Communion Frequency in the Lutheran Confessions
DAVID JAY WEBBER
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples saying: Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me. In the same way also He took the cup after supper, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying: Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.1
Questions about the frequency of Holy Communion have been raised quite often in the past several years, in various corners of the Lutheran Church.2 One example is in the Lords Supper issue of the Good News journal, where we read in the Questions & Answers that Clarify column:
Question: How often should one attend the Lords Supper? Answer: At the time of the Reformation, the Lutherans continued the universal practice of the Church since Biblical times of celebrating the Sacrament at least every Sunday and holy day. (AC XIV 34)3
Apparently there is a typographical error in the Confessional reference (a missing X), and we can safely assume that the Good News editors actually intend to draw our attention to Augsburg Confession XXIV:34. This passage, and the two sections that come after it (35 and 36), read as follows:
Inasmuch, then, as the Mass is not a sacrifice to remove the sins of others, whether living or dead, but should be a Communion in which the priest and others receive the sacrament for themselves, it is observed among us in the following manner: On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Pauls statement in I Cor. 11:20ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. For Chrysostom reports how the priest stood every day, inviting some to Communion and forbidding others to approach.4
It is highly commendable for Lutherans to seek guidance from the Book of Concord on a topic as important as this one is for the life of the church, and for the life of each individual Christian. We subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions because they accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture. They are relevant today because they reflect the unchanging and ever timely word of God.5 The Confessions certainly do speak to the issues that are involved in the current discussions on Communion frequency, and we should not be afraid to learn anew from the Confessors of our church as they unfold for us the teaching of Holy Scripture. In this way we can humbly apply to ourselves the directives of Hebrews 13:7, Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.6 Indeed,
The Symbols of the orthodox Church of Christ are the matured fruits of the deepest devotion, experience and learning of its greatest and wisest members in its most trying ages; and as we may practically learn much from the biographies of the good, so we may learn much more from the Spirit-moved biography of the Church and the principles and testimonies which mark her life of faith. They are the sign-posts set up by the faithful along the Kings highway of salvation to designate the places of danger to those who come after them, to warn and admonish us where we would otherwise be liable to err and miss the goal of our high calling in Christ Jesus. They are not laws to rule our faith, for the Word of God alone is such a Rule; but they are helps and tokens to enable us the more surely to find the true import of the Rule, that we may be all the more thoroughly and sincerely conformed to that Rule. They are the human tracks which the best of the saints have left, by which we may the better detect the way which God has laid out and opened for the fallen and sinful children of men to travel, that they may fill their Christian vocation and come to everlasting life.7
In their discussions on the frequency of Holy Communion Lutherans have not, however, always approached the subject in a consistently Confessional way. For example, the members of a congregation have sometimes asked, How often should we have the Lords Supper?, with the assumption that such a decision may or should be made collectively and/or by a majority vote. But from the viewpoint of the Lutheran Confessions, this is not a correct assumption. As we consider (or reconsider) the subject of Communion frequency, it is important for us to realize that the Confessions of our church actually guide us to ask, and answer, two closely-related but distinct questions: 1. How often should the Lords Supper be offered?; and 2. How often should the Lords Supper be received? These are separate questions, and they need to be considered separately.
When Jesus instituted his Holy Supper he handed his disciples natural bread and natural wine, which he called his true body and blood, and said therewith, Eat and drink.8 Therefore we confess our belief that in the Lords Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present and are truly offered with those things that are seen, the bread and the wine, to those who receive the sacrament.9 This is so because when we follow his institution and command in the Lords Supper and say, This is my body, then it is his body, not because of our speaking or of our efficacious word, but because of his command in which he has told us so to speak and to do and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking.10 For wherever we observe his institution and speak his words over the bread and cup and distribute the blessed bread and cup, Christ himself is still active through the spoken words by the virtue of the first institution, which he wants to be repeated.11
The Reformers believed that our Lords gracious institution should in fact be repeated whenever communicants are present. Practically speaking this would usually mean, in the words of the Apology, that Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it...12 The Apology also quotes the statement of St. Epiphanius that Assemblies for Communion were appointed by the apostles to be held on the fourth day, on Sabbath eve, and on the Lords Day.13 We have already noted that the Augsburg Confession refers to the fact that Holy Communion was offered every day in the time of St. John Chrysostom, and in the Large Catechism Martin Luther similarly describes the Sacrament as a great treasure which is daily administered and distributed among Christians.14 Luther had recommended in 1523 that the daily masses in Wittenberg be discontinued, but he immediately added that if any should desire the sacrament during the week, let mass be held as inclination and time dictate; for in this matter one cannot make hard and fast rules.15 When the city of Nürnberg, through Lazarus Spengler, sought Luthers guidance on these matters in 1528, he offered this response:
Should anyone request my counsel in this way, then I would give this advice: ... that you should celebrate one or two Masses in the two parish churches on Sundays or holy days, depending on whether there are few or many communicants. Should it be regarded as needful or good, you might do the same in the hospital too. ...you might celebrate Mass during the week on whichever days it would be needful, that is, if any communicants would be present and would ask for and request the Sacrament. This way we should compel no one to receive the Sacrament, and yet everyone would be adequately served in an orderly manner. If the Ministers of the Church would fall to griping at this point, maintaining that they were being placed under duress or complaining that they are unfitted to face such demands, then I would demonstrate to them that no merely human compulsion is at work here, but on the contrary they are being compelled by God Himself through His Call. For because they have the Office, they are already, in virtue of their Call and Office, obliged and compelled to administer the Sacrament whenever people request it of them, so that their excuses amount to nothing; just as they are under obligation to preach, comfort, absolve, help the poor, and visit the sick as often as people need or ask for these services.16
Some of the early Lutheran Church Orders also stipulated that the weekly celebration of the Sacrament be supplemented by weekday celebrations following the daily offices, whenever the people so desire.17
The Augsburg Confession claims that the Lutherans evangelical approach regarding the celebration of Mass is in accord with the apostolic pattern, which can be proved by St. Pauls statement in I Cor. 11:20 ff. Johann Gerhard, the seventeenth-century dogmatician, also considered the Biblical testimony regarding the observance of Christs Supper:
Because therefore it has been accepted as a practice in the Christian church, that in the public assemblies of the church after the preaching and hearing of the Word, this Sacrament is celebrated, therefore this custom must not be departed from without urgent necessity. ...it is...clear from Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 11:20,33, that when the Christians did gather at one place, they were accustomed to celebrate the Eucharist.18
St. Luke reports in Acts 20:7, in regard to the congregation at Troas: On the first day of the week when we gathered for the breaking of bread, Paul preached to them.19 In 1 Corinthians 11:20,33, St. Paul simply assumes that when Christians come together as a church, it is, or should be, to eat the Lords Supper.20 Clearly,
There is a great deal of evidence from the history of the church that supports an every-Sunday communion in addition to an every-Sunday sermon. That the early Christians received the supper whenever they gathered on the Lords day is obvious as one reads in the Acts and 1 Corinthians.21
An inseparable bond between Gospel and Sacrament has in fact always characterized any genuine expression of New Testament Christianity:
The Gospel is the glad tidings of the incarnation of the Son of God, his atoning death for us, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, his session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. It was Christs will that this Gospel should be preached to all nations until the end of the world. But the Gospel was to be not only a message of what had happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future; the proclamation of the message was to be accompanied by the celebration of that Sacrament, which in itself was a showing of the Lords death till he come. Without this Sacrament the Gospel might be understood as one of the many religious messages in the world. Without the proclamation of the Gospel this Sacrament might be understood as one of the many religious rites in the world. But the Gospel is more than a religious message, and the Sacrament more than a religious ceremony. Both the Gospel and the Sacrament contain one and the same gift, forgiveness of sins – not only a message that there is forgiveness, and not only a ceremony which would illustrate that message, but rather the forgiveness itself, which no one can give except him who died as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world, who will come again in glory, and who is present in his Gospel and his Sacrament. This close connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and the Sacrament of the Altar explains the fact that at all times the Eucharist has been the centre of the churchs worship and life. At the Lords Table the church has been gathering since the days of the apostles. There, at Holy Communion, it experiences the communion of saints. There it is one in the unity of the one body and one Spirit in the bond of peace, each member partaking of the one bread which is the body of Christ. Church-fellowship has been altar-fellowship from the beginning of the church, no unbaptized person being admitted to the solemn assembly where the people of God meet their Saviour and Lord. ...this Sacrament was in every respect the life of the church. It was never to be separated from the Gospel. The church of the first centuries was the church of the Eucharist. A Sunday, a Lords Day, was unthinkable without the Lords Supper. But if ever the church was a preaching church, the church of the apostles and the Church Fathers was. The same is true of all great periods of the church. The sacrament and the sermon belong together, and it is always a sign of the decay of the church if one is emphasized at the expense of the other.22
According to this apostolic and catholic principle, at least in regard to the churchs observance of the Lords Day and of major Christian festivals, There is no proper Service, without the preaching of the Word; there is no complete Service, without Word and Sacrament.23
By the time of the Reformation a serious decay in this respect had in fact settled into the religious life of western Christendom. Philip Melanchthon observes in the Apology that among the Lutherans papal opponents there are many regions where no sermons are preached during the whole year, except in Lent, and that even when sermons are preached they often deal with little more than human traditions, the worship of the saints, and similar trifles.24 In the Augsburg Confession he describes the erroneous but influential teaching
that our Lord Christ had by his death made satisfaction only for original sin, and had instituted the Mass as a sacrifice for other sins. This transformed the Mass into a sacrifice for the living and the dead, a sacrifice by means of which sin was taken away and God was reconciled. Thereupon followed a debate as to whether one Mass held for many people merited as much as a special Mass held for an individual. Out of this grew the countless multiplication of Masses, by the performance of which men expected to get everything they needed from God. Meanwhile faith in Christ and true service of God were forgotten.25
Luther reacted to these abuses and distortions, but he did not overreact:
It would be a mistake to regard Luthers tangle with Rome on the Sacrament of the Altar as an effort to minimize the importance of it. He did indeed accuse the Romans of de-emphasizing the Word. And his concern was to restore the Word to its proper place beside the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. ... At the same time it must be said that Luther maintained the churchs reverence for the Sacrament. And what is more, he gave it back to the people. He rejected as unbiblical the idea that the priest could celebrate Mass for the people while they sat in their pews praying with their rosaries instead of partaking of the body and blood of the Lord. And both in his preaching and writing he impressed on the people the necessity of frequent Communion for the sustaining and strengthening of their Christian life.26
The Lutheran Reformers considered the teaching and practice of the Zwinglians and Calvinists to be another example of this kind of ecclesiastical decay:
The balance between Word and Sacrament must be maintained. While the Romans tipped the balance to the Sacrament at the expense of the Word, Luther saw the Swiss reformers and the enthusiasts as reversing this and de-emphasizing the sacraments to the point of neglect. Most serious of all to him was their rejection of the real presence of the body and blood in the Sacrament. This was taking the very heart out of the Supper and was a blatant denial of the clear words of Christ.27
Among the Reformed, This is my body means This represents my body or This is a symbol of my body.28 They confess, in effect, that since the body of Christ has ascended into heaven it is not truly and essentially present here on earth in the sacrament.29 Luther minces no words in describing such theologians as enemies of the sacrament who change Gods Word and ordinance and misrepresent them, so that They, indeed, have only bread and wine, for they do not also have the Word and instituted ordinance of God but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination.30 The Reformed abandonment of weekly Communion in favor of a quarterly observance or something similar was a predictable and natural consequence of their abandonment of Biblical sacramental theology.
