This is My body


Several months ago, the Roman Catholic Church in U.K. issued a statement declaring that Roman Catholics are not to participate in Protestant Lord’s Supper services and that Protestants should not be admitted to Roman Catholic Mass. Though never verified, it was surmised that the statement was issued in response to the fact that the Anglican British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whose wife, Cherie, is a Roman Catholic, frequently attended Mass at a Roman Catholic church with his family when he is at home. While many ecumenists will decry the statement as being a step back in the world-wide effort to reunite Christendom, faithful Protestants ought rather to welcome the declaration instead. Why so? Because, the Roman Catholic mass is not only repugnant to Scripture but is the cause of manifold superstitions, yea of gross idolatories (WCF 29.6). It is therefore abominable in the eyes of God. As such, the declaration, which distinguishes between the Roman and the biblical Lord’s Supper is to be welcomed. However, it must be noted that though the gulf between the Roman view of the Mass and what Protestants believe to be the biblical Lord’s Supper is very wide, not all Protestants are agreed on what exactly ought to be the correct biblical view pertaining to the Lord’s Supper. What are the different views, what is the correct view? In this article we shall attempt to answer these questions as we continue on the theme of the marks of the true Church, of which the right administration of the sacrament is one. And having laid the foundation, we shall discuss how the Supper ought to be conducted and how we should received in our next article.

On the same night that the Lord Jesus was betrayed, "He took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.’ After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come." (1 Cor 11:23-26)

These are the words of the Apostle Paul concerning the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is today the passage which is most frequently read by ministers administering the Lord’s Supper in all denominations of churches. At first glance, it appears to be rather straightforward and does not lend itself to controversies, but history has shown otherwise. What is the point of contention? Inter-estingly, it is the Lord’s words: "This is my body."

What does this phrase mean? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that it is to be taken literally i.e. Jesus meant that the bread used in the Lord’s Supper actually, supernaturally changes into His flesh, and similarly that the wine becomes His blood. This is the doctrine known asTransubstantiation. By this doctrine the Roman Catholic church teaches that in the Mass, the bread and wine miraculously become the actual flesh and blood of Christ and is offered up as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. Thus Pope Pius IV made this ‘infallible’ declaration in the 5th article of his creed: "I profess likewise that in the Mass there is offered to God a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice—for the living and the dead. And that in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist there is truly, really and substantially the blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ; and that there is made a conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood, which conversion the Catholic Church calleth Transubstantiation. I also confess that under either kind alone Christ is received whole and entire, and a true sacrament." Accordingly, the Council of Trent in 1562-3 declared emphatically: "If any one shall say, that in the Mass there is not offered to God a true and proper sacrifice, or that what is offered is nothing else than Christ given to be eaten, let him be anathema" (§ 22.2.1); and the doctrine was again affirmed in Vatican II (1962-5). …Cont. p. 3

Without going into a lot of details, it may easily be seen that this doctrine is repugnant to Scripture, to morality, to reason, and to our senses. It is contrary to Scripture since Christ pronounced that his propitiatory sacrifice was finished on the Cross (Jn 19:30), and the author of Hebrews repeatedly affirmed that the sacrifice was completed once for all: "Once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26a); "Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation" (Heb 9:28); "We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. " (Heb 10:10); and "By one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb 10:14). It is repugnant to morality since the eating of the wafer in the mass would be cannibalism if the doctrine is true. (Remember Wycliff’s illustration of the mouse eating the wafer?) It is repugnant to reason since the physical body of Christ cannot be in heaven and on earth at the same time. It is contrary to our senses because the bread and wine still look and taste like wine without any alteration at all after the blessing. We note that in the Bible, there is actually a case of transubstantiation: when Jesus changed the water into wine (Jn 2:1-11). Of course in that case the wine tasted like wine. The guests who drank it even thought that it was the best wine they had tasted all evening. Not so in the alleged transubstantiation of the Romanish Mass.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther rejected this view and taught that instead of replacing the bread and the wine, Christ’s presence is added to the bread and wine. He maintained that the body and blood of Christ are somehow present in, under, and through the elements of bread and wine. This view may be known as consubstantiation. The process of consubstantiation may be likened to how an iron bar becomes red-hot when it is placed in the fire. It is still an iron bar, but it has the additional quality of being red hot.

While Luther’s view seems to make more sense than the Roman Catholic view, it is clear that he insisted on the real physical and substantial presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. He taught that the divine attribute of omnipresence of Christ was somehow communicated to the human nature of Jesus, making it possible for His body and blood to be present at more than one place at the same time. Sometime after the Reformation begun, Luther and the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, persuaded by Philip of Hesse, decided to meet to see if they could forge a union. The meeting was convened at Marburg in 1529. When the two Reformed groups met, they soon discovered that they agreed on every point of doctrine except one—the Lord's Supper. Luther at the onset insisted that he would not change his mind about the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, and then to give his assertion a pictorial emphasis wrote on the table with a piece of chalk, in large characters: "Hoc est corpus Meum" (Latin: This is my body).

Zwingli and Oecolampadius (his lieutenant) argued that Jesus’ words literally mean "This represents My body." Jesus frequently used the verb to be in such a figurative sense. He said, "I am the door," "I am the true vine," etc. So Zwingli argued that Christ’s body is not present in actual substance at the Lord’s Supper. The supper is a memorial only, with Christ’s presence no different from His normal presence through the Holy Spirit. Luther was adamant. He insisted that Hoc est corpus Meum means that the bread of the sacrament is the body of Christ. He would not allow the verb est (is) to be taken in a figurative or representative sense. When Oecolampadius quoted John 6:63, "the flesh profiteth nothing" to show that bodily eating is useless if we have spiritual eating, Luther retorted with "If God should order me to eat crab-apples or dung, I would do it, being assured that it would be salutary." Luther’s profession of absolute obedience is commendable, but it is tragic that he could be so blind to the fallacy of his arguments. So convinced was he of his position, that he eventually pronounced Zwingli as being of a different spirit, and would not have anything else to do with the Swiss Reformers.

