A Presbyterian on the Wittenberg Trail

Rick Ritchie
Monday, August 6th 2007
May/Jun 1997

I never would have guessed that I would end up as an adult convert to Lutheranism. And I further would not have imagined how central the doctrine of the Lord's Supper would be to my conversion. My conception of denominations was typically evangelical. My understanding of Lutheranism was very vague. I respected the Lutheran church as the church of the Reformation, but I thought that my Presbyterian church had probably reformed things a little more completely.

The Presbyterian church of my childhood was the perfect setting in which to become a convinced Zwinglian (follower of the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli who held that Communion was merely symbolic) without knowing it. I had no knowledge of the ritual until my early school years. I remember sitting in church and seeing a table up front on which were engraved the words "Do this in Remembrance of Me." This was like "Jeopardy!" on a deeper level, begging the question, "What is this that we do in remembrance of Jesus?" The answer was, Communion. Instead of the more usual case where a person is aware of Communion and later asks, "What does this mean?", I was told what this action meant without knowing what this action was.

I was blissfully unaware that anybody denied this interpretation, except for Roman Catholics. Then, in college, I remember hearing Sunday morning radio where Catholic Mass was followed by a Lutheran service. Both the priest and the pastor preached from John chapter six. From that passage the priest taught that the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ. Then I discovered that that Lutheran pastor was to preach on the same text. I couldn't wait until he provided the correct symbolical interpretation of the passage. But it never came. To my chagrin, the Lutheran pastor taught that in Communion we receive the body and blood of Christ. I was shocked!

I had never been told that only a minority of the early Protestants held to a purely symbolic view of Communion. I had probably heard that the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation was invented in the year 1215, as if before that everyone believed it was a symbolic memorial. Then I thought that all Protestants rejected the Catholic view in favor of the memorial view. It was only later that I realized that while Transubstantiation was a recent invention (as far as church history goes), almost everyone-Lutheran, Calvinist, Roman Catholic-held to some kind of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Many of the early Protestants rejected Transubstantiation without rejecting the Real Presence.

A small branch of early Protestants held to a memorial view of Communion. As time went on, their numbers increased. The greatest increase in their influence came during the years of rationalism. During the eighteenth century Enlightenment, belief in the miraculous was challenged by unbelievers, and explained away by embarrassed clergy. Later, there was a return to faith, but the Real Presence wasn't reappropriated along with the other teachings. In America, the memorial view became dominant as Churches lost their historical sense. They forgot their roots in earlier teachers who believed in some form of the Real Presence. But as I said, when I first heard this Lutheran pastor on the radio, I was unaware of all of this.

I retained my respect for the Lutheran church. After all, John Warwick Montgomery was a great Christian apologist. I figured this church must be something you would have to be born into, however. They had most important things right like other Protestants, and I could understand the decision not to leave a church in which one had been reared over a variation on a minor point.

In my upbringing, Communion was given so little emphasis that I considered it a peripheral issue. Not that it was taken lightly. It was given a Presbyterian solemnity that few things were ever given. Yet I couldn't have seen it as an indispensable practice. It was administered too rarely, and I had been taught on it too infrequently for that.

The blow to my complacency came a little more than a year after I became a Calvinist. My university campus was an ideal place for religious argumentation. Debating your position against another is a very helpful method of finding out what you really believe. I engaged in several arguments with Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ people (Campbellites) on Baptism. They taught a baptismal regeneration that made Baptism a human work and denied salvation to the unbaptized. I knew that something was wrong with this position. It couldn't do justice to the thief on the cross, or give a good answer to the question of what would happen to someone who believed in Jesus but was run over by a truck on the way to being baptized. But I realized in arguing with them that I had completely overlooked some important verses which linked Baptism to salvation. I decided that I needed a position which would do justice to that link without making folly of the exceptions to the rule.

When I read the Reformers, I found them taking a mediating position that I did not expect. They did not separate Baptism from salvation like those I had grown up with. They would have been shocked by the "I'll get around to it someday" approach that is so common. Yet they were clear that faith in Christ was saving without regard to Baptism. About this time I heard the line, "It is not the absence of Baptism that damns, but the despising of it." I also heard the argument: "You can't look at this like a Greek who is saved at one point only. You have to think like a Hebrew who says 'I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.'" If Baptism follows faith, then it saves the saved. If faith is kindled by Baptism, then it saves the lost. This way of thinking does justice to the text without sacrificing the teaching of salvation by grace alone.

