MUCH MORE THAN A MEMORIAL:
A MEDIATING REFORMED VIEW OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
By Jacob A. Davis
When Jesus broke bread with his disciples during one fated Passover evening, he instituted what some have deemed a sacrament and others have called an ordinance; whatever it has been deemed, it has been an integral part of the life of the Church for the past two millennia. However, the question has been asked over and over, what is this that we call, in turn, The Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist (literally, thanksgiving)? When we take the elements of bread and wine, are we participating in taking the actual body and blood of Christ, are we drawn metaphysically into communion with Christ through the taking of the elements, or are the elements simply a memorial for the sacrifice that once took place at Golgotha and the marriage supper that will one day happen at Christ’s return?
For many years, those espousing the overarching title of Reformed theology (including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and many Baptists) have been divided into two camps on this issue: those arguing for a spiritual presence of Christ at the Communion meal, and those who look upon it as a memorial only. This paper will examine these views, as well as those of the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, and propose that both views of Reformed theology have elements to contribute in a greater understanding of what happens at the Lord’s Table and what implications this should have in the way we celebrate this meal in our churches today.
Survey of Various Positions
There are basically four major viewpoint in the Western Church concerning what occurs during the Lord’s Supper. This section will briefly examine those four, in a condensed manner, realizing that there are several other views in existence (Anabaptist, Eastern Orthodox, etc.), however these either are a minority in relation of thought or are similar enough to those represented that they need not be re-argued.
The Roman Catholic (Transubstantiation) Position
The traditional Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper holds to the belief that the bread and wine elements of the Eucharist actually are transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the words of the officiating priest. This, along with the idea that we are saved directly by the action of participating in the Communion sacrament sets the Catholic view apart from of the other views of the Lord’s Supper. As Catholic theologian Thomas A. Baima states, “The unity of the sacred elements of Communion in my body unites me to his body. And unity with the body of Christ makes me an adopted child of God.” However, in criticism, this is seen as amounting to an almost cannibalistic view of the Supper, something that the Jewish disciples would have fount a sinful statement. Not only that, the fact that a priest almost magically transforms bread and wine into flesh and blood amounts to paganism. Therefore, the Latin term hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”) eventually was eventually corrupted to hocus pocus, now popularly used in literary and media forms as a spell for wizards and witches. This also occurred in the strife with the Lutheran position.
The Lutheran (Consubstantiation) Position
The Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper seeks to step outside of the mold of the bread and wine actually becoming the body and blood of Christ but, instead, Christ’s body and blood penetrate the elements to where Christ is, in fact, physically “in and under” the elements, still in a very physical way. Also, much like the Catholic view, there is a grace imparted through the taking of these elements, however it is still faith, exhibited in the taking of the elements, which saves. However, in criticism, this represents an uneasy tightrope attempt to make Christ still physically present in the elements without having the elements themselves become other than what they actually are: bread and wine.
The Calvinist (Pneumatic Presence) Position
The view known mostly as the Calvinist view says, in brief, that there is no real physical presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Christ is in heaven, so how could he be in the bread or wine? However, this view does say that in the practice of taking the elements, we are feasting upon and communing with Christ spiritually. We are, in the power of the Holy Spirit, exalted to the “high places” to come into a stronger communion with Christ during the time we take the elements of the Supper.
The Zwinglian (Memorialist) Position
The Zwinglian view holds that the Lord’s Supper is wholly symbolic and commemorative, without any real physical or spiritual presence of Christ at the table. It is sanctifying to the participating believer, but not being a sacrament as the word is most often used. It is an ordinance, and it is a sign in the sense that it reminds the participant of Christ’s sacrifice and, ultimately, of his promise to come again. It does not hold to any real metaphysical quality and, therefore, there is no special grace commuted, nor is there any communing with Christ that is not present at any other time.
Support for Position
If the believers who consider themselves Reformed generally hold to either the Calvinist or Zwinglian views, would it be surprising, then, if a person would hold that the two views are not completely mutually exclusive and that elements of them could be combined to form a view that is, first, ultimately memorialistic (yet in such a way that reflects not only on the past, but the future) and ecclesial, but also has a spiritual significance that does, in fact, qualify it, under some definitions, as a sacrament and a true mode of higher communion with Christ?
