A Response to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ “Is the Eucharistology of the Anglican Reformation Patristic?”
As a regular reader of the North American Anglican, I understand that Fr. Jefferies’ recent triple-header of articles taking up (editor) Mr. Ramsey’s challenge to demonstrate the contradiction between the fathers and reformers on sacramental theology is a major event. It is Mr. Ramsey’s business to respond more thoroughly (should he so choose) now that the gauntlet has been taken up, and in any case I mostly agree with Fr. Jefferies. But I would like to address, from a philosophical angle, a single phrase which Fr. Jefferies uses in the second part of his article, which is consequential and, I believe, poorly-conceived: “mind-independent.” It is my contention that there is no such thing, at least according to the church fathers, of “mind-independent” being, such that one could use them to adjudicate an early-modern debate based on a distinction between mind and being.
If the question is whether Christ’s body and blood are present in the holy gifts independent of any mind which faithfully knows them to be such, Fr. Jefferies’ understanding of the debate seems to be that the fathers and Lutherans answer “yes,” the “Jewel school” answers “no,” and the formularies are tolerant of both positions. To the formularies’ alleged tolerance of both Reformed and Lutheran sacramental theologies I do not object. But I have distinct suspicion that if one were to ask St. Augustine whether the sacramental body of Christ has any existence separate from its reception in mind—the same saint who argues that “being” is akin to “memory” as an analogy of God the Father in the triads of being-reason-love and memory-reason-will—St. Augustine would simply return your question with an uncomprehending stare and ask you to clarify what you mean.
Why? Because for ancient thinkers (and not only Platonists like Augustine, but especially for them) being is always for mind and mind always for being. All things exist in and through their “forms” or “natures.” Whether one understands these forms to be transcendent or immanently present in their members—although this distinction itself, unfortunately common as a crude way of distinguishing Plato and Aristotle, is probably of no consequence—the form of a thing is always understood as an intelligible reality, rather than a material one. In fact, a “material form” is simply a contradiction in terms, if by it you mean “a form that is unintelligible and simply material.” That is called “matter,” and, if it can be said to exist at all, it is the receptacle that forms receive and is nothing in itself. All things present themselves as form to the perceptive capacities of other beings. Put most simply (and this is Plato’s oft-caricatured insight), being is form. So we must say that the being of any intelligible form is only realized when it is known by mind; indeed, that is what it means to be “intelligible.” One might call this a pervasive “idealism” in ancient philosophy, since being is in and for mind, but even this is just an accommodation to modern terminology: the ancients could not conceive of a “pure materialism” to which this “idealism” might be opposed. The point is this: Fr. Jefferies insistence that a wedge can be driven between the fathers and the reformers on the basis of a division between objectivity/being on one hand and subjectivity/mind on the other does not respect the worldview of ancient thinkers like the fathers.
I do not claim that the fathers of the church were all sophisticated Platonic philosophers—although some were—but that, in the world in which they were educated and wrote, they simply could not have constructed sacramental theologies around an opposition between mind and being. The consequence of this is that the Fathers cannot, understood in their philosophical context, be used so literally to adjudicate Fr. Jefferies’ debate between early-Lutheran and Reformed writers over whether the sacrament exists in being or in mind.
On the basis of the unity between mind and being I attribute to patristic thought, Reformed theologians would be correct to appeal to the fathers to argue that the forms of the body and blood of Christ are only ever received in mind, because the form of anything is only ever perceived by mind. So, for example, as Article 29 and St. Augustine saith, the body of Christ is not pressed with the teeth as if there were any relation between a purely biological process of digestion and the sacrament of our redemption; Christ is received in the mind, and eating is a means thereto. But on the same basis we could also say that even ordinary bread is received in the mind: what the mind receives (in perception) is the form “bread” together with the accidents of this particular bread, whereas what the body receives according to its own vegetative capacity is carbohydrates. So the reformed doctrine that Christ is received in the mind is true and clarifying, though perhaps it is not as radical as it first appears, nor is it as contradictory to Christ’s real presence as its authors suppose: it is simply what is true of all form.
