Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

sacraments (5)

The theology of the Lord's Supper

What occurs when the Church celebrates the Eucharist? Is it simply a memorial action from our side, by which we do things which bring Christ’s death to our minds? Or is something more involved?

From the days of Bucer and Calvin, the early Reformed consensus has generally been that the Lord’s Supper involves our real participation in the humanity (yes, that’s right: the humanity) of Christ. The elements, to be sure, do not become transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. And He really is in another place. But by the working of the power of the Holy Spirit, we are connected to Him, united to Him, and the vitality of His resurrection life is given to us.

More recent biblical-theological reflection upon the sacrament has led to advances in our understanding of its purpose. In particular, the notion of anamnesis has been looked at more carefully through the lens of the function of the language in the old covenant. Jesus said (as is usually translated in English): “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The Greek construction is more literally rendered, “Do this unto My remembrance,” or “as My memorial.” It draws upon the covenantal remembrance language of earlier salvation history. For example, the rainbow, was a memorial to God, to remind Him to keep His covenant with Noah, never to destroy the earth with a flood. Memorials functioned similarly in the law, as means to remind Yahweh of His covenant with His people.

Thus the remembrance involved in the celebration of the Supper is not only or even primarily the subjective remembering that believers do. Rather, in the sacrament, Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice is re-presented to the Father to remind Him of the covenant which has been established for our benefit in the self-offering of Jesus.

The Lord’s Supper, then, is an event that draws upon rich biblical imagery, and continues to reward careful reflection upon Scripture. The bibliography below is thus but a sampling of the growing legacy of material that seeks to mine some of the riches of the sacrament.

Bibliography

Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Robert Godfrey: “Calvin on the Eucharist.” Modern Reformation (May/June 1997).

Mark Horne: “What's for Dinner? Calvin's Continuity with the Bible's and the Ancient Church's Eucharistic Faith.” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA:  Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 127-149.)

Peter J. Leithart: Blessed are the Hungry:  Meditations on the Lord’s Supper. (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2000.)  A wonderfully reflective and fruitful book on the rich imagery of the Supper and its gifts.

Peter J. Leithart: “Marburg and Modernity.” First Things (January 1992).

Peter J. Leithart: “What’s Wrong With Transubstantiation? An Examination of Theological Models.” Westminster Theological Journal (1991), 53:295-324.

Keith A. Mathison: Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2002.)  A historical examination and biblical defense of John Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper.

John Williamson Nevin: The Mystical Presence. The German Reformed theologian’s magisterial and influential defense and reformulation of John Calvin’s view of the presence of Christ in the Supper.  A widely-acknowledge classic.

Quotations

If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that He performs all that [the Supper] signifies. We must then really receive in the Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ, since the Lord there represents to us the communion of both. . . . We have then to confess that if the representation which God grants in the Supper is veracious, the internal substance of the sacrament is joined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed by hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us, so that we are made partakers of it. If there were nothing more, we have good reason to be satisfied when we realize that Jesus Christ gives us in the Supper the real substance of His body and His blood, so that we may possess Him fully, and, possessing Him, have part in all His blessings. For since we have Him, all the riches of God, which are comprehended in Him, are proffered to us in order that they may be ours. Thus, as a brief definition of this benefit of the Supper, we may say that Jesus Christ is there offered to us that we may possess Him, and in Him all the fulness of His gifts which we can desire; and that in this we have great assistance in confirming our conscience in the faith which we ought to have in Him.

- John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord 1540

I say that although Christ is absent from the earth in respect of the flesh, yet in the Supper we truly feed on His body and blood, and owing to the secret virtue of the Spirit, we enjoy the presence of both. I say that distance of place is no obstacle to prevent the flesh once crucified being given to us for food.

- John Calvin, True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ 1561