May 28, 2024

Four Views of the Lord's Supper

Barry Cooper
Four Views of the Lord's Supper

When Christians receive the Lord's Supper, Christ Himself is present—but how? In this episode, Barry Cooper explains the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian views of the Lord’s Supper.


Here’s something lots of people can agree about. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists would all agree that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper. 

However, there’s considerable disagreement about what form exactly that presence takes. Is the Lord present physically, spiritually, or in some other sense?

This has been no small debate in the history of the church. After all, if Christ’s death is so central to Christianity, then the thankful celebration of that death—as instituted by Christ Himself—is also profoundly important. 

It’s something even the great Reformers disagreed on. Martin Luther and John Calvin, though wonderfully united in so much of their theology, nevertheless had differing views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. 

Transubstantiation is the official teaching of Roman Catholicism. Trans- means “change” and substantiation means “substance.” The idea is that when the bread and wine are blessed by the priest during the Mass, the bread and the wine are transformed into the actual physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. 

Now of course, it’s obvious to anyone present that the form of the bread and wine doesn’t change. It still looks, smells, and tastes like ordinary bread and wine. But the teaching is that the substance has completely changed: the inner, hidden essence of the thing has changed—what Aristotle would have called the essential qualities of the bread and wine.

So, when a person eats and drinks the bread and wine, they are taking into themselves the actual body and blood of Christ, and thus—the teaching goes—the grace of God. It’s for this reason that someone who deliberately refuses to receive the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper—is putting their soul in grave danger. To refuse the Eucharist is to refuse the grace of God.

Now, Martin Luther took issue with this view of the Eucharist, and his view has become known as consubstantiationcon- meaning “together,” and substantiation still meaning “substance.”

Luther argued that rather than changing completely, the substance of the bread and wine coexists with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Jesus Christ is present in, with, and under the bread and the wine whenever the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. The analogy people sometimes use is a sponge full of water. The sponge isn’t the water, the water isn’t the sponge, but the two are there together with each other.  

Still with me? Good, because there are two other views of the Lord’s Supper.

Huldrych Zwingli, who was around at the time of Luther in the sixteenth century, taught the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. He said that Christ commanded us to “do this in remembrance of Him,” and that is all it is: an act of remembrance. The bread and wine are merely symbols, reminding us that Christ’s body was broken for us, and His blood was shed for us. 

Then there’s John Calvin, who was also around at the same time. His take on the Lord’s Supper has become known as the spiritual presence or real presence view. He took strong issue with the Roman Catholic view, and he definitely didn’t agree with Luther either. At the same time, he thought Zwingli’s view didn’t go far enough. The Lord’s Supper is more than just a memorial, Calvin said. 

It is certainly symbolic, but the symbols do more than merely represent—they actually bring to us the presence of Jesus Christ and His benefits. 

Yes, Christ’s human body is locally present in heaven, but—Calvin said—it doesn’t have to descend in order for believers to truly partake of it. Why? Because the Holy Spirit makes true fellowship possible here and now. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s Spirit. He lifts us to the heavenlies to feed on Christ. Those who eat the bread and drink the wine in faith are also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, actually being nourished by the body and blood of Christ.

So what are we to make of all this? In what sense is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper?

The reality is that when we eat and drink together as brothers and sisters, Christ’s Spirit is present, too. Which means that the risen Lord Jesus Himself truly meets us when we come to His table.