"What Are the Prospects for Greater Unity" by Michael Horton (MR, Sept/Oct 1998)

David P. Scaer
Monday, July 16th 2007
Mar/Apr 1999

[We want to acknowledge before this review that many readers-and a much larger percentage of evangelicals-view ongoing disputes about the Lord's Supper as divisive, pedantic, and irrelevant. We agree that such disputes (though not necessarily discussions about them aimed at resolution) are indeed often divisive, and they are sometimes pedantic as well. But it is more difficult to argue that they are irrelevant, especially if we want to take seriously the means of God's grace and the biblical teaching about them, and to seek unity with our brothers and sisters in these matters.

Though the objective may occasionally seem far removed from these sacramental conversations, the reason that confessional Christians discuss these matters is because we desire unity. And real unity-as opposed to merely the appearance of unity-requires a certain level of agreement in important matters. Consequently, it is hoped in love, we continue to pray for and to work for the resolution of our divisions. -Eds.]

In a recent article in Modern Reformation, my friend Mike Horton scolds "many Lutheran theologians" for failing to recognize that Zwingli's doctrine of the Lord's Supper is not identical with the Reformed position. Horton, who honors Lutheran theologians as "our next of kin," claims that Lutherans have fallen into the vice of making caricatures of their Reformed relatives.

Lutherans should know that Zwingli's position not only failed to be taken over into any of the Reformed confessions, but it was rejected by the Second Helvetic Confession and then by others. Even before exploring the various sacramental interpretations allowed under the Reformed umbrella (one of which is the Lutheran one), dissociation from Zwingli is a step, even if only a small one, in the right direction. It must immediately be added that it is doubtful that any Reformed minister has been defrocked for persistence in holding the Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Horton himself points out that many Reformed ministers fall into the same type of confusion in not distinguishing Zwingli from Calvin on the Lord's Supper and hold that Jesus is in no way present in the Lord's Supper. Confused Lutheran theologians thus enjoy some good Reformed companionship.

In studying Zwingli's theology, one might safely conclude that only a love of order of the military variety prevented him from the chaotic extravagances of the Anabaptists whose positions on the Sacraments were so close to his. Zwingli and his theological descendants teach that Sacraments are something we do to show how much we love God, and not something God does to us. This is one large difference. Calvin and Reformed theologians in general have attempted to accommodate the Lutheran position, or at least give the impression that they did, and history demonstrates that they have been successful. (Note the recent mainline Lutheran and Reformed decisions to tolerate one another's positions, as discussed below.)

I feel compelled to respond to Horton's concerns about Lutheran misrepresentations of the Reformed position because it is statistically probable that I am included among the "many Lutheran theologians" who misrepresent it. In self-defense I hasten to add that my sin of confusion was unintentional. On the basis of the written and oral evidence which I am obliged to provide from my files in any fair trial, I would have to enter a plea of "guilty" for the sin of ignorance. (I am uncertain where a sin of ignorance fits into the hierarchy of sin.)

Horton's indictment of uncritical Lutherans who are guilty of painting with the same brush any Reformed Protestant who is not Lutheran, is found in a section headed: "What About Confessional Christians?" This gets it right. "Confessional" is a stronger word than "confessing" when used with a particular Christian group. It signifies that people really believe something of a permanent nature. "Confessing" points to the courage with which confessions are made, but it does not insist on this or that particular statement of faith. The word "confessional" does. Now if "confessional Christians" are going to come closer together to form ecumenical alliances, which is the thrust of Horton's article, then they will more easily approach their goals if their positions are clearly delineated in documents; that is, if they are willing to be actually confessional-rather than merely confessing-Christians.

Lutherans have the Augsburg Confession and the other documents in the Book of Concord. For the Reformed, Horton lists the "symbols and catechisms" as "Geneva, Scots, Belgic, Heidelberg, the Thirty-Nine Articles, Westminster." Of course, we are already in problem territory. Whereas the Lutherans have only one set of confessions, the Reformed have separate confessions for the different churches which are divided along national and geographic lines. For example, the Westminster Confession does not carry the same weight in Switzerland or Holland as it does among English Presbyterians. Contrast this with the Lutheran view. One could hardly call himself Lutheran without the Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism. On top of this, Reformed confessions differ among themselves. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper but not double predestination. At odds, too, are the presbyterian polity of the Westminster Confession and the episcopal polity of the Thirty-Nine Articles, even though both documents took root in the moist soil of the English Reformation. Nonetheless, Lutherans (who have lived at peace with one another under congregational, presbyterian, and episcopal polities) can more easily understand these differences in polity within the Reformed fellowship than we can the various understandings of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Oddly, though, the Reformed seem to place a higher priority on polity than the Sacraments! For historically, differences over polity have presented greater obstacles to unity among the Reformed internally than their differing shades of sacramental views.

Returning to the Lutheran confusion of Zwingli and Calvin then, Zwingli's memorial view meant that we remember something Christ did when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, but Christ is not there. Calvin held that Christ is present in the Lord's Supper, but not exactly in the same way the Lutherans believe he is, and certainly not in the way Roman Catholics do. For Calvin, Christ's divine nature is joined to his human nature, so in some sense Jesus is there. The only caveat offered by the genuine Reformed is that they do not specifically identify Jesus with the bread and wine. More precisely, Calvin holds that the human nature of Christ is locally present at God's right hand. His body must be somewhere, that is, in one certain place. Christ's body and blood, therefore, which are part of that human nature, are not present in the physical elements of Lord's Supper, or if they are present, it is only to the extent that they are joined or connected by the divine nature to those elements but without an identification between them. This means that the Reformed or Presbyterian minister, unlike a Lutheran pastor, cannot hold the consecrated bread and wine up before the congregation and say, "Behold, the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world." It is hard to believe that Calvin would not call this a gross infringement against the commandment prohibiting idol worship, a prohibition not carried over into Luther's Catechisms.

