How is Jesus Present at His Supper?
I am a far cry from a polished historical theologian, but looking back into the history of the church and how it understood various doctrines is always a helpful exercise. Most have certainly heard of and have at least a slight understanding of the sixteenth century Reformation, when a group of believers protested against the Catholic Church in search of reform.
Many agreed that the Catholic Church had it wrong in many aspects, but not many could agree on the solutions. One such dispute surrounded the practice and meaning of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper (especially in regard to Christ’s presence when the Supper is observed). In fact, one historian called the debate over the Lord’s Supper the “Achilles heel of the Reformation.”
One such debate arose between two fairly prominent reformers, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. I have previously written on this debate, and will provide an expert from that piece below:
When it comes to the Lord Supper, the issue at hand is the presence of Christ in the elements. Are the bread and wine somehow literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or are they only symbolic reminders? Luther did break from the Catholic Church on this issue, but it was not enough of a break for some. He rejected the concept of transubstantiation and came up with a similar version called consubstantiation. At least two years after posting his Ninety-Five Theses Luther still held to the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet later considered it “an unnecessary philosophical theory to explain the miracle of the Real Presence.” Though he claimed to part with the Catholic understanding, Luther “earned the nickname ‘Dr. Pussyfoot’ (Doktor Leisetritt) among Protestants who regarded his break with medieval Catholic tradition as half-hearted or even insincere.” His beliefs about Christ’s presence may have changed over time, “But there was never a time in Luther’s life when he did not believe the Real Presence of the true body and blood of Christ in the sacrament.”
How did Luther understand this presence? He took the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:26 (“Take and eat it; this is My body.”) very literally. A report from the Marburg Colloquy quotes Luther saying,
“It is written, ‘Take, eat, this is my body,’ and for this reason one must do it and believe it at all costs. One must do this! One must do this!…Again and again the body of Christ is eaten, as he himself commanded us to do. If he were to command me to eat dung, I would do so, assured that it were good for me. The servant doesn’t brood over the wish of his Lord…”
But is that really what the Lord Jesus commanded?
Luther was fixated on interpreting the Scriptures literally, down to the point that if Christ said, “This is my body,” then somehow the bread he ate was going to be transformed into His actual body. Luther also referred to John 6 where Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. There was no attention paid to the fact that Christ could have been, and most likely was, speaking symbolically or metaphorically. How could anyone after Jesus’s time get a hold of Christ’s flesh and blood? Well they couldn’t, so they devised the concept of either trans- or con-substantiation. In his “Smalcald Articles” Luther said, “Concerning transubstantiation, we have absolutely no regard for the subtle sophistry of those who teach that bread and wine surrender or lose their natural substances and that only the form and color of the bread remain…” Yet he also wrote, “We maintain that the bread and the wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ…” It is evident that his beliefs did not stray far from the Catholic Church on this issue, and as mentioned above, that upset many.
Luther’s greatest opponent in this debate was Ulrich Zwingli, who believed it was a “monstrosity of speech” to say that the bread and wine were literally transformed into Christ’s body and blood. Speaking of Luther’s belief in Christ’s bodily presence, Zwingli contends, “For if it is bodily, there is no need for faith, for it is perceived by the sense; and things perceived by sense have no need of faith…On the other hand, if your eating is a matter of belief, the thing you believe cannot be sensible or bodily.”
In their correspondence, Zwingli politely reminded Luther that when Christ said these things He did not mean His physical body would somehow appear. Christ was certainly about people having faith, and for Zwingli this was one element in which people were to have it. He didn’t deny that Christ was present during the Eucharist, but neither did he want anyone making up a doctrine in order to prove it. Therefore Zwingli emphasized the spiritual sense of the Supper over and against the physical sense. Luther did not deny the spiritual side, but neither did he do away with his belief in the physical, bodily side. Zwingli’s attempts to sway Luther proved unsuccessful, and it caused a permanent division between the two reformers.