In a way that may not be understood by those who were not born evangelical, one fear occasioned by the Lutheran teaching on the Lord's Supper is the fear that to receive the Lord's Supper for the forgiveness of sins is to be saved by works. We perform an action and receive salvation in response. This is how I first understood the teaching. In one discussion, a Lutheran woman spoke of how we bring our sins to the Lord's Table and return forgiven. I thought this was odd. What would happen if you died on the way up there? (I know, this is the same question I asked of the Disciples of Christ view of Baptism. But it is a good question!) The difference is that in this case there is an answer. The woman knew her teaching. She assured me that my sins would be forgiven even then.

This did alleviate my misgivings, but I was still uncertain. The view did not violate known true doctrines. What I came to see, though, was how many other aspects of my Christian life in evangelicalism functioned in a similar fashion to the Lord's Supper. When I was aware that I had sinned, I had been taught to pray and ask for forgiveness. I was assured by the promise in I John that Jesus forgave when I confessed my sins. But I was also taught that I was already forgiven before I prayed. (Hence if I died before I prayed…) Yet I could not erase the passages that spoke of forgiveness following confession. The two truths had to coexist. The Sacraments were the same. They offered a forgiveness that most people who partook of them already possessed.

As far as the Sacrament being a work, I sometimes begin to wonder if the true fear of evangelicals is not of salvation by works, but of salvation by grace! We see a member of the congregation go forward to receive the body and blood of Christ. This is no work, for the individual could do nothing to earn this privilege. In addition, the salvation is not a reward for partaking of the meal. We feast on salvation itself. I believe that the real fear is that things cannot be so easy. Yes, God does all the saving, but surely what we need to see for genuine salvation is an authentic spiritual experience-an encounter, an inner moral change. Otherwise anyone could be saved! Yes. That is the point.

The Reading of the Will

When I first approached the issue of the Lord's Supper, it took a while to formulate the right question. There is a strong tendency toward thinking that the question boils down to asking, "What is the Lord's Supper?" and choosing the most rational-sounding answer. I had been reared an evangelical, so I knew that I had to bow to clear Scripture, but I wasn't expecting Scripture to answer this question until it was put in front of me.

The reason for this is simple. As an evangelical, I was taught that we held to biblical doctrine while the Roman Catholic church held to traditions of men. I knew that our views were definitely more biblical on certain issues, so I assumed that this would hold true in every controversy. When it came to the Lord's Supper, things were different. The words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, what we call the Words of Institution ("This is my body" and "This is the cup of the New Testament in my blood," etc.) are taken more literally by Roman Catholics than by many Protestants.

The Lutheran theologians that I read made it clear to me that the Words of Institution were not to be treated as just another passage of Scripture. Not only were they the words of God, as other Scripture, but they were special words of Jesus spoken on his last night on earth before his death. As the second generation Reformer Martin Chemnitz said, "The words of the Lord's Supper are not to be treated in a light or frivolous way, but with great reverence and respect and in the fear of the Lord, because they are the words of the last will and testament of the Son of God." (1) This changed everything. Before realizing this, I would have decided that since the Words of Institution were problematic if taken literally, I could consider them obscure words that needed to be clarified in light of clearer passages (i.e., passages which did not offend my reason). But if they were Christ's Last Will and Testament, I could not do this. Even in the will of a mere human individual, a last will is sacred. It is understood that such a document is written in order to be a clear expression of a person's will. No tampering is allowed. Would not the Lord of the universe take as much care to communicate clearly as someone planning the ultimate destiny of his worldly estate?

