Doctrine of the Church (Part 5)

May 25, 2014     Time: 00:38:43

Lord’s Supper

We are discussing the Doctrine of the Church. Today we turn from a discussion of baptism to a discussion of that other major sacrament or ordinance of the church, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

As we do so, one difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper becomes immediately evident; namely, baptism is a unique act never to be repeated whereas the Lord’s Supper is something that is regularly commemorated and repeated. Baptism, you will remember, is the climax of the conversion initiation process of becoming a Christian. So when a person undergoes baptism, this is the pinnacle of his initiation into the Christian faith – his identification with the death and resurrection of Christ and with the church, the body of Christ. Therefore this is something that is never to be repeated.

I think that it is very important that we understand the significance of that act. A few years ago when Reasonable Faith first sponsored a trip to Israel, John Herring approached me and said, “Bill, some people have expressed an interest in being baptized in the River Jordan during this trip.” And I said, “But John, have they already been baptized?” And he said, “Yes, but they want to repeat this and do it in Israel.” And I said, “John, we can’t do that. That would be completely inappropriate.” To repeat your baptism is to invalidate the earlier baptism that you underwent. It is to say, “That wasn’t really my initiation into the Christian faith and identification with the body of Christ. This act is.” Therefore, you are invalidating the baptism you underwent before. He said, “Well, think about it. It could just be a re-commitment of their lives to Christ.” I said I would think about it, but as I did so I just became all the more convinced at the inappropriateness of such an action. Baptism is a unique event whereby you identify yourself with the body of Christ and with his death and resurrection. It is an act of initiation. Therefore, to do it again is to in effect repudiate that earlier act of initiation that you underwent. So I said, “What we will do, John, is offer baptism to anyone who hasn’t undergone believer’s baptism already. Someone who has never been baptized or perhaps was baptized without their consent as an infant and now wants to undergo believer’s baptism as this act of initiation.” And there were some on the trip that wanted to do that. There was one Catholic family from Australia in particular who had young sons about eight years old who wanted to be baptized. So they were baptized by John in the Jordan River. They loved this because they could now go back and tell their friends that they had been baptized in the Jordan River by “John the Baptist.” [laughter]

Biblical Data

But now we want to look at the Lord’s Supper. And as our traditional methodology, we will first look at the biblical data concerning the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper is first of all instituted by Jesus himself. Jesus of Nazareth instituted the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Let’s look at the account found in the earliest of our Gospels, the Gospel of Mark 14:22-25. Mark says,

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Here Jesus, in initiating the Lord’s Supper, refers to “my blood of the covenant” which he identifies or says is represented by the cup of wine which they drink.[1] This phrase recalls Exodus 24:8. Look back at Exodus 24:8. Here Moses is explaining how the old covenant – the Mosaic covenant – is sealed with blood. In verse 8 of chapter 24 of Exodus it says, “And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” Here you have this phrase “the blood of the covenant” which expressed the sanctifying blood in the Old Testament. And now Jesus takes this cup while celebrating Passover and says, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” He thereby institutes the Lord’s Supper.

Secondly, let’s look at the tradition that the apostle Paul hands on concerning this event. This is one of the events in the life of Jesus that we read about not merely in the Gospels but in Paul’s epistles. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul gives some instructions concerning the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Now before I go on, this is interesting phraseology. This is the same phraseology Paul uses in chapter 15 when he says, “For what I received, I also delivered to you” and then he quotes this old four-line tradition concerning the major events of the Passion and resurrection – that Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared. So what this indicates here is that Paul is handing on historical tradition about Jesus concerning his Last Supper. He says,

I also delivered to you that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Here is a little apologetics aside on this passage that is interesting. Notice this phrase, “on the night when he was betrayed.” Even though Paul is not handing on the historical tradition of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot – he is merely talking here about the Last Supper – nevertheless this remark shows that Paul was aware of the historical context of the traditions that he delivered to his churches. These weren’t just isolated sayings without a context or historical meaning for Paul. Paul knew the historical context of the traditions that he handed on to his churches. That is seen here in his knowledge about Jesus’ betrayal in the context of delivering these traditions about the Last Supper. So what we have in the Pauline epistle, says one scholar, is just the tip of an iceberg. We see Paul’s knowledge of the historical Jesus only insofar as he is called upon to draw upon it in dealing with the situation in his local churches. If it hadn’t been for the fact that certain people in Corinth were getting drunk at the communion service, we wouldn’t have any reference in the Pauline epistles to the Lord’s Supper. Someone would surely say in that case that the Pauline churches did not celebrate the Lord’s Supper; that this was a later tradition that came to be embodied in the Gospels. But because of the accident of history that the Lord’s table was being abused in Corinth, we see here Paul’s knowledge of the historical Jesus and the context of the traditions that he hands on.[2] So what we get in the Pauline epistles is just, as I say, the tip of the iceberg. What Paul knows about the historical Jesus is much, much more vast than what you see appear in these epistles where it will just be a matter of accident in a sense that this knowledge is disclosed. So that is just an apologetics aside about the reliability and the credibility of the historical traditions that Paul hands on.

