Common Questions: Lutherans and the Lord’s Supper

February 13, 2012 at 5:15 am 4 comments


"Last Supper" by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret

A couple of weeks ago, a man came into my office wanting to know what Concordia Lutheran Church was all about.  My answer?  “Concordia is all about the gospel – that Jesus died on a cross in our place to forgive our sins, and there is nothing we can do to earn this forgiveness.  Rather, it is received only by faith.”  He seemed satisfied with my answer.  But he had a follow up question:  “I’ve heard weird things about what Lutherans teach about the Lord’s Supper.  What does Concordia teach?”  I surmised that this question was the real reason he stopped by my office.  And I was happy to share with him what we teach about the Lord’s Supper.  After all, this is not an uncommon question.  Indeed, because it is so common, I thought I would address it in the “Common Questions” feature on my blog.

What do Lutherans teach concerning the Lord’s Supper?

Martin Luther himself summarizes the nature of the Lord’s Supper when he writes: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and drink, instituted by Christ Himself.”[1]  In other words, we believe that when Jesus breaks bread and takes a cup of wine and says to His disciples, “This is My body” and “This is My blood” (Matthew 26:26, 28), Jesus means precisely what He says – the bread and wine are His true body and blood.

The classical term for this teaching is the “sacramental union.”  Again, Luther clarifies this term well:

Out of two kinds of objects a union has taken place, which I shall call a “sacramental union,” because Christ’s body and the bread are given to us as a sacrament…Therefore, it is entirely correct to say, if one points to the bread, “This is Christ’s body”…Thus also it is correct to say, “He who takes hold of this bread, takes hold of Christ’s body; and he who eats this bread, eats Christ’s body; he who crushes this bread with teeth or tongue, crushes with teeth or tongue the body of Christ.” And yet it remains absolutely true that no one sees or grasps or eats or chews Christ’s body in the way he visibly sees and chews any other flesh. What one does to the bread is rightly and properly attributed to the body of Christ by virtue of the sacramental union.[2]

Thus, the sacramental union refers to the fact that Christ’s true body is present “in the bread, under the bread, with the bread”[3] and likewise with Christ’s blood and the wine.

What the sacramental union is not…

Because so many Christians teach so many things concerning the nature of the Lord’s Supper, it is important to briefly touch on some things which the sacramental union is not, lest there be any confusion.

The sacramental union is not transubstantiation

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper cease to be bread and wine and instead become the body and blood of Christ.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes transubstantiation:

By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ Himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: His Body and His Blood, with His soul and His divinity.[4]

Central to the doctrine of transubstantiation is an Aristotelian distinction between the “substance” of a thing and its “accident.”  The “substance” of a thing is its fundamental essence.  It is that which, if it ceases to be, the thing loses its identity.  The “accident” of a thing is an attribute which may or may not belong to a substance without affecting its core essence.

The doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that, when a priest recites the Words of Institution at the Lord’s Supper, the substance of the bread and wine transform into the substance Christ’s body and blood and the bread and the wine are no longer essentially present.  They are only outward, “accidental” forms.  In this sense, then, the forms of the bread and wine are “faking us out,” for they are not really, essentially there.  All that is there is Christ’s body and blood.

Luther responds to the doctrine of transubstantiation thusly:

The Evangelists plainly write that Christ took bread[5] and blessed it, and when the Book of Acts and the Apostle Paul in turn call it bread,[6] we have to think of real bread and real wine, just as we do of a real cup…Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words to understand “bread” to mean “the form or accidents of bread,” and “wine” to mean “the form or accidents of wine”…The church kept the true faith for more than twelve hundred years, during which time the holy fathers never, at any time or place, mentioned this transubstantiation (a monstrous word and a monstrous idea), until the pseudo philosophy of Aristotle began to make its inroads into the church in these last three hundred years.[7]

The sacramental union is not symbolism

There are many church bodies which teach that when Christ said, “This is My body” and “This is My blood,” what He really meant was, “This symbolizes my body” and “This symbolizes My blood.”  For instance, “The Baptist Faith and Message” confesses, “The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.”[8]  Notice that this confessional statement refers to the Lord’s Supper explicitly as “a symbolic act” and does not even make mention of Christ’s body and blood.

There are some who, holding to a symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, accuse Lutherans of being anachronistic when we insist that the word “is” when Christ says “This is My body and “This is my blood” indicates that Christ’s body and blood are truly present with the bread and wine.  One friend made this argument to me: “When I show you a picture of my family and say, ‘This is my family,’ I mean, ‘This is a picture of my family.’  When Jesus held up bread and wine, He meant to say the same thing: ‘This is a picture of My body and blood!’”  I’ll grant that it would strain the bounds of good exegesis to base the doctrine of the sacramental union entirely on the word “is.”  But Lutherans do no such thing.  Rather, we take into consideration three additional factors.  First, we take into account who is speaking these words.  Because Christ is speaking these words, it is of no difficulty for Him to make His body and blood miraculously present in, with, and under the bread and wine.  The difference between me saying, “This is a picture of my family” and Christ saying, “This is My body and blood” is the speaker!  One speaker can work miracles and speak truth into existence.  The other cannot.  Second, we take into account how Scripture itself interprets these words.  The apostle Paul indicates a lively confidence in the sacramental union when he asks, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16)?  Paul believes that when we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we are actually participating with the body and blood of Christ.  This hardly leaves room for a symbolic reading.  Negatively, Paul warns, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).  Paul warns that partaking of the Lord’s Supper without self-examination and repentance (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:28) can lead to sin against Christ’s body and blood.  How can such thing happen?  Because in the Lord’s Supper, we actually receive Christ’s body and blood.  Third, we take into account how the church has interpreted these words throughout the centuries.  The Lutheran Confessions, in their defense of the sacramental union, cite the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr:

This we receive not as common bread and common drink.  We receive them as Jesus Christ, our Savior, who through the Word of God became flesh.  For the sake of our salvation He also had flesh and blood.  So we believe that the food blessed by Him through the Word and prayer is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.[9]

Taking these three factors into consideration, then, Lutherans believe that we have solid Christological, exegetical, historical, and ecclesial grounds for interpreting Jesus’ words as we do.

The sacramental union is not just a spiritual presence

Calvinists will regularly teach that Christ’s body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper, though only in a spiritual sense.  Consider, for instance, this passage from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:

The presence of Christ in the Supper we must hold to be such as neither affixes Him to the element of bread, nor encloses Him in bread, nor circumscribes Him in any way (this would obviously detract from His celestial glory); and it must, moreover, be such as neither divests Him of His just dimensions, nor dissevers Him by differences of place, nor assigns to Him a body of boundless dimensions, diffused through heaven and earth.  All these things are clearly repugnant to His true human nature.  Let us never allow ourselves to lose sight of the two restrictions.  First, let there be nothing derogatory to the heavenly glory of Christ.  This happens whenever He is brought under the corruptible elements of this world, or is affixed to any earthly creatures.  Secondly, let no property be assigned to His body inconsistent with His human nature.  This is done when it is either said to be infinite, or made to occupy a variety of places at the same time.[10]

Calvin’s argument for a spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper is this:  Christ had both a human nature and a divine nature.  His human nature is circumscribed by the normal spatial restriction that a person cannot be physically present in more than one place simultaneously.  Therefore, Christ’s body, as part of His human nature, cannot be present in the Lord’s Supper, for Christ’s body is in heaven, seated at the right hand of God.  Jesus can only be spiritually present according to His divine nature.  Luther responds to such an argument thusly:

