Protestantism, Eucharistic Participation in Christ’s Flesh, and Transubstantiation

It is popularly supposed in certain quarters that the general denial of transubstantiation among Protestants and particularly by the Reformers was occasioned by a resistance to the ideas of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist, or to the notion of our participation in the substance of his flesh and blood in the sacrament. Having recently responded to this assumption, and being very surprised by the fact that the person in question held it, I thought that I would repost an edited version of my response here. While I am fairly certain that for the significant majority of the followers of this blog, the following is olde hatte, experience is teaching me that there are certain facts whose knowledge one shouldn’t take for granted. There are ideas that have a lot of popular currency, despite their utter lack of historical support. For those whose impressions of Protestantism are derived from the experience of independent evangelicalism, with its low view of the church, sacraments, and the liturgy, it can come as some shock to discover that the Reformers generally held quite different visions. As I appreciate that the following post may be completely familiar to you, I beg your indulgence for the sake of those for whom this really is new.

The debate with the Roman Catholics was not chiefly concerned with the question of whether we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in the sacrament, but with the question of the manner in which we do so (although the concern to maintain the undiluted reality of our eating and drinking of Christ’s flesh and blood was fundamental to all, and seems to have served as a more focal concern for certain parties, who believed that others were compromising or dissembling a denial of it beneath an ambiguous lip service). For instance, Calvin, commenting on the manna as ‘spiritual food’ in 1 Corinthians 10, claims ‘it follows, that it is not bare emblems that are presented to us in the Sacraments, but that the thing represented is at the same time truly imparted, for God is not a deceiver to feed us with empty fancies.’ Sign and reality are bound together, yet not to be confused, much as the dove at Jesus’ baptism is a true manifestation and conferral of the presence of the Spirit.

The belief that in faithfully partaking of the elements of the bread and wine we partake of the substance of the flesh and blood of Christ (and not just of his Spirit) is a matter on which there was general agreement between the Roman Catholics and the leading Reformers. Luther and the Lutherans were unambiguous in their assertion of substantial participation in the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Here is a basic Lutheran confessional statement on the subject (check out the rest of the major Lutheran confessions here: a number of the documents make the same point in far greater detail):

Of the Sacrament of the Altar we hold that bread and wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ, and are given and received not only by the godly, but also by wicked Christians.

This statement, from the Smalcald Articles, which were written by Luther himself, expressly affirms the substantial presence of Christ in the Supper, and also goes further than the Reformed, who generally denied the last point (the manducatio impiorum). ‘Substantial’ presence is affirmed in more or less those very words in the Formula of Concord, which also expresses itself strongly against both the Zwinglians and a more subtle dilution of the Reformed view that might give the suggestion that the ‘spiritual’ participation the Reformed speak of ‘means nothing else than the Spirit of Christ or the power of the absent body of Christ and His merit, which is present; but the body of Christ is in no mode or way present, except only above in the highest heaven, to which we should elevate ourselves into heaven by the thoughts of our faith, and there, not at all, however, in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper, should seek this body and blood.’

On transubstantiation the Smalcald Articles declare:

As regards transubstantiation, we care nothing about the sophistical subtlety by which they teach that bread and wine leave or lose their own natural substance, and that there remain only the appearance and colour of bread, and not true bread.

Luther and the Lutherans thus affirm that the substance of Christ is present in the sacrament (and locally present too), while denying that transubstantiation provide the true way to understand this substantial presence (and maintaining an unease about and resistance to the scholastic categories of Aristotelian philosophy).

As for the Reformed, the following quotes are from some important early Reformed Confessions. This is from Articles XXXVI, XXXVII, and XXXVIII of the French Confession (1559), which was mostly written by Calvin himself:

We confess that the Lord’s Supper, which is the second sacraments, is a witness of the union which we have with Christ, inasmuch as he not only died and rose again for us once, but also feeds and nourishes us truly with his flesh and blood, so that we may be one in him, and that our life may be in common. Although he be in heaven until he come to judge all the earth, still we believe that by the secret and incomprehensible power of his Spirit he feeds and strengthens us with the substance of his body and of his blood. We hold that this is done spiritually, not because we put imagination and fancy in the place of fact and truth, but because the greatness of this mystery exceeds the measure of our senses and the laws of nature. In short, because it is heavenly, it can only be apprehended by faith.

We believe, as has been said, that in the Lord’s Supper, as well in baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which he there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us. And thus all who bring a pure faith, like a vessel, to the sacred table of Christ, receive truly that of which it is a sign; for the body and the blood of Jesus Christ give food and drink to the soul, no less than bread and wine nourish the body.

