Communion & Presence

Some thoughts on last week’s Hoagies & Stogies: Communion.

It was a really good one — the largest ever with about 80 men present, and many told me how much they liked the debate.  The distinction between Lutheran Real Physical Presence and Reformed Real Spiritual Presence was clear, and the debate was vigorous.

Interestingly, Reformed pastor Mike Brown experienced a bit of a switch-up.  Last time, he was able to claim the “literal” high-ground, camping out on “it is a great sin to neglect baptism” in his argument for requiring all (Reformed) church members to baptize their infants.  But this time, Lutheran Pastor John Kent got to camp out on “This is my body,” forcing Brown to be on the defensive most of the time (until nearer the end, when he started to land some counterpunches).

Speaking of “literal high ground,” the Lutheran position’s boast of having the most literal, direct interpretation of Jesus’ words reminded me a lot of discussions with 6×24 advocates; as if “most literal” automatically means “most correct”.

Even though the Lutheran doctrine of Real Physical Presence is also known as Consubstantiation (contra RC Transubstantiation), the debate never really centered on the word or concept of substance.  How is the substance of Christ present in communion?  (I’m sure the Lutheran answer would have just been “Mystery! This is my body — just believe the words!”)  If Christ’s substance is physically present in, with, under the substance of the bread, then shouldn’t it be somehow scientifically detectable?  Conversely, if the bread remains as physically, substantively bread as it was before, where is there room for Christ’s physical substance?

Which brings me to another point; what is the precise working definition of “physical”?  Does it mean “material,” or “having mass”?  How does our modern, scientific notion of “physical” relate to to whatever Luther or Calvin might have been arguing about (being from an age that still thought in terms of the classical elements of fire, earth, air, water).  And if Christ’s presence doesn’t mean “having mass,” wouldn’t a good description of that be “spiritual”?

One more question I forgot to ask of the Lutheran side: what do they do with the leftover bread and wine?  I know that since the Reformed view is that the bread remains truly and only bread, as it was before, it is not uncommon at my church to see high-schoolers snacking on the leftovers.  But for Lutherans, that bread has the Real Physical Presence of Christ in, with, under it — how can they avoid adoration of the elements like the Catholics?

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13 Responses

  1. If Christ’s substance is physically present in, with, under the substance of the bread, then shouldn’t it be somehow scientifically detectable?

    Or as Ron asked (offline), “Would there be DNA?”

  2. The debate never centered on the concept of substance, because, as I pointed out from the beginning, WHAT is received is not at debate between Lutherans and Reformed. The question is WHERE and HOW we receive the whole Christ. Rather than entering in to the same old tired debate of ubiquity, the communicatio, and (good heavens) there is the DNA, I thought it best to point out the Lutheran’s failure to take seriously eschatology as well as the Trinitarian aspect of the Lord’s Supper. Personally, I didn’t feel on the defensive in the debate.

    Quite frankly, I think I was raising an argument he had never heard before, or at least not considered. If we’re accused of not taking the Bible seriously because of our interpretation of “is,” then we could say the same thing about the Lutheran failure to take seriously John 14 and every reference in the NT to the descent-ascent-Parousia, as well as the heavenly worship of Hebrews 12.

    My two cents.

  3. The question is WHERE and HOW we receive the whole Christ.

    But if the question is HOW, isn’t the answer either Physically or Spiritually, so it would make sense to press on what “physical” means? How often does he get to assert “Literally, ‘This is my body'”, and then run and hide behind “how that happens is a mystery” and even “what that means is a mystery”? There’s so much mystery, I’m not even sure they can say anything Real about Real Physical Presence.

  4. I think ubiquity is an important matter to discuss, because here’s where most people can find the Lutheran view failing. Lutherans believe that at the ascension, Christ becomes omnipresent IN HIS HUMANITY, in his human nature. His human nature thus becomes infinite.

    The Reformed have said, quite rightly, that the Lutherans are losing sight of the humanity of Christ, which has been hereby swallowed up by his divinity. If in his humanity he becomes infinite, then how is he truly human anymore?

    If you win this debate, then the debate about the supper is over.

