A Look Communion, a brief overview by Jack Kettler
What is Communion? In this primer, consider the significant differences on the topic of communion. As a disclosure, this writer is coming from the Reformed/Presbyterian perspective.
In brief, communion takes place in Christian worship, where the bread and wine are consecrated and distributed to the congregants.
Five Differing views:
Undoubtedly, many will disagree with the five groupings and the brief definitions for each group listed. The definitions are from online public sources. For a more detailed definition, the reader should consult the actual Churches themselves for this.
The Roman Catholic View:
“Transubstantiation is, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, the change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the Body of Christ and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of his Blood.” – Wikipedia
The Eastern Orthodox View:
“Eucharist (from the Greek εὐχαριστία, or eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving or giving thanks) is a holy mystery (or sacrament) that is celebrated during the Divine Liturgy within the Orthodox Church where the consecrated bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit becomes the Precious Blood and Body of Jesus Christ, that is consumed by prepared Orthodox Christians. Other names for the Eucharist include: the Holy Gifts, Communion, and the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ Orthodox Christians believe that the Real Presence of God (not merely a sign) is present after the consecration of the Gifts.” – OrthodoxWiki
The Lutheran View:
“Lutherans believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms of consecrated bread and wine. The Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence is also known as the sacramental union. Lutherans use the term ‘in, with, and under the forms of consecrated bread and wine’ and ‘sacramental union.’” – Wikipedia
The Zwinglian Memorial View:
“The Zwinglian view is called the ‘memorial’ view. And as I said, Christ is not present in the elements either literally or spiritually. In the Zwinglian view, the Lord’s Supper communion is a commemoration of the death of Christ. The partaker is simply reminded of the benefits of redemption and salvation brought about in Christ’s death.” – Quora
The Reformed View:
“In Reformed theology, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist is a sacrament that spiritually nourishes Christians and strengthens their union with Christ. The outward or physical action of the sacrament is eating bread and drinking wine. Reformed confessions, which are official statements of the beliefs of Reformed churches, teach that Christ’s body and blood are really present in the sacrament, but that this presence is communicated in a spiritual manner rather than by his body being physically eaten. The Reformed doctrine of real presence is sometimes called mystical real presence or spiritual real presence.” – Wikipedia
Summary of the five views on communion:
· Transubstantiation – Roman Catholic (formulated by Thomas Aquinas)
· Real Presence, celebrated during the Divine Liturgy – Orthodox (some church fathers)
· Real or Sacramental union – Lutheran Churches (Martin Luther)
· Real Spiritual Presence – Reformed and Presbyterian Churches (John Calvin)
· Memorial – Baptist, and Mennonite Churches (Ulrich Zwingli)
The view of John Calvin in more detail:
“The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.” – Institutes
What does the Scripture say? Some of the key texts appealed too in the context of the debate on the body and blood of Christ in communion.
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’” (Matthew 26:26 ESV)
“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.’” (Mark 14:22 ESV)
“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.’” (Luke 22:19 ESV)
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1Corinthians 10:16 ESV)
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 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.’ 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.” (1Corinthians 11:23-25 ESV)
Literal or metaphorical? Two problems for the literal or real presence view.
First: Does Christ’s body take on elements of omnipresence, or is His human nature absorbed into the divine nature with the real corporal presence view? If Christ’s body appears all over the world during communion services, surely this would confirm the suspicion of the confusion of Christ’s two natures. In the early church, a heresy promoted an incorrect understanding of Christ’s humanity. It was the heresy of Docetism, which comes from the Greek verb δοκεῖν dokein, “to appear,” or “to seem.” According to Docetism, Jesus only seemed or appeared to have a human body.
The above objection regarding omnipresence and Christ’s human nature becoming divine is similar to the prayers offered to human saints who are in heaven. Do the resurrected saints take on attributes of God, namely, omnipresence? Without becoming omnipresent, how could they hear many prayers from different times and places? Christ, in His two natures, which includes His body, is now “seated at the right hand of God.” See Ephesians 1:20.
Faithful to the Scriptures, the Council of Chalcedon 451A.D. in its creedal statement, in essence, says, Jesus Christ is at the same time fully God and fully man. The real corporal presence view undercuts and confuses the two natures of Christ when communion is practiced. Therefore, it is incorrect.
Another question raised, do we take the passages literally that say, “this is my body,” when Luke seems to add a qualification saying, “Do this in remembrance of me” Luke 22:19. Doing this in remembrance mitigates against a literal view by an appeal to the memorial aspect of communion. Therefore, the “is” must figurative and spiritual. It is no different from when Jesus said, “I am the vine,” (John 15:2) or “I am the door” (John 10:7).
Second: Is this cannibalism?
In Matthew 26:26 Jesus was with the disciples at the “last supper” in which He said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
Is there another portion of Scripture that will shed light on the literalness of the passage?
While not talking about the Lord’s Supper, Jesus, in John’s gospel, provides an interpretive key and explains what eating His flesh and drinking His blood meant and an error in reasoning among some disciples.
On the surface to some, Jesus’ saying was scandalous. His teaching seemed to imply cannibalism.
From Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, we learn more about this:
“The Jews therefore strove among themselves … Fell to cavilling and disputing one among another; some understanding Christ, and others not; some being for him, and vindicated what he said; and others being against him, and who were the majority, objected, saying how can this man give us his flesh to eat? Which is to be understood, not physically, but as morally impossible and unlawful; since, with the Jews, it was not lawful to eat the flesh of any creature alive, and much less the flesh of man; for the Jews understood Christ of a corporeal eating of his flesh, being strangers to a figurative or spiritual eating of it by faith, in which sense he meant it.” (1)
John records the words of Christ:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, how can this man give us his flesh to eat? So Jesus said to them, truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:51-54 ESV)
Some of the disciples took the word of Christ literally, as seen from the next passage:
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60 ESV)
At the time of Christ’s teaching, some disciples forsook Him because of their incorrect literal understanding.
Jesus defuses this false idea about literally eating His flesh and blood when He said:
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63 ESV)
In John 6:63, Jesus qualified His seemingly controversial saying by appealing to the spiritual nature of His Words. What is more, if the text on the Lord’s Supper is literal, why was there no protest from the faithful disciples? The words “Take, eat; this is my body” and “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” must be spiritual.
From Barnes Notes on the Bible, this is borne out:
“The flesh – Your carnal views and desires, and the literal understanding of my doctrine. By this Jesus shows them that he did not intend that his words should be taken literally…
They are spirit – They are spiritual. They are not to be understood literally, as if you were really to eat my flesh, but they are to be understood as denoting the need of that provision for the soul, which God has made, by my coming into the world.” (2)
The Apostle John’s words must undoubtedly influence how we understand the other gospels and a proper understanding of “Take; this is my body.” To ignore John is to ignore the broader context of Scripture. A literal interpretation of the Lord’s Supper is the result of over compartmentalizing the text.
The Roman Catholic view and cannibalism:
Roman Catholics who take a literal interpretation of the passage have had to explain why the Eucharist is not cannibalism. This question is fair and is raised by many non-believers. So much so that the question has been addressed. For one example, see The Eucharist & Cannibalism by Michael Foley
In most cultures, there are long-standing taboos against cannibalism. Therefore, the passage is not literal, but one of Jesus using a figurative metaphor to elucidate the spiritual nature of His body and blood in communion.
Biblical examples that imply cannibalism and by deduction condemn it:
In the following passages Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Jeremiah 19:9; Lamentations 2:20; Ezekiel 5:10, the horrors of God’s judgment is seen. The result at times of God’s judgment is witnessed in the eating of human flesh of Israelite children when, for example, a city was under siege.
For example, consider Jeremiah’s rhetorical question:
“Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have, you dealt thus? Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care…?” (Lamentations 2:20 ESV)
In addition, from a rabbinic commentary on cannibalism:
“With regard to humans: Although [Genesis 2:7] states: “And the man became a beast with a soul,” he is not included in the category of hoofed animals. Therefore, he is not included in the [above] prohibition. Accordingly, one who partakes of meat or fat from a man – whether alive or deceased – is not liable for lashes. It is, however, forbidden [to partake of human meat] because of the positive commandment [mentioned above]. For the Torah [Leviticus 11:2] lists the seven species of kosher wild beasts and says: “These are the beasts of which you may partake.” Implied is that any other than they may not be eaten. And a negative commandment that comes as a result of a positive commandment is considered as a positive commandment.” – Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s translation of part of Ma’achalot Assurot – Chapter 2
Old Testament Roots of communion:
The “cup of blessing,” in which thanks are offered during the Passover remembrance in the Seder. The Seder is where each adult diner drinks four cups of wine, representing aspects of the redemption of the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians by the blood of the Passover lamb.
In Christian communion, the red wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, who was the Passover lamb, and who redeems us from the slavery of sin.
If the comparison of Passover and Communion is all that is said scripturally, then this would lend support for a purely memorial understanding of the Lord’s Supper. While not devoting time to raising questions about the purely memorial view, let it be noted that because of Christ’s divine nature, Christ must be spiritually present in communion because of His omnipresence.
In closing, selections from the Westminster Standards:
Westminster Larger Catechism: Questions 168-170:
Q. 168. What is the Lord’s Supper?
A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to the appointment of Jesus Christ, his death is showed forth; and they that worthily communicate feed upon his body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace; have their union and communion with him confirmed; testify and renew their thankfulness, and engagement to God, and their mutual love and fellowship each with other, as members of the same mystical body.
Q. 169. How hath Christ appointed bread and wine to be given and received in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper?
A. Christ hath appointed the ministers of his word, in the administration of this sacrament of the Lord’s supper, to set apart the bread and wine from common use, by the word of institution, thanksgiving, and prayer; to take and break the bread, and to give both the bread and the wine to the communicants: who are, by the same appointment, to take and eat the bread, and to drink the wine, in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them.
Q. 170. How do they that worthily communicate in the Lord’s supper feed upon the body and blood of Christ therein?
A. As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses; so they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.
Westminster Confession Chapter XXIX Of the Lord’s Supper: I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.
II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself, by Himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.
III. The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.
IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other alone; as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people, worshipping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.
V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to Him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthrows the nature of the sacrament, and has been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yes, of gross idolatries.
VII. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
VIII. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, John, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 226.
2. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, John, Vol. 1 p.1153.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more research:
Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper by John Calvin: