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MERCERSBURG QUARTERLY REVIEW.
ART. I.-WILBERFORCE ON THE EUCHARIST. *
It speaks well, on the whole, for the Christian mind of England, that this important work has met with so favorable a reception from it, as to have run already nearly, or by this time perhaps altogether, to the end of its second edition. The first seems to have been exhausted almost as soon as it came from the press. . Considering the character of the book, this is something significant, and as we say furnishes just cause for satisfaction. Our satisfaction with it need not depend at all on the view we may take of the author's doctrine and argument. Whatever may be thought of this, all who care for theology and religion, which are still at last the greatest interests of the age, ought certainly to be pleased that the subject here discussed by Archdeacon Wilberforce, entering as it does into the inmost sanctuary of Christian science and life, should be found able to engage in this form so much prompt and active attention. There is a style of theology, we know, and a manner of religion, which would fain be done forever with all inquiry and discussion looking in any such direction; a theology and religion, for which the whole doctrine of the sacraments resolves itself into the simplest naturalism and every-day common sense, without any sort of mystery whatever, and in whose eyes accordingly every attempt to make more of them in any way is set down at once for solemn
* THE DOCTRINE OF THE HOLY EUCHARIST. By Robert Isaac Wilberforce, A. M., Archdeacon of the East Riding. London : 1853. Republished in this country by H Hooker, Philadelphia.
stition and nonsense. But this system of thinking carries its sentence of condemnation on its own forehead. Wherever it prevails, Christianity is found to part continually more and more with its proper character, both as life and doctrine. Whether men choose to know it, and lay it to heart, or not, the view that is taken of the Holy Sacraments, as conditioning the view that is taken of the Holy Catholic Church, and through this again the view that is taken of the whole mystery of the Incarnation, must ever be of radical and primary account in all true Christian theology. Especially must this be the case with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which has been regarded from the beginning as the most solemn among all the services of the Church, the foundation of its entire worship, and the beating, living heart, we may say, of its universal life. Not to feel its central significance in such view, and not to take an active interest in the proper solution and settlement of the great questions which it involves as an article of piety and faith, is to stand convicted at once of being in a false position with regard to the grace of the Gospel generally. It is a position as different, as any that can well be imagined, from that of the ancient Church. It is completely at war also with the tone of thought which prevailed, on all sides, in the age of the Reformation. Its affinities are with heresy, rationalism, and unbelief. We have reason to welcome then any work, which, like this of Wilberforce, aims in a serious and earnest way, with powerful argument and comprehensive learning, to call the attention of the Protestant world to this momentous subject; and it is a gratification to know, that in the midst of the downward tendencies of the present time, a work on such subject and of such character should be received, as this has been at least in England, with so much interest and favor. We would be glad, if it could be brought to have still greater circulation in America. Not, as we have already intimated, for the sake of its own particular doctrine, so far as this may be considered peculiar in any view; but for the sake rather of its general object and purpose, the discussion namely of the true meaning of the Holy Eucharist, and the determination of what is to be considered the proper faith of Protestantism with regard to it, as measured by the faith and practice of the early Church.
