Eucharist and Presence: Embracing Mystery, Finding Joy

I used to spend time wrestling with the different formulations proposed through Church history for how we should understand the nature of Christ’s Presence in Holy Communion. There was a time when I found it helpful to compare and contrast the competing concepts of Thomistic Transubstantiation, Lutheran Consubstantiation, and Calvinism’s Spiritual Presence. To some extent, I still think those sorts of formulations have their place, though I put less stock in them now. Instead, I’ve come to embrace the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This attitude is captured well by Charles Wesley in his hymn, “O the Depth of Love Divine”. He writes:

O the depth of love divine,
Th’unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits his blood,
Fills his faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!

How is Christ present in bread and wine? I don’t know. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that Christ is present, really present. He said that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. That’s all. He didn’t explain it. He didn’t fill in the details. And now, finally, that’s enough for me. If we are going to say something about Christ’s Eucharistic Presence, we should learn from Wesley that sometimes it’s better to sing a hymn than write a treatise.
There has been one particularly pleasant surprise on this journey of embracing in faith the Real Presence of Christ. I have found that I am more free to simply worship and adore him, and to receive that which he offers, namely himself, his own physical presence. This freedom to worship has resulted in the discovery that Christ’s gift of himself at the Table is not a matter of magic, not about saying the right words as if we could manipulate Christ to manifest his Presence. To the contrary, the gift of himself is an expression of Christ’s sovereign pleasure to minister to us physical creatures in just the way we need, with his own tangible, touchable, taste-able presence. And it is his joy to offer himself in this way – O the depth of love divine! And because it is his joy to make me the object of his self-giving love by filling my belly and quenching my thirst with his very life, I have found increasing joy when I go to the Lord’s table. Indeed, in embracing the mystery I have found joy like never before. Thanks be to God.    

7 thoughts on “Eucharist and Presence: Embracing Mystery, Finding Joy

  1. Luke, it is true that Wesley rejected certain explanations as to how Christ was present in the sacrament. Yet, I think the point of the article, and the Wesley's emphasis is that we confess and know that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, and we give thanks. This, despite the fact that we cannot know exactly how Christ comes to be present (even in espousing a position of spiritual presence, we stand in the awe of the mystery of how it is so).


  2. Todd raises an important point. The debate over the Eucharist between the Reformed and the Lutherans is instructive. In the Lutheran understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, there is an actual transference of properties from the divine to the human nature of Christ in his exalted state. This helped Luther and the Lutherans to explain how Christ's body could be ubiquitous. The only problem is, this isn't the traditional understanding of the communicatio. Calvin better articulated the catholic understanding of the communicatio as a matter of personal predication, not actual transference. The attributes of both natures can be predicated of the same person, even when doing so is “improper,” that is, when Christ is named according to one nature and described according to the other (e.g. they crucified the Lord of glory). Relatedly, Calvin is also closer to the tradition in his understanding of the eternal distinction of the two natures and in his denial that Christ is limited to his human nature in the incarnation (the so-called extra Calvinisticum). In sum, there are sound Christological reasons to question the corporeal presence of Christ in the elements.

    A couple more thoughts. First, I think the weakest argument for Christ's bodily presence in the elements is a simple repetition of the words of institution: This is my body/blood. Jesus is no stranger to similes (“I am the bread of life” comes to mind, which the crowds in John 6 misunderstood precisely by insisting upon a literalistic interpretation; eat his body and drink his blood?). So at the very least these words are underdetermined; it is not self-evident that Jesus' words have to be taken literally. A metaphorical reading is just as likely (more so in my mind; is it likely that Peter and the others thought they were eating another human being's flesh at the Last Supper?).

    Second, arguments from the apostolic fathers are also underdetermined in my opinion–mainly because they are mostly echoing scriptural language. There isn't a developed theological understanding of the Eucharist during the time. Still, as a good Protestant, even if you could demonstrate a corporal presence view among the Fathers, that fact alone isn't decisive. Obviously, I'm a Baptist and a Congregationalist! I take my stand with Luther: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason…”

    Anyway, thanks for the dialogue and letting me put my two cents in on your blog. I am with you that a bare memorialism is unsatisfying biblically, theologically, and traditionally. I just think Calvin's position provides the best alternative.


  3. Really liked the article. I hope to post a link to it on my blog. – To the question asked in the comments about Wesleyan views. – It has been my understanding that the Wesley's & most Wesleyan's have embraced the mystery of how Christ is really present. However, it is my understanding that J. Wesley (at least) and most Wesleyan's have talked about Christ being really present spiritually. – To quote Rob Staples in “Outward Sing and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality:”

    “John Wesley was closer to Calvin in his view of the Lord's Supper than to the other historical views . . . He follows Calvin in holding the Christ's body is present only in heaven, and unlike Luther, he refuses to accept any local presence of Christ in the elements. Like Calvin, he holds to a spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, but his conception of this differs from Calvin's. Whereas Calvin speaks of the presence of Christ's body in terms of 'power,' mediated by the Holy Spirit, Wesley stresses the presence of Christ in terms of his divinity. In fact, the whole Trinity is present, bestowing the benefits of Christ's redemptive act.”

