The Dangers of Little Knowledge

What is true in every other profession is true of theology as well — a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The Center for Progressive Theology demonstrates this with utmost clarity in their third statement defining what progressive Christians believe: “we are Christians who understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples.”  This sounds rather benign in and of itself, until you see how progressives unpack it.  Let me try to unfold the argument.

The goal of progressives is to argue that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (which they never actually call it) is meant to be offered to all people who gather, whether they believe in Jesus or not.  This is a sign, they say, of radical inclusiveness, and shows that as Jesus embraced all in table fellowship. so should all people regardless of beliefs be welcomed to the Lord’s Table.  Now, I’m all for enjoying food with whoever’s around at mealtimes, but progressives are hinting or asserting that open communion is a foretaste of the universal salvation that God will bring to pass.  Here’s the argument.

Even before the time of Christ, the offer of bread and wine were universal signs of belonging and celebrating.  The TCPC website points to Melchizedek setting bread and wine before Abraham in Gen 14:18, the gift of manna (no wine) in the wilderness, the seemingly inexhaustible jar of meal (and container of oil, not wine, interestingly) that Elijah promised would not fail to supply for many days.  The purpose of these citations must be merely to undergird the claim in Point Three that use of bread and wine in this way is part of an “ancient vision.”  Perhaps so.  But these texts, apart from Genesis 14, do not link bread and wine at all, and definitely do not point to God’s “feast for all peoples.”  None of these texts has to do with the reconciliation of all peoples with one another.  The latter two texts deal with God’s provision of sustaining food, certainly not with feasting or banqueting.  So, perhaps the use of these texts are meant to show that bread and wine were consumed in ancient times.  Hardly revelatory.

The key OT passage noted, however, is much more instructive.  Isaiah 25:6 reads:

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wine strained clear.”

The website states, “Note that in this vision of the banquet all the nations, tribes, and clans of the earth are God’s guests. No one is to be excluded.”  I would argue the first sentence of this statement is true, but the second is false.  Anyone who has studied the Bible long enough discovers that “all” does not necessarily imply numerical totality.  All does not necessarily mean everyone.  The precise definition in each case must come from the immediate context.  In this case, Isaiah 25:4-5 speaks of the ruthless aliens, whose oppression of God’s people will be stifled.  It’s hard to imagine they will be invited to the banquet.  Likewise in v. 10 we are told that while God’s hand of blessing will remain on His mountain, “Moab shall be trodden down in his place, as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit.”  It’s hard to make a serious case for the view that the eschatological feast will include every human being regardless of how he/she has responded or reacted to God’s plans and purposes on earth.  Even the individual descendants of Abraham are not given a free pass.  Isaiah’s oracles concerning the day of judgment should be enough to demolish such a juvenile thought (see 2:6-19 for a small taste).  In the case of Isaiah 25, the idea seems to be that found throughout the rest of the Bible, that the multitudes of the redeemed shall come “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).  It is these diverse peoples, who sing of the singular glory of Jesus Christ, who will sit together at heaven’s banquet table, not all human beings whatever they have believed and given their allegiance to. 

Next, the TCPC argument urges us to two breathtaking leaps of logic.  First, they say, “The vision of God’s banquet in Isaiah, may have inspired the story that is most often told in the gospels – Jesus feeding the multitudes, either four or five thousand at a time.”  Notice the word “may.”  There is absolutely no hint in any of the Gospel accounts that Isaiah 25 is in the mind of Jesus or the Evangelists.  What seems to prompt the event is Jesus’ compassion over the hunger of people who have been following him all day.  He multiplies barley bread and common fish for the multitudes, hardly suggestive of a royal banquet.  Those gathered are all Israelites, hardly evoking thoughts of all nations.  But let’s allow this premise for the moment.  The author’s conclusion is that we see in these events that may have been inspired by Isa 25 the fact that Jesus “lays down no conditions for participation, establishes no barriers to the meal.” 

