A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at a “Faith Discussion Dinner” in northern Virginia, debating eucharistic theology with a Roman Catholic speaker and fielding questions from a mixed Protestant-Catholic audience. The entire conversation was fruitful, challenging, and edifying. My opening statement consisted of a positive exposition of the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist, as well as several points in critique of the doctrine of transubstantiation and in defense of the catholicity and biblical simplicity of the Reformed doctrine. For the latter, I’d encourage you to read my essay “The Real Presence and the Presence of Reality“; for the former, here it is in nine theses:
- In the Eucharist, it is Christ himself that we receive, not merely his benefits. Moreover, it is the whole Christ that we receive, that is, Christ in both his divinity and humanity.
- The purpose of the Eucharist is not physical nourishment, but psychical and spiritual; it is our cleansing from the power of sin and death and our sharing in the power of Christ’s indestructible life. It is also, to be sure, the guarantee of resurrection life for our physical bodies, but this is received not as a biological gift in the present, but a promise for the future anchored in our union with the risen Christ.
- This being the case, the mode in which Christ offers himself in the sacrament is suited to the end of this self-offering. Since Christ is not meant to be chewed with the mouth but received in the soul, he offers himself in a non-carnal and spiritual, yet objective, manner.
- Therefore, there is no need for Christ’s flesh, which is that of a human being who remains spatially finite and localized, even as resurrected and ascended, to present itself carnally and locally in the sacrament. Rather, by the agency of the Spirit, the whole person of Christ, including the life-giving power of his flesh, is presented non-physically along with the physical bread and wine.
- As the mouth is the proper organ for receiving the physical elements, by means of chewing, so the soul is the proper organ for receiving the spiritual presence, by means of faith. However, whereas the bread and wine become part of us by the physical eating, Christ makes us part of him by the spiritual eating.
- Since faith is the means of receiving Christ, those who lack faith cannot, in the nature of the case, truly receive Christ as he is offered in the sacrament. Rather, the offered gift, having been spurned, becomes to them a curse.
- The physical elements of bread and wine are first of all “visible words,” by which the body and blood of Christ are proclaimed and represented to us. Their particular physical properties are not arbitrary, but signify the nourishing (bread) and invigorating (wine) qualities of Christ’s body and blood. Moreover, they have the promise of Christ’s presence attached to them by a sacramental union, so that we know that Christ’s body and blood are exhibited in them and presented with or through [no unanimity in the tradition on the most appropriate wording here] them.
- The consecrated elements are the effectual means whereby Christ presents himself to the faithful, but should not be thought of as themselves the site of his presence—at least not the elements outwardly considered apart from the acts of distribution and reception. Accordingly, there is no room for veneration of the elements beyond any respect that might appropriately be shown to other vessels used in sacred actions.
- Moreover, the ordination of the Eucharist as a communal meal is by no means irrelevant. The ecclesial body is the body of Christ, and its unity is manifested in the eucharistic body, and in the communal reception thereof. Therefore no one can celebrate the eucharist individually.
(Note: Based on feedback, theses 7 and 8 have been restructured and reworded. They previously read:
7. Since Christ offers himself to the faithful as they receive the elements, he should not be thought of as properly present in the elements outwardly considered apart from the acts of distribution and reception. Accordingly, there is no room for veneration of the elements beyond any respect that might appropriately be shown to other vessels used in sacred actions.
8. However, the elements are not irrelevant. They are first of all “visible words,” by which the body and blood of Christ are proclaimed and represented to us. Their particular physical properties are relevant, in signifying the nourishing (bread) and invigorating (wine) qualities of Christ’s body and blood. Moreover, they have the promise of Christ’s presence attached to them by a sacramental union, so that we know that Christ’s body and blood are exhibited in and with them.)
Constructive feedback and questions are welcome. I’ll try to actually stay on top of the comment moderation for once. 🙂
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