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Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper


It is sad that the sacrament that should most express the unity of the Body of Christ became, over the centuries, a major point of division, but grieving over the division doesn’t resolve or annihilate it. We must do our best to understand and practice it scripturally—and practice charity toward those who disagree with us about it, lovingly correcting particularly those whose doctrine jeopardizes the gospel by turning the Supper into a repeated sacrifice of Christ and so undermining the value of His once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

Primary New Testament texts related to it:

  1. Matthew 26:26-29 Now as they were eating [the Passover meal], Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,  28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
  2. Mark 14:22-25 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”  23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
  3. Luke 22:14-20 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
  4. 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,  24 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.”  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

All of the Reformers rejected the following four elements of the dominant view of the Lord’s Supper in the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation, established by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

  1. Transubstantiation: “the body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wined, the bread being transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by the power of God.” Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) attempted, in Summa Theologica75.2, to explain it:
    1. Though the substance of the bread and wine are not annihilated, they are no longer present in the Eucharist because they have been converted into flesh and blood.
    2. The conversion is a miracle wrought by God.
    3. Christ is not “locally” in the sacrament, because He is present “by way of substance, not of spatial dimension” (Article 6, Bromiley’s paraphrase). (But if the substance is flesh and blood it necessarily has size and shape, and therefore also necessarily location.)
  2. Mass: the Eucharist was a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice to God to satisfy for sins.
  3. Because by transformation the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Christ locally present, believers could and should adore them as they adore God Himself, since Christ is God.
  4. The laity should receive only the body (the “transubstantiated” bread), not also the blood (the “transubstantiated” wine).

But the Reformers had their own disagreements over how Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Zwingli’s view
    1. The word “is” in “This is my body” and “This is my blood” expresses not identity but representation. Excerpt from Zwingli’s Letter to Matthew Alber, November 16, 1524:

      In response to the dream of Pharaoh, Joseph said, “The seven good cows are seven fertile years” (Genesis 41:26). And yet it cannot be argued that seven cows are seven years. Clearly the word “are” must mean “signify” or “foretell.” So the meaning is, “The seven good cows you saw when you slept foretell or signify seven fertile years.” Christ said, “I am the vine” (John 15:1). Yet He was not a vine, but looked upon Himself as having the characteristics of the vine. Again He said, “The seed is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11). Yet the seed is not the Word of God. Here again, “is” cannot mean “to be,” but is used to mean “signify.” For with these words Christ was explaining to the apostles the parable he had set forth concerning the sowing of the seed, saying, “the seed of which I speak is”—that is, signifies—“the Word of God.” We can find such phrases throughout the Bible, so there is no need for me to emphasize this point any further.

      Now let me examine Christ’s word [at the Last Supper]. Jesus took bread, and so on, with these words, “Take this and eat. This is My body which is given for you.” Here I interpret “is” to mean “signifies.” So, “Take this and eat. This signifies My body which is given for you.” Surely, then, the words must mean, “Take and eat. For this, which I now command you to do, will signify or call back to your minds My body which is given for you.” For He immediately added, “Do this as a memorial of Me.” Behold the purpose for which He commanded them to eat—as a commemoration of Himself. Paul puts it like this: “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). What else is Paul commanding but a public remembering of the Lord’s death? This feast of our Lord, or in Paul’s words the Lord’s Supper, was instituted in order that we should call to mind the death which Christ endured for us. Clearly this is the sign by which those who rely on Christ’s death and blood show forth their common faith with their brothers. Let the meaning of Christ’s words, then, be transparently clear: this meal is a symbol by which you call back into your minds the body of God’s true Son, your Lord and Master—the body that was given for you.”

