The Reformed Doctrine of the Eucharist in Nine Theses

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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. 🙂

8 thoughts on “The Reformed Doctrine of the Eucharist in Nine Theses

  1. Andy

    Brad, thanks for the post. Two questions:
    1. Could you expand on what was “challenging” about the evening, whether from the RC speaker or the questions afterwards? (Unless something else was challenging). I’m just interested to hear a little bit “from the other side”, if you will.
    2. Did the other speaker at this forum say that Christ is “carnally” or “locally” or “physically” present in the eucharist? I’m guessing you’re aware the Catholic Catechism uses “really” “truly” and “substantially” present, but not the terms you used.

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    • 1. Well I was speaking there for all concerned, not regarding myself specifically. But since I was among all concerned, I would say that the two points that challenged me to think more deeply were (a) a question from the audience about point 7, asking me to be clearer about whether any and all forms of “eucharistic veneration” were always wrong, or if the issue was more the way in which this practice had grown out of all proportion in the late medieval church, and (b) my interlocutor’s stress on the patristic testimony, where he was able to show at least a couple of quotes that seemed to demonstrate something like a full-fledged transubstantiation already articulated among some of the Fathers. Now, this does not overly trouble me as a Protestant, since the Fathers were men just like us, and should be expected to err from time to time, and since it is well-known that there were differences among them on this subject, Augustine articulating something much more like the Reformed doctrine. But it was something I want to read up on more.
      2. No. And I was actually the one who stressed that Aquinas himself vigorously denies those things. Indeed, my larger point in the disputation was to show that the Reformed doctrine was, when you come right down to it, not all that different from the Thomist, except with the very important differences that it is purged of the metaphysical impossibilities and sophistical circumlocutions that weigh down Thomas’s doctrine with needless baggage…or rather, not needless baggage, because the baggage is needed in order to justify both superstitious acts of eucharist veneration and the confused doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice, as well as the power of the medieval priesthood. Cut out the distinctive, confusing affirmations transubstantiation, and you cut these things out and end up with more or less the Reformed doctrine.

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  2. Andy

    Sorry, one more question.
    3. Could you expand on the end of thesis 8: we know that Christ’s body and blood are exhibited in and with them? What does that entail?

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    • Sure. This simply means that we are not left guessing as to whether Christ is making himself present to the receiver in a particular eucharistic celebration—like, “Dang it. I had just as much faith this week as last week, but I guess Jesus just wasn’t showing up this week. Hopefully next time.” The elements have the word of promise attached to them that assures us that our faithful reception of them entails reception of the whole Christ.

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  3. AJS

    Good stuff. What is your perspective on the legitimacy of using grape juice (particularly for those with past struggles with alcoholism)? Thanks in advance.

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    • There’s nothing magic about it being wine; that said, one needs a pretty good reason to depart from the sign that Christ instituted, and it needs to maintain enough resemblance to still function as that sign. Grape juice fits both bills, inasmuch as there is a very good reason, to protect the weak and stumbling, and the symbolic resemblance remains. Something like apple juice…not so much.
      But I don’t see any reason why grape juice should ever become the norm, as opposed to an option made available for those who need it. The physical experience of drinking wine v. grape juice is radically different, and the latter is not well-suited to convey the magnitude of what’s occurring.

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  4. Josh Patch

    Thanks for your helpful work on this, Brad. I’m interested in Reformed/Lutheran perspectives on the eucharist (given that, historically speaking, it might be the one truly meaningful difference between the traditions). Calvinists who really know the Vermiglian view (maybe a minority?) insist on the real and full presence of Christ (as you do in thesis 1) while also repudiating any view that says we eat Christ with our mouths (as you do in th. 3). When Lutherans (Chemnitz, for instance) define their view of real presence, they insist that the eating is not “cannibalistic,” but rather (and I hear Lutherans say this today) “sacramental” or “mystical” or even “spiritual” eating. When pressed, don’t both sides sort of explain the major differences away?

    I guess I’m wondering why this division seems so hard to overcome. Calvinists seem to think the Lutheran view is just a RC holdover, whereas Lutherans see the view you’ve described above as jargonized Zwinglianism (see the Formula of Concord). Is there an essential difference I’m missing? Thanks again.

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    • You and me, both, brother. Seriously, I’ve done a fair bit of work on this, and it really does seem like the Lutherans want to use this hyper-realist language, and then when pushed qualify it away toward something that would have to be more or less the Reformed view if systematically articulated. So why couldn’t they get along? Well, this is what the Reformed asked over and over, from 1550 right through to 1650 and beyond. There were a number of overtures from the Reformed side (which isn’t to say there weren’t also some sharp polemics from time to time about what they saw as the absurdity or superstition of the Lutheran view as often expressed), but the Lutherans refused to believe that the Reformed were ever anything more than Zwinglians with a lot of smoke and mirrors, and so wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Of course, when it got raised to the level of a Christological dispute, the gap was necessarily wider, since the Lutheran genus maiestaticum (in which the human nature really is transformed by reception of divine qualities) was an important modification of Chalcedon that the Reformed would not accept. But still, the overall attitude from the Reformed side was to focus on the common ground.
      See here: https://www.academia.edu/35424902/A_Reformed_Irenic_Christology_Richard_Hookers_Account_of_Christs_Personall_presence_every_where_in_16th_-century_Context

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