The Battle for the Table
by R.C. Sproul
There have been centuries of debate over the church’s understanding of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Before we survey the critical issues involved, we need to understand that the main reason why the argument continues, and at times becomes fierce, is because the church understands the vital importance of this sacrament in its life and worship.
The fundamental disagreement over the Lord’s Supper focuses on four distinct views. These views include: first, the view of transubstantiation articulated by the Roman Catholic communion; second, the doctrine of consubstantiation articulated by the Lutheran community (We must note, however, that the word consubstantiation, though it is used widely in theological circles to describe the Lutheran view, is not a term that the Lutherans tend to embrace, and so we should honor their attempt to disavow this particular word.); third, the Reformed and Anglican affirmation of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper; and fourth, the memorial-sign view of the sacrament espoused by Ulrich Zwingli and by the majority of those in the Baptist communities.
It is important to note at this point that there is major agreement among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and the Reformed that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper. They all go beyond the view of the Supper as a bare sign or memorial, as espoused by many evangelicals.
The debate among Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed people is one that focuses on the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. At the bottom, this debate is not so much sacramental as it is christological.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has articulated her view of the Lord’s Supper in terms of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This doctrine was clearly affirmed by the Ecumenical Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and was reaffirmed as recently as the papal encyclical issued by Paul VI in 1965, entitled Mysterium Fide. Transubstantiation uses language that was borrowed from the philosopher Aristotle. In defining the nature of objects in the world, Aristotle distinguished between the “essence,” or “substance,” of an object and its external, perceivable qualities that he called the “accidens.” Therefore, Aristotle distinguished between substance and accidens of all beings in the created world. By use of this terminology, the Roman Catholic Church teaches the miracle of the Mass, in which the substance of the bread and wine that is used in the Lord’s Supper is miraculously changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ.
This miracle, however, contains two aspects. While the substance of the bread and wine are changed to the body and blood of Christ, nevertheless, the accidens of bread and wine remain the same. That is, before the miracle occurs, the bread and wine look like bread and wine, taste like bread and wine, and feel like bread and wine. After the miracle of their transformation occurs, they still look like bread and wine, feel like bread and wine, and taste like bread and wine. That is because after the miracle occurs, the substance of bread and wine has changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, while the accidens of bread and wine remain. Therefore the miracle is twofold. For Rome there is the substance of one thing with the accidens of another, and the accidens of another thing with the substance of something else.
Interestingly, last century a debate erupted over a similar point, particularly in Holland among the Dutch Catholics. They attempted to get beyond the language of Aristotle and keep the idea of the miracle intact without being tied to the philosophical formulation of Aristotelian terms. Edward Schillebeeckx, as well as the writers of the Dutch Catechism, adopted a view called “transignification,” which they said maintained the reality of the real presence of Christ without the formulation of Trent. Paul VI responded to this in Mysterium Fide (1965) by insisting that not only is the church committed to the substance of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but it is committed to the formulation of it as well.
Martin Luther saw a frivolous use of the word miracle in Rome’s understanding of transubstantiation and said that it is not necessary to talk about the substance of one and the accidens of another when we can just affirm the true corporeal presence of Christ “in, under, and with” the elements of bread and wine. Luther didn’t use the word consubstantiation. It was the Reformed church’s attempt to faithfully articulate Luther’s view by using the term consubstantiation, which means that Christ is substantively present with the substantive presence of bread and wine. In both the Roman and Lutheran view of the matter, for Christ to be present in His human nature in more than one place at the same time requires that some kind of communication of divine attributes takes place between God and the human Jesus. This was the chief objection that Calvin and the other Reformers launched against both Luther and Rome, because they saw in it a violation of the Council of Chalcedon, which taught that the two natures of Christ are united without confusion or without mixture. For Jesus in His human nature, to which His body certainly belongs, to be present at more than one place at the same time would require the deification of His body, which the Reformers saw as a thinly veiled Monophysite heresy.
John Calvin insisted, as did the Anglicans, on the true presence of Christ, but he also insisted that the presence of Christ is through His divine nature. His human nature is no longer present with us. It is in heaven at the right hand of God. We still are able to commune with the human nature of Christ by means of our communion with the divine nature, which does indeed remain united to the human nature. But that human nature remains localized in heaven. In the debate, Calvin fought a war on two fronts. On the one hand, in dealing with the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics, he refused to use the term substance with respect to the presence of Jesus in the sacrament. But over against those disciples of Zwingli, who wanted to reduce the sacrament to a mere symbol and memorial, Calvin insisted upon the term substance. Here the term substance had two different nuances. With respect to Luther and Rome, the term substance meant “corporeal” or “physical.” With respect to the debate with Zwingli, Calvin used the term substance as a synonym for “real” or “true.”
In addition to this aspect of the controversy, the Reformation theologians also rejected Rome’s notion that in the Lord’s Supper a true sacrifice of Christ is offered to God. Catholicism says that though this sacrifice is not bloody, it nevertheless is a real sacrifice (the Council of Trent used the word sacrificium). In this understanding, the Reformers saw a violation of the once-for-all offering of Christ on the cross.
The debate goes on, as the church tries to plumb the depths and the riches of this sacrament that was instituted by Jesus and practiced on a regular basis in the primitive Christian church, and this debate has survived even to our day.