Lutherans and The Lord's Supper

I have had a running conversation with a confessional Lutheran friend regarding the Lord’s supper for two or three weeks on twitter, and because so many rabbit trails have been chased in this conversation I sensed that it is time to take it to the blog.  The conversation is fitting for this blog as it falls within the context of a Methodist dealing with doctrines of the Reformation, specifically Luther’s view of ‘Real Presence’ in the Lord’s Supper.  I would highly recommend that you follow Dawn on twitter ‘@rumor99’ and visit her website here.  Moreover you can see the Lutheran view defended at here by Todd Wilken, of Issues Etc, or an interesting and seriously humorous defense of confessional Lutheranism against Calvinism at here by Rev Fisk.

Our conversation has centered around the Lord’s Supper and whether the ‘real presence’ of the Lord is in the bread and the wine.  Now this is a friendly discussion, and I do not sense that Dawn doubts our union in Christian fellowship and as far as internet twitter dialog goes I would consider Dawn a friend who has sharpened me in many ways.  Nonetheless, as cordial as this may be, it is not a trivial issue, and in many respects the Gospel itself is a stake, especially from the Lutheran end of the argument, as they are apt to argue that “the Sacrament is the Gospel”, their verbiage not mine.  Also note that we are dealing with Confessional Lutheranism here i.e. LCMS, not ELCA, I imagine Luther himself would not recognize the ELCA as Lutheran by any stretch of the imagination.

I argue as would nearly all Protestants that the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper are not literally/physically the body and blood of our Lord, but instead are figures of his body and blood.  The Lutheran appeals to Matthew 26:26-28 and simply says “This is my body... This is my blood...” means exactly what it says in the very literal sense.  As you debate this with a Lutheran they will continually come back to the fact that Jesus said “this is...” and if you are not careful arguing from the other side you begin to sound like Bill Clinton asking ‘What is ‘is’?”  Nonetheless, the question “what is meant by is?” is indeed an appropriate question.  Yes, I can hear you Lutherans chuckling right now.

Jesus uses ‘is’ in other places in a figurative manner, I can think of Mark 3:34-35 off hand, when he affirms that his disciples are his mother and his brothers.  I would never hang an argument about the Lord’s Supper upon Mark 3:34-35, nonetheless that is a clear example of when “is” does not mean “is” in the literal sense.  There are other places as well.  Moreover we hear Lutherans appeal to the “how would a five year old understand it?” argument so as to prove that the simple reading is that Jesus is actually calling bread “His Body” in the most literal sense.  My three year old will often pick up a ‘little people’ toy and say this *is* my daddy, and this *is* my mommy and then proceed to act like they are Kristin and I, even 3 year old Joey understands the figurative sense of *is*.  Sure that is simple make believe and all kids do that, and I am not trying to use a profane argument, but the simple truth is that even a three year old knows how to use *is* figuratively.  There is ample precedent for *is* being figurative in language.  The traditional Passover Seder itself is filled with figures and metaphors, in fact the Passover meal itself is a metaphor.

The other, and maybe most silly argument you hear is: “When it comes to judgment day I would rather stand before Jesus saying I believed you when you said *is* than to stand there and be wrong and have to say to Jesus that you didn’t believe Him when he said *is*.”  That same argument can be turned completely around pretty easily.  I would not want to stand on judgment day and have to give an account for why I worshipped bread when I had a clear understanding of the different and obvious uses of the word is.

The thing is that this is not a trivial argument.  I am not willing to break fellowship with confessional Lutherans over this, and frankly I am very thankful for a lot of Lutheran’s and their theology.  At the same time given the stance I take that *is* indeed is figurative in Matt 26:26-28 I must say that confessional Lutherans are heretical with regard to the Lord’s Supper, and they too must, because of their belief, see me as heretical with regard to the Lord’s supper.  This is slightly more problematic for the Lutheran, because they believe that the sacrament indeed is the Gospel, so my stance is to say they get the Gospel wrong.  This is not to be harsh, but it is healthy for us to be honest.

The other argument that comes up is why would Paul use such grave language with regard to the Lord’s Supper if it were a mere figure?  The same question could be asked about why God was so specific in laying out various feasts, and the Passover meal, the temple, etc... if these things were all figures of the Christ to come.  They must be handled with gravity because the One that these figures represent is the Christ Himself.  Say Joey, my son, picks up a Lego man and says “this is my Daddy” and then proceeds to through it against the wall, bite its head off, or mistreat it, I would be upset.  The way he treats the figure is indicative of his regard for me.  The same is true with the Lord’s supper, the way the figure is treated evidences the disposition towards what the figure is of.  It makes perfect sense that Paul would speak with such gravity.

