On The Supper, Part 1

On Sunday, I had the privilege of teaching the Berean ACG. The group is older and probably knew more about the topic of the Lords Supper than I did, but they were gracious and teaching topics always helps solidify my understanding. I’m dedicating a few posts to the Lord’s Supper because I’m more and more convinced that a proper understanding of the Supper (and Baptism) is crucial to a proper understanding of the church and the Christian life as a whole.

First, we need some broad historical context. I’ll keep this brief, maybe. The Roman Catholic view, at the time of the Reformation, can be summed up in three words: literal, sacrifice, and automatic. Literal in the sense that the elements of the Eucharist literally become the body and the blood of Christ. This has been termed the doctrine of transubstantiation – trans because there is a miraculous transformation; substantiation because its the actually substance of the bread and the wine that are changed into the substance of Christ’s flesh and his blood.

The second word, sacrifice, is important because the Roman Catholic understanding was that in the sacrifice of the Mass, Christ was offered again as a propitiatory sacrifice. Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott writes, “According to the Thomistic view, in every Mass Christ also performs an actual immediate sacrificial activity which, however, must not be conceived as a totality of many successive acts but as one single uninterrupted sacrificial act of the Transfigured Christ.” Further, “The purpose of the Sacrifice is the same in the Sacrifice of the Mass as in the Sacrifice of the Cross; primarily the glorification of God, secondarily atonement, thanksgiving and appeal.” I want to stress again that I don’t believe this accurately represents the Roman view today, but did at the time of the Reformation. So one version of the Heidelberg Catechism states, “But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests…Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.” In the version of the Catechism used today in the Christian Reformed Church, this section has been bracketed off with a footnote explaining that this does not accurately represent the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church today.

The third word that is descriptive of the Roman Catholic view is ‘automatic’ – Automatic in that the elements work ex opere operato (literally, ‘by the very fact of the act being performed’). Thus, grace is conferred to the participant just by virtue of partaking with no reference to the faith of the participate in taking.

Before moving on to the other views, I want to affirm a few things regarding the Catholic understanding. First, if I was left to choose between a Catholic view and the low view of the sacrament taken by man (most) evangelical churches in our day, I’d choose the Catholic view. Luckily, I don’t have too, but just so you know. Second, I affirm the Catholic churches insistance that something miraculous happens as we partake of the elements. Third, I admire their willingness to take Scripture seriously. I think the push the limits of the language too far, but at least they are taking it seriously. Lastly, I agree with my Catholic brothers that something objective actually happens in the Supper. More on that later.

Luther took aim at what he deemed superstitious and overly literal readings of Scripture related to the Supper. Luther rejected the teaching that the Eucharist was a sacrifice, considering the work of Christ on the cross a complete and unique sacrifice that was ‘once for all’. Moreover, he rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, but still affirmed the local and corporeal presence of Christ “with, in, and under” the elements. The bread remains bread and the wine wine. But, Chris is still present bodily with the elements, having descended from heaven to be present. This came to be known as consubstantiation.

Further removed still from the Roman Catholic understanding was the view of Zwingli. Zwingli rejected the idea of Christ’s bodily presence, teaching instead that Christ was only spiritually present. The Eucharist is a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice. For Zwingli then, there was no objective grace being conferred, it was solely subjective. Christ was present in our hearts and minds subjectively. Most Anabaptist groups took this even further. The Anabaptists insisted that the Spirit works independently of external means of grace in the church. Not can – we would all affirm that as we affirm the sovereignty of the Spirit – but does, as in ‘it’s normal he works without means’. The Supper then is merely a memorial and the social dimension takes precedent – it builds the church up in brotherly love. Representative of the Anabaptist view is the following quote from a Baptist pastor, “[We are] hesitant to use term sacraments: First, they [the Supper and the Baptism] are to be called ordinances and not sacraments. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism [where does he think he belongs if he’s not Protestant?] call them sacraments, but they do so in error. There is no saving efficacy in either Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, and neither do the participants of them indicate grace has been bestowed. They are ordinances and not sacraments.”

Luther and Zwingli met in Marburg to hammer out some theological differences. At the Marburg Colloquy (1529), Zwingli and Luther came to agreement on fourteen out of fifteen points of doctrine. The fifteenth was the Supper. The Protestant movement would be divided henceforth. While that seems tragic, I do believe it would have been more tragic for the Zwinglian view to have won the day. Enter Calvin. Calvin attempts to strike a mediating position between Luther and Zwingli – though it would be a mistake to think it’s a 50/50 blending of the two. Calvin stands much closer to Luther (and the historic and biblical understanding of the Supper). We’ll wait till next time to unpack Calvin’s views…