The “Black Rubric” was so-called because it was set in black print in the 1661–1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. It was first inserted into the Second Edwardian Prayer Book in 1552. It was intended to explain that when communicants received the elements of holy communion they were not by the act of kneeling adoring the elements. This was a concern because it had been many years prior that, when communicants knelt to receive the supper it was reckoned to be the transubstantiated (essentially transformed from bread into the body and blood of Christ) and therefore the proper object of veneration. Transferring the glory of God to any created thing was utterly rejected by the Reformed reformation as a species of idolatry and contrary to God’s holy law. It reads:
WHEREAS it is ordained in this Office for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, that the Communicants should receive the same kneeling; (which order is well meant, for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgment of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy Receivers, and for the avoiding of such profanation and disorder in the holy Communion, as might otherwise ensue;) yet, lest the same kneeling should by any persons, either out of ignorance and infirmity, or out of malice and obstinacy, be misconstrued and depraved: It is hereby declared, That thereby no adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.
The Black Rubric is also a good illustration of the way the distinction between elements and circumstances functioned in the Reformed reformation of worship. An element of worship is that without which there is no worship. An element of worship is divinely instituted and irrevocable. The two basic elements are Word (whether read, preached, or administered in the sacraments) and prayer (whether spoken or sung). By contrast, the posture we assume when receiving communion is only a circumstance. It may be changed without changing the essence of worship. By the Reformed reckoning there were only a few circumstances: time of service, place, language, dress, and posture. Thus whether one received communion standing or sitting or kneeling is a mere circumstance or adiaphora (morally indifferent)—unless of course civil or ecclesiastical authorities seek to mandate it as a matter of faith or as a condition of salvation. In which case it is, by definition, no longer adiaophra and the Reformed would be in a status confessionis (state of confession)—what is not adiaphora, however, is the nature of the Supper. It cannot be adiaphora because it is essential to worship. If Christ’s humanity is locally present in the element (in, with, under; the confessional Lutheran view) or if the element is said to have become substantially the humanity of Christ (transubstantiation) then it has one character. If, however, his humanity is locally present in heaven, at the right hand of the Father (as we confess) then it has another character. If the union between the sign and the thing signified is sacramental and not literal then we have a sign and a seal, a visible, gospel Word from God. If the union becomes identity then we no longer have a sacrament at all.
It is bracing and encouraging to be reminded of the force with which the Reformed reformation, even in its episcopal manifestation (the Presbyterians and Congregationalists regarded the episcopal Anglican Church as “but halfly Reformed”) abhorred idolatry and sought to root it out wherever it might appear, even in the administration of holy communion. Behind the Black Rubric and the horror of idolatry was the deep-seated Protestant conviction that gradually the medieval church had confused the Creator with the creature. It has conferred upon the creature glory and status that belonged only to the Triune God. It is widely recognized that the material principle of the Reformation was sola gratia et sola fide and the formal principle was sola Scriptura but it is less often recognized that the Creator/creature distinction was just as important to the Protestant Reformation. It lay behind Luther’s polemic against Eramus in his De Servo Arbitrio (1525; Concerning the Enslaved Will) and behind Luther’s basic distinction between theologia gloria et theologia crucis (theology of glory and the theology of the cross). When Luther made that distinction he was laying the axe to all forms of moralism (attempts by a sinner to present himself to God on the basis of sanctity or obedience or cooperation with grace) and rationalism (identity of the human intellect with the divine or any attempt to place reason anywhere but in submission to Scripture).
Calvin and his orthodox Reformed successors never wavered on this basic point and it animated all the Reformed confessions as they articulated their Christology, the doctrine of grace, and their principle of worship.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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