Meeting Jesus at the Communion Table

The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table, by Robert D. Cornwall (Gonzales, FL: Energion Publications, 2014)

cornwall-eucharist 1This 34-page essay concerning the central act of Christian worship is volume 10 in a series the publisher describes as Topical Line Drives. They are designed “to demonstrate a point of scholarship or survey a topic directly, clearly, and quickly.”

Cornwall’s focus is stated in his subtitle: “Encounters with Jesus at the Table.” He develops this aspect of eucharistic worship by tracing the historical trajectory of two doctrines: sacrifice, how the Eucharist helps set things right with God; and real presence, how the Eucharist connects us with Jesus.

In the first chapter, he points to the Passover roots of Christian worship at the table and the biblical imagery of Jesus as “the perfect Lamb of God who has been sacrificed for us” (9). He notes other ideas in the biblical accounts: eschatological images, communal meal, and sign of unity. The reference in 1 Corinthians 11 to “discerning the body,” which has been used to “support the idea the idea of Christ’s real presence in the elements,” Cornwall notes, “more likely refers to the presence of Christ in the community itself” (11).

The second chapter summarizes post-apostolic developments. Cornwall cites theologians over an extended period of time, including Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Augustine, Radbertus, Peter Lombard, and Aquinas. The purpose of this brief survey is to trace the gradually increasing complexity of theological interpretations of how Christ is present in the Eucharist. He concludes the discussion with a brief summary of the developed doctrines.

“The emphasis on Christ’s real presence, as defined by the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice led to the church taking the step of worshiping the host. If the host (bread) had truly become the divine body of Christ, then it, like Christ, ought to be worshiped. Thus the host was elevated and worshiped. Just being in the presence of the host was sufficient to cleanse one from one’s sins. This meant the actual communion became unnecessary. In the host the person of Christ became tangible to the medieval masses” (20).

This summary of the development of eucharistic theology explains why Cornwall’s treatment of the Protestant Reformation begins with the debate between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, more than a decade after Luther’s initial posting of the 95 Theses protesting abuses in church practice and theology.

Luther affirmed the symbolic nature of the bread and wine but he also believed that “the symbol contained that which it symbolized. In contrast, Zwingli believed that “the Eucharist served to remind Christians of the event of the cross…Therefore, one eats and drinks the elements of the Supper as a sign of thanksgiving for a work of grace already completed by the Spirit” (22–23).

Omitting Calvin’s participation in defining eucharistic theology, Cornwall turns to Cranmer and the English Reformation. Cranmer did not hold that Christ is corporeally present in the eucharistic elements, but he did not agree with Zwingli’s teaching that they were “bare elements or tokens. Instead, he taught that God was present and working in the Eucharistic moment, bringing the fruit of grace to the participants in the Eucharistic service, as long as they received the elements by faith” (25).

In his discussion of ecumenical conversations in our own time, Cornwall calls attention to the renewed emphasis upon thanksgiving and the diminished emphasis upon sacrificial imagery and violence. He disapproves of the continuing separation of Christians into ecclesial communities that limit access to the table, and he affirms the movement toward agreements of full communion new occurring.

The “concluding thoughts” of this essay encourage contemporary Christians to learn from one another across ecclesial and theological lines. The Eucharist could become a bridge to unity rather than a barrier that keeps churches separated. He encourages churches to move toward weekly celebrations even though that may not be their current practice.

Although Cornwall offers a few hints about ceremony, ritual, and cultural aspects of eucharistic worship, these aspects of the topic are largely overlooked. Little is said or implied about the way that the Eucharist has entered into the politics of church and state. The emergence of broad types—Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, etc.—is left untouched as are discussions about uses of vernacular languages in worship. It is true, of course, that a “topical line drive” has to move is a highly disciplined way, and this the author does.

Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy Michigan and earned a PhD degree in historical theology. His blog can be accessed at http://www.bobcornwall.com.

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3 Responses to Meeting Jesus at the Communion Table

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thank you Keith for taking notice of my little book on the Eucharist. I think I probably have a follow up book there dealing with the elements I’ve left out. I appreciate greatly your work in this area.

  2. As publisher, I appreciate your taking the time to review this little volume. Authors find the 12,000 word limit hard to meet. As you note some things don’t make it. I find reviews such as yours that take time to outline what a book does and doesn’t accomplish (even when I forced the “doesn’t” part!) extremely helpful. I wish more bloggers would take that sort of time.

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