From “Making a Meal of it:
Rethinking the Theology of the Lord's Supper”
by Ben Witherington, b.1951
In the second century and going into the third century A.D. there was a smorgasbord of views about the Lord’s Supper. There was certainly not a consistent or prevailing witness through these two early centuries that provided a real basis for later Catholic or Orthodox sacramental theology. It does appear, however, that there was a trend toward more literalism about the elements and a trend toward talking about the elements being transformed when one prayed over them.
We still see the Lord’s Supper being part of the agape, but the rising tide of asceticism was going to do that in, as was the rising tide of clericalism. Views of the Lord’s Supper in the majority Gentile church were bound to change over time, especially with the advent of more and more Christian thinkers trying to use Greek philosophy apologetically to defend and define the gospel. When one gets to Clement or Hippolytus, we are clearly a long way from what we find in Paul and the Gospels, where the influence of the Passover is still strongly present and the meal is seen as a family meal, taken in the home, a memorial meal to remember Jesus’ death until his return.
There was nothing in the first-century discussion nor much in the second-century discussion that suggests the later debates about transubstantiation and consubstantiation, two different literalist or physicalist interpretations. But by the same token, we have seen evidence throughout that it was believed that some sort of spiritual transaction was involved, some sort of spiritual communion between the believer and other believers, and also between the believer and the Lord. It was not just a matter of symbols in the modern sense of that term. The most essential problem with the developing sacramental theology can be summed up as follows: when the church read texts like “John 6” out of their original Jewish and sapiential contexts, it led to problems with this whole hermeneutic from the start, since nowhere in the “New Testament” is there set up a class of priests or clerics to administer any sacraments. Indeed, nowhere was there a clear separation between life in the home and life in church. What has often been missed in the discussions of the effects of all this is that it ruled women out of ministry in the larger church and indeed ruled them out of celebrating the Lord’s Supper as well, since in the “Old Testament” only males were priests and only priests could offer sacrifices.
Too often scholars have thought and even suggested that what happened during and after Constantine was that the church sought to replace the pagan temples, priests, and sacrifices with their own. This is at best a half-truth. If this had been primarily what was going on, we would have expected to find priestesses showing up in the mainstream church in and after the time of Constantine, since there were certainly priestesses in the pagan temples. But this we do not find in the historical record. This is because the church of that period was not merely trying to supplant pagan religion with Christian religion, though some of that was going on. More to the point, there was a rising tide of anti-Judaism, and one of its manifestations was this “Old Testament” hermeneutic. The “Torah” had been claimed as the Church’s book, Jews were being ostracised and then later ghettoised, and a hermeneutic of ministry was being adopted which co-opted the “Old Testament” for church use when it came to priests, temples and sacrifices, and indeed sacraments in general. Thus ironically enough while the structure of the ecclesial church was becoming more “Old Testamental,” the church hierarchy was not only becoming less tolerant of Jews, it was forgetting altogether the Jewish character of Jesus’ ministry and his modifications of the Passover that led to the Lord’s Supper celebration of the early church in the first place.
And one more thing. When the church adopted and adapted an “Old Testament” vision of ministry, needless to say, it became more patriarchal in its vision of ministry in general. Were it not for the monastic movement, the rise of nunneries as well as monasteries, women might have been foreclosed from all forms of ministry in the church during the early medieval period. This also does not comport with what we find in the early church praxis in Paul’s letters and “Acts.” And it is precisely because of factors such as these (rising clericalism, rising patriarchalism, rising anti-Judaism, the co-opting of “Old Testament” “ecclesiology”) that modern scholars have spoken about the cultural captivity of the medieval church with some reason. The church had admired and emulated other religious organisations that had done well over the centuries (both pagan and Jewish), and then it became what it admired.
One can say it did not augur well for the celebration of the Lord's Supper when the church went mainstream, ceased to be an illicit religion or countercultural in any real sense and moved its meal out of the house and into the church and then to the fellowship hall. The church had come a long way since the Last Supper, and much of it had involved a journey away from, and even against, its original Jewish recipe. The result was half-baked sacramental theology with too many foreign flavours overwhelming the main ingredient.