Recently, we made some changes to how we practice communion at Coram Deo in order to better reflect the theological and historical significance of the Eucharist/the Lord’s Table/the sacrament of communion. The following essay is a summary I wrote to flesh out some of the distinctions. I offer it here for all who might benefit.
One of the important debates during the Reformation centered around the sacrament of communion (also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper). The Roman Catholic Church had come to teach the doctrine of transubstantiation: that when the priest blessed the bread and wine, they were converted into the actual body and blood of Christ. The venerable Catholic theologian Peter Lombard expressed it this way: “Christ’s body, which in itself is visible, after consecration lies hidden and covered under the form of bread” (Lombard, Sentences IV.x.2). Perhaps the crudest yet clearest expression of this doctrine is found in a statement crafted by Pope Nicholas in 1059, to be read by a heretic named Berengarius as proof of his repentance: “The true body and blood of our Lord… sensibly and not only sacramentally but in truth handled and broken by the hands of the priests and crushed by the teeth of believers” (Ego Berengarius).
Transsubstantiation was officially enshrined in Catholic theology at the Fourth Lateran Council (c. 1215 AD), birthing additional doctrines in its wake. If the communion bread is actually the body of Christ, then shouldn’t it be adored and worshiped as Christ himself would be? Pope Urban IV issued a bull in 1264 mandating just such adoration and instituting the Feast of Corpus Christi. By the time of the Reformation, the stage was set for robust debate.
Roman Catholic theologians to this day insist that transubstantiation has the witness of history behind it. But the Reformers begged to differ. They argued that the Roman church had departed from historic practice and from biblical orthodoxy. Calvin asserts: “Transubstantiation was devised not so long ago; it was unknown to those better ages when the purer doctrine of religion still flourished” (Institutes, IV.XVII.14). He painstakingly documents the fact that his own view is in line with the great church father Augustine, and charges Rome with veering from ancient practice: “If the power of the mystery as it is taught by us, and was known to the ancient church, had been esteemed as it deserves for the past four hundred years… the gate would have been closed to many foul errors” (Institutes, IV.XVII.33).
One of the “foul errors” the Reformers deplored was the idea that the sacraments conferred grace – an idea espoused to this day by Roman Catholic teaching: “Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 1127). The Reformers objected that this essentially made the sacraments “magical” – the power was in the sacraments themselves, not in the faith (or lack of faith) of the recipient. Though unified in their objection to this error, the Reformers were not unified in their thinking about the exact nature of the Lord’s Supper. They proposed three possible alternatives:
- The Lutheran View (Consubstantiation). Luther held that Christ was mystically present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. This view has serious philosophical and theological problems that caused the other Reformers to reject it, but it is still held by the Lutheran Churches today.
- The Memorial (Zwinglian) View. Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli held that the Lord’s Supper was merely a memorial – a symbol to remind us of the Lord’s death and to set us apart as God’s distinct people. This is the prevailing view in American evangelical churches today.
- The Calvinist View (Spiritual Presence). John Calvin held that Christ was spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper, so that, “by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours – just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body” (Institutes IV.XVII.5). Calvin, therefore, sees the Supper as much more than a bare memorial. In the Supper, through the Holy Spirit, believers spiritually partake of Christ’s body, even though that body remains seated at God’s right hand: “The Spirit truly unites things separated in space” (Institutes IV.XVII.10).
It is this final view – the view of Calvin, and of Augustine before him – that we hold to be the correct, biblical one. The following quotations serve to demonstrate how distinct this view is from all the others. Calvin avoids dulling the mystery of the sacred union between Christ and his people (the problem with the Zwinglian view), but he also avoids making Christ’s body spatially present in the Lord’s Supper (the problem with both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views). It is clear that Calvin understands believers to be really, truly, feeding on Christ in the sacrament; and yet in a mystical, Spirit-enabled way, not a carnal one.
The bread and wine… represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ… Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our Heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality. Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows [it] in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity… We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink… The flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself.
But greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of Christ in the Supper unless it lies in the bread. For they leave nothing to the secret working of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us… Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above our senses… Christ descends to us by his Spirit, that he may truly quicken our souls by the substance of his flesh and blood… If anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare… Christ pours his very life into us even though Christ’s flesh itself does not enter into us… the secret power of the Spirit is the bond of our union.
[Quotes aggregated from Calvin’s Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XVII]
This rich understanding of the Lord’s Supper has implications for how we practice the sacrament of communion at Coram Deo.
Implication #1: Communion is more than a remembrance.
We need to be careful that we are Calvinist and not Zwinglian in our language. Yes, communion is a reminder of what Jesus has done for us. But it’s more than that. Higher. Holier. Deeper. More sublime. Our language needs to reflect that.
Implication #2: Communion is a sacred moment.
Communion needs to be led and engaged with a sense of awe, majesty, and mystery. A woman recently lamented to me that communion at Coram Deo seems harried, hurried, and distracting. Shame on us. Consider Calvin’s own caveat: “Whenever [the Lord’s Supper] is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express” (Institutes, IV.XVII.7).
Implication #3: Communion is a worshipful response to the preached word.
“The right administering of the sacrament cannot stand apart from the Word. For whatever benefit may come to us from the Supper requires the Word: whether we are to be confirmed in faith, or exercised in confession, or aroused to duty, there is need of preaching” (Institutes, IV.XVII.39).
Implication #4: Spirit-wrought faith is central.
Over against our Catholic city-culture, we need to emphasize the importance of partaking in faith. “There is [not] some secret force in [the sacraments] by which they are able to promote or confirm faith by themselves. Rather… they have been instituted by the Lord to the end that they may serve to establish and increase faith… [they are] empty and trifling apart from the Spirit, but charged with great effect when the Spirit works within and manifests his power” (Institutes, IV.XIV.9).
Implication #5: Knowing and loving Jesus is the goal.
“Christ is the matter or the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they all have their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him… the sacraments have effectiveness among us in proportion as we are helped by their ministry sometimes to foster, confirm, and increase the true knowledge of Christ in ourselves” (Institutes, IV.XIV.16).