If we were to browse a Christian bookstore it would be rare to find even one book explaining the nature and significance of the Lord's Supper. Suprisingly, this is in striking contrast to previous generations in the history of the Christian Church. As Keith A. Mathison notes during the Reformation period more books were published on the Lord's Supper than the doctrine of justification. I have always thought the Lord's Supper was merely a "symbol" or a "mental recollection" of the person and work of Christ. But, as I studied Scripture and read the historical development of the doctrine from the Patristic age to the modern period I have concluded that the Lord's Supper is more than a mental-recollection of what Christ has done but a "means of grace." As J.V Fesko once stated, "any serious study of doctrine must be done with an awareness of its antecedent history" (8). So, in this post I will give a brief overview and by no means an exhaustive description of the four major views of the Lord's Supper: 1) Transubstantiation (Roman Catholic); 2) Consubstantiation (Lutheran); 3) Symbolic Memorialism (Zwinglian) and 4) Suprasubstantiation (Reformed). Then I will provide a summary and conclude by arguing for the Reformed view of the Lord's Supper from Scripture.
Transubstantiation (Roman Catholic)
First, the doctrine of transubstantiation argues that the elements (bread and wine) in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper the sacrament transform into the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. Hence, the English term "transubstantiation" is used which comes from the the Latin, transubstantiatio, which literally means "a change in the substance of." The doctrine was affirmed as a binding dogma in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and was later elaborated by Thomas Aquinas in Aristotelian terms and adopted by the Council of Trent (Horton 804). When the priest spoke words of consecration over the elements in the Mass the accidents (outward appearance) remained the same whereas the substance changed into Christ's literal body and blood. In Roman Catholicism the Lord's Supper was also viewed as an Eucharistic sacrifice. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" asserted that "the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice" (par. 137). However, Reformed Protestants later argued that the notion of an "Eucharistic sacrifice" contradicts Scripture becauses it advocates the notion of a repeated divine sacrifice (Heb. 7:27). Then Martin Luther in his famous work, "Bablyonian Captivity of the Church" critiqued the the Roman Catholic position on the Lord's Supper and offered an alternative interpretation to which we now consider.
Second, the doctrine of consubstantiation argues that the elements do not transform into the body and blood of Christ but rather that Christ comes to the elements with His true body and blood. Luther said, "We do not make Christ's body out of the bread...Nor do we say that his body comes into existence out of that bread. We say that his body, which long ago was made and came into existence is present when we say, 'This is my body" (37:187, Luther Works). He observed that Scripture did not say, "Let this become my body" or "Make my body there" but "This is my body" (1 Cor. 11:24). He advocated the doctrine of "ubiquity" which affirms that omnipresence is attributed to the human nature of Christ through the communication of divine properties. In other words, Christ is present with the elements because His body has the ability to be present in more than one place simultaneously (Mathison 258). However, some have argued that the doctrine of ubiquity is unbiblical because it confuses the divine and human nature of Christ. Historically, this departs from the Chalcedonian definition of the nature and person of Christ. The problem with this view is that if the human nature of Christ is omnipresent it is no longer truly human and essentially becomes Eutychianism applied to the Lord's Supper. Now, that we have briefly discussed consubstantion let us consider symbolical memorialism articulated by Zwingli.
Symbolic Memorialism (Zwinglian)
Third, the doctrine of symbolic memorialism argues that the elements do not transform into the body and blood of Christ nor that Christ comes with the elements but rather the Lord's Supper is a symbol that recalls the person and work of Christ. In contradistinction to the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed view of the Lord's Supper it denies the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. According to symbolic memorialists Keith Mathison states, "Christ is present in the sacrament only to the degree that each individual subjectively brings him and his work to mind" (265). We see this view articulated in a number of confessions such as "The Statement of Baptist Faith and Message" (1925) which asserts that the Lord's Supper is an ordinance by which the church "commemorates the dying love of Christ." Millard Erickson, a distinguished Baptist theologian also argues for symbolic memorialism in his popular book "Christian Theology." However, Reformed theologians later provided critique to Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Zwinglian understanding of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper.
Fourth, the doctrine of suprasubstantiation argued that there is a real presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. But, it is important to not confuse their view with transubstantiation which argues that the elements transform into the body and blood of Christ nor with consubstantiation which argues that Christ comes with the elements. Rather, they asserted that Christ is present in heaven but by virtue of the Holy Spirit our souls are lifted to partake the flesh and blood of our Lord. Our mouth eats the sign (bread and wine) whereas the mouth of faith eats that which the sign signifies, namely, Christ and the benefits of the covenant of grace (Hyde 154). The sign (bread and wine) and the signified (Christ) are distinct in the Lord's Supper but not seperated just as the divine and human nature in the person of Christ are distinct but not seperated as in Nestorianism. Reformed theologians also emphasized that the Lord's Supper is the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. This is why John Calvin argued for frequent observance because the promises of God articulated in the Word preached are sealed by the sacrament. He asserted that one may preach the Word without the administration of the sacraments but one may not administer the sacraments without the Word preached.
Summary and Conclusion
Now, that I have given a overview of the four views of the Lord's Supper we are now in the position to provide a brief summary: 1) Roman Catholic - the bread and wine transform into the body of blood of Christ; 2) Lutheran - Christ comes to the bread and wine with His body and blood; 3) Symbolic Memorialism - Christ is not present in the Lord's Supper but it is a mental recollection of person and work of Christ and 4) Reformed - Christ is present in heaven and by virtue of the Holy Spirit our souls are lifted to partake the flesh and blood of Christ by the mouth of faith. I am convinced that the Reformed view best accords with the teaching of Scripture for the following reasons. Christ has a local presence in heaven through a bodily ascencision (John 16:5-7; Acts 1:9-11; Acts 2:33; 7:55-56; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). To say that the true body of Christ is omnipresent would undermine His humanity and confuse His divine and human nature. We do not partake Christ through the physical digestive system. Matthew 15:17 asserts, "Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated." If that were the case the literal body of Christ would go into our mouth and through our stomachs to be eliminated. In contrast to symbolic memorialism we observe in Scripture a real presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 10:16-17). The Lord's Supper is not merely a mental recollection of what Christ has done but a means of grace by which we spiritual eat Christ and the benefits of the covenant of grace. So let us not neglect attending the means of grace because by it our faith is confirmed, strengthened and increased as we are reminded of the promises of God in Scripture.
Fesko, J.V. Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010.
Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Hyde, Daniel. In Living Color: Images of Christ and the Means of Grace. Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2009.
Mathison, Keith. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine on the Lord's Supper. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002.