Dan Popp
Assumptions and anachronisms: A response to Eric Giunta
By Dan Popp
November 2, 2009

I knew that my article The early church, the bread, and the wine would be controversial. I didn't expect, however, that it would be read as an attack. Let me assure Mr. Giunta (The early church was Catholic: a response to Dan Popp's Eucharistic revisionism) — and everyone else — that it was not intended as such.

As I explained in the introductory article, the purpose of that series is to serve as something of an overly-long book report on The Ante Nicene Fathers. I have tried to confine myself to the works included in that collection, and to avoid straying off into supplementary material — even Scripture. This keeps the project somewhat manageable, but leaves regrettable deficiencies, some of which Mr. Giunta has thankfully corrected.

My guess is that he overlooked the introduction, in which I laid out my very modest goals for the series. Many of my colleague's apparent misapprehensions about my article might be remedied with a look at that foundation. I will include a link to the introduction in any future installments — it was poor judgment on my part not to do so for all the articles.

My colleague has devoted some time and effort to crafting an articulate rebuttal of an article I did not write — an article about the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, even sola scriptura! My article touches on none of those things. It was simply a list of passages from the early church "Fathers" about the Eucharist, and my admittedly biased comments on how they might fit — might fit — into contemporary discussions. I hope that most readers understood it that way.

His mistaken assumption may explain Mr. Giunta's impression that my article is "divisive." It does not explain why he thinks his phrase "Protestant teetotaler attending Pastor Billy Bob's Bedside Baptist" is not divisive.

Passing over a large part of Mr. Giunta's piece dealing with subjects my article did not touch on, I'd like to address a few of his points that do refer to my article. First, I entirely agree with Eric's statement, "To ask whether the Church Fathers believed precisely in 'transubstantiation' is like asking whether they had a canon of New Testament Scriptures, with all 27 books uniformly recognized as inspired, to the exclusion of all others." I may not have made that point explicit in my article — no anachronisms allowed.

Specifically to Mr. Giunta's points about my challenges to the Patristic evidence for transubstantiation: "He seems mystified by the fact that it was customary in the early Church to mix the Eucharistic wine with water...." Not mystified, but I thought the practice was worth noting, and the question worth asking. Eric's explanation — that "every Mediterranean household" (emphasis his) did the same with their ordinary wine — only raises another question: if this was the mundane practice, why is it mentioned at all, much less so frequently by the "Fathers?" Besides, some of them seem to indicate that the water is an important part of the sacrament — not something incidental, unavoidable and inconsequential. For example Irenaeus, in Book 5 Chapter 1.3 of Against Heresies writes, "Therefore do these men reject the commixture of the heavenly wine, and wish it to be water of the world only...." Here (though the emphasis is on the wine) the water is necessary for the "commixture," which to reject is to put one in the camp of the heretic.

If Eric will allow a gentle rib: if he really believes that wine + water = wine, he probably should avoid a career in the food service industry.

In his article, Mr. Giunta objects to my position that "[A] statement like 'We eat the body and drink the blood of Christ' by itself doesn't give us any clues as to whether the speaker is using metaphors." But my colleague doesn't bring forth any arguments against that reasoning. Yes, I admit it is very "convenient," in the sense that it excludes evidence for his point of view that he would like to include. It's hardly my fault that some early church leaders may have meant things literally but spoke in a more ambiguous way. This goes back to the anachronism problem that Eric acknowledges. If we are not allowed to read into their remarks questions of transubstantiation, then certainly we are not allowed to read in answers to the questions.

Whether convenient or inconvenient, one may not "beg the question." A conclusion must not be used as a premise.

Mr. Giunta seems unaware that he has some "conveniences" of his own — almost magical devices by which he can make evidence appear, and move quotations from one column to the other. If something is missing, then it's a "secret doctrine." If contradictory evidence appears, then the "Fathers" believed both: both memorial and literal, both metaphorical and real. So whether the evidence is missing, ambiguous, seems to preclude his view, or explicitly refutes his view — voila! — it all supports his view! This seems to be the same type of "convenience" he sees in my approach, except that mine disallows inserting one's assumptions into the text, and his requires it.

I thank my colleague for the one-line explanation about cannibalism vis-à-vis the Eucharist, but it is a tacit admission that the "Fathers" did not even write a single line on that subject. The issue isn't whether there is a possible explanation, but why no explanation is given. In my opinion, the "secret doctrine" argument is difficult to sustain when the author is supplying the heathen with a detailed apologia of Christian faith and practices.

Eric writes, "Strangely, Dan is employing an understanding of the word spiritual in a sense that is not Judeo-Christian, but rather Gnostic. Spiritual does not mean disembodied, immaterial or unreal...." (emphasis his). I'm sure it was not my colleague's intention to make Jesus a Gnostic, with His well-known sayings like "a spirit does not have flesh and bones;" and "God is a spirit," (meaning, as I take it, non-corporeal and immaterial). My own use of the word spiritual is consistent with the way the Lord and the "Fathers" used it.

One of the quotes I gave in the article was from Irenaeus, Fragment 37:

    The oblation of the Eucharist is not a carnal one, but a spiritual; and in this respect it is pure. For we make an oblation to God of the bread and the cup of blessing, giving Him thanks in that He has commanded the earth to bring forth these fruits for our nourishment. And then, when we have perfected the oblation, we invoke the Holy Spirit, that He may exhibit this sacrifice, both the bread the body of Christ, and the cup the blood of Christ, in order that the receivers of these antitypes may obtain remission of sins and life eternal. Those persons, then, who perform these oblations in remembrance of the Lord, do not fall in with Jewish views, but, performing the service after a spiritual manner, they shall be called sons of wisdom.

In this quote you can see that Irenaeus contrasts the physical ("carnal") with the spiritual, and that this seems to be his point, as indicated by the last line. There are several similar quotes that contrast the spiritual with the physical, and the reader can refer to my original article for those.

It may hearten my colleague to learn that my own views have been greatly affected by my study of the writings of the early church leaders. My position on the Eucharist is a case in point. I am still being challenged in my thoughts about baptism (a future article may offend Baptists as well as Lutherans). Further looks at The Ante Nicene Fathers may upset sensitive Calvinists, Unitarians and others. Surely LDS readers were not perfectly comfortable with my article on the Trinity — though Mr. Giunta approves of that piece. Perhaps the perception of "divisiveness" depends on whose ox is being gored. Who besides Pentecostals will bless me if I write an article called The early church and the spiritual gifts? Who will not find plausible grounds for offense when I show the mode of church government the "Fathers" used? I may offend myself very much with that one.

My hope is to continue presenting the material, acknowledging my biases and asking the reader to investigate, explore supplemental material, and make his own determinations. I also hope that readers will be charitable about what they imagine to be my motivations. Above all, let's all hold our assumptions very loosely and recognize them for what they are. That just seems like wisdom to me.

To wrap this up on a point of agreement, I absolutely endorse Eric's statement that "[T]he manner in which the earliest Christians understood their own Scriptures, the way they understood the deposit of faith they received directly from the Apostles and their immediate successors, should weigh heavily on how we understand those Scriptures." I thank him for his contributions to that understanding.

Click here to discuss this article.

© Dan Popp


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