Over at W4 the question has arisen as to whether there is good Scriptural reason to believe in something more than memorialism as a view of the Lord's Supper. In the context the specific alternative being considered is transubstantiation, but in general the question appears to be why memorialism is not a good interpretation of the verses usually used by sacramentalists concerning Holy Communion. In this post I already said that I believe in the Real Presence, but here I would like to go into a little more detail about what I believe and why. These thoughts are presented for those who might be interested and are not intended to be antagonizing to my fellow Protestant readers. Nor, for that matter, to my Catholic readers either, as the position I shall sketch is not exactly the Roman Catholic position. For the record, I'd been thinking of writing this post for some time, so the fact that the question came up at W4 was only a catalyst for doing it now rather than later.
The first question to be addressed here is this: What exactly is the view that I shall be attempting to defend from Scripture? What do I mean by "believing in the Real Presence"? The positions with which most people are most familiar are, on the one hand, memorialism and, on the other hand, transubstantiation. I hope that I shall do justice to both of these by a brief summary without ruffling any feathers, but here goes: Briefly, memorialism is the view that Communion is only a symbolic act which Christians are commanded by Jesus to undertake in memory of Jesus' death. The bread and wine do not change in any respect, nor do they become the objective vehicles of grace (more about which below). They stand as symbols for Jesus' body and blood. I have argued elsewhere that actually there are no mere symbols for important things, in the sense of symbols about which we can be flippant or unconcerned, so the memorialist himself has good reason to be respectful and serious about Communion. The memorialists I know are. But leaving that argument aside, the point is that on the memorialist view the bread and wine are only symbols, not anything with more objective importance. On the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, what is partaken of in Communion has what are called the "accidents," which include all of the qualities that could be examined by the senses or physically discovered, of bread or of wine. However, the essence or "substance" of bread or wine has been removed and replaced with the essence or substance of Jesus' physical body and blood. Using this set of metaphysical categories, the Roman Catholic view then is that Jesus' body and blood are literally present and partaken of in Communion but that this is not in any way empirically perceptible, because it is only the underlying essence of the elements that has changed.
I do not hold either of these views. In the case of transubstantiation, I simply do not hold a metaphysical view about such physical entities as bread, wine, and human flesh and blood according to which they have an entirely imperceptible essence which can literally be switched with the imperceptible essence of a different physical type of stuff while leaving all possibly perceptible physical properties the same. This doesn't mean that I'm a nominalist or that I deny that anything has an essence nor that I am unable to imagine situations in which something might appear to be other than what it is. I think that human beings have an essence, for example, and that no matter how disabled or even wicked and degraded a man is, as long as he lives he retains that essence of being truly human. But for bread, wine, and flesh and blood, no, I just really can't accept the view that that is what they are like, which would make transubstantiation possible.
Actually, the main burden of this post will be about why I don't accept memorialism, so more on that later.
What I do believe is that Jesus is specially, spiritually present in the elements of Communion in the sense that they are spiritual food. God has so ordained that those of us who, as the Prayer Book says, have "duly received" Communion are objectively spiritually nourished thereby. In this sense Jesus objectively comes down to us in the bread and wine and gives himself, his life and spiritual strength, aka grace, to us when we rightly receive. (And if we don't rightly receive, we could be in big trouble for profaning this Sacrament which has been rendered holy by God's intention that it should be a means of grace to us.) When the consecrated Host is reserved on the altar, because the Host is that divinely ordained physical meeting point between our Lord Jesus Christ and ourselves, the place where it is reserved becomes a literally holy space, a place where we come before Christ, who is present there in a special way in which he is not present everywhere else.
Now, since I of course believe in the omnipresence of God, and since all Christians believe in the omnipresence of God, and since the Bible expressly says that God dwells not in temples made with hands (Acts 7:48), it might be asked whether such a view is not either a) theological nonsense, meaningless, b) biblically utterly unprecedented prior to the controverted passages about the Lord's Supper, or even c) positively anti-biblical.