Conversely, Lutherans would be right to argue from the fathers (and Fr. Jefferies cites many examples) that the consecrated elements can and should be called the “body of Christ” without qualification. Why? Because their use in valid liturgy has designated them as such using the very words of God, the word that creates all things by naming and knowing them, conferring form on material chaos. I know that thing which I receive by my mouth to be the body of Christ because a priest of God places it in my hand and tells me so: “The body of Christ, which was given for thee.” Here God’s knowledge of the world has intervened to interrupt my own, weaker vision, showing me his Son in and under the form of bread.
However, if we use the ancient fathers as a judge in early-modern sacramental debates, it doesn’t come out in a wash just because everyone can be affirmed in part: there are winners and losers. The big winner in this case is the Prayer Book, our principal formulary, which robustly affirms the catholic doctrine that the consecrated gifts are the body and blood of Christ, without any qualification that casts doubt on the “reality” or “objectivity” of the intelligible form conferred on them by consecration. (It affirms this in the prayer of humble access, the consecration, the administration, and the second post-communion.) Likewise, Fr. Jefferies’ account of the other formularies is persuasive, specifically the Articles and their tolerance of the Lutheran-Patristic doctrine. The Articles’ reservation of judgement allows one to affirm the catholic doctrine while also appreciating the genuine insight of Jewel and his followers, that Christ gives himself sacramentally to the mind which receives in faith, rather than to our bodies as if we were physically nourished by the proteins of his flesh. But of course, no Lutheran—or Roman Catholic, for goodness sake!—would say that we are carnally nourished by Jesus’ rib-meat.
Who are the losers, then? Here, I side against the reformers in a limited way akin to Fr. Jefferies’ final position: the “Jewel school” is correct in what they affirm (that the sacrament of Christ’s body is for the mind) but incorrect in what they deny, if they deny that the consecrated bread and wine, resting on the altar before reception by the mouth, are the body and blood of Christ already. Why? Because the same mind which heard and understood the words of God which said “this is my body” as the priest laid his hand upon the bread to designate it, could not then, except by an act of the most egregious blasphemy, deny if asked that it is the true body of Christ. The body of Christ is received in the soul, yes, and it cannot be received into the soul except by faith, although it may be impiously received in the mouth to no consequence but judgement. But still the authorized liturgy of our church has identified the meaning of the bread’s visible and intelligible form—and therefore its being as well, since these cannot be separated according to the Platonic logic of the fathers I sketch above—as “the body of Christ.” If the fathers are the judge, the “losers” of this contest are those reformers who explicitly deny that the consecrated gifts resting upon the altar are the body and blood of Christ. They are those who oppose the “real” or “objective” presence to “spiritual” or “subjective” reception, and come down on the side of subjectivity and therefore against the “reality” of Christ’s presence.
But who are those reformers? I admit to knowing Jewel not nearly as well as Hooker, but Hooker at least seems to avoid falling into this trap, preferring to affirm the sacrament’s reception through faith rather than to deny the substantial (that is, formal) presence of Christ. So, for example, in 5.67 of the Lawes, Hooker first dismisses the Zwinglian notion that the sacrament is “empty and void of Christ” (5.67.2), then presents three alternatives for affirming Christ’s presence: first the Lutheran position that before participation Christ’s substance coexists with the substance of the bread, then the Roman position that before participation Christ’s substance abolishes the substance of the bread. Then he presents his own position that the bread
“through concurrence of divine power, is in verity and truth, unto faithful receivers, instrumentally a cause of that mystical participation, whereby as I [Jesus] make myself wholly theirs, so I give them in hand an actual possession of all such saving grace as my sacrificed body can yield, and as their souls do presently need, this is to them and in them my body” (5.67.12).