Whatever we may think of Luther’s obstinacy, however, his objections against Zwingli’s purely commemorative view is not entirely without biblical and theological basis, if we care to study deeper into the issue. For example, Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper as a "communion (1 Cor 10:16); and he insists that those who "eateth and drinketh unworthily," brings judgement on themselves, including physical illness and death (1 Cor 11:29-30). Such statements, surely, militate …P.T.Oagainst a purely commemorative view. It is not surprising, therefore, that towards the end of his life, when he read John Calvin’s tract on the Lord’s Supper, he remarked approvingly: "The author is certainly a learned and pious man: if Zwingli and Oecolampadius had from the start declared themselves in this way, there would probably not have arisen such a controversy."

Calvin, whose view we essentially subscribe to, denied the "substantial" presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper when he debated with Rome or the Lutherans. Yet when he debated with the Anabaptists, who, like Zwingli reduced the Lord’s Supper to a mere memorial, he insisted on the "substantial" presence of Christ.

On the surface it seems that Calvin was caught in a blatant contradiction. However, upon closer scrutiny we see that Calvin used the term substantial in two different ways. When he addressed Catholics and Lutherans, he used the term substantial to mean "physical." He denied the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. When he addressed the Anabaptists, however, he used the term substantial in the sense of "real." Calvin thus argued that Christ was really or truly present in the Lord’s Supper, though not in a physical sense. The human nature of Jesus is presently localised in heaven. It remains in perfect union with His divine nature. Though the human nature is contained in one place, the person of Christ is not so contained because His divine nature (which is hypostatically united to His human nature) still has the power of omnipresence. Jesus said, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt 28:20).

Calvin taught that though Christ’s body and blood remain in heaven, they are spiritually "made present" to us by Jesus’ omnipresent divine nature. Wherever the divine nature of Christ is present, He is truly present (ICR 4.17.30). This is consistent with Jesus’ own teaching that He was "going away" yet would abide with us. When we, by faith, meet Him at the Lord’s Supper we commune with Him as thetheoanthropos, the God-Man. Note that this communion occurs not because Christ is brought down to us (transubstantiation or consubstantiation), but because we are lifted up to Him (see ICR4.17.31). By meeting us in His divine presence, we are brought into His human presence mystically, because His divine nature is never separated from His human nature. When the Lord’s Supper is participated in faith, the divine nature of Christ brings us into communion with the ascended Christ. This is how we are to understand 1Cor 10:16. The Lord’s Supper is a mystical communion with Christ in which "from the substance of His flesh Christ breathes life into our souls—indeed, pours forth His very life unto us—even though Christ’s flesh itself does not enter into us" (ICR 4.17.32). Is eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood the same as believing in Him? Calvin denies (See Comm. on John, 260). How then is it possible that the flesh and blood of Christ can feed the soul? This is a mystery that even Calvin finds to be "too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare" (ICR 4.17.32). But the Lord has declared, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (Jn 6:53). Although Calvin believes that the Lord’s sermon in John 6 is not an exposition of the Lord’s Supper which was to be instituted later, he suggests that "Christ … intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and confirmation of this sermon" (John, 266). Herein is the difference between the Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper which the Reformed Church has accepted and the Zwinglian memorial view. And herein is the reason why we must discern the Lord’s body in the Supper or be in danger of eating and drinking damnation on ourselves (cf. 1Cor 11:29). Calvin explains that the Lord’s Supper, which is spiritual food for those who partake it by faith, "[turns] into a deadly poison for all those whose faith it does not nourish and strengthen, and whom it does not arouse to thanksgiving and to love" (ICR 4.17.40).

Herein also is the answer to the question on the value of the Lord Supper as a means of grace. The Westminster Assembly, which perhaps for didactic and prudential reasons did not reflect the particular details of Calvin’s view, explains that "they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death" (WLC170). This is true, yet incomplete from Calvin’s perspective, since the general application of Christ crucified and the benefits of His death, may be achieved without the Lord’s Supper and appears to leave out the secret but immediate feeding of our souls which is implied in Calvin’s thought. On the other hand, the Heidelberg Catechism which follows Calvin’s view closely answers in, Q. 76, "What is it then to eat the crucified body, and drink the shed blood of Christ?"

It is not only to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the pardon of sin, and life eternal; but also, besides that, to become more and more united to His sacred body, by the Holy Ghost, who dwells both in Christ and in us; so that we, though Christ is in heaven and we on earth, are notwithstanding "Flesh of His flesh, and bone of his bone"; and that we live, and are governed forever by one spirit, as members of the same body by one soul. 

Note that while Calvin speaks about the agency of the divine nature of Christ, the catechism speaks about the agency the Holy Spirit. Theologically there is no difference, since they are one in essence. This answer is based largely on the Lord’s sermon in John 6, and teaches us that the unique benefit of the Lord’s Supper is the increase of unity that we have with Christ. This translates in our experience to growth in Christ-likeness, increase of love for Christ, increase of fidelity to Him, and increase of assurance of our being in Him.

Thus, if Calvin is right,—and most Reformed theologians, including the Westminster divines would not impute error to him, though many find his presentation too speculative,—then the Lord’s Supper becomes not an option, but a vital means of grace which must not be neglected in the church or by the individual believer. Moreover, when we contemplate on the real presence of Christ in the Supper, we are convinced that the supper may no more be conducted in a flippant, hasty and mechanical manner without proper exhortations to reflect on what Christ has done for us and to examine our hearts before Him.