Lutheranism and the Lord’s Supper

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).

Consubstantiation?

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.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

6 responses to “Lutheranism and the Lord’s Supper

  • svandyken

    Thank you for this. The clarification of what Lutherans understand by consubstantiation is helpful. But this small-town layman has a practical question: with whom precisely would we consider having concord? I know many fine people who are Lutherans, but I am not aware of any Lutheran denomination that is holding the line, so to speak, on sound doctrine. What I’ve read recently indicates that even the LCMS is moving closer to the cliff over which the ELCA leapt decades ago.

    • Wes Bredenhof

      Honestly, I don’t know much about the LCMS apart from the split with the ELCA (which I briefly wrote about in my dissertation), Rod Rosenbladt (from the White Horse Inn), a really good commentary on Daniel by Steinmann, the good reputation of an LCMS church near my in-laws in Alberta, and the good reports that I heard from a family from my previous congregation that attended an LCMS church when on vacation in an area with no Reformed churches. Oh, and also Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken. All of those things have given me a favourable impression of people who love the gospel and believe the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant Word.

  • Tom Skerritt

    svandyken:

    Just a few weeks ago the LCMS elected Rev. Matthew Harrison as their synodical president. He’s got solid, confessional cred. Perhaps the balance of power within the LCMS has shifted somewhat.

  • Frankq

    Good stuff! Thnx!

  • Darryl Larson

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful clarification on “consubstatiation” and the fact that Lutherans are historically committed to the idea of the “sacramental union” when trying to describe our Lord’s presence “with and under” the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. I am a Lutheran Pastor of the ELCA who still considers himself a “confessional” and “evangelical catholic” Lutheran. I try to take our confessions seriously and yet have also been very aware of the Lutheran-Reformed dialogs over the last thirty or so years.
    I am also familiar with the Reformed tradition, having attended Calvin College and also have studied Calvin’s Institutes and the three Reformed standards, including the Heidelberg Catechism.
    What I have discovered in my study of Calvin’s institutes, the Reformed standards and the Lutheran confessions is that unfortunately, they stopped dialoging once the writings were done. No doubt this was because of the Formula of Concord, which tried to sort out the chaos among Lutherans following Luther’s death, and the last edition of Calvin’s Institutes, which probably reflects his debates with Westphal, a Lutheran who doggedly defended the Formula.
    Lutherans were always suspicious of the Reformed because of Zwingli’s memorialism. They never quite believed that the Reformed adhered to a true doctrine of “real presence” in the sacrament. Yet, if you read Calvin’s Institutes, especially, he is always ready to take on the old Zwinglian idea of “bare signs” in the Supper because of his conviction that believers really do receive the life of Christ through the sacrament. Unfortunately, he speculated and went beyond the Scriptures when he postulated that it is the Holy Spirit who somehow conveys us to heaven where we feast on Christ’s body and blood in a spiritual manner. Nevertheless, he was trying to be consistent with Scripture.
    Calvin said that he could accept that Christ’s body and blood were conveyed “with and under” the supper, but that he had more of a problem with accepting that Christ’s body and blood were “in” the bread and the wine. And, since the Formula, Lutherans have always tended to use that description, that Christ’s body and blood are present “in, with and under” the bread and the wine. The more modern dialogs, at least have clarified that we are talking about the presence of the whole Christ that is in the supper.
    Oddly, enough, even the Lutheran confessions are more cautious about using the formula that Christ is present “in, with and under” the bread and the wine.
    Where Calvin had his problem with Lutheran teaching was the “in” part of that formula. Lutherans since that time have talked about a presence of Christ connected with the bread and the wine saying in effect, “Well, Christ is present everywhere–certainly he can choose to be present in the elements and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” And that is what I would call the Lutheran excess of what is called “ubiquity.”
    The Lutherans tended then, according to the Reformed to stress Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity. And according to Lutherans, Reformed have stressed Christ’s humanity at the expense of his divinity. And both sides have vehemently denied the charges of the other.
    At least in the modern dialogs, Lutherans (who will dialog, at least) and Reformed have agreed that the whole Christ, divine and human is received in the Supper.
    I can’t help but wonder if both Calvin and Luther were a whole lot closer to one another than we imagine. Luther tried to talk about the Words of Institution as a kind of last will and testament, whereby Christ did really convey his body and blood (hence his life-stuff) to believers. And later Lutherans did indeed say that this real presence was different in kind from his bodily presence when he lived among us.
    One of the things that I try to use as an (admittedly extra-biblical) parallel to the Lord’s Supper is the idea of paper money. For paper money, you need words that identify the inked paper as money (the words “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private”), you need an authority that can make that guarantee (the U.S. government), and finally you need to have benefits conveyed by the paper money (the blood, sweat and tears or work that is transferred from one person to another). In the case of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the words identifying the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ are the Words of Institution. The authority of the sayer of the Words is Christ Jesus, (“All authority is given unto me in heaven and on earth”). The benefits of receiving his body and blood are that believers are really given the life of Christ, what Luther calls “forgiveness of sin, life and salvation” (Small Catechism).
    I would hope that there are still some confessionalists out there, both Reformed and Lutheran who will continue to dialog with one another–trying to mine the significant insights that each tradition has to offer. At least some of the fruits of that mining has been seen in the official dialogs of those traditions. Would that those fruits lead to some other fruits as well!

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