A commenter named Tapani raised a question about the Eucharist in a previous thread, and I would like to address it by talking about something else first.
Systematic theology, rightly applied, is really nothing more than the art of being able to remember what you have learned from all of Scripture as you encounter any particular passage of Scripture. Wrongly applied, systematic theology doesn’t let Scripture speak for itself because the “system of doctrine” knows the precise limits of what it is willing to learn. But angular texts do not just collide with such tidied up systems of doctrine; angular texts also collide with other angular texts.
This means that harmonization is not, as it is popularly portrayed as being, just a matter of trying to reconcile “this radical statement of Jesus” with the far more conservative system of our theological tradition, whatever that may happen to be. That does happen sometimes, obviously, but it also happens whenever someone legitimately insists that we are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God says lots of things.
It is the easiest thing in the world to say something like we should “just let Scripture speak for itself,” and that we should just “use the language of Scripture.” And that might mean, to take an example at random, that everybody has to give away all his possessions because, unless we don’t, we can’t be Christian disciples. Right? That’s what Jesus said, isn’t it (Luke 14:33)?
But what happens if “we just let Scripture speak for itself,” and conclude from a fair-minded reading of Proverbs that poverty is caused by lazy slugs who won’t get off their butt to get a job? A little sleep, a little slumber . . . And that reminds me of a joke that is making the rounds — over a million and a half people came to the inauguration of President Obama, but this did not do further damage to an already fragile economy because only seventeen of them had to miss work. Some would say the joke is offensive, but only because they are (clearly) not willing to “let Scripture speak for itself.”
Facile appeals to small portions of Scripture really need to be rejected. The Bible is collection of sixty six books written over the course of millennia, and the circumstances addressed by numerous passages of Scripture are as varied as human circumstances generally get. And when we want to make application of them, as we should, we have to have the wisdom to figure out what our situation is actually most like. Would we have the prophet Amos glaring at corporate CEOs who earned a million dollars a minute in order to destroy their companies? Or perhaps Solomon looking with disapproval at welfare queens? Both perhaps? Neither?
In the prophets, poverty is frequently caused by fat cat oppression. In the wisdom literature, it is caused by folly and laziness. In the law, the causes are varied. In the gospels, by oppression again. In most epistles by laziness again. Let Scripture speak for itself? Okay, sounds good. Do we get to write anything down to help us keep track?
Now what does this have to do with Tapani’s question about the Eucharist? Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a banquet to which all the lowlifes have been invited. The master of the feast wanted the poor, maimed, halt and blind to be brought in (Luke 14:21), and so they were. This passage, taken in isolation, makes the great banquet of the kingdom sound like a meal at an inner city soup kitchen with no qualifying standards whatever. If we absolutize that, then we have ourselves one situation, easy peasy, and why won’t you conservatives follow the radical teaching of Jesus?. But we have unfortunately issued an invitation to anybody else who wants to park themselves on another set of verses, in order to let Scripture speak “for itself.” And this can even happen with synoptic collisions. For example . . .
“And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:11-14).
So our task is to remember all of it while dealing with any of it. The kingdom of God is like a banquet filled up with blind and lame losers. We must replicate that in our lives, loving the unlovely. And the kingdom of God is also like a banquet where the servants drag out a guy in blue jeans so that he could be handed over to the torturers. Huh. The Lord’s Table is a come-one, come-all event. The Lord’s Table is place of fierce discipline. Absolutize either one, and trouble ensues. Remember all of it while dealing with any of it.