The Supper Memorialistically
Firstly, it should be established that Christ, in regards to the Supper, said most blatantly, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Therefore, we must first look upon the meal as a memorial of Christ. Here, the Zwinglian proponents have their strongest argument, and rightly so. For us to not firstly look upon the meal as a means of remembrance is to disregard Christ’s words in instituting it. As Christ was speaking in a Jewish culture, we must look to how the Jewish disciples would have seen this memorial. Jesus instituted the Supper during the Passover. The Jewish people saw the Passover meal itself as a memorial to what had once taken place when the Lord spared the children of Israel from the curse he set upon Egypt. However, the meal was not just remembering what had occurred during the plague of Egypt, but was a participation in the meal instituted at that time, the atoning meal that was the propitiation, the turning away of wrath, that spared them. As Keith Mathison, a Calvinist proponent, says,
The observance of the Passover is to be a memorial, a feast in which God’s mighty act of redemption is remembered. The importance of not forgetting God and his acts is often repeated in the Old Testament… and the Passover is a graphic reminder to Israel of this central act of deliverance… The future generations that will observe the Passover will not merely remember a past act of God. Their dramatic reenactment of it illustrates their ongoing participation in this decisive act of redemption.
Therefore, if we see the Lord’s Supper in the context of the Passover meal in which it was instituted, we must see in it not only a remembrance of something that once occurred, but also a participation in something that occurred and continues to occur. That is, we participate in the “New Covenant” as we participate in the covenantal sign of the Lord’s Supper.
We also see the use of symbols in the Old Testament not just by man, but also by God. Russell Moore points out that one prominent use of a memorial symbol is after the flood, when God institutes the use of a rainbow as the sign of a covenant, a promise to never again flood the world: “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
In this sense, the sign of the Lord’s Supper might then serve not only as a reminder to the people, but to God as well. In any case, it seems as if, through a Jewish mindset, the continued participation in the sign of a covenant is not merely a reminder of what has occurred, but is a sign of participation in the occurrence and in that covenant.
The Supper Eschatologically
It is important to note that when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, he references not only the events of the moment (the supper, his betrayal and crucifixion, etc.), but he also references events that will occur in the future. When he takes the cup of wine, he states that, “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Thus, the Lord’s Supper, as meal, is an eschatological meal. As we take it, we not only point back to the crucifixion, we point to the kingdom of Christ, whose initiation of Christ’s first coming will be consummated at his return, with the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This is also not new to the Passover ceremony. The Jews had celebrated this in the way of remembering the grace of their freedom from Egypt, and looking forward to their future deliverance as well. Mathison informs us that “In the Passover, the Israelite families at the flesh of the sacrificial lamb, identifying themselves with the sacrifice and partaking of the benefits of it… Their participation not only looked back at God’s merciful deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but also looked ahead and anticipated a future deliverance, of which the Exodus was only a foreshadowing.” This is the deliverance brought about by Jesus Christ, and this is the kingdom where the curse of the fall is finally reversed. As Russell Moore points out,
The coming of Jesus promises the onset of this new reality. Jesus changes water to wine at a wedding feast, pointing to a greater feast to come (John 2:1-11). He feeds thousands by multiplying food with a word (John 6:1-13). He identifies himself and his people with the vine of God (John 15:1-8), an image previously given to the nation of Israel (Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21), identifying himself as the fulfillment of the promise that the vine would one day yield fruit (Isa. 27:6; Gal. 5:22-23). In Christ, this new age is a reality, although a veiled reality seen only to those who have the eyes of faith. The meal Jesus feeds us then is a sign of an eschatological banquet, with the church acknowledging the “already” and pining for the “not yet.”
Therefore, we see in the Lord’s Supper an eschatological symbol. It is a sign of the new kingdom, of the covenant brought to us in Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom of a curse lifted. It is a kingdom of abundance. It is a kingdom that has been initiated, but will be consummated one day in the future, at a great supper, when “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.” As we take the bread and wine, we remember both that the Kingdom has come through Jesus Christ, and that the Kingdom is coming.