Thus we hold water, being a feeble element, still testifies to us in truth the inward cleansing of our souls in the blood of Jesus Christ by the efficacy of his Spirit, and that the bread and wine given to us in the sacrament serve to our spiritual nourishment, inasmuch as they show, as to our sight, that the body of Christ is our meat, and his blood our drink. And we reject the Enthusiasts and Sacramentarians who will not receive such signs and marks, although our Savior said: ‘This is my body, and this cup is my blood.’”

Two key points to notice here. First, substantial participation in the body and blood of Christ through participation in the sacrament is affirmed ‘by the secret and incomprehensible power of his Spirit he feeds and strengthens us with the substance of his body and of his blood’). Second, participation in the substance of Christ’s flesh and blood is affirmed. This speaks to the concern of the Lutherans that the spiritual participation spoken of is ‘nothing else than the Spirit of Christ or the power of the absent body of Christ and His merit’: the Spirit conjoins the sign with the reality, but the reality is not merely the presence of the Spirit, but the substance of Christ himself. Third, Calvin makes a constant point of stressing the work of the Spirit in conjoining the sign with the reality. Christ is not rendered locally present, but by the Spirit, who can bring distant things together, he feeds us on his substance as we physically eat the bread and the wine in a faithful manner.

A few more quotations for good measure. This is from the Scottish Confession (1560), of which John Knox was one of the leading writers:

And thus we utterly damn the vanity of those that affirm sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, by the which our sins are covered and remitted; and also, that in the supper, rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us, that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. Not that we imagine any transubstantiation of bread into Christ’s natural body, and of wine in his natural blood (as the Papists have perniciously taught and damnably believed); but this union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus, in the right use of the sacraments, is wrought by operation of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us to feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, which was once broken and shed for us, which now is in heaven, and appears in the presence of his Father for us. And yet, notwithstanding the far distance of place which is betwixt his body now glorified in the heaven, and us now mortal in this earth, yet we most assuredly believe that the bread that we break is the communion of Christ’s body, and the cup which we bless is the communion of his blood. So that we confess, and undoubtedly believe, that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s table, do so eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus, that he remains in them and they in him: yea, that they are so made flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones, that as the Eternal Godhead has given to the flesh of Christ Jesus (which of its own condition and nature was mortal and corruptible) life and immortality, so does Christ Jesus’ flesh and blood eaten and drunken by us, give to us the same prerogatives. Which, albeit we confess are neither given unto us at that only time, neither yet by the proper power and virtue of the sacrament only; yet we affirm that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s table, have such conjunction with Christ Jesus, as the natural man cannot apprehend.

Yea, and further we affirm, that albeit the faithful, oppressed by negligence, and manly infirmity, do not profit so much as they would in the very instant action of the supper, yet shall it after bring fruit forth, as lively seed sown in good ground. For the Holy Spirit (which can never be divided from the right institution of the Lord Jesus) will not frustrate the faithful of the fruit of that mystical action; but all this, we say, comes by true faith, which apprehends Christ Jesus, who only makes this sacrament effectual unto us. And, therefore, whosoever slanders us, as that we affirm or believe sacraments to be only naked and bare signs, do injury unto us, and speak against the manifest truth.

But this liberally and frankly we must confess, that we make a distinction betwixt Christ Jesus, in his natural substance, and betwixt the elements in the sacramental signs; so that we will neither worship the signs in place of that which is signified by them; neither yet do we despise and interpret them as unprofitable and vain; but do use them with all reverence, examining ourselves diligently before that so we do, because we are assured by the mouth of the apostle, That such as eat of that bread, and drink of that cup, unworthily, are guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord Jesus.

Such statements are an important line of evidence in addressing those who believe that the Reformed shied away from a robust view of the sacraments. The position that is held by most evangelicals, viz. that the sacraments are nothing but bare and empty signs, is ‘utterly damned’ as a vanity. This confession also makes clear that part of the rationale for denying transubstantiation and the local presence, which was resistance to the veneration of the elements.

The notion that the sacraments are shorn of mystery by the Reformed deniers of transubstantiation should also be decisively refuted by such declarations. If anything, this Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist can be even more mysterious than that of the Catholics. While the Catholics speak in terms of the conversion of the elements, of the bringing down of Christ to us, Calvin and many of the Reformed speak instead of the Spirit lifting us up to Christ. In both cases presence is enjoyed. However, the notion that Christ’s presence is brought down to earth in the sacrament is far less mysterious than the notion that by the Spirit we are raised into Christ’s heavenly presence by his Spirit, where he feeds us on his flesh and blood.

