The Lord’s Supper – Martin Luther’s Journey to the Bible

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By Felipe Diez III

            One of the first elements that underwent a gradual yet significant change during the early years of the Protestant Reformation was that of the Lord’s Supper. Medieval scholasticism had produced a theology that relied heavily on graces supplied by the Mother Church which were secured through the reception of that sacrament. Partaking of the sacrament resulted in a “finished work” (opus operatum) through the power of the communion meal. This ceremony secured a person’s faith and right standing with God and the Church. Martin Luther, a major eucharistic reformer, proposed and promoted a theology that placed a greater emphasis on the faith of the individual partaker of communion. This faith was then strengthened by God’s Word of promise when the faithful participated in the Sacrament (opus operantis).[1] This essay will demonstrate that Luther’s progression from opus operatum to opus operantis occurred, in part, as a result of his rejection of transubstantiation.  To Luther, the sacrament was an offering to be received with faith and gratitude. Due to God’s promise that the sacrament would always prove efficacious, the faith of the saints was strengthened through participation in the Lord’s Supper. The essay will highlight that one important reason for communing with God through the sacrament, as Luther expressed it, was so God would be thanked and praised. The Lord’s Supper is a thanksgiving ceremony that points to Christ and His finished work on the cross.

The Western Church’s sacramental theology, firmly based on Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotelian formulation of the Eucharist, created a philosophy which posited that the faith and merits of the saints were deposited in a “treasury of merits,” which would aid Christians in obtaining mercy from God when they partook of the sacrament. If they did not possess sufficient faith, the merits of other saints could possibly provide sufficient graces for the sacrament to become a “finished work” by the power in the Eucharist. Having partaken, the believer may continue in graceful communion with God and the Church. Although Martin Luther held to this position at first, he emphasized a pastoral approach to the sacrament by admonishing parishioners to prepare their hearts (1 Cor. 11:29) in order to receive communion.[2] As a result, faith would be nurtured. Thomas J. Davis states:

“According to Luther, the faith of the individual followed as a result of the Eucharist. It is portrayed as something bestowed on the sinner by the reception of the Sacrament. Indeed, there seems to be some sense in which Luther viewed the Eucharist as a finished work (opus operatum), at least in the sense that he viewed the Sacrament as a work based not so much on the individual’s faith and participation in the Eucharist but more on the communion of saints, the church.[3]

A classic example of Luther’s early Eucharistic theology is present in The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ. In this 1519 work, Luther states:

“The significance or purpose of this sacrament is the fellowship of all saints, whence it derives its common name synaxis or communio, that is, fellowship; and communicare means to take part in this fellowship, or as we say, to go to the sacrament, because Christ and all saints are one spiritual body, just as the inhabitants of a city are one community and body, each citizen being a member of the other and a member of the entire city. This fellowship is of such a nature that all the spiritual possessions of Christ and His saints are imparted and communicated to him who receives this sacrament.[4]

This “impartation theology” suggests some reliance by Luther on the sacramental theology of his day. However, his aim was to promote an evangelical “preparation through confession” (based on 1 Cor.), in order for congregants to understand the sacrament according to God’s Word. The “impartation” of graces resulted in an accumulation of transferred works to the believer. In other words, not only was the sacrament itself powerful enough to efficaciously impart spiritual life, this “impartation” was in some sense a “finished work.” This work was meritorious in nature.

Faith and the Lord’s Supper

Alongside sacramental preparation, a major component in Luther’s maturing theology was that of the role of faith in connection to the growth in grace supplied by the Eucharist. It was debated in the late medieval period that faith in the power of communion was not necessary in order for the results of the ceremony to take effect. If the Eucharist possessed an inherent efficacy to complete a work in the Christian, to state that faith was a condition for these graceful results to operate may have seemed superfluous if not offensive to many of the theologians with whom Luther contended. After all, what was a weak person’s faith worth when compared to that of the entire communion of the faithful on earth and in heaven? In Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews, much of the classic medieval sacramental theology was jettisoned. In this work, there is a prudent yet noticeable shift in emphasis of power from the Mother Church to the individual concerning faith. Having begun a transition from opus operatum, Luther stressed the necessity of faith as it relates to justification through the sacrament of communion. He states:

“Therefore, it comes about that no one attains grace because he is absolved or baptized or receives Communion or is anointed, but because he believes that he attains grace by being absolved, baptized, receiving Communion, and being anointed in this way. It is not the sacrament but faith in the sacrament that justifies.[5] Likewise the well-known statement of St. Augustine: “it justifies not because it is performed, but because it is believed.”[6]

