The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§22)

I’m almost 37 years old. I probably started taking communion around age 13. My tradition celebrates the Eucharist monthly. That means, allowing for the odd skipped first Sunday of the month, I’ve participated in communion about 250 times. And I have to say (not just because I’m a minister) that each time is still meaningful.

I just finished reading Victor Shepherd’s Interpreting Martin Luther which included a solid chapter on the Eucharist. Now that’ I’m primed with ancient Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinistic, and Zwinglian views, it’s time to hear what (Dunn says) Paul had to say about the matter.

. . .

Chapter 7: The Church

§ 22: The Lord’s Supper

Since Paul referred to the church as Christ’s body, it’s no surprise that the Lord’s Supper is important for Paul. However, since the topic was not a matter of dispute, it’s only treated in one letter over two chapters (1 Corinthians 10-11). This leads us to wonder how central the practice really was. We must be careful in studying Paul’s view of the Lord’s Supper to recognize that most of our data comes from one occasional letter.

It’s traditional (as with baptism), to look to contemporary Greek mystery religions to provide an origin for the Lord’s Supper. There are striking similarities:

  • Conquest of death
  • Feasting and drinking
  • Healing
  • Death and rebirth

However, those similarities are common to every religion. Closer evaluation yields no deep parallels. Dunn stresses this point quite pithily: “analogy is not genealogy” (604). The radical aspects of Paul’s Lord’s Supper theology—sharing the table of demons (1 Corinthians 10:18, 21), and sickness and death following unworthy participation (1 Corinthians 11:30) must be explained elsewhere.

Scripture has two different Lord’s Supper liturgies:

  1. Mark 14:22-24 / Matthew 26:26-28
  2. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 / Luke 22:19-20

Mark and Matthew are almost identical, as are Paul and Luke. They differ from each other due to liturgical shaping. The Pauline/Lukan inclusion of “do this in remembrance of me” and “this cup is the new covenant” likely reflect the original tradition more closely since Paul elsewhere has little use for the “new covenant” tradition. The question now is: can the theology of 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (bread and wine unite us as we share in one body) be found in the early Lord’s Supper tradition, or is it a Pauline development?

Sociological studies have tried to shed more light on the situation in Corinth. The Corinthian church was a socially stratified community where those without enough food were being left out of the meal. We can see three elements of Paul’s writing that makes this clear:

  1. He notes the schisms among them (1 Corinthians 11:18).
  2. He writes of factions among them (1 Corinthians 11:19).
  3. He notes that the Corinthians didn’t tell him about the situation—he found out elsewhere (1 Corinthians 11:18).

Paul’s words about those who are sick and dying because of unworthy participation probably evoke the idea of sacred holiness. The Ananias and Sapphira effect (Acts 5:1-16) may be alluded to here.

In 1 Corinthians 10:3-4, Paul makes the point that Israel in the desert drank the same “spiritual” food and drink yet some of them were struck down. Here Paul is likely challenging the mistaken belief that participating in the Lord’s Supper is a source of salvation.

The most important element of Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is his understanding of the church as the body of Christ. Nowhere else in Pauline literature do we see such concentrated unity words (sharing, partners, partake of). His logic is this: the one bread when shared makes us one body. This is why he was so stern with the Corinthians: when they came together in division, they were not even partaking in a real Lord’s Supper, the chief mark being unity. While 1 Corinthians 11 speaks of coming together for the Lord’s Supper, 1 Corinthians 12-14 speak of coming together for worship. Both are marked by unity in the body of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul described Christ as the rock from which Israel drank in the wilderness.  The Lord’s Supper feeds and sustains believers (together) in the eschatological tension. The much-debated phrase, “This is my body” is exegetically ambiguous. It can’t be forced to mean what various theologians have tried over the centuries. The words, “do this in remembrance” have also been debated. Surely it must mean more than mere reflecting. The Lord’s Supper is a communal re-presentation of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.

. . .

Well, I shouldn’t be surprised that Dunn didn’t weigh in on transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or any of the other views. The text simply can’t bear the weight of theology foisted upon it through two millennia. While there was nothing particularly surprising in this chapter, it has reminded me that the main point of Paul’s writing about the Lord’s Supper is unity. It’s easy to emphasize remembrance over the unity that frames the passage.

< § 21: Ministry and authority

§ 23: Motivating principles >

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