Aside from a clear indication of the “symbolic instrumentalism” of Calvin, what is most notable is that he refuses to deal in the terms that the other two positions use. Although he does not here make a judgement about whether the bread is a sacrament before participation, he affirms that in reception it certainly is, and he does not make any judgement about Christ’s substantial presence, preferring instead to define the sacrament by what it does for us. Put in terms of a classic triad of Platonic thought, he avoids the question of the bread’s being (what it is) and power (what its latent potential is) by instead pivoting to a discussion of its operation (what it does), about which all sides agree.
I can already hear my Reformed brethren objecting that this is simply sophistry, and that clearly Hooker meant to deny the substantial presence of Christ in the eucharist in favour of the virtual. Perhaps. But, if that is so, that denial is left implicit, simply as the shadow of the affirmation that he makes—and why would Hooker leave that denial implicit except to allow the Prayer Book to speak on the matter, the Prayer Book for which he is the principal apologist? And what does that Prayer Book say? That the sacrament of the altar is the body—indeed, the “flesh”—and blood of our Lord. In the most moving passage of Hooker’s sacramental treatise, he explicitly refuses to make a judgement about “what the elements are in themselves,” and is taken up in a rapture of eucharistic mysticism which lays bare the heart of a faithful communicant:
“In the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; … What these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my soul thou art happy!” (5.67.12)
Richard Hooker’s theology contains the essential seed of insight that Platonic philosophy can provide to eucharistic controversies: that the being of the world is definitively constituted by intelligible form, that is, by word, and specifically the word of God. There is no human intellectual skill that can separate the unity of knowing and being, which can pull back the curtain and see the “naked” world of “pure being” and distinguish it from the world from mind.
So, if God delights to confer the intelligible form of his Son on common bread by naming it as his body, then let God be true and every man a liar, but I will believe him. And yet, for all the simplicity of this faith, it remains (as the reformers insist) faith which receives it as such—even in anticipation of the act of communion and, by (controversial) extension, even after communion should we violate Article 28 and reserve the sacrament. Before, during, or after the act of communion, it is faith (not an “objective perspective,” whatever that means) which believes the divine word and thereby permanently redefines our relationship to the consecrated bread.
The aim of this argument, in which I largely agree with Fr. Jefferies’ conclusions, is irenic. Fr. Jefferies’ “Parker Interpretation” is, for the most part, just fine and I am convinced that this represents both an authentically Anglican position and one that can help unify our tradition—although I am mightily concerned that “Part II” of this interpretation abandons any clear sense of the efficacy that Article 25 attributes to the sacraments. We can be grateful to those who make the doctrinal and historical distinctions necessary to draw up reasonable theses of concord. But for such unity to be anything but short-lived word-play or power-play, and to avoid the constant re-elaboration of doctrine which results in us fighting over whether we should subscribe to an interpretation of the Articles (themselves an elaboration of the creeds and councils, which are in turn an elaboration of the scriptures), the philosophical motion needs to be not “horizontally” toward a carefully-worded compromise position, but “vertically” in a motion of ascent to the principles at work in our divided thinking. We need to see how both the “Jewel School” and the “Andrewes School” are drawing from the same well.
That well, I have argued, is the unity of mind and being which is the philosophical inheritance of the many pre-modern strains of thought we now generally call “Platonism.” In the implicit Platonism of our most important formularies—a Platonism not so much of doctrinal confession, as if Anglicanism were a philosophical school, but a Platonism pervasive in the worldview of the educated class of England which propagated our reformation—we can find a philosophical basis for reconciling the various strands of our tradition. On the one hand, despite constant threats from within and without, the Anglican tradition has always maintained that the sacrament of the altar is the true body and blood of Christ, in continuity with catholic and apostolic tradition, and it does so on the philosophical foundations of ancient ontology, specifically the real constitution of the world by the intelligible word. On the other hand, we can be grateful for the insight of our most enlightened divines, some putatively “Reformed” thinkers among them, who made progress towards recovering the best of ancient philosophy and re-purposing it for the clarification, defense, and advancement of the faith, specifically by (sometimes over-zealously) fighting the sacramental superstition which accompanied the birth-pains of modern materialism. Our reformers are not so radical that we cannot find among them the remnants of an ancient and catholic philosophical foundation on which we may still profitably build.