Feeding on Christ by faith

Posted in Blog

Visiting Switzerland this summer I reminded myself of the work of Swiss reformers. Much theological controversy in the sixteenth century concerned the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Roman Catholic doctrine taught the sacrifice of the mass and the real presence. According to the doctrine of the real presence, after consecration, the elements of bread and wine are transformed into the elements of Christ’s physical body and blood, present in substance under the accidents (ie outward appearance) of the bread and wine (transubstantiation). All communicants eat sacramentally (ie partake of the transubstantiated elements), but only true believers eat spiritually (ie partake in the power of grace bestowed by the sacrament).  On this view each celebration of the mass is a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, when his body and blood are offered anew in propitiation for the sin of humanity. All the reformers of the sixteenth century were united in denying this doctrine and stressing  the unique, once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.


In Germany, Martin Luther regarded transubstantiation as an unscriptural piece of priestly magic, but he did believe in a real presence to the extent that for the true believer the sacrament contains the substance of Christ’s body and blood ‘co-terminous’ with the unchanged substance of wine and bread. He believed that Christ’s body and blood were imparted to the bread and wine by the action of saving faith on the part of the communicant without priestly interposition. He rested his doctrine on his notion that Christ’s body was present throughout creation.

Over in Switzerland, Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) broke entirely with the idea of the real presence by seeing nothing but symbols in the elements and a service of commemoration (of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity) in the communion. But Luther would not accept any except the literal meaning of Christ’s words at the last supper, ‘This is my body’ and so on, words which Zwingli reinterpreted by treating ‘is’ as meaning ‘signifies’.

For his part, in Geneva, John Calvin (1509-64) retreated from what he saw as Zwingli’s extreme position while avoiding the complications of Luther’s concept of bodily presence produced by faith. Calvin’s doctrine was that of a real but spiritual presence in the sacrament: Christ bestows on the elements a substance which is the substance of saving power created by His sacrifice on the Cross, but not a physical presence.

Since the Church of England, in its 39 Articles, expressly denies transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence, it is with Calvin on this point. And at its reformation it was blessed to have Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) who, among his many qualities, was a master with words and an expert in the English art of compromise. And so, for the communion service, he came up with the majestic words: ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ May we so feed, next time we take communion.