    This debate is VERY tired for people familiar with it, but for people unfamiliar with it, it’s important and crucial to the Lutheran position. It’s too easy to become confused when focused solely on the sacrament. It’s much easier to think first about how unbiblical it is for his humanity to be swallowed up by his divinity, how it overturns Chalcedon, Nicea and other catholic statements.

    Just the words in the Apostles’ Creed, “…and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” can’t be said by Lutherans properly. He’s not seated at the right hand of the Father, he’s everywhere for Lutherans.

    This, I think, is their fatal flaw.

  5. … the Lutheran position’s boast of having the most literal, direct interpretation of Jesus’ words reminded me a lot of discussions with 6×24 advocates; as if “most literal” automatically means “most correct”.

    How often does he get to assert “Literally, ‘This is my body’”, and then run and hide behind “how that happens is a mystery” and even “what that means is a mystery”?

    Is there mass? Is there DNA? I feel the weight of these excellent questions, putting as they do the concept of physical presence to the test.

    This leads me to suggest a difference between the literallies of consubstantiation advocates and 6×24 advocates. I believe 6×24 is correct, and I expect scientific analysis, despite the difficulties entailed in creation ex nihilo, will confirm it — in fact, in some ways already has confirmed it. In other ways science invalidates 6×24, but as we continue generating our understanding of the universe I welcome further analysis that may tease out the telltale signs creation ex nihilo would leave behind. In contrast, consubstantiation advocates would dread, I suspect, mass measurements and DNA analysis of communion bread. So while both camps make claims about the physical realm, one waves off the possibility of physical confirmation while the other anticipates it.

    I’d also like to comment on whether literally means “most correct.” At one extreme end of the literalism spectrum, meaningful communication is impossible. I’ve pointed out before that literal interpretation doesn’t mean nonsensical reading. If a theologian claims the Book of Job is a historic account of five bearded dudes who took turns speaking hours at length, I will hold my own less-literal interpretation as correct.

    So unless you’re using the term literal in a sense that allows for context and nuance, I don’t agree that literal is always best. I would suggest instead that language is a slippery medium, so we are better off staying toward the literal side unless we have clues otherwise. You argue that Scripture and nature both give us clues that creation occurred in a not-so-literal fashion; I argue that Scripture and nature both give us clues that it did. Let me assure you, however, that I don’t believe my view of origins automatically trumps yours by being more literal.

  6. This debate is VERY tired for people familiar with it, but for people unfamiliar with it, it’s important and crucial to the Lutheran position

    That’s probably significant. I certainly am not familiar or tired with this debate.

  7. Rube, you are kind of missing my point. You said, “How often does he get to assert ‘Literally, “This is my body”‘, and then run and hide behind ‘how that happens is a mystery’ and even ‘what that means is a mystery”? ‘”

    He gets to say that as much as we get to say that we don’t understand how we eat Christ in heaven by means of the Holy Spirit. If you read Calvin on this, you will see that he claims as much mystery as the Lutheran. So, right away your approach to this debate is not helpful in my opinion. Like the Lutheran, we claim mystery (which the Lutheran needs to hear!). And like the Lutheran, we cannot explain spiritual eating in heaven any more than he can explain consubstantiation.

    Echo, you said, “If you win this debate, then the debate about the supper is over.” Gee, thanks. Apparently the Reformed tradition has never thought of that since Marburg. Look, Lutherans need to hear the Reformed argument put to them in a way they haven’t heard like a broken record over the past 450 years, OK?

    Forrester, you said, “Is there mass? Is there DNA? I feel the weight of these excellent questions, putting as they do the concept of physical presence to the test.” YOU might feel the weight of that, but trust me, the Lutheran doesn’t. He will (as Rev. Kent did) say, “We cannot nor dare not explain it,” and “How do you know what a glorified body is like?” It is much more weighty to the Lutheran to point out how his view of ubiquity in regard to the Lord’s Supper is a violation of the Parousia and renders Christ’s promise of his return in passages such as John 14 meaningless. Moreover, it is weighty for him to hear how we see his view as non-Trinitarian, whereas our view of eating Christ mysteriously (the only way one can interpret 1 Cor 10.16; cf. Jn 6) is *by the Holy Spirit,* which is what we mean by *spiritual* by the way.

