In this chapter review of the Teaching of Joseph Fielding Smith (JFS), we shall be focusing on the Sacrament of Communion. This chapter of JFS’s teaching is particularly interesting given the overlap of teaching between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism in terms of the importance of the sacrament and the necessity of the sacrament as part of the life of the ‘church’. In this chapter, we shall focus on the surprising similarities and the key differences between the Christian and Mormon teaching in regards to the sacrament. For the purposes of this review, we shall be working from the basis of Chrstian sacramental theology of the memorialist tradition rather than the consubstationalist and transsubstantionist traditions. This choice has been made based on the prevailing opinions of the contributors to this column and as the memorialist tradition and the LDS tradition on the sacrament are more similar than the other two.
It is important to state at this point some of the things we will not be discussing. We will not be discussing the use of water in the Mormon sacrament, as it is a peripheral issue. Whilst it is not the wine that the Gospels or 1 Corinthians state should be used in the sacrament of communion, the use of grape juice/ribena/other wine substitute by Protestant churches since the eighteenth century without it causing major theological dispute so to focus on that would be at the least not generous and at worst, unfair. We shall also not be discussing the definition of ‘sacrament’ in this article. Whilst the term ‘sacrament’ is not necessarily transferable between Christianity and Mormonism (ordinance and sacrament could be considered more applicable in terms of transferability), there is no dispute that Christian and Mormon theology both would state emphatically that communion was instituted by Jesus Christ himself that all who obey him should follow.
Before we go into the differences between the two theologies, there are some important points that JFS makes that we must agree with him on. To not do so would be disingenuous. The questions that JFS raises at the bottom of page 97 and the whole of page 98 about how one should approach the sacrament of communion and what it represents are ones that orthodox Christians should ask ourselves. These questions are not rooted in our disagreements on grace and works. The need to address our attitudes and our walk with God before partaking in communion is very much necessary. JFS’s reference to the ‘disrespect’ of the sacrament on page 100 is also something that must strike a cord with the orthodox Christian as well. I have been in similar situations where communion has been treated trivially and without as much of a second thought to what Jesus endured on the cross for us, without as much as a second thought for the fact that he died in our place. This is something that should concern Christians. These two aspects of sacramental theology make orthodox Christianity and Mormonism look very similar if not the same. The fact that these discussions do seem to make Christianity and Mormonism look the same on the surface are part of the reason why this blog exists, to show what are the clear differences between Christianity and Mormonism, which dictate that only one can be called the truth.
There are some clear differences though between the Christian and Mormon theology of sacrament and communion and to explore those, we shall be looking at the scriptures of invocation.
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.” [D&C 20:77.] (Also found in Moroni 5:2)
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them (Mark 14:22-24 NIV)
And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14:22-24 KJV)
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NIV)
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 KJV)
It could be said that I have potentially over quoted here in terms of scripture verses but I believe that it is important to note the subtle differences between the Doctrine and Covenants invocation and the invocations for communion in the New Testament. It is because of this that I have included the King James Version and the New International Version for our comparisons, due to the language of the Doctrine and Covenants passage being closer to the King James translation.
The subtle difference within D&C 20:77 compared to the `Mark and 1 Corinthians passages is the phrase ‘always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them’. The wording of the D&C passage is of course completely different but the doctrine does look very similar up until the point this phrase enters. Throughout whichever liturgical rite you see within Christendom, there is no mentioning of such a phrase or such a theology. One must repent before communion that is true. One must consider one’s walk with God before partaking in communion, that is true. One must reflect upon the sacrifice of God the Son upon the cross before communion. To promise to keep all the commandments and take the ‘name of the Son upon yourself?’ Not only is this not in the New Testament passages or in the history of communion throughout the ages, but it also sets a standard that is so impossibly high. The reflection upon the cross at communion should remind us that none can attain atonement for our sins by our own means. By assuming the unbearable burden at the table where we remember that Christ took that burden upon himself, assuming that burden is a sign that we believe that we must add works to the work and grace of Christ. Such sacramental theology supports salvation by works.
Such theology can be seen on pages 101-102 of JFS’s chapter on the sacrament in the following quotation:
I want to ask you a few questions, and I speak, of course, to all the members of the Church. Do you think a man who comes into the sacrament service in the spirit of prayer, humility, and worship, and who partakes of these emblems representing the body and blood of Jesus Christ, will knowingly break the commandments of the Lord? If a man fully realizes what it means when he partakes of the sacrament, that he covenants to take upon him the name of Jesus Christ and to always remember him and keep his commandments, and this vow is renewed week by week—do you think such a man will fail to pay his tithing? Do you think such a man will break the Sabbath day or disregard the Word of Wisdom? Do you think he will fail to be prayerful, and that he will not attend his quorum duties and other duties in the Church? It seems to me that such a thing as a violation of these sacred principles and duties is impossible when a man knows what it means to make such vows week by week unto the Lord and before the saints.
JFS seems to start with some good principles but it seems to manifest out into some more works based theology. It is always the aim of all Christian men and women who partake in the sacrament of communion that they will not ‘knowingly break the commandments of the Lord’. The vow is made with all sincerity but the consciousness of sin is always there with every Christian. The Christian knows that sin is only one step away due to humanity’s innate sinfulness. Communion is a recognition of our need to rely on the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. For a man to reflect upon communion and come to a place where it is impossible for one to break the commandments is impossible. The burden is too high. Not only does it say that the grace that we remember in the sacrament is not enough, but also it rather explicitly states that one can actually achieve and work towards a goal that is actively impossible, that goal being not breaking a commandment week by week and attain salvation/attaining the celestial kingdom through works as well as grace. The emphasis is on perfection rather than a recommitment to grace and the sacrifice made by Jesus to forgive our sins. Given that the Moroni 5:2 verse as well as Moroni 4:3 are the sacramental prayers of blessings and one of the few ‘prayers of liturgical use’ in Mormon theology and practice, it also makes it quite clear that there is no prescribed act of penitence of confession as part of the sacrament of communion. Mainstream Christianity, no matter the theology of what occurs on the communion table, includes a period of reflection and/or prayers of confession and reconciliation to get oneself right with God, knowing that one has fallen short and will continue to do so whilst walking down the long and winding rod of sanctification until death and resurrection. The emphasis on perfection and works for God rather than confession and dependence on God is the key theological difference in this area of Christian/Mormon theological debate.
So what can we say for this chapter of JFS’s thought? We can say that there is a lot of theological thought and understanding that overlaps, as we have seen before. the understanding the importance and sacredness of the sacrament of communion. The conservative evangelical traditions of Christianity and the LDS almost have the same memorialist interpretation of what is going on at the communion table. What is being celebrated at the table is almost the same but the perhaps subtle differences are the key differences. Orthodox Christians focus in communion is to reflect on the work of Jesus on the cross remembered in the communion meal as part of the reconciliation of the relationship between God and man and the need for a repentance of sin. it may seem simplistic to say it is a grace focused activity but it cannot be denied that forgiveness and grace are the keys in the orthodox Christian sacrament. Whilst it would be most unfair to say that the LDS sacrament does not have forgiveness and grace at its heart, the different emphasis of perfection and observing the commandments instead of repentance for the times that we break those commandments are signs of the third element in Mormon theology, works. Mormonism, no matter what doctrine you investigate has works at the centre of obtaining the celestial kingdom and exaltation. Orthodox Christianity doesn’t.