Historical Understandings of the Lord's Table
Throughout church history Jesus’ people have observed a simple meal that appropriately has various titles. Some have called it Eucharist, from the Greek term for thanksgiving for Jesus gave thanks when he instituted the meal.1 Others have used the word Communion for in and through this sacrament we commune with the living and risen Christ. Still others have used the term The Lord’s table for it is here that we eat and receive from Jesus. The record of the early Christians in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42, 20:7) refer to it as the breaking of bread.2 Finally, due to Jesus establishing the meal at the Last Supper, we have called it the Lord’s Supper. I find all of these titles appropriate when their meaning is understood. As the church has various names for this sacrament it has also had variegated understandings of what transacts at the table.
In this essay we must have ambitious goals pursued by modest means. I will first describe in brief four views which followers of Jesus have held in understanding communion.3 I will then explain our doctrinal view at Jacob’s Well and why we land where we do in light of a holistic view of the biblical teaching. This treatment is constrained by space so please pursue the footnotage for further study and reading. Now to the four views.
Transubstantiation (Historic voice: Thomas Aquinas Observed: Roman Catholicism)
The official view of the Roman Catholic church is that the bread and wine actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ when consecrated in the Mass. They are offered as a bloodless propitiatory sacrifice to God for the people gathered in the Mass.4 To understand the view that developed over time in the Roman Catholic Church we must understand a few things. First, the words of Jesus “this is my body” and “this is my blood” is taken quite literally in that the view teaches the bread and wine must become these things mysteriously as Jesus taught us. Second, the view became known as transubstantiation over time and was codified as church law at the fourth Lateran council in 1215. Following this period the philosophical theology of the great doctor of the church St. Thomas Aquinas solidified it in the Catholic mind.
Thomas, following Aristotle, employed a philosophical view of matter known in order to explain the logical possibility of bread and wine actually being human meat and blood.5 The idea called hylomorphism pervades the thinking of Aristotle and the view teaches that all material things are a combination of matter (stuff) and form (the idea that makes something what it is). In other words, matter has the potential to be all sorts of things, but the form is what makes something actually what it is. Aristotle also used the additional language substance and accidents to describe things. The substance is what something is, say bread and wine, and the accidents are things like color, taste, shape, etc. which reflect the reality of that substance. Thomas Aquinas used these categories to describe how bread and wine become flesh and blood in the mass.7 When the items are consecrated by prayer and thanksgiving they substantially change but they accidently remain bread and wine. So what you really have is Jesus’ flesh and Jesus’ blood though what appears before you tastes, smells and looks like bread and wine. This is all very nice if you believe in this view of matter and find it necessary to explain the Lord’s supper. However, there have been many throughout church history who have objected to the view that the bread/wine becomes the very same flesh and blood as Jesus’ incarnate body. There are both practical and biblical reasons this view has been seen as problematic but this remains the view of the Catholic church today.
Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Participating, Real Body and Blood, A Bloodless Sacrifice of Jesus is repeatedly made in the mass.
Consubstantiation/Sacramental Union (Historic voice: Martin Luther Observed: Lutheranism)
Though not all Lutherans readily accept the label of consubstantiation the view has historically been associated with his theology. Much of the Protestant view of the Lord’s table has been a reaction to what they saw as excesses in the Catholic Mass and doctrine of transubstantiation. Those who hold this view reject that the mass is a “bloodless sacrifice” in that the book of Hebrews clearly teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice of his body and blood was a single act that took place historically on the cross. Furthermore, Luther did not want to say, as did Ulrich Zwingli, that communion was simply a sign and memorial. One thinks of his now infamous carving of the words “THIS IS MY BODY” into a table when debating the matter with Zwingli at Marburg Castle in 1529.8 Those holding this view believe that the body and blood are sacramentally unified with the bread and wine but do not become them substantially. Luther’s words were that the body/blood were with, in and under the elements but I’m not sure anyone really knows what this means. Smile.
Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Participating, the Body and Blood in union with, in and under the elements
Memorialism (Historic voice: Ulrich Zwingli Observed: Some Baptists, many modern evangelicals, Pentecostals)
Perhaps the most simple view is that of memorialist theology which was represented during the reformation by the Swiss protestant leader Ulrich Zwingli. The focus in this view is on the phrase in Luke’s gospel and repeated in the first letter to the Corinthians “do this in remembrance of me.” It avoids trying to make bread become body and wine become blood but some think that this evacuated the presence of Jesus and his work from the sacrament.
Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Only Symbols, No Real Presence
Spiritual Real Presence (Historic voice: John Calvin Observed: Reformed traditions including Presbyterians and some Baptists. Methodists also hold to a form of real presence but do not clarify their meaning)
The final view rejected both the Lutheran and memorialist views in favor of a real presence of Jesus without the bread/wine becoming material flesh and blood. It affirms both the remembering and proclamation of the table, situates its observance as the new covenant meal while also affirming that Jesus is present at his table ministering grace to his church through the sacrament. It seeks to be faithful to the panorama of the biblical teaching while neither believing in transubstantiation nor the offering of a bloodless sacrifice in the mass. Calvin interacts with all of the above views in shaping his doctrine which is laid out in his Institutes of the Christians Religion and in a little essay entitled A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.9 This view is close to what we teach and observe at Jacob’s Well.
