A few months back I wrote a post explaining the Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and I’m finally able to provide the promised conclusion. I apologize to the very few who have waited for this with great expectations. Since I wrote that post, I’ve moved across the country, started a new job, got engaged, and am now planning a wedding, so please forgive my excessive tardiness. Now that explanation is out of the way, let us get down to business.
This post is focused on explaining why the Reformed Tradition does not embrace the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I’ll begin by explaining what their views are, define terminology as needed, and explain that their error is primarily Christological; and all three are commit the same error.
From the Roman Catholic Catechism of the Council of Trent on the Eucharist:
The Catholic Church firmly believes and professes that in this Sacrament the words of consecration accomplish three wondrous and admirable effects.
The first is that the true body of Christ the Lord, the same that was born of the Virgin, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, is contained in this Sacrament.
The second, however repugnant it may appear to the senses, is that none of the substance of the elements remains in the Sacrament.
The third, which may be deduced from the two preceding. although the words of consecration themselves clearly express it, is that the accidents which present themselves to the eyes or other senses exist in a wonderful and ineffable manner without a subject. All the accidents of bread and wine we can see, but they inhere in no substance and exist independently of any; for the substance of the bread and wine is so changed into the body and blood of our Lord that they altogether cease to be the substance of bread and wine.
For the Eastern Orthodox, this is taken from the Catechism of St. Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow:
338. What is the most essential act in this part of the Liturgy?
The utterance of the words which Jesus Christ spake in instituting the Sacrament: Take, eat; this is my body. Drink ye all of it; for this is my Blood of the New Testament. Matt. xxvi. 26, 27, 28. And after this the invocation of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing the gifts, that is, the bread and wine which have been offered.
339. Why is this so essential?
Because at the moment of this act the bread and wine are changed or transubstantiated, into the very Body of Christ, and into the very Blood of Christ.
340. How are we to understand the word transubstantiation T
In the exposition of the faith by the Eastern Patriarchs, it is said that the word transubstantiation is not to be taken to define the manner in which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; for this none can understand but God; but only thus much is signified, that the bread truly, really, and substantially becomes the very true Body of the Lord, and the wine the very Blood of the Lord. In like manner John Damascene, treating of the Holy and Immaculate Mysteries of the Lord, writes thus: It is truly that Body, united with Godhead, which had its origin from the Holy Virgin; not as though that Body which ascended came down from heaven, but because the bread and wine themselves are changed into the Body and Blood of God. But if thou seekest after the manner how this is, let it suffice thee to be told that it is by the Holy Ghost; in like manner as, by the same Holy Ghost, the Lord formed flesh to himself, and in himself, from the Mother of God; nor know I ought more than this, that the Word of God is true, powerful, and almighty, but its manner of operation unsearchable. (J. Damasc. Theol. lib. iv. cap. 13, § 7.)
I have placed the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox explanations next to each other because they are so similar. The Roman Catholic church is more willing to try to explain how the Eucharist occurs, while the Eastern Orthodox leave the means of the transformation as a mystery. The shorthand term for their view is Transubstantiation, the idea that when the bread and wine are consecrated, the substance of the bread and wine is no longer there and is transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. Keep in mind the focus is on a change of substance, if you tell a Roman Catholic or Orthodox they believe the bread and wine physically become the body and blood, they will likely look at you cross-eyed. The substance is the thing that makes a thing whatever it is, so if the substance of the bread has changed, then it is no longer bread, but it is now the body and blood of Christ which it has been transformed into. The accidents are the things that are interchangeable parts of the thing but are not the thing itself. The color, size, weight, etc, of the bread and wine, are all accidental properties and are not the essential or substantial properties of the bread and wine. This is why the body and blood of Christ continue to look like bread and wine after the bread and wine have been consecrated.
From Luther’s Shorter Catechism Part 6: The Lord’s Supper-
The Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself, for us Christians to eat and to drink.
The Lutheran View is more moderate and is called Consubstantiation. Rather than teaching that the substance of the bread and wine are transformed into a different substance, they seem to teach that the substance of our Lord is added in, with, and around the substance of the bread and wine. So. the bread and wine remain while also containing the substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
THE CHRISTOLOGICAL PROBLEM
These understandings of The Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper are problematic for Christological reasons. From the Apostles Creed, we confess that Christ was bodily resurrected from the dead, bodily ascended to heaven, bodily sits presently at the right hand of the Father and from there He will bodily return to judge the living and the dead. Christ retains his humanity after the resurrection, and an aspect of that humanity is located spatially. To posit that in some sense Christ is substantially manifesting himself on earth every time the Lord’s supper is consecrated is to deny His humanity.
