What Does Scripture Teach about the Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper
December 23, 2013
~~by Benjamin Elliff~~
The issue of the presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper has divided Christians for more than ten centuries.1 I will (1) examine the three primary views that have emerged (the Roman Catholic view, the Lutheran view, and the view of the rest of Protestantism) and (2) defend a version of the view of the rest of Protestantism from Scripture.
What do the words, “This is My body” (Matt 26:26) mean? Three distinct answers to the question of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper appear in Christian history.
The Roman Catholic View
Roman Catholics take the words, “This is My body” in a strongly literal sense. Christ becomes present in the meal “by the transformation of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood.”2 At consecration, the elements become (in substance) the body and blood of Christ, and nothing but the body and blood of Christ. This conversion of the substance of one set of elements into the substance of another is called “Transubstantiation” by the Roman Catholic Church.3
How is it that the elements still look and taste like bread and wine? Roman Catholics make a distinction between the substance (the matter) of an entity and its accidents (its properties that make an impact on the senses). At the Eucharistic conversion, according to Ludwig Ott, “the whole substance . . . of the bread and wine is converted . . . while the accidents remain unchanged.” 4 The Council of Trent puts the matter succinctly:
And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which He offered under the species of bread to be truly His own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, that, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiantion.5
Two doctrines flow from the Roman Catholic understanding of the presence of Christ in the Supper. First, the Mass is a “true and proper sacrifice.” .6 Second, Christians may “render in veneration the worship of latria” to the sacrament.7
The Lutheran View
Luther and the Lutherans also affirm the true bodily presence of Christ in the elements (“I . . . must confess and believe that the body of Christ is there”8). Yet the bread remains as well. “Thus in the supper what Christians ate was not bread alone but also the body of Christ.”9 This view has been called consubstantiation. The eating of Christ and of the bread is done truly, “substantially,”10 “orally.”11
But how can Christ be both on earth, where he is said to be present in bread, and in heaven, where he ascended bodily (Luke 24:51)? To answer this question, Lutherans posit what is sometimes called the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature.12 Christ, because he is divine, is present everywhere according to his human nature. Yet this bodily presence is not of the ordinary sort. Francis Pieper, in his Christian Dogmatics, attacks at length the Reformed notion that “Christ according to His human nature, hence also according to His human body, can possess no other than the local and visible presence.”13 For Pieper, in other words, Christ’s bodily presence everywhere, and particularly in the Supper, is non-local and non-visible.14
The Lutheran view shows a clear component of mystery. Pieper speaks of two elements in the Supper: (1) the “earthly” (the bread and wine) and (2) the “heavenly” (the body and blood of Christ).15 These are joined together in a “sacramental union” so that each element is received “with” the other.16 This union is not “natural or local, but . . . supernatural.”17 As a result, the eating of Christ’s body and blood is also supernatural.
The Rest of Protestantism
In contrast to the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, non-Lutherans within Protestantism hold that Christ’s body and blood are not present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. R. L. Dabney, for instance, argues against both transubstantiation and consubstantiation, calling the former a “batch of absurdities”18 and holding that the latter “does not outrage the understanding so much” but is “liable to all the [same] objections.”19 “This is my body” (Matt 26:26) is not to be taken literally but symbolically. Jesus’ statement means, according to Augustus Strong, “This is a symbol of my body.”20
Is there then no place for the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper? Most Protestants hold that Christ is indeed present—spiritually. Both Zwingli and Calvin, according to Louis Berkhof, allowed for a spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper, though Zwingli was less comfortable with the idea.21 The Lord’s Supper is a symbol, yes, but Christians can expect a special, spiritual manifestation of Christ as their faith is strengthened and their minds are turned toward him in the company of other believers.22
The Teaching of Scripture
Against the Roman Catholics
Several responses may be made to the Roman Catholic view. First, it is based on a wrong interpretation of the words of institution (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Consider Matthew’s account:
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.
Must the words “This is my body” be taken literally? Certainly not. Rather, a tropical (figurative) interpretation is possible and even preferable. Dabney lists a number of similar scriptural constructions that must be taken tropically.23 Ezekiel 37:11, for instance, asserts that “these bones are the whole house of Israel.” John 10:9 is particularly relevant because it identifies Jesus with something that is manifestly not Jesus: “I am the door.” These passages, along with the many similar ones found in Scripture, take a tropical explanation most naturally. A literal interpretation makes no sense of them at all.
Strict literalness cannot be maintained even by the Roman Catholics within this passage, says Dabney.24 The Synoptics teach us that Jesus took “a cup . . . saying . . . ‘this is My blood.’” First Corinthians 11 says that Jesus “took the cup . . . saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant’” (25). In these passages the cup stands for, respectively, (1) what is contained in it and (2) the new covenant. Even the Roman Catholics must agree that there is symbolic language here.
First Corinthians 10:17 provides a clue as the true nature of the elements in the Supper: “We all partake of the one bread” (emphasis mine). This passage, along with 1 Corinthians 11:26-28, reminds us that the substance eaten with the mouth is bread, not the body of Christ.
The most natural understanding of the words of institution, therefore, is that the elements symbolize Christ’s body. The disciples, seeing Christ’s living body before them, would not have identified the loaf with the living hands that held it.25
Second, the Roman Catholic view requires an unbiblical view of the nature of man, the nature of man’s epistemological relation to the world, and of the nature of objects within the world. Scripture teaches that man was made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) for specific purposes of ruling the earth by the gifts he had been given (Gen 1:28). The whole tenor of Scripture encourages us to believe that the senses are basically trustworthy with regard to the apprehension of material things. Thus it is a natural thing that Thomas would be convinced of the bodily resurrection of his Lord by the evidence of his senses (John 20:27-28). The Roman Catholic view, however, asserts that the senses are absolutely and deliberately deceived every time the Mass is observed.
