, , ,

The Lord’s Supper 3: how communion brings life

last supper painting - modern version

The Lord’s Supper 3: how communion brings life

This is the third in a series of posts about the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Table, or communion.

The first two posts are here and here.

What theology of communion do we inherit from Christians who have gone before us?

Why consider the history of Christian thought about the Supper? Because for those of us who write for Theologica we see ourselves as part of the historic heritage of Christian faith, so we not only look at Scripture, but we also consider how the church has understood Scripture (and yes, in this post, I do ignore the Eastern Orthodox as their influence in the West is limited).

As evangelical Christians we always let Scripture be our final authority, but we prefer to build doctrine together with the wider community of Christians across the ages and across the nations, seeking to discern ever more clearly the truth that God conveys in his Scripture. To that end it is useful to set out the main theological positions about the Lord’s Supper that are taken by Christian churches both today, and historically. So yes, I think Tradition merits our attention while we affirm the primacy of Scripture.

In addition, those who have followed Christ for more than a few years and who have actively participated in a church will have been conditioned by their own Christian heritage/stream/denomination with one or other of these views simply from participation in the practices of that heritage/tradition.

It is important to interrogate our assumptions and this short survey will allow you to place your own assumptions in a useful grid.

word image 2237 1

There are four main positions which differ on the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper or communion.

Millard Erickson (p.1121) helpfully summarises the four main positions thus:

  • The bread and wine are the physical body and blood of Christ.
  • The bread and wine contain the physical body and blood of Christ.
  • The bread and wine contain spiritually the body and blood of Christ.
  • The bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ.

These four views can be associated with a principal advocate. The first is associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the second with Martin Luther, the third with John Calvin and the fourth with Huldrych Zwingli — the latter three being leaders in the Reformation era.

Let’s examine these four views of communion in turn (although not in the same order).

The Roman Catholic view — Transubstantiation

In the early church the view of the Supper as a sacrifice developed early on as evidenced in the Didache[1] (Allison, p.637).

Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) is one of the greatest and most influential theologians of Christianity. He defined Baptism and the Supper as sacraments. He defined sacraments as ‘an outward and visible sign of an invisible yet genuine grace’ (Allison, p.640).

With respect to the Supper Augustine held both that Christ is truly present in the elements and, on the other hand, that there was symbolism and thus “he denied that the body and blood of the Lord’s Supper are identical with Christ’s historical body” (Allison, pp.640-641). Vander Zee believes that the Neo-Platonist philosophical framework Augustine lived within resulted in his producing a dualistic understanding of the visible and invisible in the sacraments that led the church up a cul-de-sac (Vander Zee, pp. 166-167). This problem is explored in greater depth in the next post in this series here.

A significant step occurred in 831 when Paschasius Radbertus, a Benedictine abbot, wrote a treatise On the Body and Blood of the Lord.

He wrote:

“Though the body and blood of Christ remain in the figure of bread and wine, yet we must believe them to be simply a figure and, after consecration, they are nothing else than the body and blood of Christ… [We must believe them] to be clearly the very flesh which was born of Mary, and suffered on the cross and rose from the tomb.” (Quoted by Allison, p.641)

Over several centuries this view was developed using Aristotle’s philosophical notions of the difference between substance (the essence of a thing) and accidents (the appearance of a thing).

It was argued that when the elements were consecrated by a priest the substance was transformed to be Christ’s flesh and blood, although the appearance remained unchanged. Rolando Bandinelli, later to become Pope Alexander III, coined the term transubstantiation in 1140 to refer to this substantial change. This position was formally adopted in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council — see Canon 1 (Allison, p.644). The highly influential theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), promoted this view in his magisterial work, the Summa Theologica. Then, in response to Luther, the Roman church doubled down on transubstantiation at the Council of Trent in 1545-1563 (Vander Zee, p.171).

So why did any other views of communion emerge?

The developed Roman Catholic view of the Supper was questioned by various radicals and would-be reformers in the late Middle Ages, but it was not until Martin Luther that a space was created, as a result of the success of the Reformation, where alternative views could gain traction and be adopted.

For the sake of brevity I will reduce a complex picture to three alternative views of communion that arose during the Reformation. We can identify these three views with three named reformers: Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. I accept that this identification with these three men is an over-simplification but it makes the distinctions more memorable.

As an aside, post Vatican II Roman Catholic theologians, most famously Hans Kung, have proposed new ways of expressing the Roman Catholic doctrine in an effort to move beyond Aristotelian thought (Vander Zee, pp.181-185). These efforts have not changed the official doctrine of the Roman Church, but anecdotally many Catholic laity no longer hold to the official line.

