The Christian ecumenical dialogue, like old man river, has been rolling steadily along for the past fifty years with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox participation. It is, of course, a much older phenomenon among Protestants. The river has resulted in a fertile delta of fascinating official/ecclesial and unofficial/personal literature. A few great books are sure to come out of all this, but in the meantime we can feast on the studies, reports and published examples. This volume, edited by G. T. Smith formerly dean at Regent College in Vancouver, is an example of dialogue and a very good one for several reasons.
The least of the reasons is that it is mercifully brief. I’m sure the editor had a great deal to do with this and he deserves credit. The essays and responses are brief enough to leave the reader wishing that each essay and especially the responses were longer. The important reasons are that the five essays are truthful, faithful, informed, clear, and direct. They are “historical theology” at its most useful. Each author is a believing participant in his or her own tradition of Christian theology and an engaged dialogue partner with other Christian streams of thought. The authors are careful and kind. They know what they and their communities are for and against, and they can, with one exception, easily talk over the walls of separation and hear the voices of others. Even the one who is so deeply convinced that his side of the many many-sided problem of the correct understanding the Eucharistic elements and their relation to the Body and the Blood makes an invaluable, if prickly and “bewildering,” contribution to the discussion. (64)
All the contributors seem to agree that the Eucharist is at once a commanded memorial, a presence of Christ, and a foretaste of the Kingdom. They all agree that the Eucharist bears a vital relationship to the Jesus who now sits at the right hand. But they fall out on the issue of how to describe that relationship. The issue is undoubtedly “Presence.” In what sense does “memorial” mean the presence of the sacrifice on Calvary? In what mode of presence is Christ “there” in the elements? In what way, if at all, does the Eucharistic action constitute the Church and anticipate the Kingdom? These respectable old questions remain and the great variety of answers lodged in traditions is what is under discussion. While there is no breakthrough on these questions, there are strong indications that the participants concur on their cruciality and each goes on to elucidate the answers of their traditions. The collection, mercifully brief as it is, brings a surfeit of insight to an understudied subject of large ecumenical concern. Polemic and attempts at converting the other partners are two of the dangers threatening ecumenical dialogue. They are avoided in the book.
Granted that linguistic analysis and metaphysics cannot answer the strictly religious and theological questions with which the authors deal, but at turning points in the argument the terminology (e.g. presence and absence, body, memory, et al.) is in desperate need of close attention. The Baptist author (Olson) states, in response to the presentation of Lutheran consubstantiation and Christological omnipresence that “we must picture Christ’s glorified body as a real body localized somewhere and not omnipresent.” In other words Christ is “there” and cannot at the same time be “here” in the elements. It (the body) cannot be “real” if it is not localized and it can be localized only in one place. (see 85-88, 96-97,107) The prior question is this: is heaven a place? On the other hand, to the Catholic imagination as Gros explicates it and the Lutheran doctrinal conviction laid out by Stephenson, Christ being “there” (in heaven, say) and “here” in the Eucharistic elements doesn’t seem to pose much of a problem. Issues of imagination, space and time, the meaning of “body” and “glorified body” weave their way throughout the discussion, and they deserve attention on their own. I do not think theology which is not informed by linguistic study and metaphysical reflection can clarify the issues on its own. The participants and readers have to be aware that not only do they disagree on theological solutions and proposals but that they seem to be working in several different realms of ordinary and religious language and so often at cross-purposes. Warnings about the pitfalls can be found in I Cor.15, especially verse 44. This text is not referred to in the essays though it is a fine example of Paul’s own wrestling with the questions of the resurrection body. That we still wrestle should come as no surprise, but we do have some philosophical tools to work on the problem and further our mutual, not to say common, understanding.
The collection will prove valuable for courses and seminars, undergraduate as well as graduate, as well as discussions in churches for which Eucharistic theology and the state of ecumenical discussion are focal. It can profitably be read by educated laypersons and by clergy interested in theology and ecumenism.