V1N3A5 Sacramental Goldilocks

Sacramental Goldilocks

a look at Lutheran liturgical practice by John W. Berg 

It is “lex orandi, lex credendi” or is it “lex credendi, lex orandi?” Yes. For those who haven’t followed this debate, there was a minor brouhaha in confessional Lutheran circles over which came first, the doctrinal chicken or the liturgical egg.  Which is truer, that the law of praying (lex orandi) establishes the law of believing (lex credendi) or does the law of believing establish the law of praying? The argument is over whether doctrine (believing) informs the liturgy (praying) or whether the liturgy informs and thus defines doctrine. The battle pitted systematicians against liturgiologists. It seemed to this author that the former misunderstood what the latter were saying, granting some of the latter may have overstated the case, which I don’t think was the case.


Should doctrine inform liturgy? Yes. “I believed, therefore I have spoken.” Should doctrine be proved by the liturgy? Well, no, but does doctrine often appear in the liturgy before it is fully formulated, articulated and codified? Well, yes, which, I believe, is what the liturgiologists were saying, and thus it was a bit of a tempest in a teapot as far as I could see.  I am willing to be corrected if there was more to it.


The expression in question dates to the 5th century and is attributed to a monk, Prosper of Aquitaine, and only relates to the current uses (or misuses, if you will) in a transferred sense. Prosper was battling semi-Pelagianism, which was being defended by another monk, Vincent of LĂ©rins, who noted in his Commonitorium that semi-Pelagianism was the belief which was held ubique, semper, et omnibus, “everywhere, always and by all,” the so-called Vincentian Canon. In opposition, Prosper appealed to Scripture, in which we are directed to pray for the conversion of men. Thus this lex orandi, this law of praying, shows that conversion is the work of God, and thus establishes the lex credendi, the law of believing, that is, that God creates believers, fully, not semi, so to speak. Ironically then, the dictum should read lex orandi, lex credendi,the law of praying establishes the law of believing, which supports the view that Scripture informs liturgy, which view is defended by those who say it ought to read lex credendi, lex orandi. 2


Although not originally formulated for this purpose, the expression has found its way into popular usage, with all confessional Lutherans confessing that our doctrine ought to be, and usually is, reflected in liturgy. This is only natural and is as true for the heterodox prayer (meaning, practice, hymns, prayers etc.) as it is for the Lutheran prayer.  And so cracks in the liturgical wall may signal shifts hidden deep in the doctrinal foundation.


Can I Get a Witness?


Taking this one step further, can the lex orandi affect the  lex credendi?  That is, can a liturgical practice not simply reflect a belief, but can it influence and change belief.  In other words, to use the 5th century argument, can praying like a Baptist change your Lutheran view of conversion?  That’s a no brainer. Pray like Billy Graham that the Lord Jesus Christ come into your heart (musical versions of which we often hear) every Sunday and see how long it takes before you have Arminianized your congregation to the belief that conversion is decision. I will also introduce into evidence my “personal testimony.” The parish I pastor was previously plagued with putrescent Protestant music. It’s Reformed/Arminian Christology and sacramentalogy greatly influenced a number of congregants, as evidenced by those who argued the Real Presence and publicly promoted a number of aberrant beliefs. (Although a case can be made that these views were previously held and our weak “prayer” attracted adherents.) Even an ostensibly benign and utilitarian task like the fractio panis (breaking of the bread) during the recitation of the Verba may support (or signal) an aberrant theology. Weak practice weakens the faith, the fides quae and faith, the fides qua


So what of the practice of infrequent communion3, also known as every other Sunday or first Sunday of the month and variations of the same? Can this practice adversely affect the faith and our faith?


A number of years ago a letter appeared in the Wisconsin Synod lay magazine Northwestern Lutheran4 which read, “Why don’t Lutherans have communion every Sunday like the Catholics do? The Bible says do this often.” The answer given was as disappointing as expected. (It is printed in full in the footnotes.) In it, the writer gave a brief nod to the connection between doctrine and practice and concluded


Lutherans therefore, generally celebrated the Lord’s Supper more than the Reformed (a commemoration), and less than Catholics (sic) (a sacrifice that continues the work of paying for sin).


