The Lord’s Supper
A great controversy
One of the greatest controversies during the Reformation was over the Lord’s Supper. The doctrine that divided the Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church was Rome’s doctrine of “transubstantiation.” This doctrine became official dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and taught that the substance of the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s flesh and blood. Later, this doctrine was supplemented by the Council of Trent’s decree in 1562 that the Eucharist was a propitiatory sacrifice, that is, it was meant to turn away the wrath of Almighty God. To these doctrines, all Protestants objected. Even the Eastern Orthodox Churches, while believing the bread and wine are the body and blood by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, rejected Rome’s doctrine of transubstantiation.
This controversy also divided Protestants from Protestants. Early in the Reformation, Martin Luther met with Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 to unite Wittenberg and Zurich. They agreed on fourteen points of doctrine but disagreed on “whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine.” Whereas Luther vehemently believed Christ’s words to be literal, even writing the words, “This is my body,” upon the table in front of him, Zwingli believed them to be symbolical only, and thus, the Lord’s Supper was only a memorial of Christ’s past work.
These two opposing camps of Protestants were sought out for reconciliation over a period of decades by the mediating positions of Phillip Melanchthon, Luther’s successor, and Martin Bucer, the great Strasbourg pastor. Later Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, moved closer to the center with a position described as parallelism, which meant that as surely as a communicant ate and drank bread and wine he also fed upon Christ. John Calvin brought the two camps closer with his view described as instrumentalism. This meant that not only did a communicant eat bread, on the one hand, and partake of Christ, on the other, a la parallelism, but also that the bread and wine were the means by which the Holy Spirit mysteriously communicated Christ to His people.
Yet all the work of Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin came to nothing with the publication of the Book of Concord by the gnesio-Lutherans (“true” Lutherans as opposed to the followers of Melanchthon) in 1580. In this book of Lutheran confessions the view of Zwingli was condemned as crass “sacramentarianism.” Since Zwingli so emphasized the linguistic root of the Latin word sacramentum (“oath”) in his theology of the sacraments, emphasizing that they were our oath of allegiance to the Lord, the Lutherans used his words to create a derisive term. The “high” sacramental views of Calvin, and our confessions, fared no better as they were condemned as crafty “sacramentarianism,” that is, although Calvinists spoke about the real presence of Christ they were only playing words games and were really Zwinglians deep down inside.
While being saddened by this division of the Protestant movement down to our day, we should also look to these debates as eminently relevant for us. We live in a time in which the myriad of evangelical churches dotting the landscape of America teach essentially Zwingli’s view that the Lord’s Supper is, in the words of one, “a memorial for a dead friend.” As we seek to exposit Article 35 of our Confession and apply its teaching to our efforts at bringing the riches of the Reformed faith to our communities, we will see that we follow the teachings of Calvin who taught that the Lord’s Supper was both simple and mysterious.
The sacrament of nutrition
While Article 34 of our Confession describes baptism as the one-time sacrament of initiation, Article 35 describes the Lord’s Supper as the ongoing sacrament of nutrition. We can see this in the biblical terms used for this sacrament, which communicate the biblical imagery of a covenant meal. It is called the breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42), the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20), the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 10:21), communion or fellowship (1 Corinthians 10:16), which is what occurs around a table, and the Eucharist or thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 10:16) because it is a festive meal. In the same way the Belgic Confession opens in Article 35, saying,
We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ did ordain and institute the sacrament of the holy supper to nourish and support those whom He has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.
Following this is a lengthy paragraph explaining the language of nourishment for both our bodies and souls. The “regenerated” have a twofold life. On the one hand they have a corporal (“bodily”) and temporal life described as the result of their “first birth” and which “is common to all men.” This life is supported and nourished by God who uses the means of bread, that is to say, food.
On the other hand, the “regenerated” have a spiritual and heavenly life described as the result of their “second birth.” This life was “effected by the Word of the gospel, in the communion of the body of Christ,” and therefore is not common to all, as earthly life is, but is “peculiar to God’s elect.” This line in our Confession is not only biblical, as Peter told his readers, “...you have been borne again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God...And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25), but also was relevant in polemics against both Rome and Lutherans who taught regeneration was effected by baptism. It is also relevant to our day in which even some “Reformed” ministers teach that baptism is efficacious to regenerate.
Like the earthly life, the heavenly life is also supported and nourished by God, who sent the bread from heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ (John 6). He “nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers when they eat Him, that is to say, when they appropriate and receive Him by faith in the Spirit (i.e., Holy Spirit).” What is so important in these words is that in contrast to Zwingli, both Reformed and Lutheran Protestants taught the necessity of sacraments for our faith. This is what the Confession goes on to say in these words: “Christ has instituted earthly and visible bread as a sacrament of His body, and wine as a sacrament of His blood” to represent to us himself, the true food and drink of our souls. The purpose of this sacrament is that,
As certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths ... we also do as certainly receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior, in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life.
Manner of partaking
The Confession states that we receive Christ in the Lord’s Supper. We notice the way the Supper is explained that the key to navigating through the “Supper strife” of the Reformation is the relevance of the Holy Spirit and faith, which is the gift of the Spirit.
We can speak of the bread as the body and the wine as the blood of Christ because the signs and thing signified are united by the incomprehensible work of the Holy Spirit. To use a human analogy, think about a wedding. At a certain part of the ceremony the man and woman both say, “With this ring, I thee wed.” Yet the ring itself does not make marriage, but because the sign (ring) and thing signified (unending love), are so united we use this language in our ceremonies. This is precisely what God does in Scripture when He speaks of the rainbow (Genesis 9), circumcision (Genesis 15), and the cup as His covenant (1 Corinthians 11).
