Frequently the sacraments are discussed in a manner that fails to pay enough attention to their character as actions. All too often the categories that we resort to in order to frame our doctrine are far too static (e.g. sign / thing signified). Such language tends to frame the Eucharist less as a dynamic action to do
than as a symbol to be looked at. The Eucharistic elements are primarily there to be looked at and meditated upon; the elements begin to eclipse the event that they should be part of. This tendency is a big one in evangelical circles and is not absent in Roman Catholic circles. Many forms of the practices of Eucharistic adoration, some practices associated with the reservation of the host and the use of the bread in Corpus Christi festivals and the like strike me as quite decadent, unbiblical and sub-Christian. They involve a serious distortion of the biblical rite and seem quite alien to the sacrament that was instituted by our Lord.
When understanding the Eucharist as an action
and understanding the presence of Christ within it precisely as a presence within an action, rather than as presence in static and detached elements (although there is certainly presence in the elements as they are found in the action), it is important to have an appreciation of the threefold character of the body of Christ.
The Eucharist is a ritual whereby the Church is fulfilled as the Body of Christ. Christ Himself is present in our midst as our Host (historical Body). Christ Himself is present in the elements as our food (sacramental body). Christ Himself is present in us as His Church (ecclesial body). In the Supper Christ our Host gives the Church to eat of His body so that the Church might dwell in Him and so that He might dwell in the Church. Christ the Bridegroom gives His body to His Bride so that His Bride might become one flesh with Him. The presence of Christ is threefold: as the Host who gives the gift of Himself, as the gift itself and in the recipients of the gift as it is received.
Only by keeping these three dimensions in view will we begin to understand what takes place in the Eucharist. In passages like 1 Corinthians 11 these three dimensions of presence are beautifully jumbled up together. One moment Paul is talking about the bread of the sacrament as the Body of Christ, the next it is the historical Body of Christ that he speaks of; he then proceeds to speak of the Church as the Body of Christ. It is the relationship between these aspects of the one Body of Christ that make the Eucharist what it is, that make the Church what it is and, dare I say, fulfil what Christ Himself truly is — not just an individual but a corporate Personality (totus Christus
In the light of this, any individualistic celebration of the Eucharist should be out of the question. This is one of the reasons why I believe such things as private masses to be distortions of the true nature of the sacrament. By focusing so much on the presence of Christ in the elements, some proponents of the doctrine of transubstantiation have lost sight of the ecclesial character of the Eucharist. In a similar manner, many evangelicals, who have treated the elements principally as signs to be individually meditated upon, end up downplaying the importance of the presence of the whole body of the Church at the celebration of the Eucharist.
What it means for the bread and the wine to be Christ’s body and blood cannot be appreciated apart from an appreciation of what they serve to do within the Eucharistic action. They are Christ’s communication of Himself to His Bride. By Christ’s communication of Himself in the elements the Church becomes one flesh with Him. The goal of the sacrament is the totus Christus
— the transubstantiation of us, not of bread and wine. This does not mean that it is necessarily inappropriate to speak about the transubstantiation of bread and wine, but if the presence of Christ in bread and wine becomes the point of the rite, we have missed the point.
Transcendence and Immanence
I believe that it is helpful to understand the Supper as a genuine foretaste of the new creation order. Geoffrey Wainwright, in his book Eucharist and Eschatology
, identifies three key features of the new creation order. First, it will be life in Christ
. Second, it will be life with Christ
. Third, it will be Christ’s life in the new creation
. Wainwright claims that these three aspects correspond to the general theological truths of God’s transcendence
, the distinction
between God and His creatures and the immanence
of God in His creation respectively.
The transcendence of Christ is seen particularly in the fact that Christ is the giver of the Supper to the Church. The Creator/creature distinction is seen in the fact that we eat with
Christ and before God. The immanence of Christ is seen in the fact that the food that we feed on is Christ Himself. Christ is our food and not merely the giver of the food, our host and table-fellow.
