“Hoc est Corpus meum! Hoc est Corpus meum!! Hoc est Corpus meum!!! (This IS my body!)”
One can imagine the indignation of Martin Luther as he repeated these words over and over again while banging his beer mug on the table with increasing vehemence. In opposition to those who, like Ulrich Zwingly, left the Catholic church, yet denied the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, Luther saw the idea of the bread and wine as merely symbols to be a “regression to Catholic superstition.” Of Zwingli’s Eucharistic theology, Luther said, “I’d rather drink blood with the pope than wine with Zwingli;” and we all know how Luther felt about the pope. And so continued the debate over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Table.
But, is this just a matter of debate for theologians to engage in, or is it important to the average Christian? Certainly the Scripture in 1 Corinthians 11 points to the Lord’s Table as something unique and exceptional from other mere Biblical shadows and types. After all, people were literally dying by participating at the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner.” Is that typical of something merely symbolic, or is there something more substantive occurring at the Lord’s Supper?
There are essentially four views concerning the presence of Christ at the Table. The Roman Catholic view (referred to as “transubstantiation”) is that every time the Eucharist is celebrated it remakes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, only in an unbloody manner; and that through that sacrifice, forgiveness of sin may be obtained. Upon consecration, the bread and wine change completely into the body and blood of Christ. Orthodox views are similar, but do not offer an explanation as to how the change occurs, regarding it as a mystery. Lutherans believe in the sacramental union of the body and blood of Christ with or under the substance of the bread and wine, while rejecting that it is a sacrifice. Luther explained it by using an analogy of an iron rod placed into a fire: both are united in the red-hot iron, yet both are also distinct. The “real presence” of Christ is seen as possible in the same way that Christ could, in His glorified body, pass through matter such as walls and disappear and appear suddenly. Those who would argue against the doctrine of “real presence” would point to the text in 1 Corinthians 11 as a call merely to remember Christ, specifically in the time between the cross and His second coming; so the meal acknowledges the absence of the physical Christ, not His presence.
Many evangelicals today including Baptists follow after the teachings of Zwingly, that the Lord’s Supper is merely a remembrance of Christ’s suffering and a reminder of his power to overcome sin and death. But that leaves us wondering why the Lord would attach such a high significance to it, so as to so severely discipline those who take of it in an unworthy manner.
The Reformed view, derived from the teaching of John Calvin, is that Christ is not literally present in the elements, but spiritually present. Calvin explained his view of the Eucharist in his Institutes:
“The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.”
This is how we understand the Lord’s Supper. That it is a means of grace, whereby Christ is present in a special way with His church, as we gather to remember His death and look forward to His return. Certainly all can agree that the omnipresent risen Christ is indeed with us in the Holy Spirit; however there are times and seasons that He is with us in a unique and exceptional way. Two of those times are at baptism and the Lord’s Supper – the two ordinances that Christ left for the church to proclaim the Gospel and strengthen our faith.