April 26, 2003

Against the Protestant Gnostics

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Last night, I finished reading Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics. It’s a very good book in many ways, in spite of the significant differences between Lee’s theological and political stance and my own.

Lee’s goal is to reveal the gnosticism which lurks in much Protestant thought, but it seems to me that there’s more than a little gnosticism in his own thinking. For instance, it doesn’t seem that Lee believes in a historical fall; he speaks also about those who have “literalized and thereby gnosticized” the “biblical images” such as the Atonement (p. 107). He also indicates that he believes that Scripture, being the words of men, contains errors (p. 219). All the way through the book, I have penciled in question marks, x-es, and even a few comments.

And yet, as I say, in spite of those significant differences between Lee’s view and my own, I appreciated a lot of what Lee says. For instance, he argues that much modern feminism is gnostic in that it attempts to deny the significance of created sexuality. He defends ordinary Christian life as opposed to the spiritual flights of the gnostic elite. He upholds the importance of the church and the sacraments, as well.

Lee, following the early Reformers, argues passionately for weekly communion. He cites Calvin:

All this mass of ceremonies being abandoned, the sacrament might be celebrated in the most becoming manner, if it were dispensed to the Church very frequently, at least once a week…. Thus we ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms (Institutes IV.17.43-44, emphasis Lee’s, though I’ve modified the punctuation).

Later in the book, Lee writes something worth pondering:

The eucharistic feast must be restored to its rightful place if the churches of the Reformation are to be reformed. The account given in the Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that teaching, preaching, prayer and the breaking of bread were from the beginning the essential elements of Christian worship. Indeed, the Church’s teaching, preaching and praying culminate in the breaking of bread with Christ and all his people. “This is the joyful feast of the people of God” where and when the eyes of the faithful are opened and they recognize the Lord. Historically, the simple reenactment of the Last Supper and of the post-Easter meals of Christ and his disciples has been the central act of the Christian community.The irony of Protestant history is that although the sixteenth-century Reformers fought like tigers to restore the wine to the people, their descendents have now deprived the people of both bread and wine. The Protestant celebration, when it is on rare occasions held, has been spiritualized to the extent that it could scarcely be recognized as a meal at all. The purely symbolic wafer of the Roman celebration, which John Knox thundered against as a distortion of Christ’s “common bread,” has in most Protestant churches been replaced by minute, carefully diced pieces of bread unlike any other bread ever eaten by any culture. The common cup which the medieval Church withheld from the faithful is, except among the Anglicans, still the sole possession of the clergy. The unordained are now given thimble-like glasses filled with Welch’s grape juice. The symbolism is quite clear. We all come before God individually; with our individual bits of bread and our individual cups of juice, we are not of one loaf and one chalice. Our relationship to Christ is private and personal. What may be even more significant is that by partaking of this unearthly meal with our unbreadly bread and our unwinely wine we are making a clear statement that the bread and wine of spiritual communion has no connection with earthly communion. It is an unmistakable gnostic witness against the significance of ordinary meals: common bread, wine, the table fellowship of laughter and tears….

Frequent communion, of course, would call for a simple, less elaborate service than the unmeal-like ritual now practiced. The funereal procession of clergy and lay leaders passing the diminutive dishes to the solemnly sitting or kneeling communicants would probably have to be replaced by the crowded gathering of the faithful about the Holy Table for a breaking of the common loaf and the passing of a common cup. Those who argue that the intimacy and the everyday quality of such a celebration would take away the sense of mystery simply do not understand the nature of drama and mystery. It was [French filmmaker] Jean Cocteau who said “vagueness is unsuitable to the fairy world … mystery exists only in precise things.” Concreteness, the preciseness of home-baked bread and earthy red wine, in pottery plates and chalices, received with much chewing and swallowing, witnesses to the mystery of the Word made flesh. The present practice unwittingly undercuts the mystery and leaves us with the vague and unhelpful feeling that some undefined perfunctory act must be taking place (pp. 272-273).

The book is certainly thought-provoking, though it requires a fair bit of discernment. I’ll leave you with this beautiful bit of the French Reformed baptismal liturgy, which Lee quotes. The minister takes the child in his arms and says:

Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, He has fought, He has suffered. For you He entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you He uttered the cry “It is finished.” For you He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you He intercedes. For you, even though you do not know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, “We love Him because He first loved us” (cited p. 254).

Posted by John Barach @ 7:21 pm | Discuss (0)

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