Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 16, 2010

Historical Postscript on Every Sunday Communion

Back in March, I posted quotations from a recent article by WELS Arizona-California District President Jon Buchholz.  The article dealt with a number of “urban legends” that people assume regarding Lutheran worship practices.  The quote from Pastor Buchholz included in the blog post dealt with the practice of every Sunday communion.

That issue came up again in the current edition (summer 2010; 107:3) of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, the official theological journal of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).  In the “News and Comments” section, Professor John Brug included a short article called “Historical Postscript on Every Sunday Communion.”  Brug’s article was primarily a quotation from an article by Walter Wegner that first appeared in WLQ in 1952.  A section of Wegner’s original essay, “The Leaven of the Sadducees,” drew a parallel between the rationalistic tendencies of the ancient Sadducees and the rationalistic thinking that had filtered into the Lutheran Church and had contributed toward a rather low rate of celebrating and receiving Holy Communion in our circles.  I found it interesting to read Wegner’s words, in part because they reveal that the movement to encourage frequent celebrations of Holy Communion in our own circles was around long before the present decade.  It is also interesting to learn that Wegner’s article was perceived by a few as borderline legalism; the next issue of the Quarterly after the essay was published contained a response from Wegner to those who felt he was pushing the point too strongly.  Thankfully, in his original essay and in his response, Wegner maintained a balance perspective that encouraged a strong sacramental piety based on our sinful condition’s need for Christ’s grace and on the gracious forgiveness Christ offers in his Supper.

Below are two excerpts from the selections that were reprinted in the current edition of the Quarterly.  The first excerpt is a lengthy paragraph from the original article.  The second excerpt contains the last two paragraphs quoted from Wegner’s response to those who objected to the original essay.  (Italics indicate emphasis in the original; underlining indicates my own added emphasis). 

First, from the original essay:

If we remember that rationalism was one of the negative factors which caused the decline of the frequent celebration of Holy Communion, ought we not be concerned about correcting the condition which this Sadducean leaven has brought about?  In the Augsburg Confession we state: “We hold one Communion every holy-day, and, if any desire the Sacrament, also on other days, when it is given to such as ask for it” (Art. XXIV, 34; Trigl. 67).  However, a survey of the practice within our Synod today reveals that the majority of our congregations celebrate the Sacrament with far less frequency than did the Church of Luther’s day, and that the communicants in our Synod partake of the Sacrament an average number of only two and one-half times each year (1949 statistics: Synod average, 2.49; W. Wis. District average, 2.39).  How tragically far we have fallen away from the practice which our confessional writings set forth as the normal Lutheran practice!  Is it not time to ask ourselves whether we are doing all that our Lord expected of us when He gave us the Sacrament and said, “This do“?  Can you think of any reason even remotely suggested in the Bible why our congregations should not celebrate the Lord’s Supper at each regular service?  Can you find any reason offered in the Scriptures why the communicant members of our congregations should not desire and receive the Sacrament at every service at which it is celebrated?  Sadducean rationalism and materialism may advance such reasons, but the Scriptures–never!  Can we honestly say that we need the blessings of the Sacrament any less frequently than we need the blessings of the spoken Word in our divine services?  Is our present communion practice determined to some extent by inherited habits and customs rather than entirely by Scripture?  These questions are submitted with the plea that they be considered earnestly and prayerfully by every member of this convention.  They suggest that we may have to change our ways of thinking and our accustomed practice with respect to the celebration of the Sacrament.  But, finally, what must be our guide: our way of thinking and doing, or the Apostolic way of teaching and practicing?  Clearly, the latter!  (Cf. eg. Acts 2:42; 1 cor. 11:2,7,18,20,22b, 23ff.  Cf. also the reference to Apostolic practice in the Apology, XXIV, 8; Trigl. p. 385b.  Cf. also the Didache, Chap. 14).  In this Centennial year when we give thanks to God for having purged our Synod to such a remarkable degree of the leaven of rationalism, ought we not also with quiet resolve set about to remove also that vestige of the Age of Rationalism which still clings to our Synod in the practice of infrequent Communion celebration and participation?  Ought we not set for ourselves the goal of restoring the Communion practice of our fathers in the days of the Reformation and of our forefathers in the days of the Apostles?  We want to do that not merely “for old times’ sake,” not merely because this was done by our fathers in the days of old, but for the very same Scripture-based reasons which prompted them to regard the celebration of Holy Communion as a normal part of every chief service of worship on “every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals” (Apology, XXIV, 1; Trigl., 383).  We, as they were also, are in constant need of the blessings of this Sacrament to which the Lord Himself is constantly inviting us.

In the paragraph that followed, Wegner quoted and echoed Luther’s recommendation that we do not force people to the Sacrament, but that we encourage them to see the Supper’s value by our preaching and teaching so that our members compel us to offer it to them.

In the current edition of the Quarterly, Prof. Brug notes, “Apparently the editors of the Quarterly had no objection to the rather strong advocacy of this position, but it appears to have ruffled a few feathers in the synod since the author added a postscript to the article in the next volume of WLQ.”  Here are the last two paragraphs of that response as they are quoted in the current edition of the Quarterly.  I especially appreciate how Wegner connects doctrine and practice together in his statement.

The Communion practice of the first and sixteenth centuries is therefore not to be held before the eyes of 20th Century Christians with any legalistic demand that it be slavishly copied today.  However, the regularity with which congregations of the Apostolic and Reformation eras celebrated the Sacrament, and the degree of frequency with which the members received the Sacrament are important to us as evidences of the high regard in which they held the Lord’s Supper.  Not only their doctrine but also their practice testifies to their faith in the Real Presence and in the gracious effectiveness of the Lord’s Supper.  It would be difficult to find a stronger testimony for the appreciation of the Early Christians for the Sacrament than their practice of regular Communion mentioned in Acts 2:42 and described also in extrabiblical historical writings (Cf. eg. Epiphanius’ description of Apostolic Communion practice quoted in Apology XXIV, 8).  It is not only by means of a correct confession of Scripture teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper but also by means of their Communion practice that our Reformation fathers substantiate their honest claim: “The Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence” (Augsburg Confession XXIV).  Their examples commend themselves to all who desire to heed our Lord’s Communion invitation, to enjoy His sacramental presence and promises, and to receive His gracious help for the daily battle against the devil, world, and flesh.  How great would be our loss if we were to overlook either the doctrine or practice of our spiritual forefathers who in the Holy Scriptures and in our Confessions “have spoken unto us the Word of God” and whose faith we do well to follow, considering the end of their conversation.

In summary, the plea of the portion of the essay in question is not a plea for a mere mechanical or outward restoration of Apostolic and Reformation Communion practice, but rather a plea for the recapturing of the spirit and attitude which motivated their practice–a spirit and attitude derived from their faith in the Real Presence and their understanding of the Sacrament as a Means of Grace. … The Editors of the Quartalschrift have informed the writer that they understood this portion of the essay on the “Sadducees” in this evangelical sense when they requested it for publication.  It is his hope that all readers of this magazine will read and understand it in the same sense.

If you are interested in obtaining this edition (or any edition, or an ongoing subscription) of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, please contact Northwestern Publishing House for assistance.

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