The more important point here is that we see in the letters of Paul a very similar tradition to what we read in Mark; namely, about Jesus taking bread and saying, “This is my body,” and then also the cup identifying this as “the new covenant in my blood.”

In fact, the Pauline tradition of the Last Supper is actually much closer to Luke’s version of the Last Supper than it is to Mark’s. Turn over to Luke 22:19-20. Luke says,

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

[Here you have the command to celebrate this memorial supper which isn't in Mark but it is in Paul and it is in Luke.]

And likewise the cup after supper,

[That again is something that characterizes Paul’s tradition but not Mark’s. The cup was taken after supper.]

saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

So you have in Paul and Luke very close traditions of the Last Supper that they hand on about how Jesus said that this is his body and blood and we are to celebrate this in remembrance of him.

In addition to this historical tradition that we find in Paul as well as in Mark in the Gospels, Paul gives some instructions that are noteworthy to the church in Corinth about how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Let’s look at those. This will be from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Here Paul is obviously very upset with what is going on in Corinth. He says,

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

[He is clearly angry at what is going on in Corinth]

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if any one is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

That is the biblical data concerning the practice of the Lord’s Supper.[3]


Question: Just looking at verse 23 where Paul says, “For I received from the Lord,” do you have any insight as to what that might mean? How did he receive it from the Lord?

Answer: I don’t, except to say that when you look at the 1 Corinthians passage where he uses similar language about “What I delivered to you I also received” it is not something that is by just divine revelation as one might think. That passage is full of what are called Aramaisms; that is to say, linguistic traces of an Aramaic original. So it doesn’t appear to have been originally composed in Greek. This looks like an Aramaic tradition translated into Greek that goes right back to the earliest church in Jerusalem. Most scholars think that that tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 goes back to within a few years of the crucifixion, if not a few months. So when he says “from the Lord” I don’t think he means by divine revelation. He was taught the Jesus traditions when he was in Damascus before going back to Jerusalem. He does say later on that “the Gospel which I preach did not come through men but through a revelation of the Lord,”[4] but when you look at the context what he is talking about there is his Gospel of salvation for Gentiles as well as Jews. He is saying that insight into the Gospel is original to him, or it is given to him by divine revelation. The Gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews, and so he was the apostle to the Gentiles. But in terms of the traditions about the historical Jesus, I think he learned these from those who were in Christ before him and who taught him. He was catechized as it were by early Christians who shared with Paul these Jesus traditions.

Question: It appears when they ate the Lord’s Supper, is that like a full meal that they are eating or is it more of the ceremonial type of thing that we do today?

Answer: It certainly looks like a meal, doesn’t it? Because you don’t get drunk having a little vial of wine. It was evidently a meal that they celebrated just as the original supper that Jesus ate with the disciples prior to his arrest was a meal. So this wasn’t the sort of Lord’s Supper that we celebrate today in terms of its quantity.

Theological Interpretations

Obviously, these biblical passages about the Lord’s Supper have been the subject of varying theological interpretations, and different confessions within Christendom understand the Lord’s Supper very differently from one another. Some interpret these sacramentally; that these passages indicate that in the Lord’s Supper we are accessing God’s grace in a special way. There is a means of grace here. Others think of this as merely a memorial meal that is done in remembrance of Christ. So let’s look at some of the various theological interpretations of the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

First, the strongest, and I think we can say most radical, interpretation of the Lord’s Supper will be the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is the doctrine which is taught by the Catholic Church. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the elements of the wine and the bread are actually turned into the body and blood of Christ.[5] Now, you might say, but it certainly doesn’t look that way! If you were to analyze these biologically, it is bread and it is wine! It is not blood and human flesh that is there. But here Catholic theologians have distinguished along the lines of classical Aristotelian metaphysics between substance and its accidents, or contingent properties. The substance of a thing is the thing itself – its essence. The accidents are properties that the thing has but doesn’t have to have in order to be that substance. For example, I am a human being. I am essentially a human being. But I have a certain weight, a certain skin color, a certain number of hairs on my head, a certain height. These are all accidental properties which I possess which are not necessary to me. In transubstantiation the claim is that what happens is that the substance of the bread and the wine turn into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. The bread and the wine actually become Christ’s flesh and blood in a literal sense. But the accidents of the bread and the wine remain so that it looks like bread and wine because the color, the taste, the consistency, the porousness, the liquidity, the other properties of the bread and the wine are held constant even though it has undergone a substantial change. So in the doctrine of transubstantiation we have this very radical view that the elements of the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord’s Supper) actually are transformed into the body and blood of Christ even though they retain the accidental properties of bread and wine.

