An article published in magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK) addressing the topic of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Click "Read More"!
Let me begin with an apology. I had expected to be able to contribute another edition of “Seminary Corner” to the last issue of this magazine but, sadly, had a family emergency which took me away from my writing. I was glad to see; however, the showcasing of photos of the historic royal visit. Even as an American I am happy to give up my column space to the Queen!
In considering topics for articles I am quite often inspired by discussions I have with individuals at the churches that I have the opportunity to attend. Recently, following a service of Holy Communion at a local Presbyterian Church, I had the opportunity to share a cup of coffee with a gentleman who took an interest in the fact that I was a seminarian.
Given that we had just celebrated the Lord’s Supper, he had wanted to discuss that topic with me. With a burst of laughter he pointed to his wife and said, “my wife is a Roman Catholic. They’ve got some loopy ideas about Communion; did you know that they believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ? I’ve never understood it; it’s just bread and wine! Clearly, we Presbyterians have it right – it’s just a symbol!”
My conversation partner had expressed a common notion of the Lord’s Supper in the modern Reformed tradition. However, while it may surprise some people, this is actually a misunderstanding of the traditional Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper.
Most people do understand – to some extent – the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist. As my conversation partner had rightly pointed out, Roman Catholics do believe that the elements of bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ through a mystical process known as transubstantiation. This is rooted in a rather literal interpretation of Luke 22:19-20.
However, the mistake is made in understanding what we, as Reformed Christians, believe. It is often falsely assumed that if Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation, we believe in something quite the opposite: memorialism (i.e., that the sacrament is purely a symbol or memorial of the Last Supper and Jesus’s sacrifice of body and blood).
In fact, many early Reformers (on whose theology our tradition is largely rooted) outright rejected an understanding of the Lord’s Supper which was purely symbolic.
Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer, had promoted the idea that the Lord’s Supper was simply a symbolic gesture. This understanding was rejected firmly by both John Calvin and Martin Luther (amongst others).
For these Reformers, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was not simply a hollow symbolic ritual. Rather, they promoted the idea the Christ was really and uniquely present in the Lord’s Supper.
This is known as Real Presence and Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians (such as the Church of Scotland) all incorporate it into their theology. Where they differ is in how that Real Presence manifests itself. As previously noted, Roman Catholics believe that Christ’s Real Presence is realized in the transubstantiation of the Communion elements. The traditional Lutheran understanding is that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but that when consecrated Christ becomes present within them in a manner similar to how fire is present in hot metal.
As for our theology – which is most commonly sourced to Calvin – the understanding is that Christ is really and uniquely present in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, the union between Christ and the Communion elements is more of a spiritual, as opposed to a physical, union. Nonetheless, there is a very unique and special presence of Christ that is not found in ordinary bread and wine.
I understand it this way: As Christians we profess a Jesus Christ who is, at once, fully divine and fully man. Before he was betrayed, at a meal with his disciples, he compared himself to the elements of bread and wine. If Jesus is to be understood as both fully divine and fully man, then any apt comparison must also possess both physical and spiritual qualities.
If the Eucharist were purely spiritual or purely physical it would fail to be representative of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.
This is why the Eucharist is so important throughout Christendom and is considered a sacrament of our faith. In partaking of Holy Communion, we draw near to the Real Presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We do not simply memorialize or signify Christ as we might do with a painting or sculpture. Rather, we allow the true and unique presence of Jesus to nourish us, physically and spiritually.