While the reason was given why the Reformed and Romanists do what they do, unfortunately (or fortunately), the reason why these Lutherans don’t, wasn’t. (My guess is that it is good policy not to embarrass the troops in the field.) At best, we learned “why don’t Lutherans celebrate the Sacrament only once to four times a year (any more)” and “why aren’t Lutherans obligated to celebrate the Sacrament every day?” However, even if the misinformed appeal Paul’s “often”5 came from a law mindset, a parish pastor, unlike the professor, would see in this query a desire for the Sacrament.  Not surprising to this author was the fact that nowhere was the evangelical Lutheran practice as outlined in the Lutheran Confessions noted, as, I suspect, it would cast into a bad light these latter day Lutherans who allow voter’s assemblies to determine in advance the need of the individual burdened conscience. Rare in Wisconsin Synod discussions on the issue of frequency is this confession,


Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved (AP XXIV 1).


Unaware readers, I believe, were led to think that Lutherans are the sacramental Goldilocks of Christendom, “not too little, not too much, we’ve got it ju---st right.” At any rate, that is conventional WELS wisdom, having a surfeit of the sacrament is not good. For this is how their practice is defended by the catechists and so what faithful believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi in real life. Don’t believe me? Go to any congregation where an every Sunday Sacrament is not practiced or has been advocated, and ask for opinions on having an every Sunday service celebration. You know what will be said in opposition to this (aside from those singing a “Te Deum”). “People will take it for granted,” “It won’t be special,” and my favorite, because the editors of the Motley Magpie have heard this quite a bit since the first issue of The Motley Magpie flew into circulation - “you don’t have to have the Sacrament every Sunday, the Bible doesn’t say how often,” despite the fact that the Magpie didn’t say that.  (An aside to those teachers of the church and others, who have said as much, I offer this from Mark Twain “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”)


Celebration or Reception?


Rationales offered for arguing against the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins being offered every Lord’s day with due catechization, are a) to imply that someone is making a legal prescription of it, or b) to suggest that people don’t want/need it. Neither is true. What is ironic about all this is that those who charge “Legalism!” when an every Sunday celebration is encouraged are those who make and defend legal prescriptions (once a month etc.) of how often one may receive the Sacrament!  


This indicates an ignorance about the important distinction between “celebration” and “reception.”  The Wisconsin Synod seminary professor who penned the above answer expressed surprise at this author’s distinction between “offering” or celebrating the sacrament and “receiving” the same. Celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday does not mean one must receive it every Sunday. Celebrating the Sacrament is not forcing people to receive the Sacrament or making a law of how often they are to receive it.  This is pure, pure Gospel. No one must receive anymore than one is entitled by his own merits to receive this blessing.  


What is mandated, however, is that preachers make the Sacrament available to those “who desire it” (AC XXIV), that is why preachers have been “put in their place” that is, ordained. To force reception is to institute a “new murdering of souls” (LC V 42), to deny reception to those who desire it is a dereliction of duty (SC Preface 21-27). Let me add that no voter’s assembly has the right to tyrannize souls by forbidding the Sacrament to souls desiring it.Can you imagine Dr. Luther’s judgment on a voter’s assembly who would dare to do this? Majority vote be damned, I should think.


But should some desire the Sacrament on a day other than a Sunday, Mass is to be held, as devotion and time permit; for in this connection one cannot lay down either a law or a limit (Emphasis added).


Yet the “too much (FOR YOU), not good (FOR YOU)” view persists. Why? Well, if we absolve these teachers for a moment from saying it that bluntly, who, then, is the culprit? - this practice, which pastors squirm to explain when the question, which every teacher has been asked, is posed, “If the Sacrament is what you say it is, then why don’t you celebrate it every Sunday?” The answer, “we don’t have to” is not an answer to that question but another. The answer “people don’t want or need it” is wrong, incomplete, misleading and false. The answer, “it’s our custom,” is a dodge. The answer, “the Reformed do it less, the Roman Catholics do it every day, we do it more or less,” deserves a big “so what.”   Translation for all of this? “Too much (FOR YOU), not good (FOR YOU).”


An often heard and pious sounding answer is, “we don’t want to offend the visitors.” That answer was given to a family member (who repeatedly asked for the Sacrament) when she asked the question of the pastor of the Wisconsin Synod church she stop attending. She responded, “we offend only every other week?”  The answer to that was, “well, it is the regular visitors we don’t want to offend.”8 Huh? The honest answers which one doesn’t wish to give? “It takes too much time,” and “don’t know, never thought about it,” or (well, there goes my pension) “our churches have a deficient practice, which (gulp) may mean I am a deficient teacher.”  I was.


