Friday, April 29, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion that the "Elements" of the Lord's Supper Constitute a "Supper"?

In 1 Cor 11:17-22, Paul says this about the Lord’s Supper:

"But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you."

In this passage, Paul addresses the Lord’s Supper as it relates to the unity within the assembly of the Corinthians. It is evident from Paul’s words in this passage that the Corinthians were partaking of an entire meal, not just the bread and wine. There are very few who dispute this. F.F. Bruce echoes a common belief among scholars that, “the Eucharist, then, was evidently taken in the course of a communal meal” (Bruce, First and Second Corinthians, 110). What is disputed, however, is the precise relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the Corinthians’ meal, and whether Paul in this passage gives any indication that he wants the Corinthians to put an end to their practice of eating a meal together or whether he wants them to continue.

The first step in deciding about the ongoing relevance of the meal-aspect of the Supper is to determine just what Paul means by the title “Lord’s Supper” in 1 Cor 11:20. This title (from the Greek, kuriakon deipnon) occurs only here in the NT. While deipnon occurs often in the NT, the only other place that kuriakon occurs is in Rev 1:10 in reference to “the Lord’s Day.” This phrase in all likelihood has as its referent Sunday, the day Christ arose from the dead and the day on which the church commemorated that resurrection. No attempt will be made here to defend this view—Carson’s work (From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) is definitive and the reader is referred there. The word kuriakon means roughly “belonging to the Lord.” In the case kuriakon deipnon it means “the supper belonging to the Lord.” Yet just what is this “supper”? Is Paul here referring to the meal of the Corinthians, of which the bread and wine are dominant features, or is he referring to the bread and wine alone? Put another way, could Paul have referred to the bread and wine as a “supper” apart from the meal?

It is an interesting fact that every other instance of deipnon in the NT refers to nothing less than a full meal, and in many (arguably, all) cases it refers to a banquet or feast. (see Matt 23:6; Mark 6:21; 12:39; Luke 14:12, 16, 17, 24; 20:46; John 12:2; 21:20; 13:2, 4; 1 Cor 11:20, 21; Rev 19:9, 17). It would be odd in light of this to maintain that Paul has in mind the so-called “elements” (i.e., the bread and wine)—apart from the meal—when he refers to the kuriakon deipnon. On the contrary, what Paul calls the “Lord’s Supper” is itself the meal with the bread and wine.

Paul has in this one instance revealed to us his concept of the Lord’s Supper. The bread and wine by themselves can no more be called the Lord’s Supper (nor, indeed, a deipnon in any case) than can the meal without the bread and wine. Any attempt to view kuriakon deipnon as a title for a symbolic supper is refuted on the grounds that the Corinthians themselves were not partaking of a symbolic supper but rather a real supper. This seems clear from Paul’s corrective of their abuses: “ When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-22). It would be difficult to know just how some of the Corinthians could be getting drunk and satisfying hunger by partaking of a symbolic meal.

One way to determine whether or not Paul considered the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper to be a crucial part of the Supper is to take a closer look at the tradition he received about the Supper. Paul tells us about this tradition in 1 Cor 11:23-26:

"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes."

Several important points can be made about Paul’s words here. First, the order of consumption is, for Paul, bread/supper—cup. Paul does not say just when they began eating the meal; only that the cup came after. The “cup” referred to here is likely the “cup of blessing” which in Jewish custom was consumed after eating, since, as Fee has noted, this phrase was in use as “a technical term for the final blessing offered at the end of the meal” (Fee, I Corinthians, 468; so also Barrett, I Corinthians, 231). Paul, in fact, uses this phrase for the cup of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 10:16 (to poterion tes eulogias = “the cup of blessing”).