Hopefully I have been thorough enough as to how “is” can be figurative.  However even if ‘is’ can possibly be figurative I still must be able to give solid reason that *is* is being used figuratively in Matt 26.  It is pretty obvious that in the Lord’s supper, Jesus says this is my Body while holding the bread.  His physical body was present, yet he held the bread as he made the announcement.  Nobody sitting around that table would have thought this to be a literal statement because obviously his real body was present.  Moreover each breaking of bread during the Passover meal had significant symbolic meaning.  I will not get into the Seder meal (I am not an expert) but regardless the disciples were already looking at this bread figuratively before Jesus even said *this is*.  Moreover Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, not here in a loaf.

The only thing left to appeal to is paradox.  The Lutheran must simply say all these things are paradox, Jesus being both at the right hand of the Father and in the loaf is paradox.  Jesus being present with the disciples and yet also physically/literally present in the bread he handed to them is paradox.  To me it seems more like Luther was not ready to separate from Catholicism when it came to sacrament.

One thing I love about Lutherans is that they love to live in paradox and do not feel bound to reason everything together, whereas many a Calvinist try to systemize things so far as to subject all scripture to their reason, I do believe this is a strong point in Lutheranism.  At the same time some things are clear and shouldn’t be considered paradox, which is the case here.  We cannot subject God to our reasoning, yet He has communicated to us by His Word using language and it is reasonable that we would give some effort into knowing what the language is communicating and not rushing to put our fingers in our ears and yelling “paradox.”

I will leave this hear for now, and post a follow up, if there is significant interest in the comments.


Dawn K said...

Hi Jay,

Rev Fisk and I and a few other fellow Lutherans were discussing this very topic in Bible/Confessions study tonight. Here is what I gleaned from that discussion:

1) In Mark 3:34-35 Jesus is not saying "whoever does the will of God, he represents/symbolizes my brother and sister and mother." Those who have faith in Christ are part of His family in a very real way. We are adopted into His family. Neither are we "figuratively" part of Christ's body - in some mystical way we are really united with Him. Likewise, when Christ says "I am the vine, you are the branches" He's not saying "I represent the vine and you represent the branches" but that we really are united with/ connected to Christ.

2) If the WOI (Words of Institution) really mean "this represents My body/blood" then the question is "how?" How does bread represent Christ's body and how does wine represent Christ's blood? One would think the sacrificial Passover lamb would have been a much better symbol of Christ's broken body. So why use bread to symbolize His body?

3) You have not used one passage of Scripture that clearly states that the WOI are figurative. Instead you appeal to human reason ("I can't understand how it can be possible") rather than taking the words as they stand. If you're going to go against something that has been taught for the first fifteen centuries of the church then an actual Scripture passage would be nice. There are plenty of passages where something symbolic is clearly labeled as such, but there is nothing in the actual text to indicate that the WOI are to be taken symbolically. Just stating "Jesus sometimes spoke figuratively" does not necessarily mean that He intended for the WOI to be taken figuratively.

That'll have to be all for now...thanks for moving this to the blog. Twitter was becoming very, very tiresome :)

Jay Miklovic said...

1) I do not disagree with your first point at all. Nonetheless you are not actually "physically" Christ's mother, nor are you actually physically a branch, nor are you actually "physically" His body, in the same sense as you affirm in the Lord's Supper.

2.) I deliberately used the word 'figure' as opposed to represents, because there is a world of difference. When I serve my congregation at the table I use the simple word *is* and would never say *represents*. If you want to say that the bread *is* Christ's body in the same manner that we are his body, or that you are his mother, then you and I are in agreement. However if you want to speak of the bread as physical body of Christ then we are not in agreement. I would never say the church *represents* Christ's body, because the Church is His body, yet it is in a spiritual not physical sense.

3.) Point three is a burden of proof issue. My point is that Jesus serving a symbolic meal, holding a loaf of bread and saying this is my body. The burden is yours to prove that it is actually his body.

Thanks for engaging here. It will probably be after thanksgiving before I would be able to address a reply. And I agree, this is much much better than twitter.

Dancing-Light-Studio said...

"Moreover Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, not here in a loaf." key issue IMHO.. the sacraments are blessed because of what they represent to Christians but by themselves they are just nourishment for the body. Presented to the body of Christ (church) they are symbols of nourishment for our very souls.
(Interesting blog, Jay)

Dawn K said...

