Recently there has been quite a stir about a short message posted by SermonIndex where Francis Chan talks about Church history and Holy Communion.
"I didn't know that for the first 1,500 years of Church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ," Chan says in part of the clip, which you can also watch on Youtube. . "And it wasn't until 500 years ago that someone popularized the thought that it's just a symbol and nothing more. I didn't know that. I thought, 'Wow, that's something to consider."
It is amazing to read all the reactions and assumptions people are making from Catholics to Reformers and of course several YouTube Channels (Red Grace, Keith Nester, etc). Francis does not emphatically declare that he has a dogmatic position on this but rather is just excited in announcing what I believe are clear, historical findings in Church history. Chan clearly believes they have weight and bearing on our Scriptural interpretation.
Here are some things I think it's helpful to consider whatever your views:
- He did not speak about transubstantiation but rather in a general sense that Communion becomes the body and flesh of Jesus. (John 6:53).
- A general statement "for the first 1,500 years" does not mean there were other opinions of different views but he seems to be saying the main consensus was Communion was considered much more then a symbol throughout all those years.
- Though some statements of symbolism can be found in the first 1,500 years, it is clear to any factual historian that that view was not popularized until Huldrych Zwingli championed it during the Reformation period.
- Of course from the Reformation period there are multiple views of what happens during the consecration of Communion, from an Anglican view to Lutheran, Calvin and so on. But before the Reformation, the Church was much more conclusive on the importance of Communion.
- Also, what is not shared but implied, I believe, is that the Church in the first 1,500 years (and still held today in the Eastern and Orthodox Churches) believed that Holy Communion is a mystery and that the real presence of Christ in it cannot be factually explained but experienced.
Personally, I have always seen the Lord's Supper as more than just a symbol in my Bible readings. It was clear to me when I read passages such as:
1 Corinthians 11:27: "So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord."
In my view, I have always been able to hold such truths as a mystery and something I did not need to dogmatically and rationally come to an explanation of that would take away any significance from a physical representation of our faith.
My view has also expanded the more I have studied early Church history and the Scriptures that Communion is much more than a symbol. It shows great maturity and strength on Francis Chan's part to speak out on this and be willing to share with the greater body of Christ on this subject, the reason being it actually does matter if we are minimizing an aspect and truth of our faith that is meant to glorify Christ supremely.
What Francis has done, at maybe even a personal cost, is pave the way for modern evangelicals to understand how good it is to research into this more, and ask the hard questions about Church history. What did Jesus mean in John 6 about His Body and Blood, and why has such a high view of Communion been held throughout much of Church history?
I believe he is encouraging us to move past man-centered worship or thinking to focus on Christ more chiefly in the Lord's Supper.
One person asked me, what is the right way to take Communion? Although I could have answered it differently, I responded: "The right way to take Communion is how some in the underground Church in China take it, with tears and reverence."
So next time you remember the Lord in Communion, perhaps remember it with tears. Our Lord died on the Cross at such a great price for us all.
In closing, I have published a free Kindle ebook on St. Polycarp and in it, the "Didache" is reprinted, which has early statements of belief on Communion that you might find fascinating: Early Church Father Series: St. Polycarp of Smyrna.
Comments published in Christian Today do not necessarily reflect the website's views.