‘Throughout history,’ writes Donald MacLeod, ‘discussion of the Lord’s Supper has been complicated, if not indeed be-devilled, by the question of the presence of Christ in the sacrament.’
When people speak of ‘the real presence’ they are not using the word ‘real’ merely to mean ‘genuine’, but rather to mean ‘the thing itself’. ‘The real presence’ then refers to the idea that the body of Jesus is literally present in the bread and wine at Holy Communion.
This is an idea which is utterly without support from Scripture. Yet even the most Reformed of churches have never quite shaken it off.
Roman Catholic doctrine speaks of ‘transubstantiation’, in which the bread and wine are literally changed into the body and blood of Jesus. This was affirmed with total lack of ambiguity by the Counter Reformation: the bread and wine become the literal body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. This is why the laity were not given the cup – because they might spill the literal blood of Jesus.
The Lutheran doctrine is known as ‘consubstantiation’. It is ‘at least as mysterious and unintelligible as the Catholic doctrine.’ It teaches that the bread remains bread but is also the body of Christ, which is present ‘in, with and under’ the bread.
In other words, in Catholicism when you eat the bread you eat one thing, the body of Christ. In Lutheranism you eat two things, the bread and the body. They are both there: consubstantiation, two substances side by side.
Calvin never quite managed to shake of the legacy of Rome and Luther on this issue. He maintained that the body of Christ was present in the sacrament, as some kind of emanation (like the emanation of rays from the sun) from the body of Christ in heaven down to the Lord’s table.
And so the church has loved to regard the Lord’s Supper as a real mystery:-
There is nothing more mysterious than bread being made into the body of the Son of God or bread being accompanied by the body of the Son of God or bread being the occasion for spiritual rays to emanate from heaven to earth. All that is very mysterious. But I doubt very much if it’s biblical.
To turn now to a fourth view, Zwingli is thought to have taught that the sacraments are ‘naked and bare signs’. However, it is not clear that Zwingli did teach this. Nor is it clear what the Lord’s Supper is being reduced to if we regard the elements as ‘naked and bare signs’.
According to Zwingli, the physical body of Jesus is not present at the Lord’s Table. His body remains at the right hand of the majesty on high (Heb 1:3). Nevertheless, said Zwingli, Christ is at the Lord’s Table. He is not there as a physical presence: he is there in the hearts of his people, bu his Holy Spirit. He is not seen and touched and handled: he is to be received by faith. This is no mere metaphorical presence: although it is not a physical presence, it is a genuine presence, a personal presence.
He is present at the Lord’s Table as He is present wherever two or three gather in His name (Matthew 18:20). He is present as He is present in the prayer-meeting. He is present as He is present in the preaching of the Word. He is present as He was present to the saints of the Old Testament. There is no peculiar sacramental presence…The person, Christ, is present wherever His people gather, wherever His Word is preached, wherever His name is invoked in prayer. He is present in our hearts, present with His grace, present with His help in time of need, and present in His benefits.
This is not to sacrifice mystery to logic. Of course there is something deeply mystifying about Christ living in us, and with us, and through us. But we dare not go beyond Scripture and make it more mystifying than it really is.
Based on MacLeod, A Faith to Live By