The Meal That Divides

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On the night of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus prayed for His disciples and for those who would become His disciples, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). This was a profound prayer for unity among Christ’s disciples. Sadly, the occasion for this prayer, the “Passover” of the new exodus, the meal commemorating the death of the Lamb of God for His people, has become the focal point for some of the most serious controversies and divisions in the church. It is no longer the meal that unites us but instead has become the meal that divides us.

The most serious controversies regarding the Lord’s Supper emerged during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, but these controversies were not the first. The first serious controversy regarding the Lord’s Supper occurred in the middle of the ninth century in a small Benedictine abbey (monastery) in France. One party in the controversy was Paschasius Radbertus, who had entered the monastery of Corbie when it was under the spiritual leadership of an abbot named Adalard. (The title “abbot,” given to the leaders of such monastic communities, is derived from a word meaning “father.”) Radbertus became a teacher at Corbie and held that position for many years until the death of a later abbot named Isaac in 844. At that point, Radbertus himself was made the abbot of the monastery and became the spiritual father to the community of monks.

In 831, Radbertus wrote a book entitled The Lord’s Body and Blood. He dedicated it to one of his students, Placidius. Sometime around 844, he revised the book in order to present it as a Christmas gift to Charles II (also known as Charles the Bald), the king of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Radbertus addresses four basic questions in his work: the relationship between the historical body of Christ and the body in the Eucharist; how the real presence of Christ can be explained when the sacrament is celebrated in many places; the nature of the bread and wine before and after consecration; and the relationship between the sacramental signs and the things signified.

According to Radbertus, the body of Christ in the sacrament is the same historical body of Christ that was visible during His earthly life and in which He suffered and died. If this is the case, then Radbertus must explain how the historical body of Christ can be present in multiple locations simultaneously. This he does by appealing to the creative power of God. The Holy Spirit “daily creates the flesh and blood of Christ by invisible power through the sanctification of his sacrament, though outwardly understood by neither sight nor taste” (III.4).

When he addresses the nature of the bread and wine after consecration, Radbertus indicates that they are completely done away with, although the appearance of bread and wine remains. After consecration, the bread and wine are “nothing but Christ’s flesh and blood” (I.2). According to Radbertus, “the elements are not outwardly changed in appearance on account of the miracle but inwardly, that faith may be proved in spirit” (I.5). In other words, although the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ, they retain the appearance of bread and wine in order to test our faith in God. What this means is that there is virtually no distinction between the sacramental signs and the things signified. They are identical. Although Radbertus posited an actual change of the bread and wine, he insisted that believers, and only believers, receive the body and blood of Christ, and they do so by faith.

Radbertus’ doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was not accepted by all. Various aspects of his teaching were rejected by men such as John Scotus Erigena, Raban Maur (the abbot of the monastery of Fulda), and the imprisoned monk Gottschalk who himself was no stranger to theological controversy. When Charles the Bald read Radbertus’ book, he too had questions about it and asked another monk at Corbie to clarify the matter. That monk’s name was Ratramnus.

Very little is known about the life of Ratramnus. He had apparently been involved in a prior theological dispute with Radbertus regarding the manner of Christ’s birth, and he was obviously known to Charles the Bald for his theological competence. He was the author of books on topics such as the nativity of Christ and predestination, and he defended the Western church’s view of the filioque (the “and the Son” clause added to the Nicene Creed in the ninth century) from the criticisms of Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople. His response to Radbertus’ book on the Lord’s Supper was given exactly the same title: The Lord’s Body and Blood. In it, Ratramnus focuses on two of the issues raised in Radbertus’ book: the relationship between the historical body of Christ and the body in the Eucharist, and the relationship between the sacramental signs and the things signified.

In contrast with Radbertus’ view, Ratramnus denied that the bread and wine become the historical body of Christ that was crucified and raised and now sits at the right hand of God. Ratramnus writes: “By the authority of this most learned man [Ambrose] we teach that a great difference separates the body in which Christ suffered, and the blood which he shed from his side while hanging on the cross, from this body which daily in the mystery of Christ’s Passion is celebrated by the faithful, and from that blood also which is taken into the mouth of the faithful to be the mystery of that blood by which the whole world was redeemed” (§ 69).

In Ratramnus’ view, the body and blood offered in the sacrament are the spiritual flesh and blood of Christ (§ 72). It is still, however, the true body and blood because there is a connection between the sacramental sign and the thing signified. He explains: “Therefore, what appears outwardly is not the thing itself but the image of the thing, but what is felt and understood in the soul is the truth of the thing” (§ 77). As he explains in another place: “Outwardly it has the shape of bread which it had before, the color is exhibited, the flavor is received, but inwardly something far different, much more precious, much more excellent, becomes known, because something heavenly, something divine, that is, Christ’s body, is revealed, which is not beheld, or received, or consumed by the fleshly senses but in the gaze of the believing soul” (§ 9).

The controversy between Radbertus and Ratramnus sparked a debate that continued into the tenth and eleventh centuries, although at times there was some confusion. In 1050, for example, Ratramnus’ book was ascribed to John Scotus Erigena and condemned. The debate that began in the ninth century continues in one sense up to the present day in the ongoing disputes between Protestants and Roman Catholics. In fact, if we examine the views of Radbertus carefully, we can see that he espoused a view that would later develop into the full-fledged Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Although this doctrine was officially defined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, it would take the theological genius of Thomas Aquinas, using the metaphysics of Aristotle, to provide a philosophical explanation of the doctrine. We see here an instance of the way in which a seemingly obscure theological debate can have incredibly significant repercussions that no one can foresee at the time.

The views of Ratramnus are somewhat more difficult to pin down than those of Radbertus. He does not advocate a simple symbolic memorialism, as Zwingli would do centuries later. Nor does he advocate anything like the later Lutheran doctrine. If anything, there are some similarities between the views of Ratramnus and the views John Calvin would later teach, but even here we must be cautious because there are also significant differences. Calvin, for example, would agree with Ratramnus when he asserts that we partake of bread and wine with the mouth and the body and blood of Christ by faith. But Calvin would say that we partake in a spiritual manner of the true body and blood of Christ — not what Ratramnus refers to as “spiritual flesh.”

What can we learn from this obscure ninth-century debate? First, we can learn that in a theological debate, it is quite possible for neither side to be completely right. Although Ratramnus taught a doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that is more biblical than that of Radbertus, his own view was still flawed. In the second place, we can learn that when it comes to discerning the truth of a given doctrine, the historical development of that doctrine must be examined with care. Rome tends to believe that whichever view comes out on top historically must be the true view. There are others, however, who make the opposite mistake, automatically assuming that unless their view is the minority view, there must be something wrong with it. Neither approach is correct. If our doctrine is biblical, it is true, regardless of whether anyone else or everyone else believes it. 

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