    So it is the issue of Christ's bodily presence “seated at the right hand of the Father” that he saw at issue with Christ's presence.


  4. I can't speak for all Wesleyans, but I suspect that many Methodists are going to be willing to speak in some sense of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.

    On your clarification, I was only working with the parts of the confession that you quoted above, particularly the part about Christ being received spiritually, not corporally. I do want to locate an objective presence of Christ in the elements themselves. I take that to be the historic orthodox understanding of the Church. This should be understood together with the necessity of subjective faith on the part of the communicant.

    Additionally, I see no reason why we should need to create an either/or between the bodily presence of Christ and the spiritual presence of Christ. Christ has a spiritual body.

    Thanks for interacting with the post.


  5. Interesting. Is this a common view among Wesleyans?

    One clarifying point: the Baptist Confession affirms that it is the whole Christ–including his “body and blood”–and not just his spirit which is present in the Supper. The question is whether or not his whole-person-presence is *experienced by believers* in a corporeal manner or in a spiritual manner. The Confession is just echoing Calvin here. Calvin's “spiritual presence” view doesn't deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Supper. It just doesn't locate his bodily presence in the substance of the elements. He is present bodily by the Holy Spirit (hence, “Spiritual presence”). Calvin too was reticent to explain this mystery. He suggests that the faithful are taken up by the Spirit into the presence of Christ at the Father's right hand. But at any rate, I don't think it's fair to read this position through the prism of Cartesian, much less Gnostic, spirit/matter dualism.


  6. Hi Luke, thanks for your question. Allow me to clarify. I'm not really arguing for Christ's bodily presence, though I am asserting it. I'm using the words “bodily”, “corporeal”, and “physical” synonymously. This post is more about reporting where I've landed and how it has impacted my worship than arguing one point or another. I do have a few posts in mind that would offer some argumentative basis for the assertions I make in this post. But I haven't written them yet, and I don't want to give it all away in this comment. 😉

    For now I'll make these points:
    1. I'm uncomfortable with the language in article 7 that Christ is received spiritually but not corporally. This sounds a little too much like Cartesian dualism to me. Maybe not, but all that was coming on the scene in 1689(?). As you know, in the Bible σωμα (body) and πνευμα (spirit) are complimentary realities, not set against one another. The σωμα πνευματικον that Christ now has and which is the prototype for the body we will have at the resurrection resists the sort of dualism that seems to show up in article 7. Further, Christ said this is my body, not this is my spirit. Why then would we want to go and insist that he is spiritually present rather than bodily present?

    2. I see no compelling reason to read Christ's words, “This is my body,” in figurative terms, as is asserted in article 5. To my knowledge, the Church didn't read it that way until the Reformation. And the Reformation produced no single alternative view to the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So, what we have here in the Baptist Confession appears to be quite the innovation.

    3. I've been reading up on the sacramental views of the early Fathers like Ignatius and Justin. The Fathers articulated their understanding of the Eucharist in light of the Incarnation against the Gnostics. The Gnostics didn't want to admit that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ. I can't help but wonder whether, if the Father's were to read the privileging of spirit over corporeality in the Baptist Confession, they wouldn't warn of the same thing.

    4. With regard to transubstantiation, I don't affirm it as doctrine, though I hardly think it repugnant to scripture. I don't think Aristotelian categories of accident and substance are the best way for talking about the Eucharistic mystery. I do think it is an interesting philosophical exercise that may help us discover potential ways of wondering about the mystery. I wouldn't want to insist on it as a necessary formulation.

    Well, that turned out to be a little more than intended. No surprise there, though.


  7. Just curious: are you arguing for Christ's *bodily* presence in the elements? By my lights, it's hard to beat the Baptist Confession (echoing the Westminster Confession) on this issue. It's much more Calvinian than the standard Zwinglian understanding more common among Baptists today. Here's a bit from chapter 30:

    5. The outward elements in this ordinance, duly set apart to the use ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that truly, although in terms used figuratively, they are sometimes called by the names of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ, albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before. ( 1 Corinthians 11:27; 1 Corinthians 11:26-28 )

    6. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ's body and blood, commonly called transubstantiation, by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense and reason, overthroweth the nature of the ordinance, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions, yea, of gross idolatries. ( Acts 3:21; Luke 24:6, 39; 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25 )

    7. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. ( 1 Corinthians 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 )


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