Another problem arose with the attempt to argue against the literal meaning of the text. The problem was not that the argument had no persuasive power, but that it proved too much. If you hesitate to accept the Real Presence preferring to believe that the bread and wine only symbolize the body and blood of Christ, you may find the Incarnation problematic as well. Someone who has problems believing in an Incarnation could use the same argument to say that Jesus just represents God. After all, how could a creature be the Creator of the universe? The words "Jesus is God" can be taken to mean that Jesus is the best representation of God to us. When we accept the Incarnation, we forget about the problems and take the text literally, seeing that this is the most natural understanding. The same is true of the Words of Institution. But if difficulties in our understanding cause us to read them differently from their natural meaning, why can't we do the same with the texts establishing the deity of Christ? Many have had problems with those, too.

An Early Debate

Some have claimed that the Lutheran view is the result of not reforming sufficiently. The Lutherans kept too much Catholic baggage, while the other reformers made a more thorough examination of the Bible. This argument might be plausible if there weren't such a clear record of the controversy between the early Lutherans and their adversaries. Luther conducted a lengthy written exchange with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli over the meaning of the Words of Institution, and met him at Marburg for a formal discussion of the matter. He was aware of Zwingli's arguments, and demonstrated a profound grasp of the points at issue.

Some of Luther's best writing is on this very subject. Luther said that Zwingli argued against him in the following manner. Zwingli argued that "This is my body" must be read to say "This represents my body." According to him, "is" means "represents" here. After claiming that this substitution of words is necessary, they argue that there is no passage of Scripture that says that Christ's body is in the Supper. Then they say that they are willing to be "humbly instructed" if the point can be proved from Scripture. Luther says that this is a sneaky way to argue, offering another example of how such reasoning might be used:

This is certainly an extraordinary situation! It is just as if I denied that God had created the heavens and the earth, and asserted with Aristotle and Pliny and other heathen that the world existed from eternity, but someone came and held Moses under my nose, Genesis 1 [:11] "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"; I would try to make the text read: "God" now should mean the same as "cuckoo," "created" the same as "ate," and "the heavens and the earth" the same as "the hedge sparrow, feathers and all." The word of Moses thus would read according to Luther's text, "In the beginning the cuckoo ate the hedge sparrow, feathers and all," and could not possibly mean, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." What a marvelous art this would be-one with which rascals are quite familiar! Or, if I denied that the Son of God had become man, and someone confronted me with John 1 [:14], "The word became flesh," suppose I were to say: Let "Word" mean "a gambrel" and "flesh" "a mallet," and thus the text must now read, "The gambrel became a mallet." And if my conscience tried to reproach me, saying, "You take a good deal of liberty with your interpretation, Sir Martin, but-but-etc., I would press until I became red in the face, and say, "Keep quiet, you traitor with your 'but,' I don't want the people to notice that I have such a bad conscience!" Then I would boast and clap my hands, saying, "The Christians have no Scripture which proves that God's Word became flesh." But I would also turn around and, bowing low in humility, offer gladly to be instructed, if they would show me with the Scripture that I have just finished twisting around. Ah, what a rumpus I would stir up among Jews and Christians, in the New and the Old Testaments, if such brazenness were allowed me! (2)

I was not Lutheran when I first read this passage. It was certainly one of the most humorous passages in theology that I had ever read-and still is. It is far removed from the passionless academic style we have come to expect. Yet I find it strangely convincing. The quote made me stand back and ask whether this was what I had really done with the Words of Institution. I wondered what the words, "This is my body," meant, and I wanted to find the answer in another passage. I thought that this was the proper way to approach a problem passage. I had been told to interpret unclear passages in the light of clear passages. But was the passage unclear, or merely difficult? It is not the words that are so hard to understand, but the reality behind them. I slowly came to see that if there was any way these words could be taken literally, then they must be taken literally.

Luther offered some other interesting arguments. One was like an early version of Pascal's wager. If you are uncertain of the biblical position, which error would you rather make, taking Christ's words too literally, or too loosely? If you take them too loosely, there will be no good explanation. If you take them too literally, you can at least tell him: "Sorry, Lord. I thought that when you said 'This is my body' you meant it literally. I didn't want to tamper with your last will and testament."

Luther also foresaw a time when people would question his retention of certain Catholic teachings on the ground that he hadn't gotten around to examining them biblically. He said:

If anyone after my death should say: If Dr. Luther were living now, he would teach and hold this or that article differently, for he did not sufficiently consider it, against this I say now as then, and then as now, that, by God's grace, I have most diligently compared all these articles with the Scriptures time and again, and have gone over them, and would defend them as confidently as I have now defended the Sacrament of the Altar. (3)

Notice this! Luther offers his treatment of the Sacrament of the Altar as the prime example of careful biblical dealing with a disputed doctrine. It is possible for the Catholics to be correct and Protestants wrong in a given controversy. In the case of the Lord's Supper, Luther did have problems with Roman teaching, but these had to do with the view that the Supper was a re-sacrifice of Christ. The sacrifice of the Mass was the key point of dispute, not the Real Presence. Transubstantiation was a bad philosophical explanation of the Real Presence, but the Real Presence itself was a biblical teaching.

The Present Mediator

Doing further reading, I found that the Lutheran teaching on Communion was grounded in the doctrine of the Two Natures in Christ. For Christ to be really God Incarnate, his divine nature could not be separated from his human nature by an interval of space. In the book of Colossians we are told that "In Christ, all the fullness of the deity dwells bodily." If this is true, there is no deity apart from the humanity. Luther said that if we could find a location in creation where the divine nature existed apart from the human nature, we would have discovered a part of the divine nature that was not incarnate, and had never been incarnate. He said that he did not want anyone to try such a God on him! The point was that Christ as the God-Man is our Mediator. To meet God apart from the Mediator was to confront a consuming fire.

While this teaching is incomprehensible and leads to some paradoxes, the opposing teaching leads to deeper problems. My pastor once demonstrated this by diagramming the Lutheran view and the Reformed view side-by-side. In Lutheranism, the humanity of Christ is placed between us and his deity. In the Reformed view, the humanity of Christ is absent from us, residing in a particular location in a spatial heaven. Here the deity is placed between us and his humanity. This presents an upside-down incarnation.

This teaching is too involved to do justice to as a section of an article. I merely wish to present my own progress in thinking on the subject. There are objections to my view which I have not raised, and answers to those objections which I do not have room to explain. An interested reader can consult Martin Chemnitz's book, The Two Natures in Christ, for a detailed treatment.

The Plausibility Factor

Sometimes even when an argument is convincing intellectually, we can have a difficult time accepting its conclusions because our past experience makes the opposing view more plausible. This was the case with me regarding the Lutheran teaching on the Lord's Supper. The arguments were convincing, and from the Bible the subject seemed important, yet I had never seen it treated as a vital part of the Christian life.

It required being in a congregation that practiced Communion weekly to see how vital the doctrine really was, not just in theory, but in practice. Experiencing the Lord's Supper clothed in the language and music of a beautiful liturgy was helpful to me as well. While the true importance of the Lord's Supper does not rest in whether the wine is a vintage wine served in a gold cup, or whether the service is chanted, these things may be helps. If past practice made the act seem trivial in comparison to other things, when our minds become convinced of its importance, it might help to have a crutch for our emotions. I am arguing for my readers to allow their minds to convince them that feeding their feelings might be a good thing.

Are You in the Will of God?

It is a common question asked among evangelicals whether or not they are in the will of God. The Lutherans can answer that question from another angle. "Yes, you are in the will of God," we can confidently say. "You are in his last will and testament. Knowing that he was going to die, God decided to have you written into his will. The legacy he left was his body and blood, along with all of the honors, rights and privileges appertaining." If we were to say this to someone, he or she might first think that we were guilty of a trick. We speak narrowly of a last will. Yet if God does not change, was not this his will all along? We have not skirted the question, but answered the deeper question that lay beneath it. We cannot place ourselves in the will of God through perfect obedience, for we are imperfect. To the extent that we fail, we must not trick ourselves into believing that this is mostly a matter of ignorance-that if we only knew the will of God we would do it. No, the matter is out of our hands. But God has placed us in his will, so that unworthy heirs though we are, we might receive life and salvation through the body and blood of his Son. Not only so. We know where to receive this gift: at an altar of a church that confesses that it has come together to receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

1 [ Back ] Martin Chemnitz, The Lord's Supper, trans. by J. A. O. Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979), 25.
2 [ Back ] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, American Edition, vol. 37 ed. by Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 30-31.
3 [ Back ] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, American Edition, vol. 37 ed. by Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 360.
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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Monday, August 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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