Real Presence: A Classically Protestant Perspective

The Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a doctrine which, like infant baptism, was overwhelmingly affirmed by the reformers themselves, but which has fallen out of favor in most of contemporary American Protestantism. As before, I am papering over a lot of deep disagreement among the reformers in an attempt to present the fundamentals of the doctrine. Essentially, the doctrine of Real Presence affirms the real, objective presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. The benefits derived from communion are not personal and subjective but founded upon the faithfulness and promises of God. They are dependent upon Him, not upon us, for their efficacy. This is good news for those of us who live in a frail, inconstant human body which does not always feel the way we want it to feel. A headache may be a very real obstacle to a person and subjective meditation on the death of Christ, but it is no hindrance to the faithfulness of God.

Have you ever found yourself trying to work up enough emotion to partake of communion worthily? If you are a memorialist, I suspect you have. It was a common experience for me, at least. I could never quite get rid of the worry, gnawing at the back of my mind, that there was something desperately wrong with the practice of working up emotion. Is emotion which must be forced really any better than no emotion? This bothered me, but I really didn’t know what to do about it. When I discovered that communion was not my work but God’s, that its efficacy lay in Him and not in me, I was freed to rest in His promises and relieved of anxiety about my worthiness to take communion (I’m not, which is precisely the point). Interestingly enough, the realization that the efficacy of communion is not contingent on my emotional state, because that state is a response to communion and not communion itself, has had the effect of increasing rather than decreasing the emotion I feel at communion.

There are almost as many ways of explaining what happens in the Lord’s Supper as there are churches. Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic view which the reformers were reacting against, holds that the substance of the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of the Christ. The accidental properties of the bread and wine remain the same, however, which is why the elements don’t change shape/taste/etc. Some of the abuses associated with transubstantiation include worshiping the elements and the church’s claim to hold power over people’s salvation by administering or withholding access to communion.

The Lutheran doctrine, consubstantiation, holds that the physical body and blood of Christ are present “with” the bread and wine – sometimes described as “under and around” the elements. This is not so much an attempt to explain where Christ’s body and blood are so much as it is an attempt to explain that they are. The Lutheran explanation of how Christ’s body can be physically present in more than one place at more than one time is that Christ’s human body, because of the incarnation, has taken on His divine attributes – including omnipresence. This is referred to as the communication of the majesty, or the ubiquity of Christ’s body. I used to think this was really nutty, but a Lutheran friend of mine has been working on me, and now I only think it’s slightly nutty.

The Reformed doctrine, unlike transubstantiation and consubstantiation, affirms that the manner in which Christ is present in the Lord’s supper is strictly spiritual, not physical. Rather than “dragging Christ down out of heaven” (as Calvin puts it :-), the Reformed hold instead that, through the Holy Spirit, we are lifted up to heaven where we partake of Christ’s body and blood. In Calvin’s own words: “We say Christ descends to us both by the outward symbol and by his Spirit, that he may truly quicken our souls by the substance of his flesh and of his blood... There is nothing more incredible than that things severed and removed from one another by the whole space between heaven and earth should not only be connected across such a great distance but also be united, so that souls may receive nourishment from Christ’s flesh.”

Anglicans are even least specific about how Christ is present in the Eucharist. They more or less affirm that Christ is indeed spiritually present, and provide no further details. One of my favorite communion hymns contains the line “Thou art here, we ask not how.” This nicely sums up the Anglican position.

Biblical Support for Real Presence
Examining the Biblical evidence for Real Presence is fairly straightforward because there are only a few relevant passages, making exhaustive enumeration practical. The words of institution are the first place we should look for insight into the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (I Cor. 11:23b-25). First of all, it is clear that the Lord’s Supper is indeed a memorial of Christ’s death – “This do in remembrance of me” cannot be taken any other way. Whether the words of institution tell us any more than that about the meaning of communion, however, depends on what the definition of “is” is. This passage, I think, is sufficiently vague as to clearly support neither Real Presence nor memorialism. Jesus may legitimately be interpreted as using the “is” of purely symbolic association, the “is” of spiritual presence, or the literal “is” of physical presence. Banging your shoe on the table and yelling “This is my body! This is my body!”, as Luther was known to do, is unlikely to resolve any disagreements.

The second passage of interest is John 6:48-58. Jesus’ words here are a little more specific than the words of institution (i.e., “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me, and I in him”, v. 56). However, this passage does not occur during the last supper (John does not record the institution of communion), instead it was spoken much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. The controversy is therefore not usually over whether or not John 6 supports Real Presence, but over whether John 6 can be applied to communion at all.

