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Friday, August 07, 2009

"This is My Body... This is My Blood" - Five Views on the Presence of Christ in the Supper

I threw the following together for the guys I'm in Bible study with. I think it's pretty decent for a short summary, so I thought I'd put it up here.


It is commonly assumed and taught among Evangelicals that there have only been two views in the history of the church concerning whether or not Christ is actually present in what we call the Lord's Supper (also known as the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, etc.). To the contrary, there have been, in fact, five major views in the history of the church.


1.) Mystical Presence - The Eastern Orthodox View

The Eastern Orthodox Church has historically held that in the Eucharist we really commune with the body and blood of Christ. The bread is His Body, and the wine is His Blood. But as the Eastern Orthodox have a tendency to appeal to mystery in many aspects of their theology, so they do here. They do not attempt to give any further explanation as to how this happens, and they reject as rationalistic much of the theologizing that has taken place about the Supper in the Western Church. The bread and wine are symbolic, but not merely symbolic, as in them we are sanctified by really receiving Christ.


2.) Transubstantiation - the Romanist View

This is the view that has been largely held by the Roman Catholic Church and all in communion with her since the doctrine was formulated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, though the doctrine was not officially canonized until the Council of Trent in 1551. Drawing off of Aristotelian ideas of form and matter, Aquinas taught that when the priest who is officiating at Mass says the prayer of consecration over the elements of bread and wine, these elements transform literally into the body and blood of Christ. There is no change in the outward form (the "accidens") of the bread and wine - they continue to look, feel, smell, and taste like bread and wine. Yet, mysteriously, the matter (the "substance") of the bread and wine really and fully become the body and blood of Christ. This view has also been held by many Anglicans and some Lutherans.


3.) Consubstantiation - the Lutheran View

While the Reformers are often referenced for the way they brought to light doctrines of salvation that had been obscured or long neglected, they were above all things concerned about the state of corporate worship, and this included the doctrines concerning the Eucharist. The reformer who maintained a position the closest to that of Rome was Martin Luther. His view has come to be called "consubstantiation", though it is a name that Lutherans generally detest. Luther stated that in the doctrine of Transubstantiation that Rome had come to accept there were all sorts of frivolous miracles taking place during Mass, referring to the idea that the bread and wine could change matter without changing form. Instead, Luther taught that Christ was truly "in, with, and under" the elements of bread and wine in the Supper. And so when a person takes the bread and wine, Christ's body and blood really pass over the person's lips and down his throat into his stomach. He really chews Christ's body with his teeth. To support this idea, Luther taught that Christ's post-resurrection body took on certain of the aspects of His Deity, such that His post-resurrection body was ubiquitous, or spatially unbound. In other words, Christ's body was omnipresent or everywhere at the same time. And so a thousand churches could be taking of the body and blood of Christ all at the same time. In this way, Luther was able to explain his literalistic interpretation of Christ's words "this is My Body... this is My Blood".

4.) Real Presence - the Calvinistic View

Influenced largely by the Eastern Orthodox Church, John Calvin taught that when a person partakes of the bread and the wine in Holy Communion, he really partakes of the body and blood of Christ. Unlike Luther, he held that Christ's body was physically in Heaven, at the right hand of the Father, or else Christ's body couldn't be a real human body. Yet he believed that in Holy Communion, by the working of the Holy Spirit, and by faith, we are joined to Christ, both His Body and His Spirit, seated in Heaven, and truly receive Him mystically. This can be illustrated by this passage from the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 29, section 7:

"Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."

It should be pointed out that the word "spiritually", as it is used here, does not indicate that it is only Christ's Spirit that we receive, but rather that "spiritually" is the mode of our receiving Him, as opposed to the Lutheran's view that they actually eat Him. When we receive Christ in the Supper, we mystically take all of Him into our bodies, both His Body and His Blood.

5.) Real Absence - the Memorialist View

The view most commonly held in the Evangelical church today, it says that the bread and the wine (sorry - grape juice) used in Communion are merely symbolic, and a means of stirring the participants' minds up in order to meditate on the work of Christ. There is no connection to Christ's body and blood themselves. It is usually the one attributed to the third of the Magisterial Reformers, Ulrich Zwingli. Some study of Zwingli has suggested that this is inaccurate, and that he actually held a view more similar to that of Calvin. Unfortunately, conflicting thoughts in his own writing make it hard for scholars to truly determine what Zwingli's views were.

It should be noted that, whereas Evangelicals normally assume that the Memorialist view is the majority view in the history of the church, the prior four views listed and the size of the church movements they have been affiliated with demonstrate that the Memorialist view is, in fact, the minority view in the church's history. It should also be noted that whereas Memorialists generally downplay the idea that the Lord's Supper is, on their view, a means by which grace is given to the individual, nonetheless, if there are certain benefits derived from meditating upon the Supper, and they are good, then they must be salvific in nature. The real difference here between the Memorialist view and the other four views in that regard is that in the other four views the act of delivering grace to the individual is dependent on the work of God, whereas in the Memorialist view, whether or not the individual receives any benefit from the Supper is entirely dependent upon his own work - that is, whether or not he properly meditates upon Christ's work during the partaking of the Supper. And the theological term for that approach to receiving grace is Pelagianism.

There have been, of course, other major differences within the church on the Lord's Supper. Is the Supper in any sense a sacrifice? Is the Supper only to be overseen by an ordained minister? Can it be carried out in a context other than the worship service of the church? What kind of actions should take place during the administration of the Supper? Is it appropriate to bow or kneel to the elements of the Supper? How are the elements to be treated that are left over after the Supper? These are all legitimate questions. But the foundation to answering all of them begins with determining which of the above views is the Scriptural view.

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