There comes a point in every young person’s life when he or she stops listening to all music meant for “kids.” It’s almost as though a switch is flipped, like “hey… I don’t even like this music, so why am I listening to it?” and that moment comes for different people at different ages. My taste in music was always pretty mature for my age. I was more apt to listen to Fleetwood Mac than whatever garbage the teenybopper station out of the big city happened to be playing. This is not surprising to most since I am after all a dude, but somehow most of the other boys in my grade school knew songs from that station. I would rather have listened to whatever my parents were playing on their cassette player in their 1990 Trans Sport minivan than anything on the radio. Picking up on this, my mom bought me a copy of The Beatles’ Revolver for Christmas when I was in 6th or 7th grade. Truthfully though, the song above was not one of my favorite songs on the album.
The song title is a relatively good way of explaining Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist. He’s here (locally in our congregation), there (in Heaven, at the right hand of the Father), and everywhere (in churches around the world wherever and whenever the Sacrament is rightly administered).
During the reformation, there was much debate between reformers on two topics concerning the Supper: what is the mode of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament (if any), and is Christ’s role in the Supper a sacrificial role? The first topic has to date not been resolved in unity. The second topic was much easier to unite around: no, Christ is not re-presented to the Father as a sacrifice when the Sacrament is celebrated. the debate between the Lutherans and the other reformers centered on Christ’s presence in the Sacrament. There were essentially three interpretations: bodily (Luther), not at all except for in our memories (Zwingli), and bodily-sort-of-but-not-really (Calvin). R.C. Sproul has a nice article that gives a short run-down of the three positions.
As I said before on this blog, while I completely disagree with the memorialistic interpretation of the Supper, I have a respect for it insofar as it can be said that a very quick view of the scriptures concerning the Supper with only a little care can seem to support it. Constrastingly, I have no idea where Calvin is coming from. There isn’t scripture to support a physical eating and drinking of Christ’s body without a local presence of Christ’s body. In the words of institution, Christ didn’t even intimate that to partake of his body requires both faith and a mystical working whereby you can physically partake of a body that is not physically present in front of you. No; “This is my body” and “This cup is my blood.” But add to this that in order for Calvin’s system to work, unbelievers must not be able to receive Christ’s body in the supper, as this would undermine his mystical communion with the body and blood through faith because then the reception of Christ’s body would no longer rely upon the faith of the believer as he claimed. But in reality, the whole position is undermined by the warnings in 1 Corinthians 11. You can’t be guilty concerning a body that isn’t present for you to be guilty concerning.
But FE’s don’t hold to Calvin’s doctrine. In my experience, they hold to either Zwingli’s doctrine or else to a mystical, spiritual presence of Christ whereby He’s present, but not physically. Zwingli’s and the mystical positions both ring of Nestorianism, because they divide Christ down the middle and either make him perform actions according to only one nature (the divine, not the human) or else deny any benefit of Christ’s fleshly body. These two positions do not harmonize with the fact that the Son of the Father has inseparably taken on human flesh and still lives in it today, at the right hand of the Father. How do I know He’s still in human flesh? Because he bodily ascended to Heaven that way. Regardless, for the vast majority of FE’s who have been a part of my life, these aren’t even issues. The majority of FE’s believe in a purely memorialistic interpretation informed by human reason and ignorant of any scriptural problems that arise (see Luther’s argument with Zwingli over John 6 in the article linked above).
Traditionally, the doctrine of the local presence has been opposed by attacking the limits of the human nature. These are pretty fair questions, truthfully. While FE’s I’ve been around may or may not be uninformed of the history of the battle over the Supper, they typically have the same Zwingli-like questions. “How can Jesus be present locally in so many places at once?” is a popular question, as is “how is his body never entirely consumed?” and others like it. These are fair questions because humans, in our experience, can only be in one place at one time. In our normal understanding, if one were to consume pieces of a human body, eventually they run out of pieces!
I remember a conversation with a very loving Baptist pastor that I had just mere months before I officially became Lutheran. I described my difficulty with the doctrine of the Supper that Baptists hold. He was surprised to hear that in all my reading, I had become convinced of the Lutheran position. In his typical gentle but jovial manner, he rhetorically asked
So what do you believe of Christ’s presence in the supper? What did he mean when he said “This is my body?” Do you believe he said [popping sound with tongue] “Here’s a finger.”
His humor made me smile then, and even in my disagreement it makes me smile now. Yet his point is clear. Though he would never deny that Christ can do things we find impossible, the question is in regards to the limits of the humanity in the hypostatic union (union of human and divine natures). In his view, the human nature is simply incapable of doing certain things and so it stands to reason that in his loving, salvific work, Christ has willingly become subject to the laws that we are. There is no need to find ways to explain his physical presence in the Supper because in taking on humanity, Christ has chosen limit himself in a manner which would not allow for it, so the question is moot anyway!
But this view simply neglects scriptural accounts concerning Christ’s humanity. Consider the following very short Chemnitz-inspired list of verses that describe accounts of human traits Christ did not uphold in and with with his body:
- Jesus walked on water, thereby violating laws of density.
- Before his ascent into Heaven, Jesus appeared bodily in a room through locked doors, violating laws of physical co-locality of matter.
- After his ascent into Heaven, Jesus appeared bodily to Paul in prison, violating laws of physical co-locality of matter and transportation.
The simple fact is that Jesus, even donning humanity, is able and willing to do things in his person that we are unable to do. When examining the above short list, why should we have any question whatsoever that Jesus is capable of a bodily presence here, there, and everywhere in this Sacrament today, tomorrow, as well as for 2,000+ years worth of yesterdays? The scriptural support is there; and Christ’s very words are still with us: “This is my body” and “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.”
This is how the church has almost unanimously understood the Sacrament until the radicals had their say in the reformation. Lists of quotes abound from very early Christianity to defend this view. Early Christians were accused of cannibalism by outsiders. Heresies were defended against at times by simply replying as argument: “If your position is true, then how can Christ be physically present in the Eucharist?” and this was enough to settle the debate!
This doctrine is scriptural. This doctrine is true.