The ancient Greeks loved their mysteries. In that, they were like us, although their mysteries were quite a bit different from ours. A mystery, to the ancient Greeks, was not a story in which a crime was committed and a brilliant but eccentric investigator was called in to find the culprit and solve the puzzle that had left the Athenian or Spartan authorities baffled. The Hercules of the Greek mysteries was not exactly known for using his “little grey cells”.
The ancient Greek mysteries were religious rites or ceremonies associated with the cults of particular deities. The ancient Greeks were polytheistic. They recognized many gods and while the stories told about those gods, the Greek myths, were shared by the Hellenic peoples, religious worship varied greatly throughout Greece. The city was the sovereign political unit in ancient Greece and each city had its own established cult honoring the patron gods of the city. Each citizen was expected to participate in the rites of his own city but was also free to worship other gods as well. Several of the Greek gods and goddesses had mystery cults in their honour. The most famous of these were the Eleusian Mysteries and the Dionysian Mysteries.. The Eleusian Mysteries were based in Eleusis and were in honour of Demeter the goddess of harvest and grain and her daughter Persephone. The Dionysian Mysteries, in honour of Dionysius or Bacchus, the god of wine, were not tied to a particular location, and indeed spread throughout all Greece and eventually to Rome. Both of these mystery cults clearly had their origins as fertility religions.
Mystery cults were not open to everybody but rather only to those who were initiated. The first mystery of one of these cults was it’s initiation rite. As part of the ceremony each initiate would swear an oath that they would not reveal the secrets of the cult to outsiders. This is why they were called “mysteries”. The Greek term “to mysterion” originally meant a secret. Some of the mysteries were multi-layered, with initiates learning more of the cult’s secrets as they progressed. Due to the secretive nature of the mysteries we do not know all of the details about them. We do know that many of the mystery rites involved a re-enactment of the main myth pertaining to the gods the cult worshipped. In the Eleusian Mysteries, for example, this was the rape of Persephone, in which she was abducted by Hades, taken to the underworld, and searched for by her mother until an arrangement was made that she would spend part of the year in the underworld as Hades’ queen (winter) and the rest of the year with her mother (spring through harvest).
While the ancient Greek mysteries are long gone, they have inspired the rituals of many other groups down through the years. One obvious example to point to is freemasonry. Freemasonry too is a group whose initiates are sworn not to reveal its secrets. When the Dionysian Mysteries came to Ancient Rome, according to Livy, (1) subversive elements abused the secrecy of the Mysteries to plot sedition against the Republic. Similar accusations have been made against the freemasons. Freemasonry is also like the Dionysian Mysteries in that more often than not it is just an excuse to have fun, get drunk and throw a party.
Christianity too has been influenced by these practices. Christianity borrowed many things from the Greeks, and mystery rites were one of them. We will see what the Christian mysteries are momentarily, and how they are both similar to and different from Greek mysteries. First, it needs to be pointed out that the fact that Christianity incorporated the concept of a “mystery” from pagan Greek religion, does not mean, as some skeptics have argued, that Christianity is not the divinely revealed, true faith. Just because pagan fertility religions feature a dying and reviving god, does not mean that Christianity, centred around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event in human history attested by eyewitnesses that took place in the capital of a province of the Roman Empire, under the nose of the Roman authorities, is not true. Rather, as C. S. Lewis has argued, it means that in Christianity, the myth has come true. (2)
It should also be pointed out that just because the Church borrowed something from the Greeks does not mean that by doing so the Christian faith was polluted and corrupted. There are many Christians who do not like that Christianity borrowed so much from the Greeks. Some would argue that Greek thought has been a corrupting influence in the Church. These would use the expression “the Hellenization of Christianity” to describe the process whereby Christianity was supposedly led astray from the purity of its Hebrew roots.
