BONUS ONLINE CONTENT: This is my body, argued for you
CRITICS of Catholic sacramental theology found they could not talk about the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist without clarifying what they believed about his identity. Who was Jesus, after all, and what could he have meant to imply about himself when, as the Gospel of Matthew reports, he broke bread and told his disciples to “take, eat, this is my body”?
Early Protestants were fairly certain they knew what Jesus did not mean. In their view he did not mean to suggest that bread and wine had been miraculously transformed or “transubstantiated” into his body and blood. The word “transubstantiation” describes the medieval Catholic theory of Christ’s real presence. It rests on a distinction between the substance of a thing (what it really is) and its accidents (how it appears to observers). Ever since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the Catholic Church had insisted that consecrated bread and wine were transformed by the power of God into the substance of Christ’s body and blood without altering their accidental qualities. Observers could detect no change in the consecrated elements or distinguish them from unconsecrated by taste, appearance, weight, or smell.
God is a spirit: Zwingli
For Huldrych Zwingli, the principal reformer of Zurich, the theory of transubstantiation seemed fatally flawed. While he conceded that Christ was in some way present when the Eucharist was celebrated, he denied that Christ was present in the bread and wine. Zwingli’s Eucharistic theology was heavily influenced by his reading of four biblical texts: one from Paul (Rom.1:25), two from John (4:24, 6:63), and a final one from Matthew (26:26). Zwingli’s distrust was reinforced in his mind by John 4:24, a text that affirmed “God is a Spirit” and should therefore be worshipped “in spirit and in truth.” Incense, images, candles, holy water, stained glass windows—even music—represented for Zwingli an externalization of worship that obscured the immaterial character of God and the internal nature of Christian worship.
Zwingli’s principal objection to material things as means of grace was encapsulated in his reading of John 6:63: “the flesh” (or, as Zwingli understood it, “the material world of which flesh is a useful symbol”) “counts for nothing” since it is “the Spirit” who “gives life.” The soul or inner person can only be touched and moved by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. External rites, including baptism and Eucharist, are incapable of conveying grace. They belong to the world of “flesh” and are therefore spiritually incompetent. Whatever grace is given when the Eucharist is celebrated must be directly given by the Holy Spirit to the souls of the faithful rather than channeled through bread and wine. Why this distrust of sacraments as means of grace was not extended to preaching—which is, after all, itself a material act—remains an unresolved question in Zwingli’s theology. Perhaps, the invisibility of speech separated it for Zwingli from the world of “flesh” to which the more obviously material sacraments belonged.
The problematic text for Zwingli was the so-called words of institution in Matt. 26:26: “Take, eat, this is my body.” If the consecrated elements were creatures rather than the Creator, if God was to be worshipped without material objectification, and if bread and wine belonged to the spiritually impotent world of “flesh,” then what could Jesus have possibly meant by calling the bread his body?
Zwingli found help in a letter from a Dutch jurist, Cornelius Hoen, who suggested that the verb “is” in the phrase “this is my body” should be read as “signifies.” There is certainly precedent in the “I am” sayings from the Gospel of John for reading the verb “to be” in a metaphorical sense. When Jesus called himself the good shepherd, the gate of the sheepfold, or the true vine, he was not speaking literally. So, too, argued Hoen, when Jesus said, “this is my body,” the statement should not be taken literally. Jesus meant only that the bread and wine signified his body, not that they were identical with it. Zwingli was persuaded by Hoen’s reasoning and embraced his interpretation as his own.
With these four Biblical texts in mind Zwingli constructed a complex doctrine of the Eucharist that had past, present, and future dimensions. The past dimension of Zwingli’s Eucharistic theology is the aspect most frequently cited, though, unfortunately, not always correctly. Zwingli understood the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a “remembrance” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, though Zwingli’s Eucharistic liturgy was not a wistful recollection of things past and gone. Memory for Zwingli was a faculty that took the past and made it a living part of the present. It did so in order to enable a person or a group to function properly in the here and now.
