As an Evangelical Christian, currently attending a Baptist church in Vienna, Austria, I have for quite a while been bothered by the prevailing view of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, in our circles.
Because of intensive contact with friends in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches I have recently spent some time thinking through the various positions on this subject, and this is a first attempt to put my thoughts, and the conclusions I have reached so far, into writing.
I see five prevailing views of the Eucharist in the church today:
- Mere Remembrance: We remember Christ’s death as we break bread and share the cup. It is simply an act of obedience and Christ is present just as he is always present when we gather in His name. Bread and wine remain ordinary bread and wine. This view originates with the Reformer Huldreich (Ulrich) Zwingli, and is the view most common in the Evangelical churches I am familiar with, both in the German speaking countries, as well as in the US and the UK.
- Transsubstantiation: bread and wine become Body and Blood of Christ. This is the Roman Catholic definition; the term began to be used in the 11th century, the view was “made official” by the 4th Lateran Council, and was further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. “Substance” is often misunderstood in a physical sense but actually refers to the “essence” of a thing in a philosophical sense; the physical properties (called “accidents”) do not change.
- Sacramental Union: the Body and Blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine”. This predominantly Lutheran position is sometimes referred to as “consubstantiation”, but Luther rejected that designation because, like transsubstantiation, it refers to a philosophical attempt at defining the Real Presence rather than merely describing it.
- Spiritual Presence : Christ is truly present at the meal, though not substantially and not particularly joined to the bread and wine (which remain unchanged).
- Spiritual Reception – the Body and Blood of Christ are spiritually received in the believing act of partaking of bread and wine (which nevertheless remain bread and wine.)
Despite the fact that most of the Christians I regularly fellowship with hold to the first view (mere remembrance) I find this view most problematic as I do not see how it accords with either the Biblical accounts of the institution, or with Paul’s warning about unworthy participation, or with the early church’s understanding as evidenced by the ante-nicene fathers. As Evangelical Christians we claim to understand and believe the Bible in its literal sense; yet when Christ says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” and later “this is my body” we prefer to read “this represents my body” — which does not at all explain the reaction of Christ’s hearers in John 6 nor the harsh judgments Paul prescribes for unworthy partaking).
The other four views seem to me more compatible with a high view of Scripture.
Most Protestants, even many who hold to the real presence of Christ, reject transsubstantiation, some as an unnecessary attempt at explaining a mystery, but many because for them it is wrapped up with the R.C. notion of a re-presented or re-enacted propitiary sacrifice which would contradict Hebrews 7 (see below).
It is possible, however, to hold to transsubstantiation without viewing the Eucharist as a propitiary sacrifice; it is likewise possible to practice “eucharistic adoration” with a sacramental union view, since that view also localizes the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine.
Here are some conclusions I have come to:
- I believe that something like either transsubstantiation, sacramental union or spiritual presence is most congruous with the language of Scripture (“I believe that something like either transsubstantiation, sacramental union or spiritual presence is most congruous with the language of Scripture (“This IS my body”) and with Paul’s harsh words about unworthy reception. In other words, I believe that in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper Christ is truly present in a way that goes beyond His presence wherever His people meet in His name, but that the exact “how” of Christ’s real presence is a mystery that we have no call to attempt to penetrate.
- Even when I grew up as a Roman Catholic, Eucharistic Adoration did not play a big role in the piety of our large, very Catholic family. Today, while I have seen Catholic believers who seem to genuinely encounter Christ in this practice, I don’t believe that Eucharistic Adoration has Scriptural warrant. The danger is great that it becomes merely a way to satisfy our human desire for a tangible God instead of the transcendent God of the Bible; I believe John 20:29 has some bearing on this. I find myself in strong agreement with the Anglican “Thirty-Nine Articles” which say (#25), “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them” and (#28), “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.” But I will not judge those who disagree.
- I believe that the Eucharist can be viewed as a sacrifice, but it would be one of thanksgiving rather than of propitiation. That is what makes the Roman Catholic idea of it “re-presenting” or “making present” Christ’s sacrifice somewhat problematic, since Christ’s sacrifice was indeed propitiary, i.e. for the forgiveness of sins, and of course the danger is great of this idea being misunderstood as “repeating” Christ’s sacrifice and thus contradicting Hebrews 7:27 which says, “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
- I believe that a sacramental priesthood (and the three-fold order of deacons, priests and bishops) is a legitmate way of organizing the church and doing things “decently and in order”, but I cannot find a Scriptural warrant or requirement for priesthood in the New Testament beyond the universal priesthood of all believers. As we see in the Roman Catholic church, and as their Pope himself has recently warned, the emphasis on the necessity and special status of ordained priests easily leads to clericalism from which all sorts of other problems follow. Additionally, an over-emphasis on the Apostolic Succession of ordinations and consecrations rather than faithfulness to the Apostle’s teachings is very problematic.
- I believe that a good, prayerfully constructed liturgy is beneficial in lifting our worship and celebration of the Eucharist out of the subjective realm of a presider’s current spiritual and emotional state to an objective basis on the Word of God, but I do not see, amid all the instructions Paul gives on 1 Corinthians for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, any reference to a liturgy or specific words.
- Generally I have a problem with the idea of sacraments which are valid only when administered by a validly ordained priest using the right matter, the right words and the right gestures. That idea is way too similar to magic, and indeed I can testify, from my experience growing up Roman Catholic, that far too many Catholics, if they even still believe in the supernatural, see little difference between the Catholic teaching on sacraments and, for example, the incantations in the Harry Potter novels. I also tend to be very suspicious of so-called “eucharistic miracles”, unexplainable phenomena such as consecrated hosts visibly transforming into human tissue, being preserved for extremely long stretches of time, surviving being thrown into fire, bleeding, or even sustaining people for decades. These, to me, are not very differernt from the “gold dust” at certain churches on the extreme fringe of the Charismatic movement. The presence of Christ in His Supper is all the miracle I need.
Of course it is good to do things properly, so water should be used in Baptism, and bread and wine or grape juice should be used for the Lord’s Supper, but the faithful right intention of the one receiving the sacrament matters far more than the outward form or the status of the minister.