It is impossible, however, to conceive of what this supposed, pristine, pre-Hellenized Christianity would have looked up. The earliest Christian writings, including those of the Apostles and close associates of the Apostles like St. Luke that are considered canonical Scripture by the Church, already incorporate elements of Greek thought. St. John the Evangelist begins his Gospel by identifying Jesus with both the logos of Greek philosophy and the God of the Old Testament, bringing Greek and Hebrew thought together. Jesus Himself quotes a Greek proverb in the New Testament in His post-Ascension appearance to Saul of Tarsus leading to the latter’s conversion.(3)
The Christian mysteries have a clear Scriptural warrant as well. Greek was the universal language when Christianity was born. It became the language of the Church and remained the language of the Church for centuries. During these centuries the Church referred to its own rites and ceremonies as “mysteries”. Eventually, Latin, the language of Rome, became more common in Western Europe and in the Western Church. When the Western, Latin-speaking Church split from the Eastern, Greek-speaking Church in the 11th Century, the Eastern Churches continued to call their rites mysteries and they do so to this day. The Western Church, however, had begun as far back as Tertullian, to use the Latin word “sacramentum” to translate the Greek “mysterion”. Hence, the sacred mysteries of Christianity, are in the Western Church known as “sacraments”.
The Eastern Church does not take a position on how many Christian mysteries there are. It recognizes at least seven, the seven that the Roman Catholic Church considers to be sacraments. Martin Luther and John Calvin, however, argued that there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. These are the two rites which the early Church first called mysteries, the two which most obviously resemble Greek mystery rites, the two which are clearly instituted by Christ Himself for His Church in the New Testament, and the two which are recognized by all branches of the Christian Church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. These are the two that are the subject of this essay.
Baptism and Holy Communion are not called “mysteries” anywhere in the New Testament. Baptism, however, is clearly an initiation rite, and Holy Communion is a sort of visual re-enactment of the central event in the Christian narrative – the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, and the shedding of His blood. They are therefore the functional equivalent of Greek mysteries with an important difference. There is no “secret knowledge” that the baptized are sworn to keep hidden from those outside the Church.
In this, the orthodox Christian Church is to be distinguished from the heretics, called anti-Christs by St. John the Apostle, who challenged Apostolic doctrine and authority in the early centuries of the Church. These have come to be known as “Gnostics” because they claimed to have “secret knowledge” or “gnosis” which they revealed only to their initiates.
In contrast with the pagan Greek and Gnostic practices, the Christian Church from the time of the Apostles has publicly declared the doctrines of the faith into which its initiates are baptized. The Apostles’ Creed, is believed by Church historians to have originally been prepared in Rome, for use in baptism. In Rome, the church developed the practice of baptizing its converts on Easter Sunday, and as part of the ceremony they would publicly confess their faith. The Apostle’s Creed is believed to have been the formula for those confessions. The Nicene Creed is regularly recited in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and liturgical Protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, some Reformed) Churches as part of the liturgy of Holy Communion. This practice dates back to the century in which the Nicene Creed was composed, and the Church leaders at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople may very well have intended for the Creed to be used that way. The contents of neither Creed were ever restricted to Christian believers, but contain, rather, the basic Christian message that the Church proclaims to the world.
This is in keeping with how the word “mystery” is used in the New Testament. “To mysterion” is found about 30 times in the New Testament. Jesus Christ Himself is only quoted as using it once, the quotation being found in all three Synoptic Gospels. This is when Jesus, having spoken to the crowd in parables, explains why He did so to His disciples:
Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. (Matt. 13:11)
The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven were not secrets the disciples were to keep hidden forever, however. If they were, the Evangelists would not have written the explanations of the parables down in the Gospels. Following the Resurrection, Jesus commissioned the Apostles to go into all the world, preaching the Gospel to all people, baptizing them and teaching them all which Jesus had taught them. The mysteries of the kingdom were to be secrets no more. St. Paul frequently describes the Gospel as a mystery, hidden in past times, but now revealed.
What happened between Matthew 13 and Matthew 28 that brought about this change?
The events of Holy Week of course. On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, identifying Himself publicly with an Old Testament prophecy about the coming Messiah. At His trial before the High Priests, He identified Himself with the Messianic “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel. When He rose again from the dead, on the first Easter Sunday, He was “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4).
