I’m reading This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers The Real Presence by Mark Shea. It’s a short read, only about 50 pages long. But it’s really posing some interesting thoughts to me and one passage in particular stuck out. He’s speaking of the Protestant suspicion of anything that smacks of “works” religion or falling back into the same error the Galatians made over the issue of circumcision. This same sense of unease or outright suspicion is felt toward the Catholic doctrine surrounding the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist and seeing it as a “means of grace.” And Mr. Shea felt much the same way at one point. But he had some interesting thoughts as his evangelical pastor preached on the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:
Do not misunderstand. My pastor was certainly no exponent of Catholic theology. Rather, in classical evangelical fashion, this good man held that “the teaching of Christ is the true bread from heaven” and that the passage had no Eucharistic significance…he urged, we must become mature in Christ “by eating His word” and relying on the grace of God working in and through fellow Bible-believing Christians. Only thus, he said, could we hope to grow.
…It suddenly bore in on me that this grasp of biblical teaching as “food for maturity” was strikingly similar to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I saw at once that regular biblical fellowship and regular Holy Communion are both a form of ritual, both “means of grace.” The only difference is that in the former, God transubstantiates paper, ink, and the human voice into His Word; whereas in the latter, according to Catholics, He changes the bread and wine into something even more impressive. My difficulty, then, was not with the idea of ritual “means of grace” as such, but with a God Who might touch me in a non-verbal, non-cerebral, non-spiritual way.
This really is a crucial point. Protestants think in terms of receiving grace “by faith” and what we mean without explicitly saying so is that “by faith” means “intangible.” Grace in the biblical sense is only experienced by believing and trusting in Christ, not by any physical means. And this does explain much of our reaction against the Catholic view of the Eucharist as a “means of grace” (literally, a physical manner in which God’s grace is transmitted to us). Yet we also believe that we are spiritually fed and matured by tangible means such as reading our Bibles, sitting under solid Biblical teaching and fellowship and sharing life with other believers. What are these things if not tangible and physical? And in believing this, we certainly don’t mean to convey the idea that God does not transmit His grace to us in other ways such as prayer, the Holy Spirit quietly working on our hearts and so on. But we affirm the notion that God works through things in the physical world He created to nurture and mature us. These are “means of His grace” to us.
So why do we have such a problem with the Catholic notion of Holy Communion being a tangible way in which God actually gives us a measure of His grace? Why are we so suspicious of means that are “non-verbal, non-cerebral and non-spiritual” yet have this glaring blind spot when it comes to other such “Protestant” means like the written Scriptures, the teaching of the Word by our pastors or fellowship with other believers?
What say you?