Rethinking the Lord’s Supper

Lord's Supper

In 1529, a theological discussion between two Reformed Theologians, Ulric Zwingli and Martin Luther met in the city of Marburg, Germany in hopes of uniting all Protestants against the Roman Catholic Church. Although agreeing on many things, what prevented the union from occuring was their interpretation of “This is My body.”

As Protestants, church history reveals that there are three popular views for the Lord’s Supper that arose out of the Protestant Reformation: (1) Ulrich Zwingli’s view (Memorialism), (2) Martin Luther’s view (Consubstantiation), and (3) John Calvin’s view. The view that many of us experienced in Hmong C&MA churches is attributed to Zwingli. However, I believe that Calvin’s view of the Supper provides a better understanding of how Christ is present with us in the Supper.

Zwingli’s view of the Supper

Zwingli believed that the Lord’s supper was strictly memorial, denying the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and interpreted Christ’s words as purely figurative.1 Now he did not deny Christ’s spiritual presence to the faith of believers. However, he viewed the Lord’s Supper primarily as an act of remembrance. Stating, “Therefore our Eucharist is a visible assembling of the church, in which we eat and drink bread and wine as symbols, that we may be reminded of those things which Christ has done for us.”  Therefore, what lies before the church is simply just bread and wine (or grape juice)—nothing more, nothing less.2

Luther’s view of the Supper

Unlike Zwingli, Luther held an extreme view of the hypostatic union—the union of Christ’s two natures. He believed that Christ’s humanity is swallowed by his divinity. As a result, he was unsatisfied with Zwingli’s understanding of the presence of Christ. For Luther, Christ’s body is present in the Supper because he is omnipresent not only in his divine nature, but also in his human nature. Now, Luther and Zwingli both agreed that Christ had ascended to the right hand of God the Father, however, Luther further argued that the right hand of God is not in any one location, but everywhere. Thus in Luther’s Catechism, it states that Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements. By articulating Christ’s presence in this way, Luther was avoiding to speak of the elements as being the body and blood of Christ as the Roman Catholic church had argued.

Calvin’s view of the Supper

Along the lines of Luther, Calvin did not have much sympathy towards Zwingli’s memorialist understanding of the Supper. He states, “…to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is present to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.”3  Calvin appreciated Luther’s heightened view of the Supper, yet he was not fully convinced of Luther’s position either. Calvin adopted what some would argue as a middle ground between the extremes of Zwingli and Luther. That Christ is present in the Supper, yet he is not present physically in the elements. The elements are but instruments which the Holy Spirit uses to communicate to believers the body and blood of Christ and all of his benefits. He overcomes the distance between Christ and the church. Just as He unites us in Christ, so he unites us in the Supper. This is a mysterious work wherein believers truly receive Christ. Therefore, as believers partake in the eating of the bread and in the drinking of the wine they can say that they are feasting upon Christ. Not Christ in Spirit, but as stated before, Christ who is divine and human.

Why this matters to us

There is a heartfelt desire to experience the presence of Christ in Hmong churches. So much so that it is being sought out in numerous experiences (i.e. casting out demons, divine healing, worship, etc.). Such an approach is wrapped around the idea that the presence of Christ can only be experienced by extraordinary means. The assumption is that through extraordinary worship, fervent prayer, or restless devotions; one will experience Christ in deeper and newer ways.  However, Scripture suggests that the presence of Christ is not experienced through the extraordinary or the extravagant, but rather through ordinary means—the Word and sacraments.

Therefore eat with joy. Eat in remembrance of Christ’s redemptive work. Eat and experience the real presence of Christ for he gives himself to the church through this ordinary means. It is Christ who is revealed that is extraordinary.

1 Louis Berkhof, “The Lord’s Supper,” in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1932), 646.

2  G.W. Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” in Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 181.

3 John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper,” in Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin, Volume 1, Eugene: Wif and Stock Publishers, 2002), 170.