To make this outrage to the senses more palatable, Roman Catholics distinguish between substance and accidents. Such a distinction is not found in the Bible, however. All that is found in the Bible is an affirmation of the natural understanding of the world, which, despite the Fall, still functions in human beings. “Our mental intuitions compel us to recognize substance by its sensible attributes,” Dabney reminds us.26
Third, the Roman Catholic view leads to unbiblical notions like (1) the repeated sacrifice of the Mass, (2) the exclusive rights of a class of priests to administer the Supper, and (3) the withholding of the cup from the laity.27 These ideas spring from the gravity of the claim that Christ’s body and blood are the true substances involved in the Mass. Regarding the sacrifice of Christ, Scripture is clear that it took place once for all; it is not repeated. The book of Hebrews explains that Christ does not “offer Himself often” (11:25) but was “offered once” (11:28). Regarding the notion of a class of priests, Scripture has no such teaching. Rather, all Christians are members of a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9).28 Regarding the propriety of giving the cup to the laity, Scripture teaches Christians to “Drink from it, all of you” (Matt. 26:27).
Against the Lutherans
A number of the objections to the Roman Catholic view apply to the Lutheran view as well. Several additional arguments may also be forwarded. First, the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature, so necessary to explain the real presence of Christ in the Supper, is not found in Scripture.29 Christ told his disciples that he would be “leaving the world again and going to the Father” (John 16:28). His disciples understood him to be “speaking plainly” (John 16:29). It is evident from these words that Christ’s body is not on earth.
Second, the Lutherans choose an unlikely sense for the words of institution. Though they argue for the real presence by claiming a literal (“according to the letter”30 ) interpretation, their interpretation is in fact a figurative one—and an unlikely figurative one at that. Berkhof explains: “[the Lutheran view] really makes the words of Jesus mean, ‘this accompanies my body,’ an interpretation that is more unlikely than . . . [any of] the others.”31 The Lutheran view thus runs into linguistic difficulties without resolving the metaphysical ones.
A Biblical View
It is a basic rule of interpretation that the words of a passage must be interpreted literally if possible. Millard Erickson points out that there must be proper justification if a passage is to be taken any other way.32 Compelling justification can be provided, however, for interpreting the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” in a non-literal sense. First, a literal interpretation results in an absurdity at the time of the institution.33 Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, would have been in two places at once: in his living form and in the bread. Yet in Scripture we find that the Word “became flesh” (John 1:14) and that he was “made like His brethren in all things” (Heb 2:17). Jesus, as a true human being, could not have been in two places at once.
Second, a literal interpretation results in metaphysical difficulties in subsequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.34 To achieve a bodily, substantive presence of Christ it is necessary either (1) to place the substance of Christ’s body in exactly the same place as the bread (the Lutheran view) or (2) to strip the substance of Christ’s body of all of the characteristics of a body (the Catholic view). Either view seems incompatible with the nature of the world as seen through the lens of the Bible.
Because of these two factors, therefore, a Christian is justified in looking to the Bible for alternative interpretations of the words of institution. John 6 provides a great deal of relevant material. Jesus fed five thousand men (1-14) but soon turned the attention of the crowd to “a food which endures to eternal life” (27). This food is not physical but spiritual. “I am the bread of life,” he claimed; partaking of him involves coming to him and believing in him (35). During his ministry Jesus used a number of similar metaphors to describe his relationship to individual believers (e.g., “the way,” “the good shepherd,” “the vine”).35 A metaphorical, symbolic interpretation of the words, “This is My body,” is therefore a distinct possibility. Indeed, it is the probable interpretation, since it avoids all of the “exegetical, sensible, rational, and doctrinal objections”36 that plague the Roman Catholic and Lutheran views. Christians, by eating and drinking the bread and cup, symbolize, among other things, the spiritual feeding on Christ which is already a reality for them. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
On the basis of the symbolic interpretation, therefore, Christ is not physically present in the Lord’s Supper. Must his spiritual presence also be denied? Not at all. 37 Christ is with us “always, even to the end of the age.” Indeed, he has promised to be in the midst of even “two or three” believers gathered in his name (Matt 18:20). When believers gather for the worship experience of the Supper, the spiritual presence of Christ can be felt in a special way. “The rite is basically commemorative.”38 When Paul brings the significance of the Supper to bear on the church at Corinth, he focuses on the remembrance: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Yet the spiritual presence of Christ is laid hold of and felt in a deeper way when Christians partake in faith and worship.
The presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper has divided Christians for centuries. In attempting to interpret the words of institution literally, Roman Catholics have resorted to transubstantiation and Lutherans to consubstantiation. Neither view does justice to the biblical text or the biblical view of man’s senses and reasoning capacity. A symbolic/spiritual presence view, however, provides an uncomplicated, scriptural interpretation.
1 M. E. Osterhaven, “Lord’s Supper, Views of,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 653.
2 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1954), 379.
3The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 76 [on-line], accessed 21 November 2006, http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ trentall.html; Internet.
4Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 380.
5The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, 78.
6The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, 78.
7 The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, 79.
8Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 151.
9 Ibid., 153.
10Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 362.
12Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 994.
13Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 322.
16 Ibid., 362.
18 R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 804.
19 Ibid., 808.
20 Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium Designed for the Use of Theological Students (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), 965.
21 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed., rev. and enl. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 653-54.
22 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 995.
23R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 805.
25 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 993.
30Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 296.
31Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 653.
32 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 1121.
36 R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 808.
37 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 1122.
Copyright © 2013 Benjamin Elliff
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