Friday, May 06, 2005

The Significance of “The Cup/One Bread”

Getting back to our series on the Lord's Table:

The Essential "Oneness" of the Bread and the Cup
Tucked away in 1 Corinthians 10 is an oft-neglected teaching about the Lord's Supper. Paul says this:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Cor 10:16-17).

You'll not likely hear this passage read during the observance of the Lord's Supper in any church you may attend. Yet it nevertheless reveals an integral part of Paul's "Lord's Supper" theology. The phrase to potêrion tês eulogias (“the cup of blessing”) likely comes from a Passover background (the "cup of blessing" was one of the cups observed during the Passover). The presence of the first-person plural in both eulogoumen (“we bless”) and klômen (“we break”) makes it likely that Paul does not intend to limit this practice with the cup and bread to Corinth alone, but rather suggests a common practice of the church.

But just what is the point that Paul makes about the bread? Paul goes beyond the mere fact that the bread is a "participation in the body of Christ" (v. 16) by showing its significance for unity. There is one (heis) “loaf of bread” in the Lord’s Supper (v. 17; when used with a numeral, artos always means “loaf of bread”). This “one loaf of bread,” according to Paul, somehow creates unity within the body: “because there is one loaf of bread, we who are many are one body.” As if to anticipate that someone might downplay the force of hoti (“because”), Paul adds, “for (gar) we all partake of the one loaf of bread.” There can be no mistaking Paul’s meaning here, and it is doubtful that the grammar can be taken any other way. For Paul, there is theological significance in the singularity of the loaf of bread. It is important to Paul that there is an expression of unity in the body, not merely a static concept of unity; this is accomplished by all partaking of “one loaf of bread.”

But the notion that the combination of single loaf and single cup symbolizes the unity of believers, while true in itself, does not go quite far enough. Paul does not say we partake of one loaf of bread because we are one body; on the contrary, he states we are one body because we partake of one loaf of bread. The force of hoti and gar together makes it clear that Paul sees the singularity of the loaf as a cause of this unity, not merely its symbol. This view is held by the vast majority of New Testament scholars who comment on this passage, including Wainwright, Robertson, Plummer, Fee, Barrett, Grosheide and Morris.

The same may be said about the cup. Although Paul does not specifically assign a numeric value to the cup, the presence of the article (to potêrion) and the parallel with the loaf suggests that (as with the bread) there is only one cup. Poterion (“cup”) is almost certainly intended to stand for both the cup itself and the contents within (viz., the wine). When each local assembly gathers together to partake of the bread and the cup, the members are made one body by virtue of their common participation in the loaf of bread and cup.

Whether this oneness is metaphysical or merely representative cannot easily be determined, although Paul’s insistence in v. 20 (“I do not want you to be participants in demons”) favors a metaphysical oneness. In either case, this oneness must be seen as an essential quality of the Lord’s Supper. Its cause (i.e., the singularity of the loaf and cup) must therefore also be of an essential quality.

Implications for the Form of the Lord’s Supper
As we have already seen, the elements of the Lord’s Supper (viz., the bread and wine) are, at least for Paul, in the form of a single loaf of bread and a single cup of wine. We have also seen that Paul attaches theological significance to this form of the elements and that the form itself somehow causes unity to occur within the local body of believers as each member partakes of the elements. I am inclined to concede that Paul is speaking here in almost sacramental language--and that's not an easy concession coming from a Baptist! But I can't get around the fact that the plain reading of the text insists on the singularity of the bread and cup as a cause of unity in the body of Christ. My use of "sacramental" in this case represents a departure from the normal use. By "sacramental" I do not mean to imply that the Lord's Supper is a means of eternal life, nor even a means of grace per se. In this case, it's simply a means of metaphysical unity in the body of Christ.

But what if this form is not followed? What are the implications when the singularity depicted by the one loaf and one cup is absent? Even if Paul intends for the singularity of the bread and cup merely to portray oneness in the body, then the absence of that singularity necessarily implies the absence of a visible proof of oneness. But, in fact, much more is at stake than mere portrayal. Since, as Paul argues, the singularity of the bread and cup causes unity in the body, then the absence of this singularity may also imply the absence of bodily unity in the Lord’s Supper. If there are other causes of bodily unity that can replace this cause, Paul does not mention them. Of course this may simply be one venue for bodily unity out of many.

On the other hand, while it is true that other factors contribute to the unity of the body (love, forgiveness, bearing with one another, etc.) it may well be that the kind of oneness Paul has in mind in this passage is of a different sort altogether. The “table of the Lord” (v. 21), the koinonia, the bread and cup, and the act of participation all work together to produce this oneness in a unique way. Perhaps, then, it is more accurate to speak in specific terms of “Lord’s Table” unity rather than bodily unity in general. If this is the case, it seems no other venue could easily replace the venue of the singularity of bread and cup.

I. Howard Marshall, while seeing value in maintaining the symbol of one loaf and one cup, allows modifications of this form where the form may be impractical. For larger settings, he suggests simultaneous participation (Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 156). However, it is not altogether clear how simultaneous participation would adequately convey the symbol of unity which participation in one loaf and one cup pictures. After all, Paul states that the reason all of the participants of each local assembly are one body is because they all partake of one loaf and cup. Bread that is presented in a pre-broken form (e.g., the broken crackers that serve as the “bread” in the vast majority of denominations today) does not--indeed, cannot--symbolize unity; in fact, its "brokeness" instead symbolizes division. The same holds true of the “wine” that is pre-poured into individual cups.

Paul’s words seem to demand singularity of the bread and cup before the form can accurately portray or cause unity. It is not enough simply to present the "elements" of the bread and cup; these elements must also be capable of expressing their intended theological function. Any other form, while perhaps more practical, does not give due diligence to the theological significance Paul attaches to the oneness-aspect of the bread and cup. To the extent that Paul’s concept of oneness in the Lord’s Supper is not portrayed via the proper form, to that extent the form is impoverished in terms of its ability to cause (or even to symbolize) the unity that Paul sees as so essential to the Lord’s Supper.

Next week: What about the mood of the Lord's Supper? (Or, Where did we ever get the notion that the Supper is a funeral procession that merely "looks back" on the death of Christ?