Children provide a good example of what Zwingli had in mind. In Zwingli’s world children learned at an early age to manage a variety of common tasks: ride a horse, lace a shoe, even fix a broken shelf. When they were middle-aged, they used such lessons from their youthful past to ride their own horses, lace their own shoes, and fix their own broken shelves. Memory brings past lessons into the present to enable human beings to function. Otherwise—to quote a German proverb—Johann may never do as an adult what little Hans failed to learn as a child. What is true of individuals is also true of groups. Groups need to remember why they were constituted in order to achieve their goals in the present. Nothing is more pathetic than a once vigorous political party that has forgotten its first principles.
The Church that celebrates the Eucharist is not engaging in a nostalgic escape from the present to another place or time, where the problems of the present do not matter. The Holy Spirit takes a crucial event from the Church’s past (in this case, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) and makes it as real to believers in the present as the bread and wine they share. But the Eucharist is also about hope. It is a simple meal eaten in anticipation of the lavish banquet to be shared in heaven at the end of time. Participation in the Eucharist is a public confession that God’s kingdom will come and God’s commandments will be done, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Zwingli reserved his most complicated argument for his discussion of the relation of the Eucharist to the present. That Christ is remembered and that the Kingdom of God is anticipated are certainly important themes in any Eucharistic theology. But the faithful gathered around the host—especially the newly-hatched Protestant faithful who a few short months before had attended Catholic mass—expected Christ the Lord to appear at his own eucharistic celebration. Was Zwingli nothing more than the prophet of an absent Christ? He certainly didn’t think so.
However, in order to explain how Christ was and was not present, it was essential for Zwingli to insist on a sharp distinction of the two natures of Christ. His starting-point was the orthodox Christology of the ancient creeds. With the early Fathers he confessed that in the incarnation the divine Word, the second Person of the Trinity, assumed human nature. Finitude marked Christ’s humanity at every stage of his life: his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. Only if Christ bore the finite nature common to all men and women (sin only excepted) could he stand in the presence of God as their high priest and intercessor. He could not be the perpetual representative of a group of which he was not a member or to which he no longer belonged. When the creed proclaimed that the risen Christ is “seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty,” Zwingli understood this affirmation quite literally. In his view Christ’s risen humanity could be in one place at a time and in one place only. X marked the spot. Any blurring of the line between the divine and human natures would threaten the integrity of the saving work of Christ. If Christ were to be present in the Eucharistic service, he could only be present in such a way as not to threaten the claim that his humanity remained “seated at the right hand of God.”
. Zwingli centered Christ’s presence in the worshipping community. Worshippers were the many grains formed by the action of God into one loaf. Zwingli scholars even suggest that what took place in the Eucharist for Zwingli was a kind of “transubstantiation” of the worshipping community into the body of Christ. This action took place prior to (or, at the very least, apart from) eating and drinking the consecrated bread and wine—which, as Zwingli made painfully clear on more than one occasion, could never be for him a means of grace.
Trusting the promise: Luther
Luther did not reject out of hand all of the propositions about the Eucharist Zwingli defended. He agreed with Zwingli that transubstantiation was an unsatisfactory explanation of the mystery of Christ’s real presence, though like his Catholic opponents he located Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine. The problem with transubstantiation from Luther’s point of view was that it required the faithful to believe two miracles: (1) that Christ was really present and (2) that his presence required the reduction of bread and wine to their accidents. For Luther one miracle sufficed. Christ was substantially present in the Eucharist, but so, too, were the bread and wine.
Luther also agreed with Zwingli that the Eucharist was not a sacrifice. It was not something the priest offered to God for the sins of his congregation, not even when understood as a re-presentation of the unique sacrifice of Christ in unbloody form. The Eucharist was a gift God gave to the Church. That is why both Luther and Zwingli preferred to regard it as a “benefit” or “testament” rather than a sacrifice.
Testament was a particularly important word for early Protestants. A testament is a one-sided contract that offers bequests to a beneficiary on the death of the testator. The contract is not made with a beneficiary but on his or her behalf. When Christ the testator died, he fulfilled the condition of his one-sided contract and offered to the Church the benefits of his death and resurrection. The Church did not in any sense merit such gifts, but received them as the undeserved bequest of the testator. The Eucharist is therefore not for Luther and Zwingli a place where sacrifices are offered, but where benefits are received.