Faith, then, is now an important if not crucial factor commanding the successful results of the communion meal. Luther conceives of faith as the strengthening of progressively justifying graces. For Luther, no longer was the Church the main axis upon which sacramental reception and its subsequent impartation hinged. The thesis that faith is a major component in the reception of communion is included in Luther’s The German Mass (1526). In this work, He reoriented the Mass and proposed that its celebration be recited in German. To set a moderate tone to the reforms, only some of the ceremonial elements were restructured. However, he retained the practice of the elevation of the consecrated host, and states:

“We do not want to abolish the elevation but retain it because it signifies that Christ has commanded us to remember him. For as the sacrament is elevated in a material manner and yet Christ’s body and blood are not seen in it, so he is remembered and elevated by the word of the sermon and is confessed and adored in the reception of the sacrament. Yet it is all apprehended by faith, for we cannot see how Christ gives his body and blood for us.[7]

Luther expressed that faith in the sacrament should not cause anyone to abrogate its physical presence in the ceremony by elevation. Faith is what “apprehends” the memorial meal, so that the visible never replaces the invisible. Both the visible and invisible are complementary and intimately related. The Lutheran position regarding “faith alone” (sola fide) had not been completely cultivated during the transitional point from scholastic ecclesial theology to the more evangelical yet still sacramental view of the Eucharist held by Luther. There still remained an immeasurable number of soteriological issues to consider as well. Since the Eucharist had been central to the multi-sacramental system of the Western Church, the question of personal faith in connection to communion was an important matter. The primary authority that Luther typically cited in his writings on the subject of Eucharistic faith was the Bible. In his Lectures on Hebrews, Luther exegetes Heb. 11:4 and states:

“Here the apostle determines clearly that the importance of the sacrifices and the entire value of the merit did not lie in the worthiness of the greatness of the work, but that faith is the cause; for God weighs the spirits and looks at the hearts. Ps. 7:15 states that He “loves the righteous and searches the hearts.” And in 1 Sam.16:7. He says to Samuel: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” Therefore, He requires nothing of man except the heart.[8]

Would Luther’s reforms regarding preparation and faith stop there, as was probably the case with several other theologians from various regions who were attempting to propagate their own theologies at that time?

The Rejection of Sacrifice in the Mass

The Magisterial Reformer’s emphasis on faith in the Eucharistic meal included his rejection that the mass was an oblation, a propitiatory sacrifice. It is difficult to ascertain whether one of the changes preceded or followed the other. What is evident is that both doctrines were present in Luther’s writings and that he used the Scriptures to justify his position on both points. Luther’s Formula Missae of 1523, “which was a proposal for the reform of the celebration of the communion service,”[9] served to express the Reformer’s Eucharistic theology as he gradually but decisively began to denounce the Mass’s sacrificial component. Consequently, Luther removed it from worship altogether. Hughes Oliphant Old explains:

“The first part of the service up to the offertory was to remain unchanged, but from that point on, as Luther put it, the whole thing “reeked with sacrifice.” For the Reformers generally, the removal of the elements of sacrifice from the mass was one of the most pressing of reforms. Christ offered himself up once for all. His sacrifice never has to be repeated.[10]

The Mass as a sacrifice (opus operatum) had been called into question in Luther’s moderate yet important Lectures on Hebrews (1520). But in later works, the manner in which Luther condemned the oblation resembled that with which Jan Hus and John Wycliffe had decried the evils of their day.  Formula Missae, published after one of Luther’s greatest works, the Babylonish Captivity, attacks the doctrine of transubstantiation. The work records the following in its introduction:

“There follows that complete abomination, into the service of which all that precedes in the Mass has been forced, whence it is called Offertorium, and on account of which nearly everything sounds and reeks of oblation. Let us retain those things which are pure and holy, and then we will order our Mass in this fashion.[11]

For Luther, it followed that, if the Eucharist constituted an oblation – a sacrifice that served as propitiation in order to receive the benefits of grace and justification through the finished work of communion – then the entire Christian doctrine of Christ’s once-for-all finished sacrifice that merits our justification is completely undermined. In his later works, not only does Luther admonish the Church to believe that faith serves a major purpose in properly apprehending communion, he emphasizes that the whole superstructure upon which our Eucharistic theology ought to be built stems not from the primacy of the Mother Church or through a repeated oblation, but on Christ’s finished work on the cross according to the final arbiter of truth – the Word of God. He also realized that the concept of the Mass equating to a work performed in order to merit graces was unscriptural. Another portion of the labyrinth that the Roman Church had constructed with the tools of Scholastic sacramental theology was that of the priesthood. If the Church played a major role in dispensing graces, it did so through the mediation of the priest. Since the theology of the priesthood held by the Church resulted in tremendous power granted to the priest, an even greater dominion was granted to the Pope. Within Luther’s reforms of this sacramental and ecclesial maze was the Eucharist. The decrees that the Fourth Lateran Council had bound on the consciences of Christians concerning transubstantiation lacked a Biblical basis and required a thoroughgoing revision. Lee P. Wandel states:

“Luther rejected the powers, authority, and singularity that Lateran IV had accorded to the office of priest. He rejected the medieval construction of the meaning for the Mass, as a propitiary [sic] sacrifice reenacted with each performance of the consecration and elevation. He rejected as well, the sense of the Mass as a work. For Luther, the relationship that medieval Christians had come to set between the “this do” and “in remembrance of me” was fundamentally false.[12]” What did Luther mean by “this do?” What did a denial of the communion meal as a “personal work” which merited justifying grace entail? He says:

“No one is able to cooperate with Him [The Lord] unless he adheres to the Word. This takes place through faith, just as a tool does not cooperate with a workman unless it has been taken hold of with his hand. Therefore, it is perverse in the extreme for one to hasten to works before God works in us, that is, before we believe.[13]

Since the German Doctor’s theology evolved from a repudiation of the grace-imparting power of the sacrament to an outright denial of the mass as an expiatory sacrifice, there had to exist something that Luther was attempting to raise to the foreground. The mass was by no means abolished by Luther, and even the consecration and elevation of the bread was preserved, as is evident in his writings. However, now that the aspects related to sacrifice were removed from the ceremony, it was Christ who finished the work of the Sacrament according to Luther. He states: “The one who institutes [the Eucharist] shall accomplish it.”[14] What was Luther’s main point as far as partaking of communion was concerned. What did he desire for the Church?

Thanksgiving through God’s Word of Promise

“But if they believe and are confident that they will attain grace, this faith alone makes them pure and worthy – this faith which does not rely on those words,[15] but relies on the completely pure, holy, and firm Word of Christ, who says (Matt. 11:28): “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.[16]

The above quote describes Luther’s evangelical theology. It not only links personal faith to the reception of communion, but also to the belief that the Word of God was a sure testimony.       Because the Scripture is authoritative and infallible, the believer could have assurance that it contained the sure word. If a Christian approached the altar with genuine faith in God’s Word, that same believer was blessed by the Lord as He worked through the sacrament. When the Wittenberg Reformer expounds the expression “word of promise,” he sets forth the idea that the Scriptures promise that God works in the Eucharist. This “testimony” served as the axiom by which we are to believe that God is trustworthy. Davis states:

“Luther made explicit the connection between the Word of power and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The Word and what it teaches is absolutely reliable. Though bread may be the vehicle, it is the Word that makes the body of Christ present, just as it makes God’s promises present and real.[17]

What is the disposition with which a believer is to partake of communion from preparation to consumption? What is the purpose behind the concept of this ceremony relating to the individual who benefits from it? There is no doubt that Luther desired that the Christian would display an attitude of praise and thanksgiving toward the Lord not only due to the comfort afforded by the meal itself or its significance, but because it was commanded by Christ Himself as a memorial supper honoring His Person. In a comprehensive fashion, the components of the sacrament were laid out for all to see, hear, and experience. Faith promoted preparation to receive communion, an assurance of God’s workings through the bread and wine by trusting His promise, and a natural inclination to communicate gratitude. With an attitude of humility stemming from faith, the Christian will give thanks. Luther states: “Humble yourselves, and abide in fear so as to feel your struggles and weaknesses, and desire faith. If you experience that, then thank God, for that is a sure sign the Word has struck and moved you, and exercises, constrains, and impels you.”[18] The memorial meal “in remembrance of me” had in view not only the partaking of Christ’s body and blood, but also the realization that He “was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). This becomes part and parcel of the gospel of our salvation. For the good news of salvation in Christ we ought to give thanks. Yet faith in God compels us to confess our sins in order to receive the forgiveness provided by Christ’s atonement. In other words, the Eucharist included a set of vast implications. Luther states, “This confession is understood as a confession not only of sins but of praise. Indeed, the confession of sins and of praise is one and the same confession.”[19] Here, the Great Reformer links repentance (preparation) to the resulting fruit of praise. This praise is embodied in thanksgiving, and vice versa. Since thanksgiving presupposes love toward God, it also manifests itself in love toward the brethren. There cannot be a sense of gratitude without the resulting good work of love. Luther turned to the notion that proper use of the Sacrament bears fruit, and that fruit is love; love in the sense that Christians serve one another as Christ has served them, giving of himself in the Eucharist. When this fruit of love does not follow, Luther told his flock, “we can excommunicate [that one] from the congregation.[20]

The seriousness with which Luther emphasized “fruits” as a necessary part of communion is evident in the quote above. Given that it was almost impossible to excommunicate a person who did not possess faith at all, the evangelical and pastoral imperative was to stress repentance and belief so that the partaker would not “eat and drink condemnation” (1 Cor. 11:29). The established ecclesial theology of the day did not properly address the matter, due to the fact that, in a sense, faith was not seen as a set prerequisite for sacramental reception, since graces were mediated through the priest alongside the Mother Church. This theology gave little room for the expressing of thanks to God by His word of promise. Consequently, there was a danger that people would praise the sacraments, the Church that instituted them, and the Papacy that ruled the Church. For this reason, Luther exalted the Word of God over the word of man.