  8. And like the Lutheran, we cannot explain spiritual eating in heaven any more than he can explain consubstantiation.

    As a modern-type dude, it seems much more reasonable and palatable to not be able to explain something spiritual, than to not be able to explain something physical.

  9. I wasn’t at the actual debate, but just finished listening to the recording earlier today. I find that my reaction was very similar to Rube’s… it seemed like both sides were claiming “mystery,” but then attempting to resolve the mystery anyway on their own grounds. It really felt like there was much more in common, even on this divisive issue, than either was acknowledging.

    For my money, however, it seems clear that (at least for purposes of this particular debate) Mike won hands-down. John’s “rebuttal” felt more like a prepared statement in which he didn’t mention anything Mike had actually said, while Mike made very specific points dealing precisely with the content of his opponent’s argument.

  10. Mike Brown,

    While I appreciate you trying to come up with a new and exciting way to critique the Lutherans, a way that will catch them off guard and possibly convince them to give up their most dearly treasured doctrines, my point was meant not so much for the Lutherans, but for people like Rube, who said above that he knew nothing about it. This thread isn’t about converting Lutherans. The “audience” of this blog is almost all reformed laymen. And they want to be informed about all that’s at stake in this debate.

    Whether Lutherans admit it or not, they’re not in conformity to the catholic creeds of the Church because of their ubiquitarianism, and once this is shown, for most reasonable people the question should cease to be confusing or interesting anymore. Will every Lutheran be convinced? No, obviously not, but people interested in holding to a catholic Christology will be.

    I’m aware that the Reformed have taken this position for 450 years. I would know nothing about it had I not read Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg. There’s a reason why this position has such a distinguished pedigree. It’s a good position. It’s solid ground. It’s the elephant in the room that proves the Lutheran position to be unorthodox because of the necessary implications for Christology, of which they are explicitly aware.

    So if you were offended because you thought I was implying that you hadn’t thought of it, no offense was intended. You mentioned it already in your post at the beginning of the thread as something you thought was “tired”. I was merely asserting that while it may be tired for you (and for Lutherans), it’s important for the rest of the class to start from square one. The Hoagies and Stogies wasn’t for seminary graduates, but laymen, who, as Rube demonstrates above, are not aware of these things which are for you old hat.

    Rube can correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the purpose of these debates is not so much to convince the other person in the debate of the merits of your position, but to educate the audience about what issues are involved, what’s at stake, and how different positions are looking at things. I don’t understand how this issue wouldn’t hold a central/prominent place in such a discussion.

  11. Well certainly in any case, convincing the opponent is very low on the list of goals. And in this case, the goal was particularly to educate men of their own position — the position of their own tradition, rather.

    And as auggie notes above, Brown was convincing even without focus on that element. An explanation of the sensible Reformed understanding of HOW and WHERE made the nebulousness of the Lutheran position clear, even though he didn’t attack directly on that front.

  12. Rube,

    I enjoyed the debate. Just so you know, Lutherans object to the term “consubstantiation” because they feel it is too rational a term for something mysterious.

    I agree with what was already said above: ubiquity undermines orthodox Christology. The Reformed view of the Supper is eschatological and Trinitarian. Like Mike pointed out in the debate, you’ll notice that the Holy Spirit is virtually absent in the Lutheran view of the Supper.

    Because of our union with Christ (indeed, we are said to reign with Him in the heavenlies even now) and by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s deity *and* humanity are made present at the Table. Those who are in union with Him do truly and really feed upon His true body and blood. We don’t need His Body to be ubiquitous to do this, because the Spirit feeds us with His flesh and blood and soul and divinity in heaven, where we are already seated with Him.

  13. BTW, IMHO you’ll also notice that the Holy Spirit is given very little attention in Lutheran theology as a whole. Calvin’s approach is fully Trinitarian. Indeed, he has been called the “theologian of the Holy Spirit.”

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