But actually, I think there are foreshadowings and, to some extent, precedents in the Old Testament. For example, the Ark of the Covenant was definitely a place where God was present in a special way. That was why it had to be handled only by certain people and why even a well-intentioned handling by the wrong person could result in death (2 Samuel 6). That was why it was carried before the people when they marched (Joshua 3, Joshua 6). And that is why the Psalmist and other Scriptures repeatedly say that God "dwells between the cherubim" (I Chronicles 13:6, Psalm 80:1, Psalm 99:1, etc.). Hence, too, the Psalmist's repeated expressions of joy at the opportunity to go into "the house of the Lord" and be in God's presence (Psalm 27:4, Psalm 122). That, too, was why when the Ark was taken in battle a child born at that time was given a name that meant "the glory is departed from Israel" (I Samuel 4:22).
It was often a saying among the Baptists when I was a child: "The church is not the building; the church is the people." There was such a horror of idolatry that some even chided old-fashioned pastors who referred to the church building as "God's house." (God forgive me, I once baited a missionary on this very point.) Yet that very notion of a special place that was holy, that was God's house, where one would be in God's presence in a special way, is found repeatedly in the Psalms in clear reference to the Tabernacle where the people of Israel at that time went to offer sacrifices. So it cannot be entirely foreign to the way God works in the world.
Then, too, the Mercy Seat (between the cherubim) was a place where blood was spilled on the Day of Atonement, which somehow was especially able to bring forgiveness for the people's sins (Leviticus 16:14). So the Mercy Seat was, as I have said of the Sacrament, a place where God, by His own special choice and commandment, interacted in a special way with His people.
Another example would be the Shekinah, which was a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. God led His people in this way. It was evidently a physical entity in which God was in some special sense present so as to help His people. In one of the most harrowing passages of the Bible, Ezekiel actually sees a vision of the Shekinah glory departing gradually from the Temple, illustrating God's judgement on His people (Ezekiel 10:18-19).
These constitute Old Testament precedents for God's being willing in some sense to "dwell" in a particular location, in the sense of interacting with man specially in those places. This despite the fact that God is above and beyond all creation and is, in another sense, present everywhere.
This should establish that the very notion of the Real Presence in the Sacrament, and even of its reservation in a church building, is not intrinsically anti-biblical nor idolatrous.
However, it will be justly answered that that doesn't necessarily mean that the doctrine as I've sketched it is true. There is a burden of proof, and a Protestant will understandably seek evidence for such a doctrine (all the more so for such a vastly important doctrine) in Scripture.
The actual passages I am going to use to argue against memorialism (and hence to support something-more-than-memorialism, which I think can be satisfied by the Real Presence view) will come as no surprise to readers. One of the most important of these is Jesus' discourse in John 6, in which He says,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world....Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him....This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:47ff)I want to dispose at once of the argument that Jesus could not have been speaking here of Holy Communion on the grounds that he hadn't yet ordained it. In fact, to speak of something important ahead of time, sometimes cryptically, is exactly the sort of thing Jesus did not infrequently. To give just a few examples, he prophesied his own resurrection by saying, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19), which the disciples understood only after the fact. He told Nicodemus (John 3) that he had to be "born of water and of the Spirit" and went on a bit about being "born of the Spirit," which wouldn't make a whole lot of sense until after the day of Pentecost. The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) looks an awful lot like a prophecy of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church and the negative reaction of the Jews, all of which occurred only after Peter received a special vision, which was itself after Jesus' Ascension. So for Jesus to deliver a disturbing discourse on the importance of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which would be understood better only by those who stuck it out, though puzzled, and continued to follow him faithfully until the punchline was delivered "in the night in which he was betrayed," would be very much Jesus' modus operandi.
The similarity between what Jesus says in John 6 and the words of institution (quoted below) is far too striking for coincidence. I would go so far as to say that, with the words of institution in hand, we can see that Jesus must have been foretelling Holy Communion in John 6. The two fit together exactly as prophecy and fulfillment do. Jesus first tells them, bafflingly, that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and then later he hands them bread and wine and says, "This is my body; eat this" and "All of you drink this; this is my blood." What more do you want? The two things obviously refer to one another, which is to say that they refer to one and the same thing. It's just that, as with most prophecies, we only understand this fully after we see what the fulfillment looks like. Jesus must have known that his disciples would remember his earlier discourse when he spoke the words at the Last Supper. (Brief digression: John does not record the words of institution but does record the discourse on Jesus as the bread from heaven. The Synoptics record the words of institution but not the discourse. I believe that this is an instance of those undesigned coincidences that are the mark of eyewitness history, about which much has been said elsewhere. Were John writing an ahistorical literary work, he would very likely have included the words of institution.)
