The Truth and Lies issues (Systematic Theology)
We have seen that making wise, godly decisions depends on knowing the truth about God, Creation, Humanity and New Creation. This means rejecting lies about all four areas of doctrine. In this post we will look at some of the doctrinal (Systematic Theology) issues at stake in our decisions about communion.
Who is God and who is Christ?
The early church fought hard to ensure that believers affirmed faith in the Triune God with a right understanding of who God is. Some people might want to write these things off as technical trivia but they are essential. First of all knowing God rightly matters because we want to worship him and know him as he is. We are not to create a defective God in our own image. Secondly it matters for our salvation. The question of who Christ is cuts to the heart of salvation, if he is either not fully God or fully man then he is not able to truly save. Thirdly it matters pastorally, our ability to say that God is love, is rooted in our knowledge that he is one God in three persons so that love is an eternal attribute of his character.
The question of Christ’s nature therefore became an important issue. The Chalcedon Creed says
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
The important bit here is that Christ has “two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” This has two vital implications. First of all, because these are indivisible and inseparable, the two natures do not undermine Christ’s identity as one person, he does not have a split personality. Secondly, because the natures are unconfused and unchanged, it means that you don’t end up with a composite nature, a kind of mongrel creature part God, part man but also neither God nor man. He remains truly and fully God and truly and fully man.
This bit is important for the question of what happens at the Lord’s Supper. The Catholic and Lutheran ideas of what happens where in some way, the bread and wine become Christ are problematic because they suggest that somehow Jesus is bodily split between each and every church meeting this Sunday. However, Calvin argues from this a that Christ is present in heaven bodily but his divine nature means that he is at the same time omnipresent as spirit and therefore present at each and every church gathering.
When it comes to the church, important things to consider include “what does it mean to gather as a local church together?” What are the marks of a true church and how is the church ordered. This will lead to questions about whether a church can function without a physical gathering. We will talk about this a little bit more in our final posting.
The long held position of the protestant church is that the marks of a true church are
- The Word of God is properly taught
- The sacraments/ordinances of baptism and communion are rightly observed.
The second matters for two reasons. First of all, we are insisting form this that a church that does not properly observe Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is not really a church at all. It might be an outreach, ministry, mission, conference, fellowship group but it is not a church. However, does the logic flow the other way? Does it mean that a group that is not officially a church cannot do those things?
To answer that, we need to consider three further questions. The first is to do with leadership. Proper observation suggests order. Therefore, we tend to suggest that godly church discipline is in place. Someone who is either not a believer or out of fellowship with the church (and so not discerning the body), should not be taking communion. Therefore the elders have responsibility for the order of communion. I would suggest that this does rule off anyone just going and setting up their own little communion service.
Secondly, there is the question of open or closed communion. In a lot of churches you will hear an invitation “to all who love the Lord.” Some church traditions (e.g. Strict Baptist) would see this as an abdication of the responsibilities described above. Therefore communion should be something that church members only participate in. There may be an allowance for visitors who are in good standing with their own church. I think the assumption here is that the alternative is a free for all where anyone can participate. To some extent that approach does run through some church groupings. In those cases, the assumption is that communion will always do good and we cannot withhold it because that would lack grace.
However, I think that the difference between open and closed is more about how we manage things. Closed communion essentially assumes that I can only take communion if I am told I can. Open Communion assumes that I take it unless I am told that I must not. It means that there is also an individual responsibility in discernment. So, we would clearly state that the meal is for those who know Jesus, it is for believers and if you are not a believer then you should not take communion. I would also add that if you are a believer then you SHOULD be taking communion unless the elders as part of church discipline have told you not to. Further, if you feel there is something preventing you from taking communion, then you should come and talk with one of us. To be honest, in practice, communion will not look too different if bread and wine are normally passed around because unless the elders give directly to each member, there has to be a significant level of self-policing. Our church, Bearwood Chapel holds to an open-table position.
Finally, there is the question about how we decide what we can or cannot do in worship. The two approaches are “The regulative principle” and “The Normative Principle.” The Regulative Principle assumes that if something is not expressly permitted in Scripture, then we should not do it. The Normative Principle assumes that if something is not expressly forbidden in Scripture then we can do it. The choice is probably more on a spectrum than a binary choice. People who hold to a regulative principle position will often see the need for interpretation of the detail, otherwise we end up having to exclude technology from church, for example. Those who hold to the normative position will also recognise that we need wisdom when looking at practices, something may not be expressly forbidden but break the spirit of what Scripture teaches.
This is important because if you hold to a normative position, you may well conclude that there is nothing in Scripture which says that a small part of the church cannot take communion, or that a gathering between local churches cannot share it. If you hold to the regulative position then you are more likely to argue that such practices are simply not permitted in Scripture therefore we have no permission to follow them.