Lecture Notes: Regent College Pastor’s Conference on the Lord’s Supper
This week I had the privilege to attend a Pastor’s Conference at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., on “Restoring the Centre: The Place of the Table in the Church.” The conference included theological expositions by Hans Boersma and Alan Torrance, “Praxis” sessions with Andrea Tisher, Joyce Rees and Brian Buhler, and ecumenical engagements with Buhler (evangelical), Fr. Lawrence Farley (Orthodox) and Tim Horman (Charismatic). The most compelling for me were the Praxis sessions, but I took no notes at these and thus will confine myself to a couple of the theological papers. After that I will raise some of the questions that sprung out of the conference as a whole.
Hans Boersma – “Eucharist and Time: Why Participation Means Sacrifice”
– With recollections from The Martyrdom of Polycarp as well as from John, Colossians, and a smattering of theologians, Boersma reflected on his discovery that “the early church is unanimous about the Eucharist being a sacrifice”–by which we mean not a repeated or “second” sacrifice, but a “participation in the one sacrifice of Christ.”
– With James Dunn he looked at Colossians 1:24–where Paul says his sufferings “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”–and said that our sufferings do not add something to Christ’s suffering, but do play a part in the “bringing to completion” of what is “still outstanding in the sufferings of Christ by which the world was redeemed and transformed.” Boersma made the interesting observation that this perspective (wherein our sufferings find themselves taken up in Christ’s) displaces a shallow “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach to life’s difficulties.
– The way Boersma made sense of this rather mysterious account of participatory suffering was to challenge a univocal understanding of time as a succession of chronological but separate points, substituting for it a sacramental understanding of time wherein past, present and future can be simultaneous to one another in the eternal Word. The same way that, for Melito of Sardis, Passover participated proleptically in the sacrifice of Christ, so our Eucharist participates in its prior accomplishment and its forward vocation.
Alan Torrance – “The Continuing Priesthood of Christ” and “The Sacraments and Proclamation”
– Torrance’s lectures were to some degree crib notes on the writings of James Torrance and Karl Barth — which means that they were good but also that I’d pondered their points before. It was fun to hear Barth presented to an evangelical audience boisterously and lucidly–and with a Scotch accent to boot.
– One of the asides that made me wonder was Torrance’s suggestion in the first lecture that prophets only emerged in Israel because of the failures of the priests and kings. “If you have good kings and priests you don’t need prophets,” he said. I’m not sure about this. I think it trades on only the negative aspect of the prophetic office. Surely the munus triplex has more positive meaning (which is something Barth himself has articulated almost better than anybody).
– Having said that, in the second lecture Torrance gave a very cogent presentation of a Barthian view of revelation in a Trinitarian frame, complete with the point that revelation has not fully occurred until it is successful, which means that it must involve the transformation of eyes and ears and lives. Revelation overcomes not only neutral unknowing but also error, and this is not by the awakening of some “innate spirituality” but by the miracle of Christ’s work of reconciliation.
– Turning to the Eucharist, then, Torrance was apt to explain that the Eucharist prioritizes the indicatives of grace from which the imperatives flow (rather than vice versa). I agreed with his correlating suggestion that the Lord’s Supper serves as an invitation and an enablement (rather than a result of) of the work of reconciliation between persons. To invert this would be the same as what we do in our moralistic preaching; turning grace into law.
Brian Buhler – “Recovering the Table for Evangelical Worship”
– This was an excellent presentation. Buhler made a great point about the “altar call” being “real presence” for non-sacramentalists, and called for a return to the Lord’s Supper as the climactic inviting and re-orientating moment in the church’s life and worship. Paul’s statement about eating in an “unworthy manner” in 1 Corinthians 11 means eating “without recognizing the body of the Lord”, and this meant not the corporeal or sacramental body of Christ, but the gathered body of believers in a social reality continuous with the freedom of the meal itself.
I had two questions arising from Boersma’s session, but re-occurring often. The first of these related to Boersma’s resistance to my suggestion (in the Q&A) that there might be a positive account of the Lord’s Supper prior to baptism (for those in the believer’s baptist tradition). In reply, Boersma simply recommended infant baptism, but I wonder if his presentation of “sacramental time” might serve as a reason to “loosen up” on a strictly sequential understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
My second of these questions had to do with the fact that Boersma’s illustrations regarding suffering with Christ mostly involved suffering at the hands of others. This prompted reflection about another aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice: Might the Meal also serve as a call to suffer with one another through conflict and misunderstanding, leaning into Christ’s provision for reconciliation by faith? Whereas some of the later panelists suggested that interpersonal and ecumenical conflicts ought to be resolved before joining in the Holy Meal, it is my feeling that the Lord’s Table might better be seen as an invitation to–and even an enablement of–such paths of resolution. At the Table–where the presence of Christ slips past our tongues without need of our words–we put our trust in the Prince of Peace and suffer with others toward the peace that is in Christ for us by faith.
One last observation: As always, there was much to say about the “real presence” of Christ at the Table. As far as it functions in church life and mission, the “real presence” rescues us from both despondent depravity and triumphalist self-reliance. But it seems to me that there may also be a sense in which the “real absence” of the enfleshed Christ at the Table (cued to us by his Ascension, and also by the fact that the body and blood are indeed bread and wine) prompts us to trust in the Spirit to be made the embodiment of Christ’s presence on earth and to each other.