From this conclusion the writer jumps immediately to the Last Supper, and declares, “Jesus invited all twelve to share in the bread and wine, although not one of them had yet developed any faith in him. ”  It’s important to see the word “all” in this statement, for this will provide what anemic support that can be found for the idea that the Lord’s Supper is to include all who are present.  To me there is a fallacy implicit here.  Suppose my wife and I invite 4 couples and 4 singles (we don’t want to privilege one group, after all) to dinner in our home.  Would the fact that we have included all 12 people indicate our intention to include all people everywhere to the meal?  Obviously not.  Those invited are those included.  At the Last Supper, Jesus apparently means to celebrate this final meal with the 12 who have been with him throughout his ministry.  They are invited and included.  The rest of the world is not.  Secondly, it is essential for this progressive argument to declare that none of the 12 disciples had yet developed any faith in Jesus.  What an odd thing to say of individuals who had left jobs, families and ordinary lives to “go on the road with Jesus.”  What could have possessed them to take such drastic steps in their lives if not faith in Jesus?  Certainly we discover frequently that their faith is not perfect, at times it is very weak.  But to say they have no faith in Jesus is outlandishly absurd.  So why say this?  Because only this way can the conclusion be drawn that if Jesus invited 12 people who had no faith in him to share the Last Supper, then all manner of unbelievers should be invited to the Communion Table today! 

Completely missing from this analysis is any awareness that the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples (not with the larger world) is clearly tied with the meaning and symbolism of Passover.  The bread and wine are seen merely as symbols of the eschatological feast, though the Gospels drive home the point that they represent the body and blood of Jesus given for his followers in the same way the paschal lamb was slaughtered and its blood used to protect the Jews from the angel of destruction as it passed over Egypt and claimed the lives of all Egypt’s firstborn children.  We notice from this analogy that those whom the sacrifice benefits are those who trust in what God declares He will do.  Israel is rescued; Egypt is plagued and punished.  God’s people are set free from slavery; the Egyptians are judged (at least at this point in history).  So the Lord’s Supper reminds us that those who trust in what Christ has done are rescued from final judgment; those who don’t will face that tribunal alone.  Far from granting us a picture that all are welcomed to the eschatological table of Jesus, the Lord’s Supper reminds us that we need to be freed from spiritual slavery and oppression, that only Jesus through his atoning death is able to accomplish that, and that those who put their lives in his hands will experience his salvation.  This is hardly a universalistic text, and for most of its history the Church as refused to see Communion as an open or converting sacrament.  Open to all who repent and call on Jesus as Lord and Savior, yes.  Open to all regardless of allegiance or belief or practice, no.

Lastly, appeal is made to a group of scholars who argue that since Jesus practiced “open table fellowship” in his daily life, the Lord’s Table should not be closed to anyone willing to come to it.   Here we must be very careful in our assessment.  It is wonderfully true that Jesus ate with sinners of all types, from tax collectors and prostitutes to leaders of Israel’s elite castes.  I’m not sure that this tells us much  more than that out of love, Jesus came to seek and save the lost.  Sharing table fellowship indicates love and interest, not necessarily acceptance and reconciliation.  See for example Jesus’ dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).  And to assume that Jesus’ willingness to eat with sinners indicates his welcome of them into the Kingdom is a hugely unwarranted stretch.  By far the vast majority of NT examples of Jesus at table are occasions where he is the guest, not the host.  These don’t tell us much as to Jesus’ own inclinations, in terms of whom he would welcome.  The main non-miraculous example of Jesus hosting a meal is the Last Supper, and presumably the many meals on the road that he shared with his followers.  Having said all that, however, it is clear in Jesus’ parables that banquet invitations are a favorite way of his to describe the Father’s invitation to all to enter the Kingdom of heaven.  Even so, in the parables those invited know who the King or the Father is, and they come on his terms according to his will.  They can’t just show up on their own, or force their way in, or eat without acknowledging the host, but come on the basis of invitation and relationship. 

This “progressive” Point Three so dilutes the core truth of the gospel message — that Jesus died for our sins and calls us to share in this sacred meal in remembrance of him — that it seeks to sidestep the inconvenient truth that eternal life (banquet and all) can only come in and through him.  Instead the progressive “Christian” wants to paint a picture of an ancient vision — that the bread and wine we share “in Jesus’ name” (whatever that means) merely represents the vision of God’s feast for all people everywhere.  I’m assuming their vision of God’s feast is eschatological and eternal, but that is not explicitly said.  It may be that Communion is meant merely to be symbolic of the peace, justice and unity that liberals are looking to be established in the here and now — the Kingdom “realized” to use C. H. Dodd’s term, rather than the Kingdom still to come. 

In any case, this is a vision where the biblical Jesus is no longer at the center.  And where Jesus is no longer at the center, there is no true Christianity.  At least, so it seems to me.

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3 Responses to The Dangers of Little Knowledge

  1. I wonder how the progressives can say that those at the Last Supper had no faith in Jesus given these Gospel passage:

    Matthew 16:13-16
    When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ,[b] the Son of the living God.”


  2. Deborah Milam Berkley says:

    Great analyses about the TCPC’s theology that underscore and support the orthodox understanding of the faith. Thanks, Mateen.


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