Thursday, August 20, 2009

Taxonomy: What is/are the Lutheran position/s on the Real Presence?

What's that?

Gottesdienst is a journal of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy. We concern ourselves with the study of Christian worship in the Lutheran tradition. Therefore, we necessarily discuss theology and history - because what we say and do in worship should be determined by our theology, and most certainly is influenced by our history.

One topic that has come up over and over again in contemporary Lutheranism is the question of the exact Lutheran theology of the Real Presence of our Lord's Body and Blood in the Supper. It's come up again and again because there is disagreement within our fellowship over the matter - not only among contemporary theologians, but also historically. Furthermore, it's come up again and again in the pages and blog of Gottesidenst because one's thinking here will influence one's ceremony.

The purpose of this post is not to rehash all those endless, looping, and often acrimonious debates that have raged on the Lutheran blogosphere concerning this topic. Rather, I'd like to reboot the conversation in the hopes of exploring the topic more systematically and with greater understanding - and this early fall seems a great time to do that, because the topic will fit nicely into the presentations we're planning on having at Octoberfest in Kewanee.

So here's what I'd like to do in this post. No debate, per se - I just want to make sure I understand the various points of view and give them each an appropriate name. We need a taxonomy of the positions, a common language of debate, before we can have a clear debate. I'll take a shot at it here, attempting to explain each position as a proponent of that position would want it explained. I would be very grateful if proponents of each position would then affirm or correct my wording. Here-a-goes.

Receptionism: The teaching that only those elements which are actually received by the communicants are in fact the true Body and Blood of Christ. If a host is dropped, it is not the Body of Christ that has fallen to the ground, but only bread. This is so because part of the Sacrament is consumption: no consumption, no Sacrament, no Sacrament, no Real Presence. This is the historic teaching of American Confessional Lutheranism from the 19th century until the mid-20th century, and appears to have its foundation in the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy; that is, the generation or two after the Fathers of the Formula.

Receptionism: Genuflection toward paten does not compute.

Concecrationism: The teaching that once the Words of Institution have been used to bless the elements in accordance with the Institution of Christ, and by His almighty power alone, the bread is the Body of Christ and the wine is His Blood. This is so because the Lord's Word makes reality, when he says This is My Body, it is. Further, this is indicated in the fact that Jesus says in Matt. 28:28, "Take, drink for this is my Blood..." If a consecrated host is dropped, it is the Body of Christ that hits the floor. This was the teaching of Martin Chemnitz (as demonstrably proven in the 20th century by Teigen) and appears to have been Luther's understanding in the Wolferinus correspondence. It did not find purchase in modern Lutheranism until the mid-20th century Luther Revival.

Consecrationism: Kneel away.

Within Consecrationist ranks there is a division between Durationists and Cessationists.

Durationism: The teaching that once a host (or cup) is consecrated as stated above, it is and remains the true Body (or Blood) of Christ and is not mere bread (or wine) anymore. This is so because Christ's Almighty power makes his Presence, and what the Lord does, sticks. Furthermore, there is no Word of God that promises that the consecrated host stops being the Body of Christ. This would appear to be Luther's contention in the Wolferinus episode.

Durationism for the Reading Impaired:


Cessationism: The teaching that once the Supper is ended - that is, that once all who wish to commune have communed - any remaining elements (the reliquae) are mere bread and wine. This is so because outside of the use, there is no Sacrament. Once the Sacrament is over, the Sacramental presence is over. To say otherwise, would necessarily imply the Roman transubstantiation. This would appear to be Melanchthon's contention in the Wolferinus episode.

Cessationism for the Reading Impaired:


In a subsequent post I will seek to narrate the Wolferinus episode in some detail, but that belongs more properly to the debate on the merits of the case. Right now I want to make sure we're all using the same language and that the terms are defined in ways recognizable and agreeable to the proponents of each position.

And one further definition that needs to be made, as I've noticed it being used in different ways in these sorts of debates: open questions.

