The following is transcribed from the White Horse Inn episode “Discussing Our Differences on the Lord’s Supper” (August 26, 2018). The roundtable participants are Michael Horton (Reformed), Justin Holcomb (Anglican), Steve Parks (Lutheran), and Jeremy Yong (Baptist). This excerpt is lightly edited for length and clarity. Be sure to listen to the whole episode at whitehorseinn.org/supper.
MH: First of all, let me start with Pope Leo XIII, who argued that at the eucharistic altar “all the laws of nature are suspended; the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and the Blood” of Christ—including his physical organs, by the way. This is the standard view you find quoted in the recent Catholic Catechism on the doctrine of transubstantiation. The bread and the wine actually are “transubstantiated”: the substances changed into the body and blood of Christ. So, it looks like bread, tastes like bread; looks like wine, tastes like wine. But it really is Christ’s body and blood. That is the view that all of us reject. But now let’s start, Steve, with you. What would you say are the distinctives of the Lutheran position?
SP: Let me just quickly read here from Luther’s Small Catechism, and then I can compare and contrast it to the Roman Catholic view. To his question “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?” he answers:
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.
Where is this written?
The holy Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul, write thus: Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread: and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and gave it to His disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me. After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Take, drink ye all of it. This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.
Then Luther asks, “What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?” He answers,
That is shown us in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins; namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
Finally, he asks, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?” And his response is very important here:
It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words which stand here, namely: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. Which words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the Sacrament; and he that believes these words has what they say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.
So for Luther, the idea isn’t so much that the bread and the wine become or are transformed into the body and blood of Christ (including the organs) in the way you just quoted from Roman Catholic sources. For Luther, the idea is that Christ is present along with the bread. So when we receive the bread, we receive what Jesus says it is: bread. But we also receive what Jesus is pointing us to as being most important, which is his body. And in the same way, when we receive the wine and drink the wine, we truly do drink wine. It’s real wine. But at the same time, Jesus is giving to us his real blood shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. So along with the bread, we receive the true body of Christ, and along with the wine, we receive the true blood of Christ. It’s there that Jesus gives himself to us personally and individually, along with all of his saving benefits. So again, the primary emphasis here is that this is an activity of God to the sinner, and not the other way around. It’s definitely a sacrament and not a sacrifice. It’s not something we’re offering to God, but something that God decidedly does for us in his mercy.
MH: Everything you said there, the Reformed confessions say as well. So what would you say is the major distinctive? What is the greatest difference between the Lutherans and the Reformed confessionally on this question?
SP: I think there are two we can zero in on. The first is the question of what we receive with our physical mouths in the Lord’s Supper. As I understand it, in the Reformed tradition, we receive with our physical mouths bread and wine. With Lutheranism, the idea is that when Jesus says, “Take, eat, take, drink,” he’s focusing on the physical mouth. And what does he say we’re eating and drinking? His body and his blood. So, Lutherans are going to argue that we receive the body of Christ orally and we receive the blood of Christ orally. Not in exactly the same way that we receive the bread and wine, but in a mysterious way, in a miraculous way, and in a supernatural way. Nevertheless, we are eating the body of Christ with our mouths, and we are drinking the blood of Christ with our mouths. I think that is the primary difference. Somewhat related to that, the second one is the question of who receives what in the sacrament. For Lutherans, everybody who partakes of the sacrament is eating what Luther says here, the true body of Christ, and drinking the true blood of Christ. Whereas I think in the Reformed tradition, the idea is a bit different. Only those who actually believe are partaking of Christ in the sacrament.
MH: To summarize the Reformed position on this: it grew. Because it starts, of course, with Zwingli and that fateful meeting he had with Luther where they agreed on twelve out of thirteen points. The thirteenth point was the Lord’s Supper. It came out in their discussion that Zwingli didn’t just have a different view of the Lord’s Supper, but he had a different view of Christ. He believed only that the divine nature saves us, not the human nature. Martin Bucer, who was at that meeting, said that Zwingli did not represent their view at all. After this, Zwingli was marginalized, and Bucer and others signed the Wittenberg Concord with Luther, basically saying that they agreed with him. This infuriated Zwingli of course. Then Calvin came along, and Peter Martyr Vermigli did a lot of the labor here. Together, this next generation fleshed out the confessional Reformed view, which is summarized fairly well, I think, in the Heidelberg Catechism:
How does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal to you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all His gifts?
In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup in remembrance of Him. With this command He gave these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely was His body offered for me and His blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and the cup of the Lord as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely does He Himself nourish and refresh my soul to everlasting life with His crucified body and shed blood.
What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink His shed blood?
First, to accept with a believing heart all the suffering and the death of Christ, and so receive forgiveness of sins and life eternal. Second, to be united more and more to His sacred body through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us. Therefore, although Christ is in heaven and we are on earth, yet we are flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones.
Very different from Zwingli! “And we forever live and are governed by one Spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul.” It’s not a figure of speech. It’s not in the imagination. It is a real and true feeding on the body and blood of Christ. But it is only through faith that we receive the true body and true blood of Christ. We don’t receive Christ bodily, orally. Justin, do you want to chime in here on the Anglican view?
JH: Historically, Thomas Cranmer was on a journey. He started out with more of a Lutheran understanding, and then he moved toward what some have called a Reformed understanding of sacraments. This is seen in Article XXVIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles on the Lord’s Supper. Normally, the Anglicans aren’t known as the prickly ones, but they’re going strong here where the article states that the idea of transubstantiation “is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.” The Anglican understanding is that it’s not only a sign of love that Christians should have for one other, but it’s also a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. In the third paragraph, the article states: “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. . . . And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.” So, we eat in faith. This plays out in the words of distribution when people are being served: “This is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ given for you. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.” The Anglican and the Episcopal Church put those together in that way.