The authentically catholic and evangelical approach of the great Wittenberg Reformer stands in marked contrast to both of these aberrations:
Luthers appreciation of historic continuity and of classic and accepted forms of expression led him to retain as much of the historic order and content of the services as possible, together with music, vestments, lights, and the usual ceremonies not contrary to the spirit of the gospel. This spirit of the gospel was made active and powerful in and through the old forms, which were purified and simplified. The ancient balance of the Word and Sacrament was thus restored. Believing with all his soul in the given-ness of the gospel, Luther attached an almost sacramental authority to the uttered word which proclaims Gods will and mercy. At the same time veneration for the Sacrament as the seal of forgiveness and a means of grace in which Christ and his saints come unto thee, kept him in accord with the historic church in concluding the chief service of every Lords Day and festival with the Lords Supper. The custom which became general in Lutheran churches two centuries later of reducing the Sunday morning service to a preaching service and only infrequently celebrating Holy Communion, as in the Zwinglian and Calvinistic churches, must not be laid at Luthers door. He would be stirred to indignation by the infrequent observance of the Sacrament in many Lutheran churches today. All this was more than mere conservatism. It was keen value-judgment. Luther fearlessly cut out errors and impurities and with equal earnestness sought to preserve the good.31
Luthers beliefs about Christs real and substantial presence in the Lords Supper, and about the crucial importance of this Supper for the faith and devotion of Gods people, were not merely his private theological opinions or personal judgments. They were and are the convictions of the whole orthodox Lutheran Church:
Men have talked and written as if the doctrine of our Church, on this point, were a stupid blunder, forced upon it by the self-will and obstinacy of one man. The truth is, that this doctrine, clearly revealed in the New Testament, clearly confessed by the early Church, lies at the very heart of the Evangelical system – Christ is the centre of the system, and in the Supper is the centre of Christs revelation of Himself. The glory and mystery of the incarnation combine there as they combine nowhere else. Communion with Christ is that by which we live, and the Supper is the Communion. Had Luther abandoned this vital doctrine, the Evangelical Protestant Church would have abandoned him. He did not make this doctrine – next in its immeasurable importance to that of justification by faith, with which it indissolubly coheres – the doctrine made him. The doctrine of the Lords Supper is the most vital and practical in the whole range of the profoundest Christian life – the doctrine which, beyond all others, conditions and vitalizes that life, for in it the character of faith is determined, invigorated, and purified as it is nowhere else. It is not only a fundamental doctrine, but is among the most fundamental of fundamentals.32
There is no doubt that The Reformers longing for frequent Communion to be restored to the heart of the Churchs life proceeds directly from his understanding of the Person and Work of Christ, which is the central theme of his whole theology.33
From such a perspective, the Blessed Sacrament of our Lords body and blood is not, and cannot be, an appendix to the Gospel that exists only at the periphery of our Christian experience. For Luther, and for all who are able to find an expression of their own faith in his Large Catechism, the whole Gospel and the article of the Creed, I believe in the holy Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, are embodied in this sacrament...34 Whenever we discuss the Real Presence of Christs body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, We are talking about the presence of the living Christ, knowing that death no longer has dominion over him.35 With a gentle admonition, and with a warm invitation, Luther reminds us that the eternal Son of God, in his Holy Supper,
offers us all the treasure he brought from heaven for us, to which he most graciously invites us in other places, as when he says in Matt. 11:28, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you. Surely it is a sin and a shame that, when he tenderly and faithfully summons and exhorts us to our highest and greatest good, we act so distantly toward it, neglecting it so long that we grow quite cold and callous and lose all desire and love for it. We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both body and soul. For where the soul is healed, the body has benefitted also. Why, then, do we act as if the sacrament were a poison which would kill us if we ate of it?36
This Holy Supper, in its own special way, offers and bestows everything that the Gospel offers and bestows.37 As we confess in the familiar words of the Small Catechism, the benefit of our sacramental eating and drinking is told to us by Jesus himself
in the words for you and for the forgiveness of sins. By these words the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament, for where there is forgiveness of sins, there are also life and salvation.38
The operative refectional analogy to the Lords Supper in the life of the Christian is not the occasional banquet that marks only special events or anniversaries, but is instead the regular, daily meal that sustains us in our normal human existence. According to the Large Catechism, this sacrament
is appropriately called the food of the soul since it nourishes and strengthens the new man. While it is true that through Baptism we are first born anew, our human flesh and blood have not lost their old skin. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint, at times even stumble. The Lords Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may refresh and strengthen itself and not weaken in the struggle but grow continually stronger. For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses. Meanwhile it must suffer much opposition. The devil is a furious enemy; when he sees that we resist him and attack the old man, and when he cannot route us by force, he sneaks and skulks about everywhere, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out so that we either renounce our faith or yield hand and foot and become indifferent or impatient. For such times, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lords Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.39
In the munificence of God and according to his divine economy, the complete forgiveness of all our sins, together with every blessing that flows from this forgiveness, is repeatedly layered on us through the Means of Grace. The Lords Supper is very much an integral component of this economy of the Gospel, which
offers counsel and help against sin in more than one way, for God is surpassingly rich in his grace: First, through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sin (the peculiar function of the Gospel) is preached to the whole world; second, through Baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of keys; and finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren. Matt. 18:20, Where two or three are gathered, etc.40
The Means of Grace which Christ has instituted for his church do not come to us at random or in a haphazard fashion, but according to a certain divine design:
If the Means of Grace were mechanically interchangeable, rather than organically ordered, it would make sense to say: Today we have Baptism and, therefore, we do not need Communion. Such an argument, however, is quite impossible. It should be equally impossible to argue: As long as we have preaching regularly, and the Lords Supper occasionally, the Means of Grace are in action, and all the rest is adiaphora. What must be seen is that in the Lutheran Confessions as in the New Testament the Eucharist is not an occasional extra, an exceptional additive for especially pious occasions, but a regular, central and constitutive feature of Christian worship. Preaching and the Sacrament belong together not anyhow, or helter-skelter, by statistical coincidence, but as mutually corresponding elements within one integrated whole.41
We might say, therefore, that
A morning service on Sundays or festivals without communion is like a broken column... God is rich toward all who seek him, and those who come to his table shall be satisfied with the abundance of his house. Nor ought anyone to say that frequent celebration serves to bring the Sacrament into contempt, for those who are rightly prepared will always hunger for this bread and thirst for this drink; and the more frequently that they commune, the firmer becomes the persuasion that all of the earthly life is only a preparation for the celebration of the great Supper on High. ... It should not often occur that the Communion is altogether omitted from the morning service.42
According to Melanchthon it did not often occur, at least not in Wittenberg during those years when the Reformation movement was exercising its most vigorous influence. In 1531 he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg: As to your Highness inquiry how it is held here, I would say that we hold no Mass when there are no communicants; and here at Wittenberg and at many other places there are always many communicants on Sundays, and the Churches are full.43
In respect of the Lutheran Confessions an extraordinary development seems to have taken place. Even those sections of world Lutheranism which have cultivated a strong consciousness of Article X of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, are hardly aware of its practical implementation and ramifications in Article XXIV. The tendency has been to maintain the Sacramental Presence as a matter of doctrine, but to let the practice of the Sacrament drift from its central position in the church to a more peripheral, supplementary status, as in the Reformed pattern. The strong corporate, communal implications (I Cor. 10:17) have been largely lost. This is not the view of the Lutheran Confessions. Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession and of the Apology sees the Mass or Liturgy as consisting of preaching and the Sacrament, and as something to be done every Sunday and holy day. Nor is this merely a temporary accommodation. Luther himself, for instance, in his Latin Mass of 1523, defined the mass as consisting, properly speaking, of using the Gospel and communing at the Table of the Lord. In fact, he rejects, in the same work, the Roman custom of omitting the Consecration on Good Friday, and says that this is to mock and ridicule Christ with half of a mass and the one part of the Sacrament.44
At the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century
The Lutheran Church restored the primitive synthesis of the early church by including in balanced proportion the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacrament in the principal service of the day. This service was held in its entirety on appointed Sundays and all great festivals. Some orders recognized that on certain days in towns and villages there might be no communicants. Permission was given in this event to conclude the Service with appropriate prayers and the Benediction. This exceptional provision later became the regular use. In the beginning, however, it was part of a plan to maintain the historic order of the Mass and to encourage the faithful to communicate. ... This was the Service as Luther and the conservative Reformers knew it. Great preachers themselves, they made the Sermon a significant part of the Service. They did not mutilate the liturgy to do this, however, or banish the sacrament to a separate service. ... Luther and his associates never would have approved of the half-mass commonly found among us today as the normal Sunday worship of our congregations. For two hundred years, or nearly half the time from the Reformation to the present, the normal Sunday service in Lutheran lands was the purified Mass, or Hauptgottesdienst, with its twin peaks of Sermon and Sacrament. There were weekly celebrations and the people in general received the Sacrament much more frequently than before. The ravages of war, the example of Calvinism, the later subjective practices of Pietistic groups in a domestic type of worship, and the unbelief of rationalism, however, finally broke the genuine Lutheran tradition.45
It is true that in the earliest Christian times as well as in the Reformation era we occasionally find something we might call neglect of Holy Communion, yet it cannot even remotely be compared with the neglect of Holy Communion that appeared so obviously when rationalism invaded the liturgical life of the Lutheran Church, a neglect that has not been overcome decisively down to our own time.46 As already noted, in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology at least weekly eucharistic celebration is proposed as normative, but this proposal, since Pietism and Rationalism exerted their destructive effect on the worship life of our Church, has represented a sadly unfulfilled desideratum of the Lutheran Confessions.47
The confusing effects of the social upheavals and non-Confessional theological influences that brought about this distortion in Lutheran sacramental piety in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continue to be felt. Frederick R. Webber addressed the problem fifty years ago, but much of what he says has a sadly contemporary ring to it:
One of the most serious relics of Rationalism and Pietism, and the age of indifferentism that followed, is our deplorable practice of infrequent celebrations of Holy Communion. ...the reformers of the sixteenth century certainly intended that there would be a celebration of Holy Communion once a week, as the old rubrics so clearly show, as well as additional celebrations on all festival days within the week. This was carried out at first, although Helvetic influence soon crept in, then the turmoil of the Thirty Years War, then the blight of Pietism and Rationalism. ... After a century or two of such disorder, the practice of infrequent Communion has taken on an air of respectability, and men who point to the deplorable record of certain church bodies in this respect, are spoken of as pro-Romanists, and enemies of the liberty which is ours under the Gospel. In a gathering of church leaders, when the custom of infrequent Communion was mentioned, several of the older men became terribly upset, declaring that if Communion be celebrated more than say six times a year, the people will lose all respect for it. But who would advocate four to six sermons a year, lest the people lose respect for the preaching of the Word?48
The infrequent offering of the Holy Sacrament represents a significant departure from the liturgical norms of the Lutheran Reformation. This sacramental/liturgical abnormality has, in turn, engendered some basic misunderstandings of the relationship between the Lords Supper and the Liturgy in the worship life of the church. For example, a well-ordered variety-principle is built into the historic Liturgy in the form of
the rhythm of the church-year. The basic units of this gentle, natural rhythm are the week and the year. This cycle is...broken by the false off-on or even off-off-off-on staccato of Communion Sundays and non-Communion Sundays. The proper change from Sunday to Sunday should be in the specific meaning and application of the Sacrament, not in having or not having it. The Eucharist is the whole Gospel in action. This one Gospel, like a precious diamond, has many facets or aspects, of which one or two are especially highlighted in each Sundays or festivals Gospel pericope. And through whatever concrete facet the full Gospel is celebrated on a given day, that is the specific meaning, or the mode of application of the Sacrament on that day. The Sacrament is always the full Gospel-gift, of course. But on Christmas Day we receive it under the aspect of the Lords Nativity, on Epiphany in celebration of His Baptism, on Laetare Sunday as the Divine Bread of Life revealed in the miraculous feeding of the multitude, and so on. In other words, the Sacrament, like the Gospel itself, must never be seen as some one narrow aspect or some unvarying standard ration in the feast that is Christianity. It is rather the whole reality, under many wonderful aspects, each especially observed and celebrated at various times. Each time it is as new and fresh as are the daily mercies of God. We have here the Kaleidoscope of God, which, at each weekly or seasonal tilt, exhibits the same divine generosity in ever new and exciting configurations.49