An open question,
most properly speaking, is a question that is not answered by the Holy Scriptures (this is Pieper's definition, and therefore the one most North American confessional Lutherans students learn). An example would be whether or not St. Peter had any children: the Scriptures just don't say either way. Another famous example, from Pieper, is whether or not Mary had any biological children other than Jesus.

My friend, and Gottesdienst editor, Fr.Petersen, has used the term "open question" to mean "issues we can agree to disagree on while continuing in fellowship with each other, even though each side in the disagreement believes that the Scriptures do indeed answer the question and that the other side is technically in error."

That concept needs a name, as it will surely enter into this debate once we get going - but since Pieper has defined "open question" as something else altogether, we should not use that term. Furthermore, the term "non-fundamental doctrine" from the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy does not cover the concept, as those theologians advocated the severing of fellowship over entrenched differences in confession over non-fundamental doctrines (often listed example of such are the doctrines of angels, church and ministry, and Antichrist).

So, unless someone knows of a well-used term to cover the concept Fr. Petersen is fond of mentioning, I propose:

Non-divisive doctrine: Some non-fundamental doctrine taught in the Scriptures, but which an otherwise orthodox teacher may deny, through weakness or ignorance, without suffering a severing of fellowship from other orthodox teachers. Thus a non-divisive doctrinal dispute arises when two theologians each believes that he is teaching a Scriptural truth and that his opponent is teaching against the Scriptures, but they both nevertheless agree to accept each other as brothers in the faith.

One would either deny the existence of such non-divisive doctrines and disputes or accept their existence. The historical position of the Missouri Synod in the area of fellowship would seem to deny them - her practice, of course, obviously accepts their existence as a fact in a few cases. The modern, mainline churches (ELCA and ECUSA especially) positively affirm their existence over a wide range of doctrinal topics going well beyond the list traditionally included in the "non-fundamental" category.

So, there's my attempt at a taxonomy and lexicon on the issues before us. Now I need your help in getting it straight. In the comments, please observe these guidelines.

* I would appreciate it if readers would comment on whether or not they recognize their own position in the definitions given, and if not, then to suggest changes in wording. Please do not suggest changes in wording for a position you do not hold. I'm interested in hearing only from the horse's mouth. If you hold a completely different opinion on the questions before us, then offer a name and definition for your position.

* Therefore, please first identify the position you hold, and then suggest changes or affirm the accuracy of the definitions given. (For my part, I am a Durationist Consecrationist. I also think the existence of non-divisive doctrines is like the existence of divorce certificates in the Old Testament: it was not this way from the beginning, and it is not godly, but our hearts are hard. . .)

* Please refrain from debate in the comments to this post. We'll have time for that later.

* If you have a correction to offer on a point of history (my characterization's of the teachings of Luther, Melanchthon, etc.) please offer an exact citation from a historical source to provide the correction. I've striven only to include "common knowledge" in those characterizations: if I'm in error, others likely are, too, and we'll need to see the chapter and verse proof to have our minds changed, not a mere assertion.



  1. Durationism -

    The Sacrament was there before the woman touched the hem of His garment and, after the power was drawn from Him into the woman, the Sacrament remained.

  2. I believe you need to add a category under consecrationist, if I understand Sasse correctly. He seems to argue that one ought to be agnostic concerning cessation or not of the Lord's body and blood.

    Durationist (is and ever shall be)
    Cessationist (is, but not ever shall be)
    Agnostist (is, but no idea whether it ever shall be)

  3. A couple more categories might be added under both categories: Consumptionist, Reservationist.

    a) Consumptionist
    b) Reservationist

    a) Durationist Consumptionist
    b) Durationist Reservationist
    c) Cessationist Comsumptionist
    d) Cessationist Reservationist
    e) Agnostist Consumptionist
    f) Agnostist Reservationist

    I am a Consecrationist Durationist Consumptioinist (CDC) - :)

  4. Weedon:

    I struggled with offering Agnostic as a thoroughgoing option not only there, but also under Receptionist vs. Consecrationist. If memory serves, a 1959 opinion of the CSL faculty went that route. . . And Robert Kolb's introduction to doctrine book certainly presses in that direction.

