Back in late January I started a series of blog articles addressing the Lord’s Supper, specifically the Lutheran view of the “real presence”. The first two installments can be found here and here. In the first two articles I dealt mainly with the biggest hole I see in the positive argument from the Lutheran side for their eucharistic theology. I argued that in point of fact, the Lutheran view is not anywhere near as literal as the Lutheran polemic insists it is, and insists everyone else’s ought to be. You can read for yourself and decide if I made the case. In this article I want to discuss specifically the words of institution as recorded in the synoptic gospels, and how they should be understood. I will focus my attention on Luke because the material is largely identical in the other two gospels and it wont be necessary to analyze all three passages.
Before I get into the real substance of my article though, I want to address a point made by Nathan, who is a contributor to this blog, and is a Lutheran. In a comment thread on one of my articles he asked a question of me and another interlocutor. He asked “what would Jesus have said if he had meant his words to be taken literally?”.
At first blush, that rhetorical question appears to make a strong point; but I wish to head the argument off at the pass. I will do this by asking two rhetorical questions of my own. First let me acknowledge that if Jesus had meant to convey that the bread was literally his body, then he would definitely have said exactly what he said. He would have said “this is my body”. My first question though is this: What would Jesus have said in that situation if he were speaking metaphorically? Would “this is my body” not work equally as well as a metaphor? Such is the nature of a metaphor. It reads as a literal statement of fact, the context determining the reader’s understanding. Take the phrase “Teddy Roosevelt was a mountain”. What would I say if I wanted to convey the idea that Teddy Roosevelt was literally a naturally occurring pile of rock that stood over 2,000 feet tall? What if I wanted to convey the idea that Teddy Roosevelt was a really, really large human being? Would the phrase “Teddy Roosevelt was a mountain” not work just as well as a metaphor as it would a statement of literal fact as far as the grammar is concerned? Indeed it would.
The second question is this: What statement could we not do that with? Is it not in fact rather silly to argue that a statement is not a metaphor simply because a state of being verb is present? To repeat my argument from above, doesn’t a metaphor require a state of being verb? That line of questioning from the Lutheran is a non starter, and is in fact rather circular. But I digress…
Luke 22:16-23 says “For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.”
The sacramental literalist is quick to point to Christ’s words of institution as sufficient evidence of his position. But I would like to offer some counter points drawn from the very same words. After all, our Lord said a lot more than the words “this is my body” at the last supper.
Christ said “this is my body which is given for you”. Was he being literal? Seems to me it would be good to establish some facts about the giving of Christ’s body before we try to answer that. So there are some questions that need to be asked. 1. What was the nature of this giving? 2. To whom was the body of Christ given? 3. Do the words of institution contain any information about the giving as it relates to those who were not the receivers of the giving?
1. Christ’s giving up of his body was a propitiatory sacrifice (1 Jon 2:2). A propitiation is a sacrifice which removes the wrath of an offended party.
2. The giving of Christ’s body was a giving toward God The Father, in sacrifice. Christ’s body was given to God. “It pleased Yahweh to crush him“.
3. The words of institution make it clear that the giving of Christ’s body was for mankind. “Given for you”. I note that Christ did not say “This is my body, given to you”. Why not? I submit that it is because the disciples, and we, do not need Christ’s body in us. We need what his given body provided for us.
I don’t want to pick at grammatical nits here; but given the amount of attention our sacramental friends give to the presence of the little word “is” am I not justified in giving equal attention to the absence of the word “to” and the instead presence of the word “for”? This is important. Conjunctions define the relationships of words to each other. “To” and “for” are different relationships. I hasten to point out, in case anyone is tempted to bring it up, that unlike the word “is” in this passage, there is no way to understand these conjunctions in a metaphorical way and have them make any sense at all.
The words of institution do not in any way demand a woodenly literal understanding of the phrases “this is my body” and “this is my blood”. To insist on such a thing is to fail to take into account the very nature of Christ’s sacrifice, the internal logic of the atonement, if you will. At no point in scripture are we told that there is some kind of soteriological value in eating Jesus. In fact, in John 6, the only place in scripture where people are told explicitly that they must eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood in order to be saved, the eating and drinking are clearly defined in context as being a spiritual metaphor for faith in Christ. No, the atonement involved Jesus giving himself to the father for us. Our reception of it involves trusting in him and him alone as the only one who can, and has satisfied the Father.
One last point needs to be addressed. Often Baptists are chided for believing that Christ’s Supper is a memorial meal and not a consuming of Christ’s *real* body and blood. However it often goes overlooked that the only reason Jesus actually gives the disciples for the church’s observing the ritual in perpetuity is “in remembrance of me”. He never says “do this for the forgiveness of sins” or “do this” for any reason other than “in remembrance of me”. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that the supper is primarily a “perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of himself in his death” as the London Baptist Confession states?
To conclude, the words of institution do not demand a literal understanding as is so often claimed. This is seen to be so in light of the facts concerning the nature of metaphors, the internal logic of the atonement, the grammar of the entire account of Christ’s words at the supper, and Christ’s own stated purpose for the observing of the ceremony. Surely, given all of this, the case is in reality such that a symbolic understanding of Christ’s words is the only really tenable understanding of the words; and the sacramentally literal understanding of Lutherans and others is in fact the one foreign to the text itself.