The only legitimate objection, which holds for the time of congregational catechesis, however long that may be, is “we’ve never done this before.” This objection - so dismissively parodied - is the layman’s legitimate defense against the capriciousness of preachers, those liturgically informed or not, especially “innovative ones,” and ought never be mocked, only catechized. Patience must always be exercised with the misinformed weak, but not with the misinformed strong.


Sermon vs. Sacrament?


Let’s face it, infrequent communion implies one of two things, a) The Sacrament is not as important as the sermon (or hymns, or offering or the video), or b) it is more important than the sermon.  To the first I ask, when did this “tension” and disconnect between the preached Word and preaching in the Sacrament arise? Is it not a Protestant syncopation, in which Sacraments are reduced to mere symbols of God’s grace (Reformed) or to divine obligations (Arminian) and thus are subordinate, dispensable niceties?  The Sacrament is the Word made flesh, the Leiblich Wort (the bodily Word) which gives us the body (Leib) and blood of Christ. Doctor Luther


It is the Word (I say) which makes and distinguishes this Sacrament, so that it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, the body and blood of Christ. For it is said: Accedat verbum ad elementum, et fit sacramentum. If the word be joined to the element, it becomes a Sacrament. This saying of St. Augustine is so properly and so well put that he has scarcely said anything better. (LC V 10)


Dr. Luther also addresses the absurd notion that one is denigrating preaching by suggesting that a service with the Sacrament is something more than a service without and by suggesting that the Sacrament is more than a nice, but mere redundancy, as he writes about the preaching of the Sacrament “Against the Fanatics.”


Therefore we too are preaching the death of Christ according to the words; “Do this in remembrance of me.” However, a distinction has to be made here. When I preach his death, it is in a public sermon in the congregation, in which I am addressing myself to no one individually; whoever grasps it, grasps it. But when I distribute the Sacrament, I designate it for the individual who is receiving it; I give him Christ’s body and blood that he may have forgiveness of sins, obtained through his death and preached in the congregation. This is something more than the congregational sermon; for although the same thing is present in the sermon as in the sacrament, here there is the advantage that it is directed at definite individuals. In the sermon one does not point out or portray any particular person, but in the sacrament it is given to you and to me in particular, so that the sermon comes to be our own. 9


As to the issue of “offending the visitors” and tucking the Sacrament away, Luther continues in this section


The Christians alone are to partake of the sacrament, but at the same time they are to take thought that their number may increase. Therefore one should shout it out publicly and hold such public commemoration, that even those who do not yet know of it will attend. That they hold such commemoration privately is worthless. It should take place publicly before the congregation, and there should be preaching at the mass at all times.


Again, how ironic that the objections, “too often, less special,” “taking it for granted,” or “only when I really need it,” as if the Sacrament were the good china, is setting the Sacrament above the Word! The very thing the editors of The Motley Magpie are accused of doing!


Let me address one final argument that is made when the encouragement to offer the Sacrament every Lord’s Day is given, the confrontational, “this will break your neck”10, challenge which is laid down, “Well, then, why don’t you have it every day, huh, huh?”  Let me answer it this way, “Go to your Zwinglians.” 11




The Reverend Joel Brandos wrote, “Ideas have consequences and they are not necessarily what we intend.”  Infrequent communion and the varying attempts to defend the practice (short of insufficient catechization) have backed up into this Wisconsin Synod like a clogged sewer backs up into your basement.  Lex orandi, lex credendi in the feculent sense. On page 20 of Christian Worship, we find in bold print with border this rubric, “When there is no communion, the service continues on page 25.”12 Though not another “Black Rubric” is not the unintended message, “pages 21-24, not that important”?


For the Confessors, the frequency of celebration had a direct correlation to their understanding of it.


Now, forasmuch as the Mass is such a giving of the Sacrament, we hold one communion every holy-day, and, if any desire the Sacrament, also on other days, when it is given to such as ask for it.  And this custom is not new in the Church (AC XXIV 35-36).