The kingdom was no longer to be wrapped up in mysteries, hidden from the multitude and kept secret among the disciples, because the King had revealed Himself, and the Good News was to be preached to every creature. In Christianity, the meaning of the mystery was to be inverted. Christian knowledge is not to be concealed, hidden, and reserved for the initiates but to be proclaimed to the world. As St. Paul put it:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. (1 Tim 3:16)
If Christianity is a religion of revelation, then, and not a religion of secret knowledge, what is the purpose of the Christian mysteries, the sacraments?
Let us look at what the New Testament has to say about them.
Baptism was an Old Testament ritual of purification for uncleanness that became associated with the ministry of John the Baptist. John the Baptist, born six months before Jesus, was the son of Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. An eccentric, Old Testament style prophet, John earned his nickname by preaching in the wilderness around the Jordan River in Judaea. His message was simple “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Those who heeded his word, confessed their sins and were baptized by John in the Jordan. Baptism, then, in the ministry of John the Baptist, was an outward sign of repentance.
Then Jesus came to John to be baptized. This shocked him. John knew Jesus to be the One he spoke of when he told the Pharisees “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” When John was preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, what he meant was “Repent, because Jesus, the King God has promised you, is here”. So why was Jesus Himself coming to be baptized?
This is exactly what John the Baptist asked Jesus, and Jesus’ answer was “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” John may not have fully understood this, but we can understand it now, as the first century readers of the Gospels would have been able to understand it, because of the writings of St. Paul.
In the sixth chapter of his epistle to the church in Rome, St. Paul writes:
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)
The believer in Jesus Christ is joined to Christ in a spiritual union. Christ is in the believer and the believer is in Christ. In Christian baptism, the initiatory rite of the Christian faith, the believer is identified with Christ in His death and resurrection.
This is one side of an important spiritual truth. The other side is that Christ in His death and resurrection, chose to identify Himself with sinful mankind, and take man’s sins upon Himself.. This is how salvation was accomplished. “He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”. (2 Cor. 5:21)
It was in His death that He took our sins upon Himself. This was not the beginning of His self-identification with fallen man however. In one sense it began with His incarnation. He chose to identify Himself with us by taking humanity upon Himself. Symbolically, however, the beginning of His identification with sinful mankind was His baptism. Baptism was a ritual purification. One was ritually purified with water when one had become unclean in certain ways. John in particular was baptizing as a symbol of repentance. Jesus had no need of such purification for Himself, for He had no sins to repent of, but He underwent the baptism in order to identify Himself with sinners, who do need to repent. The very reason He became a man was to take man’s sins upon Himself and so save those who would put their trust in Him. This was why the Father sent Him (John 6:38-40) and when Jesus humbled Himself by identifying Himself with sinful man in baptism, God the Father acknowledge Him as His Son from Heaven.
In Jesus’ baptism He identified with sinful, fallen, humanity, and in our baptism we identify with Him in His death and resurrection. Christian baptism then, is all about the spiritual union between the believer and Christ, in which that which is the believer’s, i.e. his sins, become Christ’s, and that which is Christ’s, His death and resurrection, become the believer’s. It is quite appropriate, therefore, as an initiation rite into the Christian faith, and was instituted as such for the Church by Christ:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:18-20).
Christ’s words commissioning the Eucharist were recorded in Scripture before any of the Gospels were written. The Gospels were written after the epistles, and St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of his first epistle to the Church in Corinth describes how Jesus established the Eucharist. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke would later place the words of institution within their context in the narrative of Jesus life.
Christ instituted Holy Communion at the Last Supper, i.e., the last Passover seder that he shared with His Apostles on the night in which He was betrayed by Judas and handed over to the High Priests. At that supper, Jesus took bread, i.e. matzah, a flat unleavened bread similar to a cracker, gave thanks, and then broke it saying:
Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
He also took the cup, i.e., of wine, and said:
This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
St. Paul, after recording this, goes on to tell the Corinthian Church:
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. (1 Cor. 11:26)
If baptism is the Christian initiation mystery, Holy Communion is the mystery in which Christ’s death, the central event in Christianity’s redemption history, is reenacted.
St. John does not record the institution of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper. Earlier in his Gospel, however, he tells of how the people who had witnessed Him feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, later came up to Him in Capernaum. They wanted to know how He had gotten there (He had walked across the sea to rejoin His disciples in their boat) and Jesus told them they were looking for Him for the wrong reasons, that they should labour “for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life” instead of “the meat which perisheth”. They then asked Him what work they needed to do to “work the works of God” and were told that “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent”.
They still had the feeding of the five thousand on their minds and asked Him for a miracle that they might believe, dropping a hint as to what kind of miracle they would like by referring to the manna their ancestors ate while wandering in the desert of Sinai. Jesus then contrasted the manna with Himself, saying that He was the “bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst” and explained that His purpose in coming down from heaven was to save the people His Father gave Him, i.e. those who believe in Him.
This was not received well by His audience, which included people who knew His mother Mary and her husband Joseph, and grumbled at His having said that He “came down from heaven”.
Jesus response to them was not worded in a way that would be easier for them to accept. It included the following:
I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:48-51)
When this produced further strife among His audience He intensified it by saying:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:53-58)
Jesus’ disciples’ called this a “hard saying” and there has been tremendous controversy over it within the Church. When these words are read in their full context there is no conflict with the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith. Jesus clearly equates “eating His flesh” and “drinking His blood” with believing in Him. Jesus is the Savior, Who saved His people through His sacrificial death, in which His body was nailed to a cross and pierced with a spear and His blood was shed. The sinner who trusts Jesus as Savior appropriates that salvation through faith.
There is also a reference to the mystery of Holy Communion in these words. Consider again the words of institution spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper. Here is how St. Matthew records them:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom. (Matt. 26:26-29)
“This is My body”, “This is My blood”. That Jesus did not have this in mind when He said “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him” is extremely improbable.
Some evangelical Protestants insist upon that improbability however, and maintain that there is no reference to the Eucharist in John 6. Such evangelicals insist that the believer does not in any way eat Christ’s flesh or drink His blood in Holy Communion, that the reference to doing so in John 6 does not refer in any way to the sacrament. This is the doctrine taught by the Reformer Ulrich Zwingle. It was not the doctrine of the first evangelical Reformers Martin Luther or John Calvin, nor was it the doctrine of John and Charles Wesley who led the great evangelical revival in the English Church in the 18th Century. The early Reformers and the Wesleys believed, like the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
What Luther and Calvin disagreed with was the doctrine of transubstantiation. To understand that doctrine you need to understand the distinction, going back to Aristotle, between substance and accidents. Imagine a blue box. It is a container in which you can place things to store or transport them. If it were not that it would not be a box. That is the substance of the box, it’s essence, that which cannot be changed without changing it into something other than a box. If you were to paint the box red, however, it would still be a box even though it would no longer be blue. Blue and red, are accidents of the box. They are properties which can be changed without changing its essential nature.
In the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, when Christ’s words of institution are spoken by a priest over the elements, consecrating the bread and wine, the substance of the bread and wine is replaced with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, while the accidents of the bread and wine, remain. In this theology, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is contained within the physical elements, which remain Christ’s body and blood after consecration.
