Explanations about the presence of Christ in the Supper have been vast and nuanced throughout church history. However, the fact that Evangelicalism (broadly defined) has failed to acknowledge the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper is the bad fruit of nineteenth century Revivalism—rather than the careful exegetical labors of sixteenth century Reformation.
Recently, a video of Francis Chan surfaced in which he tries to explain what he now believes about the real physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Without wishing to dissect the many erroneous arguments Chan made about the unity of the visible church throughout the first fifteen hundred years of church history and the role of preaching in the early church, I do wish to make a few observations about his misplaced statements about how the Supper was viewed throughout church history–and especially by a few of the leading sixteenth century Protestant and Reformed theologians.
Chan insists that the church unanimously accepted the idea that the bread and the wine become the real physical body and blood of Jesus. He says, “for the first fifteen hundred years of church history everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ.” This is to fail to understand that the theory of transubstantiation was first formulated by the ninth century Benedictine monastic abbott, Paschasius Radbertus, and adopted as Roman Catholic dogma at the Fourth Lateran council in 1215. In his article “The Meal that Divides,” Keith Mathison gives a helpful survey of the development of Radbertus’ doctrine of transubstantiation and an explanation of the controversy between Radbertus and Ratramnus over the presence of Christ in the Supper in the ninth and tenth centuries.
Chan then blames the Protestant Reformation for divisions that exist in the church–largely with respect to the Lord’s Supper. He says, “it wasn’t ’til five hundred years ago that someone popularized a thought that it’s just a symbol.” Of course, this is a failure to understand the contention between Luther and Zwingli–as well as the distinctions between the view of Calvin and the members of the Westminster Assembly.
The debate between Luther and Zwingli was not–as so many have wrongly taught–that of the distinction between the real presence of Christ and a mere symbol. The debate centered on the distinction between the real local (i.e. earthly physical) presence of Christ and the real spiritual presence of Christ. Luther believed that the physical body and blood of Jesus was “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine. In this way, Luther sought to distinguish his view (i.e. consubstantiation) from the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation. The problem with Luther’s view, as Geerhardus Vos explained, is that it adopts a faulty Christology to explain the Supper. According to the Lutheran view, the divine nature of Christ must really and truly communicate to the human nature something that does not properly belong to it–namely, omnipresence. Vos explained,
“If Christ, also according to His humanity, is present in and with bread and wine, wherever these are used, then in every instance a power must be communicated to the humanity that it ordinarily (outside of Christ) does not possess. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper thus presupposes the communication of something by the deity to the humanity.”1
Zwingli and the Swiss, by way of contrast, insisted that the Supper was symbolic and that it was the spiritual and sacramental presence of Christ that accompanied the bread and wine. Zwingli’s aversion to Luther’s view was not in the real presence of Christ but in the real local bodily presence of Christ in the Supper. In chapter 4 of his Exposition to the Christian Faith, Zwingli stated,
“The body of Christ is, therefore, not eaten by us, literally or in substance, and all the more not quantitatively, but only sacramentally and spiritually…He is not to be looked for in the world according to His humanity in literal, substantial, bodily presence, but only in a spiritual and sacramental sense.”2
The distinction that existed between Calvin and the Westminster Divines regarded the question of whether it was the heavenly corporal presence of Christ or the earthy spiritual presence of Christ that was appropriated by believers in the Supper . According to Calvin, the Holy Spirit lifts believers into heaven to spiritually feed upon the body of Christ by faith. Calvin wrote,
“Greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of the flesh in the Supper unless it lies in the bread. For thus they leave nothing to the secret working of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence!” (Institutes, 4.17.31)
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:24, Calvin explained,
“Hence the bread is Christ’s body, because it assuredly testifies, that the body which it represents is held forth to us, or because the Lord, by holding out to us that symbol, gives us at the same time his own body; for Christ is not a deceiver, to mock us with empty representations. Hence it is regarded by me as beyond all controversy, that the reality is here conjoined with the sign; or, in other words, that we do not less truly become participants in Christ’s body in respect of spiritual efficacy, than we partake of the bread.”3