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Question and Answer

Meaning of "Real Presence" in the Lord's Supper

Question:

Could you explain the distinctive Presbyterian/Reformed view of the "Real Presence" in the Lord's Supper, and what it entails?

Answer:

This is an old and interesting question. The reformers Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli took somewhat different positions on this in response to the abuses that were being taught by the Catholic church. The view of the Catholic church, which may be worth stating here as a backdrop, was that when the priest said the blessing the elements of bread and wine were mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This was called transubstantiation. They saw Christ as, if you will, overly present in the supper, to the point of being offered up over, and over, and over.

Christ's sacrifice was given "once for all," and that was on the cross (see Hebrews 9 and 10, especially Hebrews 9:24-28.

The idea that Christ's "once for all" sacrifice on the cross was repeatedly "re-presented" in the Lord's Supper was rejected by all the major branches of the Reformation. Zwingli’s view is the closest to the modern evangelical view, though upon close inspection, it could be the case that he is somewhat misunderstood. Nevertheless, Zwingli is understood by many as teaching that the supper is a “memorial” to Christ’s death upon the cross. The issue of presence in the Supper is played down (at least in comparison to other reformers). The analogy of a wedding is used. The Lord's Supper is a visible reminder of something accomplished in the past, whether the person is present or not.

Luther had a heightened view of the presence of Christ in the supper, though I find him the hardest to really follow. He said, and Lutheran Catechisms (like “Luther’s Small Catechism”) still say, that Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements. By this Luther wanted to suggest that Christ was “truly” in some way present in the Supper, even in the elements themselves, yet he did not want to go where the Catholic church had been on the supper. Certainly his sense of Christ’s essential presence could be argued as being stronger than that of Zwingli, but not as problematic as that of the Roman Catholic church. Still, the prepositions “in, with, and under” seem to skirt the issue, and I have not been overly helped by them yet.

Calvin, and those coming from his direction are the ones I do find to be the most biblical, clear, and helpful. While denying that the elements themselves are in any way changed, he argued strongly that Christ was truly present by his/the Spirit in such a way that we can and should believe that Christ is truly, “really” present. In other words, the “real” presence of Christ, is a uniquely spiritual presence. The Supper, according to Calvin and the Reformed tradition, is truly a unique meeting with the resurrected Christ who promises to nourish the souls of his people as they feed upon him by faith. The language of “feeding upon him” should not be misunderstood. I cannot say it any better than the Westminster Confession, so I’ll quote chapter 29, section 7:

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.

Many books and dissertations have been written on this subject. You may wish to consult Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith Mathison, published by P & R Publishing. It should be helpful.

Please let me know if I have helped or confused you! It is a tricky, but important question. The Lord’s Supper is a true, spiritual blessing to the people of God, and understanding the way in which Christ is really present in the Supper is important to seeing how our once-for-all sacrificed and resurrected Savior continues to give himself to his people.

Blessings in him.


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