Discovering the Real Presence (Part 2)

Excerpted from This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence, by Mark P. Shea, available from Christendom College Press

If there is anything a good Protestant suspects, it is an intermediary between us and the grace of Christ. Such a thing seems contrary to the very idea of boldly approaching the Throne. It carries the aroma of bureaucracy, waiting lines, and paperwork. Simple, believing prayer ought to be “means of grace” enough, I thought. Anything else — and particularly any ritual — seemed to constitute earning salvation and rejecting the finished work of Christ.

This difficulty is, of course, a classic one. It is often used as an illustration of how Christians can lose the simplicity of the Gospel and become enmeshed in a false spirit of circumcision like the Galatians. In the Protestantism of my roots, the notion of the Eucharist (or, for that matter, anything else) as a means of grace looked exactly like the sort of human tradition condemned by Christ. Its origin, we were certain, lay in a neglect of the Word of God which had allowed “religion” to creep in like fossilizing sediment and change the living faith to stone. Naturally then, the only solution to the problem was a return to our foundations and a renewing work of the Spirit by the Scriptures. To reverse the situation we must, it was said, let go of “the traditions of the elders” and hold fast to the commands of God.

So hold fast I did. And indeed the Scriptures proved to be, in many ways, precisely the tonic I had hoped. In their light I saw not only my sin but God’s atoning grace. Through them I tasted Christ and experienced His revelation. By continually steeping my mind in their truth I found myself progressively set free by the Spirit to love God more fully. And not only I, but millions of Christians know the same reality. Here, I thought, was proof that the Living God is encountered by faith alone. Such simplicity seemed to dispel the need for any “means of grace….” Until, ironically, I recalled my pastor’s exegesis of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6.

Do not misunderstand. My pastor was certainly no exponent of Catholic theology. Rather, in classic 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 then reminded us that a Kingdom populated by milk-fed “fat babies” is not the goal of Our Lord’s command to be like children. We must not imagine, he would say, that unenlightened “Me and Jesus” Christianity bore any resemblance to the apostolic preaching. Instead, he urged, we must mature in Christ by “eating His word” and relying on the grace of God working in and through fellow Bible-believing Christians. Only thus, said he, could we hope to grow.

Now none of this was, in itself, shocking or new. But juxtaposed with my doubts about means of grace, the effect was dramatic. 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 were 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 dawning awareness threw new light on my thoughts. Looking again into Scripture I began to see a God Who, so far from shunning any means of grace, instead nearly always manifests Himself through what He has made. Moreover, the Bible emphatically denies the demand that this manifestation be strictly verbal. Psalm 19, for example, testifies to the loud praise given God by the silent, wheeling heavens. And Paul agrees to this, declaring the primal form of God’s revelation to be the wordless, brute fact of the Creation itself. Again and again throughout the Bible we see God working in and through, not only words, but tempests, hands, armies, shepherd’s staffs, whirlwinds, muddy rivers — even skeletal remains! And all this is capped by the scandal of the Incarnation: Jesus Christ — the ultimate means of grace.

At this point it may be asked whether I am indulging in a vague pantheism and denying Jesus His place as sole Mediator of the New Covenant. Not at all. Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:5, clearly says He is. But this does not stop the apostle from speaking of his own “administration of God’s grace.” Nor does it stifle his declaration that the manifold wisdom of God will be made known through the church. Still less does it keep Christ’s power from flowing, not only through believers, but even through inanimate objects such as clothes and handkerchiefs. Thus we may, in Paul’s phrase, describe all Creation as an earthen vessel intended to show forth the glory of God by its very earthiness. God and His redeemed Creation are neither identical nor enemies, but complementary. For this reason, Scripture neither blurs the distinction between God and Nature nor pits Christ’s mediatorship against any means of grace He may use. The Sovereign Lord is utterly free to meet us either verbally, as in prayer and Scripture, or non-verbally, in the consecrated bread and wine. For He is, after all, the Word made flesh, not merely the Word made word.

Seeing this, I knew that Objection 4 [“the Eucharistic Real Presence is a form of idolatry and salvation by works”] had shot its bolt. Three of the four pegs on which it hung were already yanked from the wall; now the fourth was gone as well. For I had charged that ritual “means of grace” equaled “works religion.” But I had instead found that God manifests Himself via many means of grace, including ritual. And I still had no solid basis to claim that Christ did not mean exactly what He said when He told the Apostles, “This is My Body. This is My Blood.”

Therefore, I concluded, to call the Real Presence a form of salvation by works was to again beg the question. Since I had no shred of evidence that Christ’s words should be taken at something other than face value, I could not declare the Eucharist a false means of grace. If it is the Body and Blood of Christ (which I had not refuted), then it is par excellence a channel of blessing through which God comes to us — a means of grace. And to receive grace in any form is to reject, not sanctify, the vanity of earned salvation. Thus rather than burying a dead work I was forced to concede the living truth of this Catholic teaching. For when Objection 4 collapsed, so did my entire case against the Real Presence.


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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