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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Communion

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The Greek word κοινωνία has a wider scope (see Fellowship) than the English word ‘communion,’ which the English Version uses particularly in regard to the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16). St. Paul’s expression is somewhat ambiguous. In what way may the cup and the bread be said to be a communion? They may either be a symbol for communion or may constitute a communion by sacramental influence. What does the blood of Christ mean? Is it the blood which was shed at His death, or does it signify the death itself or its effects? Or does St. Paul perhaps think of the blood as some transfigured heavenly substance? And what does the body of Christ mean? Is it the material body, which Jesus wore on earth, and which hung on the cross, or the immaterial body of the heavenly Lord? Or, again, is it the spiritual body, whose head is Christ, i.e. the Church? And lastly, what does communion of the blood and of the body mean? Is it communion with, i.e. partaking of, the blood and the body, or is it a communion whose symbol, and medium are the blood and the body? In former times all attempts at interpretation distinguished sharply between those various meanings; nowadays there is a tendency towards accepting the different views as being present at the same time in the author’s mind and in the mind of his first readers, not as entirely separate ideas, but all together in fluctuating transition. Grammar and vocabulary are not decisive in such a case. We have to start from the general view of communion which early Christianity held. In this the particular meaning of communion in regard to the Lord’s Supper will be included.

There can be no doubt but that early Christianity had a double conception of fellowship: all members of the Church were in close fellowship one with the other, and at the same time each and all of them were in fellowship with the heavenly Lord. The former conception was the more prominent; but the latter no doubt was the basis of faith. Now in the Lord’s Supper we find both these ideas present. St. Paul complains of the divisions at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:18): the members of the Church do not share their meal in a brotherly way, nor do they wait for one another (i.e. probably for the slaves who could not be present early). Here we have the purely social and moral idea. But St. Paul, in speaking of ‘the Lord’s Supper’ (1 Corinthians 11:20), indicates another point of view, which may be called the religious and sacramental conception: the Lard’s Supper is not only a supper held at the Lord’s command, or a supper held in honour of the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; 1 Corinthians 11:28), but it is also a supper in communion with the Lord, where the Lord is present, participating as the Host. In this way the Lord’s Supper is not only the expression of an existing communion with Him, but it realizes this communion every time it is held. Now the question is: Is it the common supper which constitutes the communion, or are we to think of the particular elements, bread and wine, as producing the communion? We shall try to find an answer by noting some analogies from the comparative history of religions.

W. Robertson Smith started the theory that the origin of all sacrifice lies in the idea of a sacramental communion between the members of a tribe and the tribal deity, which is realized by the common eating of the flesh of the sacrifice and the drinking of its blood. The theory as a complete explanation is inadequate, but we may admit sacramental communion in this sense as one of the different views underlying the practice of sacrifice. In ancient Israel the so-called peace-offering may be taken as illustrating this view. In later Judaism, however, this rite held but a small place, and Rabbinical transcendentalism would not allow any thought of sacramental communion with God the Most High. To adduce analogies taken from primitive culture is of no value. According to Dieterich, primitive man had the idea that, by partaking of the flesh of any sacrificial animal offered to a god, he was partaking of the god himself, and thus entering into sacramental communion with him. This theory has not been proved, and in any case it is beside the point here. We find better analogies in the Hellenism of the Apostolic Age, where we may distinguish two sets of parallels. (a) In the Mysteries certain sacred foods and drinks were used to bring man into communion with the god; (b) on the other hand, many clubs held an annual or monthly supper, which generally took place in a temple, and was at any rate accompanied by religious ceremonies which were to constitute a communion between the members and the god or hero (very often the founder of the club) in whose honour the supper was given. So we have two conceptions of communion: one mystical, individual, magical; the other moral, social, spiritual. In the former, particular food is supposed to bring the partaker into communion with the god physically (or rather hyper-physically), to transfer the essence and virtues of the god into the man and so to make him god (deify him); in the latter, it is the community of the meal which unites all partakers to one another and to the hero in the same sense as marriage or friendship unites distinct personalities.

The evidence of these parallels brings the early Christian conception of the Lord’s Supper into close affinity with the communion of the club suppers, which had their analogy in suppers held in the Jewish synagogues of the Hellenistic Dispersion. The Mysteries did not influence Christian thought before the 2nd century. St. Paul, it is true, starts the idea of an unio mystica between the individual Christian and Christ (Galatians 2:20); this idea is prevalent in his doctrine of baptism (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12); but his predominant line of thought is the other view, which regards the two personalities as apart from each other, and may be described as the idea of ‘fellowship.’ The same may be said about St. John’s view, in spite of all mystical appearances.

Now, when we turn to 1 Corinthians 10:16 again, we see clearly that it is not the bread and the wine that constitute sacramental communion by themselves; nor is communion the partaking of Christ’s material body and blood. Bread and wine in relation to body and blood were given by tradition, but, as far as performing a sacramental communion is concerned, they represent only the common meal, which brings men into communion with the Lord, who through His death entered upon a heavenly existence. From this conception of the transfigured body it is easy to pass to the other one of a spiritual body whose members are the partakers (1 Corinthians 10:17).

This interpretation is further supported by the comparison, made by St. Paul himself, of Jewish and Gentile sacrifices. When he says that the Jews by eating the sacrifices have communion with the altar, he means spiritual communion with God whose representative is the altar (note that the phrase ‘communion with God’ is avoided-a true mark of Rabbinism); and when he says that to partake of a supper connected with a heathen sacrifice brings men into communion with demons, he does not accept the popular idea that the food itself was quasi-infected by demonic influence (he declares formally that to eat such flesh unconsciously does not harm a Christian); but he says; ‘ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils,’ because partaking of the table constitutes a spiritual and moral communion which is exclusive in its effect. See Eucharist.

Literature.-W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, new ed., 1903, RS [Note: S Religion of the Semites (W. Robertson Smith).] 2, 1894; A. Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, 1903; E. Reuterskiöld, Die Entstehung der Speisesacramente (Religionswissenschaftliche Bibliothek, 1912); L. R. Farnell, ‘Religious and Social Aspects of the Cult of Ancestors and Heroes,’ in HJ [Note: J Hibbert Journal.] vii. [1909] 415-435. For memorial suppers, see inscriptions collected by H. Lietzmann, Handbuch zum NT, iii. [1907] 160ff.; E. Lucius, Die Anfänge des Heiligenkults, 1904. For Jewish suppers in synagogues, see E. Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (Schürer).] 4 iii. [1909] 143; O. Schmitz, Die Opferanschauung des späteren Judentums, 1910; W. Heitmüller, Taufe und Abendmahl bei Paulus, 1903; E. v. Dobschütz, ‘Sacrament und Symbol im Urchristentum,’ in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1905, pp. 1-40; F. Dibelius, Das Abendmahl, 1911. Cf. the Commentaries on 1 Cor. by L. I. Rückert (1836), C. F. G. Heinrici (1880), T. C. Edwards (21885), P. W. Schmiedel (1891), H. Lietzmann (1907), P. Bachmann (190521910), J. Weiss (in Meyer9, 1910).

E. Von Dobschütz.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Communion'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/communion.html. 1906-1918.

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Saturday, August 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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