Wainwright maintains that God’s transcendence must of necessity take precedence over His immanence, as God is prior to His creation. Consequently, in our celebration of the Supper the emphasis must primarily rest upon Christ as the giver of the meal. Accompanying this should be a realization of our eating with
Christ as our host and table-companion. These two aspects of the Supper should be given prominence over Christ’s presence in the elements. Scripture is unambiguous that Christ is also our food. In the Eucharist we eat His flesh and drink His blood, as John 6 teaches us (I find the arguments against John 6 being Eucharistic utterly specious and unconvincing).
The doctrine of transubstantiation, it seems to me, gives unbiblical prominence to the presence of Christ in the elements over Christ’s role as our host and table-fellow. As a result it tends to produce unhealthy practices. Adoring Christ in the Eucharist is a perfectly biblical thing to do. As we celebrate the Supper we worship Christ as the One who gives us food and fellowships with us. We also receive Him as food in the elements. Adoring Christ in the Eucharist need not involve adoring the consecrated host. I sincerely believe that, however well-intentioned it might be, the manner in which the elements are treated in some traditions is technically idolatrous.
We certainly feed on Christ’s body and drink of His blood, but in a very important sense what we eat is bread and what we drink is wine (1 Corinthians 11:26). Although Christ is truly present in the elements, the elements themselves never lose their integrity as creations of God. The mere fact that the bread in the Eucharist truly is the body of Christ does not make it a worthy object of worship. The Church is also truly the body of Christ without being a proper object of our worship. The claim that belief in Christ’s real presence in the elements necessarily entails the adoration of the consecrated host is one that leaves me unpersuaded.
The Ecclesial Body and the Sacramental Body
The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist. The ecclesial body is dependent upon the Eucharist and there would be no Eucharist were it not the particular community of the Church that assembled to celebrate it. The assembly of the Church is a prerequisite for a true celebration of the Eucharist. Private masses are a dangerous departure from the biblical pattern.
Following de Lubac, a number of authors have drawn attention to the manner in which the relationship between the three aspects of the theological body of Christ began to be reconceived towards the end of the Middle Ages, resulting in a corrupted doctrine of the Eucharist. In particular, de Lubac and others have highlighted the manner in the relationship between the ecclesial and the sacramental body was altered. Whereas the historical body used to be implicitly separated to some degree from the sacramental and ecclesial body, as time went on the sacramental body gradually migrated to the other side of the separation.
In the original relationship, the sacramental body and the ecclesial body were seen as mutually confirming and dependent upon one another. However, the sacramental body was gradually prioritized over the ecclesial body until it ended up being screened off from the ecclesial body. The status of the Church as the body of Christ was downplayed until it assumed little more than the level of a metaphor. Many supporters of transubstantiation would be shocked by the manner in which I have paralleled the presence of Christ in the elements with the presence of Christ in the Church. This is because they think in terms of Christ sustaining a relatively anaemic presence in the Church. In the elevation of the sacrament, the assembly of the Church has been denigrated.
Of course, many Roman Catholics will claim that I am seriously misrepresenting their position at this point. They will claim that it is absurd to accuse the Roman Catholic Church of denigrating Christ’s presence within the Church, as Roman Catholics clearly hold to a higher view of the Church than any Protestant ever could. I beg to differ: Roman Catholics hold to a higher view of the hierarchy
of the Church, but not to a higher view of the Church itself. This is itself a result of the separation of the sacramental body from the ecclesial body.
As the sacramental body was separated from the ecclesial body, the actions of the priest became all-important. The role of the people in the rite was marginalized, the withdrawal of the cup from the laity merely serving to reinforce the separation. The Church that made the Eucharist was no longer the gathered assembly, but the clergy. Private masses and other corrupt practices seem quite logical when the relationship between the sacramental and ecclesial body is regarded in such a manner. The power of the clergy, who secured the presence of Christ in the sacrament, was thereby enhanced.
Within such a setting, transubstantiation became a strange miracle performed by the priest, while the role of the laity was increasingly a passive one. As Gregory Dix pointed out, the average worshipper in such a setting must content himself with purely private adoration as he looks at the sacrament (for even the words that he hears are not in the vernacular). Individualistic piety is the result of such deficient Eucharistic practice. I am convinced that it was as the Church was starved of the sacrament of its unity that many of the seeds of modern day individualism were sown. This is one of the reasons why freeing ourselves from individualistic understandings of the Eucharist is particular hard in the Western Church.