Now this occasions a question: when the communicant takes the blood and the body of Christ and eats them and digests them, why isn’t the body and blood of Christ sort of eaten up after a while? Is there a sort of infinite body and blood? Remember we are talking about the human nature of Christ, not the divine nature. In his divine nature, the second person of the Trinity is immaterial. He doesn’t have a body. So we are talking about the human[6] nature of Christ. So as communicants eat the body of Jesus and drink his blood, one might ask, “Why isn’t it all consumed? Why isn’t he eaten up?” And I asked this question once of a Fordham University philosopher who is a priest, and he said, “You don’t consume the substance in the Lord’s Supper. You only eat the accidents.” And it was like the veil fell from my eyes. I suddenly understood. When the communicant takes the elements in, he doesn’t really consume or digest the body and blood of Christ. He only consumes the accidents. And that is why it is not used up. That puts a somewhat different spin on transubstantiation. I remember one Catholic girl saying to me once that she liked the doctrine of transubstantiation because it made her feel so close to Christ, that she was actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood. It was such an intimate union. Well, that is not really true on the classic doctrine. She is really only consuming the accidents of the bread and the wine, not the substance of the Lord’s body and blood.

So this is the most radical view of the Lord’s Supper. The elements of the bread and the wine are turned into the body (or flesh) and the blood of Christ and then taken by the communicant. As such, this is a means of grace.[7] You are receiving the body and blood of the Lord. This is a sacrament whereby you receive the grace of God. So the Second Vatican Council, in their document “The Church,” chapter 11 says the Eucharistic sacrifice is “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.”[8] That is a strong statement. The fount (that is, the source), the apex (that is, the pinnacle) of the whole Christian life is found in the Mass, in the Eucharistic sacrifice. This becomes the center of the Christian life because you are receiving Christ in taking it.

Let’s say a word about the history of this doctrine of transubstantiation. Early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, had used language of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. There was a real presence of Christ there. But the church father Cyprian, at least, took these elements of the bread and the wine to be at best symbolic of the body and blood. They weren’t transformed into the body and blood of Christ. They were simply symbolic. But then during the third century after Christ, and especially in the East in the Greek speaking part of the Roman Empire, the view of the elements as signs, types, or figures, gave way to a substantial identification of the elements with the body and blood of the Lord and an actual change of the elements into the body and blood of the Lord.

Cyril of Alexandria, for example, asserts that the elements are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. An especially important figure is St. John of Damascus (or John Damascene) – his dates are 675 to 749. In John Damascene we have the full-fledged doctrine of transubstantiation. He denies that there is any sort of dual reality there of bread and wine along with body and blood. Rather, the elements are actually changed into, transformed, and become the body and blood of Jesus.

By contrast, in the West, Augustine and most of the Western theologians tended to be symbolists – that there wasn’t an actual transubstantiation taking place, but that these elements represented the body and blood of Christ. But in the East the view of transubstantiation gained ground and later, as we will see, was ratified as official Catholic doctrine.

The controversy between a symbolic understanding and a substantial understanding of the elements occurred again in the 9th and in the 11th centuries. They became a matter of theological dispute. In the 9th century, Radbertus and Ratramnus disputed the nature of the elements. That was around 860. Radbertus was a realist and held that this really was the body and blood of the Lord. By contrast, Ratramnus said that these were mere symbols of the body and blood of the Lord. So there was controversy. This controversy broke out again in the 11th century, this time between Lanfranc (his dates are around 1089; he was a realist and believed in the transformation into the body and blood) and Berengarius (he was the symbolist in this dispute and his date is about 1088.)[9] So the debate between symbolists and realists has cropped up historically in the Roman Catholic Church periodically. But in the year 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council promulgated transubstantiation as official Catholic doctrine. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council said that the substance of the bread and the wine literally become the flesh and the blood of Christ. So that is official Catholic doctrine.


Question: I would just challenge the notion of Tertullian. If you read enough of him, he says that the bread and wine are figures – like, “This is a figure of my body.” That is, it turns figuratively into his body and blood. He has two senses of the word “figure.” One is a mere symbol; the second is like imagery as in visions. So both of them are non-realist uses. You look at “figuratively,” every time he uses it in his writings it means a mere metaphor. There is not one exception in all of his known writings. I went through this for an assignment.

Answer: Good! When I said that these early church fathers spoke of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that isn’t necessarily to say that they believed in his physical, bodily presence in terms of the body and blood of Christ. As we will see when we get to Reformed churches, they would agree that there is a real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. But they would deny any sort of transubstantiation or consuming of the blood and the flesh of the Lord. So all I was saying there was that you have the notion in some of these early church fathers of a real presence. But then how that is to be interpreted, that gets unfolded later on as the doctrine of transubstantiation develops.

Question: Aside from the many problems of that, the one right at the start is when Jesus is observing the first Lord’s Supper, they are under the Law. The apostles are under the Law so if it was his body and blood then they would all have been guilty of breaking the Law by eating blood.

Answer: Well, we will get to the question of assessment of these views later on. First I want to lay out all the views as fairly as I can, and then we will talk about assessing them later on. Right now, these are just comprehension questions.

Question: You are saying that this is a Catholic doctrine. Are there any Protestant denominations that also believe in transubstantiation or is this primarily Catholic?

Answer: Not to my knowledge. Now, as we will see, in the Lutheran church, they also do believe that the communicant eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ. But their view is subtly different than transubstantiation. So I am not aware of any Protestant group that believes that the substance of the bread and the wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ.

Question: This may be pretty simplistic, but when he did it the first time - when Jesus presented that - he is there in his full body and he is presenting that bread and wine and saying “This is my body” but in fact he was there fully incarnated at that point in time. Now, I know you said wait for the assessment on that?

Answer: Yes, again, that is not dissimilar from the earlier point. Both of these points are good points but we will take them up later.

Question: In creating a covenant in the Old Testament when they would split the animals in two and there was blood always involved, they never drank any of the blood and eating the flesh of the split animal. A covenant means cut – to cut a covenant – but there was no actual drinking of the blood involved. The covenant wasn’t sealed with drinking of the blood; it was the spilling of the blood. So I wonder what the analogy is.

Answer: That does make Jesus’ actions radically different in that here he commands them to drink.[10] “This is my blood, drink ye all of it. This bread, eat it, it is my body which is for you.” So you are right, that is dissimilar to what you have in the old covenant which is just the shedding of blood. Again, I see your point. You are saying that is an argument in favor of symbolism, but we will get to assessment later on. Right now we are just trying to understand the doctrine.

Question: In the third century, the Eastern churches tended to be more literal, but are the Orthodox churches still literal?

Answer: As far as I know, that is right. This would be something that would be in Orthodoxy as well. You have the body and blood of Christ.

Question: This might be an assessment question but for me tied up in this doctrine is that the Catholic Church has so elevated this one doctrine so that if we don’t believe this one thing then we are anathema and cursed. Did that come at this 1215 conference or was that later that the church said if you don’t believe in transubstantiation then you are anathema?

Answer: I don’t know whether there were anathemas attached to the Fourth Lateran Council or not, but you need to understand from a Catholic point of view, again, the church is itself a sacrament. It is a means of grace. This is how God’s saving grace is appropriated. So a person who knows that the Catholic Church is the channel of God’s grace and deliberately repudiates it separates himself from salvation. That is not to say that there can’t be misguided brethren, Protestants say, who don’t recognize that the Catholic Church is this primal sacrament, and so who are still saved even though they are separated from the Catholic Church. They would be separated brethren but those who would really be condemned would be those who know that the Catholic Church is God’s means of salvation and who will not partake of it and take part of it.

Followup: So if I just don’t know that?

Answer: Yeah, if you don't know it, you are better off in this case. It is sort of like that verse in Scripture, “It would be better for them never to have known the way of salvation than having known it and walk away from it.”[11] Because with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility.

Followup: So their view would not be that they’ve cursed me but that I’ve cursed the Catholic Church.

Answer: Yes, that’s right. Exactly. You’ve repudiated God’s grace by pushing it away.

There is one other element of the Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that we will want to look at next time, and that is the extent to which the Eucharist is a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Is the body and blood of Christ being offered again to God as a sacrifice for the sins of the people? As we will see, again, there is ambiguity on this question in the Catholic doctrine.[12]

[1] 5:11

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:41

[4] cf. Galatians 1:12

[5] 20:04

[6] Dr. Craig misspeaks and says we are talking about the divine nature of Christ, but clearly he means the human nature of Christ.

[7] 25:02

[8] cf. “Lumen Gentium,” Chapter II “On the People of God,” §11. See (accessed May 26, 2014).

[9] 30:05

[10] 35:02

[11] cf. 2 Peter 2:21

[12] Total Running Time: 38:43 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)