Second, we may assume, since Paul makes the point that the cup was distributed after supper, that the saying about the bread took place either immediately before the meal (to initiate the meal) or during the meal. It is therefore likely that, in Paul’s Lord’s Supper tradition, the loaf of bread is distributed at the beginning or during the meal and the cup follows the meal. What is significant about this order is the inclusion of the mention of an actual meal within the tradition itself. Why does Paul include this? Doubtless there were many things that took place at the Last Supper that are not included in the Lord’s Supper tradition. Yet Paul speaks of the meal-aspect (“after supper”) as an integral part of his tradition. Given the other ways this tradition could have stated the same phrase—for instance, meta to phagein, “after the act of eating” rather than meta to deipnesai, “after the act of supping” (the former implying the eating of bread only, the latter implying a full meal); or simply, “then he took the cup”—the early church must have understood the meal-aspect to be an integral part of the Lord’s Supper to have included it; for as even Fee (1 Corinthians, 554) concedes, this phrase forms an “otherwise unnecessary role in the tradition.” Hence, this passing reference to the deipnon does not bespeak the unimportance of the meal, but rather the assumption that the meal is to be included in the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Fourth, the question must again be asked, What does Paul mean by “supper” in this passage? Does he have in mind here a symbolic supper consisting only of bread and wine? Or, does he have in mind an actual meal as would be expected of one recalling the events of the Last Supper of the Lord and his disciples? Paul uses the same word (deipnon) that he used in v. 20 (although in the verbal form this time). It seems then that Paul sees the meal-aspect as part of his tradition, and that the meal with the bread and cup form the Lord’s Supper.

Many who concede that the Corinthians were, in fact, partaking of an actual meal have postulated that Paul’s purpose for writing this passage is to put an end to the meal-aspect. This is alternatively based on the assumption that Paul sees this meal as the source of the Corinthians’ divisions, or that Paul does not view the meal as an essential aspect of the Lord’s Supper to begin with, or a combination of both. Evidence that can be adduced in favor of the view that Paul is here putting an end to the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper includes: (1) Paul tells the Corinthians that their meal is not the Lord’s Supper (v. 20) and that the Lord’s Supper consists only of the bread and cup to which Paul refers extensively in vv. 23-28; (2) Paul implies that he wants them to cease practice of the meal-aspect by his statement, “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” (v. 22); and (3) Paul ends this section with the words “if anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment” (v. 34). Here, it is argued, is the “Pauline Precedent” that initiated the cessation of the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper once and for all.

Against point (1) it may be noted that the seeming emphasis Paul places on the bread and cup in vv. 23-28 is not intended to de-emphasize the importance of the meal-aspect. Even Fee (who subscribes to the cessationist view of the meal-aspect) concedes this point: “The context makes it clear that ‘to eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’ means simply to participate in the meal known as the Lord’s Supper. Paul is not trying to give special emphasis to the bread and wine per se” (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 560). In addition, Paul’s statement “it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (v. 20) is not intended to deny that the Lord’s Supper consists of a meal; rather that the Corinthian meal, at one time regarded as the Lord’s Supper, can no longer be regarded as such because of the abuses associated with it. This is clear from Paul’s explanation of his statement in the very next verse: “for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (v. 21). In other words, what would under normal conditions be the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians by their divisions have turned into their own Supper. Paul is not here attempting to separate the meal from the bread and wine; rather whatever points he makes about the meal are applied equally to the bread and cup (vv. 29-30).

Against point (2) above we may again question the common assumptions regarding Paul’s intent. Barrett is right when he notes about v. 22:
On the surface this seems to imply that ordinary, non-cultic eating and drinking should be done at home, contradicting the inference drawn above [from vv. 20-21] that the Corinthian supper included an ordinary meal. But Paul’s point is that, if the rich wish to eat and drink on their own, enjoying better food than their poorer brothers, they should do this at home; if they cannot wait for others (verse 33), if they must indulge to excess, they can at least keep the church’s common meal free from practices that can only bring discredit upon it. (Barrett, 1 Corinthians, 263).

This same observation may be made against point (3) above. There it is argued that Paul’s closing words for this section (“if anyone is hungry, he should eat at home,” v. 34) imply Paul’s desire that the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper should cease. Yet, as Barrett notes above about v. 22, Paul’s concern is to put an end, not to the meal itself, but to the abuses that accompanied the meal (see also Bruce, First and Second Corinthians, 116). This seems clear on two counts. First, Paul uses the singular pronoun and the singular imperative in this verse rather than the plural—lit., “if anyone (tis) is hungry, let him eat (esthietô) at home.” This suggests strongly that Paul’s point is simply that if any individual cannot restrain himself from eating the Supper before the poor arrive, then that individual should eat something at home so that he won’t be tempted to hoard that which rightly belongs to the entire body. Second, the verse that immediately precedes v. 34 seems to preclude any notion that Paul here intends to put an end to the meal-aspect: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other,” (v. 33). If Paul means to abolish the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper then it is odd that he would make a closing statement which assumes that the Corinthians will continue the meal as they have been (minus, of course, the abuses). Indeed, the only modification of the Supper that interests Paul is that the Corinthians “wait for each other” so that all may partake of the meal together.