Evangelicals at the Eucharist

The Parakatathiki ("Charge"), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.

I was fascinated today to run across this call to the Eucharist, written from a Reformed perspective, by Peter J. Leithart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and an eminent Evangelical theologian. (Seeing this, along with my recent posts on Evangelicals observing Lent, I’ve decided to create a new category for posts on this weblog: Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition.)

This is a fascinating self-criticism from within Evangelicalism, but I have to admit that after I got to the end, I had hoped there would be more to it. There is something very much missing from this, and as I attempted to remember how I would have read this as I would have as an Evangelical sixteen or so years ago, it came to me. There must be Evangelicals who read this piece and are thinking: Why?

The argument that Leithart makes here for Evangelicals to put the Eucharist at the center of their worship is really pretty weak: It helps Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, well, we can remember such things in other ways, can’t we? If it’s really just about remembering, why should we have to break out the wafers and grape juice all the time? (And, you know, we have to vacuum the carpet afterward.) What does all that ritual actually do, anyway?

Mind you, I think Leithart is actually right about all the criticisms he levels at the results of a de-liturgized worship life. There can be no Church without the Eucharist. Christians are politically vulnerable without the Eucharist. Christian life is reduced to fads and programmes without the Eucharist; or, in the words of Fr. John S. Romanides, “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”

But, why? Why is a de-liturgized worship so vulnerable to all these distortions? Why do Evangelicals largely not see the point in the Eucharist?

It is because the Evangelical Eucharist is, to use Leithart’s term, merely a Sign. If it’s really just a reminder—a sign—then once I feel like I’ve gotten my memory in order, I don’t need the reminder any more. (And let’s not forget that doing communion all the time looks suspiciously Catholic.)

But now, if the Eucharist is actually real, if it’s actually what Jesus said it is, “food indeed” and “drink indeed,” if eating and drinking it actually put life into you, if it’s really so serious that you could get sick or die if you partake unworthily—well, that’s something else. When you’re given the opportunity to eat and drink God, then of course you will put that at the center of your worship.

And when that Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of God Himself, then there is no way you could ever stand to surround the act of communion with anything remotely faddish (if you do, it will clearly be a blasphemy). Eating and drinking God requires a dignity and power and reverence that are entirely beyond whiting out the lyrics of the latest Lady Gaga song to be replaced by what a friend of mine calls “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. There’s a reason why, when most of us picture Heaven (including the Biblical writers), we do not think of a pop concert.

And if you are eating and drinking God, and that’s putting life into you, then you are going to be granted, quite frankly, an otherworldly power that will not only make the unity of the Church utterly critical (not to mention, obvious), but you will also not be beholden to the temporal, transient temptations of this world, whether political or in other cultural ways.

In traditional Christian theology, the Eucharist creates an extension of the very incarnation of Christ. But in the Evangelical theological world, where associating physical matter with holiness is just idolatry, then you are creating an incarnational no-man’s land where holiness cannot touch. But you still have to live there, so you fill it up with programmes and politics, not to mention emotion and intellect.

A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.

Leithart also speaks of the priesthood of all believers (and, indeed, the Orthodox believe in that, too), but what is the point of a priesthood who really aren’t offering up any real sacrifice? A priesthood of “signs” is really just a priesthood of pretense, of pretending. No one puts on costly vestments and takes up golden vessels if he believes that what he places into them is just a symbol of something that’s not really there. (Well, some do, but eventually, their theological descendents always eventually start to put those things off, because they just don’t see the point any more.)

The problem with Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to come back to the Eucharist is that he doesn’t give them any overriding, compelling, positive reason to do so. His negative reasons are good, but theology has to have its own inner purpose beyond preventing or addressing dysfunction. The Eucharist’s purpose is not to hold back these distorting tendencies he identifies so concisely. Rather, its purpose is for those who receive it to become partakers of the divine nature.

And when you’re doing that, well, that changes everything.

Update: A friend points out this piece which examines all these issues in terms of their Augustinian theological background from an Evangelical (but apparently non-Zwinglian) perspective. He also rightly points out that Leithart himself probably would not embrace the fully Zwinglian “pure sign” sacramental theology I make reference to above. But of course Zwingli’s ideas about the sacraments are the context for almost all Evangelicals, and Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (from which Leithart is drawing) has its weaknesses precisely for the reasons outlined in the post on Augustine’s sacramentology.

Another point well-made by my friend is that the real reason why there is not likely to be any sort of Eucharistic revival among Evangelicals is that they really have no actual priesthood. It’s not something that can simply be started up by people who read some books. If you have no connection to the ancient traditions of Christian priesthood, what would actually make you think that the prayers of your newly-created priesthood actually would be the means by which God transforms bread and wine into body and blood? Ultimately, the various elements of tradition that are being appropriated here by some Evangelicals will necessarily be distorted, because they have been removed from the context of the tradition that gives them their power and meaning.


  1. Joe Hegyi III says

    The Churches of Christ are having an interesting twist on your remark about future generations turning away from the Eucharist. As you probably know, Churches of Christ partake of the Eucharist weekly and have traditionally viewed it as a mere symbol. Over the past twenty years, however, there is a growing part of the Churches of Christ that are re-evaluating the role of the Eucharist in worship. Interestingly, however, they aren’t pushing it away but placing new emphasis on it. Some are even rearranging their services to center on the Eucharist. Many are rejecting their Enlightenment heritage and seeking a way forward with accepting more of the supernatural elements of the Christian life. Personally I think the logical solution is to become Orthodox and maybe in a few generations that will happen but right now they are so excited about interacting with the rest of the Protestant world that they don’t see the big picture yet.

    • Joseph says

      interesting, Joe. the mission i used to be a part of is no more, but of the 12 or so folks that regularly participated, 3 were former Church of Christ/Christian Church (both the anti-instrumentalist and the NACC “middle” branch). the rest were former RCs, or cradle Orthodox.

      thanks for pointing this out. i no longer keep up with the currents in the Restoration Movement of Campbell and Stone, but i will try to talk with family that are still there, to gauge their views. thank you.

  2. Cyril says

    Father, I will repost this, and link it also. I knew Leithart, and as a Presby ran in his circles. Essentially Leithart would hold that Christ is the real celebrant at every Eucharist, he is the actor, and that grace is communicated in and through the Eucharist. The bread and wine are istrumental means, and while they can be verbally identified with the flesh and blood of our God, there is no real communication of divinity from Christ to the elements, and thus of course, not to us (hmm, St. Cyril of Alexandria had a word for this). Finally, all of this grace is triggered or effected by faith. This is quite contradictory of course for Calvinism, which has as its basic assumption that grace must precede faith (election).

  3. David Lindblom says

    When I think of subjects like you bring up here and how Evangelicals relate to it I think of the faith as the new wine skin that Jesus referred to. Protestants to varying degrees have poured out much of the wine and have cinched up the wine skins. When they view us w/ all the wine we were given by Christ they cannot see the point of the extra wine. Their skins are too small to hold it and because the wine skins are as full as they can get they think they have all that’s needed and our “extra” wine serves no purpose. There is no room for the fullness of the faith because their faith and the theology that supports it has been shrunk. They need to get new wine skins by dumping their truncated theology and embrace something very different and much more expansive.

    Hope this makes sense.

    • says

      Yes, it makes sense, though I think the metaphor needs some expansion and adjustment. From the viewpoint of most Evangelicals, I think they would say not that we have “extra” wine but rather that we have become enamored with fancy wineskins and probably forgotten wine altogether. If you have the wine, why not put it in a barrel or a glass or some other vessel? What does it matter?