    So let us consider Agnostic an option - as I suppose it is on all things.

    But you didn't declare, Weedon: are you the first Agnostic commentator?


    The question of consumption falls under practice - right now I'm just looking for the theological position on the question of the Presence. In the debate later on we will necessarily delve into the best practice based on the doctrine - and then consumption vs reservation will be a key point.


  5. Aren't the pictographs for the cessationist position reversed? Shouldn't they include genuflection (during the service) but omit reservation?

  6. Fr. Trouten,

    The point I was trying to get across was that if a Cessationist saved any of the Reliquae (as per the LSB rubrics) he would not consider them to be the Lord's Body and Blood while they were thus being "kept against the next communion" (TLH rubrics).

    Of course, for that reason, he would probably not use a tabernacle, but some simpler container.

    At any rate, that's what I was trying to get across. You are quite right that a Consecrationist Cessationist would have no problem genuflecting during the service.


  7. Um, no. I regard myself in the taxonomy as:

    Consecrationist, durationist (and in practice, consumptionist, if we add Fr. Messer's words)

    Piepkorn's essay on *The Moment at Which the Sacramental Union Begins* is worth reviewing (I know you've read it, but for any others).

  8. I still think open question is the best terminology. I find myself squirming at "non-divisive doctrine." It isn't potentially divisive, it isn't doctrine. We don't teach opinions and speculation as doctrine. We don't even teach exegesis as doctrine. (ducking and running now?) Anyway, I don't think you have it quite right. These are matters we can (and do) disagree about because they are 1) not clearly taught in the Scriptures and 2) "non-fundamental." OK. Non-fundamental is terrible. How about: not central? This is slippery, isn't it? Anyway, in the example of duration above, Weedon takes no time at all in bringing in the agnostic option and he is correct. We tolerate the cessationist because we cannot really prove him wrong. We cannot prove it one way or the other, though we can make arguments, because it is an open question, that is a question we can't dogmatically answer because the Scriptures don't directly address it.

  9. Petersen,

    This is one of your quirks: deciding that long used, well-defined terms in the Lutheran tradition should be used in completely new ways. Too bad: an open question has always meant something that the Scriptures don't speak to.

    In this comment you come clean on that. Good.

    Then you introduce a new thought to our conversation so far here: that the question of Durationism vs. Cessationism is, in fact, and open question. You think the Bible doesn't answer that question. Therefore, it is wrong to dogmatize it.

    That is certainly one of the opinion's current in Lutheranism. I think that's wrong. I think the Bible clearly teaches that once Jesus speaks, what he says sticks.

    Thus, what you've done here is open the debate: you're not really disagreeing with my terms, you're arguing the substance of the question. As you know, I'm happy to have that debate. But right now, I just want to get the terms straight.

    And we do need to discuss the possibility of "non-divisive doctrines." What our fathers in the early 20th century argued about on this point was the doctrine of Antichrist (see the Brief Statement on this). Can one be an orthdox theologian and say that the pope is not the true endtimes Antichrist? Is the identity of the Antichrist an open question - or is it answered the Scriptures?

    A great many Lutherans today consider that an open question. But a great many consider the question answered in the Scriptures in the affirmative, yet tolerate those who say it isn't answered. They don't consider it an open question, but the doctrinal error they see in their brothers is so slight that they are willing to live in harmony with them.

    Well - I digress. The point is, there are folks who disagree with you and think that the question of the Real Presence after the close of the service is not an open question (pretty much everybody who's commented so far). So keep your powder dry, if you would, for now, and let's first make sure we have terms defined clearly.


  10. How is this: for something to be "non-divisive doctrine" there needs to be an agnostic option, it is not so much a matter of the size of the doctrine but rather its lacking Scriptural proof. Part of what I don't like about "non-divisive doctrine" is that it sounds as though we are distinguishing between important doctrines and trivial doctrines. Perhaps, also, we should add an adiaphora-esque qualification: something ceases to be "non-divisive" when it is taught as necessary dogma.