Positively, both Luther and Zwingli agreed to regard the Eucharist as a visible Word of God; that is, as a proclamation in visible rather than audible form of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Eucharist therefore offers Christ, not to God the Father, but to the worshipping congregation. The Word of God—that is, the lively and life-giving voice of the living God—is the instrument by which God created the world and through which he will renew it. It is the fundamental sacrament of which baptism and Eucharist are visible forms.
But there the agreements end and the disagreements begin to multiply. Luther dismissed Zwingli’s reading of John 6:63: “the Spirit gives life” but “the flesh counts for nothing.” The “flesh” which God condemned was not the material world, Luther thought, but the self-centered self that stands in opposition to God. No one commits idolatry by trusting the material channels for grace God has established in baptism and the Eucharist, he argued. They are trustworthy because they rest on God’s promise. Not to trust the promise is not to trust God.
Luther was also not impressed by Zwingli’s understanding of the phrase in the creed, “seated at the right hand of God the Father.” The “right hand of God” is obviously metaphorical language. In biblical language the “right hand” is the place of honor from which a ruler reigns. Since God reigns everywhere, “the right hand of God” is not so much a place as an assertion of God’s universal sovereignty. That the risen Christ is at God’s right hand is another way of asserting that Christ is everywhere present in his risen humanity.
While Zwingli insisted on the finitude of Christ’s risen humanity, Luther was willing to concede that something unprecedented had happened in the resurrection. Although Christ continued to bear a human body, it was a body no longer subject to limitations of space and time. Indeed, the body of the risen Christ could even walk through the door of a locked room to appear suddenly in the midst of his disciples. Luther thought what had occurred in the resurrection was a transfer of attributes (communicatio idiomatum) in which Christ’s human nature took on some of the characteristics of his divine nature—including the trait of ubiquity, the ability to be everywhere.
The chasm Zwingli saw between the congregation of believers on earth and the finite humanity of Christ in heaven dissolved for Luther. Luther saw no need to bring Christ down from heaven. Christ was already present on earth. He was present in the bread and wine, even before they were consecrated. Luther taunted Zwingli with the claim that the ubiquity of Christ’s body meant it could be found everywhere, even in a peasant’s bowl of pea soup (though—as Luther warned wryly—no one could locate Christ by stirring vigorously). If the risen Christ is where the Father reigns, he is never distant from the worshipping congregation. The ascension did not mean for Luther, as it did for Zwingli, that Christ had left the world's space and time but only that the mode of his continuing presence in the world had changed. God has attached his promise to the Eucharist. It is there and not in ordinary bread and wine that Christ is savingly present in the full reality of both natures, truly human and truly divine. Luther affirmed the physical real presence of Christ and therefore insisted on a literal reading of the verb “is” in the words of institution. The Eucharist is not a mere sign pointing to a distant reality or even an icon through which the power of a distant divine reality is present. It is the thing itself. When Jesus said “this is my body,” he meant what he said.
The question whether unbelievers receive the body and blood of Christ when they participate in the Eucharist was largely moot for Zwingli. After all, in his view Christ was not present in the bread and wine at all. Believers received grace directly from God and participated in the Eucharist as an expression of their gratitude for grace already received. Believers and unbelievers alike, when taking the elements, received only bread and wine.
But Luther answered the question whether unbelievers receive the body and blood of Christ with a resounding yes. The presence of Christ was not dependent on the faith of the communicant or the piety of the celebrant but on the reliability of God’s promise. Even if an irrational creature—say, a mouse—were to eat the consecrated host, it would eat the body and blood of Christ. Nevertheless faith was essential in order to receive the saving benefits of Christ’s presence. Unbelievers received the body and blood of Christ but they ate and drank to their own damnation. Benefits, Luther warned, were restricted to believers.
How to bridge the gap: Calvin
Calvin was appalled by Luther’s doctrine of the ubiquity of the body of Christ. A ubiquitous body was in Calvin’s view no human body at all, but only a “monstrous body” that had lost its proper form. While Calvin was critical of Zwingli on many points, he agreed with him that Christ’s humanity was finite or it was no longer human. Christ was, as Zwingli had correctly argued, “seated” in his finite humanity “at the right hand of God,” a remote and distant place. The problem for Calvin as for Zwingli was how to bridge this chasm.
