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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Ted Vial

One of the most distinctive Reformed rituals is the Lord's Supper.  The Catholic Church had taught that the Lord's Supper (also called the Eucharist) was a re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice.  Furthermore, Catholics used the idea of transubstantiation to discuss the miracle that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ when blessed by a priest.  The essence (or substance) of the bread leaves, and though the characteristics remain (taste, color, texture, etc.) it is replaced by the essence of Christ.  The bread and wine literally are Jesus.  This is the doctrine of "real presence." 

Luther agreed that Jesus was physically present in the elements, but he rejected the language of substances because it was not biblical.  Though it was impossible fully to understand, Jesus did not lie when he said "This is my body" as he held up the bread.  For Luther, the bread is still bread but it is also Jesus (he coined the term Fleischbrot or "fleshbread" to describe it).  Jesus was "in, with, and under" the bread and wine.  For Luther, Christ's sacrifice was already accomplished and did not need to be re-enacted.  The Lord's Supper was not an offering performed by priests for God, but a physical embodiment of the promises of forgiveness given by God to humans.

This was the issue on which Zwingli and Luther could not reach agreement at the Colloquy of Marburg  in 1529.  Zwingli, whom many people consider the first great theoretician of signs in the west, taught that when Jesus held up the bread and said "This is my body" he was using a figure of speech.  For Zwingli, those gathered at the table are present because they are already members of the body of Christ (through baptism).  Celebrating the Lord's Supper is a commemoration of a past event (Christ's saving sacrifice on the cross), and a public declaration of membership in the community founded by Jesus.  If one can speak of a divine presence, it is the presence of the Spirit that forms the Christian community.  There is a sharp distinction for Zwingli between the sign and the thing signified.  The sacrament does not impart grace-that is done directly by the Holy Spirit.  It is an indication by believers that they have received already grace.  Zwingli found the idea of literally eating Jesus' body disgusting.

For Luther, Zwingli's theology of the Lord's Supper has several problems.  He complains that for Zwingli the bread of the sacrament is no different than the bread of the marketplace.  God deals with us instrumentally, through signs, for Luther.  If one claims that Jesus' simple statement "This is my body" is merely symbolic, does not mean exactly what it says, then one calls into question the reliability of scripture, which for Luther is the bedrock of faith. 


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