    But we need a better term than "non-divisive doctrine."

  11. I'm a durationist consecrationist--and if anyone reading this doesn't know already, I'm a layman and a bit out of my league here. ;-)

    Anyway, on the question of a term for non-divisive doctrines, I often find that if I can't come up with a word for something, it means that I haven't really defined it very clearly. I wonder if that is the case here?

    While I have an intuitive sense of what a non-divisive doctrine is, I think I would have a difficult time defining the concept clearly.

    You all have talked about what the idea means for your practice (whether or not to be in fellowship), but how would you go about categorizing specific doctrines in this way? What are the characteristics of a non-divisive doctrine, vs. a divisive one? Maybe the best terminology would be found through answering this question.

  12. An addendum to my last comment.... Petersen seems to be thinking on the same track, but I'm not sure defining it in terms of an agnostic option really works. The reason is that any time two people have different interpretations of the same passage of scripture, someone could claim to be agnostic about it.

  13. Kaleb -

    Laymen are welcome here.

    I think the agnostic option means if an agnostic answer is unacceptable, or if only one answer is possible and tolerable, it is not an open question, er, a "non-divisive doctrine." For example: Did Jesus rise from the dead? There is only one possible answer to that. Uncertainty is intolerable.

  14. I understood that to be your intent. So let's apply my question to the agnostic option. What are the characteristics of a doctrinal question where the agnostic option is acceptable, vs. one where it is not?

  15. Petersen,

    Dude, I'm serious: I really think the Bible answers this question clearly. I think receptionists teach false doctrine. I think cessationists teach false doctrine. While I understand that some people are agnostic on these questions, I think they are wrong.

    And yet, I'm not willing to excommunicate these folks. That's my position.

    Now, you may disagree with me - but, don't try to pretend we're all on the same page. Your position that the Bible doesn't clear this up is a position you can argue for - but other people have different positions: namely, that you are wrong, that this is not a matter of pious opinion, but one where the Scriptures speak.

    Get it?

    What you don't like about my position is that I'm willing to say the Bible says X and somebody else says Y, but I say it's not important enough to excommunicate them for it. That makes me uncomfortable, too. For isn't that the start of the slippery slope toward the ELCA's way of doing buffet theology?

    But then again, would you excommunicate a member of your parish who refused to confess that the pope is the Antichrist? And yet we consider that a closed question, it's in the Confessions and it's a Scriptural doctrine.


  16. :) I hope I'm not drawing the discussion into a rabbit trail, but I'll direct the same question to you on your terms. What are the characteristics of a doctrinal disagreement over which you are not willing to excommunicate someone, vs. one over which you are?

    I suspect, though I am not sure, that your answer and Peterson's answer will be very similar. While that doesn't mean you're saying the quite same thing, it would certainly be useful for naming and defining terms.

  17. I've been giving this more thought, and here is my take on "non-divisive doctrines." We seem to be talking about two different kinds of questions here.

    One is where a doctrinal dispute has existed without breaking fellowship for such a long time that the dispute itself has become part of our tradition. For example, receptionism vs. consecrationism. I would say that to qualify for this category, a dispute must be older than any living person, but that's admittedly arbitrary.

    The other is where the *application* of an agreed-upon doctrine depends upon one or more potentially changing conditions, and disagreement exists over whether conditions have changed in such a way as to affect the application of doctrine. For example, the Pope being the Antichrist: This assertion may be thought of as an application of the doctrine of Antichrist, not the doctrine itself.

    Does this make sense to anyone besides me?

  18. Dude?

    Anyway, receptionism - of course. That is right out.

    But you're argument that the Bible clearly teaches against cessationism goes too far. Now we get to play the game: how clearly is clearly? and exactly what are the degrees of clarity?