Consecrationism or Receptionism?
My differences with certain forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation do not have to do with (a) whether Christ is truly present in the Supper, or (b) whether we genuinely partake of the flesh and blood of Christ in the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine. I wholeheartedly affirm that Christ is truly present in the Supper and that we feed on the substance of Christ as we partake. Nevertheless, the further question of whether I hold to receptionism might well be raised at this point.
Receptionism is the belief that the bread and wine only confer the body and blood where faith is present. Some people who hold this position make the presence of Christ in the elements contingent upon the faith of the one receiving them. Others maintain that Christ is truly presented to believer and unbeliever alike, but can only be truly received by the mouth of faith. The following statement from the 1557 Colloquy of Worms is a good example of a strong statement of the objectivity of Christ’s presence from theologians who hold to this latter form of ‘receptionism’:—
We confess that in the Lord’s Supper not only the benefits of Christ, but the very substance itself of the Son of Man, that is, the same true flesh which the Word assumed into perpetual personal union, in which He was born and suffered, rose again and ascended into heaven, and that true blood which He shed for us, are not only signified or set forth symbolically, typically, or in figure, like the memory of something absent, but are truly and really represented, exhibited, and offered for use, in connection with symbols that are by no means naked, but which — so far as God Who promises and offers is concerned — always have the thing itself truly and certainly joined with them, whether proposed to believers or unbelievers.
As it regards the mode now in which the thing itself, that is, the true body and blood of the Lord, is connected with the symbols, we say that it is symbolic or sacramental. We call a sacramental mode not such as is merely figurative, but such as truly and certainly represents, under the form of visible things, what God along with the symbols exhibits and offers, namely what we mentioned before, the true body and blood of Christ, which may show that we retain and defend the presence of the very body and blood of Christ in the Supper. So if we have any controversy with truly pious and learned brethren [Lutherans], it is not concerning the thing itself, but only concerning the mode of the presence, which is known to God alone, and by us believed.
For many, the debate between receptionism and ‘consecrationism’ has to do with the question of when and to whom Christ’s body becomes present. Consecrationists generally hold that Christ becomes present at the moment of the consecration of the bread and the wine. Receptionists are generally seen to believe that Christ only becomes present at the moment of reception and only to faithful receivers. Whilst a number of Calvinists claim that this is the Calvinistic position, I wonder whether certain nuances of the Calvinistic position are lost when such language is employed.
I disagree with both receptionism and consecrationism as defined above. I believe that it is unhelpful to look for one moment at which Christ becomes present. Nor do I believe that there even is a moment of ‘consecration’. I fail to find one mentioned in Scripture. Christ’s presence embraces the whole action, as I have already claimed. The whole action is ‘consecratory’ and not merely one moment within it. One of the dangers with receptionism (hereafter understood as limiting the presence of Christ in the bread and wine to the moment of reception by the faithful recipient) is that it has the tendency of individualizing our celebration of the Supper. The presence of Christ becomes little more than a presence to detached individuals, rather than a presence to the congregation as a whole. Also, in both consecrationism and receptionism, there tends to be a focus upon the elements that distracts us from the other manners in which Christ is present in the Eucharist.
If the whole action is consecratory, and is not understood in an individualistic manner, even the unbeliever is somehow brought into the presence of God. The unbelieving eat and drink judgment to themselves.
Consecrationism often regards the presence of Christ in the bread and wine in a manner that holds true even outside of the context of the Supper, leading to such practices as the laying aside of the bread and parading it in Corpus Christi festivals. In opposition to such practices, I would assert that the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine is the presence of Christ as the gift of food (the firstfruits of the new creation). The presence of Christ in the bread and wine is a presence of Christ to be eaten and drunk of. It is only really appropriate to speak of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ in the context of the action of the Eucharist. In a context where the eating and drinking of the Church is not going to take place, there is no presence of Christ in the elements.
