The Doctrine of the Church (part 9)

September 28, 2009     Time: 00:28:28

We’ve been talking about the different views of the Lord’s Supper. Remember we looked at transubstantiation, consubstantiation, as a sort of spiritual parallelism, and then the view that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance that involves a symbolic or metaphorical eating of the body and blood of Christ by taking the wine and the bread. Let me say some words now briefly by way of assessment of these different views.

What shall we say with regard to the doctrine of transubstantiation? I am convinced that this is not a doctrine that is biblically supported and is not one that is a correct interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. I think that probably the most powerful reason for thinking that has already been mentioned in the class; namely, when Jesus uttered the words of institution – This is my body which is for you or This cup is the new covenant in my blood – that he was bodily present with the disciples there as he said it. So it couldn’t have been the bread and the cup that they were drinking was his body and blood because he was sitting across the table from them. This seemingly simplistic point is so blindingly obvious I think seems to me to be the best reason for thinking that in the Lord’s Supper there isn’t some sort of transubstantiation going on. Rather, Jesus is speaking to the disciples using a metaphor, just as he had done on many other occasions in the Gospels in speaking of himself and other things in metaphorical terms. This is a kind of imagery that is not unusual in Jewish religion. For example, other places where it occurs would be 1 Corinthians 10:4 where Paul talks about the supernatural rock which followed the Israelites through the desert. He says in verse 4, “they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Now that is clearly a metaphorical statement. He doesn’t mean that Jesus Christ is some sort of mineral deposit or geological formation. The Rock was Christ in this sort of metaphorical or spiritual sense. Or in Galatians 4:25 we have another allegorical use of such an image. Galatians 4:25, comparing Hagar and Sarah he says, “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” Obviously he doesn’t mean that Hagar literally is this mountain in the Arabian peninsula. Rather he says Hagar is allegorically like the mountain and that represents symbolically the present Jerusalem. So the use of the imagery like this – to say this is my body; this is the new covenant in my blood - isn’t something that would be unusual for Judaism.

In fact, Jesus here is referring to, I think, symbolically his upcoming death. He is thinking here of the giving of his body on the cross as a sacrificial offering. He is the Passover lamb slain for the sins of the world. This sort of symbolization of a prophetic action, again, is common in the Old Testament where a prophet would do something to symbolize the prophetic prophesy that he has given. I think Jesus here is referring back to a prophesy like Isaiah 53:12. Isaiah 53 is that great chapter that is drawn upon in the New Testament as referring to Christ. In Isaiah 53:12 it says,

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus is thinking of his death along the lines of Isaiah as a sacrificial offering for the sins of the people.[1] He prefigures this prophetically by the bread and the cup that is before them. I feel very confident that Jesus, as he sat there sharing with them, did not in any sense conceive that he was handing them literally his blood and his flesh to eat. That is the first reason.

The second reason is that I think that this somehow overlooks the physical resurrection body of Christ. It is fine to think about the flesh and the blood of Christ in abstraction – sort of as abstract entities. But we believe that Jesus was risen physically and bodily from the dead. He has a resurrection body that has a certain height and certain shape and stature. This is a literal embodied existence. So to be eating the body and blood of Christ, if you try to combine that doctrine of the Eucharist with the doctrine of the resurrection body it becomes so strange, so bizarre, as to be, I think, just unacceptable. It would mean that when people eat the body of Christ they are chewing on some part of the resurrection body of Christ. Are they chewing on his finger? Maybe somebody is eating his earlobe or someone is biting out of his side or his kidneys or intestines or something. The thought is sacrilegious to even suggest such a thing. Yet that seems inevitable if we take really seriously the idea of the human nature of Christ being preserved into eternity and that Christ, in his resurrection body, still exists with this human nature.

So for those two reasons I can’t persuade myself that the doctrine of transubstantiation is correct.

