Francis Chan dropped a theological bombshell in his much-discussed recent sermon about communion and the need for Christian unity around the Lord’s Table. This vision of the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) bases much of its argument on a certain reading of church history that many Roman Catholics would find congenial in its portrait of communion, the Reformation, and Catholic practice down through the centuries.
I will provide what I hope will be an irenic answer, one that explains the need to retrieve Christian thought from the history of the church, the legitimate centrality of preaching, and the significance of Christ’s presence in communion.
Body of Christ Central to Worship?
“I didn’t know,” Chan said in his sermon, “that for the first 1,500 years of church history, everyone saw [the communion meal] as the literal body and blood of Christ. And it wasn’t till 500 years ago that someone popularized a thought that it’s just a symbol, and nothing more.”
This reading portrays the 16th-century Reformation as a bowling ball that rolled down the ecclesial alley and eventually shattered church unity into a multitude of denominations. It suggests that such fragmentation started when the Reformers jettisoned communion from the center of worship in favor of homiletics. In other words, the sacramental body of Christ—not the pastor or his pulpit—is the proper center of gathered worship, a focal point with the power to once again unite churches. This view, however, raises two important questions: Is it appropriate to drive a wedge between the pulpit and the table? And did the church really enjoy a bond of unity around the Eucharist before the Reformation?
Is it appropriate to drive a wedge between the pulpit and the table? And did the church really enjoy a bond of unity around the Eucharist before the Reformation?
Concerning the pulpit, the Cambridge medievalist G. R. Evans, in her book Roots of the Reformation, says that before the end of the Roman Empire church bishops recognized biblical preaching as among their defining duties. Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Great regularly preached lectio continua, that is, extended series through books of the Bible—substantial sermons that combined exegesis and homiletics. Proclaiming God’s written Word and celebrating the Eucharist as the “visible word” went hand in hand.
In the centuries following the Roman Empire’s collapse, a time in which church leaders faced new civil and political demands, the church saw a decline in preaching—a deformity that continued through much of the medieval period. This homiletical vacuum continued until the 11th century, when Anselm of Canterbury sought to counteract clerical ignorance by introducing initiatives for training biblical preachers.
This welcome emphasis continued in the ministry of Bernard of Clairvaux in the early 12th century. “Bernard’s head was so full of Scripture,” Evans writes, “that it seems he could scarcely compose a sentence without quoting it or referring to it.” To counteract waves of heresy that emerged from so many years of doctrinal ignorance, the following decades saw widespread renewal of preaching in the Dominican and Franciscan orders. It’s no accident, for example, that to this day Dominican friars are designated by the letters O. P. (“order of preachers”). In short, it’s historically misguided to suggest that an emphasis on biblical exposition leads to confusion and disunity.
It’s historically misguided to suggest that an emphasis on biblical exposition leads to confusion and disunity.
Likewise, the notion that the pre-Reformation church enjoyed deep unity and relational solidarity around the Eucharist is equally problematic. The allegedly “universal” understanding of communion, from which Protestants departed, didn’t become official orthodoxy until the 1215 Lateran Council. Furthermore, at the start of the 16th century, most Western Christians received the Eucharist only once a year. They typically worshiped the body and blood of Christ from afar, bowing either before the consecrated host as it processed through the streets on the Feast of Corpus Christi or before a monstrance for adoration (a vessel used to carry the host).
Most masses on the eve of the Reformation were celebrated privately, on behalf of the dead. When laity did partake, they received the bread alone without the wine. Most of the time, Catholic laity simply gawked at the body of Christ from a distance. This approach to communion had strayed far from the intimate fellowship of the early church, in which Christ invited his people to draw near to himself and to one another.
The Roman doctrine and practice of transubstantiation—in which the elements of bread and wine are said to undergo a change of substance into the literal body and blood of Christ—placed the mediation of priests (who appeared to have power to make Christ present in the Mass) into the foreground. At the climactic moment of the Mass, as bread was consecrated amid ringing bells, parishioners looked up toward the elevated host (from the Latin word hostia, “sacrifice”) as the priest pronounced the words of institution, hoc est corpus meum (Latin for “This is my body”). (From this phrase we have our English expression “hocus pocus,” shorthand for something magical or supernatural.) For the Reformers, such pageantry obscured the personal significance of communion, creating a religious show that denigrated Scripture and distanced God from his people.
