Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Melanchthon's Dustbuster

by Larry Beane

In going through some of my old folders with articles in them the other day, I happened upon John R. Stephenson's 1995 LOGIA piece entitled "Reflections on the Appropriate Vessels for Consecrating and Distributing the Precious Blood of Christ" (LOGIA, Epiphany 1995).

Any day is a good day to reread Dr. Stephenson, and so I did.

Though the topic under consideration was mainly the propriety of the use of individualist shooters for the reception of Holy Communion, the essay quickly moved into a discussion of the infiltration of Reformed theology into Lutheran churches - especially insofar as how these Reformed doctrinal incursions have affected Lutheran eucharistic practice.

Stephenson reminds us that:
"[S]ecretly during Luther's lifetime and openly after his death, [Melanchthon] departed most radically from the Reformer's conception of the real presence. In his regrettably yet unpublished ThD dissertation [Which has since become available through Concordia Theological Seminary Press +LB], Edward F. Peters tells how eight years after Luther's demise Melanchthon coined the term artolatreia (bread worship) in disparagement of the eucharistic adoration practiced by the Reformer and his Gnesio-Lutheran followers. This sacrilegious term of ridicule was employed first of all in a letter to John Calvin, being repeated in a communication with Henry Bullinger, who had succeeded Zwingli in Zurich.... First privately and after 1546 publicly, Melanchthon denied the efficacy of the consecration reducing the sacramental usus or actio to nothing more than the sumptio" (p. 12).
Melanchthon's deviation from the Lutheran understanding of the consecration and the real presence resulted in further Melanchthonian mockery of the Gnesio-Lutherans.

"[T]he following information [is] offered by Chemnitz, Kirchner, and Selneccer in their exhaustive Histori des Sacramentstreits, where these doctors of the church point out with pain that an attack Melanchthon launched ostensibly on the Gnesio-Lutherans Joachim Moerlin and Erasmus Sarcerius was in fact none too subtly directed at blessed Martin Luther himself. The three confessors stoutly maintain that reverent treatment of spilled consecrated wine occurs within the parameters of the Nihil Rule:

.... Philip takes Dr. Moelin and Sacerius to task with the words: 'Moerlin at Braunschweig has said, "You mustn't mumble incoherently but rather say precisely what the priest has in his hand." Sarcerius will have it that particles of hosts that have fallen to the ground should be carefully recovered, with the surrounding earth being shaved and burned, etc.'"

Melanchthon's mockery of the Gnesio-Lutherans for wishing to be very clear in their confession about what the consecrated elements truly are (doctrine), as well as how even the particles of these consecrated elements are to be treated (practice) is being repeated today.

I could not help but think of this blogpost that pointed to similar mockery of the real presence in our own day and age and in our own synod (including the suggestion that the particles of hosts that have fallen to the ground be sucked up into a dustbuster. Just as in the sixteenth century, there is a modern-day gainsaying of both the doctrine and the practice of those who believe the Lord is physically and substantially present from the time of the consecration until the elements have been consumed, along with the resulting practice of fastidiousness about the reliquiae. The suggestion that "particles of hosts that have fallen to the ground should be carefully recovered" as being something to be a source of mockery does indeed come right from the mouth of Melanchthon in the tragically Reformed view of the Holy Sacrament that he seemed to develop.

Had there been dustbusters in the 16th century, Melanchthon would no doubt have used that invention as part of his mockery as well.

Here (per Stephenson's translation of the original German, also published in the article) is how the Gnesio-Lutherans saw Melanchthon's mockery, also from the Histori des Sacramentstreits:
"Many good pious folks were also disturbed by these words of Philip, for they take aim at none other than Dr. Luther, who (as we heard above, in the year 1533) directed these words to the Frankfurt Council: 'It is not in order here to slosh the broth around in one's mouth and mumble incoherently, but to spit out the broth and be done with incoherent speech and say forthrightly what the bread and wine in the sacrament are.'

Thus Sacerius merely wants to say that this Sacrament is to be treated with all reverence and that one should not act frivolously with the external signs to which the word of Christ has been added, but should distinguish [between them and ordinary elements] as Luther and Pomeranus did in Wittenberg. When a little drop [of wine] from the consecrated chalice spilled on the altar they went up with all reverence and saw to it that [the spilled wine] should not be trodden underfoot."
Dr. Stephenson's article is a must-read in its entirety. The Epiphany 1995 issue of LOGIA is available at no charge as a PDF download, and can be ordered here.


  1. I recall an odious occasion from my misty past, in which I was obliged, as an assistant at the altar, to watch as the celebrant broke pieces of hosts in half in order to have enough for all the communicants. He did this as he approached each one, and I saw fragments fly into the air and onto the, um, carpet. After mass I went back to the chancel, and, on my hands and knees, sought to retrieve every last fragment. For this, I found out years later, I was sneeringly dubbed the human vacuum cleaner, an appelation which was I glad to receive: they were watching!

  2. I don't know if I scandalized anyone, but the Wednesday I preached for you this year, we had someone accidentally spill on the communion rail during the last table, and after I dismissed the table I knelt at the rail and lapped it up. In situations like that, I cannot help but think, "What would Luther do?"


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