Rites and Ceremonies
Written by: Ted Vial
Zwingli believed 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 were present because they were 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 was 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 already received grace.
Calvin attempted to walk a middle path between these two positions, though he was closer to Luther than to Zwingli. Calvin agreed with Luther that the Lord's Supper was actually efficacious; it did not merely symbolize something that has already happened, it caused something to happen. He asked, "Why would the Lord put the symbol of his body in your hands unless to assure you of true participation in it?" But Calvin could not read the passage "This is my body" in the same way Luther did. At stake for Calvin was the location of Christ and the way Christ is present after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. If Jesus' physical, resurrected body "sits on the right hand of God the Father almighty," then it cannot, according to Calvin, be with the bread. Jesus was bodily present on earth for his thirty-odd years in the flesh, but now Jesus is in heaven. Calvin accused Luther of wanting to yank Jesus' body down from heaven and parcel it out bit by bit. For Calvin there was a real presence of Jesus in the elements, but it was a spiritual presence.
Contemporary practices of these two rituals (baptism and the Lord's supper) vary greatly, but the differences stem largely from the theological positions outlined by the early reformers. Those who call these rituals "ordinances" either follow or come close to Zwingli's view that they commemorate past events, and symbolize (rather than effect) the work of the Spirit. Those who call them "sacraments" are closer to Luther or Calvin, who believed that they are not mere symbols but also effective offerings of God's grace.
With regard to baptism, the most significant divide among Protestants is still between those who practice infant baptism and those who practice adult baptism. Both sides argue that their view best exemplifies the Protestant principle of "justification by faith." Those who practice adult baptism say that if people too young to confess their faith are baptized the ritual becomes some sort of magical rite. Those who baptize infants say that if one must confess one's faith to be baptized then salvation has become a human work rather than a gift from God. Most Protestants do not follow the practice, common in Roman Catholicism, of naming Godparents or sponsors for the baptized child. Following Zwingli's argument that baptism signifies membership in the Church community, one often sees in Protestant churches the entire congregation stand to signal their commitment to help raise the child in the community of the faithful.