We do see Christ doing things that are abnormal and miraculous after the resurrection, like vanishing (Luke: 24;31) and appearing (John 20:19), but in these examples, Jesus still possesses the human attribute of locality. He is in only one place at one time with respect to his humanity; I add this qualification because with respect to the divine essence, Jesus is still omnipresent as He was throughout his life and ministry. To say that He is in more than one place at one time with respect to His humanity is to argue that something of His essential human nature has been altered and that would make Christ no longer human.
Some may argue that since Jesus is God and therefore possessing omnipresence, then it should not be a problem for Him to be everywhere all the time. However, this would mean that the Divine incommunicable attributes of Christ have been communicated to His human essence, therefore rending Christ non-human. Any change to or of the essence of X makes X no longer X. It’s like saying an alchemist can turn lead into gold and the gold still be lead. No! The lead is now gold, and the lead that was is no more, only the gold remains. Human essence does not possess the incommunicable attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, to add them to Christ’s human essence is to change His human essence into something altogether different. Absolutely, Jesus Christ is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, but it is not with respect to His human essence.
Typically, when this argument is put forward to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Lutheran, they will reply at this point with some accusation of Nestorianism, that somehow maintaining that the divine essence is not communicated to the human essence of Jesus Christ results in there being two persons. Yet, I do not know where in this I have confessed or implied that there are two persons. I have only maintained that
“the one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.”
If in maintaining that omnipresence is possessed by Jesus Christ, but not communicated to His human nature makes me guilty of Nestorianism, then I think their explanation makes them guilty of some form of Arianism by creating a new essence that is no longer divine and is no longer human, but mixed.
ONE REMAINING ISSUE
The Roman Catholic Church in its Catechism from the Council of Trent also says:
Here the pastor should explain that in this Sacrament are contained not only the true body of Christ and all the constituents of a true body, such as bones and sinews, but also Christ whole and entire. He should point out that the word Christ designates the man-God, that is to say, one Person in whom are united the divine and human natures; that the Holy Eucharist, therefore, contains both, and whatever is included in the idea of both, the Divinity and humanity whole and entire, consisting of the soul, all the parts of the body and the blood, all of which must be believed to be in this Sacrament. In heaven the whole humanity is united to the Divinity in one hypostasis or Person; hence it would be impious, to suppose that the body of Christ, which is contained in the Sacrament, is separated from His Divinity.
This seems to be a belief that only the Roman Catholic church holds too. The idea that when we eat the Lord’s supper we partake not only of Christ’s human essence, but also of his divine. Yet, this seems nonsensical for several reasons. Jesus said the bread and wine are His body. The Father was not incarnate. The Holy Spirit was not incarnate. Only Jesus is incarnate. He is the only person of the Godhead who possessed a body. Jesus does not possess the divine essence independently but receives it from His Father. If we are eating of Christ’s divinity in the Lord’s supper, then we are also eating of the Father and the Holy Spirit, but the body and blood of Christ were not appropriated by the Father and the Spirit. Thus, while Christ’s humanity remains in union with His divinity, it is not required that we believe that we eat of his divinity, for he says that we eat his body and blood, which are related to his human essence only.
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox church, and Lutheran Church, teach that through various means the substance of Christ’s body and blood arrive locally in the bread and wine. While their explanations differ, they all have the same problem of risking the humanity of Christ, and possibly going against the clear teachings of the Council of Chalcedon that maintains it is a union of essence and not a mixture of essence. There is a clear distinction between Jesus’s divine and human essence, and he completes his work of mediation acting according to both essences, by each essence doing that which is proper to itself. If our explanation of a sacrament results in confusing or changing the two essences, it has failed in its explanation of the work of Christ.
Nathaniel Johnson graduated with an MDiv from Covenant Seminary in 2019. Nathaniel loves spending time outdoors, debating Papists, and drinking moonshine. Nate is also from Missouri, and if you ask he will tell you all about why it’s the greatest state in the union.