The Supper Ecclesiologically
If we see the Supper as a sign of the New Covenant and of the Kingdom of God, then we must also see the Supper as significant for the covenant people of God, the Kingdom people, that is, the Church. Sinclair Ferguson reminds us, “This too… must be understood in covenantal terms. The eating of the Passover lamb (of which the Supper is the fulfillment, 1 Cor. 5:7-8) implied fellowship… it meant to be bound together with the covenantally redeemed and blessed people of God.” The Supper is meant to be taken as an effort of community. Paul remarks to the Corinthians that the one loaf of bread shared by the man represents the many members of the body of Christ, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” As Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary reminds us, Paul used the Lord’s Supper as a means of working toward unity in the factious congregation of Corinthians. He then asks what happens when we loose focus and the elements or the priest become more a focus of the ceremony than the boding of the body of believers? He answers, “What happens is the Lord’s Supper ceases to have the same function and social significance it had in early Christianity—a true meal shared by Christians and fostering koinonia or communion with one’s Lord and one’s fellow disciples.”
The Supper Pneumatologically
Here is the most debated issue within the realm of Christian thought on the Lord’s Supper. Is Christ present, and if so, in what way? To argue against the Catholic and Lutheran positions at this time would take too much unneeded room (and which we have already addressed in brief), thus let us proceed to the dominant Reformed Protestant views. The strict contemporary Zwinglian would say that there is no communing with Christ that is not occurring at any other time. As Russell Moore argues, “Christ is indeed ‘really present’ in the Lord’s Supper. But it is not necessary to surmise that the Supper uniquely takes us to the heavenly places to commune with him there through the Spirit. Christ is always really present with his people.” While this is true, one wonders if, even in this framework, is there not a special sense of this during the taking of the Lord’s Supper? Moore himself admits that the Spirit brings us into close communion with Christ and that “this is especially true in the act of gathered worship.” Ferguson notes,
Only by understanding [the Holy Spirit’s] work can we avoid falling into the mistakes which have dogged both Catholic… and evangelical (memorialist) misunderstandings of the Supper. It is not by the church’s administration, or merely by the activity of our memories, but through the Spirit that we enjoy communion with Christ, crucified, risen, and now exalted. For Christ is not localized in the bread and wine… nor is he absent from the Supper as though our highest activity were remembering him… Rather, he is known through the elements, by the Spirit.
Therefore, while there is still a certain mystery about how exactly the presence of Christ is different through the Spirit than in another time, perhaps it is proper to regard this is so because “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Perhaps it is a very real manifestation of Christ’s remark that, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Certainly, in Christian history, the view that keeps appearing most often is that there is a very real spiritual communing with Christ in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Ben Witherington III notes,
There was nothing in the first century discussion nor much in the second-century discussion that suggest the later debates about transubstantiation and consubstantiation… But by the same token, we have seen evidence throughout that it was believed that some sort of spiritual transaction was involved, some sort of spiritual communion between the believer and other believers, and also between the believer and the Lord. It was not just a matter of symbols in the modern sense of that term… when the church read texts like John 6 out of their original Jewish and sapiental contexts, it led to absolute distortion of what was meant.
Augustine, in the fourth century, also regarded a spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, though the Catholic Church would ultimately take a transubstantiationalist view. The debate picked up in the early days of the Reformation, long before Luther. According to Witherington, “Already in 1379, John Wycliffe, rightly called the Morning Star of the Reformation… rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation but not the idea of the spiritual presence of Christ, which can be perceived by faith alone. The bread and wine remained just bread and wine after consecration, and so he called them ‘sacramental signs.’”
Therefore, history and Scripture testify to a more spiritual Lord’s Supper than the Zwinglian would typically give credit to. It should seem right, then, that while we must look to the elements as not containing the body and blood of Christ physically, there can be little doubt that we are drawn into a closer communion with him as we partake of the elements by faith in the Spirit. It is a memorial meal. It is a meal that points both back toward our redemption through Christ’s death and forward to the consummating of his Kingdom. It is a participation in a covenant, and it is a communion with both believers and Christ instituted for his Church.
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