Doctrine of the Church (Part 7)

June 09, 2014     Time: 00:40:52

We have been studying the Lord’s Supper, and we looked at the Catholic view which involves transubstantiation – that is to say, the change of the elements of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, which are then presented to God as a sacrificial offering. We saw then the Lutheran view which involves consubstantiation. That is to say, the elements remain bread and wine but the body and the blood of Christ are present with them, in them, through them, under them, and the communicant actually receives the body and the blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Reformed Interpretation

Now we turn to a third view which is yet weaker in its view of the Lord’s Supper, and that would be the Reformed view. There are a couple of different Reformed perspectives on the Lord’s Supper. Calvin’s own view that he practiced in Geneva is that the Lord’s Supper involves a spiritual presence of Christ. It is not a transformation of the elements. It is not even consubstantiation. Rather, in the Lord’s Supper the sacrament confirms what has already happened in a spiritual way. The body and the blood of Christ are spiritually present. So there is a kind of spiritual communion that takes place at the Lord’s Supper by the communicant. So it is still a means of grace, but it is not a physical reception of the body and the blood of the Lord, but rather a spiritual communion with him.

Ordinance Interpretation

A weaker Reformed view, and this would be the fourth view, would be that this is simply an ordinance. It is not a sacrament. It is not a means of grace. This would have been the view of the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli actually met with Martin Luther to have a very famous colloquy over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. For Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper didn’t even involve the spiritual presence of the body and blood of Christ. Rather, the Lord’s Supper is simply a memorial meal that the communicant takes in remembrance of Christ. It is a way of remembering Christ and his sacrifice. Therefore, it is simply an ordinance, not a sacrament. This would be the view that would characterize typically Baptist churches. The Lord’s Supper is not a means of grace. It is an ordinance that we participate in on a regular basis in order to remember the Lord’s sacrifice, to examine ourselves, and to remember what he has done on our behalf.

So we have these four contrasting views of the Lord’s Supper, from a very strong sacramentalism with the Catholic view and the Eastern Orthodox view, right down to the Baptistic view: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, spiritual presence and communion with the Lord, or simply an ordinance and memorial supper.


Question: Being a Baptist, I am of the ordinance view. But I am curious to understand how that is different from the spiritual presence because if you remember what Christ has done you have a freshness and the Spirit wells up within you. You are filled with the Spirit. You are walking in the Spirit. There is no difference that I can see.

Answer: I have trouble with that as well. I will say something about that in the assessment. Certainly Baptists who celebrate the Lord’s Supper wouldn’t want to deny the presence of the Lord there with you and a spiritual fellowship with him. How does that differ substantially from Calvin’s view? We will talk about that in a minute.[1]

Question: I would like a clarification on the consubstantiation view. If I remember correctly from what you said last time, they believe that the body and blood of Christ are in and around and all that in the elements because they are basically everywhere. So wouldn’t that make any food like communion food?

Answer: Right. That is, I think, a difficulty in terms of explaining consubstantiation. It would mean that when Jim takes a bite of his cookie he is also eating the body of Christ. They would have to say that there is something special about the Lord’s Supper that enables his body to be ingested and his blood drunk in a way that is not the case when you eat any ordinary meal. For that, you’d need to go beyond this doctrine of the communication of the attributes and the ubiquity of the body of Christ because otherwise you get the conclusion that you’ve just mentioned. So, yes, I agree with you. If this is meant to explain it, it doesn’t do a good job. But maybe they would simply say that that is part of the mystery and that we cannot fully explain how it is that the body and blood is specially present in a way that it is not present anywhere else.

Question: You said that one of the Reformed views is Calvin’s. Are there others?

Answer: Zwingli was Reformed, and so the most important contrast would be between Zwingli (who is Swiss) and Calvin (who is French) and their different perspectives. Of course, there are many other Reformed thinkers like Knox and Butzer and others but this is the major rift within Reformed thinking about the Lord’s Supper – it would be between Zwingli and Calvin.

Assessment of Alternatives

Let’s go now to an assessment of these competing positions.

First, what might we say about transubstantiation? It seems to me that this is a doctrine which does not enjoy plausible scriptural support. I think it is so evident that this is not taught by Jesus at the Last Supper in that when Jesus instituted the Last Supper – when he spoke the words of institution (“This is my body. This is my blood.”) – he was there physically with them. His body was in front of them. His blood was coursing through his veins. So, of course, this is not literal when he shows them the bread and hands them the cup and says, “This is my body; this is my blood.” That is, I think, just evident in the fact that he was corporeally present with them. So the words of institution, I think, do not provide any basis for thinking that he is talking about a literal transubstantiation of the elements before them.

Indeed, this is really a rather typical Semitic use of imagery. Let’s look at a couple other examples for Semitic imagery. 1 Corinthians 10:3-4. Here Paul is talking about how the Israelites, as they passed through Sinai, were fed by the manna. Then you will remember God miraculously supplied water for them as well. He says, “all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Now here you have this image of Christ as the rock from which the water flowed. It doesn’t mean Christ is literally a rock or that the rock is literally Christ. It is using this imagery. Similarly, look over at Galatians 4 for another use of this kind of imagery. Galatians 4:25. Here Paul is using Sarah and Hagar as images of the two covenants – the old and the new covenant. In verse 23 he says,

But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

Here he says Hagar is Mount Sinai, and moreover is the present Jerusalem.[2] This is an image of the old covenant. Sarah represents the new covenant, the New Jerusalem. Again, obviously, it would be inept to take this in some sort of literal sense – that Hagar is a mountain in Arabia, or that she is a city in Judea. Rather, this is the use of images for these things.

So when Jesus says, “This is my body which is for you,” and gives them the bread, or, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood,” he is doing a symbolic presentation of a prophetic action. Very often in the Old Testament, the prophets would be asked by God to do some sort of an action that would symbolize or be an image of the message that they were proclaiming to Israel. I think that is what you have here in the Lord’s Supper – a symbolic, prophetic action which symbolizes the giving of Christ’s life. In Isaiah 53:12 we read,

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.

Here is a prophecy of how his life would be given. The servant of God would give his life for sin. I think this is what Jesus is representing in giving the symbols of the bread and the wine.

Our more sacramental brethren – Catholics and Lutherans – might say, “But you are ignoring one of the most powerful New Testament passages in support of the real presence in the body and blood of Jesus, namely John 6. You haven’t said anything about John 6.” Well, that is right because I don’t think that this is a Eucharistic passage. I don’t think this has anything to do with the celebration of the Eucharist. This is Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life and his telling people that he is the bread of life and that one must therefore eat of this bread in order to experience eternal life. Let’s turn to John 6 and look at this passage. John 6 beginning in verse 35 and then we will pick up at 41-42 and then 48-51.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. . . .”

The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” . . .

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Notice here that Jesus isn’t talking about the Eucharist. The context here is not the Last Supper. This is a discourse that Jesus gives during the period of his ministry. The context is not the Last Supper. And we have many other examples in John of where Jesus uses symbols like “the bread of life;” symbols which his hearers misunderstood by taking them too literally. So, for example, look at John 3:3-4, Jesus’ discourse on the new birth.[3] Speaking to Nicodemus,

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Here Nicodemus’ literalism prevented an understanding of what Jesus was talking about – spiritual rebirth. He thought he was talking literally.

Or, turn the page over to John 4:10-12. This is when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the city well:

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?”

Again, she is interpreting what he is saying literally – “How can you draw from the well when you don’t have a bucket? Where are you going to get this living water” It was her literalism that prevented her from truly understanding what Jesus meant.

Similarly in John 4:31-33:

Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?”

They thought he was talking literally again. They said, “Who brought this guy something to eat? We’re not aware that anybody has given him anything to eat.” Jesus is talking about a different kind of food – a spiritual sustenance.

One more example. John 11:11-12. It is interesting how these are in the Gospel of John, isn’t it? This is before departing to Lazarus’ grave site:

Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”

No need to risk your life going to Bethany. If he is just asleep he’ll be fine. Then Jesus said, “He’s dead! I need to go and address the situation.”

So I think you can see that John frequently will use symbols to express deeper spiritual truths. This eating and drinking motif that we find in John 6 is plausibly part of this – “eating the bread of life” and “drinking his blood.” In fact, in the Jewish intertestamental literature in the book of Sirach 24:19-21 we have a kind of parallel to this: “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. . . . Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.” Here we have the idea of eating and drinking of the Lord. So it is not unusual that Jesus would employ this kind of symbolic imagery to talk about a kind of spiritual feasting upon Christ.

This is, I think, the case if these words were actually uttered by the historical Jesus. They are not in a Eucharistic context. These are in the ministry of Jesus. He seems to be speaking here symbolically. But suppose someone says this is later Johannine theology; that this passage represents the early church’s theology in John’s community, and they are looking back on it and writing this in the sense of the Eucharist.[4]

So they would say, “Look at verses 52-59.” Jesus refers to his death already in verse 51, but look at 52 to 59:

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”

Now, I think the difficulty in interpreting this as a kind of later retrojection of Eucharistic theology is the question, “Why isn’t the passage inserted into the Lord’s Supper?” Why here in the midst of Jesus’ ministry? Why not put it in the context of the Lord’s Supper? You might say, “But John already has a tradition of the Lord’s Supper and so doesn’t have room for it there.” Ah! That is not true. One of the funny things about the Gospel of John is that it has no Lord’s Supper narrative unlike the other three Gospels. The other three Gospels have the story of Jesus celebrating the Last Supper, giving the bread, blessing the cup – it is not in the Gospel of John. This could have been easily inserted there as a perfect expression of the Eucharist but it is not done so. That suggests that this isn’t to be interpreted in those terms.

In fact, the use of the title “the Son of Man,” I think, suggests that this is not later Johannine theology. The Son of Man was Jesus’ favorite self-designation. Some eighty times in the Gospels he refers to himself as the Son of Man. But only once outside the Gospels (in the book of Acts) do you find Jesus referred to as the Son of Man.[5] This was not a church title. This wasn’t a title employed in later Christian theology. So that suggests that we are dealing here with a tradition that comes out of Jesus’ ministry and should not be interpreted Eucharistically but simply as a kind of symbol of feasting spiritually upon Christ and imbibing the life that he gives.

In any case, even if this were a Eucharistic passage, the question is still to be settled – is it to be taken literally or metaphorically? Does eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ mean this in a literal sense or is it to be taken metaphorically? So even this passage interpreted at face value I don’t think settles the debate in terms of transubstantiation.

So I don’t think that there is good biblical evidence for thinking that in the Lord’s Supper the bread and the wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of the Lord. In fact, I want to here press an objection to this point of view. And that is that it confuses the resurrection body of Christ. It seems confused with respect to Christ’s resurrection body. Christ’s resurrection body is a physical, corporeal, humanoid organism that the disciples could see and touch and that has now departed from our spacetime universe but someday he will personally come again. We shouldn’t think of the resurrection body of Christ as some sort of immaterial, spiritual reality. This is to depreciate and fail to understand the physical, corporal nature of the resurrection of the dead, both in Jewish thinking and in early Christian theology. So when you really understand that the body of Christ is his resurrection body, I think you can see that this is obviously not being eaten and his blood drunk by Christians all around the world.[6] For one thing, it wouldn’t be large enough to feed all the persons who are taking the Lord’s Supper at any time in the world. The resurrection body of Christ is a finite, physical, humanoid body, and to spiritualize it away is to fail to do justice to the doctrine of the resurrection.

So I have difficulty with this doctrine, not only because of its lack of biblical support, but because I think it fundamentally runs up against the proper understanding of Christ’s resurrection body. So I am not persuaded that transubstantiation is a correct view.

What about consubstantiation? The same objections that I’ve just shared would apply to consubstantiation as well. We are not literally drinking the blood and eating the body of Christ. But in addition to that, I would also press a further objection against consubstantiation that has already been mentioned in the class, namely, it confuses the two natures of Christ. Remember when we dealt with the person of Christ and talked about the guidelines for legitimate Christological speculation about Christ, we saw that the watchword from the Council of Chalcedon is that you must not divide the person or confound the natures. There is one Christ in two distinct natures; one person in two natures. You must not divide the person so you get two persons. But you must not confuse the natures so that they become confounded together. That seems to me to be exactly what happens in Lutheran theology with respect to the communication of the attributes saying that the attributes of invisibility, immateriality, and ubiquity are communicated over to the human nature of Christ. This confounds the natures and so is unacceptable Christologically.

What then about the Reformed view, that there is a spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper? What I would want to say here is that either this doesn’t make sense at all or else it is true but it is true of all sorts of various activities in which Christ is spiritually present. If Calvin meant that the real body and blood of Jesus are spiritually present – not corporally or physically or carnally he would say, but spiritually – then frankly I don’t know what he is talking about because, as I said, it is inherent to the resurrection body of Christ that it is corporal and carnal (that is to say, carnal in the sense of being made of flesh, not in the sense of being sinful). It is a physical body that Christ rose from the dead with. That body, if it is present non-physically and non-bodily, then isn’t a body. That just is nonsense. That is a contradiction in terms. So if you say that Christ is present in his divine nature, in his spiritual nature, I would certainly agree with that; but then that is true of many activities in which we engage, isn’t it? He is spiritually present in your devotional time as you read and pray and as you worship in worship services. You sing hymns as you share your faith – Christ is present. We will often experience a deep spiritual communion with him.

So in that sense the Lord’s Supper isn’t really a sacrament. It is an ordinance. Those who hold to the view of the Last Supper as an ordinance wouldn’t deny the spiritual presence of Christ. Of course they would say that he is present. But he would say that he is present not in his human nature (which is ascended to heaven and will not come again until the return of Christ) but he is present in his divine nature – his omnipresent, spiritual, immaterial, divine nature. So in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we commune with Christ in his divine nature, or through the Holy Spirit, but his physical human nature is not present because that is arisen and ascended and will not return until the Second Coming, which will be the final locus that we will talk about in this survey of Christian doctrine – the Doctrine of the Last Things.[7]

So for my thinking, I would go with the ordinance view, not only of baptism but also with respect to the Lord’s Supper. It is a memorial celebration in which we remember Christ’s death on our behalf, we examine ourselves to see if we are holding to the faith, we confess our sins, and we commune with Christ spiritually as he is spiritually present among us.


Question: It almost sounds like your view is almost in between Zwingli and Calvin. I have got a question though. If the Lord’s Supper is no different than any other form of worship, why then do we have some instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 where it talks about how serious the Lord’s Supper is? It says, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself and in so doing he has to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It is talking here about a discernment that we are supposed to apply. It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that if you worship in an unworthy manner you are guilty of sinning against the body and blood. Or it doesn’t say if you are doing your devotion wrong. But for this we actually have a warning in Scripture. That to me seems like there is more going on here than just maybe the presence of the Holy Spirit. It sounds like the second person of the Trinity could also be present.

Answer: Again, my objection to that would be what I’ve said about the nature of the resurrection body. For me, the doctrine of the resurrection just lies at the heart of Christianity. It was the subject that I did my doctoral work in Germany on, and so anything that runs up against what I understand to be the correct doctrine of the resurrection of the body is going to be immediately unacceptable. So I cannot see that Christ is present in his resurrection body in the Lord’s Supper. But when Paul talks about discerning the body, as he says, and how important this is, I would think of this as reflecting the importance of what we are doing symbolically there. I am identifying with Christ and his shed blood and his body given for me. This isn’t something to be done lightly or cavalierly. So please don’t understand me to be depreciating the significance of the Lord’s Supper. I think when we undergo this act, just as when we undergo baptism (which I don’t take sacramentally), this is deadly serious. We are identifying with Christ in his death and resurrection, we are remembering him, and we are examining ourselves. To do that in a cavalier or unworthy manner I would say is a serious sin because of what you are symbolically doing. But I am not persuaded that that requires us to say that this involves a real physical presence of Christ’s body and blood.