Dr. Luther objected that no such doctrine is taught in Scripture. The body and blood of the Lord, he argued, is present in Eucharist, because Christ is present in the Word of God which is pronounced over the bread and wine during the consecration. The bread and wine remain real bread and wine and not just “the appearance” of bread and wine. The faithful, in the sacrament, receive both the bread and wine through the physical act of eating the elements, and the real body and blood of the Lord contained in the spoken Word, through faith. (4)
This, according to Dr. Luther and St. Augustine (5), is what makes a sacrament a sacrament – the uniting of the Word with something material, in the case of baptism, water, in the case of Holy Communion, the bread and wine. Dr. Luther’s understanding, is arguably more in sync with what the Church taught from the patristic period down through the Middle Ages, than transubstantiation. The sacraments are traditionally linked with the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. In the Incarnation, the Son of God, remained God. He did not cease to be “of one substance with the Father” but He added to His person, the nature of true humanity as well. The humanity that the Son took upon Himself, was not merely the outward appearance of being a man. The idea that He was not fully human, but only appeared to be human, is the doctrine of Docetism, against which Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian contended in the 2nd Century AD, and which was formally condemned by the Church as heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. At that Council the Church took a clear Christological stand that Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time, uniting in His One Person, the two natures of God and man in hypostatic union.
In the Incarnation, the invisible God became visible, by becoming a man. When Christ ascended back to Heaven, He left His Church on earth. St. Paul in his epistles calls the Church the “body of Christ”. The Church then, can be regarded as the earthly continuation of the Incarnation. The Holy Ghost came upon the disciples as they were gathered in the Upper Room on Pentecost. The Holy Ghost indwells individual believers and the corporate Church, in which human beings on earth are joined in spiritual union with Christ Who is seated in Heaven.
The Church has traditionally understood the mystery rites which Christ instituted as being intrinsically connected to the Church’s role as a continuation of the Incarnation on earth. This brings us back to the point made earlier, about how in Christianity, a mystery is something to be revealed, not a secret to be concealed as in paganism and Gnosticism. The Incarnation was an act of revelation – “God was manifest in the flesh” – in which that which was invisible, is made visible. In the Church, Christ Who is presently invisible, being seated at the right hand of the Father until His coming again to judge the world, is visibly present on earth. In the Christian mysteries, the invisible realities of the believer’s spiritual union with Christ in His Church, are made visible by being manifested in visible rites.
Believers in Jesus, are cleansed from their sins by His shed blood and are joined by the Holy Spirit into a union with Christ, in which they are made partakers with Him in His death and resurrection. He identified with sinners in His death on the cross, taking our sins upon Himself, so that through His death He might take away our sins. We, through faith, receive this remission of sins when we believe the Gospel, and are identified with Christ in His death and resurrection. His death becomes our death to sin, His resurrection becomes our new life in Him. When someone believed the Gospel in the Apostolic era, the first thing that happened was that they were baptized. Baptism, a purification ritual from the Old Covenant was transformed into the ritual whereby one was initiated into Christ’s Church. The physical element – the water symbolic of cleansing – was the external act united with the spiritual reality of the believer’s union with Christ, his partaking in Christ’s death and resurrection, and his being cleansed of his sins.
Christ’s sacrifice is not just the basis of our initial union with Christ however. It is the basis of our ongoing Christian lives. We become Christians through faith, believing the Gospel, and we live as Christians by faith, believing the Gospel. “The just shall live by faith”. Christ’s one-time sacrifice, as that which sustains us in the Christian life, is proclaimed in the sacrament of Communion, where Christ’s Word “this is My body” and “this is My blood” is joined to the physical elements of bread and wine.
Through these rites, the spiritual realities become visibly tangible to the believer. By joining the Word, in which the spiritual truths are conveyed, to a physical element representing the spiritual truth, the physical elements become a vessel for the Word, making it easier for the Word to be received in faith. (6)
Faith’s object, must always be Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, and His one-time sacrifice and resurrection. The Zwinglian doctrine arose out of a legitimate concern that people were putting their faith in the physical elements of the sacraments rather than in Christ. The Zwinglian response to this concern, however, went too far. The Incarnational understanding of the Christian sacraments has been emphasized in Christian doctrine and worship since the earliest days of the Church. It is that understanding of the sacraments as “a visible Word”, an extension of what happened in the Incarnation of Christ, that makes sense of the Christian mysteries.
The case has been cracked and the mystery solved.
(1) Livy’s account is found in Book 39 of his Ab Urbe Condita. In English translation, it can be found in Rome and the Mediterranean (Penguin Classics: London, 1976) pp. 401-415.
