By Bryce P Wandrey
I have been interested in the question involving who should receive the Sacrament of the Altar for some time now. And I have been most interested in Lutheranism’s understanding of this question for at least two reasons: 1) Because I was born, raised and educated in the Lutheran tradition (namely that of the Missouri Synod within the Lutheran tradition), and 2) Because I found myself internally (and then externally) struggling with both the correct theology and practice proposed by the Lutheran (most specifically that of the Missouri Synod) tradition.
Part of this interest has led me to write and publish an article (with Lutheran Forum which will appear in the Spring issue of this year) on Luther’s understanding of who worthily receives the sacrament entitled “For the worthy reception, faith is necessary…” I find in Luther the same three principles of worthy (and unworthy) reception which are witnessed in two “Theological Fragments” of Martin Chemnitz on this site (here and here).
I write all of this to preface a question that I have about an article written by Joel D Biermann in Concordia Theological Quarterly 72 (2008) entitled “Step Up to the Altar: Thinking About the Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper” (pgs 151-62). Biermann begins by quoting from Luther’s Small Catechism (on pgs 151-52). Directly after that quotation he writes:
That is it. Everything we need is right there. Luther gives us what we need to know about the Sacrament. Satis est. It is enough. Or is it? Well, that depends. Did Luther provide the sufficient and complete answer for the Christian contemplating her right reception of Holy Communion? Absolutely. It is an issue of faith; simple trust in the promise of Christ and thirst for forgiveness makes one a worthy recipient. Period. Luther accomplished his purpose: he provided instruction for the simple believer. But, do Luther’s beautifully wrought words provide the sufficient and complete answer for the congregation or the pastor seeking understanding about who should commune at the altar entrusted to them? Certainly not. That is another question altogether. In the first instance the question being addressed is, “Am I worthy to be at the altar receiving the Sacrament?” The second situation, however, asks a different question entirely: “Who should be communing at our altar?” Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism provides part – but not all- of the answer to that question.
Without going into the rest of the article (which can happen on this thread) I would like to inquire into the distinction here made. Is it a valid or false one? Is it a valid distinction for a pastor or congregation to refuse communion to a Christian who is worthy to receive under the guidelines of Biermann’s (or Luther’s and Chemnitz’s for that matter) first question? If someone is indeed worthy according to the first “situation” but the second “situation” excludes them from communing (according to Biermann’s rationale), isn’t the distinction rendered false for this very reason? How can I be worthy to receive the Sacrament but not receive the Sacrament at your altar?