    I know you hold our position, even as I do, based on the Scriptures. But we have thin evidence. This is not clear in the way the virgin conception is but is more like the perpetual virginity. I have texts for that! I do. I have an exegetical argument based on verb tense from the annunciation. Really. But, come on. It is ambiguous. And that is why you won't excommunicate over these things. The same is true for everything you understand the Scriptures to teach but won't excommunicate over: the distinction is not so much what is central or important, as it is a preponderance of evidence and clarity of passages. Thus the agnostic line. Which, btw, I remind you, was first pulled in this threat by your neighbor Pr. Weedon.

  19. Curtis,

    Dude, you said no debating yet. Practice what you preach, would ya?! :)

    Seriously, I agree with both you and Dave, since I think you agree with each other, even though you are convinced that you don't.

  20. This discussion is all good and well, but it's also a game of who can top whom with wisdom that doesn't necessarily build up the Church.

  21. David,

    Or it's a matter of clearly confessing what the Scriptures confess - and that's the debate at hand, isn't it?

    If you are right and we can't really know, then we shouldn't bother arguing about it.

    But if it's a matter of confessing what the Lord has given us to confess, then it's not just hobbyhorsing around - it's something much more important.


  22. This may be the perfect debate to show why nuda scriptura and its reliance on purely exegetical arguments will always be insufficient. Of course I have my position that is derived solely from Holy Scripture... :)

  23. I would fall into the agnostic camp on this one (too much time spent at the feat of Sasse via Feuerhahn). If I were a betting man, and had to come down on the original taxonomy would lean towards consecrationist and durationist... but also recognizing what it is for, my preferance would be to consume (as taught by the TLPL conference) and thus again eliminate the latter question. I spoke to my elders last week and requested that we at least do not mingle that which has already been set aside, and which Jesus already said was His Body and Blood with that which is ordinary bread and wine.

  24. I told friends at a dinner party last night that maybe Fr. Curtis was right and I was misusing the term "open question." After all, he has been busting my chops about this for years. So I decided to go to Pieper and see what I could find, ready to take derby hat in hand and supplicate before the higher wit of Mr. Curtis. But to my great joy and surprise I found my chops back in place, and shall now proceed to give unto Curtis as he has given unto me:

    Pieper - "Correctly defined, open questions are such questions as inevitably arise in our study of the Scripture doctrines but are not answered by Scripture OR!! OR!!! not clearly." I, 93.

    Listen, Heath, as it was recently said to me by you, "you can just make sh*t up." If Pieper is to be invoked against me (FW '96) by you (StL 01) you should know I will eventually look it up, even as I know that if I try to argue on the basis of case endings or CTCR opinions you will use Voelz against me. Now that I have Pieper and Koehler on my side, I must get back to repairing the chain on my monocle.

    Seriously, open question is the right term. When it comes to open questions we tolerate a variety of answers but insist on none.

  25. Dude, and again I say, dude: That "or" clause is called hendiadys - look that one up too.

    Your last two lines are a great definition of open question and agrees in every sense with the definition I gave.

    That's not where we disagree. I say this question is answered clearly. Others agree, others don't. So I say it's a closed question, and you say it's an open question. We're right where we were.

    We both agree that there are things the Scriptures don't answer clearly - we just disagree that this is one of them.

    But I will repent of not explicitly saying that open questions include things that the Scriptures don't answer clearly in repeating what Pieper said - even though I already said it when I spoke of Mary's perpetual virginity. That question is not answered clearly. Which is, of course, the same thing as not being answered. Hence: hendiadys.


  26. Pastor Curtis,

    What does it mean to have Scripture define something "clearly"? Perhaps this is something that ought to be discussed and defined at some point.

  27. Josh,

    Exactly - that's the distinction between "the Scriptures don't answer that question" and "the Scriptures don't answer that question clearly" is a distinction without a difference.

    But I suppose one might say that the Scriptures "hint" at the perpetual virginity of Mary, or that the wicked Angels never had an opportunity for repentance, but don't give a clear answer. But you're right - in the end, that would be just the same thing as not answering it at all. . .



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