I think that John 6 is eminently applicable to a theology of the Eucharist, for several reasons. First of all, in John’s gospel Jesus is always saying things the disciples don’t get until much later (for example 2:19-21, 13:7, 16:4, and 16:25). Given this pattern, it is at least plausible to assume that Jesus’ words in John 6 were purposely confusing – meant to be understood only after the institution of communion and the crucifixion, when his declaration “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh... he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (vv. 51B, 53) was illumined for the disciples.

But probably the strongest reason for thinking the two teachings can be associated is the most obvious: Jesus’ language is very similar in the two passages. How plausible is it that Jesus used nearly the same language to describe two completely different things? Jesus is very careful with His language – He doesn’t choose symbols lightly or flippantly, but because there is a deep correlation between the sign and thing signified. One example (which is only coincidentally related to the present topic): sometime in college I ran across the following (paraphrased) quote by Augustine: “By eating the body, we become the body.” “Well, that’s clever”, I thought. Augustine is conflating the body of Christ language from the words of institution with the other body of Christ, the Church. At the time I attributed it more to Augustine’s skill with a pen than to a real connection between the two bodies. Later, however, I ran across the Apostle Paul saying more or less the same thing: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor. 10:17). The point is that there is no good reason to assume that Jesus did not intentionally make use of nearly identical language on the two occasions in question.

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to assume that Jesus’ words in John 6 were a direct reference to the bread and wine of communion. Actually, it is the other way around: Jesus’ message in John 6 is about spiritual realities – the exact realities that undergird communion. In other words, the relationship of the eating of bread and wine in communion to the theology in John 6 is that of the sign to the thing signified. This does not mean, as some might suggest, that the thing signified is only present in communion through the remembrance induced by the sign (which is to say, not present at all), such that the sign is little more than a flash-card of sorts. No, God’s signs are not just reminders. They are bound together with the thing they signify. Calvin puts it rightly, I think, when he says “The godly ought by all means to keep this rule: whenever they see symbols appointed by the Lord, to think and be persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is surely present there.”

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains the final passages relevant to a theology of the Eucharist. In I Cor. 10:16, Paul asks rhetorically “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” The word which the NASB translates as “sharing” is rendered “participation” or “communion “ in the NIV and KJV, respectively. The plain meaning is that we interact (share/participate/commune) with the body and blood of the Lord in communion. But how could this be if the Lord is not present in communion? How could we partake of the Lord’s body and blood if communion is just a time of reflection? I don't pretend to understand exactly how it is that Christ is present, but I think Paul has given us enough information to rule out memorialism as not consistent with this idea of "participating" in Christ. A straightforward interpretation of Paul’s meaning here would affirm, with the Anglican hymn I mentioned earlier, “Thou art here”.

The messages of I Cor. 11:27-29 is similar: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” Regarding the first sentence (v. 29): a memorialist would obviously not deny the serious consequences of taking communion unworthily, however I am skeptical that the theology of memorialism can provide a sufficient explanation for Paul’s warning. It is fairly obvious that partaking of communion unworthily would make one guilty of the body and blood of the Lord if He is present in communion, however I don’t see how Paul’s accusation of being guilty of the body and blood of the Lord follows at all from the doctrine that communion is a time of personal reflection on the death of Christ.

Paul goes on to say “he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” The NASB is rather ambiguous here. The KJV has “discern” in place of “judge”, and the NIV has “recognize”. Also, that the body spoken of is the Lord’s seems to be fairly uncontroversial. I consulted several English translations, and every one which ventured an opinion rather than keeping the ambiguity identified the body spoken of as Christ’s. Also, some of the manuscripts of I Corinthians apparently make this explicit, reading “The Lord’s body” instead of just “body”. Paul is saying that those who do not recognize the body of the Lord in the sacrament bring judgment upon themselves. Again, the plain meaning seems to imply that the Lord is present in the sacrament.

While the Biblical evidence regarding the Lord’s supper is sparse and vague in places, I believe I have shown that it is more than enough to support the central tenet of Real Presence, “Thou art here”. Not only does memorialism lack the resources necessary to account convincingly for (in particular) the language in which Paul describes the supper, but I have found such peace and joy in Real Presence that I confess I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take upon their shoulders the burden of responsibility for the efficacy of communion.