What about consubstantiation? Remember on this view the bread and the wine aren’t changed into the body and blood of Christ; rather, the body and blood of Christ exists along side with, underneath, within the bread and the wine so that you actually consume both. I think the same two objections would still apply to the real presence of Christ in consubstantiation, namely, Jesus didn’t mean it that way when he instituted this memorial and Luther’s insistence with Zwingli on just pounding the table and saying “This is my body” just fails to deal with the metaphorical use of language. It is just silly to insist that all language has to be literal. The same point about not really taking seriously the fact that Christ has a literal resurrection body.

Lutherans might try to escape this latter problem by saying Christ’s body is ubiquitous now. Remember the divine attribute of omnipresence has been communicated over to the resurrection body of Christ so that it is everywhere. So you are not just sort of eating on his finger or earlobe when you take the Lord’s Supper. The problem is that this doctrine of the ubiquity of the body I think seriously confuses the two natures of Christ. You may remember when we did our section on Christology – the doctrine on the person of Christ – we saw that the Council of Chalcedon said that there are two natures in Christ – human and divine – and that these must not be altered or changed or confused or blended together. It seems to me that this Lutheran doctrine clearly violates Chalcedon in confusing the natures. It says that the attributes of one nature are communicated over to the other nature. Therefore the two natures are confused. I think what we should say is that the two natures of Christ remain distinct and that the human nature of Christ, though exalted, is still a human nature. It doesn’t possess the properties of the divine nature. So I am not persuaded by the real presence in consubstantiation either.

What about number three – the Reformed view of a kind of spiritual parallelism that is going on here where you feast spiritually upon Christ in the Eucharist? Well, that is less problematic than these other views, but nevertheless I guess I would want to know here what makes the Lord’s Supper on this view any different than other activities that are spiritual in nature whereby we feed upon Christ? Why does that make taking the Lord’s Supper, if you don’t think of it in terms of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ but just a kind of spiritual presence,[2] how is that any different than when I feed upon Christ in my daily Bible study time and my prayer time or when I come before the Lord in worship corporately or in just thousands of other ways in which we fellowship and commune with Christ? I don’t see that there would be something special or different about the Lord’s Supper than there would be about these many other ways in which we feed upon Christ spiritually and are strengthened by him.

Of course, one needs to add in this regard that on the ordinance view one isn’t denying the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper at all. On the ordinance view, when we meet to take the Lord’s Supper together of course we believe that Christ is there spiritually present among us and that we can commune with him as we meditate upon his sacrifice and look forward to his coming again. So of course there is a spiritual presence of Christ there. If that is all that is meant then it is not really any different than the ordinance view.

To my thinking, the best understanding of the Lord’s Supper that fits with what Jesus originally intended and with the texts that we read from Paul is that in the Lord’s Supper Christ is present in his divine nature but not in his human nature. Christ’s human nature is ascended into heaven, and he will remain there until his coming again. His human nature is not present in this physical spacetime universe anymore. He is ascended and gone. Remember he said, I am going to send you another Comforter to be with you until I come again. So in his absence (that is, his physical absence) the Holy Spirit stands in for Christ to minister to his church and strengthen his church until Christ comes again. But it will only be with the second coming of Christ that there will be the bodily physical return of Christ again to this four-dimensional spacetime universe. For that reason I think that the ordinance view is the best view. When we take the Lord’s Supper this is a metaphor for remembering Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross which won our forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and we take it looking forward to the day when he will be physically present again with us in the eschaton – at the marriage feast of the Lamb. But in his absence we celebrate this memorial feast looking forward to that day again.

So is Christ really present in the Eucharist? Well, yes! Spiritually he is there in his divine nature really present. But I don’t think we should think that he is really present there in his physical nature which is ascended to heaven and will not be with us again until his coming again.

That is my assessment of these views.


Student: I think you are correct in the ordinance view. It is the same thing as being present spiritually. I think the Lord confirms that when he was telling them, You must eat my flesh and drink my blood or you have no part with me. This is hard – even his disciples said that. He said, The flesh profits nothing. The Spirit is what gives life. That would . . . the ordinance you are contemplating what you are taking in, and through his Word, and you believe, and you are saying, OK, you really did that for me. I think he is supporting that position.

Dr. Craig: OK. You are referring to John 6 where Christ talks about being the bread of life that has come down from heaven and, You must eat and drink me to have life.

