You know that state where a pond is almost frozen and all it takes is a single snowflake to start the thermal reaction that freezes the whole thing over? I’m getting the sense that at least the chatterers of the Episcopal Church (myself among them) are at that point concerning Communion without Baptism. Following discussion here and some off-line conversations with Donald Schell, Donald posted a piece at the Cafe that’s getting some major and sustained attention.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this topic may well be our next biggest theological battlefield. And it will be a big one as our Eucharistic practice has major implications for our liturgical practice and our sacramental theology as a whole.
There’s one particular piece of the puzzle that jumps out at me because of my own weird angle on things… There’s a direct line from the principal arguments for Communion without Baptism that rest on the work of Norm Perrin. For those who aren’t familiar with Norm, he’s a New Testament scholar who stands in a very interesting place historically. The drive-by version is that the First Quest for the Historical Jesus was closed off by the one-two punch of Wrede’s work on the messianic secret and Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus—so, in the first decade of the twentieth century. Then there was a vestigial Second Quest in the mid-twentieth century that’s connected with Bultmann’s Christian encounter with Existentialism and is most specifically exemplified in Bornkamm’s Jesus Christ. Right after that point came Perrin. In one sense he’s a transitional figure between the Second and the Third Quest. I tend to see him more as the father figure of the Third Quest.
I see three significant points on Perrin and CWOB. Point one. Perrin was self-consciously undertaking historical work. I’ve mentioned this before in other discussions but it’s important enough to be worth repeating: a major facet of the case for CWOB is that it attempts to base itself on the practices of the historical Jesus. Thus, this opens two immediate lines of investigation. First, it means that the theology and practice are based in a historical reconstruction. This assumes and presumes that the reconstruction is correct. Second, what is the alternative to the historical Jesus? It’s the canonical Jesus… By using the selective focus of a 20th century reconstruction of what the historical Jesus did, what aspects of the canonical Jesus are being left out or deliberately ignored?
Point Two. The points from Perrin seem to rest on the reconstruction of a particular kind of “Jesus meal”—the meals that Jesus ate with “sinners and tax collectors.” There are, however, at least four kinds of meal material that need to be considered from the Gospels alone: yes, the “meals with tax collectors and sinners”, but then there’s also the Last Supper, the feeding miracles, and the discussions about meals. All four of these need to be engaged. Of course, when we do that then I suspect we cut immediately to one of the big issues with most “historical” Jesus reconstructions—the automatic jettisoning of Johannine material. Returning to the canonical Jesus and discussions of meals means that John 6 is back on the table…
Point Three. As Father John-Julian reminded me a while back, evidence from earliest Christian (including some questionable Christian) literature suggests that the fundamental paradigm for the Eucharist was the feeding miracles—not the meals with outcasts. What happens when we inject this factor into the conversation?
So—I think that the biblical and theological root of the current case for CWOB bears some much closer investigation. What’s worth remembering, though, is that most people—even those taking part in the debate—-fundamentally don’t care about the biblical and theological roots. Instead they fall for the simplistic framing of CWOB being about “inclusion” or “justice”. Which it’s not. This canard reflects a self-perpetuating failure of sacramental catechesis. As a result, any form of reasoned discussion around the issue must be two-pronged. Always attend to the first point first: “inclusion” and “justice” really isn’t the issue here—we’re willing to baptize just about anyone! Only after disposing of that can you move to the real theology…