A picture containing indoor Description automatically generated

Martin Luther’s view — Consubstantiation

Luther was incensed that the Supper had been changed by Medieval theologians into a work to please God. He railed against three centuries of Roman Catholic theology which he considered to have been polluted by Aristotelian philosophy via the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas.

His own view was that the bread and wine did not actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but that the true body and blood of Christ were present “in, with, and under” the elements.

Luther wrote, “Why do we not put aside… curiosity and cling simply to the words of Christ, willing to remain in ignorance of what takes place here and content that the real body of Christ is present by virtue of the words? … For my part, if I cannot fathom how the bread is the body of Christ, yet I will take my reason captive to the obedience of Christ [2 Cor 10:5], and clinging simply to his words, firmly believe not only that the body of Christ is in the bread, but that the bread is the body of Christ” (LW, 3633-34). (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11644-11651)

Huldrych Zwingli’s view — the Supper is a memorial of the death of Christ received by faith.

Like Calvin, Zwingli asserted that the resurrected Christ is now at the Father’s right hand. Thus Jesus’ physical body is restricted in time and space so it cannot be present in the elements of communion in any way. (Augustine taught the same in his Tractates on the Gospel of John when commenting on John 7:19-24).

Zwingli wrote:

“It has already become clear enough in this context the word “is” cannot be taken literally. Hence it follows that it must be taken metaphorically or figuratively. In the words “This is my body,” the word “this” means the bread, and the word “body” means the body that is put to death for us. Therefore, the word “is” cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body and cannot be… Necessarily, then, it must be taken figuratively or metaphorically; “This is my body,” means, “This bread signifies my body,” or “is a figure of my body.”” (On the Lord’s Supper, LCC, 24:225 — quoted in Allison, p.651)

Something like Zwingli’s view seems to be the majority view amongst many evangelical Christians today (Vander Zee, pp.174, 180).

Although this is the dominant view today among evangelicals, this does not mean we should accept it unexamined. For example, if we assess its impact with a critical eye we can see that when this view is widespread, it is possible for participation in the Supper to become almost superfluous because our faith is the instrumental means to connect us with Christ rather than consuming the elements themselves. More on this in a subsequent post.

Furthermore, when we think that the Supper is primarily about the action of God in history that we are memorialising, this locks our focus onto the past, rather than onto God’s present action or his future promises. It produces what many of us have experienced when breaking bread in evangelical churches — an orientation to introspection, an expectation that unless we reflect on Christ’s sufferings on the cross we are being ungodly. Thus a Zwinglian belief tends to make the Supper into a dreary mental exercise devoid of life. It does not feed faith, hope, and love.

John Calvin’s view — the Real Presence of Christ in the act of communion conveyed by the Spirit.

Since I find Calvin persuasive in his view, the larger part of this post will be given over to letting Calvin speak for himself.

Calvin would not accept the position Zwingli took.

Calvin, while differing from Luther, believed that:

“Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper but not physically or bodily. Rather, his presence in the sacrament is spiritual or dynamic. Using the sun as an illustration, Calvin asserted that Christ is present influentially. The sun remains in the heavens, yet its warmth and light are present on earth. So the radiance of the Spirit conveys to us the communion of Christ’s flesh and blood.” [Institutes 1559, Book 4, Chapter 17, Section 12] (Erickson, p.1127).

The emphasis, contra the Roman doctrine, is not on the elements themselves to convey the benefit, but rather upon the action of God as we feed on the elements (Vander Zee, p.177).

Calvin also distanced himself from Zwingli. For example, he wrote:

“For there are some who define in one word that to eat the flesh of Christ and to drink His blood is nothing else but to believe in Him. But it seems to me that He Himself wanted to express something higher in that notable sermon where He commends to us the eating of His body [i.e. John 6]. That is, He wanted to express that we are brought to life and vivified by the true participation in Himself which He gives us, which He has signified by the words “eating” and “drinking” in order that no one might think that it consists in mere knowledge. For as eating the bread, not looking at it, ministers nourishment to the body, so it is necessary for the soul to be truly made a participant of Christ in order to be nourished in eternal life. At the same time we indeed confess that this eating is only done by faith, since no other eating can be imagined. But our difference from those whose exposition I oppose is that they believe that eating is nothing else than believing; I say that in believing we eat the body of Christ and this eating is a fruit of faith. Or, if you want it more clearly, eating is for them the same as faith; I say rather that it comes from faith. There is little difference in the words but there is much difference in the thing.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9262-9270)

