2014 is coming to an end, and that means it’s time for the lists of “top stories of the year.” While the news outlets are talking about Ferguson, Ebola, ISIS, and Malaysia Flight 370, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the past year in Bible study to try to identify a standout concept—something that really made a difference in my perspective.
My nominee for 2014: the distinction between fides qua creditur (“the faith which believes”) and fides quae creditur (“the faith which is believed”), which we covered in a Bible study on closed communion. (Also important in that study: the related distinction between vertical and horizontal dimensions of communion.)
I should note that I’ve never been 100% persuaded about closed communion. The name itself sounds a bit inhospitable, and it seems odd to welcome visitors enthusiastically (as in the announcements: “We’re happy you’re here! Please come again!”) yet exclude them from the Lord’s Supper.
In the official words of the church—the communion liturgies, hymns, and Luther’s Catechism—we learn that the Lord’s Supper is a gift, one that confirms the forgiveness of sins and strengthens our faith. It’s a gift for all who believe, who confess their sins, repent, and believe that their sins are forgiven through Christ’s body and blood, which are truly present in the bread and wine.
Shouldn’t everyone who shares those basic beliefs about Christ be able to participate?
Well, no, say many churches, including my own. I’ve heard the arguments for closed communion many times, but I started to see things differently when I learned about the distinction between fides qua creditur, our personal saving faith, and fides quae creditur, the Faith—the body of doctrine—that we profess to believe. As Rev. Klemet Preus put it: “We could say that Christians have faith in the faith.”
It’s that latter sense of faith—the shared profession— that’s at issue with closed communion. When our liturgies address a “you” (e.g., “Dear friends in Christ! In order that you may receive this holy Sacrament worthily…”), the you, I’m told, is not just anyone listening but rather people who share a unified profession of faith (i.e., members of a particular church or denomination).
And that brings us to the vertical and horizontal dimension of communion. To this point, I’ve seen communion largely in the vertical sense, as something between a particular believer and God, involving personal faith. I haven’t seen it so much in the horizontal sense—as a profession of unity of faith (fides quae), which is attested, for instance, in 1 Cor. 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Both dimensions are important.
I still have questions about what properly constitutes the fides quae (Core teachings? Absolutely everything?), but for now, it’s enough to have a better understanding of why we do what we do, and to be able to explain our practice to those visitors we love having in church.
ART: Hermann Wislicenus, Die Fürsten des Schmalkaldischen Bundes empfangen das Abendmahl unter beiden Gestalten (1880). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.