Student: I am just curious as to whether or not the Scriptures teach that in order for salvation to occur you must believe in one position to the exclusion of the other?

Dr. Craig: I think we can confidently answer that question by saying: no. None of this is above what I call the cut-off line. Maybe I could address the question: what constitutes heresy? I don’t think heresy is simply false doctrine.[3] We probably would all be heretics if you have a false doctrine. To be heresy, it has to be a cardinal doctrine that is so serious that if you don’t hold to it you forfeit salvation. It has to be, as I put it, above the cut-off line. There are very few Christian doctrines, I think, that are above the cut-off line – the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the physical resurrection, Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. But things like the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, infant baptism versus believer’s baptism – these are secondary issues that need not separate the brethren even I would say. Which is why I am glad that in a class like this we can welcome a diversity of viewpoints on this. I have a viewpoint, but I offer it humbly as my best assessment of the evidence but you are free to reject it and you won’t in any way jeopardize your salvation.

Student: Just a comment, and a very simple one. It just occurred to me over the last few years that a lot of times I have tended in the past to equate taking a passage literally with being a very faithful Christian. There is a big difference. Certainly there is plenty of literal truth in the Bible but being a faithful Christian would be taking that passage as intended originally and as the language reflects. That means I should not literalize everything.

Dr. Craig: That is absolutely right. I am really glad you shared that. When the psalmist says, Let the trees of the wood clap their hands before the Lord, he is not teaching botany. Right? Actually, to take many scriptural passages literally would be to distort seriously the meaning of those passages. If you thought that Hagar was really a mountain in Arabia, you’d be in serious trouble if you don’t understand allegory when you see it and metaphor when you see it. So you are absolutely right. Taking the Bible faithfully should not be equated with taking it literally.

Student: The thing that I keep going back to is when you consider how many parables are in the Bible, when you consider that Christ spoke in parables and metaphors, when he says, When two or three are gathered in my name I am with you, how did the church from the very beginning take the Lord’s Supper to mean literally his body and his blood versus a metaphor for his body and his blood when he said, This is my body and this is my blood?

Dr. Craig: This is a difficult question. We’ve actually talked about it a little bit in previous lessons on this. The difficulty, to be honest here, is there is kind of a gap between the close of the New Testament and the writings of the early church fathers. You get a few other first century documents like Ignatius and The Didache and the Shepard of Hermas, but then you get into the second century and the literature is just very, very thin here and they don’t always address these issues clearly and reflect on them theologically. The church had different agendas at that time. So it is very, very hard to figure out the development of these doctrines. But what I said the other week based upon the reading that I’ve done is that the church fathers had differing views on the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Some of them took it apparently literally. This especially became very popular in the East – in the Greek-speaking end of the empire. But the metaphorical or symbolic view was more popular in the West. Eventually the Eastern view was adopted by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and became officially the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Catholic church, at least. The Orthodox Church also holds to the real presence. This is one of those developmental things whose development I don’t think can be as clearly traced as one might like. That is why I am, as I said in previous classes, far more concerned with going back and trying to do an exegesis of the New Testament documents than trying to figure out what we should believe based upon the teaching of early church fathers.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The doctrine seems bizarre?

Student: [inaudible][4]

Dr. Craig: Not really. As I said the other week, in Ignatius you do have him referring to the flesh and blood of Christ, but it is not a treatise on the Eucharist. There isn’t any kind of treatise where this is explained and developed. Our witnesses are just very thin for these kinds of things.