Once we realize that in John 6 Jesus is talking about Holy Communion, we are (it seems to me) forced to take quite seriously a non-memorialist view. That is, perhaps, precisely why as a Baptist in Bible college I was expressly taught that John 6 is not, not, not about Communion at all but rather is simply about believing in Jesus by faith.
We should take a non-memorialist view seriously based on John 6 because Jesus expressly says that this act of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is necessary for us to have life in us. He says that we obtain eternal life by doing it. It's that important. Words like "have life" come up over and over again in John. They refer to being saved. Being on one's way to heaven. Being made one with Jesus. All those extremely important things. Jesus goes on and on in this passage, hammering home: His flesh is meat indeed. If we eat of this bread, which he says is his flesh, we will never die. He will raise us up at the last day.
Let's admit it, telling us that we have to take Communion in order to have spiritual life in us just doesn't sit too well with the overall theology of memorialism. It seems at least somewhat implausible that Jesus would have spoken in this urgent, insistent, and rather mysterious, not to say shocking, manner about drinking a bit of wine and eating a bit of bread as a purely symbolic act. (As a matter of fact, that's one reason among many why most Baptists strongly object to sacramentalism: They consider that precisely this urgency about engaging in a physical act like taking the Sacrament is a form of "works salvationism.")
Let me address here the argument that when Jesus says, "I am that bread of life" this is just like other "I am" statements where Jesus compares himself to physical objects. These are obviously simple metaphors--for example, "I am the true vine" (John 15:1) and "I am the door" (John 10:9) The comparison is quite instructive, actually. Notice: In no other case where Jesus uses that sort of locution does he subsequently set up a rite that parallels the claim. There is no vine-engraftment ceremony nor any door-walking-through pantomime set up by Jesus and commanded to be continued in the church until he comes again. So actually, the comparison with other "I am" metaphorical statements shows this one to be, in the end, not quite like the others.
Which brings me more directly to the words of institution. Here they are as given in Luke 22:19-20:
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you. This do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you.And in Matthew 26:26-28:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it. For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.Why do Jesus' words of institution provide evidence for the non-memorialist position? Why is it not plausible to take them, again, as a sheer metaphor, meaning merely "This bread is like my body" or "This bread symbolizes my body"? Well, if I was going to refer to the words of institution to explain John 6, I am also going to refer to John 6 to explain the words of institution! The two fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. The words of institution show us that John 6 wasn't just an isolated extended metaphor, somewhat over-literally expressed. Rather, they referred to an actual, physical, historical rite that Jesus was going to set up later on. In the other direction, the explanation in John 6 tells us (as just discussed) that this rite that Jesus is setting up and commanding has an immense spiritual weight to it. In fact, taken straightforwardly, John 6 teaches (at least) the Real Presence view I have laid out earlier: That the elements are objective means of grace, means of receiving spiritual life.
But there is more: The words of institution are not worded like other metaphors Jesus uses of himself. Jesus says, "I am the door of the sheepfold." But he never points to a door and says, "This door is I, myself." Jesus says, "I am the true vine" but never tells us, "This vine is my body." Here, again, we have the dual motion back and forth between the Last Supper and John 6. "I am the true bread" is worded like other metaphors but is the only one that has a later ceremony associated with it. "This is my body" and "This is my blood" are not worded like other metaphors, and that gives us reason to wonder whether they are intended to convey something more, something, in fact, sacramental.
One more point about the words of institution. When Jesus says that this is the new covenant (testament) in his blood, he is alluding to a crucial ceremony in Israel's history. Moses (Exodus 24:8) took the blood of oxen and sprinkled it over the people after they had agreed to do all the words that the Lord had commanded in the Law. Moses said while sprinkling the blood, "Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words." In instituting the Lord's Supper, Jesus institutes a new covenant between God and his people, and as blood was used for sealing the Old Covenant, so here, Jesus says that the cup is his blood which seals the new covenant. That seems to me, again, very strong language, and a rather surprising historical connection, for a bare memorial or symbol.