Hi Jay,

1) It depends on what you mean by "physical" (a word which, btw, I don't think I've ever used in this discussion). The Lutheran Confessions deny that the body/blood of Christ are present in a "physical or earthly" way in the Supper or that a person eating the body of Christ in the Supper is chewing on flesh (referred to as "Capernaitic" eating). However, we do believe that the body and blood of Christ are truly present (i.e., somehow the bread = Jesus' body and the wine = Jesus' blood) and that one is receiving them with their mouth (not just spiritually by faith). The following sections of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord might be helpful in explaining what I believe about this: http://bit.ly/gL5T3k and http://bit.ly/fT7kZ3

2) You were the one who affirmed the word "represents" when I asked you earlier: http://bit.ly/fuf1lx You also use the word "symbolic" - what's the difference between "represents" and "symbolizes"?

3) I would disagree and say the burden of proof is on the one who is presenting a doctrine that is at odds with what the church almost exclusively taught for fifteen centuries. You state that it is symbolic without any actual Scriptural support for this position. Show me from the actual text - and not from your reason - that it is symbolic (i.e. that it is NOT actually His body).

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Jay Miklovic said...

Dawn, first I hope have/had a great thanksgiving as well.

A.) Tell me if I am right or wrong when I assert your view. After the Pastor pronounces the WOI then bread=body and equally body=bread. The bread is not transformed into body substance, 'flesh' so to speak? Nonetheless Jesus is physically present but in the form of bread. Is that correct?

If you answer yes, it does clear up issues of Jesus being at the right hand, or even being outside of the loaf when he initially served it. Nonetheless I still have a million questions.

B.) You say that for 15 centuries your view has been held, and my view is a mere 500 years old. Is that true? Wasn't transubstantiation (a significantly different view than what you hold, I think) the majority viewpoint for all those years? Admittedly the Lutheran view of consubstantiation is closer to transubstantiation than the protestant view, but nonetheless the view is nearly the same age. Correct me here if I am wrong please.

C.) Does everyone who receives communion at a LCMS church receive the forgiveness of sins? If not on what condition is forgiveness not given, and if so what of the unbeliever who 'sneaks in'. (which I have done, though I was a believer, 9 years ago at the church my wife grew up in.)

(ABC all kinda deal with point 1 and 3)

Now for point 2. You're right, and you caught me in verbiage on that tweet, and there were others as well that you could have linked to. If you look back through the tweets you will see that I struggled mightily (and still am) to find a way to express more than mere representation without going so far as actual presence. Maybe I appeal to paradox?! LOL, that paradox thing sure is convenient when my reason fails!

To recap
A.) Is my understanding of bread=body an body=bread after WOI correct?

B.) Is Lutheran view consistent or deviant from nearly 15 centuries of transubstantiation? Or am I wrong that trans was a majority view point for those years?

C.) Are all recipients of LCMS communion forgiven?

Thanks for taking the time you have taken so far here.

Dawn K said...

Hi Jay,

A) The problem here is that Lutherans don't delve into questions of "how" when it comes to the Lord's Supper. To say "Jesus is physically present in the form of bread" seems like an attempt to explain the how of Christ's presence and that's something we want to avoid. Nor do we want to try to define the exact moment at which His body and blood are present.

B) The view held by the church for fifteen centuries is that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in the Lord's Supper. Transubstantiation was an attempt to explain, using Aristotelian philosophy, how this happened (i.e. the substance of the elements are transformed into body and blood and only appear to be bread and wine). This was only the "official" view of the church starting at about the 12th-13th century (following Aquinas). But those who believe in transubstantiation don't deny the true bodily presence of Christ in the LS.

Also, it is a misconception that Lutherans believe in "consubstantiation." Consubstantiation is the idea that the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the earthly elements of bread and wine (as though you could distinguish between the two microscopically). It's another attempt to explain how, which we don't want to do. I think some might get this idea from the language "in, with and under" that is often used but that language is not meant to teach the idea of consubstantiation.

C) Those who are openly unrepentant and/or unbelieving eat and drink judgment on themselves rather than receiving forgiveness.

2) Haha...but here your reason is failing trying to defend your reason! Lutherans appeal to paradox not because our reason or sensibilities are offended but because the Word of God teaches things that our fallen, human minds cannot reconcile. Ask yourself: what makes you want to believe that the LS is more than just a representation? And what makes you want to stop short of confessing the actual presence of Christ? Which impulse is based on the actual text of Scripture and which on your human reason?