In the first installment in this series on the Lord’s supper I made the argument that the Lutheran claim to take Christ’s words of institution at the supper at face value, in distinction from other protestants, falls flat. In short my argument is that the Lutheran apologetic over against the “sacramentarians” fails to meet it’s own demands. A couple of excerpts from the first article should suffice to restate my main assertion in a basic way:
“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.”
“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.”
Upon reading the article a couple of my Lutheran friends suggested that my source for dogmatic definitions concerning the Lord’s supper was not a great one. I quoted two or three times from Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics, which I understood to be a standard Lutheran work. But I must have missed something because my Lutheran friends seem to view Mueller as somewhat rationalistic and too Reformed sounding(rationalistic and Reformed are almost synonymous to many Lutherans). So I decided, given the general lukewarmness of my Lutheran friends for Mueller, that it would only be fair to examine The Book of Concord (BoC hereafter) and see from the source whether my observations have any merit. For the purposes of this article I will be referencing The Formula of Concord, Epitome, section VII.
As I read some of the relevant material in the BoC I kept in mind the question “Do the Lutheran confessions say anything that would either confirm or disprove my argument regarding the Lutheran doctrine of the supper?”. That is, do the confessions speak, unlike Mueller, of an understanding of “is” that actually meets the demands of Lutheran theology itself and the resulting polemics? Or do the confessions end up defining “is” in a somewhat less than truly literal manner like John Mueller?
The Epitome defines the nature of the controversy between the Lutherans and the Sacramentarians with this question:
“Whether in the Holy Supper the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are truly and essentially present, are distributed with the bread and wine, and received with the mouth by all those who use this Sacrament, whether they be worthy or unworthy, godly or ungodly, believing or unbelieving; by the believing for consolation and life, by the unbelieving for judgment? The Sacramentarians say, No; we say, Yes.” (Paragraph 2)
The document then goes on to concisely lay out the Lutheran teaching on the nature of the supper in ten affirmative theses. I will quote a few here:
“We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine.” (Thesis 1)
“We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are not to be understood otherwise than as they read, according to the letter, so that the bread does not signify the absent body and the wine the absent blood of Christ, but that, on account of the sacramental union, they [the bread and wine] are truly the body and blood of Christ.” (Thesis 2)
“We believe, teach, and confess that the body and blood of Christ are received with the bread and wine, not only spiritually by faith, but also orally; yet not in a Capernaitic, but in a supernatural, heavenly mode, because of the sacramental union; as the words of Christ clearly show, when Christ gives direction to take, eat, and drink, as was also done by the apostles; for it is written Mark 14:23: And they all drank of it. St. Paul likewise says, 1 Cor. 10:16: The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? that is: He who eats this bread eats the body of Christ, which also the chief ancient teachers of the Church, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Leo I, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, unanimously testify.” (Thesis 6)
There are two points brought out in these three theses and the previous quotation that I want to address with the remainder of this article. The first is the language of “essentially present…with the bread and wine” and how that relates to the Lutheran claim to take Jesus words “as they read, according to the letter”. The second point I will address is the concept of the sacramental union and whether that concept is biblical and whether it is really arrived at by simply taking Jesus’ words at face value.
So do the Lutheran confessions give us a doctrine of the Lord’s supper that simply takes Jesus’ words at face value? I suggest that they do not. I do not see an essential difference between what Mueller had to say about the Lord’s supper and the confessional definition found in the Formula of Concord. How is “this is my body” in any way propositionally equative with “the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine“? Jesus did not say “my body is truly and essentially present with this bread and wine“. He said “this is my body”. So how can a Lutheran claim to just take Jesus’ words at face value all the while chiding other Christians for not doing so? I am afraid my critique on this point stands. The Lutheran position and the attendant polemical argumentation fails to bear the weight of its own demand.
The issue of sacramental union is related directly to this problem. Read again the words of the Epitome:
“We believe, teach, and confess that the body and blood of Christ are received with the bread and wine, not only spiritually by faith, but also orally; yet not in a Capernaitic, but in a supernatural, heavenly mode, because of the sacramental union; as the words of Christ clearly show, when Christ gives direction to take, eat, and drink…”
This explanation is every bit as strained as Mueller’s. We have here again the language of “with” rather than “is”. But Beyond that a distinction is introduced, defended by the concept of the “sacramental union”, between the oral reception of Christ’s body in the sacrament and a “Capernaitic” eating, referring of course to the incident at Capernaum in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.
But again I ask, is this explanation arrived at simply by taking Christ’s words at face value? Or is the “sacramental union” marshaled as a philosophical rescue device? When the confessional document quoted above designates the nature of the eating of Christ’s body and drinking of His blood as not done in a Capernaitic manner, ie not cannibalism, but rather in a supernatural, heavenly way, does this not go well beyond the simple statement that “this is my body”? Is this not the same type of meaningless distinction employed by Mueller?
If the bread is the body of Christ, then it is. If it is present with His body, then it isn’t His body. He did not say “this accompanies my body”. Nor did He say “take, eat, but not in a Capernaitic way, in a supernatural, heavenly way. My body is present with this bread through the sacramental union”. No, my Lutheran friends, yours is not an understanding of Christ’s words “as the read, according to the letter”. You could never pull these dogmatic definitions out of that simple phrase “this is my body”. The question then as it pertains to Lutherans and the rest of Protestantism is not the question of who takes Christ’s words of institution literally, or according to the letter. The question is rather which non-literal understanding is correct?
*Note: The Formula of Concord, Epitome is so named because it is a synopsis of The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration. I chose The Formula because it most directly deals with disagreements Lutherans have with the Reformed. If you do not have a paper copy of the Book of Concord and would like to investigate further, it is available online. I recommend especially Luther’s treatment of the commandments in his large catechism and the treatment of original sin and salvation by faith in The Apology to the Augsburg Confession. It’s really good stuff.* (Part 3)