Conclusion

Martin Luther was brilliant, multifaceted, and controversial, both as a theologian and pastor. He left us a plethora of writings detailing his progression from a proto-evangelical Eucharistic theology to a well-crafted and solid exposition of a communion celebration based firmly on the teachings of the Bible. In the totality of his works, he included both the individual partaker and the church at large in order to remain balanced. It followed that the individual’s faith would produce fruit which would affect the life of the whole Church. His rejection and denunciation of transubstantiation situated itself on the fact that only Christ could and did finish the work at Calvary so that needy sinners would benefit from the grace of Christ. His once-for-all sacrifice was not to be repeated again, as was done during the ancient sacrifices that passed away with the arrival of the New Covenant. At any rate, the Protestant Reformation had firmly parted with the Mother Church and its multilayered labyrinth of Aristotelian scholastic formulations. This paradigm shift in Eucharistic theology was deduced from God’s Word alone and for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas J. Davis, This Is My Body: The Presence of Christ in Reformation Thought (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 21. The paradigm shift from the theology of opus operatum to opus operantis evidenced in Luther’s thought is clearly laid out and explained in Davis’s book. An evolution in the Reformer’s theology is also explored.

[2] The first step in Luther’s Eucharistic Reformation was to promote the need for sacramental preparation and faith in the Eucharist. This non-controversial step to revive the Church later became a catalyst for Luther’s later projects which culminated in a vigorous denunciation of transubstantiation.

[3] Davis, This Is My Body, 22.

[4] Martin Luther, Treatise Concerning the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 191?), 10.

[5] Although the Justification Controversy in which Luther was involved had some relation to his views of Communion, a study of justification as it relates to the Eucharist is beyond the scope of this essay. However, what can be learned from this citation of Augustine is that the Eucharistic theology of the early church represented by the early Doctor seems to differ from the high medieval development of communion that Luther is critiquing.

[6] Martin Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 172. This work, published in 1520-1521, demonstrates a progression in Luther’s theology from that of his 1519 work on the Blessed Sacrament.  Thomas J. Davis also notes this shift in This Is My Body, 32.

[7] R.C.D. Jasper and G.J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early & Reformed (London: Collins Publishers, 1975), 128.

[8] Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, 232.

[9] Hughes Oliphant Old, Guides to the Reformed Tradition: Worship (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 126.

[10] Ibid., 126-127. Formula Missae preceded The German Mass by three years. Both works strongly rejected all semblances of a propitiatory sacrifice that had been a key part of the mass for centuries.

[11] Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 122-123.

[12] Lee Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 98-99.

[13] Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, 148.

[14] Davis, This Is My Body, 47.

[15] By “those words,” Luther meant the oft-repeated and erroneous proposition that “going to confession” (as a work) gave a person assurance that they could receive communion in peace.

[16] Davis, This Is My Body, 172.

[17] Ibid., 46.

[18] Ibid., 52.

[19] Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, 144.

[20] Ibid., 56.

 

Bibliography

Cummings, Owen F. Eucharistic Doctors: A Theological History. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005.

Davis, Thomas J. This Is My Body: The Presence of Christ in Reformation Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Jasper, R.C.D., and G.J. Cuming. Prayers of the Eucharist: Early & Reformed. London: Collins Publishers, 1975.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works: Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968.

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Works and Selected Sermons. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Luther, Martin. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Mitchellville, MD: Fig Publishing, 2012.

Luther, Martin. Treatise Concerning the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and Concerning the Brotherhoods. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1915.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. Worship. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984.

Wandel, Lee Palmer. The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 

3 thoughts on “The Lord’s Supper – Martin Luther’s Journey to the Bible

  1. Philip Schaff, the 19th century Reformed theologian and historian, has this to say about the sacrifice of the Eucharist ‘The Catholic Church, both Greek and Latin, sees in the Eucharist not only a sacramentum, in which God communicates a grace to believers, but at the same time, and in fact mainly, a sacrificium, in which believers really offer to God that which is represented by the sensible elements. For this view also the church fathers laid the foundation, and it must be conceded they stand in general far more on the Greek and Roman Catholic than the Protestant side of this question.’ Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (volume 3) Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity AD 311-590, (1867) page 503.
    Schaff was no friend of Catholicism but he can admit when a practice is early and widespread. To claim that the sacrificial understanding of the liturgy was medieval is mistaken.

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