Reformed Views of the Lord’s Supper

One subject that “rocked the boat” during the time of the Reformation was that of the Lord’s Supper. All the Reformers rejected transubstantiation; the thought that the bread and wine are turned into the actual body and blood of Christ in its substance (though accidents — appearance — is not changed) and then re-presented as a propitiatory sacrifice. Because of this, the Reformers had to reformulate the significance of the Supper in a scriptural manner. During that time, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli formulated a stance on the Supper.

Luther held to a view close to the Roman Catholic church. Luther affirmed a physical presence in the elements of the Supper. However, he nuanced the view by rejecting that the elements were transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Why? From what I can tell, he took issue with Aristotelian philosophy involved in transubstantiation. He rejected the “substance”  (what something actually is) and “accidents” (appearance) mindset. Luther said:

It is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words to understand ‘bread’ to mean ‘the form of accidents of bread’… The church kept the true faith for more than twelve hundred years, during which time the holy fathers never, at any time, mentioned this transubstantiation. (Babylonian Captivity, 147).

Luther rejected the thought that the substances changed into Christ, and instead affirmed that Christ was really present with the bread and wine. Luther said,

It is not necessary in the sacrament that the bread and wine be transubstantiated and that Christ be contained under the accidents in order that the real body and real blood may be present. But both remain there at the same time” (151).

Luther will later employ language of “in, with, under” in his Smaller Catechism. Luther’s stance has been termed consubstantiation. Christ’s presence is with (con) the elements.

Luther contrasted greatly with Zwingli’s stance. His position was that the Lord’s Supper was nothing more than a memorial of Christ’s death. Zwingli said this of the supper:

To eat the body of Christ spiritually is nothing else than to trust in spirit and heart upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ, that is, to be sure with unshaken faith that God is going to give us pardon for our sins and the joy of everlasting blessedness on account of His Son, who was made wholly ours, was offered for us, and reconciled the divine righteousness to us. For what can He refuse who gave His only begotten Son? (Latin Works, 252)

This common understanding of the Supper is that there is no spiritual or physical effect in the practice. Rather, the supper symbolizes what it is that Christ has done, and what it is to believe in him. Faith, as Zwingli articulated, is eating of Christ. And the supper helps us understand that.

Calvin rejected both Luther and Zwingli’s views, opting for another route. While he rejected trans and con-substantiation, he nonetheless understood the Supper and much more than a memorial. Calvin’s nuance was that Christ presence in the Supper was not corporeal, but “spiritual” What he meant by this was not that Christ was present only in his soul. Rather, Calvin meant to articulate that Christ was present “by the Spirit”. In his Institutes, Calvin employed “spiritual” language to describe the Spirit effecting the presence of Christ in the Supper. For Calvin, because Christ is risen and ascended, at the right hand of the Father, he does not come down to us physically. Actually, the Spirit brings us up to Christ! And so, in the Supper, Christ is truly present, however the means by which he becomes present is by the power of the Spirit, bringing us beyond spatial dimensions into his presence to eat and drink of him.

This view is later picked up and developed by the Reformed churches, and further articulated in the Belgic and Westminster confessions. For instance, the WCF says:

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. (WCF, 29.7)

The Belgic Confession states it this way:

Now it is certain that Jesus Christ did not prescribe his sacraments for us in vain, since he works in us all he represents by these holy signs, although the manner in which he does it goes beyond our understanding and is incomprehensible to us, just as the operation of God’s Spirit is hidden and incomprehensible.

In the meantime we err not, when we say, that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body, and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same, is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith.

In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven—but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood. (Article 35)

So Christ is at the right of the Father. And yet, the Supper is truly eating and drinking by the Spirit through faith. In a mysterious way, the Spirit transcends spatial dimensions, and brings his people into the presence of Christ, whereby we eat of his flesh and blood by faith.

I prefer the Calvinistic Reformed understanding of the Supper for Calvin’s reasons.


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