This blog is supposed to be for the purpose of contributing to the ongoing need for reformation in the Church in whatever small way we, the contributors to this blog, are able. Sometimes that means forgetting our differences as reformation protestants and affirming what we hold together, such as the five solas. Unfortunately there are certain important things that we have not historically agreed upon and we shouldn’t pretend those things don’t exist or don’t matter. They do matter and attempts to minimize the importance of certain doctrines will ultimately end in fruitlessness at best, or a sort a-doctrinal liberalism at worst. After all, true unity in the biblical sense can only exist around truth. And if we are not in agreement on what that truth is, then we don’t have unity in the full sense of the word.
Two of the main bones of contention between Lutherans and that other big branch of reformation theology are the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper. In this article I wish to discuss the latter of the two and a problem I see with the Lutheran view of the supper. I am still grappling with the issue but I will address what it is I actually affirm about the supper in a near future article.
Before I get to the main topic I want to say that I have become rather fond of several Lutherans I have met both in real life and on the internet. I want to say some words directly to them. I mean no disrespect, but I also understand how important this issue is to Lutherans. So I do expect to flat out irritate many of you. Know that I get it and it’s okay. I love you guys anyway. So without further ado…
When describing their view of the supper, Lutherans will almost invariably say something along the lines of “We take Christ at His word. When The Lord says ‘this is my body’ we acknowledge that it ‘is’ His body.” It is a source of pride for the Lutheran, not pride in a sinful sense, that their theology doesn’t require them to change the words of institution or play logical and philosophical games or do mental gymnastics with the text. Often times the argument from a Lutheran is as simple as “Hey, is=is.” While I admire the approach to scripture that insists on letting the word speak and not making it say what it doesn’t, I believe that this claim to take Christ’s words literally while others do not is where the Lutheran argument falls on it’s own petard.
As I said, Lutherans are fond of claiming that their understanding of communion avoids the mental gymnastics of the “sacramentarians”, a word which refers to non-sacramental Christians in the Lutheran confessions. But it doesn’t take long for the Lutheran argument to end up doing what the Reformed position is itself accused of doing. Why do I say that? The Lutheran position in reality, and I know I am going to elicit some anger here, does not believe that the bread “is” the body of Christ. It is in fact the case that Lutherans believe in what they call the real presence (explained, among other places, in Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics beginning at page 506). They believe that Christ’s body and blood is present “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine.
I hasten to point out, as have others, that if “is” must mean literally “is” in it’s most literal sense, then as soon as is means “present in, with, and under” the Lutheran argument no longer bears the weight of it’s own demand for a literal reading of the words of institution. But the convenient literalism of the Lutheran argument goes further. The “in, with, and under” concept is often explained as a “sacramental presence”.
What is a sacramental presence? According to Mueller “It is neither natural nor local, but illocal, supernatural, and inconprehensible, yet real” (Dogmatics, page 510, paragraph 2). I am not really sure how one can chide another for engaging in mental gymnastics, as Lutherans often do other Protestants, and then in the same breath introduce a category like “illocal presence” claiming all the while to simply be taking the word “is” at face value. This is a problem particularly in light of the demand on the part of Lutherans that we glean our understanding of this doctrine primarily from the passages that deal directly with the issue of the supper (I agree in principle). Martin Chemnitz, one of the great Lutheran dogmaticians of history, is quite insistent on this point in his work “The Lord’s Supper”. So my question is: Is the definition “Present in, with, and under in an illocal, supernatural, yet real way” really just a plain understanding of the word “is”? No, rather the allegedly literal, or plain reading as they are want to call it, ends up defining “is” as “is present with” and then redefining “is present with” as “is not physically present with”. Whatever this interpretation of the words of institution is, it isn’t a literal one. It may be non-literal in a different way than the memorialist view; but it is non-literal all the same.
(Part 2 is here)