Is it appropriate to speak of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ prior to our eating and drinking? Most certainly. However, speaking of them in such a manner is only appropriate as they are given to the Church as food and drink (i.e. as they are already part of the Eucharistic action). The full reality of Christ’s presence is only known as we partake of them. Our reception is the goal and climax of the Eucharistic action. The personal presence of Christ is only meaningful when understood in the context of the whole action. Consequently, our accent should always be upon the time of reception as the time in the light of which the presence of Christ in the rest of the Eucharistic liturgy makes sense.
The question of the manducatio impiorum
comes into play here: Do the impious truly feed on the body of Christ in the sacrament? Yes and no. First we should remove a few misconceptions. The position that only the faithful truly receive the substance of the body and blood of Christ does not necessarily teach that there is anything less in the sacrament when it is offered to unbelievers than when it is offered to believers, nor need it teach that believers add
a crucial ingredient to the sacrament by their faith. Rather I understand it to teach that faith is the receptive organ by which we receive what is truly and objectively present within the sacrament.
I believe that there is a real sense in which unbelievers ‘eat without eating’ and ‘drink without drinking’ at the Supper, just as people can ‘hear’ the Gospel ‘without hearing’. This does not, however, mean that such individuals know nothing of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. In 1 Corinthians 11 we see that the impious were really experiencing something of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. It is the body of Christ that is given to the unbelieving, just as it is the body of Christ that is given to the believing. There is no cause for us to doubt that what we receive is truly the body and blood of Christ.
The Role of the Spirit
It is the work of the Spirit that makes the Eucharist what it is. It is the work of the Spirit in the Eucharist that makes the bread and wine that we offer the firstfruits of the new creation and the body and blood of Christ. It is the work of the Spirit through the Eucharist that makes the people of God more than just a gathering of individuals, but truly the Body of Christ. We become the dwelling place of Christ by the Spirit.
Following our Lord’s great Eucharistic discourse in John 6, He declares:—
Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.
Some Zwinglians have used these verses to rob all of Jesus’ earlier statements of any real force. In response to these approaches, we must first appreciate that there is no opposition between life-giving flesh and life-giving words (as C.K. Barrett points out). The opposition in these verses is between human flesh in general and the Spirit. I do not believe that a reference is here intended to Christ’s own flesh. Nor do I take this to be any sidelining of the physical character of the elements. I believe that the fact that we are partaking of physical
elements is crucially important in the Supper. I also believe that we feed on Christ’s flesh in the Supper and do not merely enjoy fellowship with Him in His divinity (I find the idea of fellowship with Christ in the Supper apart from His humanity disturbing, to say the least).
What Jesus is teaching, I believe, is that the whole discourse will only make full sense when understood in the light of the later events of the ascension and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Apart from this perspective, the whole conversation is opaque, troubling and confusing. Our eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking of His blood would be little more than a form of cannibalism, were it not for the work of the Spirit. It is the Spirit that secures the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the elements (not, I might add, some new property of Christ’s historical body whereby it becomes ubiquitous).
Much more could be said. However, I have now outlined some of my key concerns. Despite all that I have said, I have yet to be convinced that the doctrine of transubstantiation itself necessarily entails any of the errors that I have catalogued above. I believe that the Bible teaches that we feed on the substance of Christ in the Eucharist in our partaking of the bread and the wine. I also believe that Christ is really present in the bread and the wine and that they are not merely symbolic. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that most of the forms that the doctrine of transubstantiation has taken should be regarded as serious departures from biblical teaching.
If I had more time, I would study Eucharistic sacrifice in some depth and would also explore the OT background to the Supper. I have done this to some degree in other posts in the past. As Leithart and others have point out, the attention given to the question of Christ’s presence in the elements is one that results from a ‘zoom lens’ approach. We will better understand the character of the Eucharist once we use a ‘wide-angle lens’ approach. The Supper is much more than the elements and is formed by a rich weave of different biblical symbolism. One of the final problems with the doctrine of transubstantiation that I will mention is the manner in which it has distracted us from the Supper as a whole by concentrating overmuch upon the elements. Even after you have explored all of the issues raised by the doctrine of transubstantiation, there remains so much to say about the Supper.