This is the background to the Confession’s language about not eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ by the mouth (manducatio oralis). We do not eat the bread and wine in the same manner as we eat the body and blood. One mouth eats the outward signs, while the other, faith, eats the inner thing signified:
We err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith. Thus, then, though Christ always sits at the right hand of His Father in the heavens, yet does He not therefore cease to make us partakers of Himself by faith. This feast is a spiritual table, at which Christ communicates Himself with all His benefits to us, and gives us there to enjoy both Himself and the merits of His sufferings and death: nourishing, strengthening, and comforting our poor comfortless souls by the eating of His flesh, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of His blood.
Our Reformed fathers saw this understanding of the Supper as a return to the theology of the ancient church. After all, the Reformation was about reforming the Church, not restoring it. And so we as Protestants are the true Catholics. The greatest evidence of the teaching that Christ is fed upon by faith through the work of the Holy Spirit is from the ancient Eucharistic liturgy, in which the minister calls out to the congregation, “Lift up your hearts,” and the people respond, “We lift them up to the Lord!” It is by lifting up our heart to heaven and by being elevated by the Spirit that we feed upon Christ’s true and natural body and blood by faith, the mouth of our souls (cf. John 6:35, 51, 56).
Athanasius, the great defender of orthodox doctrine, wrote: For how many bodies of Him would be sufficient for eating, that there might be food for the whole world? But on this account He made mention of His ascension into heaven that He might draw them away from a corporal understanding and they might understand that the flesh of which He had spoken was the heavenly food and the spiritual nourishment to be given by Him from above.
Finally, the Canons of the Council of Nicea express the focus on the Holy Spirit and faith, saying, Let us not childishly cleave to the bread and the wine set before us, but let us, lifting our minds to heaven by faith, consider that on the holy table is placed the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world, who offered himself as a sacrifice without being slain by the priests.
What lies behind such an idea, in the teaching of the Reformed, is the doctrines of the person and work of Christ. After He came to earth in the Incarnation, lived a perfect life, “was crucified, dead, and buried,” our Lord rose again and then ascended back into heaven. The Confession mentions this when it says “though Christ always sits at the right hand of His Father in the heavens...”
Furthermore, the reason such a statement about his work in the ascension is so relevant to the Lord’s Supper is what we believe about the person of Christ. He is one person with two natures. Reformed theologians have always been mindful of confessing the catholic creeds, especially the Athanasian Creed and Definition of Chalcedon, which so mysteriously confess this ineffable doctrine: “it is necessary to everlasting salvation that (we) also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (B29). In the Athanasian Creed we confess as catholic Christians that our Lord is God and man (B30) – “God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of His mother, born in the world” (B31). Furthermore, he is “equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood” (B33). Finally, he is “One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person” (B36).
What do unbelievers eat?
Because of its doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Supper, Lutheranism confesses that all who partake, including unbelievers, partake of Christ. This is the doctrine of the manducatio indignorum (“eating by the unworthy”). In contrast, because Christ is only received by faith by the elect of God, we confess in Belgic Confession Article 35 the following:
Further, though the sacraments are connected with the thing signified nevertheless both are not received by all men. The ungodly indeed receives the sacrament to his condemnation, but he does not receive the truth of the sacrament, even as Judas and Simon the sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament but not Christ who was signified by it, of whom believers only are made partakers.
Another polemical issue was that of private Masses in the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformed churches rejected this practice and therefore confessed a strong doctrine of the corporate nature of the Lord’s Supper, following the language of Paul, who says that the church “came together” to partake of the Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). The Confession follows suit, saying,
Lastly, we receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up among us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, with thanksgiving, making confession of our faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself. In a word, we are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love of God and our neighbor.
This paragraph also refers to the participants in the Lord’s Supper. Those who have “rightly examined” themselves are invited to come to this spiritual feast. This “right examination” is described in terms of humility, reverence, remembrance, thanksgiving, and confession of the Christian religion.
Rejection of errors
Finally, the Confession ends with a brief rejection of the errors of Rome on the doctrine of the Supper, saying,
Therefore we reject all mixtures and damnable inventions which men have added unto and blended with the sacraments, as profanations of them; and affirm that we ought to rest satisfied with the ordinance which Christ and His apostles have taught us, and that we must speak of them in the same manner as they have spoken.
As one writer says “a simple celebration of our Lord’s supper in a barn is richer than a pontifical high mass in a cathedral.” We seek to follow the basic descriptions of the Lord’s Supper as written in the New Testament – nothing more, nothing less.
The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in the Belgic Confession, as we have seen, seeks to be biblical, catholic, and mysterious. It seeks to say only what Scripture says and not be diverted by theories overly influenced by Aristotelian philosophy (i.e., Rome and transubstantiation, and Lutheranism and the natures of Christ) – Christ has ascended, Christ has promised to feed us, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ by faith alone through the means of a meal. It seeks to be catholic by drawing upon ancient witnesses and liturgies. Finally, it seeks to be mysterious and let the Holy Spirit do his work without delving into the secrets of God.
Study/application questions for article 35
- What does the analogy between ordinary bread and the bread of the Lord’s Supper tell us about the purpose of the Lord’s Supper?
- What is the sign of the Lord’s Supper? What is the thing signified by the Supper? (Matthew 26:26)
- How do we receive and eat the body and blood of Christ?
- Can we comprehend how we commune with the “true, proper, and natural” body and blood of Christ? Is it Roman Catholic to say, “what we eat and drink is the true, natural body and the true blood of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16) Why or why not?
- Where is Christ’s human nature? (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 46-49) Why is that important for our understanding of the Supper?