Thursday, 14 June 2012

Walther on Worthy Reception of the Lord's Supper

"He, therefore, who would receive the Lord’s Supper worthily and for his benefit must previously have come to repentance and faith, must previously have obtained grace and have become a true Christian. Partaking of the Lord’s Supper is in and by itself not beneficial; rather the benefit depends on how one partakes. It does not work ex opere operato. It is not like a medicine which one need merely swallow to have the benefit. It is rather like a treasure house whose treasures can be taken, grasped and held only with the hand of faith." 

CFW Walther, Pastoral Theology, as quoted in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, III: 382, fn 132    

The phrase ex opere operato means literally by the very act of the sacrament being performed. It applies to Roman Catholic doctrine wherein a sacrament (not just the Lord's Supper) is effectual simply by being performed provided no mortal sin places an obstacle in the way of beneficial reception of the grace offered. Such mortal sins must be confessed orally and priestly absolution received prior to reception for the sacrament to be received beneficially. For Lutherans the power and deceit of sin is such that we cannot be sure of identifying every mortal sin we have committed, and in any case the only mortal sin that proves an irremovable obstacle to worthy reception of the sacrament of the altar is the lack of faith in our Lord's words of promise: "This is my body given for you...this is my blood of the new testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins". Thus the examination of conscience prior to communing has as much or even more to do with faith as with repentance, although faith itself is simply the "open hand" into which God places his treasures of forgiveness, life and salvation.   

There is more that can be said, of course, and Walther does so, but this is enough for now.


Schütz said...

There are some old misunderstandings here. For a start, for a sin to be "mortal", there must be conscious knowledge of having committed it. Unconscious sin cannot, by definition, be mortal. That doesn't mean that it cannot be called "sin", but it isn't sin in the sense that a conscious break in communion (with God and his Church) has been committed. The Eucharist is, in Catholic teaching as well as in Lutheran, "for the forgiveness of sins", and venial sins (under which unconscious sin would come) are forgiven through partaking of the Eucharist. So the requirement that one confess all mortal sins in confession is not an impossible requirement, as traditional Lutheran argument has it. It is in fact possible by the very nature of mortal sin. Only intentional known sin unconfessed bars one from approaching the sacrament and receiving its graces.

Secondly, the problem with the view that Walther expresses is that it does tend to put the onus of the reception of sacramental grace on us. The doctrine "ex opere operato" refers to all the sacraments, and not just the Eucharist, to preserve the initiative of God. This is an emphasis that is thoroughly compatible with Lutheranism (in baptism as with the Eucharist). Of course, a lack of faith would in fact be a mortal sin - it is, in fact, THE mortal sin. But faith can be as small as a mustard seed, and thus present but indiscernable - at least to the outside observer. So we find it much better to warn unrepentant sinners not to approach the sacrament, and to emphasise for those faithful who do that doing so does not depend upon the degree of their faith, but upon the power of God's Grace. "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed."

Acroamaticus said...

Thanks David.
I'll reply next week when I have more time!

Stephen K said...

David, Mark, I think you are both right to an extent, although I think the subject of ex opere operato can be nuanced a little further. My own understanding is that its meaning is best grasped by comparing it to its alternative ex opere operantis. That is, the phrase aimed to stress that the power or grace of the sacrament (‘the holy sign’) did not arise from the minister but from the confection of the sign. This aimed to protect the God-sourced holiness of the sign against a humanistic version, whereby its holiness and effectiveness depended on a human quality. The phrase was not intended to mean, however, that the sacrament could be said to exist or be confected without receptivity. This is where the human element does have an integral place in sacramental economy. Human intention and desire is crucial. Saying the words of baptism without understanding of what they signify is no baptism. Saying the words of marriage vows without informed consent or with defective intention is no marriage. Receiving the symbols of consecrated bread and wine with no belief in their sacramental nature is no eucharist. Viewed in this way, sacraments do not work simply ex opere operato but ex opere recipientis.

The danger and experience of insisting solely on the former phrase is, I believe, that it encourages a ‘magical’ view of the sacraments, whereby the words and gestures become equivalent to spells and incantations, and priests and ministers become magicians. This is particularly apposite to the Eucharist. In my view the sacrament does not take place at the Consecration but during the whole faith assembly and is, in physical terms, completed by the reception by each communicant. In other words, dinner is not said to have occurred at the moment the roast comes out of the oven, but when it is eaten and enjoyed at table.

Under the economy I suggest is the correct way of reconciling the theological elements, transubstantiation or any other mechanism that could be said to occur is not the essence of the sacrament of the Eucharist (lit. “good grace sharing”) but an incidental. The ‘transformation’ that constitutes the process and power of a Sacrament is much more holistic and involves all participants.

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

Orthodox Justification 101:

"One sob, one tear, one Lord have mercy from the depths of the soul, and God forgives all". (Source)