MH: Jeremy, as a Baptist, how do you weigh in on this question of the nature of the Lord’s Supper?
JY: The Baptists want to emphasize Christ’s sacrifice once and for all, distancing themselves from the Roman Catholic doctrine. Distinct to the Baptist confessions is the highlight of this memorial aspect. So when we read, “This is my body, this is my blood,” we believe it’s just figurative.
MH: When Jesus speaks of remembering—we “do this in remembrance of” him—how important is it for us to come to this with the biblical categories of remembrance, such as at Passover? I think we tend to come to it as Gentiles thinking that it’s remembering somebody who’s absent or gone or dead. But in the actual Passover liturgy, we’re told in Exodus, “When your son asks you, Why do we do this? Tell him, we passed through the sword of death. And God led us out with a strong hand.” Scripture says “us.” We were there. We participated. We’re sharing in this. That’s different from remembering as simply recollecting, right?
JH: I believe so. I believe when the Bible talks about remembering that this is what it’s bringing into it. It’s like an American Fourth of July parade that celebrates our independence from Britain over two hundred years ago. Likewise, in the Bible, a ceremony or celebration brings a past event to the present in such a vivid way that it’s almost as if the original event were taking place in the present. It’s remembering that what happened is also present right now. Especially with special meals: in Exodus, we have the meal of remembrance with the Passover of Exodus 12. You have a meal of participation, the bread of life of Exodus 16, but then a meal of anticipation of Exodus 24. When you’re remembering, you’re bringing the past into the present with an eye also toward the future.
MH: In 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, Paul affirms this idea of a “meal of participation”: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” It looks like the Lord’s Supper is not a symbol of our unity in Christ. It actually takes us as particles and mashes us into one loaf, bakes us into one loaf with Christ as our head. This is real participation kind of language here. From the Baptist perspective, Jeremy, how would you interpret a passage like that?
JY: Great question. I would say that it is a symbol but it’s not merely a symbol, which I think makes all the difference there. Looking at the 1689 London Baptist Confession, there is language of “feeding on Christ,” which is participation. As I mentioned previously, it is an entering deeper into this wonderful idea that we are under the blood and all of the benefits of Jesus Christ and all that is conveyed to us by faith in Jesus Christ. So when I see the word participation, I think of “entering into a deeper union with my Savior.”
MH: That happens specifically through the Lord’s Supper?
JY: That does happen specifically through the Lord’s Supper as one of the ordinances Christ commanded his church to do. In that sense, it is very special. So, we’re thinking of the corporate gathering of the local church. If the church is not doing these things, if they’ve neglected to do it or neglect to do it in a proper way, then that certainly is sin. But I also must say that there are a lot of Baptists I know who treat it as just a memorial.
JH: More than just Baptists, by the way.
ALL: Yeah. [Laughter]
JY: This idea of remembrance is so thin. It’s almost like the equivalent of someone who says that they do their daily devotion remembers Jesus at that time. This type of remembering is very individual.
MH: Why do I need to come to church for preaching and baptism, the Lord’s Supper, all these things, when I can be at home and remember Jesus there?
SP: Right. Why do I need bread and wine to remember Jesus at all?
JY: Exactly. It’s really just an expression of one’s own personal faith, like how baptism unfortunately is to too many. I’d love to see a fuller recovery of Calvin’s description of the Supper—what is it he says?—that the Lord descends and we ascend (beautiful language), all through the Spirit—thinking about the Supper as a means of grace. This is what happens when the church participates or takes the Lord’s Supper: we participate in all the blessings that Jesus has given us.
MH: I think that Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, speaks for a lot of evangelicals I grew up with when he writes, “The Scriptures seem to support the memorial view, and rather than the elements containing or symbolizing the presence of Christ”—not even symbolizing? This is far from Zwingli!— “they are instead a recognition of his absence.” That’s all it is. It’s a recognition of his absence. But Zwingli did think that what we’re doing here is our work: we’re remembering; we’re uniting ourselves to Christ and to everyone else in the congregation. Again, the focus is on what we’re doing in the meal. We’re basically imagining Christ. Against Zwingli’s comparison of the Eucharist as looking at a picture of a friend, Peter Martyr Vermigli said,
A friend, being grasped by thinking and kept in mind, does not change the thinker or nourish the mind, nor does he restore his flesh to become capable of resurrection. And what one has in a mirror is the faintest shadow, which should not be compared to that union which we have with Christ.
I think this is such a robust statement: We have to be united to Christ’s humanity to be raised on the Last Day. It’s not just his divinity that saves. We have to be united to his humanity, and he uses human creaturely means to unite humans to his humanity.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, part 2, section 2, chapter 1, article 3.5, which can be accessed online at https://www.vatican.va.
3. The chapter on “The Sacrament of the Altar” quoted here can be found online at www.bookofconcord.org.
4. Horton is referring to the Marburg Colloquy (1529), whose articles can be found in a translation by Ellen Yutzy Glebe, accessible online at https://ghdi.ghi-dc.org.
5. The Wittenberg Concord (1536) affirms the real, substantial presence of Christ in the Supper and even that the unworthy partake (although only to their own judgment).
6. The translation of questions 75 and 76 quoted here can be found online at https://students.wts.edu/resources/creeds/Heidelberg.
7. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion can be accessed online at http://anglicansonline.org.
8. Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Article XXVIII.
9. Paraphrasing Exodus 12:26–27 and 13:14–15.
10. See London Baptist Confession of Faith 30.7: “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.”
11. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes: 52 Vital Doctrines of the Scripture Simplified and Explained, revised by John F. Walvoord (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 271–72.