works specifically through the officers of His church, who are called and equipped to minister to the people of God. But the minister and elders do NOT carry on the work of the church themselves. The elders give the bread to the people, and YOU share it with each other, ministering the bread of life to one another. James Jordan has suggested that the ministry of the church is like a river: The river flows like the oil on Aaron’s head, flowing down over the Head, Jesus, down over the ministers and elders and to the skirts of the garments.



  1. I still think Daube’s thesis is the most elegant I’ve heard with regard to the supper. Do we ever get to apply Occam’s razor to theological constructions?

    “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”

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