Components of the View: Remembering, Proclaiming, Participating, Jesus present spiritually through the bread and wine.
A Summary of our View at Jacob’s Well
In our doctrine and theology and membership classes we put forth the following view of the Lord’s Table for our members. We want to be clear on what we think the sacrament is and what it is not.
If baptism is the right of entry into the church, the Lord’s Supper is the ordinance of continuing communion with Christ and his church. The Lord’s Supper (sometimes referred to as the Lord’s Table, Communion, or the Eucharist) was commission by Christ at the Last Supper where he shared bread and the cup with his disciples (Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29, Luke 22:17-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). The Lord’s teaching was two-fold. First, the bread represents his body, broken for us. Second, the cup represents the blood of the New Covenant, poured out on our behalf. Luke’s gospel and the apostle Paul record that we are to eat and drink in remembrance of our Lord. In contrast to the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, we hold that the bread and wine do not become different substances in communion. The bread substantially and accidentally remains bread and the wine substantially and accidentally remains wine.
However, we do hold there is a real presence of Christ by way of the Holy Spirit at the Lord’s Table. The Second London Confession states as follows:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible Elements in this Ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally, and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death: the Body and Blood of Christ, being then not corporally, or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of Believers, in that Ordinance, as the Elements themselves are to their outward senses.
The 1677/89 London Baptist Confession of Faith
Although the Lord’s Supper is a remembering, a memorial of the broken body and shed blood of Christ, there is in our view a real meeting with Christ at the table that is a nourishing, spiritual, soul-refreshing presence.10
As the Lord’s Supper is the continuing ordinance of the church, it should be practiced regularly. The Lord’s Table was central to the early church and seems to have been observed weekly (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34) as the church gathered. Although, I do not think that weekly observance is mandated by this witness of Scripture, or by the practice of the early church, its regularity must be enjoined. It is a great shame that in many churches, this central rite of the church which demonstrates love and communion with the living Christ is regulated to an afterthought observed just a few times a year. In this communion we reflect on the Lord’s work in the past and hope for his coming in the future. In this ordinance, when handled with grace, reverence, and care, there is a powerful proclamation and experience of the gospel of grace.
Finally, our unity as a local church is also expressed in this ordinance as we partake of the bread and cup together. For this purpose I believe that communion should be celebrated when the most members would be present. For most congregations this would be in the primary worship gathering. For these reasons we celebrate communion on a weekly basis as a central part of the worship gatherings of Jacob’s Well.
Though this treatment is necessarily brief and incomplete I do pray it is of help in understanding the various historical views of the table and to see the biblical reasons behind our own observance of this blessed gift to the church. It is a great privilege to come to Jesus together by regularly by observing his table. The amazing grace of the gospel is both known and seen visibly in what Jesus ordained for his church.
The word is, eucaristia which simply means to give thanks and reflects the language which Jesus used when establishing the meal at the Last Supper.
- Recent scholars Gregg R. Allison, John Polhill, FF Bruce as well as Historical figures JL Dagg Manual of Church Order and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion have held this view. Though questioned by some and certainly practiced as part of fellowship meals, this has been the historic view of the meaning of breaking of bread in the book of Acts.
- For an excellent summary of these see Chapter “The Lord’s Supper” in Packer, J. I. Concise Theology : A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995.
- See THE EUCHARIST IN THE ECONOMY OF SALVATION in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church—http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a3.htm#III See sections 1333, 1365, 1367.
- For a description of Aristotle’s views see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/ and scan down for the header for hylomorphism.
- This was debated heavily in the late 9th century. The Benedictine abbot Paschasius Radbertus argued for the flesh/blood view in his treatise On the Body and Blood of the Lord and was vigorous opposed by a monk named Ratramnus from the same abbey in a book of the same title. Further, the nature of the body and blood of Jesus in the sacrament was taken up extensively by all major leaders of the Protestant Reformation. See Chapter 12 ”The Lord’s Supper” in Gregg R. Allison, The Assembly of “The Way” - The Doctrine of the Church, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, forthcoming)
- See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 75. The change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4075.htm
- The Marburg Colloquy of 1529 was arranged by the German prince Philipp I of Hesse in attempt to unite the various streams of Protestantism. Luther and Zwingli failed to agree on the nature of the Eucharist and Philips dream of a fully united Protestantism failed.
- See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book IV, section 17 and A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper available online at http://www.the-highway.com/supper1_Calvin.html
- This phrase is used in the Chapter 10 – “His Soul-Refreshing Presence, The Lord’s Supper in Calvinistic Bpatist Thought and Experience in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century” in Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson, Baptist Sacramentalism, Studies in Baptist History and Thought ; V. 5 (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K. ; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003).
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