Neither Subjectivism nor Transubstantiationism

From the Ghent Altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck.

From the Ghent Altarpiece, by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck.

Once more I aim to uphold the true doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. ‘A simple ceremony for us to remember what Christ has done for us’: people think memorialism and transubstantiation are the only possibilities and, perceiving that to adore a purportedly transubstantiated wafer is an idolatry to which Scripture has never directed us, opt for memorialism.

The same Scripture, however, seems to have a much higher view of the Lord’s Supper than the memorialism held by many, perhaps most, evangelicals today. St Paul relates the institution of the Supper in the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

Τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν, says the Greek: ‘This is my own for-your-sake body’, my body in your regard, my body instead of you. The bread that the Lord broke was not merely a work for us to perform but something graciously given for us. The structure of the language suggests, moreover, that more’s going on than can be expressed with the words ‘my body is [like] this bread’ (not Christ’s body is compared to the bread, but the bread to the body): the relation expressed between the bread and Christ’s body is not of resemblance but of personal construction, of covenant. Constituted by a performative speech act, as a marriage is constituted by the lawful pronouncement of man and wife, this covenant may even be said to make the bread into the body of Christ. We see this same relation more clearly in the giving of the cup, which the Lord calls the new testament in my blood. As other men, in dying, have set forth their last will and testament, the Lord has set forth his own promised will, his own covenant, with the cup as surety. The Words of Institution are certainly pregnant, then, with more than ‘remember this metaphor’.

Indeed, Paul has in the same letter already spoken of the sacrament as an objective partaking in Christ’s body and blood:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

Were it not for the word communion, as well as the metaphorical likening of the Church to one bread, we would even think these statements suggested the popish doctrine of transubstantiation. As it is, all we know is that the Lord’s Supper has an objective element instituted by Christ himself, an objective element left relatively undefined.

As the biblical witness seems not to be obvious, I think this is a matter on which reference to the patristic consensus is especially useful. If the early Church agreed on the doctrine of the Eucharist, then we have good guidelines for interpreting the words of Scripture according to the teaching of the Apostles. According to Bishop Nicholas Ridley, one of the Oxford Martyrs burnt at the stake by Mary Tudor, there’s no support among the fathers for the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ridley quotes St John Chrysostom: ‘Before the bread be hallowed, we call it bread: but, the grace of God sanctifying it by the means of the priest, it is delivered now from the name of bread and esteemed worthy to be called Christ’s body, although the nature of the bread tarry in it still.’ In this way are bread and wine said to become the body and blood of Christ; though the meaning’s annexed to the word, and the word conveys the meaning, the word is not equal to the meaning itself.

To the question, therefore, ‘Do then the bread and the wine become the real body and blood of Christ?’, the Heidelberg Catechism gives the reply:

No, but as the water in Baptism is not changed into the blood of Christ, nor becomes the washing away of sins itself, being only the divine token and assurance thereof; so also in the Lord’s Supper the sacred bread does not become the body of Christ itself, though agreeably to the nature and usage of sacraments it is called the body of Christ.

So the bread and wine are called despite not being literally and properly so, because through them we do truly (and literally, one might say) receive Christ’s body and blood in a spiritual manner. The Catechism concludes of this figure, ‘Christ speaks thus not without great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby, that like as the bread and wine sustain this temporal life, so also his crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink of our souls unto life eternal; but much more, by this visible sign and pledge to assure us, that we are as really partakers of his true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit, as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of him; and that all his sufferings and obedience are as certainly our own, as if we ourselves had suffered and done all in our own person.’


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