Monday, August 24, 2009

Duration of the Presence: Luther's Wolferinus Letter

In the comments to the previous post we reached a point where recourse to Luther's letter in the Wolferinus episode was necessary. Rather than post it down there in the comments, I thought it better to bring it up to its own post - which I had intended to do anyway, just a little sooner than I anticipated now.

To Wolferinus, the pastor who's theory of the Presence appears to have been "cessationist," Luther wrote on July 20, 1543 [my text is from B. Teigen's article, "The Case of the Lost Luther Reference" in CTQ 43.4]:

Indeed, Dr. Philip wrote rightly that there is no sacrament outside of the sacramental action: but you are defining the sacramental action much too hastily and abruptly. If you do it in this way, you will appear to have absolutely no sacrament. For if such a quick breaking off of the action really exists, it will follow that after the speaking of the Words [of Institution], which is the most powerful and principle action in the sacrament, no one would receive the body and blood of Christ, because the action would have ceased. Certainly Dr. Philip does not want that. But such a definition of the action would bring about infinite scruples of conscience and endless questions, such as are disputed among the papists, as, for example, whether the body and blood of Christ, are present at the first, middle, or last syllable. Therefore, one must look not only upon this movement of instant or present action but also on the time. Not in terms of mathematical but of physical breadth, that is, one must give this action a certain period of time, in a period of appropriate breadth of tim, as they say, "in breadth."

Therefore, we shall define the time or [sic in CTQ. Typo for "of"?] the sacramental action in this way: that it starts with the oratio Dominica [CTQ: Our Father. Corrected to the Latin in a personal note from Dr. BTG Mayes]and lasts until all have communicated, have emptied the chalice, have consumed the Hosts, until the people have been dismissed and [the priest] has left the altar. In this way we shall be safe and free from the scruples and scandals of such endless questions. Dr. Philip defines the sacramental action in relation to what is outside it, that is, against reservation of and processions with the sacrament. He does not split it up within [the action] itself, nor does he define it in a way that it contradicts itself. Therefore, see to it that if anything is left over of the sacrament, either some communicants or the priest himself and his assistant receive it, so that it is not only a curate or someone else who drinks what is left over in the chalice, but that he gives it to the others who were also participants in the body [of Christ], so that you do not appear to divide the sacrament by a bad example or to treat the sacramental action irreverently. This is my opinion and I know that it is also Philip's opinion too."

It seems to me that Luther rather forcefully advocates no reservation at all - even for the purposes of distribution. That's the "deal" I mentioned earlier. I characterized it as a "deal" between Melanchthon and Luther because as Timothy Wengert makes clear in this salient article from Lutheran Quarterly, Melanchthon's take on the issue was much more stridently cessationist, or perhaps even receptionist. I highly recommend reading this article - I found it to be necessary to really understanding the points being made.

After reading what Melanchthon had written via Wengert's article, this second letter of Luther quoted above suddenly takes on new meaning. It seems clear to me that Luther is:

* jealously guarding against receptionism - especially with his comments on the Words being the chief action (not eating, as per Missourian Receptionism).

* seeking to remain in unity with Melanchthon by charitably recasting Melanchthon's words (if not outright putting words in his mouth!).

* advocating a practice (complete consummation at the altar) that will make the lasting area of disagreement with Melanchthon moot.

And yes, I think the status of consecrated elements reserved for distribution to the sick remains an area of disagreement between them. Luther's comments in the letter above strongly hint that he would not consider the sacramental action (and therefore the Real Presence) ended until all was distributed - thus leaving open the durationist understanding of elements reserved for distribution to the sick. Melanchthon's comments were at pains to explain how what was once consecrated might not be the Body and Blood of Christ after the "action" was at an end:

"It is sheer raving to imagine that when the celebrant speaks the words the Body
of Christ migrates into the bread in such a way that it is forced to remain there,
as wine poured into a flagon always remains there unless it is again poured out." (Melanchthon, quoted in Wengert).

Here's the historical question to which I do not have the answer: in post-1543 Lutheran lands, was the sacrament reserved for distribution? If so, how were such consecrated elements treated between the end of Mass and the distribution to the sick or shut-in? What, if any, justification did those who reserved for distribution give for jettisoning Luther's strongly worded advice for the pastors in Eisleben?

For my part, I think Luther is right: the sacramental action is, well, the whole sacrament. Indeed, I find this letter a typically refreshing bit of Luther's refusal to play theology. You don't have to read much between the lines to see that he is expressing his usual contempt for theological concepts forced on the text and the church. "Sacramental action"? Where's that in the Bible?

But for the sake of peace, he doesn't quite say that - instead, he uses the term but utterly guts it of Melanchthon's content. The action, and therefore the Presence, is from the Words of the Lord until all has been consumed. Makes sense to me. And if some were to be reserved for the sick? Luther leaves it unanswered - mostly. For his comments about the action lasting until all has been consummed seem to me to be a gentle rebuke to what Melanchthon had written.