    2. The Apostles Creed, which says that Christ “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead,” implies, by “is seated,” that Christ’s human nature is locally confined to heaven at the right hand of God.
    3. Zwingli identifies three misinterpretations of Christ’s words of institution of the Lord’s Supper:
      1. The Roman Catholic view: we literally eat Christ’s incarnate and crucified body and drink His blood because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
      2. Luther’s view: we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood under the bread and wine because they are physically present there due to what Luther called the “communication of attributes” between the divine and human natures—each nature taking on attributes of the other.
      3. A further Roman Catholic view: we literally eat the resurrected body and drink the resurrected blood of Christ because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
    4. Zwingli embraces Augustine’s statement: “What need of teeth and stomach? Believe and thou hast eaten. … He who believes in Him feeds on Him.”
    5. Nonetheless Zwingli affirmed that Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper in His divine nature. Geoffrey Bromiley summarizes Zwingli’s view: “… the whole Christ both ascends and is present always, but his ascension involved the human nature and his presence involves the divine. Since the human nature has ascended, Christ’s body is not eaten naturally and literally …. It is eaten sacramentally and spiritually …. To eat spiritually is to trust ‘with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ,’ while to eat sacramentally is ‘to eat … with heart and mind in conjunction with the sacrament.’ Those who eat without faith may be said improperly to eat sacramentally, but in no sense do they eat spiritually ….”
    6. Further, Zwingli believes the Supper, as Bromiley summarizes, “because it was instituted by Christ, testifies to historical facts, has the name of what it signifies, represents a high thing, and stands in analogy to the thing signified—Christ, our food, and ourselves, the one fellowship …. It also augments faith … even though it cannot give it …. It does this by claiming the four most important senses, indeed, all of them for the obedience of faith. We hear, see, taste, touch, and smell in it the goodness of Christ, and as we do so the soul’ tastes the sweet savor of heavenly hope.’ Finally, the sacrament as a pledge binds us together as ‘one body by the sacramental partaking of his body, for we are one body with him.’”
  1. Luther’s view
    1. In Blessed Sacrament of the True Body and Blood of Christ (1519), Luther seemed still to affirm transubstantiation and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
    2. In Treatise on the New Testament (1520), he rejects the sacrifice and no longer expresses his view of the presence of Christ in the sacrament by the term transubstantiation.
    3. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he calls transubstantiation mere human opinion.
    4. In This is my Body (1527) and Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), he opposes Zwingli’s view.
    5. Luther’s argument:
      1. Those who think “is” in “This is my body” expresses representation rather than identity must prove it, not just assert it.
        1. Yet his own interpretation, involved in his doctrine of consubstantiation, namely, that the body and blood of Christ are locally present “in” and “under” the bread and wine is itself not a literal reading of “is.”
      2. Further, the representation view involves great grammatical difficulties.
      3. Christ can be present in heaven, as the Creed affirms, and still be present on earth in the Supper, by the communication of attributes that results in the “ubiquity” of Christ’s body.
      4. To deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is to fall into the heresy of Nestorianism—failing to recognize the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one Person of Christ.
  • Calvin’s view (from Institutes, 4.17)
    1. Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic view, is neither scriptural nor logical and is to be rejected along with the doctrine of the mass, which is that the Eucharist is a repeated propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.
    2. Consubstantiation (Luther’s view that Christ’s body and blood are locally present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine by reason of the ubiquity of His body, which is entailed in the “communication of attributes”) is neither scriptural nor logical, for it is contrary to the nature of bodies to be ubiquitous. “For here it is not a question of what God could do, but what he willed to do. Now, we affirm that what was pleasing to him was done. But it pleased him that Christ be made like his brethren in all things except sin [Heb. 4:15; cf. ch. 2:17]. What is the nature of our flesh? Is it not something that has its own fixed dimension, is contained in a place, is touched, is seen? And why (they say) cannot God make the same flesh occupy many and divers places, be contained in no place, so as to lack measure and form? Madman, why do you demand that God’s power make flesh to be and not to be flesh at the same time! It is as if you insisted that he make light to be both light and darkness at the same time! But he wills light to be light; darkness, darkness; and flesh, flesh. Indeed, when he pleases he will turn darkness into light and light into darkness; but when you require that light and darkness not differ, what else are you doing than perverting the order of God’s wisdom? Flesh must therefore be flesh; spirit, spirit—each thing in the state and condition wherein God created it. But such is the condition of flesh that it must subsist in one definite place, with its own size and form. With this condition Christ took flesh, giving to it, as Augustine attests, incorruption and glory, and not taking away from it nature and truth.”
    3. Consubstantiation and the ubiquity through the communication of attributes on which it is based also contradict orthodox Christology, embraced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, of the union of two distinct natures in Christ, “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood,” “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.”
    4. Yet Calvin affirms the real presence of Christ in the Supper: “But we must establish such a presence of Christ in the Supper as may neither fasten him to the element of bread, nor enclose him in bread, nor circumscribe him in any way (all which things, it is clear, detract from his heavenly glory); finally, such as may not take form him his own stature, or parcel him out to many places at once, or invest him with boundless magnitude to be spread through heaven and earth. For these things are plainly in conflict with a nature truly human. … But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper—and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of mind, but to enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life.”
    5. The Lord’s Supper, with signs of bread and wine, provides spiritual food.
      1. The Supper is a “spiritual banquet wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality.”
        1. It is a “high mystery” and “sacred food” the benefit of which Satan seeks to steal from us by instituting confusion and discord.
        2. “First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent [not transubstantiate into, and not contain in and under them] for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ.”
        3. “Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.
          1. Indeed, by giving guarantees and tokens he makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes. For this very familiar comparison penetrates into even the dullest minds: just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are souls fed by Christ.
          2. We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink. … in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that he power of his life-giving death will be efficacious in us.”
        4. “As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.”
        5. “… from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament, we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.”
        6. “It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55].”
          1. My comment: So the Word is the real essence of the sacrament.
        7. In the Sacrament Christ “offers himself with all his benefits to us, and we receive him by faith. Therefore, the Sacrament does not cause Christ to begin to be the bread of life; but when it reminds us that he was made the bread of life, which we continually eat, and which gives us a relish and savor of that bread, it causes us to feel the power of that bread. For it assures us that all that Christ did or suffered was done to quicken us; and again, that this quickening is eternal, we being ceaselessly nourished, sustained, and preserved throughout life by it.”
        8. “We admit, meanwhile, that this is no other eating than of faith, as no other can be imagined. But here is the difference between my words and [Zwingli’s and Luther’s]: for them to eat is only to believe; I say that we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith. Or if you want it said more clearly, for them eating is faith; for me it seems rather to follow from … by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours—just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body.”
        9. “This life-giving communion is brought about by the Holy Spirit.”
        10. “Now, that sacred partaking of his flesh and blood, by which Christ pours his life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, he also testifies and seals in the Supper—not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises. And truly he offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at that spiritual banquet, although it is received with benefit by believers alone, who accept such great generosity with true faith and gratefulness of heart.”
        11. On the relation of the outward sign and the invisible reality: “… the sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things: physical signs, which, thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed through the symbols themselves.”
        12. “… whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither them mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.”



Featured image “At the Table,” by David Mulder, Flickr Creative Commons