Student: You said when we first started this that this discussion on the Eucharist is the sum and substance of the Catholic faith. That is quite true, it is. It was for all Christians before the Reformation. I cannot in a minute or two try to explain all the different things that you have mentioned. I am not going to try to explain it because it takes too long, it is too complicated. You have theological terminology that is misunderstood or needs explanation. So I am not going to try. But I would like to make a couple of comments. You are talking about the fathers. We will disagree there. I have not found a church father that did not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If you read any of the current (by current I mean over the last one hundred years) authors that write of the early Christian worship practices, whether it is Coleman or Pelican or Kelly or whomever, they all say that right from the beginning that the Christians believed in the real presence in the Eucharist. I’d like to just kind of take up . . . you mentioned Luther and Zwingli. Luther, when he wrote out on the table between the two of them the words of consecration - This is my body - and he told Zwingli, Prove he didn’t mean it. Now, you have to . . . this is reasonable faith we are talking about in this class. Here is the culmination of Christ’s mission and salvation history at the Last Supper and the crucifixion. I think it is pretty well agreed that he spoke Aramaic at the time. There are thirty-six words in Aramaic that Christ could have used to mean “substitutes for” or “in a symbol of” or something to indicate that he didn’t really mean it truly that this is his body. What an occasion to make such a silly mistake as to use “is” . . . I don’t want to remind anybody of Clinton and his “depends upon what ‘is’ is”, but when I first heard that a few years ago from Clinton that was the first thing that came to mind. I thought, you know, Christians do that all the time – question Christ’s words. He used “is.” The retort is, Well, he said he was a door, he said he was a vine. But those were occasions where nobody questioned. You didn’t have the disciples saying, I don’t see any hinges on him, I don’t see a doorknob. How could he be a door? But when he said in John 6, and we all know that the Synoptic Gospels have the Last Supper but John’s Gospel which was written 45 or 50 years later, he puts an exclamation point on the Last Supper discourse by referring to John 6 instead where he said, Christ says, “Eat my flesh. Eat my blood.” There is a metaphorical use of those words in the Old Testament and even in the New Testament. It is used about five or six times. But it means to persecute and to do harm to. If you use those words in John 6 in a metaphorical sense then you are literally having Christ say, unless you do harm to me you can have no life in you. It doesn’t fit. It just doesn’t fit. This is the only occasion in John 6 when he is giving the bread of life discourse that people left him for a doctrinal reason. He was speaking literally. They interpreted him as speaking literally or else they wouldn’t have left. Any occasion prior to this when somebody misunderstood him he would say, Wait. Don’t go. I am only speaking figuratively. On every occasion he did that. If he was speaking metaphorically and his disciples were leaving him, well then by golly Jesus, if he was the great teacher that he is, he would have said, Come back. I was only speaking metaphorically. But he doesn’t do that. He let’s them go.[5]

Dr. Craig: All right. I need to cut you off here in the interest of time. I wish in a sense someone had brought up John 6 earlier because I have some material on that that I would like to share but I don’t want to abuse the time. Let me just say very, very briefly about John 6, my misgivings about that. In the historical context, Jesus is not delivering this bread of life discourse at the Lord’s Supper. Its historical context is during his earthly ministry. So it is completely implausible, I think, to think that he is referring to the Eucharist when he says, Eat my flesh and drink my blood if you want to partake of me. He is not speaking in the context of the Lord’s Supper. If you do construe this as referring to the Eucharist, I think the only plausible way to do that would be to say that this is John’s interpolation back into the text. As you say, he has moved it from the Last Supper to earlier in the ministry and then he is now putting these words into Jesus’ mouth that Jesus didn’t actually speak reflecting the use of the Lord’s Supper in John’s day. I am not sure I feel all together comfortable with that, and I think there are some reasons to think that in fact it wasn’t a reflection of later sacramental theology. For example, using the word “flesh” instead of “body” is non-sacramental. Also there is no mention of the wine in this bread of life discourse. So it may not at all be sacramental. It may simply refer to what Jesus is saying, Eat of me, drink of me, that is to say, participate in me. He is prefiguring his death. He is talking about his sacrificial death to come. Much, much more could be said on that. As you say, we just don’t have time. We must, I guess, simply agree to disagree on this.


At least what we’ve done, I think, is to layout in a fair manner the different interpretations so that you’ll understand where your Christian brothers and sisters in other communities are coming from. Then I think to move on from there and to agree to just simply disagree.

I see there are a couple of hands still up. I don’t know what to do at this point. I am going to cut it off rather than keep everybody else. So I won’t take those final questions.[6]

[1] 5:19

[2] 10:08

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:13

[6] Total Running Time: 28:28 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)