A Brief History of Communion: Contemporary Christianity

This post is the final in our series on the history of communion.

The Contemporary Church

In general, the five major Reformation views on Communion persist today, although with literally tens of thousands of denominations worldwide, explanations of Communion can vary greatly among contemporary churches. Adding further complexity is the “rediscovery” of worldwide Christianity in the 20th century, which has led to an influx of interest in and co-option of Eastern articulations of Communion. Particularly influential has been the Orthodox expression of Communion, where the Eucharist is confessed to mysteriously be the body and blood of Christ without reliance on philosophical categories. Similarly important has been the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II shift to celebrating Mass in the vernacular, which has enlivened Catholic understanding of Communion and spurred on ecumenical dialogue on the sacraments.

For many contemporary American Christians, the different articulations of Eucharistic theology throughout the history of Christianity remain unknown. American Protestants—even those from denominations historically articulating Consubstantial, Reformed, or Via Media views—have increasingly adopted Memorialist explanations and practices of Communion, a reality that is true even within some denominations which formally affirm theologies of real or special presence. Wherever one stands on the Communion spectrum, this reality underscores the need for continued education (dare I say catechesis?) within Christian churches of all forms on what Communion is and how is ought to be practiced.

Ancient Christian and Reformation era articulations of the Eucharist convey a depth of theological understanding and insight which seem to be lacking for many Christians. Robust Eucharistic theology speaks to the reality of Christ’s Incarnational presence in the world, the sacrament as a tangible means of forgiveness and grace in a broken world, and emphasizes the continuing mysterious work of God in the lives of his people. As Christians proclaim the Kingdom of God, we would be wise to again swim in the deep waters of Eucharistic theology that a history of Communion provides for us.

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