The following quotes from the Second Helvetic Confession (1562), written by Heinrich Bullinger, also flesh out the Reformed doctrine further:

THE SACRAMENTAL UNION. Therefore the signs acquire the names of things because they are mystical signs of sacred things, and because the signs and the things signified are sacramentally joined together; joined together, I say, or united by a mystical signification, and by the purpose or will of him who instituted the sacraments. For the water, bread, and wine are not common, but holy signs. And he that instituted water in baptism did not institute it with the will and intention that the faithful should only be sprinkled by the water of baptism; and he who commanded the bread to be eaten and the wine to be drunk in the supper did not want the faithful to receive only bread and wine without any mystery as they eat bread in their homes; but that they should spiritually partake of the things signified, and by faith be truly cleansed from their sins, and partake of Christ.

THE THING SIGNIFIED IS NEITHER INCLUDED IN OR BOUND TO THE SACRAMENTS. We do not approve of the doctrine of those who teach that grace and the things signified are so bound to and included in the signs that whoever participate outwardly in the signs, no matter what sort of persons they be, also inwardly participate in the grace and things signified.

However, as we do not estimate the value of the sacraments by the worthiness or unworthiness of the ministers, so we do not estimate it by the condition of those who receive them. For we know that the value of the sacraments depends upon faith and upon the truthfulness and pure goodness of God. For as the Word of God remains the true Word of God, in which, when it is preached, not only bare words are repeated, but at the same time the things signified or announced in words are offered by God, even if the ungodly and unbelievers hear and understand the words yet do not enjoy the things signified, because they do not receive them by true faith; so the sacraments, which by the Word consist of signs and the things signified, remain true and inviolate sacraments, signifying not only sacred things, but, by God offering, the things signified, even if unbelievers do not receive the things offered. This is not the fault of God who gives and offers them, but the fault of men who receive them without faith and illegitimately; but whose unbelief does not invalidate the faithfulness of God (Rom. 3:3 f.).

Here the confession denies the doctrine of the manducatio impiorum of the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, while making the important point that the reality of the sacrament is not contingent on the faith of the believer. Christ is present in the sacrament: it is not our faith that makes him present. However, without faith we are like men without mouths at a banquet. The Belgic Confession, written by Guido se Brès in the 1560s and one of the Three Forms of Unity, expresses this point quite clearly in Article 35:

Thus, to support the physical and earthly life God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all as life itself also is. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers he has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten – that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.

To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood. He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacraments in our hands and eat and drink it in our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.

Now it is certain that Jesus Christ did not prescribe his sacraments for us in vain, since he works in us all he represents by these holy signs, although the manner in which he does it goes beyond our understanding and is uncomprehensible to us, just as the operation of God’s Spirit is hidden and incomprehensible.

Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood – but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth but by the Spirit, through faith.

In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven – but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith.

This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.

Moreover, though the sacraments and thing signified are joined together, not all receive both of them. The wicked person certainly takes the sacrament, to his condemnation, but does not receive the truth of the sacrament, just as Judas and Simon the Sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament, but not Christ, who was signified by it. He is communicated only to believers.

The Reformed doctrine, through its wish to avoid certain of the dangers perceived in the notions of transubstantiation and local presence, and rather subtle distinctions and definitions, can open itself up to suspicions of evasion and equivocity, suspicions that in some cases may be well founded, especially among the Reformed of later generations. However, as one examines people such as Calvin more closely, one finds that many of one’s suspicions and objections are satisfactorily addressed. This is not to say that the Reformed always express their doctrine of the Supper in the most appropriate or unambiguous of ways, or that one couldn’t improve upon it by using stronger and more robustly affirmative expressions, but the wiggle room isn’t as large as some may suppose. Unfortunately, when one’s affirmations are so hedged with necessary qualifications and denials, they can lose some of their force and invite questions in the hearers. One sometimes wishes that Reformed theologians had adopted more positive and assertive formulations for their doctrine from the start. As it was, the weight of the Reformed Eucharistic doctrine shifted rather steadily away from the affirmations to the denials and qualifications.

For all of its strengths, for instance, the accent of Calvin’s doctrine frequently lies in the wrong place, in a manner that will dissatisfy many. Calvin places entirely too great a focus upon the way that the Supper communicates to our minds, inviting the notion that the efficacy of the Supper is entirely mediated by our mental faculties, perhaps sowing the seeds for serious declension in later Reformed doctrines of the Eucharist, and inviting the suspicion (such as that of the Lutherans in the Formula of Concord) that for the Reformed the Supper communicates nothing, but merely triggers our remembrance and faith to enjoy a communion with Christ that occurs unmediated by the sacrament. With Calvin’s focus upon the mind, the ‘rite-ness’ of the Supper is easily lost sight of and the Supper becomes a matter for spiritual contemplation, primarily existing to be meditated upon, rather than eaten. It also invites a subjectivizing and interiorizing movement in our understanding of the sacrament. God’s work in the sacrament can be downplayed, with the accent being placed upon our work of raising our thoughts to heaven, remembering Christ’s death, and grasping him by faith. At points this growing stress upon our action in the sacrament threatens to displace the primacy of God’s action within it. It is worth remembering that the medieval Mass that Calvin was reacting against was also for most a spectacle to be meditated upon: in this respect, Calvin’s doctrine could be accused of not making a sufficient break with the abuses of the past.

Some might wonder whether Calvin and the Reformed, while teaching the reality of participation in Christ’s flesh and blood in the Supper, render it largely superfluous by their emphasis upon the Word. Is the Supper, while a genuine participation in Christ, a dispensable one, all that we need being supplied by the Word? While a clearer declaration of the necessity of the Supper might be desirable, I don’t think that Calvin in particular held such a position. Calvin stresses the ideal of regular weekly communion. The Roman Catholic practice of infrequent communion and withholding of the cup from the laity starved the people of God of their rightful food, to their detriment. While Calvin’s stress on the importance of the regular celebration of the Supper may be primarily upon the didactic and remembrance-serving role that it plays, in addition to the way that it stimulates love in the body and knowledge of our union, the Supper does give us something that nothing else can, and so cannot be substituted. The following quotation is from Calvin’s Geneva Catechism:

M. Do we obtain this communion by the Supper alone?

S. No, indeed. For by the gospel also, as Paul declares, Christ is communicated to us. And Paul justly declares this, seeing we are there told that we are flesh of his flesh and bones of his bones — that he is the living bread which came down from heaven to nourish our souls — that we are one with him as he is one with the Father, etc. (1 Corinthians 1:6; Ephesians 5:30; John 6:51; John 17:21.)

M. What more do we obtain from the sacrament, or what other benefit does it confer upon us?

S. The communion of which I spoke is thereby confirmed and increased; for although Christ is exhibited to us both in baptism and in the gospel, we do not however receive him entire, but in part only. [emphasis added]

Thus, while communion with Christ is not limited to the Supper, Christ communicates himself to us in the Supper in a manner that he does not elsewhere, and which cannot be substituted for by other means.

Several other quotations could be presented, but the above really capture the heart of the doctrine as it was confessed by the early Reformed. Both Lutherans and the Reformed thus generally believed and confessed a participation of the flesh and blood of Christ in the sacrament. While Zwingli’s view was considerably lower (and lest I be thought to deny it, Zwingli’s was definitely a Protestant view, though certainly not the Protestant view, or the most dominant view within the early confessional Reformed and Lutheran traditions), it was generally Calvin’s stronger doctrine that found its way into the confessional formulations.

If the Reformed and Lutherans held the doctrines outlined above, what really is the problem with transubstantiation? Doesn’t the very strength of the Reformers’ resistance to transubstantiation suggest that their doctrine was considerably lower than I have argued above?

At the outset we should notice that the Reformers did not merely attack the doctrine of transubstantiation, but also often spoke strongly against those who, like contemporary evangelicals, deny the reality of our participation in the substance of Christ in the sacrament. One does not need to adopt opposing errors in order to strongly attack transubstantiation.

For Luther there were a few issues. For instance, the doctrine of transubstantiation was pure scholasticism, and Luther was no fan of Aristotle. Imposing the distorting categories of Aristotle upon the sacrament that lay at the heart of Christian existence was deeply offensive. Transubstantiation also taught that the substance of bread and wine were annihilated, which seemed directly contrary to Scripture and philosophical falsehood to Luther.

For Calvin, transubstantiation confounded the sign and the reality, which although conjoined, should not be confused. It was seen to lead to the fetishization and even (in bastardized forms) circumscription of presence within the elements, and encouraged the pagan practice of bread worship and the idea of the continuing sacrifice of the Mass (one of the core issues in the Reformation). For Calvin and other Reformers, the question of ex opere operato in relation to the sacraments was a key one. The question was not whether or not the sacraments were efficacious (many if not most of the leading early Reformers held to some form of baptismal regeneration, for instance), but how exactly they were so. Ex opere operato, as it functioned within Roman Catholic theology, was seen to bind the grace of God to the elements in a manner that made God’s grace appear automatic and depersonalized (this is a helpful article on the subject). Calvin wished to emphasize Christ’s personal action by the Spirit in the sacrament and not reduce him to mute substance that could be manipulated at human will, or treated as an idol. The sacraments are not automatic operations, but personal actions in which Christ faithfully gives us exactly what is promised and represented within them, but not in such a way in which we can control, depersonalize him, or put him at our disposal (the reasons for the Reformed denial of the manducatio impiorum lie here).

Unlike Luther, Calvin objected to the idea of the local presence of the substance of Christ in the Supper. The fact of the ascension and the absence of Christ’s flesh was important to Calvin in his debates with Lutherans and Roman Catholics. We have to be raised up by the Spirit in our participation in the Supper to partake of Christ’s flesh and blood. Like Luther, Calvin objects to the annihilation of the substance of the bread and wine. Calvin is also concerned about the Christological implications of the doctrines of transubstantiation and of Luther (debates about the extra calvinisticum, the ubiquity of Christ, the communicatio idiomatum, etc.).

For a clearer understanding of Calvin’s doctrine, which, if anything, teaches a greater level of sacramental mystery than transubstantiation (transubstantiation speaks in terms of the conversion of the elements: Calvin’s position speaks in terms of the spiritual translation of the worshipper to the place of Christ’s bodily presence by the Spirit – the Spirit unites things spatially distant), I highly recommend reading his chapter on the subject in the Institutes.

From the perspective of the modern evangelical, the positions of Calvin and Luther and their followers seem to be little different from those of transubstantiation, but in a context where the genuine participation in the substance of the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist is more or less a given, their views really can seem worlds apart. That said, I believe that there is huge potential for convergence between followers of Calvin, Luther, and Roman Catholics within the current context (and even, to some extent, those who have always felt a little uncomfortable with their forms of sacramental realism, framed as they are by deficient accounts of the relationship between sign and reality). The linguistic turn in philosophy, for instance, opens up new ways of conceiving sacramental efficacy and causality, beyond those that framed the 16th century debates (reading a Catholic like Louis-Marie Chauvet – Symbol and Sacrament – one cannot but be struck by the unprecedented opportunities for a bringing together of formerly irreconcilable concerns in the current context). We are living in a time when the Eucharistic conversations of the Reformation could be revived to great profit, and former impasses overcome.

While I find his precise articulation of the doctrine of the Eucharist unsatisfactory, largely on account of certain misplaced accents and lacunae, I believe that Calvin presents the most promising and fertile framework for addressing some of the issues relating both to the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper, and of our participation in his flesh and blood. To my mind, the key strength of Calvin’s proposed approach lies in its robustly personal character. Calvin’s approach provides a clearer way for us to understand the Eucharist as fundamentally Christ’s personal action. Throughout the Eucharist Christ is personally active, not merely passively present, but actively communicating himself. This leads to a further point: Christ’s personal self-communication through the work of his Spirit provides a way for us to focus less upon the elements as static presence, and more upon Christ’s presence as something inextricable from the action of the sacrament. Finally, in what is perhaps his most daring move, Calvin speaks of the Spirit lifting us up to Christ’s presence, rather than Christ being dragged down. What this suggests is that the mystery of the Eucharist is not primarily something that happens to bread and wine, but something that pertains to the entire rite, both elements and communicants. This extension of the mystery enables us to overcome what Peter Leithart has termed the static ‘zoom lens’ with which element-focused approaches to the Eucharist approach the rite. In the place of this we have a ‘wide-angle lens’, which comprehends the entire rite and all participants in it. As Douglas Farrow has observed, Calvin’s focus on the work of the Spirit also opens the possibility of a more eschatological cast to our doctrine of the Eucharist. If the Spirit can unite things distant in space, surely he can also unite things distant in time. Calvin’s approach provides an opening for us to think of the Supper as an anticipatory enjoyment of the life of the kingdom in the present through the work of the eschatological Spirit. It is in these areas, I believe that the promise of the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist is to be found.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Sacramental Theology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Protestantism, Eucharistic Participation in Christ’s Flesh, and Transubstantiation

  1. Interested readers may also find it instructive to read Luther’s treatise, ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’.

  2. Pingback: Real Presence and Two Kingdoms | Cogito, Credo, Petam

  3. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

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