The author tells us in his Introduction, that the present work is the sequel of his Treatise on the Doctrine of the Incarnation, published a few years since. It was there asserted, that the “ Sacraments are the extension of the Incarnation,” and a chapter was devoted to the consideration of them in this view. But the thought was felt to require more full discusion. Another work followed, accordingly, on the Doctrine of Holy Baptism; and now we have, to complete the plan, this present volume on the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. The same general view of the nature of Christianity, of course, runs through all these three treatises. They go, in a certain respect, to make up a common whole, the view that is taken of the Sacraments being conditioned, as just stated, by the view that is taken of the mystery of the Incarnation. This is a relation, indeed, that must always hold in any theological system. As men think of the Sacraments, so will they be found in every case, on proper inquiry, to think also of the Incarnation. A Grrostic Eucharist or the contrary, implies a Gnostic Christ or the contrary. It must not be supposed, however, in the case before us, that the author's doctrine of the Incarnation and doctrine of the Eucharist are so bound together, as to make this last dependent absolutely on all the details which enter into the first. Some, we know, have taken exception to certain parts of the first work, as involving to their mind a questionable philosophy, which they have pretended to censure at times under the vague and convenient title of pantheism. We do not suppose it to be fairly open in truth to any such charge. But what we wish to say here is, that no philosophical difficulty which any may be pleased to attribute to it in this way, can be regarded as extending to the present work. So far as the author's view of the Eucharist is conditioned by his view of the Incarnation, it is not in any such way as to include the questionable conceptions which have been charged upon him by those of whom we now speak; on the contrary, these are carefully avoided, the consequences being so ordered
here as to refuse rather than to require any sense of that sort for the premises exhibited in the other case. It is simply with the mystery of the Incarnation as a fact, in the form in which it comes before us in the New Testament and in the universal faith of the ancient Christian Church, that the relation is supposed to hold which imparts to the mystery of the Holy Supper, as a parallel fact, its true character and meaning. In the book before us, accordingly, the whole subject is treated as a matter of fact and authority merely, rather than as a matter of theory and speculation. On all points involved in the discussion, the appeal is in the first place to the Scriptures, and then in the next place to the judgment and practice of the Church in the first ages. Not as if this ancient tradition were taken to be an independent and separate authority, co-ordinate with the written word. Scripture is referred to as the paramount authority, but when its meaning is disputed, the judgment of the early ages has been taken,” we are told, “ as being a safer exponent of its real purpose than mere logical arguments.”
“And surely there is no point,” our author goes on to say,
on which the judgment of primitive Christians is of more value than this. For it was a point on which their judgment was entirely unanimous. On many subjects the Church was early rent into parties ; so that at times it was dificult to say what doctrine was predominant. But respecting the Holy Eucharist there existed no symptom of disagreement for eight centuries and a half. No doubt the received doctrine had been earlier disputed, but it was not by dissentients within the Church, but by external opponents. The Gnostics, who dcnied that the Holy Eucharist was the Flesh of our Lord, cut themselves off in the second century from the Church; and the Messalian heretics who denied that this sacred food was either beneficial or injurious, were cut off from it by its public sentence in the fourth. These external assaults throw greater light upon the unanimity which prevailed within. So that Paschasius is the first author who has ever been alleged to have introduced any doctrine, which did not meet with universal approval; and the statements of earlier writers were admitted at the time to express the collective judgment of the whole community. Now those who look to the first Christians merely as witnesses, must allow that they were so far competent judges of the system which was delivered to them, that they could not all have been mistaken respecting its characteristic features. And those who take a higher view of the Church's judgment, and admit it to possess authority in controversies of faith, cannot dispute its decision upon a point on which there was no dissension. For the eight centuries and a half which precede Paschasius, are those also which precede Photius ; they are the period when the East and the West were yet undivided, and when the Church could appeal with the fullest confidence to the promise of a supernatural guidance.”
Pursuing this line of argument, the work devotes itself to the task of proving, “that Christ's presence in the Holy Eucharist is a real presence; that the blessings of the new life are truly bestowed in it through communion with the New Adam; that consecration is a real act, whereby the inward part or thing signified is joined to the outward and visible sign ; and that the Eucharistic oblation is a real sacrifice.” These are considered to be practical points, on which it is possible to produce distinct evidence from Scripture and the primitive Church ; whereas the mode or manner in which the general mystery is brought to pass, whether it be by transubstantiation or in some other way, is supposed not to have come under consideration during the first eight centuries; and for this reason it is not allowed to come here into any particular discussion.
The first point considered is the consecration of the elements. The words of institution are found plainly to imply, that the bread and wine used in the Eucharist are made to receive a new quality or character, by God's blessing, by which they become distinguished from all other bread and wine, and acquire a fitness for the use here made of them which they would not otherwise have. The separation is not merely nominal, something that is of force only in the minds of those who take part in the service; it exists objectively in the elements them