Communion in the Reformation
In contrast, according to Martin Luther, the Eucharist signifies the fellowship of the saints as participants in Christ’s spiritual body: “To receive this sacrament in bread and wine, then, is nothing else than to receive a sure sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all saints.” In 1526, Luther expressed his desire for the minister to stand facing the congregation (not away from the people as was customary in the Roman church), just as Christ is thought to have done during the Last Supper. Luther concludes with an exhortation to embrace God’s promise in the sacred meal: that Christ actually gives to us his body and blood, the pledge of forgiveness and divine favor. In such observance, Luther was clear about the centrality of the Word: “We can spare everything except the Word.” He also stressed the real, bodily presence of Christ in the sacrament.
Different from Luther’s position, the so-called commemoration (or memorial) view emerged in the mid-1520s. Luther’s associate, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, published several eucharistic tracts rejecting the true bodily presence of Christ, underlining instead the act of remembrance. He understood Jesus’s words, “This is my body,” as a reference to Jesus’s own body and not the bread.
In 1525, Huldrych Zwingli suggested that “is” in “This is my body” could be understood as “signifies.” Within months, he developed this interpretation, stressing the symbolic significance of the elements and the believer’s calling to give thanks in remembrance of Christ’s passion. In Zwingli’s words, “We therefore now understand from the very name what the Eucharist, that is, the Lord’s Supper, is: namely, the thanksgiving and common rejoicing of those who declare the death of Christ.”
The memorialist position, it should be noted, was also historically attested. Forerunners such as Ratramnus (d. 868) had contested the notion of eating Christ’s bodily presence. Because the Lord had ascended to heaven, he argued, it is through the Holy Spirit that we access the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. Like Karlstadt and Zwingli, Ratramnus claimed that communion imparts a spiritual apprehension and remembrance of the Savior’s victorious death.
For Luther, however, the memorialist position diminished the Eucharist from the actual self-communication of God to a spiritual-psychological activity of the believer, emptying the sacrament of its significance—that is, emptying it of Christ. This, Luther said, vitiated the gospel by grounding it in individual faith and piety. Luther saw this as an inward turn that reintroduced the very anxieties that the Reformation was seeking to eradicate. In view of these concerns, Calvin likewise described Zwingli’s early teaching on the subject as “profane.”
Mediating Position Emerges
Eventually, however, a middle way emerged. Figures such as Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Thomas Cranmer sought to steer a mediating position between Zwingli, whom they believed underappreciated the spiritual significance of the sacramental sign, and Luther, who overstated it in a way that undermined the mystery. With Zwingli they agreed that Christ is present at the right hand of God and should not be regarded as “in” or “with” the sacramental meal. But they also agreed with Luther that the elements are not vain or empty symbols but rather a means of true participation in Christ.
In Calvin’s words, believers should “think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present.” In other words, while Christ’s body is now absent, he is nevertheless truly present by the Holy Spirit, a presence that imparts the Savior’s power and efficacy through the bread and the wine—the visible words—of the sacrament.
This Reformed understanding of communion is much more than a memorial ceremony in which the faithful muster pious thoughts about an absent Christ. Even though we don’t recognize Christ’s physical body and blood to be present in or with the elements, yet in the sacred meal as brothers and sisters we truly partake of his body and blood, receiving the Spirit by faith, producing a deeper intimacy with Christ’s body.
Standing on the Shoulders of Our Forebears
So, contrary to what some have suggested, Reformed faith—and indeed all orthodox Christians—understand communion to have true spiritual significance. The Reformed faith also asserts without apology that biblical preaching is not the enemy of Christian faith or unity. Substantive sermons belong at the center of Christian worship, the weekly proclamation that equips the church to grow in resurrection life.
Biblical preaching is not the enemy of Christian faith or unity. Substantive sermons belong at the center of Christian worship, the weekly proclamation that equips the church to grow in resurrection life.
Perhaps the bigger lesson here is the indispensable nature of Christian thought from previous centuries—historical awareness from the full sweep of church history that enables us to recognize hasty and simplistic conclusions. In other words, we must do our best to stand on the shoulders of our forebearers in Christ who have already wrestled with many of our struggles. Generations of believers have benefited from their thought, and we ignore them at our peril. Such attentiveness to the past is essential if we are to fulfill Christ’s call in our present moment.