As a way of reorienting the attitudes and expectations of the people in the pews, Webber had suggested that the rubrics in future worship books and hymnals
might well be reworked in such a way that a weekly celebration is regarded as the normal, rather than the exceptional procedure. It can be made clear that a service which ends abruptly with a prayer and a hymn after the sermon is an incomplete service. The opinion now seems to be that this is the normal thing, and everything from the Prefatory Sentences onward is something added. The laity too often speak of the first half of the service as the regular service, and the second half as the Communion Service. This is highly incorrect. The regular, normal service is the Holy Communion, from the Introit to the end of the Post Communion. If it be broken off with a prayer and hymn after the sermon it is a truncated service.50
In North America today, the rubrics for the main Sunday Service in most Confessional Lutheran hymnals still give directions about what to do when there is “no Communion.” This is true of Lutheran Worship (used in some congregations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and of the Lutheran Church – Canada),51 Lutheran Service Book (used in many congregations of the LCMS and the LCC),52 and Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal (used in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod).53 This is not true, however, of the new hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, where directions are given instead about what to do When there are no communicants.54 This shows a marked improvement in theological and liturgical understanding, and a very welcome return to the thought patterns of the Lutheran Reformation. The day may come when this understanding is reflected throughout the orthodox Lutheran world, and when there will no longer be any such thing as a non-Communion Sunday for Lutheran parishioners
who hunger for Christs body and blood and who are prepared to receive it. The fact that some of those present do not wish to receive should not prevent others from receiving. ... The Eucharist Service is to be the chief Sunday service as a matter of course, and the people are to be encouraged to commune.55
The point about communicants being prepared to receive the Lords Supper is a very important one, and the Reformers were very careful always to emphasize that the administration of this sacrament is to take place within the context of a comprehensive pastoral ministry. The Lutheran pastors offering of Christs body and blood to the members of his congregation is to be preceded by examination and Absolution. The Apology describes this kind of pastoral care in a statement that has already been quoted in part: In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved.56 We read in the Augsburg Confession that
The people are accustomed to receive the sacrament together, in so far as they are fit to do so. This likewise increases the reverence and devotion of public worship, for none are admitted unless they are first heard and examined.57
The examination of which the Reformers speak is directly related to the catechetical instruction that necessarily precedes admission to the altar. The Lutherans declare in the Apology:
Among our opponents there is no catechization of the children at all, though even the canons give prescriptions about it. In our circles the pastors and ministers of the churches are required to instruct and examine the youth publicly, a custom that produces very good results.58
In his Shorter Preface to the Large Catechism, Luther says that his effort in preparing the catechism has been undertaken for the instruction of children and uneducated people.59 He adds that
Its contents represent the minimum of knowledge required of a Christian. Whoever does not possess it should not be reckoned among Christians nor admitted to a sacrament, just as a craftsman who does not know the rules and practices of his craft is rejected and considered incompetent. ... I well remember the time when there were old people who were so ignorant that they knew nothing of these things – indeed, even now we find them daily – yet they come to Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar and exercise all the rights of Christians, although those who come to the sacrament ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and beginners at school.60
In his typical hyperbolic style, Luther gives these directions to pastors in the Preface to the Small Catechism:
Begin by teaching them the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lords Prayer, etc., following the text word for word so that the young may repeat these things after you and retain them in their memory. If any refuse to receive your instructions, tell them that they deny Christ and are no Christians. They should not be admitted to the sacrament, be accepted as sponsors in Baptism, or be allowed to participate in any Christian privileges. On the contrary, they should be turned over to the pope and his officials, and even to the devil himself. In addition, parents and employers should refuse to furnish them with food and drink and should notify them that the prince is disposed to banish such rude people from his land.61
He makes the same basic point, with gentler language, in the Large Catechism, where the Sacrament of the Altar is treated catechetically under three headings,
stating what it is, what its benefits are, and who is to receive it. All these are established by the words by which Christ instituted it. So everyone who wishes to be a Christian and go to the sacrament should be familiar with them. For we do not intend to admit to the sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come.62
The Reformers do not think that the pastors duty to instruct the people from Gods Word, especially in regard to the Lords Supper, is limited to a one-time catechetical course. According to the Augsburg Confession,
the people are instructed often and with great diligence concerning the holy sacrament, why it was instituted, and how it is to be used (namely, as a comfort for terrified consciences) in order that the people may be drawn to the Communion and Mass. The people are also given instruction about other false teachings concerning the sacrament.63
The directives of the Brandenburg-Nürnberg Church Order, dating from 1533, are typical for the period. As epitomized by Edward T. Horn,
Those who intend to commune shall give notice to the pastor or one of the ministers the day before, or before Mass in the morning. The ministers shall ask of them in a discreet way whether they know the Ten Commandments, Creed and Lords Prayer, whether they know and hold the right doctrine concerning the Sacrament, what fruit they expect from a worthy use of it, and especially whether they hold enmity or wrath against any one. Thus may they discover how the people understand these matters, how much profit they derive from sermon and catechism, and how much they need kind instruction. But they must be careful not to mortify either young or old by their examination and thus for a long time keep them from the Sacrament. They shall diligently admonish the people to seek Absolution in preparation for the Sacrament. ... Those are to be excluded from the Communion who live in willful error and heresy, or in open undeniable vice, or scorn the express Word of God. Also the irrational and fools, children who cannot understand, and those who neither know nor will learn the Ten Commandments, the Creed nor the Lords Prayer.64
At the time of the Reformation in Europe there was special need for diligence in such matters, since the people had been so poorly catechized in the past, if at all. We recall, for example, Luthers description in the Preface to the Small Catechism of what he had found in Electoral Saxony and Meissen in 1528 and 1529:
The deplorable conditions which I recently encountered when I was a visitor constrained me to prepare this brief and simple catechism or statement of Christian teaching. Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lords Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.65
These circumstances help us to understand why faithful Reformation-era pastors usually wanted to meet personally with individual communicants, before communion. They knew that the people, by and large, still had a very limited understanding of law and Gospel, and of the other chief articles of Christian doctrine. As the stewards of the mysteries of God66 who must give account67 for the souls entrusted to them, the early Lutheran pastors recognized the discipline of pre-Communion examination as a very useful means by which they could guide communicants in their own self-examination and in their preparation for a worthy reception of Christs body and blood, mindful of St. Pauls warning that
whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lords body.68
In this context, Melanchthon writes in the Apology:
With regard to the time, it is certain that most people in our churches use the sacraments, absolution and the Lords Supper, many times in a year. Our clergy instruct the people about the worth and fruits of the sacraments in such a way as to invite them to use the sacraments often. ... The openly wicked and the despisers of the sacraments are excommunicated. We do this according to both the Gospel and the ancient canons. But we do not prescribe a set time because not everyone is ready in the same way at the same time. In fact, if everyone rushed in at the same time, the people could not be heard and instructed properly. ... Christ says (I Cor. 11:29) that those who receive in an unworthy manner receive judgment upon themselves. Therefore our pastors do not force those who are not ready to use the sacraments.69
We do know, however, that a pastoral examination of those who wished to commune was not obligatory for every person on every occasion. In 1523 Luther laid out his plan for how this whole process should be carried out:
Here one should follow the same usage as with baptism, namely, that the bishop be informed of those who want to commune. They should request in person to receive the Lords Supper so that he may be able to know both their names and manner of life. And let him not admit the applicants unless they can give a reason for their faith and can answer questions about what the Lords Supper is, what its benefits are, and what they expect to derive from it. In other words, they should be able to repeat the Words of Institution from memory and to explain that they are coming because they are troubled by the consciousness of their sin, the fear of death, or some other evil, such as temptation of the flesh, the world, or the devil, and now hunger and thirst to receive the word and sign of grace and salvation from the Lord himself through the ministry of the bishop, so that they may be consoled and comforted; this was Christs purpose, when he in priceless love gave and instituted this Supper, and said, Take and eat, etc. But I think it enough for the applicants for communion to be examined or explored once a year. Indeed, a man may be so understanding that he needs to be questioned only once in his lifetime or not at all. For, by this practice, we want to guard lest the worthy and unworthy alike rush to the Lords Supper, as we have hitherto seen done in the Roman church. There they seek only to communicate; but the faith, the comfort, the use and benefit of the Supper are not even mentioned or considered.70
Private confession and Absolution, closely associated with the pre-Communion examination, also played an important role in the preparation of Reformation-era Lutherans for their participation in the Lords Supper. On the subject in general, the Augsburg Confession states
that private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse. However, in confession it is not necessary to enumerate all trespasses and sins, for this is impossible. Ps. 19:12, Who can discern his errors?71
According to the Large Catechism, this third sacrament, formerly called penance, is really nothing else than Baptism, since repentance is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun, but abandoned.72 Confession and Absolution function essentially as the semi-sacramental bridge between Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar in the life of the Christian. Regarding this pastoral application of the third sacrament, the Augsburg Confession tells us that
Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. The custom has been retained among us of not administering the sacrament to those who have not previously been examined and absolved.73
The Apology focuses on the personal evangelical comfort that is offered to the penitent sinner through the pastors pronouncement of Gods Absolution:
...we also keep confession, especially because of absolution, which is the Word of God that the power of the keys proclaims to individuals by divine authority. It would therefore be wicked to remove private absolution from the church. And those who despise private absolution understand neither the forgiveness of sins nor the power of the keys.74
The use of private confession and Absolution is an intrinsically helpful and beneficial component of any pastors relationship with the members of his congregation. It is not, however, an absolutely necessary component (as was maintained by the Medieval popes and councils). Luther writes:
Concerning confession, we have always taught that it should be voluntary and purged of the popes tyranny. We have been set free from his coercion and from the intolerable burden he imposed upon the Christian church. Up to now, as we all know from experience, there has been no law quite so oppressive as that which forced everyone to make confession on pain of the gravest mortal sin.75
And according to Luther, what cannot be required in general likewise cannot be required in the specific context of preparation for the Lords Supper:
Now concerning private confession before communion, I still think as I have held heretofore, namely, that it neither is necessary nor should be demanded. Nevertheless, it is useful and should not be despised...76
In his own preparation for going to Communion Luther usually sought and received private Absolution, but he also declared as a matter of principle: And I, Doctor Martin Luther myself, sometimes go unconfessed, just so that I shall not myself make it a necessary habit in my conscience.77
As a pastor Luther would no doubt encourage those who came to him for confession and Absolution to unburden themselves of the sins that were especially troubling to them. However, he would also explain to them that
To confess sin does not mean (as among the papists) to recite a long catalog of sins, but to desire absolution. This is in itself a sufficient confession, that is, acknowledging yourself guilty and confessing that you are a sinner. And no more should be demanded and required, no naming and recitation of all or some, many or a few sins, unless you of your own accord desire to indicate something that especially burdens your conscience and calls for instruction and advice or specific comfort, such as young, plain folk and also others often require.78
Out of this principle evolved the practice of a general confession and general Absolution, in the public assembly of the congregation, which took place either on Saturday (at Vespers) or on Sunday morning before the celebration of the Sacrament.79 Many sixteenth-century Lutheran Church Orders explicitly call for such a usage.80 Veit Dietrichs Agendbüchlein für die Pfarrherrn auff dem Land, published by the Nürnberg City Senate in 1543, specifies that in the Saturday Vespers service the Sermon is to be followed by the Public Confession, with Absolution and Retention.81 A general confession and general Absolution were included as a part of the Sunday morning Communion Service in the churches of Württemberg, as described in 1577 by Lucas Osiander, Jacob Andreae, and Martin Crucius:
The church assembles at an appointed time. Hymns are sung. Sermons are preached concerning the benefits of Christ for mankind. Again, hymns are sung. An awesome exhortation is read, which in part explains the words of institution of the Most-Holy Supper, and in part demands that each person should prepare for a worthy communion. A general but sincere confession of sins is made. Forgiveness is publicly pronounced. With devout prayers we ask the Lord to make us partakers of the heavenly gifts and benefits. The words of institution of the sacrament are read, after which the congregation approaches with reverence and receives (offered by the holy minister) the body and the blood of Christ. Again we give thanks to God in prescribed words for the heavenly gifts. Finally, the holy minister of God says the blessing over the assembled congregation, and all are dismissed to go to their homes.82
For good or for ill, the general confession has now supplanted private confession with the pastor as the most common method through which Lutheran communicants prepare themselves spiritually for their sacramental participation. This does not mean, however, that Lutheran ministers are no longer obligated to administer the Sacrament in a pastorally responsible manner. Whenever possible, pastors should still utilize some kind of pre-Service announcement or registration process so that they will have at least a basic idea of who intends to commune, and they should still make themselves available to those who desire individualized pastoral attention before their communion. As we read in the Treatise, The Gospel requires of those who preside over the churches that they preach the Gospel, remit sins, administer the sacraments, and, in addition, exercise jurisdiction, that is, excommunicate those who are guilty of notorious crimes and absolve those who repent.83 This is, after all, the Lords Supper, and not our supper, and those who administer it in accordance with the teachings of our Lord and his apostles – in our time just as in the time of Chrysostom – will be inviting some to Communion and forbidding others to approach. Whether it is done in private or in public, in the confessional or in the pulpit, it is always necessary for pastors
to explain with great diligence who the unworthy guests at this Supper are, namely, those who go to this sacrament without true contrition and sorrow for their sins, without true faith, and without a good intention to improve their life and who by their unworthy oral eating of the body of Christ burden themselves with judgment (that is, temporal and eternal punishments) and profane the body and blood of Christ. True and worthy communicants, on the other hand, are those timid, perturbed Christians, weak in faith, who are heartily terrified because of their many and great sins, who consider themselves unworthy of this noble treasure and the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, and who perceive their weakness in faith, deplore it, and heartily wish that they might serve God with a stronger and more cheerful faith and a purer obedience. This most venerable sacrament was instituted and ordained primarily for communicants like this, as Christ says, Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). Likewise, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. [Matt. 9:12] Likewise, The power of God is made perfect in weakness. [II Cor. 12:9] Likewise, As for a man who is weak in faith, welcome him, for God has welcomed him (Rom. 14:1,3). For whoever believes on the Son of God, be his faith strong or weak, has eternal life (John 3:16). And worthiness does not consist in the weakness or certainty of faith, be it greater or smaller, but solely in the merits of Christ, of which the distressed father of weak faith (Mark 9:24) partook no less than Abraham, Paul, and others who had a cheerful and strong faith.84
The Lutheran laity are similarly obligated to make sure that this most venerable sacrament is administered in their midst only by qualified spiritual fathers85 who have been properly called to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments to the people.86 They must never forget that The church has the command to appoint ministers; to this we must subscribe wholeheartedly, for we know that God approves this ministry and is present in it.87 When the Lutheran Church is true to its own standards, its candidates for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament are not ordained to this office until they have been carefully tested and examined as to whether they are legitimately called, whether they rightly hold the fundamentals of salutary doctrine and reject fanatic opinions, whether they are endowed with the gifts necessary to teach others sound doctrine, and whether they can prove their lives to be honorable, so that they can be examples to the flock...88 The Lutheran conviction that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call89 means, in part, that The only administrators of the Holy Communion are the ministers of the Word, who have been legitimately called, like Aaron, Heb. 5:4; also because those alone should administer this Sacrament who are able to examine the faith of the men using this Sacrament.90 Hence the general practice of the church is that
the administration of the sacraments in our congregations is entrusted to those in the pastoral ministry. Certainly others may be asked to help distribute the Lords Supper. But pastors are asked to oversee and preside. ... This work fits well with the role of the pastor as the spiritual overseer. The administration of the Lords Supper, for example, often involves spiritual judgment. Decisions commonly need to be made by the administrant about who is properly prepared to receive the sacrament, both in the public worship services and in the visitation of shut-ins. This requires a knowledge of the sheep and is definitely the work of spiritual oversight.91
How often should the Lords Supper be offered? It should be offered whenever there are communicants, defined Confessionally as baptized Christians who have been properly instructed, who confess the faith of the church,92 who have examined themselves, who have repented of their sins, and who in faith seek the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus gives us in this Holy Sacrament.93 If there are within a congregation at least some people like this on every Lords Day and festival who wish to receive Holy Communion, then Holy Communion is to be offered on every Lords Day and festival (except, of course, on those occasions when the pastor is absent). This is the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.
But how often should the Lords Supper be received? How frequently should an individual Christian wish to partake of the body and blood of Christ? This is a different question, and the Lutheran Confessions answer it in a different way.
Infrequent participation in the Lords Supper on the part of the laity was one of the problems that the Lutheran Reformers inherited from the Medieval church. As to the frequency of the reception, in the primitive church the Christians at first used to communicate daily,94 and
In the ancient church all who took part in the Mass of the Faithful received communion. This later came to an end when masses of people came streaming into the church, and Communion was often replaced by the distribution of bread that was blessed but not consecrated at the end of the service. In the Middle ages Communion was very infrequent. To receive Communion four times a year – at the three high festivals and at one lesser one – was a sign of the highest piety.95
Church leaders did recognize this as a problem, but they often responded to it in a legalistic way. According to Canon XVIII of the Council of Agde, held in the year 506, Laymen who do not commune at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost shall not be considered or reckoned as Catholics.96 Pope Innocent III, at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, required all the faithful to commune at least once per year, at Easter.97 At this council he also
had the obligation of confession of all sins raised into a dogma, and obliged all believers under threat of excommunication to make confession at least once a year, as preparation for the Easter communion. The Provincial Synod at Toulouse in A.D. 1229 insisted on compulsory confession and communion three times a year, at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.98
When Luther addressed this situation he took a totally different approach. For him the solution to the problem lay not in the enforcement of ecclesiastical rules and conciliar canons, but in focused law-Gospel preaching. As we read in his Preface to the Small Catechism,
No one is to be compelled to believe or to receive the sacrament, no law is to be made concerning it, and no time or place should be appointed for it. We should so preach that, of their own accord and without any law, the people will desire the sacrament and, as it were, compel us pastors to administer it to them. This can be done by telling them: It is to be feared that anyone who does not desire to receive the sacrament at least three or four times a year despises the sacrament and is no Christian, just as he is no Christian who does not hear and believe the Gospel. Christ did not say, Omit this, or Despise this, but he said, Do this, as often as you drink it, etc. Surely he wishes that this be done and not that it be omitted and despised. Do this, he said. He who does not highly esteem the sacrament suggests thereby that he has no sin, no flesh, no devil, no world, no death, no hell. That is to say, he believes in none of these, although he is deeply immersed in them and is held captive by the devil. On the other hand, he suggests that he needs no grace, no life, no paradise, no heaven, no Christ, no God, nothing good at all. For if he believed that he was involved in so much that is evil and was in need of so much that is good, he would not neglect the sacrament in which aid is afforded against such evil and in which such good is bestowed. It is not necessary to compel him by any law to receive the sacrament, for he will hasten to it of his own accord, he will feel constrained to receive it, he will insist that you administer it to him. Accordingly you are not to make a law of this, as the pope has done. All you need to do is clearly to set forth the advantage and disadvantage, the benefit and loss, the blessing and danger connected with this sacrament. Then the people will come of their own accord and without compulsion on your part.99
A large part of the problem was, of course, the false and misleading beliefs regarding the Mass that had been current in pre-Reformation times, and that had obscured the true meaning and purpose of Christs institution. However, Lutherans must not be content simply to congratulate themselves that their sacramental theology is more Biblical and correct than that of the Medieval Scholastics. According to Luther,
now that we have the right interpretation and doctrine of the sacrament, there is great need also of an admonition and entreaty that so great a treasure, which is daily administered and distributed among Christians, may not be heedlessly passed by. What I mean is that those who claim to be Christians should prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently. For we see that men are becoming listless and lazy about its observance. A lot of people who hear the Gospel, now that the popes nonsense has been abolished and we are freed from his oppression and authority, let a year, or two, three, or more years go by without receiving the sacrament, as if they were such strong Christians that they have no need of it. Some let themselves be kept and deterred from it because we have taught that no one should go unless he feels a hunger and thirst impelling him to it. Some pretend that it is a matter of liberty, not of necessity, and that it is enough if they simply believe. Thus the majority go so far that they become quite barbarous, and ultimately despise both the sacrament and the Word of God. Now it is true, we repeat, that no one should under any circumstances be coerced or compelled, lest we institute a new slaughter of souls. Nevertheless, let it be understood that people who abstain and absent themselves from the sacrament over a long period of time are not to be considered Christians. Christ did not institute it to be treated merely as a spectacle, but commanded his Christians to eat and drink and thereby remember him. Indeed, true Christians who cherish and honor the sacrament will of their own accord urge and impel themselves to come.100
In the Large Catechism Luther also emphasizes the need to be patient and empathetic with those of tender conscience who need some gentle, evangelical encouragement in regard to their Communion participation:
But suppose you say, What if I feel that I am unfit? Answer: This also is my temptation, especially inherited from the old order under the pope when we tortured ourselves to become so perfectly pure that God might not find the least blemish in us. Because of this we became so timid that everyone was thrown into consternation, saying, Alas, I am not worthy! Then nature and reason begin to contrast our unworthiness with this great and precious blessing, and it appears like a dark lantern in contrast to the bright sun, or as dung in contrast to jewels. Because nature and reason see this, such people refuse to go to the sacrament and wait until they become prepared, until one week passes into another and one half year into yet another. If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure you are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience, you will never go. For this reason we must make a distinction among men. Those who are shameless and unruly must be told to stay away, for they are not fit to receive the forgiveness of sins since they do not desire it and do not want to be good. The others, who are not so callous and dissolute but would like to be good, should not absent themselves, even though in other respects they are weak and frail. ... No one will make such progress that he does not retain many common infirmities in his flesh and blood. People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. We are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we come to confession pure and without sin; on the contrary, we come as poor, miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy. The only exception is the person who desires no grace and absolution and has no intention to amend his life.101
Luther gives us a basic summary of his views on when Christians should commune in his exegesis of a crucial phrase in Christs Words of Institution:
Indeed, the very words, as often as you do it, imply that we should do it often. And they are added because Christ wishes the sacrament to be free, not bound to a special time like the Passover, which the Jews were obliged to eat only once a year, precisely on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first full moon, without variation of a single day. Christ means to say: I institute a Passover or Supper for you, which you shall enjoy not just on this one evening of the year, but frequently, whenever and wherever you will, according to everyones opportunity and need, being bound to no special place or time (although the pope afterward perverted it and turned it back into a Jewish feast).102
As a matter of principle, Luther refuses to get specific in telling believers how often they should receive the Lords Supper. If pressed he would probably say, no more than daily, and no less than three or four times a year, but he would not go beyond that.103 Because of his conviction that no law is to be made concerning it, and no time or place should be appointed for it, Luther was opposed to the papal and conciliar decree of 1215 which said, in effect, that Easter is the correct time for people to commune. He would certainly also be uncomfortable with any congregational Communion schedule that artificially limited the members opportunities for Communion to a certain Sunday of the month, thereby implying that the other Sundays of the month are not the correct time for people to commune. The well-intentioned statement that We are to come to it as often as it is celebrated104 is likewise not fully compatible with the Reformers basic belief that no trace of coercion or law is to be present in the consideration of this question, either explicitly or implicitly. Again, to quote the Apology, we do not prescribe a set time because not everyone is ready in the same way at the same time. From the perspective of the Gospel, he who is both Gift and Giver in this Holy Supper graciously invites us to come. He does not order us to go. Through his Word he lovingly draws us to his body and blood, and to the forgiveness that they have won for us. He does not push us.
Nevertheless, the Reformers did continually admonish and encourage the people to prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently, and as a result they were able to say two things: First, that most people in our churches use the sacraments, absolution and the Lords Supper, many times in a year; and second, that Every Lords Day many in our circles use the Lords Supper, but only after they have been instructed, examined, and absolved.105 And so,
While the Reformer can enjoin weekly celebration of the Sacrament on the clergy, he noticeably refrains from ordering the laity to commune weekly. His reticence here perfectly parallels his softly-softly approach toward accustoming the laity once again to receive the Supper in both kinds. Age-old custom can be overcome only gradually, and just as it would take time for the laity to get used to receiving the Chalice, so likewise gentle pastoral care and unremitting instruction would be needed in order to make inroads into the medieval habit of communing only once or thrice a year. But Luthers refusal to dragoon the laity to the altar must not be so interpreted that we fail to mark his clear longing for frequent Communion to be the rule and not the exception of congregational life.106
At the time of the Reformation Many Wittenbergers received the Lords body and blood each week.107 And how often did Luther himself commune? Before we answer that question we must remind ourselves that Luther would object very strenuously to any desire on our part to imitate him in our own sacramental life. He would probably give us one version or another of his dont-call-yourselves-Lutherans-but-Christians speech,108 and in Small-Catechism fashion might even threaten to take away our food and drink for thinking in such a way. Yet it is an historically interesting question that can teach us something about Lutheran sacramental piety. In any case, it is reported of Luther, during the time of his sojourn at Coburg Castle in 1530, that he went to the Lords Table every fortnight; and that he followed up this custom also in after years.109 Veit Dietrich, in his reminiscences of the Reformer, reports that Luther went to the Lords Supper usually every fourteen days or at most three weeks...110
Many aspects of Luthers sacramental devotion seem strange to people whose religious sensibilities have been molded by the post-Enlightenment world in which we now live. His retention of the Elevation, his profound concern over spilled or dropped Communion elements, his strong disapproval of mixing reliquiae with unconsecrated elements, and similar ideas are often dismissed as insignificant remnants of Luthers Roman past that need not be taken seriously by us. This may or may not be true. We do know, however, that Luther did identify one feature of his sacramental devotion very definitely as a carry-over from his monkish days, which he was never able fully to shake. It was his hesitancy to receive Communion as often as he might, due to his feeling of personal unworthiness. As quoted above, Luther describes this as his own temptation, especially inherited from the old order under the pope when we tortured ourselves to become so perfectly pure that God might not find the least blemish in us. And yet, in spite of this lingering thorn in the flesh, he received the body and blood of his forgiving and loving Savior, on average, every other week.
With reference to the earlier centuries of Christian history, Martin Chemnitz describes, ideally, the kind of Gospel-induced Communion frequency that he would no doubt hope to see someday in the renewed Church of the Reformation. He writes that
the rule about when and how often one should go to Communion must be taken: I. From the teaching about the fruit and power of the Eucharist, namely, when and as often as we recognize that we have need of this power; II. From the teaching about self-examination, lest we receive it unworthily. On this basis people are to be taught, admonished, and exhorted to more diligent and frequent use of the Eucharist. For because Christ says: As often as you do this, it is wholly His will that those who are His disciples should do this frequently. Therefore those are not true and faithful ministers of Christ who in any manner whatever lead or frighten people away from more frequent use and reception of the Eucharist. There are beautiful examples of frequent use of the Eucharist from the true antiquity. Some had the custom of receiving the Eucharist daily, some twice a week, some on the Lords day, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, some only on the Lords Day.111
C. F. W. Walther builds on this observation, historically and devotionally, by explaining that
The first Christians celebrated it almost daily; especially in times of persecution, in order to be daily ready for death. ... The Holy Supper was regarded as the most glorious divine Armory, in which one receives the most invincible weapons for the spiritual battle. ... The holy Supper with the body and blood of Jesus Christ is the new Tree of Life, which stood in Paradise, which Christ has now again planted in His kingdom of Grace. ... O adorable, comforting mystery! The holy flesh of God, which the angels adore and the archangels reverence, becomes a Food for sinners! Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, but still more the believing soul, which enjoys such great gifts!112
How often should the Lords Supper be received? It should be received frequently, whenever and wherever you will, according to everyones opportunity and need, being bound to no special place or time. In the words of Gerhard, How often this sacrament should be taken every year, cannot be prescribed definitely and by some general rule, but must be left free for the approval of each ones conscience and for his piety.113 This, too, is the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.
Most Lutherans who have raised the issue of Communion frequency in recent years have done so in the interest of stimulating a renewed appreciation of the central importance of this sacrament, in the life of the church and of each individual Christian, especially in reaction to those enduring influences within Lutheranism that have not emphasized this. The present writer wholeheartedly concurs in this sentiment. He concurs furthermore in the opinion that
The infrequent use of this holy privilege is not only to be deplored, but an effort should be made to correct it, since it is [a] part of the congregations life which needs a reformation. But this must be done in one way only, by creating a fervent desire for it, and not by compulsion or legislation. The practice of the Early Church was to gather for Holy Communion: that and the hearing of the Word were their prime objectives. This practice continued in every land and age where the Gospel was carried and disciples were made. Neither the Reformers nor the Reformation Movement attacked or objected to its use every Lords Day, but only to the superstitions and abominations of the Mass practices. Celebration of the Holy Communion every Lords Day is still found in some parts of the Church of the Reformation to this day. Whatever good or indifferent reasons may have brought about the once or twice or four or six times a year practices in this country in years gone by, they hardly obtain now.114
There truly is no good reason for conservative Lutherans to conserve the dubious sacramental practices of seventeenth-century Pietism and eighteenth-century Rationalism, while at the same time attempting to conserve the sound sacramental theology of sixteenth-century Confessionalism. Simply put, in those places in the world where the Lutheran Church has inherited this sacramental incongruity from generations past, it should indeed, in an evangelical manner, be corrected.115 And in those places in the world where the Lutheran Church is being newly established or re-established, this sacramental incongruity should not be introduced. A Lutheran worshiper anywhere in the world should ordinarily be able to receive the Lords Supper from his pastor whenever he in his conscience senses a need for it, regardless of which Sunday of the month it may be. The questions posed by Edgar S. Brown are really the questions posed by the conscience of the church, as she continually craves the grace and blessing of her divine Head in both Word and Sacrament:
To be sure, Gods grace comes equally in both sermon and communion, not to mention baptism, absolution, counseling. This our confessions make quite clear. Concerning Word and sacrament, they say, The effect of both is the same. Still, if a worshiper who has moved through the stages of worship – confession and absolution, praise and thanksgiving, instruction and admonition, prayer and offering – is then dismissed without an opportunity to receive the assurance of Gods presence in the form instituted by the Savior, isnt something wrong? One who feels this matter keenly cannot help but know frustration. To be sure he may not wish to commune every Sunday, but shouldnt the opportunity be there?116
O Lord Jesus Christ, we thank You, that of Your infinite mercy You have instituted this Your Sacrament, in which we eat Your body and drink Your blood: Grant us, we beseech You, by Your Holy Spirit, that we may not receive this gift unworthily, but that we may confess our sins, remember Your agony and death, believe the forgiveness of sin, and day by day grow in faith and love, until we obtain eternal salvation; through You, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.117
April 21, 2011
1. The Words of Institution, Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (Saint Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, Inc., 1996), pp. 54, 78-79, 102-03.
2. This subject was previously addressed by the present writer, with special reference to his own church body, in David Jay Webber, Communion Frequency in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod: A Re-Evaluation, Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 3 (September 1991), pp. 53-65.
3. Good News, Vol. 2 (1996), No. 3, p. 17.
4. Augsburg Confession XXIV:34-36 [German], The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 60. The John Chrysostom reference is to Homily 3 in Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 1.
5. Lyle W. Lange, in Our Great Heritage, edited by Lange (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1991), Vol. 1, p. 326.
6. New American Standard Bible, © 1960, The Lockman Foundation.
7. Joseph A. Seiss, Our Confessions in English, Lutheran Church Review, Vol. I, No. 3 (July 1882), p. 216.
8. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:64, Tappert p. 581.
9. Apology of the Augsburg Confession X:1, Tappert p. 179.
10. Martin Luther, Weimar Ausgabe, 26:282ff.; quoted in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:78, Tappert pp. 583-84.
11. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:75, Tappert p. 583.
12. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV:1, Tappert p. 249.
13. Heresies, Book III; quoted in Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV:8, Tappert p. 250.
14. Large Catechism V:39, Tappert p. 451. See also Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:77, Tappert p. 583.
15. Martin Luther, Concerning the Order of Public Worship, Luthers Works (American Edition), Vol. 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), p. 13.
16. Weimar Ausgabe, Briefwechsel, 4:533-34; quoted in John Raymond Stephenson, The Holy Eucharist: At the Center or Periphery of the Churchs Life in Luthers Thinking?, A Lively Legacy: Essays in Honor of Robert Preus, edited by Kurt E. Marquart, Stephenson, and Bjarne W. Teigen (Fort Wayne, Ind.: Concordia Theological Seminary, 1985), pp. 161-62.
17. Stephenson, p. 158. He cites as examples the 1586 Church Order for Saxony and the 1526 Church Order for Schwäbisch-Hall.
18. Martin Chemnitz, John Gerhard, and Polycarp Leyser, Harmonia Quatuor Evangelistarum (Frankfort and Hamburg, 1652), Vol. II, p. 1085; quoted in Kurt E. Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance (Vol. IX of Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics) (Fort Wayne, Ind.: International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, 1990), p. 200.
19. New American Bible, © 1970, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
20. New King James Version, © 1985, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
21. Christian Worship: Handbook, edited by Gary Baumler and Kermit Moldenhauer (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993), p. 44.
22. Hermann Sasse, This is my body (revised edition) (Adelaide, S.A.: Lutheran Publishing House, 1977), pp. 1-2.
23. Henry Eyster Jacobs, The Lutheran Movement in England (revised) (Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1908), p. 305. See also Joseph Stump, The Christian Faith (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), p. 358. In the ancient church, services without the Sacrament were sometimes held on weekdays, for according to the Tripartite History, Book 9, on Wednesday and Friday the Scriptures were read and expounded in Alexandria, and all these services were held without Mass. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:41 [German], Tappert p. 61.) Still, On the basis of Acts 2:42 and I Cor. 11 and according to the example of the ancient Church, the Lutheran Church regards the Communion Service as the most glorious and important of all public services. ... She therefore distinguishes between the Main Service and Minor Services. A divine Service becomes the Main Service not by virtue of the significance of the Sunday or the holy Day, nor because of the season of the year, nor through liturgical elaboration, but, as given by the Scriptural relation of Word and Sacrament, by virtue of the fact that the action of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ immediately follows upon the proclamation of the Word of the Gospel, and thus represents the seal of the Word, the aim and conclusion of the Service. All other services, in which the action of the Sacrament is not intended from the onset, become Minor Services, no matter how rich their liturgical appointments. (Friedrich Lochner, Der Hauptgottesdienst der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1895], p. 6; quoted in Kurt Marquart, The Word As Life, Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 3 [Spring 1968], p. 51.)
24. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV:42, Tappert pp. 220-21.
25. Augsburg Confession XXIV:21-23 [German], Tappert p. 58.
26. Herman A. Preus, A Theology to Live By (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), pp. 156-57.
27. Herman A. Preus, p. 157.
28. John Calvin (of Geneva) and Heinrich Bullinger (Ulrich Zwinglis successor in Zürich) certainly have the Lutherans in mind when they jointly repudiate as preposterous interpreters those who in the solemn words of the Supper, This is My body, this is My blood, urge a precisely literal sense, as they say. For we hold it to be indisputable that these words are to be accepted figuratively, so that bread and wine are called that which they signify. (Consensus Tigurinus , Article XXII; quoted in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953], p. 295.)
29. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:9, Tappert p. 571.
30. Weimar Ausgabe, 26:506; quoted in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:32, Tappert pp. 574-75. In the face of such denials of an objective Real Presence of Christs body and blood in the bread and wine of the Supper, Luther declares with the utmost seriousness: I reckon them all as belonging together (that is, as Sacramentarians and enthusiasts), for that is what they are who will not believe that the Lords bread in the Supper is his true, natural body, which the godless or Judas receive orally as well as St. Peter and all the saints. Whoever, I say, will not believe this, will please let me alone and expect no fellowship from me. This is final. (Weimar Ausgabe, 54:155-56; quoted in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:33, Tappert p. 575.) In the second half of the twentieth century many professedly Lutheran bodies have formally declared altar and pulpit fellowship with the Reformed, via the Leuenberg Concord in Europe, the Formula of Agreement in the United States, and similar instruments in other parts of the world. These actions are not compatible with the theology of the Formula of Concord, which recognizes the fact that there are two kinds of Sacramentarians. Some are crass Sacramentarians who set forth in clear German words what they believe in their hearts, namely, that in the Holy Supper only bread and wine are present, distributed, and received orally. Others, however, are subtle Sacramentarians, the most harmful kind, who in part talk our language very plausibly and claim to believe a true presence of the true, essential, and living body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper but assert that this takes place spiritually by faith. But under this plausible terminology they really retain the former crass opinion that in the Holy Supper nothing but bread and wine are present and received with the mouth. To them the word spiritual means no more than the presence of Christs spirit, or the power of Christs absent body, or his merit. They deny that the body of Christ is present in any manner or way, since in their opinion it is confined to the highest heaven above, whither we should ascend with the thoughts of our faith and there, but not in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper, seek the body and blood of Christ. (Formula of Concord, Epitome VII:3-5, Tappert p. 482.)
31. Luther D. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (revised edition) (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947), pp. 79-80.
32. Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1871), p. 655. Emphasis in original. See also Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1905), pp. 366-67; Robert D. Preus, Getting into The Theology of Concord (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), p. 71; and Herman A. Preus, p. 166.
33. Stephenson, p. 158.
34. Large Catechism V:32, Tappert p. 450.
35. Apology of the Augsburg Confession X:4, Tappert p. 180. The quotation is from Rom. 6:9.
36. Large Catechism V:66-68, Tappert p. 454.
37. See Martin Chemnitz, The Lords Supper (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979), especially pp. 185-94.
38. Small Catechism VI:6, Tappert p. 352.
39. Large Catechism V:23-27, Tappert p. 449.
40. Smalcald Articles III, IV, Tappert p. 310.
41. Kurt Marquart, Liturgical Commonplaces, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4 (October 1978), p. 335.
42. Wilhelm Löhe, Agenda for North American Congregations; quoted in Christian Worship: Handbook, p. 44. Johann Heinrich Philipp Graebner, a protégé of Löhe and pastor in Frankentrost, Michigan, in the mid-nineteenth century, made these observations in his autobiography: In general our public worship services and also our daily Matins and Vespers followed the liturgical method as given in the Loehe agenda. According to the constitution which Rev. Loehe sent along with us, on all Sunday [services] as well as all special festival services, on the first day thereof, Holy Communion shall be observed and the exclusive use of private confession shall be practiced. During the six years that I was in Frankentrost, it was very rare that there were no communicants on Sunday or high festivals. (Quoted in Ted Jungkuntz, RIM Pastors and Eucharistic Practice, RIM Report, May 1997 [Issue #33], p. 4.)
43. Corpus Reformatorum II:538; quoted in Edward T. Horn, The Reformation of Worship in the City of Nürnberg, Lutheran Church Review, Vol. XI, No. 2 (April 1892), p. 138.
44. Marquart, Liturgical Commonplaces, pp. 335-36. The quotations are from Luthers Works (American Edition), Vol. 53, p. 24.
45. Reed, p. 244. Pietism is the designation of the spiritual movement that profoundly stirred and renewed evangelical church life – both Lutheran and Reformed – in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its avowed purpose was to bring about a second reformation. After a good start, so Pietism asserted, the Reformation had stranded in orthodoxism and was stuck in the shoals of institutionalism, dogmatism, and polemics. Favorite pietist concepts and slogans were: Life versus doctrine, Holy Spirit versus the office of the ministry, or Reality versus the appearance of godliness (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5). Faith, the chief element in the teachings of the Reformation, was more clearly defined as living faith; and the evidence that faith is living was sought in the fruits of faith (Matt. 7:16 ff.; John 7:17; Gal. 5:22; Rom. 6:22), i.e., in sanctification of life, above all in the exercise of love. ... The reformers and the orthodox theologians had given central place to the Word of God and the doctrine of justification. But Pietisms central subject was regeneration (conversion, rebirth). ... Pietism focused its attention on man, on individual man. ... As a result, Pietism also modified the concept church. The church is no longer the community of those who have been called by the Word and Sacraments, but the association of the reborn, of those who earnestly desire to be Christians. The church in the true sense consists of the small circles of pietists, the conventicles, where everyone knows everyone else and where experiences are freely exchanged. The man who is really pious can and must stand on his own feet. Only little weight is attached to the ministry of the Word, to worship services, the Sacraments, to confession and absolution, and to the observance of Christian customs; a thoroughly regenerated person does not need these crutches at all. Pietism stressed the personal element over against the institutional; voluntariness versus compulsion; the present versus tradition, and the rights of the laity over against the pastors. (Martin Schmidt, Pietism, Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, edited by Julius Bodensieck [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965], Vol. III, pp. 1898-99.) Rationalism, in its historic sense, is that tendency of the eighteenth century, which mainly through the influence of Wolff and Kant made reason the only norm of faith. ... Rationalism did not remain mere speculation. It changed the whole appearance and life of the Church. Churches were made lecture-rooms, the pulpit became the desk above the altar, which dwindled into insignificance. From the hymns all distinctively Christian thought was removed, and commonplace rhymes of the shallowest order were added, which praised reasonable virtue, delight of nature, and care of the body. Sermons were long-winded moral treatises on the utility of things. The old Church Orders and Agenda were mutilated, Baptism and the Lords Supper robbed of their meaning, Private Confession totally abolished, and Confirmation degraded into a promise of virtue. Catechisms contained natural religion and shallow morality on the happiness of man. The emptiness of these results was the end of rationalism. It could not satisfy mans religious needs. (John A. W. Haas, Rationalism, Lutheran Cyclopedia, edited by Haas and Henry Eyster Jacobs [New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1899], pp. 401-02.)
46. Günther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), pp. 131-32. Examples of distribution formulae from the period of Rationalism are: Eat this bread; may the spirit of devotion rest upon you with all its blessings. Drink a little wine; moral power does not reside in this wine, but in you, in the teaching of God, and in God. Use this bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ; he that hungereth after pure and noble virtue shall be filled. Drink a little wine; he that thirsteth after pure and noble virtue shall not long for it in vain. (Hufnagel, Liturg. Blätter; quoted in J. F. Ohl, The Liturgical Deterioration of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Memoirs of the Lutheran Liturgical Association, Volumes III-VII [Pittsburgh: Lutheran Liturgical Association, 1906], Vol. IV, p. 77.)
47. Stephenson, p. 158.
48. F. R. Webber, Studies in the Liturgy (Erie, Pa.: Ashby Printing Company, 1938), pp. 205-06. Most of the Lutheran Church Orders of the sixteenth century called for the Lords Supper to be made available to the people according to the pattern Webber describes, but not all of them. The 1597 Kirchenordnung for Amsterdam (where Dutch Reformed influence was obviously strong) called for the Lords Supper to be administered on the first Sunday of each month and on Easter, Whitsunday and Kirmess. (B. M. Schmucker, The Lutheran Church in the City of New York During the Second Century of its History, Lutheran Church Review, Vol. III, No. 4 [October 1884], p. 284.) This Church Order (in its various revisions) was normative among the Dutch Lutherans in colonial New York, and through them it had some influence on other segments of the early Lutheran Church in America. (See David Jay Webber, Berkenmeyer and Lutheran Orthodoxy in New York, Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1 [Spring 1987], pp. 19-31.) Closer in spirit to the Confessional pattern were the directives of the Grosse Kirchenordnung of Württemberg (1559): At the start, the Supper of Christ shall be held in the principal cities every month and, where possible, every fourteen days; yes, it shall be held in the churches often and frequently on the Sundays and other festival days, so often as communicants are present and have announced themselves for the sacrament, as stipulated above. The ministers shall earnestly admonish the people and diligently teach them the value and need for receiving this sacrament, so that they gladly and frequently take part. (Quoted in Lowell C. Green, Apology 24 As Illuminated by the Communion Rules and Practices of Sixteenth-Century Lutheranism [unpublished ms., 1996], p. 20; see also Lowell C. Green, How Frequently Was Communion Available in the 16th Century?, Concordia Review, Vol. I, No. 2 [July 1975], p. 3.)