We merge the two distinct natures [of Christ] into one single person, and say: God is man and man is God…[You] will not and cannot prove that the two propositions, “Christ is in heaven, and His body is in the Supper,” are contradictory. So the words, “This is My body,” remain to us just as they read, for one letter of them is better and surer to us than the books of all the fanatics, even if they should fill the world with the books they write.  Again, since they do not prove that the right hand of God is a particular place in heaven, the mode of existence of which I have spoken also stands firm, that Christ’s body is everywhere because it is at the right hand of God which is everywhere, although we do not know how that occurs. For we also do not know how it occurs that the right hand of God is everywhere. It is certainly not the mode by which we see with our eyes that an object is somewhere, as the fanatics regard the sacrament. But God no doubt has a mode by which it can be somewhere and that’s the way it is until the fanatics prove the contrary.[11]

For Luther, then, the sacramental union of Christ’s body and blood with the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper is a Christological issue.  The question Luther would have us ask is:  “Do we believe that Christ’s body can be present in more than one place simultaneously, or do we insist on circumscribing His human nature by the space-time restrictions of our world?”  How you answer this question reveals what you believe about what Christ, as both God and man, can and cannot do.  If Christ from rise from the dead in both His human and divine nature, it is certainly not too difficult for Him to be present in the Lord’s Supper in both His human and divine nature.

Finally, Luther would remind us of the blessing of the Lord’s Supper:

The Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself…For the devil is such a furious enemy.  When he sees that we oppose him…he prowls and moves about on all sides.  He tries every trick and does not stop until he finally wears us out, so that we either renounce our faith or throw up our hands and put up our feet, becoming indifferent or impatient.  Now to this purpose the comfort of the Sacrament is given when the heart feels that the burden is becoming too heaven, so that it may gain here new power and refreshment.[12]

May you gain such power and refreshment from the Lord’s Supper, for in it, Jesus gives His body and blood – His very self – for you!


[1] SC VI

[2] AE 37:299–300

[3] FC SD VII:38

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1413

[5] Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19

[6] Acts 2:46, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23, 26–28

[7] AE 36:31

[8] The Baptist Faith and Message, VII

[9] FC SD VII:39

[10] Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.19

[11] AE 37:212–214

[12] LC V:26-27

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rev. Kevin Jennings  |  February 13, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Hi, Zach! Wonderful treatment of a great question among many Lutherans, not to mention other Christians.

    It’s important to note that, in the Roman treatment of things, transubstantiation is necessary not only for the completion of Aristotelian thought, but also, and perhaps especially, because this is necessary for the sacrifice of the Mass. Without transubstantiation, the continued, unbloodied Sacrifice cannot be offered.

    I think it’s true that both transubstantiation and representation both are attempts to make the Sacrament of the Altar make sense. The Real Presence, however, takes Christ at His word. It doesn’t make sense, but we’re okay with that.

    Every year, when I examine the confirmands, I ask them what they expect to receive in the Sacrament. They tell me the body and blood of Christ. I then ask if they believe the body and blood of Christ is truly present as they receive it under body and blood. They answer affirmatively. I then ask them how the body and blood of Christ get there. There is only one answer: I don’t know. Anything else reads into Christ’s words what is not plainly stated. This “I don’t know” is the statement of faith in the Real Presence.

    God bless!
    Kevin

    Reply
    • 2. Pastor Zach  |  February 13, 2012 at 9:08 am

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for the thoughts! I am so glad you mentioned the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass and the Lutheran doctrine of the Divine Service. The difference is not simply HOW Christ is present but WHAT is happening. Is Christ giving Himself to us graciously for the forgiveness of our sins? Or, as Roman Catholics believe, is the priest offering a sacrifice of Christ to God, albeit an unbloody one? One is a sacrament. The other is a sacrifice. One is a gracious gift. The other directly opposes the sermon to the Hebrews in the NT.

      Thanks for teaching with truth and clarity!

      Blessings,
      Zach

      Reply
  • 3. Don Novian  |  February 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Zach, Thanks for a good, clear explanation of Communion and all with the Bible to back it up…….. Keep up the good work…………

    Reply
  • 4. Resources for Matthew 26:26 - 28  |  February 26, 2012 at 10:35 am

    […] 1Common Questions: Lutherans and the Lord’s Supper « Pastor Zach's Blog SUBMIT […]

    Reply

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