Do not interpret the use of this quote as the reason why Lutherans should work towards an every Sunday communion, (they did, we should) or this rant as how one goes about the catechization of a congregation. For that I quote the blessed Doctor Chemnitz,


the rule about when and how often one should go to Communion must be taken from the teaching about the fruit and power of the Eucharist, namely, when and as often as we recognize that we have need of this power. 13


Increased celebrations are not the answer, but hearts burdened and in need require them. 


The inveterate practice of some 95% of Wisconsin Synod churches has consequences.14 The much ballyhooed conservatism of the Wisconsin Synod hurts it here as it does elsewhere.  One can only hope that its pastors honestly ask themselves, “does our practice truly reflect the faith and/or has it affected the faith? Yes or no and why?” The answer to those questions will indicate whether or not this blessing has become for you something other than what our Lord Jesus Christ instituted on the night he was betrayed. §



The Reverend John Berg is the pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church in FremontCalifornia. This article appeared in the July 2003 issue.




The fuller quote, “ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.”

I am indebted to the Reverend Fr. Thomas Winger’s article “Lex Orandi Revisited” in Logia, Vol. IV, No. 1 for these insights.

Staggered celebrations (early service one week, late the next) are not a corrective to the problems cited here.

4 Professor John Brug. Volume 85:1, January 1998.  The whole Q/A is printed here.

Q: Why don't Lutherans have communion every Sunday like the Catholics do? The Bible says do this often.
A: The words "Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" imply that we should celebrate the Lord's Supper often, but they do not define "often"--daily? weekly? monthly? How frequently churches celebrate communion is, therefore, a matter of custom, but also reflects to a degree the different beliefs the churches have about the Lord's Supper.
     Reformed churches do not believe that the Lord's Supper is a true means of grace that gives forgiveness of sins or that we receive Christ's body and blood along with the bread and wine. Because they view the Lord's Supper as a commemorative meal, most Reformed churches celebrate it relatively infrequently, in some cases just once a year on Maundy Thursday.
     In contrast, Roman Catholics view the Lord's Supper as a sacrifice that presents again Christ's  sacrifice for sin. Masses may be said, that is, communion may be celebrated, even for the benefit of the dead in purgatory. Priests, therefore, often celebrated mass without a congregation to receive it. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church says "the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life." Most Catholic churches, therefore, offer it very frequently, even daily.
     Lutherans believe the Lord's Supper offers forgiveness of sins as a result of the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross but that it cannot benefit the dead, nor should it be celebrated apart from a congregation to receive it (private communion for the sick being an exception). Lutherans, therefore, generally celebrated the Lord's Supper more than the Reformed (a commemoration), and less than Catholics (a sacrifice that continues the work of paying for sin).
     Formerly, many Lutheran churches in 
America celebrated the Lord's Supper once a month or less. This relatively infrequent celebration was at least in part a reaction to Catholicism's overemphasis on the sacrament at the expense of preaching. Lutheran churches tended to center on preaching as the "source and summit" of Christian worship. Recently, however, WELS congregations have tended to celebrate the Lord's supper more frequently. Many congregations now have communion twice a month. A small percentage observe it weekly.

5 The Greek oJsavki" ejavn has the sense of “whenever.” Oddly the author does not correct this, but agrees with this interpretation.

6 The defense, “well, if they really want it I can give it to them after church,” is hardly corrective and implies this is not the normal procedure, as it is not.

7 The Works of Martin Luther Vol. VI Muhlenberg, Phila 1932 p. 63.

8 The early church’s dismissal of catechumens & non-members had a different rationale than worries about “offending.” The modern day early dismissal, in which communicants are given the option to opt out and non-members are allowed to stay, is hardly the ancient practice and has little to commend itself.

9 AE 36 p. 348f. Emphasis added.

10 Zwingli to Luther on what John 6:63 would to do Luther’s argument. Luther’s reply? “Don’t boast too much. Necks do not break that easily here. You are in Hesse, not in Switzerland.”

11 “Therefore [the Sacrament] is given for a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so as not to fall back in such a battle. “ LC V 24.

12 Consider historic Lutheranism’s “when there are no communicants.” Cf. Evangelical Lutheran Hymnody.

13 Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, CPH, 1978 p. 330.

14 A 1995 survey noted that 5% of Wisconsin Synod churches observe the Sacrament weekly (most in 1 of several services). 27% only monthly.