NICHOLS: This was a significant debate during the Reformation that came out of the transubstantiation view of the Roman Catholic Church, which says that the cup and wafer become the literal body and blood of Christ. Martin Luther did not like the Latin term substantia, specifically the philosophical element of that. His view is sometimes called “consubstantiation,” though he didn’t like that expression. He spoke of Christ being around and surrounding the elements. So, Christ’s presence is with the elements as we partake of the Lord’s Supper.
You should look at Luther’s Catechism. He said something here that I think gets lost sometimes in the debate over the Lord’s Supper, perhaps because we move away from Luther’s view as Reformed folk. He said, “We are in a battle, so we come to the Lord’s Table for refreshment and nourishment.” We may not agree with his view of consubstantiation, but I think this perspective is helpful, especially for certain pockets of American evangelicalism that might have a lower, even perfunctory, view of the Lord’s Supper. Luther highlighted that we really need to take seriously the necessity of the Lord’s Supper for our walk.
John Calvin spoke of Communion not so much as Christ’s presence down with us but that, in one sense, we are having a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb to come. In Calvin’s view, we are transported up into the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. That is different from the Zwinglian or memorial view where the elements are simply in memory of Christ’s sacrifice. So, Calvin carved a different view there altogether, and I think it’s worthy of our reflection.
THOMAS: Calvin wrote a couple of very important letters where he has a very high view of the Lord’s Supper. Of course, he treated it at length in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, I think it’s easier to see his position from a liturgical point of view.
When Calvin reformed the liturgy in Geneva, he took the skeleton of the medieval Roman Catholic Mass liturgy. There is a section of the Mass liturgy that goes back to the early church, the sursum corda, “Lift up your hearts.” Calvin moved it from the liturgy of the Word to the liturgy of the Supper. So, the sursum corda came right before the Supper, and I think he was giving us a clue. A lot of evangelicals think that Jesus comes down in the Lord’s Supper and that we can close our eyes and have a little personal moment with Jesus. However, I think Calvin was saying the exact opposite. You are actually being taken spiritually to where Jesus is. Where is the human body of Jesus? It is not here but in heaven, at the right hand of God. I think viewing the Lord’s Supper as a vertical rather than a descending moment is helpful, and I think that is what Calvin was doing liturgically.
REEVES: I think it is worth seeing why the Reformers believed this was a very important question because it could seem to be just one of those questions scholastic theologians love playing around with. Luther and the Reformers saw that the primary problem in the Roman Catholic idea of transubstantiation is the Mass involves an ongoing sacrifice. This practice takes away from the absolute sufficiency of Christ’s work completed for us once-for-all on the cross. So, there is the first problem with transubstantiation, and there are others.
At the other end of the spectrum, the problem with mere memorialism, as Luther expressed in his debate with Huldrych Zwingli, is that Communion becomes an opportunity merely for us to do something. What is actually happening, however, is we’re being given Communion with Christ. We are taken up to feast on, enjoy, and encounter Him. It is not merely a chance for us to renew our allegiance or do something for Him.
This is a transcript of Stephen Nichols’, Derek Thomas’, and Michael Reeves’ answers given during our Blessed in Christ: Detroit 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email email@example.com or message us on Facebook or Twitter.