Question: I have a couple of questions from the live stream. How often and when did the earliest church participate in the Lord’s Supper? Also, did the early church fathers hold to a material view of the Eucharist?

Answer: I’m not sure I understood the second question. I don’t think we know how frequently it was celebrated. It could well have been weekly; that whenever they met for worship on the Lord’s Day that they would eat together. But there doesn’t seem to be any sort of rule or pattern laid down in the New Testament for how frequently this is to be done. Churches that would regard this as a means of grace – sacramental – would obviously see more importance, I think, in doing it more frequently because, as someone said, this is like driving up to the gas station and getting your tank filled. So that would perhaps see it as more vital to sustaining the Christian life and keeping it going.

What was the second question?

Followup: Did the early church fathers hold to a material view of the Eucharist? I think that is the transubstantiation view of the Eucharist.

Answer: We talked about that, I think, two lessons ago. We saw that there were certain church fathers that believed in a real presence though it is not clear if that meant transubstantiation.[8] That needs to be distinguished. Then there was dispute as well. There were others, such as Cyprian, who didn’t hold to a literal view. We saw that this became a matter of dispute later on in the church. It wasn’t until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that transubstantiation was actually promulgated as an official Catholic doctrine.

Question: As a Catholic, I have serious problems with your objections.

Answer: I can imagine! [laughter]

Followup: There are so many I’m not even going to get started. But I did want to mention or at least bring up a couple of things. Your objection sounds Clinton-esque, if you will, when it says, “This is my body.” Remember Clinton said, “Depends upon what ‘is’ is.” Whether Jesus was speaking in Greek or Aramaic at the Last Supper, he had somewhere between 17 to 22 (I’ve heard) different words in either language that the Holy Spirit could have chosen to represent “symbolizes” or “stands for” or “represents.” But the Holy Spirit chose “is.” So I will leave that for consideration.

In John 6, you said it is not Eucharistic. When Jesus was talking to those in the crowd, they were taking him literally. Why would a great teacher like Christ allow all of these disciples to depart because they misunderstood if he was only speaking symbolically? They understood him to be speaking literally, and they departed. He didn’t say, “No, come back. I was only speaking symbolically.” He let them go. He was so emphatic in the first number of times he uses the word “eat” (he uses one word) and when they weren’t getting it, he changed the word to trogo which means “chew on” – literally, physically chew on. He was trying to emphasize the whole point that he meant “eat.” It wasn’t allegorical, it wasn’t symbolic.

You are talking about the church fathers. Ignatius of Antioch in 107, when he was being taken to Rome to be martyred, wrote letters to the various churches that he passed on the way to Rome. He spoke about the heretics. The main thing about the heretics of the time were the fact that they did not accept the fact that that is truly, physically, our Lord’s body and blood. That was the definition of a heretic in the early church.

I could go on, but I’ll leave that.

Answer: We can continue this discussion next Sunday. That’s the great thing about meeting on a continual basis.

Let me just say, I think the most important point that you raised would be the one about Jesus not correcting their misunderstanding when they take it literally, because they obviously did take it literally. I guess I think that that is basically an argument from silence because we saw several other examples in the Gospel of John where people misunderstand Jesus’ speaking in a symbolic way, and he will correct them as he did Nicodemus. But then, on the other hand, if he doesn’t correct them in this case, I don’t see any reason to think that this isn’t part of his pattern of speaking in deeper spiritual truths that the masses misunderstand and, in this case, doesn’t bother to correct.

Question: If you go on in John 6, and you go down to verse 60,

Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

Answer: So you are saying here he does qualify it.

Followup: Jesus sent those disciples away because he knew they were not believing in him. But his disciples that he is teaching, he is taking them because they are his own. He is saying here, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Answer: Yeah, and that the flesh is of no avail.

We will save this for next time and we’ll continue our discussion.[9]


[1] 5:00

[2] 10:28

[3] 15:17

[4] 20:08

[5] cf. Acts 7:55-56

[6] 25:08

[7] 30:00

[8] 35:04

[9] Total Running Time: 40:52 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)