Question: What’s going on with the Lord’s Supper? Is Christ really present? I.e. what does it mean for the bread and wine to be the body and blood of Christ?
These are some big theological questions, and I don’t intend to answer them fully. However, I do want to address briefly what some of the big three “evangelical” views on the Lord’s Supper are, and I will try to offer some cursory evaluation of each view.
If I understand, most evangelicals/Protestants adopt the default “baptistic”/Zwinglian view (i.e. most Baptist churches take this view, which originated with Ulrich Zwingli, i.e. the guy involved with the Swiss Reformation, contemporary-ish with Calvin and Luther).
ZWINGLI understands the Lord’s Supper as a memorial to Christ, where we remember Christ’s one sacrifice to us. Hence the bread and cup are merely symbolic so we remember what Christ has done for us. Simple as simple goes, right?
LUTHER (and Lutherans) would have fits with this understanding, partly because he was suspicious of memorialism, wherein (in which) we “do” something for God instead his “doing” something for us. Rather, he understands the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper to be the actual body and blood of Christ. Basically, for Luther, when Jesus says “This is my body and blood,” he really means is. I.e. (in other words), if Jesus says it’s his body and his blood, then it is.
So Luther understands the bread to be both truly bread and truly Jesus’ body and the wine (or, let’s be honest, Welch’s) to be both truly wine/juice and truly Jesus’ blood. Basically, Lutherans refer to this as the real presence of Christ. And of course, by real presence, they mean Jesus’ physical (human) body and blood. Christ’s real [read: physical/human] presence is of the utmost importance for Luther, because, for Luther, without the flesh, there is no Gospel. Let me backtrack.
Think back to Luther’s theology and his “reformation”: he understand that there was a holy and righteous God. He also had an acute awareness of his own filthiness and unrighteousness and sinfulness. How could he stand before a righteous God and not be damned to hell for all eternity? I.e. how could he, unholy as he was, be justified before a holy God? Where could he find the grace of God? Especially from the OT, God was spirit and was a God of judgment and wrath (and rightly so, for who were we to answer back to God?). But in Jesus Christ, God took on human flesh! Christ revealed God in the flesh (that is, Christ was God, in flesh). And this Jesus showed leadership through servanthood, power and might through humility and meekness. In Jesus, in the taking on of flesh, we have the Gospel of grace and reconciliation, through Christ’s bodily sacrifice and blood shed on the cross! Without Christ in flesh, that is, without a God revealed in flesh, there is no grace!
Therefore, it was necessary that Jesus’ true [read: physical/human] flesh and blood be in the elements, because then the Lord’s Supper preaches Gospel to the partaker of Christ’s body and blood, and he receives comfort and grace in knowing that Jesus broke his body and shed his blood for the sinner.
CALVIN is somewhere in between the two views. He actually liked Luther and his view a lot. He didn’t like how Zwingli’s view was simply a memorial that we do. Calvin liked how we can find Gospel grace and pastoral value from the Lord’s Supper. Let’s not be too quick to make it all abstract symbolism. Isn’t it good to have Jesus be truly present? Well, yes and no.
Jesus, Calvin contends, is truly present in the elements, but by that we mean spiritually, not physically. Wait! Hold on. You’re saying Jesus is truly there, but just spiritually? Isn’t that like trying to have one’s cake and eat it to? What is Calvin getting at?
Here we must understand that Calvin (and most non-Lutheran Reformed theologians) understand that Jesus is one person with two natures. In every-man terms, Jesus is truly God and truly Man. What is true of Christ’s human nature is true of Christ’s whole person. What’s true of Christ’s divine nature is true of Christ’s whole person. So we can say, Jesus didn’t know the time of his second coming (specifically according to his human nature, if we must be precise). Also, Jesus was at the foundation of the world (though specifically we are referring to his divine nature). Christ’s human body acts like a human body – i.e. it can hunger and get tired and be crucified. Likewise, Christ’s divine nature does not become less divine, so just because Christ is walking in Galilee circa AD 30 does not mean that he cannot also be actively preserving the life of a cactus in the Gobi Desert thousands of miles away (as God). We cannot confuse the two natures of Christ. The divine nature stays divine, and the human nature stays human.
So Calvin wants to affirm with Luther that Christ is truly present at the Lord’s Table. However, Christ’s human body and blood cannot be present, because Christ’s resurrected (physical) body is in heaven right now. And as a human body, while a resurrected body, it cannot be in two places at once. It cannot be present in a church in Philadelphia and in South Africa at the same time? Why? Because human bodies don’t do that. Can you be in Europe and Asia at the same time? No! So it is the same with Christ’s body. Yes, the human body belongs to God the Son, but it is still a truly human body!
But that doesn’t mean Christ isn’t present! He is truly present, but in the Spirit! (Here, technically, this applies only to those who have a saving faith that unites them to Christ – so if an unbeliever ate the bread and drank from the cup, he wouldn’t receive Christ’s spiritual presence, of if he did, it would be for his cursing and judgment!) Just because God is Spirit doesn’t mean he’s not real! The Holy Spirit is very real! So is Christ’s spiritual presence!
For example, we are a new creation (Gal 6:15). We have new life in Christ; we are reborn spiritually. There is no physical new body (yet), but that doesn’t mean we don’t have new life truly. We do! So the same applies to the Lord’s Supper.
We cannot confuse the two natures of Christ. Only God can be in more than one place at a time. Human flesh, even Christ’s human flesh, cannot be omnipresent. Therefore, when Christ says he’s present in the bread and wine, if he is truly present in all places where the Lord’s Supper is observed, he can only be there in Spirit (which is no less significant than the physical).
What’s the point of all this? Just some theological gobbledygook? Well, I think it actually might matter and have pastoral concern. You may have picked up hints about this from my writing, but, if you haven’t, I side more with Calvin on his view of the Lord’s Supper. Don’t worry! You’re not a heretic if you hold to a Zwinglian view or to a Lutheran view. However, I think that with a Zwinglian view, you lose the pastoral opportunity to receive the Gospel from the Lord’s Supper. Christ has promised to be present in a special way for the Lord’s Supper, and it is a time for the Word of God, the Gospel, to be preached to us in a physical way (and with explanatory words – with no words, it’s just a snack break of tasteless saltines and grape juice before the sermon). The elements, Christ’s body and blood, physically bread and grape juice, but spiritually (and thus truly) the body and blood, can be received as Gospel and as God’s grace to us. Basically, we should not pass up an opportunity to be preached to and fed and nourished by God (literally). And that’s something we lose with a Zwinglian view. Basically, like Calvin, we want to affirm Luther’s true presence of Christ in the elements, but we simply distinguish between the human/physical and the divine/spiritual. And remember, the spiritual is not less real than the physical.
And here we can truly feed upon the Word of God that is Christ and be strengthened and comforted as we are reminded of the gospel of Christ’s sacrifice for his beloved brothers and sisters. He said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25).