49. Marquart, Liturgical Commonplaces, pp. 343-44. Luther did recognized the possibility of the Lords Supper being celebrated in some parishes only once in a month, but this would be because no one desired to commune on the other Sundays, and not because it had been decided beforehand that the Sacrament would be unavailable to those who might wish to receive it. In the context of opposing the daily celebration of endowed masses, without communicants, he wrote: I wish, and it ought to be so, that no mass at all would be celebrated except at such times as the people were present who really desired the sacrament and asked for it, and that this would be only once a week or once a month. For the sacrament should never be celebrated except at the instigation and request of hungry souls, never because of duty, endowment, custom, ordinance, or habit. (Martin Luther, Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament, Luthers Works, Vol. 36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], pp. 256-57.)
50. F. R. Webber, p. 206.
51. Lutheran Worship (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982), pp. 144, 167, 187.
52. Lutheran Service Book (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), pp. 160, 176, 193.
53. Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993), p. 20.
54. Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, pp. 49, 72, 97.
55. Pastoral Theology, edited by Norbert H. Mueller and George Kraus (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1990), p. 97.
56. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV:1, Tappert p. 249.
57. Augsburg Confession XXIV:5-6 [Latin], Tappert p. 56.
58. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV:41, Tappert p. 220. In the Lutheran tradition the pastor is not the only person responsible for the catechizing of children. He shares this duty with the head of the family and with Schoolmasters. (Small Catechism, Tappert pp. 342, 344, 346, 348, 351.)
59. Large Catechism, Shorter Preface: 1, Tappert p. 362.
60. Large Catechism, Shorter Preface: 2,5, Tappert p. 362.
61. Small Catechism, Preface: 10-12, Tappert p. 339.
62. Large Catechism V:1-2, Tappert p. 447.
63. Augsburg Confession XXIV:7 [German], Tappert p. 56.
64. Edward T. Horn, Liturgical Work of John Brenz, Lutheran Church Review, Vol. I, No. 4 (October 1882), pp. 281-83. In their 1577 correspondence with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Lucas Osiander, Jacob Andreae, and Martin Crucius summarize the policy of the Lutherans in Württemberg on the question of infant communion: We often exhort our people who have repented to partake frequently of the Lords Supper. However, we do not commune the infants, for Paul says: Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the Lords body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself [1 Cor 11:28-29]. And since the children are not able to examine themselves and, thus, cannot discern the Lords body, we think that the ceremony of the baptism is sufficient for their salvation, and also the hidden faith with which the Lord has endowed them. For through this faith they spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, even if they do not, in the communion of the supper, physically eat it. (George Mastrantonis, Augsburg and Constantinople [Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982], p. 143.) The earliest testimony in Christian history to the practice of infant communion (without preceding instruction) is in the writings of St. Cyprian, the third-century bishop of Carthage, but a contemporary document from Syria indicates that this was not the practice in the Near-Eastern churches of that time. The Syrian Didascalia tells Christians to honour the bishops, who have loosed you from sins, who by the water regenerated you, who filled you with the Holy Spirit, who reared you with the word as with milk, who bred you up with doctrine, who confirmed you with admonition, and made you to partake of the holy Eucharist of God, and made you partakers and joint heirs of the promise of God. These reverence... (Didascalia Apostolorum, edited by R. H. Connolly [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929], p. 39.)
65. Small Catechism, Preface: 1-3, Tappert p. 338.
66. 1 Corinthians 4:1, New King James Version.
67. Hebrews 13:17, New King James Version.
68. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, New King James Version.
69. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XI:3-5, Tappert pp. 180-81.
70. Martin Luther, An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg, Luthers Works (American Edition), Vol. 53, pp. 32-33.
71. Augsburg Confession XI:1-2 [German], Tappert p. 34.
72. Large Catechism IV:74,79, Tappert pp. 445-46.
73. Augsburg Confession XXV:1 [German], Tappert p. 61.
74. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XII:99-101, Tappert p. 197. See also Martin Chemnitz, Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981), pp. 136-37; and C. H. Little, Lutheran Confessional Theology (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1943), p. 67.
75. Large Catechism, Confession: 1, Tappert p. 457.
76. An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg, Luthers Works (American Edition), Vol. 53, p. 34. See also P. H. D. Lang, Private Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Church: A Doctrinal, Historical, and Critical Study, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4 (October 1992), pp. 251-52.
77. Weimar Ausgabe, 26:216; quoted in Hans Preuss, Luther as Communicant, Lutheran Church Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 2 (April 1941), p. 195.
78. Weimar Ausgabe, 21:263 (from a 1531 Easter sermon), What Luther Says: An Anthology, compiled and edited by Ewald M. Plass (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), Vol. I, p. 331.
79. There was also historical precedent for such a practice in the so-called Offene Schuld of the Medieval church. See Fred L. Precht, Confession and Absolution: Sin and Forgiveness, Lutheran Worship: History and Practice (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), pp. 365-66.
80. These would include the Church Orders for Wittenberg (1524 and 1559), Nürnberg (1524), Sweden (1531), Hamburg (1537), Naumberg (1537), Mecklenburg (1540 and 1552), Reformation of Cologne (1543), Schwäbisch-Hall (1543), Celle (1545), Hesse-Cassel (1566), Herpf (1566), Meiningen (1566), Austria (1571), Aschersleben (1575), Dresden (1578), Saxony (1581), and Amsterdam (1597). (Bugenhagens Order of Service of 1524, Lutheran Church Review, Vol. X, No. 4 [October 1891], pp. 289-90; Reed, p. 258; Precht, pp. 363, 377-78, 384; Schmucker, pp. 284-85.)
81. Horn, The Reformation of Worship in the City of Nürnberg, p. 143.
82. Mastrantonis, p. 144. The Lutheran Reformers had originally lacked a consensus among themselves concerning the appropriateness of the practice of general confession and Absolution. Such a consensus did eventually emerge, especially in the wake of a controversy that had occurred in Nürnberg in 1533 and that had involved such notables as Johannes Brenz, Andreas Osiander, and eventually the theological faculty at Wittenberg University. Jacobs notes that when the new Brandenburg-Nürnberg Church Order was issued in that year, it discontinued the practice hitherto prevalent at Nürnberg, where the pastor, after the sermon, read a general confession of sins followed by an absolution to the entire congregation. Brenz and Osiander urged that such an absolution to a mixed assembly in which are unbelievers, fanatics, impenitent persons, adulterers, licentious usurers, drunkards, murderers, none of whom wants the absolution, and much less has an earnest purpose to reform his life, was without Scriptural warrant or precedent in the Ancient Church. The general feeling at Nürnberg opposed the two theologians mentioned. The city council interfered. All the pastors but Osiander yielded. ... Upon an appeal to the Wittenberg theologians, Luther and his colleagues advised a compromise, allowing the use of both the private and the so-called general absolution (DeWettes Luthers Briefe, IV. 480 sqq.). The correspondence shows that Osianders excessive controversial spirit had led to extravagant positions, and that Luther felt not only that the cause of the gospel was being disgraced by the bitterness that was prevailing, but especially that Osianders course involved the necessity of private absolution, which Luther could not admit. We cannot and will not burden consciences so heavily as though, without private absolution, there were no forgiveness of sins. For from the beginning of the world to the times of Christ, they did not have private absolution, but had to console themselves with the general promise and build their faith thereon. Although, because of his fall, David had private absolution, nevertheless with respect to other sins, before and afterwards, he had to hold to the general absolution, and preaching, as also Isaiah and others. (Henry Eyster Jacobs, Confession of Sins, Lutheran Cyclopedia, pp. 128-29.) Luthers letter was also signed by Melanchthon, Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, and Caspar Cruciger. (Lang, p. 253.) See also Mastrantonis, pp. 132-33, where the Württemberg theologians defend the practice of their churches with similar arguments.
83. Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 60, Tappert p. 330.
84. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII:68-71, Tappert p. 582.
85. Large Catechism I:158, Tappert p. 387. Luther says here that the name spiritual father belongs...to those who govern and guide us by the Word of God. Luther states elsewhere that the responsibility of exercising such spiritual oversight in the church must be entrusted to one person, and he alone should be allowed to preach, to baptize, to absolve, and to administer the sacraments. The others should be content with this arrangement and agree to it. ... It is, however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function, but chooses (except in emergencies) only competent males to fill this office, as one reads here and there in the epistles of St. Paul [I Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:6] that a bishop must be pious, able to teach, and the husband of one wife – and in I Corinthians 14[:34] he says, The women should keep silence in the churches. In summary, it must be a competent and chosen man. Children, women, and other persons are not qualified for this office, even though they are able to hear Gods Word, to receive Baptism, the Sacrament, absolution, and are also true, holy Christians, as St. Peter says [I Pet. 3:7]. Even nature and God’s creation makes this distinction, implying that women (much less children or fools) cannot and shall not occupy positions of sovereignty, as experience also suggests and as Moses says in Genesis 3[:16], You shall be subject to man. The Gospel, however, does not abrogate this natural law, but confirms it as the ordinance and creation of God. (Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, Luthers Works [American Edition], Vol. 41 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966], pp. 154-55.)
86. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIII:9, Tappert p. 212.
87. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIII:12, Tappert p. 212.
88. Chemnitz, Ministry, Word, and Sacraments, pp. 26-27. The Lutheran Church maintains with equal conviction that wherever the church exists, the right to administer the Gospel also exists. Wherefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right of calling, electing, and ordaining ministers. This right is a gift given exclusively to the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church. ... Where the true church is, therefore, the right of electing and ordaining ministers must of necessity also be. So in an emergency even a layman absolves and becomes the minister and pastor of another. It is like the example which Augustine relates of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the other (a catechumen), and the latter, after his Baptism, absolved the former. Here the words of Christ apply which testify that the keys were given to the church and not merely to certain individuals: Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). Finally, this is confirmed by the declaration of Peter, You are a royal priesthood (I Pet. 2:9). These words apply to the true church which, since it alone possesses the priesthood, certainly has the right of electing and ordaining ministers. (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 67-69, Tappert p. 331.) The pastoral acts described by St. Augustine were not, strictly speaking, performed by laymen, but by emergency pastors. However, Lutheran teachers have debated throughout the years whether or not a lay person should ever consecrate and administer the Lords Supper. The orthodox dogmaticians generally said that even in the case of emergency it should not be done. [Johann Wilhelm] Baier wrote: When there is a lack of ordinary ministers, and a faithful man anxiously desires this sacrament, it is better for him to be persuaded that spiritual eating is sufficient and to show the danger of other temptations which could arise if the sacrament were administered by another without a legitimate call and therefore with a dubious mind and result. (Thomas P. Nass, The Pastoral Ministry as a Distinct Form of the Public Ministry, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 4 [Fall 1994], p. 261.) On the other hand, as noted by Johann Friedrich Cotta, In a case of such necessity, where death seems immediately impending, if a pastor cannot be procured, and the dying person earnestly desire to enjoy the Sacrament, many of our theologians maintain that the Holy Eucharist can be administered even by a layman. Let it suffice that I mention, among these, Jn. Gallus and Tileman Hesshuss. (An editorial notation in Johann Gerhard, Loci Theologici, edited by Cotta [Tübingen: Johann Georg Cotta, 1762-87], Vol. X, p. 21; quoted in Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961], p. 578.)