(2) See C. S. Lewis’s God In the Dock: Essays On Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, and published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1970, in particular the essay entitled “The Grand Miracle”.
(3) The proverb is “do not kick against the pricks”, which occurs in a number of Greek writers including Aeschylus and Euripides.
(4) The difference between Dr. Luther’s view on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic and Zwinglian views on the other, is not a moot issue, a case of theological hairsplitting. Transubstantiation denies what is plainly taught in Scripture – that after the consecration, the bread and wine are still really bread and wine. Note Jesus’ reference to the wine as “this fruit of the vine” in Matt. 26:29 after He had already spoken the words of consecration. Likewise, in verses 26, 27, and 28 of 1 Corinthians 11 St. Paul speaks of eating “bread” in the sacrament. The substance of the bread is still present and not exchanged with the substance of the body and blood, leaving only the accidents. The Zwinglian position, denying that in the Sacrament the body and blood are present to be received by the believer through faith is a different form of the same error, and one that historically, was the first step towards the anti-supernatural, rationalistic doctrine that re-interpreted the Virgin Birth, miracles, and Resurrection of Christ into non-literal events with symbolic meanings, that has corrupted many churches in the last century and a half. Of the two, the Roman Catholic error is to be preferred. Roman Catholicism is recognizably Christian. Liberalism is not. For those looking for a more in-depth treatment of the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper I refer you to John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1934) pp. 506-540. The treatment in this volume is more exhaustive than Robert Preuss’s summary treatment in Getting Into The Theology of Concord, but is also more concise than that found in Francis Pieper’s three-volume Christliche Dogmatik, of which Mueller’s work is an epitome. The Lutherans are not the only Protestants to hold to Luther’s explanation of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Zwingle’s doctrine is sometimes called “Reformed” even though Calvin held to the real presence (in a slightly different way than Luther) and “Reformed” and “Calvinist” are usually treated as synonyms. The Zwinglian doctrine is most associated, historically, with the more radical wing of the Reformation (the Anabaptists) and non-conformist English Protestant denominations. These denominations comprise a large part of contemporary North American evangelicalism and fundamentalism and this tends to give the misleading impression that the Zwinglian view is the “evangelical” view. The Church of England, which traditionally allows for a broad spectrum of theological positions, took an official position that is similar to Luther’s but less concise. The 39 Articles reject transubstantiation, but affirm the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. The latter is not defined, allowing for broad interpretation. In the Catholic revival within the Church of England in the 19th Century, Edward Pusey and John Keble argued in the “Tracts for the Times” for an interpretation that was indistinguishable from Luther’s position of consubstantiation. In the evangelical revival of the previous century, John and Charles Wesley, took a similar position. Note the following:
O the depth of love divine,
The' unfathomable grace;
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys?
How the bread His Flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits His Blood;
Fills His faithful people's hearts
With all the life of God?
Let the wisest mortal show
How we the grace receive,
Feeble elements bestow
A power not theirs to give.
Who explains the wondrous way,
These the virtue did convey,
Yet still remain the same – Charles Wesley
(5) “Accedit Verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum, etiam ipsum tanquam visibile verbum” – St. Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus (Tracts on the Gospel of John), 80:3, “The word connected to the element, becomes a Sacrament, that is, a visible Word”.
(6) It is in this sense that the sacraments can be said to be “means of grace”. Grace, has its source in the love of God, was purchased for the believer by the blood of Jesus Christ, is communicated to the believer through the Word, and is received by faith. The mysteries, take the Word, and unite it to a physical element. The physical element conveys the Word, and the Word conveys grace. The physical elements do not convey grace apart from the Word, and faith placed in the physical elements rather than the Word, does not receive the grace conveyed by the Word, for he has turned the sacrament into a work, and grace is not received by works. Similarly, someone who hears the Word and receives it in faith, receives the grace it conveys even when the Word is not attached to the physical elements of the sacraments.
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