As I was recently preparing for a sermon dealing with Lord’s Day 18, I had the opportunity to explore again the background to QAs 47 and 48. As you may know, the Heidelberg Catechism was written in Germany and first published in 1563. It is unusual: a Reformed catechism emerging from a predominantly Lutheran context. Some of the substantial disagreements between the Lutherans and the Reformed are discernible in the Catechism and Lord’s Day 18 is one of the most notable places – after all, we have here four QAs on the ascension. Compare that with one QA on the resurrection in Lord’s Day 17. There was obviously something going on in the historical background that made extra attention on this point necessary.
The Ubiquitarian Error vs. the Calvinist Heresy
If you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ve heard plenty of catechism sermons on Lord’s Day 18. Likely you’ve heard that this issue goes back to the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, it does. But more fundamentally, it goes to the issue of where Christ’s human nature can be found today. It is an issue of Christology (the doctrine of Christ). In fact, this is one of the most significant questions in Christology.
The Lutherans were historically known as ubiquitarians – they held that Christ’s human nature is ubiquitous, which means that it is present everywhere. The Reformed were historically known as sacramentarians – they held that Christ’s human nature is only in heaven, but he is spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper on earth. The Reformed spoke of the “ubiquitarian error.” The Lutherans returned the favour and even did one better, referring to the Reformed position as “the Calvinist heresy.”
Many commentators and preachers of the Catechism have said that the Lutherans held to this error in order to shore up their doctrine of consubstantiation. So, for instance, J. Van Bruggen in his Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism wrote that the Lutheran teaching is to be rejected because “it leads to a misconception of the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, i.e. that Christ is BODILY present in, with, and under the symbols of the Lord’s Supper” (131).
Richard Muller is a well-known historical theologian at Calvin Seminary. He’s written many helpful books in his field. Among them is his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. In his article on consubstantatio, Muller notes that this was a doctrine of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper that dates back to the Middle Ages. It was taught as a possibility by Duns Scotus, John of Jandun and William of Occam. Says Muller, “According to the theory of consubstantiation, the body and blood of Christ become substantially present together with the substance of the bread and wine, when the elements are consecrated” (80). He says that this is not to be confused with the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s human nature in the Lord’s Supper. The medieval doctrine of consubstantiation proposed that Christ is present locally. In other words, you could draw a line around the bread and say that Christ was right there. You could spill some wine on the table, carefully draw a line around the puddle, and say that Christ was present right there in that very place.
However, the Lutheran doctrine of real presence says something different. There is a real presence, but it is illocal. “Illocal” is an unfamiliar word to us. Immaterial beings (such as angels) have an illocal presence. That means you cannot draw a line around the presence of an angel. Angels are present, but they cannot be limited to a certain spot. According to classical orthodox Lutheran theology, so it is with the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Christ is there in his human nature, but not in such a way that you can pin him down to a certain spot – he has a real, illocal presence. It should also be noted that the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is different from his presence elsewhere in the world. It is a presence “specific to the sacrament….bound to a particular promise of God given in the words of institution.” In the Lord’s Supper, he is present “definitively and sacramentally” (Muller, 242).
Can You Make This Simple for Me?
As I was reading this, I began to think about the poor Lutheran pastor who has to somehow teach this to his flock. It sounds quite complicated. How would he do it? To answer that question, I turned to Concordia: the Lutheran Confessions, a Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. This volume was published by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), one of the two more conservative and confessional Lutheran churches in North America (the other being the Wisconsin Synod). If you want to understand the Reformed churches, you would turn to the Three Forms of Unity. If you want to understand Lutheranism, a good place to turn is the Book of Concord.
The first thing to note is that this is a large book of over 700 pages and in those pages you will search in vain for even one mention of the word “consubstantiation.” “Transubstantiation” (the Roman Catholic view) is there and critiqued, but no where do we read something like, “Lutherans hold to a doctrine of consubstantiation.” Rather, they describe their position as “sacramental union” (470).
It is true that the Lutherans believe that Christ’s human nature is present everywhere. In reference to the ascension, Martin Luther understood the words “at God’s right hand” to mean everywhere (488) — God’s right hand is his almighty, omnipresent power. So, when speaking about article 8 of the Formula of Concord, the editors of Concordia explain: “Does the human nature of Christ share in the divine attributes so that Christ, according to both natures is present everywhere, even under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper? The biblical position, explained in this article, is clearly, Yes” (491). Likewise, elsewhere we read this: “Lutherans believe that the true body and blood of Jesus are actually present (under the bread and wine), distributed, and orally received in Holy Communion” (487).
Whether that position can fairly be called consubstantiation is a matter of debate. When it comes to the root or etymology, consubstantiation simply means something like “with the substance.” The human nature of Christ is “with the substance” of the bread and wine. So, from an etymological perspective, consubstantiation might be an appropriate description of the Lutheran view. However, if one digs deeper into Lutheran theology, it becomes clear that there is only a superficial similarity with what has historically been termed “consubstantiation.” It would be akin to calling Arminians “Reformed” because they hold to a doctrine of election. There are only superficial similarities between the Arminian and Reformed views of predestination, and similarly there are only superficial similarities between the Lutheran view of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper and the medieval doctrine of consubstantiation. Moreover, according to the Wikipedia entry on the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, “It is occasionally reported that the LCMS and other Lutherans teach the doctrine of consubstantiation. Consubstantiation is generally rejected by Lutherans and is explicitly rejected by the LCMS as an attempt to define the holy mystery of Christ’s presence.”
None of that takes away from the real and serious differences between the Lutherans and ourselves. It also does not take an iota away from what the Catechism says in QAs 47 and 48. There is a real and significant error being addressed there, one that continues to divide us. The Lutherans also continue to recognize the divide. In fact, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord rejects and condemns the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism. They reject and condemn the teaching that “Christ is present with us on earth in the Word, the Sacraments, and in all our troubles, only according to his divinity. This presence does not at all apply to his human nature” (494). That sounds like it is directed at our Catechism and given that this was written in the late 1570s, it is entirely possible.
Undoubtedly, some of this is quite detailed and complex. I have struggled to understand it myself for over ten years. What is important for us to know and believe is that Christ is in heaven with our human flesh. He is here on earth with his “divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit.” Unlike the Lutherans, we don’t believe that Christ’s human nature is here on earth right now in any way. But unlike much of the broader Christian world (what used to be called “evangelicalism”), we also believe that Christ is really present when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. He is present in Word and Spirit to bless us. It is a sad thing that for over 400 years we haven’t been able to agree with the Lutherans on these points. May God quickly bring the day when we will at last find “concord” with them.