Last but not least, we have Paul's teaching in I Corinthians. Paul says,
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you. That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread. And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat, this is my body, which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood. This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. (I Corinthians 11:23-32)The first point in this passage that sits oddly with a memorialist position is the command that one examine oneself before taking Communion. Christians, at least those who have been carefully instructed at all about Communion, are so used to this requirement that we may take it for granted and not recognize the argument it presents against memorialism. Prior to this Paul has been talking about what we might call liturgical abuses connected with the meal that was apparently eaten prior to the Communion rite itself. (He brings this up after the quoted passage as well.) It would be somewhat easy to take phrases like "eating and drinking unworthily" to mean simply "eating and drinking disrespectfully." But Paul is going farther than just telling people to knock it off with the gluttony and behave respectfully during Communion. He's telling the believers to engage in introspection and not to receive Holy Communion until they have examined themselves and, I think we can take it, confessed their sins to God and resolved not to do them again. Why, if Communion is only a memorial? Do we have to undertake a special self-examination before participating in a Holy Week play? Yet that, too, commemorates Jesus' death. We sing songs in which we proclaim, show forth, remember the cross and Jesus' death, yet we aren't expected to undertake searching self-examination before each of those. It would seem overblown in the highest to speak of doing these things "unworthily" because we had not undergone a special examination of conscience before them.
In fact, if the value to ourselves of Communion is primarily memorial, which is to say, the value of meditation, should we not invite as many Christians as possible to partake, just as we would to a revival meeting or to an inspirational concert? Might not the act of proclaiming Jesus' death and remembering the price he paid on the cross bring back the backslider, convict the erring, soften the heart of the prodigal, and reveal our sin to us? But Paul places the order the other way around. We are to get things right with God, to examine ourselves and confess our sins, before coming to take Communion, and it is a fearsome thing to do otherwise.
The injunction to self-examination before partaking make more sense on at least a Real Presence view than on a memorialist view. We can, again, think of an Old Testament parallel. The priests had to wash themselves ritually before doing their priestly duties (Exodus 30:18-21; Leviticus 16:4). Holy places were not to be approached unless you were clean.
Next, we have Paul's rather eyebrow-raising language regarding those who eat and drink unworthily. He might have said that those who eat and drink unworthily will have to face God's wrath for dishonoring God or for being disrespectful in worship. But he doesn't say that. He uses instead the far more charged language--they are "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord," they are "not discerning the Lord's body." I submit that these noticeably literal ways of describing the sin of approaching Holy Communion without due respect and proper self-examination are more to be expected on a sacramental view than on a memorialist view.
Moreover, we have the actual penalties Paul holds over the believers for eating and drinking unworthily. He specifically threatens damnation, bodily sickness, and physical death as possible consequences. If the injunction to examine oneself and repent before taking Communion is more likely on a Real Presence view than on a memorialist view, this is even more the case for the rather shocking penalties for not doing so. Why would God punish his followers in such ways for engaging in what is only a memorial, symbolic act without first cleansing themselves of sin? But if Jesus is truly present in the Sacrament, things are quite different. In fact, this is reminiscent of what happened in the Old Testament. If a priest offered wrongly before the Lord, or if he came disobediently at the wrong time, he might die in the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 10:1-4, Leviticus 16:2). If the wrong person touched the Ark, he could be struck dead instantly (2 Samuel 6). If there is a Real Presence in the Sacrament, then it stands to reason that approaching it in the wrong way or without first examining and cleansing oneself could have serious ramifications indeed. It would be an example of a spiritual law of cause and effect, to wit:
You do not mess with the Holy.
None of these arguments is absolutely conclusive by itself. Of them all, I believe that the connection between Jesus' teaching in John 6 and the institution of Communion is the strongest, for it is the most explicit teaching we have from Our Lord himself on the subject. But they all contribute to a cumulative case, and from them together, from a Scriptural argument, I conclude that memorialism cannot be maintained and that a sacramental view is the biblical view.
We receive spiritual food in the Holy Sacrament. We should approach it with awe. In it, Jesus comes to us and gives himself to us. It is the place where heaven meets earth, where God meets man and bestows grace through the medium of a physical entity. It is a great gift indeed, for which we should be endlessly, joyously grateful.
In the words of Cranmer, in the thanksgiving after receiving Communion,
ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion. And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.