89. Augsburg Confession XIV [German], Tappert p. 36.
90. Jasper Rasmussen Brochmand; quoted in Lay Celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar, Logia, Vol. II, No. 1 (Epiphany/January 1993), p. 55. Brochmand served as Bishop of Zealand (Denmark) in the seventeenth century.
91. Nass, p. 262.
92. Confessional Lutherans believe and teach that fellowship at the Lords table is a testimony of consensus, harmony, and unity in doctrine and faith, as Paul says: We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor. 10:17). (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971], p. 302.) This leads, however, to a practical question: Do we hold that the exercise of church fellowship, especially...altar fellowship, can be decided in every instance solely on the basis of formal church membership, that is, on whether or not the person belongs to a congregation or synod in affiliation with us? No. Ordinarily this is the basis on which such a question is decided since church fellowship is exercised on the basis of ones confession to the pure marks of the church, and ordinarily we express our confession by our church membership. There may be cases in the exercise of church fellowship where a persons informal confession of faith must also be considered. This is especially true regarding the weak. But whether one is guided by a persons formal or informal confession of faith, in either instance it must in principle be a confession to the full truth of Gods Word. In addition, special care must be exercised so as not to cause offense to others or to interfere with another mans ministry. Further, we are not to judge harshly concerning the manner in which a brother pastor after much agonizing handles such difficult cases. (A reply of the WELS Commission on Inter-Church Relations and of the ELS Board of Theology and Church Relations based on their synods public confession on the doctrine of church fellowship to a question regarding church fellowship raised by pastors from the Conference of Authentic Lutherans, Lutheran Sentinel, Vol. 59, No. 14 [July 22, 1976], pp. 220-21.)
93. ...he is truly worthy and well-prepared who believes these words: for you and for the forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, he who does not believe these words, or doubts them, is unworthy and unprepared, for the words for you require truly believing hearts. (Small Catechism VI:10, Tappert p. 352.)
94. Johann Andreas Quenstedt, Theologia didacticopolemica sive systema theologicum (Wittenberg, 1685), Vol. IV, p. 185; quoted in Friedrich Kalb, Theology of Worship in 17th-Century Lutheranism (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965), p. 123.
95. Hermann Sasse, Word and Sacrament: Preaching and the Lords Supper, We Confess the Sacraments (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), p. 32.
96. Quenstedt, Vol. IV, p. 185; quoted in Kalb, p. 123.
97. Among the early Lutheran laity the Easter Communion continued to be a deeply ingrained custom. Apparently there were many people in Wittenberg who did not desire to commune very often in the course of the year, but who were eager at least to receive the Sacrament in conjunction with this festival. In 1531 Luther responded to the practical difficulties associated with this by telling the people that those who wished to receive Communion according to this custom could do so at any time during the Easter season, and not only during Holy Week or on Easter Sunday itself. From the pulpit on Palm Sunday he announced that After this, the people should come to the Supper by rows. And not all should come on one and the same day, because they have enough time to commune from now until the Feast of Pentecost. There is no need to burden the pastors in this way that they must give communion at two or three altars, since they have another chance or even at a private mass. (Weimar Ausgabe, 34/I:189; quoted in Green, Apology 24 As Illuminated..., p. 11.) Luther was not discouraging frequent Communion, but was dealing very practically with a situation that involved people who had no intention of communing frequently anyway. But just to make sure they would not think they were being told that they may not have the Lords Supper on or very near the Festival of Easter, even if they really wanted to have it then, Luther supplemented his previous instructions three days later. On Wednesday of Holy Week he delivered an exhortation that all should come to the sacrament by rows and not all at once, lest the pastors be confused by the multitude, since there is time enough for everyone to come. I am happy that you are very diligent about coming. But all cannot come at once. Therefore, communion will be given daily the next seven days. (Weimar Ausgabe, 34/I:199; quoted in Green, Apology 24 As Illuminated..., p. 11.)
98. [Johann Heinrich] Kurtz, Church History (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1889), Vol. II, p. 111.
99. Small Catechism, Preface: 21-24, Tappert pp. 340-41. Emphasis in original.
100. Large Catechism V:39-43, Tappert p. 451.
101. Large Catechism V:55-61, Tappert p. 453.
102. Large Catechism V:47-48, Tappert p. 452. In a similar vein, Chemnitz writes that Christ did not want to permit believers to use Communion arbitrarily, so that it would make no difference whether they used it occasionally or not at all or when they pleased, as one does in matters indifferent. For He does not say: When it pleases you, as in indifferent matters, but says: As often as you do this. It is not the same as with Baptism; we are baptized only once, but it is not sufficient to use the Lords Supper only once. For He says: As often as, in order that we may eat of that bread and drink of that cup as often as we recognize and feel that that medicine and remedy which our Good Samaritan pours into our wounds is useful and necessary to us, so long only as we examine ourselves lest we receive it to judgment. (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, p. 330.)
103. In the Lutheran Church of the seventeenth century some desired Holy Communion on certain Sundays in the year, others desired it daily. (Kalb, p. 123, referring to Abraham Calov, Systema locorum theologicorum [Wittenberg, 1655-57], Vol. IX, p. 407.)
104. Robert D. Preus, p. 71.
105. Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV:40, Tappert p. 220.
106. Stephenson, p. 158.
107. Robert Kolb, The Christian Faith (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), p. 241.
108. See What Luther Says, Vol. II, pp. 856-57.
109. Christian Heinrich Schott, The Unaltered Augsburg Confession ... and the Three Chief Symbols of the Christian Church (New York: H. Ludwig & Co., 1848), p. 55.
110. Weimar Ausgabe, 48:326; quoted in Hans Preuss, p. 198.
111. Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, pp. 330-31.
112. C. F. W. Walther, Gnadenjahr (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890), pp. 209 ff.; quoted in Marquart, The Word As Life, pp. 51-52.
113. Johann Gerhard, Loci theologici, edited by Edward Preuss (1863), Vol. V, p. 243; quoted in Kalb, p. 123. Chemnitz addresses the question in this way: How often is the use of this Sacrament to be repeated by Christians? Christ did not want the use of this Sacrament to be bound either to a certain time or to certain days, except that Paul says that the Lords Supper is to be celebrated when the church gathers to commemorate the death of the Lord, 1 Co 11:18-26. But it is certain that God wants us to use this Sacrament not only once, as we are baptized once, but often and frequently, 1 Co 11:26. For Paul has this in mind, that the Lords Supper followed in place of the paschal lamb of the Old Testament. And the paschal lamb was indeed eaten on a certain day and that only once a year. But on the other hand Paul says of the Lords Supper: As often etc.; with this term he wants to indicate that the use of this Sacrament is neither bound to a certain day, nor yet should it be only annually or by way of anniversary, like the eating of the paschal lamb, but often and frequently. Therefore, you ask, how often would be enough to have been a guest of this Supper? It is not for any man to give a specific answer to this, either with a number or with a certain measure, other than as often as a troubled conscience feels and recognizes that it needs those benefits that are offered in the Supper for comfort and strengthening. Consciences are therefore not to be forced but aroused to frequent use of this Supper by earnest admonition and by consideration of how necessary [and] likewise how salutary and profitable the use of this Supper is for us. But he that does not attend this most holy table thereby clearly shows that he is a Christian in name rather than in fact, namely that he is one who neglects and despises the command of his Savior, who says: Eat, drink, and do this as often etc. (Ministry, Word, and Sacraments, p. 128.)
114. Paul Zeller Strodach, A Manual on Worship (revised edition) (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), p. 232. John F. Brug (of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) writes: Formerly, many Lutheran churches in America celebrated the Lords Supper once a month or less. This relatively infrequent celebration was at least in part a reaction to Catholicisms overemphasis on the sacrament at the expense of preaching. Lutheran churches tended to center on preaching as the source and summit of Christian worship. Recently, however, WELS congregations have tended to celebrate the Lords supper more frequently. Many congregations now have communion twice a month. A small percentage observe it weekly. (How we practice communion, Northwestern Lutheran, Vol. 85, No. 1 [January 1998], p. 32.)
115. To pastors who would like to introduce the weekly availability of Holy Communion in their parishes, the present writer would recommend something akin to the approach that he has used in all three of the parishes he has served during his ministry, in accomplishing that goal. In each case, he arrived in a congregation that did not offer the sacrament every week. But also in each case, he made it known at the beginning of his ministry in that place that, as a Lutheran pastor, he understood himself to be obligated by his Confessional subscription to administer the sacrament to properly-prepared communicant members of the church who desired to receive it, regardless of which Sunday of the month it may be. And so he announced that on those Sundays when the Lord’s Supper was not scheduled in the public service, it would nevertheless still be available in a brief spoken service after the (public) service of the Word, for any communicants who wished to receive it on those days. In this way, a “high mass / low mass” pattern was established in each church. In all three of these churches, the Lord’s Supper was initially celebrated in the main public service approximately half the time – every other week – and was offered in a brief spoken service after the main public service approximately half the time – again, every other week. It was always announced in the bulletin on the “off” Sundays that the Supper would be available if there were communicants present who wished to receive it. And so, the “low mass” observance of the Sacrament, when it did occur, was still a public observance, theologically speaking. In the present writer’s first church, during the two years he was there, people asked to commune on an “off” Sunday on only two occasions. When he arrived at his second church, however, there were immediately about a dozen people who stayed for Communion on those Sundays, and the average number had increased to about 18 or 20 by the time he left seven years later. Under his successor in that church, as the number of communicants staying for the spoken service continued to grow, the congregation took the natural step of beginning to celebrate the sacrament in the main public service every week. There were no protests, because by that time the number of people staying for Communion on the “low mass” days – almost approaching the numbers who were communing on the “high mass” days – had made it obvious that this was the proper thing to do. Now, in the present writer’s third congregation, he is following this “high mass / low mass” practice once again. There are at present usually somewhere between 10 and 15 people who remain for the Supper on the Sundays when it is not offered in the main part of the service. The present writer has never given the members of any of his churches the impression that a congregational voters’ assembly or a board of elders have the authority to determine whether or not he, as the called steward of the mysteries of God, will administer Communion to congregational members in good standing who ask for it. The majority may not properly interpose themselves between a minority and their Savior in such a way, or impose on the minority the majority’s personal devotional preferences regarding the frequency of sacramental reception. But in taking the patient and pastorally-sensitive approach that he has taken in regard to the form and manner of making the sacrament available on a weekly basis, the present writer has also not insisted that this needs to be done, immediately, in the main public part of the service. He has allowed his churches to grow into that over time, according to their own natural pace, as more and more people would decide to stay for Communion on the “low mass” Sundays. And in the meantime, in his preaching and teaching on both “high mass” days and “low mass” days, he has sought to orient his people toward a deeper appreciation of the blessings of Communion, and toward a properly-motivated desire for a more frequent reception of Communion.
116. Edgar S. Brown, Jr., Living the Liturgy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), p. 95.
117. Veit Dietrichs Collect for Maundy Thursday, Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, p. 154.
The Administration and Reception of the Lord’s Supper
Martin Chemnitz on the Frequency of Holy Communion