  1. Also, where did the practice of pouring out the cup on the ground after the service come from - when did the consuming of all stop?

  2. No, I do not believe that the Sacraments were anywhere reserved in Lutheranism. I used to think so, but Ziegler's article in CTQ made me rethink the actual words of Brandenburg. The order prescribes the consecration of the Sacrament *in the Church* and then it being carried (truthfully, processed with lights and such) to the sick; but the intention is not taking from a tabernacle and distributing.

    If I may, the piece of Luther that has not been dealt with is in the Besserer correspondence between Luther and Amsdorf. There he says:

    "As for the mixed particles [i.e. the consecrated and unconsecrated hosts that Besserer had mixed together] it was good that they were burned, although in this situation it would not have been necessary to burn them, since outside the use nothing is a Sacrament as the water of Baptism outside the use is not Baptism. With those who eat and believe, Christ operates in the Sacrament. But on account of the offense the pastor did what was right with the burning."

    Here he sounds consecrationist cessationist to my ears.

    1. Not only that it sounds like Luther is denying communion of the unworthy. The Formula teaches that Christ also operates in the Sacrament with those who eat and do not believe.

  3. Also worth pondering are the words from the Tübingen theologians in the correspondence with the Patriarch:

    Moreover, if such a change should happen to occur, it would follow from this that whatever might happen to the bread and the wine in the Holy Supper, it would be imperative that the same change might happen to occur in the body and blood of Christ. Certainly in the same manner, as we say, if indeed a part of the bread which was sanctified should be thrown into the fire (which has been maliciously done by impious persons, as is witnessed by history), the body of Christ would be consumed by fire. However, if the wine should be poured out from the cup and swallowed up by the earth, the blood of Christ would be spilled [sacrilegiously] and swallowed up by the earth; and in either case it is an absurdity. Yet by expressing it in this manner, we in no way deny that the body and blood of Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. For in this, being supported by the Divine Word, we vehemently oppose those among us who speak against it. For we truly believe that the bread and wine are present together with the body and blood of the Lord and are distributed to all the communicants. For then, indeed, at that time the Lord’s body and blood are distributed when we conform to this commandment of Christ: “Eat ye, drink ye.” And when it is not eaten nor drunk, then we believe that the bread and the wine have not been united mystically with the body and blood of Christ, for without this utilization the bread and wine in themselves are not sacraments. (The Tübingen Theologians [including Jacob Andreae], The Second Reply to the Second Answer of Patriarch Jeremiah [1580], in George Mastrantonis, Augsburg and Constantinople [Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982], pp. 261-62)

  4. Thanks, Fr. Weedon! Now that I see that Amsdorf correspondence it rings a bell, but I had forgotten it. Bad form.

    Luther there certainly speaks like a cessationist. I don't know what to make of that or how to understand it with the two other quotations from On Both Kinds and this Wolferinus letter. . . your thoughts?


  5. I think he was inconsistent, and likely the inconsistency arose from which danger he felt he had to be guarding against at a given moment. Thus his comments recorded in TT 5314 (from 1540):

    When the doctor [Martin Luther] was asked whether the sacrament can be carried to the sick, he replied, “We don’t think it should be done. To be sure, one must allow it for a while. The practice will probably be dropped, if only because they have no ciborium, [WTH?] What should be done about it? In our churches, too, there’s debate about whether the [elements of the] sacrament should be carried to another altar for consecration. I put up with it on account of several heretics who must be opposed, for there are some who allow that it’s a sacrament only while it’s in use; what is left over and remains they throw away. That isn’t right. We let somebody consume it. One must never be so precise [and say that the sacrament remains a sacrament when carried] four or five steps or when kept so-and-so many hours. What does it matter? How can one bless the bread for each and every one? We also retain the practice of elevating the sacrament on account of several heretics who say it must be done so. It must not be done so, for as long as one is engaged in the action even if it extends for an hour or two or even if one carries it to another altar or, as you do” (he said this to Cordatus), “across the street, it is and remains the body of Christ.”

  6. Another Luther TT 5589 might be of some significance to the discussion as a whole from 1543:

    The former suggested, “Doctor, in places where the gospel has not been preached so long one might tolerate this patiently and not abolish elevation, especially where the people are not yet established in their faith.” The doctor replied, “Yes, it’s of little consequence to us. We don’t care if it’s abolished or not, provided the abuse—that is, the adoration—is not there. Some churches have seen that we have dropped the elevation [in Wittenberg] and have imitated us. We are pleased with that.”

  7. Why did the writers of the Formula of Concord choose to use Luther's language in the Wolferinus letter in FC, SD, VII 85-87?

    I would like to know if Lutheran churches continued to use the monstrance or tabernacle. It certainly doesn't sound like something Luther desired nor something orthodox Lutheran theologians practiced.

    Keeping a tabernacle to refute receptionism is like overcorrecting when running off the side of the road. However, absus not tollit usus. I rejoice that Rev. Dr. Eckhardt preaches the gospel faithfully. I just think this particular practice is wrong and pointing out other bad practices doesn't make it right.

