Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Eucharistic Presence of Christ in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Protestant Popular Piety: Toward a Catholic-Protestant Rapprochement?

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Eucharistic Presence of Christ in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Protestant Popular Piety: Toward a Catholic-Protestant Rapprochement?

Article excerpt


The eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation facilitated a mystical experience for the believer through participation in the body and blood of Jesus throughout the Middle Ages. Late medieval hagiographic accounts relate the close association between drinking, eating, and tasting the elements of the Supper and union with God years before the official status of the doctrine was solidified by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 C.E. Caroline Walker Bynum noted that, for medieval saints, "The eucharist was ... a moment at which they were released into ecstatic union; it was also a moment at which the God with whom they joined was supremely human because supremely vulnerable and fleshly." (1) In one example the participant was perceived to have actually eaten the hand of Christ who was serving the meal. (2) Partaking of the material was to participate in the divine, for the divine was manifest in and through the physical--to eat the host, the humanity and divinity of Christ, was to "eat" God. (3) This relationship between transubstantiation and the experience of Christ's presence appears firmly established by the time the controversy over the interpretation of Hoc est corpus meum began to rear its head at the advent of the Protestant Reformation. [should this be Hoc corpus meus est?]

From the sixteenth century until today the issue of Christ's presence in the sacrament has been a key issue in ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. This debate has been conducted basically in terms of doctrinal positions, expressed in official language. For instance, as a result of discussions with the Catholic Conference of Bishops (U.S.A. and Canada) the Christian Reformed Church of North America (C.R.C.N.A.) affirmed at its 2006 Synod that, in contrast to the "inaccurate" description of the Catholic Mass in the Heidelberg Catechism, the "[o]fficial Roman Catholic teaching neither denies the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ, nor constitutes idolatry." (4) This decision removed a barrier to further discussion, and the Synod acknowledged with gratitude that all parties involved desired further Reformed-Catholic dialogue on the matter of the eucharist. (5) However, the Synod also acknowledged that significant differences remain between the Roman Catholic and Reformed understanding of the sacrament. These disparities, which centered on christological presence in the sacrament, focus on official ecclesiastical positions couched in doctrinal language.

In this essay I argue that progress toward rapprochement in ReformedCatholic ecumenical discourse on concepts of Christ's presence in the eucharist may prove fruitful if considered in the context of historical popular piety--a piety theologically informed but less preoccupied with limiting doctrinal formulations. Perceptions of Christ's presence in the eucharist as experienced by the early modern Dutch Reformed laity share much in common with perceptions in Catholic sources, as described by Bynum, and may provide fertile sources for new efforts in ecumenical dialogue. This essay begins with a brief review of traditional historiographical reconstructions of Reformed perceptions of christological presence in the eucharist and suggests new subject material and a new locus in which to revise this historiography. Next, I review Calvin's ideas that provide the theological background to seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed formulations. Following this, I consider lay experience and concepts through the sermons and poetry of two popular clergy, Willem Teellinck and Jacobus Revius, and, based on these readings, offer a number of characteristics in popular Reformed piety with respect to perceptions of Christ's presence in the sacrament that may find congruence with Catholic expressions and perceptions.

I. A Reevaluation of the Traditional Historiography on Reformed Eucharistic Presence

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical reconstructions of Protestant eucharistic Christology have inaccurately portrayed the Reformers' categorical rejection of transubstantiation as a rejection of any sense of an affective presence of Christ. …

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