In another passage of Calvin’s 1541 Edition, he wrote: (In the 1559 Latin Edition this section is found at Chapter 17 Paragraph 10)

“Someone should not object: “This is a figurative expression in which the name of the thing represented is ascribed to the sign, for it is something well known that the breaking of the bread is only an external sign of the spiritual substance.” Even if we concede and explain St. Paul’s words this way, nevertheless we can infer from the fact that the sign is offered to us that because of His truth and trustworthiness the substance is also given to us. For unless someone wants to call God a deceiver, he will not dare say that He offers a vain and empty sign of His truth. Therefore if the Lord truly represents to us participation in His body under the breaking of bread, there is no doubt that He presents it at the same time. Indeed the faithful must entirely hold to this rule: that whenever they see the signs ordained by God, they must likewise believe for certain and be surely persuaded that the truth of the thing represented is joined with it. For to what purpose would our Lord put in our hands the sign of His body except to make us certain of true participation in it? Now if it is true that the visible sign is offered to us to seal the gift of the invisible thing, we must have this indubitable confidence that, in taking the sign of the body, we likewise receive the body.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9331-9338).

A group of people sitting at a table Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Bruner discusses how Calvin differed from Luther:

“The difference between Luther and Calvin, as I see it, is that for Luther Christ comes down and enters the elements during the Lord’s Supper and disciples feed on Christ sacramentally right there at the table, whereas for Calvin Christ’s Spirit lifts the hearts of those who take the elements by faith and brings them to the right hand of God where they feed on Christ’s body and blood sacramentally. (This is most compactly said by Calvin in Inst., IV.xvii.31, and can be summarized in one sentence: “To them [I think he means the Lutherans] Christ does not seem present unless he comes down to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence!” But Calvin can also use “descent” language for the Supper; (cf. IV.xvii.18, 24.)” (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11682-11686).

Bruner, however, sided with Luther — believing that the real movement in the Supper is from God to us.

Calvin makes much of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Supper (Vander Zee, p.176), contra Luther:

“… we have in the Supper “that marvellous communion of the body and blood — provided we understand that it takes place by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by that feigned inclusion of the body itself under the element” (IV.xvii.26) [which is the dig at Luther]. Calvin believed in a spiritual real presence — by the power of the Holy Spirit we are lifted to feed on the true body and blood of Christ in heaven (IV.xvii.10, 12, 19, 24).” (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11644-11651)

Calvin also makes much of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 in support of his view.

In summary, Vander Zee explains (pp.178-181) that Calvin insisted that:

  • Participants in the Supper do not merely receive the benefits of the death and resurrection of Jesus — they receive Christ himself and hence those benefits.
  • Participants in the Supper do not merely receive Christ as the Son of God ‘spiritually’, they feed upon Christ’s whole person — upon his humanity and divinity.

So we ask again: What about John 6:30-59? Is that relevant to a theology of communion?

John’s Gospel does not include an account of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, however, a section of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 seems potentially to be relevant to our understanding of communion.

About John 6 there is considerable diversity among Bible scholars about whether John thought Jesus was referencing the breaking of bread. For my part I think John would have assumed his readers would link this section in his Gospel to their experience and theology of the Lord’s Supper

A theology of communion will hinge on several things.

Primarily it will hinge on how we take Jesus’ words, ‘This is my body.’

That, in turn, will be influenced by whether you think what Jesus taught in John 6 is relevant to the Supper, or not about the Supper at all. Calvin was quite sure that John 6 was relevant to our understanding of the Supper. I agree.

This is the third post in a series about the Supper or communion.

The first is here, and the second can be found here.

There was also a related post on ‘What you love matters.’

The next post explores the philosophical problems with Transubstantiation.

A further post will set out options for a contemporary theology of the Supper.


The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018

  1. The Didache was rediscovered in 1873 on a monastery by Philotheos Bryennios, Metropolitan of Nicomedia, in the Codex Hierosolymitanus. A Latin version of the first five chapters was discovered in 1900 by J. Schlecht. It is believed to have been written somewhere between 50 and 120AD.


Share this post...

Related articles

Theologica Logo Aqua Green on White

Andrew Ryland's Blog

To love God thoughtfully

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV-UK

Our favourites

Maybe do not try to fix people

Maybe do not try to fix people? Love them, observe them, build community, instead. When I am coaching or mentoring or supervising others I rely mainly on imitation to see people learn new skills and grow in experience. Obviously head knowledge can be imparted directly by instruction – but skills are usually caught more than taught. The same is true for bringing up children.

Read more »