Lutherans are taught the differences between Zwingli and Calvin on the Lord's Supper. Whether it finds a permanent place in Lutherans' gray matter is another issue. So Horton may be right, but we are taught the differences. Against Carlstadt's view that Christ was pointing to himself when he said "This is my body," Zwingli said the bread signified Christ's body. Calvin said the bread was a sign of Christ's body. (1) Lutheran dogmatician Francis Pieper points out that Calvin's successor in Geneva, Reformed theologian Theodore Beza, disagreed with Calvin that body meant the symbol of the body, since the body and blood was "given for you" (314-15). I am not sure what Beza's view was, but we are dealing already with a possible four distinct Reformed versions of what it means for Christ not to be present in sacramental bread. Speaking for confessional Lutherans, Pieper points out that Calvin comes to the same conclusion as Zwingli. (2)

That Calvin "deepened" Zwingli's view of the Lord's Supper and held a middle position between Zwingli and Luther is a favorite contention of modern histories of dogma, but a thoroughly incorrect opinion. In the Consensus Tigurinus, edited by Calvin according to his theology, it is asserted that the body of Christ "is distant [from the Lord's Supper] as far as heaven is from the earth," and the literal understanding of the words of institution is judged to be a "preposterous" interpretation. (3)

The original German of Pieper's Christian Dogmatics appeared in 1920 and was likely based on his lecture notes from the nineteenth century. So Lutherans probably do need a retooling in Reformed subtleties. But an apologetic for invincible Lutheran ignorance about shades of difference in the Reformed understandings of the Lord's Supper is possible. The defense is that all Reformed views reject the position that the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ are received by the mouth and not by faith only, and that unbelievers, even scoundrels, receive the same body and blood which believers do.

When the incumbent in the White House was explaining (away) his testimony, he said that sometimes "is" did not mean "is." The point of reference escapes me, but I am sure it was not sacramental, at least not in a religious sense. It was difficult to keep Zwingli's Marburg encounter with Luther out of my mind. There Luther wrote in large print "Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body"). That says it all for Lutherans.

In the last two centuries, confessional Lutherans have lost three major wars with the Reformed: 1) the Prussian Union (1817, 1830); 2) the Porvoo Declaration between the British Anglicans and European Lutherans (1996); and 3) the Agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the largest American Reformed denominations (1998). There is little territory left for Lutherans to surrender to the Reformed. It might be time for confessional Reformed churches to consider seriously the Lutheran position. One who believes in the God who became fully incarnate in the man Jesus would have little difficulty in further believing in his presence among us in bread and wine as his actual body and blood. The Agreement between the ELCA and Reformed bodies provides one way out of the sacramental dilemma: by deciding that both Reformed and Lutheran positions are adequate representations of biblical positions. For confessional evangelicals, this kind of compromise (finding two opposing views in the one Word of God) would compromise the sola Scriptura principle, something no one really wants to do. We must, therefore, continue to debate these important sacramental differences.

Horton Responds:

Professor Scaer implies that there is almost an infinite number of Reformed positions on the Sacraments. He then tacitly asks, "If the Lutherans are to dialogue with the Reformed, how are they to know where to begin?" This is not a helpful way of putting the question. For in reality, there are only two major Reformed confessions which are consistently regarded as authroitative in their churches-one representing the largely English-speaking Reformed world (the Westminster Confession), and the other representing the continental Reformed churches (the Belgic Confession). (4)

Now I would agree that there are indeed too many Reformed "traditioins" which seek to parse these two confessions in their own idiosyncratic ways. But much of this variance is due to the prior national development of churches, and then various ethnic groups transplanting their "traditions" in America. We should remember that the variety of Reformed expression is a result of these waves of immigration, not a result of a tradition which repeatedly split. But with Dr. Scaer, I believe that the Reformed in America should be willing to consider the place in which theey find themselves, and ask if separate historical development is enough to continue keeping us apart. That was in fact the point of the article in question.

So what does this have to do with Lutheranism? Unfortunately, many Lutherans (and as mentioned above, some Presbyterians as well) have been willing to identify the Reformed position on the Lord's Supper with Zwingli's position-but this is something that neither of these Reformed Confessions do (nor do any of our Catechisms). As a result, it would be helpful if Lutherans would try to deal with Calvin instead of Zwingli when they discuss the Sacraments with the Reformed. We Reformed could also be nasty to the Lutherans and say that they don't take seriously the true humanity of the glorified Christ. But we don't say that because of what the Lutherans actually profess on the matter, rather than because of what we might think naturally follows from their previous articulation of the Supper. It would be helpful if the Lutherans would treat us similarly, not rejecting our claim of the real presence simply because we differ over the mode.

1 [ Back ] See Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1953), 3:304-305.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., 295.
3 [ Back ] Ibid.
4 [ Back ] The Belgic Confession is generally grouped with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort, much like how the Augsburg Confession functions in the Book of Concord.
Monday, July 16th 2007

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