How is Christ “present” in the Lord’s Supper?


The “real presence” of Christ in the Supper has been a long discussion in the Church. The early Church would affirm that Christ was present in the Eucharist but later would debate specifically what they would mean and more importantly how that was possible. In the 9th century (844) Paschasius Radbertus wrote a treaty for the emperor (Charles the Bald). He emphasized that the elements of the Eucharist became the historic body of Christ. The same body that was born of Mary, died and resurrected. The purpose behind his understanding of this was because of the function of the Eucharist. If the Eucharist would confer grace to the body and soul there would need to be a physical transformation along with the spiritual reality of the ritual. 

Charles the Bald wanted clarification and sought out another monk who was in the same monastery as Paschasius Radbertus. He found Ratramnus and he gave a “spiritual” interpretation of the Eucharist. Emphasizing the need for faith he countered that if the sign became that which it represents then faith was no longer necessary. The matter didn’t go much further than this for approximately 200 years. It wasn’t until 1059 when Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida wrote a confession at the Lateran Synod of 1059 stating that Eucharist literally became the blood and body of Jesus “crushed by the teeth of the faithful.” Berengar of Tours a scholar of the time debated the “transubstantiation” of the elements and would ultimately sign the confession put forward by Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, only to recant of his confession and then recant of the recant he made shortly before dying. From this point on the Paschasian position was on the rise.

The next issue rose as a consequence of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The efficacy was found to be in the priestly consecration of the elements. If these were the literal body and blood of Jesus some monks refused to partake out of fear of being unworthy. The question of the state of the communicant was raised and it was determined that they could not be in a state of sin and had to be in a state of grace. In addition to raising fear of judgment because of the literal changing of the elements few would participate but wanted to be recognized as desiring. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 mandated that at a minimum the Eucharist was to be taken annually. In an effort to prevent spilling the sacred “blood” the elements were divided and only the consecrated host was given. Out of this practice the doctrine of concomitance emerged to answer that no communicant was receiving less than the whole body and blood.

The other issue that arose out of this medieval view of the Eucharist was over the nature of the sacrifice in the Eucharist. Was each celebration a new sacrifice? Peter Lombard clarified that the mass was a sacrifice in the form of commemoration and as “a sign of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” Therefore it would be improper to say that in the doctrine of transubstantiation Christ is “re-crucified” again. In the 12 century with the use of Aristotelian logic, the discussion of how the elements were transformed from ordinary elements to the body of Jesus would be developed the term transubstantiation was coined. This doctrine would be criticized by John of Paris (d. 1306), John Wycliffe (d. 1384), the Hussites, and the English Lollards of the 15th century. As the sacred host was understood to be the transubstantiated body of our Lord it became common practice to lift the host to be visible by all. Adoration of the host was practiced in addition to having a day (Corpus Christi) to be a feast day to celebrate the sacred host. This is a description of the Roman view of the Eucharist.

The Roman view led to many abuses of the Eucharist and seeped by superstition led to dangerous ideas such as the mass held for the souls of the deceased for large sums of money. The Reformation would attack these perversions and chiefly the doctrine of concomitance and transubstantiation.

If the Roman view held a changing of the elements to the historical body of Jesus, the  contrast is seen in the Zwinglian position. Zwingli denied the bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharist while holding that he was present spiritually in the faith of believers. Zwingli emphasized the “sign” of the Eucharist and the memorial aspect of the elements. It was an act on behalf of believers where they remembered the acts of God in redemptive history. Zwingli took the words of Jesus “This is my body” to mean “This signifies”. Criticized for his interpretation he eventually would find support in a dream where to his memory was brought the words “It is the Lord’s passover”. Finding a basis where “is” didn’t have to be univocal to the thing signified he preached and continued to be outspoken of his view.

Luther was not convinced in Zwingli’s argument saying that he wished he would have been persuaded because it would have been a death blow to the papacy. But held captive to the text, Luther couldn’t escape what he understood as the clear reading of the text “this is my body” (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). The Lutheran view (traditionally understood as “in, with, and under”) is more difficult to pin down. On one hand Luther rejected the papal claims of transubstantiation and on the other hand rejected the Zwinglian view of memorial. In the Supper the communicant for Luther enjoyed real communion with their Savior who would feed them with his flesh and blood. Receiving in the Supper all the benefits for his sheep through their communion with their Savior they participated in communion with each other. Luther believed the sacraments were instituted by Christ and the most sacred acts of worship and the channels through which salvation itself, forgiveness and grace would be imparted from above. In his language he would affirm the real essence of the sacraments in a clear way none could fail to understand. He adamantly rejected the withholding of the cup from the laity and regarded it as “ungodliness and tyranny”. The Lutheran view using the doctrine of ubiquity maintains that the bread and wine remain what they are. And at the same time the whole person of Christ, body and blood is present IN, UNDER and ALONG WITH, the elements. It isn’t really a great improvement on the Roman doctrine because it has Jesus come down to inhabit the elements while in the Roman view he comes down and changes the elements using the Aristotelian categories of substances and accidents to distinguish the resurrected body from the body received.

If Christ is really present then how is it possible? I believe the elements are signs and seals but they are more than this. I believe the real presence of Christ is in the Supper. However, it isn’t that the elements have changed physically as the Eastern Orthodox Church holds, or that they have changed in their substance but not the accidents. Neither do I think that Zwingli was correct to remove Christ from the presence of the Supper to focus on the memorialization of the Eucharist. I don’t believe Luther helped the discussion by having Christ come down to inhabit the elements. Therefore I believe that the believer takes the bread and wine and eats the body and blood of Jesus as they are lifted to heaven by the Spirit in faith. It isn’t that Jesus comes down and changes the elements but that we are lifted up. It isn’t that they are merely symbols to bring about a reminder but they are true food and true drink for our soul.

The praesentia realis is a reference to the promise of Christ before his ascension. He is with us always unto the end of the world. (Mat 28:20) This is not the Roman doctrine nor is it Lutheran. The Eucharist communicates not only his benefits (Zwingli) but Jesus himself his flesh and blood. This communion we have in the Eucharist however is not something that isn’t present in the Word. As if it were not present when the Eucharist isn’t present. However, in the Eucharist this true communion is signified, confirmed and strengthened. The Shorter Catechism Q 96 answers “…his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.” The Larger Catechism expands on this in Q 168 “feed upon his body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace; have their union and communion with him confirmed; testify and renew their thankfulness” and “as the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses”. The gift from Christ is a personal gift and we have communion with Christ and not only his benefits. This is a true communion with Jesus that faith is the instrument by which we have communion in his gifts with him by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no dilution of Christ’s presence in the Supper. While Christ is present he is not “bodily” present and there is a “gap” that is bridged by the Holy Spirit. In our understanding we must account for two things. 1) That Christ would be with us and 2) That Christ has ascended and is not with us and will return once. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not a matter of “spiritualization” but must do justice to the limits imposed by these two facts at a minimum.