Growing up, I was a member of a mid-sized Southern Baptist Church in West Virginia. My parents attended that church faithfully, and raised me to do likewise. I have joked that I was born on a Tuesday, was at the evening prayer meeting Wednesday and didn’t miss a church service since. Some have asked me why I no longer identify as a Baptist. This selection from a longer essay spells out part of my reasoning.
Like many Baptist churches, mine celebrated the Eucharist monthly, although, most Baptists tellingly prefer the less Catholic title: the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve ever been to a Baptist church, you know that standard protocol for the Lord’s Supper is that little plastic shot glasses of grape juice and some sort of crackers are passed out to congregants who then take the elements in sync. This method is in fact not accidental Baptist piety. While most of the Church believes the body of Christ to be present in one way or another in the Eucharist, for Baptists, Christ’s body exists on earth only in the gathered church, that is, “the body of Christ.” Christ is present in the elements, therefore, to the extent that they are received together by the gathered church.
In my church, the ushers were put in charge not only of serving the Lord’s Supper, but of preparing it. The ushers decided that this was too great a burden to be placed on them as often as once a month—in their defense, those little cups are hard to fill—so they proposed that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper only once a quarter. Of course, a committee was formed to do a cost-benefit-analysis and fights broke out in a few business meetings, but after all the dust settled, the ushers’ proposal won out and we limited our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper to once a quarter.
Only in retrospect did this strike me as odd. It was just part of my church experience, no different from people who are used to celebrating the Eucharist monthly, weekly, or even daily. After all, didn’t Jesus say “as often as you take of it”? I just never really thought much of it, until I went to college and began studying Church history.
Sitting in a little classroom at Eastern University, (interestingly, an American Baptist school), with Dr. Margaret Kim Peterson, I heard about another fight over the Eucharist. This time, in the ninth century, two monks with strikingly similar names, Radbertus and Ratramnus, living at the same monastery, Corbie, wrote two books by the same title, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini (The Body and Blood of the Lord), in which they laid out two opposing views of the Eucharist. Radbertus’ essay was a precursor to what Catholics later came to call transubstantiation. He said that the body and blood of Christ were literally present in the elements of the Eucharist. In fact, present isn’t the right word for Radbertus’ teaching. Rather, he maintained that the bread and wine were entirely abolished at consecration and that, though the appearance of the original elements remained, they were completely replaced by the body and blood of Christ. He then had to go to great pains to say that the post-resurrection body of Jesus was not restricted by the limitations of the spacio-temporal world, to show how it is possible that thousands of people all over the world eat of the same body and drink of the same blood at the same time every Sunday morning.
A few years later Ratramnus issued his response to Radbertus. In a style later followed by protestant reformer John Calvin, Ratramnus proposed that the body and blood of Christ were spiritually, as opposed to physically present in the Eucharistic elements. Preferring not to deal with some of the more philosophical questions in Radbertus’ essay, and seeking to make the faith reasonable to those learned in then modern science, Ratramnus substituted Radbertus’ supernatural Eucharistic theology with a more intellectually respectable version, without compromising the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.
Now, what’s the point of all this theologizing? Did anyone win the battle? Not really—the Roman Catholic Church has officially adopted something similar to Radbertus’ view, under the title transubstantiation, but the debate continues in mainline protestant denominations today. Personally, I’m not sure how Christ makes himself present in the Eucharist. Radbertus and Ratramnus didn’t do much to clarify things for me either. What they did was call into question the legitimacy of the problems within my own religious tradition.
While my Baptist church was fighting over whether communing once a month was worth the work, Radbertus and Ratramnus were debating why, and in what way the Eucharist is central to the Christian life. In what way does Christ’s presence in these elements, they pondered, appear to us and nourish us in body and soul? I learned that what has historically been one of the most important elements of Christian faith and practice was all but lost from my own Christian experience.