  8. For my part I am glad to join the great company of witnesses, two full millenia long, from East and West, who are also guilty of this wrong practice. Now that should count for something.

  9. Fr. Eckardt,

    Even Homer nods, as the saying goes, and I think Fr. Weedon has done a good job of showing that Fr. Luther nodded on this one - and not always in the same direction!

    After reading those quotations brought forward by Fr. Weedon, along with the Wengert article, I think I'm back to looking at Luther's practice as a "deal" he struck for the sake of harmony amongst theologians who didn't quite have complete unity in understanding.

    Which is what I mean by calling your tabernacling "divisive." I mean it in a descriptive and neutral way - not a casting of aspersions. For not all divisions are bad - divisions also display important differences in theological understanding. And it is certainly not just "your" practice - all over the Synod, in parishes of varying liturgical leanings, the Sacrament is reserved.

    That practice uncovers a division among Lutherans that the practice of complete consumption helps to hide from view. It's a division that Luther seemed to have within himself!

    But I'm with you on the doctrine and the need to uphold it: when Jesus says This is my Body, it is. Plain and simple. So Biblical it's almost too easy - and so theologians rush in where the pious old ladies fear to tread trying to make up rules for when and how this can be, and when it's not allowed to be anymore.

    I like what Fr. Petersen said awhile back: reserving the Sacrament for distribution to shut-ins is a good practice, as is not doing so but rather having a separate Mass. Both are allowable and good practices. I favor the latter as more beneficial for the Church for a host of reasons.

    But I'm happy to confess the simple Scriptural truth that what rests in St. Paul's tabernacle is still what Jesus says it was on Sunday. VDMA.


  10. Father Heath,

    I agree. I cited the Luther not to end the discussion, but to show that on this (as on almost every other thing) he can be cited on either side of a debate. What's he fighting against at the moment is always a critical question to ask. Nor do we ever pretend for a second that he is infallible. Although he is the chief teacher of the Church of the Augsburg Confession, we don't follow him blindly by any means.

    It would seem to me that the burden is upon those who teach this isotopic half-life of the consecration to demonstrate from the Sacred Scriptures their confident assertion. A passage that does not directly address the matter but certainly has implications is in Romans 11:29: "For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable."

  11. Rev Dr Eckhardt,

    The Fathers at the Council of Trent are glad you agree with them.

    "Canon VII of the Tridentine Decree concerning the Eucharist states, “If anyone says that it is not permitted to reserve the Holy Eucharist in a sacred place, but that it must of necessity be distributed immediately after the consecration to those who are present, or that it is not permitted that it be carried to the sick in an honorable manner, let him be anathema” Cited in Bjarne W. Teigen, The Lord's Supper in The Theology of Martin Chemnitz, p. 131.

    Blessed Martin Chemnitz had an alternate view.

    "The principal question here is whether the bread of the Eucharist,
    when it has been blessed, hallowed, or consecrated by the recitation of the Words of Institution should be at once distributed, taken, and eaten in commemoration of Christ, or whether after it has been blessed, the distribution, taking and eating may be omitted and the bread put away, inclosed [sic], reserved, carried about, displayed, and put to other uses, so that finally, after a number of days, weeks, months, or years the taking and eating may follow.

    The Tridentine Decree which sanctions and establishes such
    reservation confesses that it was brought into the church, though it is prescribed neither by the Word of God nor by the tradition or example of the apostles. Instead, it says that it is an old custom and a most ancient practice. (Ex. 2, 293)." Ibid.

    Chemnitz then specifically states that it would be a better practice to have a communion with the sick. Ibid., 137-138 (Chemnitz's Examination of the Council of Trent 2: 311ff.)

    Chemnitz appeals to the Words of Institution. Trent appeals to church tradition.

  12. Dr. Phillips,

    The question, though, as I understand Fr. Heath, is not which is the better practice, but whether if one observes the practice of reservation for communing the sick, the elements retain their sacramental union with our Lord's body and blood, since the intention is to distribute them.

    Which does lead to a question from me: Fr. Fritz, do you reserve in the tabernacle also our Lord's blood? I assume so, but I do not believe that was historic practice so I'm not entirely sure.

  13. One last point: Chemnitz notes the ancient practice of reservation for communing and does not condemn it. "We do not condemn those ancient men who observed this custom, because they had weighty reasons on account of the nature of the times." II:20 He clearly recognizes such as a true participation in the Body and Blood of the Savior. He points out that they did not reserve it *for the purpose of adoration and carrying it about as a display* as the Papists do.

  14. Dear Matthias:

    Note that Chemnitz in your quotation from the Examen brings up two scenarios,

    1. "whether the bread...when it has been blessed...should be at once distributed, taken, and eaten."


    2. "after it has been blessed, the distribution, taking, and eating may be ommitted, and the bread put away," etc.

    This antithesis was appropriate on the occasion of the Examen, but I hasten to point out that scenario 2 does not describe the Lutherans who reserve the Sacrament today. It seems almost a straw man, if you don't mind me saying so.


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