Nevertheless, Calvin agreed with Luther that the material elements of bread and wine were in fact means of grace, a point Zwingli energetically denied. When the consecrated elements were offered to a worshipping congregation, Christ was offered. Christ was offered even if the congregation lacked faith. Indeed, Calvin wanted to argue for a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though his beliefs about the nature of Christ forced him to argue for what he called a “spiritual real presence,” an apparent oxymoron that bemused and annoyed Calvin’s Lutheran critics.
Calvin offered four explanations to support his view that Christ was substantially present in the Eucharist. His first explanation rested on a redefinition of the word “substance,” so important to the doctrine of transubstantiation. What, asked Calvin, was the substance of Christ’s body? It was certainly not its bones, sinews, and tissue. The substance of Christ’s body was its power and effect for human salvation. Wherever the power and effect of Christ’s body was present, the substance of Christ’s body was truly present.
Calvin’s second explanation depended on a characterization of faith as an ecstatic act. When believers received the Eucharist, they were in Calvin’s view elevated by faith to the “right hand of God” where they gazed on the risen Christ. In this account the chasm between heaven and earth was bridged, not by the descent of Christ, but by the ascent of the Church.
Calvin adopted his third and fourth explanations from Zwingli—though he revised them sharply on one crucial point. For Zwingli the focus of Christ’s presence was the Church; for Calvin it was the Eucharist itself. Nevertheless, both argued that Christ’s presence depended on the action of the Holy Spirit and the union of Christ’s divine and human natures. Indeed, the whole Christ was present in the Eucharist, even if the finite human body remained at the right hand of God.
Calvin’s arguments seemed like nonsense to Lutherans like Joachim Westphal and Tilemann Hesshusen, who suspected that Calvin was a “crafty sacramentarian,” whose “spiritual real presence” was another form of “substantial real absence.” At the very least Calvin seemed to them to have taken away with one hand what he conceded with the other. Lutheran theologians insisted on a glorification of Christ’s risen humanity that overcame the finite limitations so crucial to the arguments of Zwingli and Calvin. Calvin did not accommodate them.
Calvin did agree with Luther that Christ was truly offered to the worshipping congregation in the Eucharist, even if the members of the congregation lacked faith. What he did not accept was the notion that unbelievers could receive Christ’s body and blood. To explain what he had in mind, he posited the doctrine of a “double mouth.” In order to receive bread and wine, one only needed a physical mouth. In order to receive Christ’s body and blood, one needed the additional mouth of faith.
Faith did not make Christ present. Calvin was adamant on that point. Christ was offered to the congregation, whether it received him or not. But there was an important difference for Calvin between offering and receiving. Unbelievers were offered Christ, but only received bread and wine. Believers were offered Christ and received both Christ and the consecrated elements. In his rejection of the notion that unbelievers do in fact receive Christ, Calvin broke decisively with Luther.
These disagreements among the Protestant reformers richly illustrate the point that debates about the nature of the Eucharist are so intertwined with debates about the identity of Jesus that it is impossible to separate them for very long. While it is not clear that the Eucharistic encounter with Jesus depends on having the theory exactly right, it is clear that ideas do matter. CH
Christian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.
By David C. Steinmetz
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #118 in 2016]David C. Steinmetz (1936-2015) was Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of the History of Christianity, emeritus, at Duke University and the author of numerous books and articles on the Reformation. This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from his book Taking the Long View (Oxford University Press), pp. 115–126. A different version focusing on Luther’s theology appeared in Christian History issue 115, Luther Leads the Way.
BONUS ONLINE CONTENT: Recovering the past
Christian humanists believed in continuity between classical wisdom and Christian truthJennifer Trafton and Jennifer Woodruff Tait
BONUS ONLINE CONTENT: Covenant children
Infant baptism in the ReformationJennifer Woodruff Tait and John Oyer
Christian History timeline: Downloadable Reformation timeline
Christian History's Reformation timelinethe editors
A day at school
Alcuin of York instructs Charlemagne's sonEdwin Woodruff Tait
Subscribe to magazine
Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basisSubscribe
Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministryDonate