Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Can we Truly Eat the Body of Christ without a Real Presence?

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Matthew 13:18-23

He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it

John Donne, Divine Poems. On the Sacrament

The Sheer Eating of the Flesh?

Imagine that during the time of Christ there was a deluded Jew who, believing that Christ’s body and blood had life-giving and sanctifying properties, decided to go and kidnap Christ and chop him up to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to attain unto holiness and everlasting life. Of course, we hardly think that this sheer act of eating and drinking Christ’s flesh and blood is going to obtain for this Jew any remissions of sins or sanctification or eternal life, in fact, for his murder and cannibalism he’ll probably be condemned by divine wrath instead!

Full of Life!

What this example demonstrates is that there is nothing redemptive or sanctifying about the sheer material presence of Christ’s body or blood in itself, that they simply do not by communicate Christ’s life and grace by their sheer presence. One of the most ironic turns in contemporary theology is how the famous passage in John 6:25-69 concerning the eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking of his blood has today become the “proof-text” for the “real presence” and “real eating and drinking” of Christ’s body, when at the time of the Reformation it was the text which was used by the Reformed to precisely the opposite effect. This is because towards the end of this discourse after the people said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” in response to the whole speech about the eating and drinking of Christ’s flesh and blood, Christ replies in verse 61-63, “Doth this offend you? …It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

The Reformers pointed to this verse to argue that by fact “the flesh profiteth nothing”, the sheer eating of Christ’s flesh doesn’t do anything, but it is the Word which are “spirit” and “life” through faith which believes in the words. When the Lutherans debated the question with the Reformed, they seem to accept the argument that indeed the whole discourse on eating and drinking Christ’s flesh does lead to this negation of the profitability of the flesh and to pointing to the efficacy of the Word and Spirit as the true locus of God giving life. But they argued instead that this entire passage has no bearing at all upon the question of the Lord’s Supper and cannot be used to deny the real presence in the Lord’s Supper.

Aside from exegetical questions of John 6, the fundamental point still remains: the flesh by itself truly does not profit anything. The sheer material presence of Christ’s body doesn’t really mean anything or communicate anything as has been illustrated by the Jewish cannibal.

What that Word did Make it; A Non-Consecrationist Account

If the flesh of Christ does not by itself profit or mean anything, then the efficacy and meaning of Christ’s body and blood of the Eucharist unto our salvation and sanctification must be rooted upon something much more fundamental than sheer corporeality. The traditional Protestant answer of course has always been that the Word is at the heart and the ground of the sacrament’s efficacy and meaning. By itself, Christ’s flesh and blood does not do anything nor does it mean anything, but the flesh of Christ, only in relation to the Word, becomes life giving and the New Testament for the forgiveness of our sins.

However, it is vital that we do not rush into our conclusions. The question becomes for us “What is this Word which makes efficacious the bread and wine efficacious unto us for forgiveness of sins and salvation”? My answer would be not the recitation of the Words of Institution but the obedience to what the Word commands. Not just “This is my Body” is the Word but the Word is the entire institution is what makes the bread and wine efficacious unto salvation. Let us recall the relevant parts:

…who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took Bread; and, when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper he took the Cup; and, when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins: Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.

Thus, the “Word” which makes efficacious the bread and wine to be the Body and Blood given and shed for us unto salvation is not merely “This is my Body”, but also, “Take”, “eat”, “give thanks”, “Do this in remembrance of me”. Thus, only when the Words of the Institution is obeyed and performed is the promise of the giving of Christ’s Body and Blood effected, that is, only when the bread is taken, blessed with thanksgiving, and eaten, is the Body of Christ given through the bread consumed. To put it another way, the promise of the Eucharist is the promise that “This (the bread) is my Body which is given for you”, thus the bread is the means whereby the Body is given to us, but it is not itself the Body but the means of communicating and giving the Body.

Thus, it is a mistake to think in terms of the “moment of consecration”, that there is a “moment” at some point of the Eucharist whereby the Body and Blood is “present” in the bread and wine, and as if the sheer recitation of the Words of the Institution “consecrates” the bread into the Body. Rather, the Body is not so much present but presented through the bread, and only when the entire institution is obeyed is the promise effected and the Body and Blood given to us who perform it (blessed by thanksgiving, given, taken, eaten).

Here is an analogy to motivate the discussion. The picture below is a famous painting by René Magritte,

“This is not a pipe”

Now you might think this is one of those postmodern rubbish or something, but actually, the words are correct. That isn’t a pipe, it is a picture of a pipe, it is a representation of a pipe, but it isn’t actually a pipe. One should not confuse a representation of a pipe with the thing itself.

Thus, let us apply this to our current discussion. The Words of the Institution is a narrative and description of what Christ did and commanded on the night he was betrayed. But a description or recitation of what Christ did and commanded, is not to be confused with the actual performance of what Christ commanded and did! Anymore than a picture of a pipe is to be confused with a pipe. To bring the analogy closer, in the Book of Common Prayer’s Holy Communion service begins with a recitation of the Ten Commandments by the priest. However, no one would confuse a recitation of the Ten Commandments with actual obedience and conformity to the commands of the Ten Commandments.

Just as there is a distinction between reciting the Ten Commandments and obeying it, likewise is there a proper distinction between reciting the Words of the Institution and obeying it, and the sheer recitation of the Words of Institution does not by itself effect a “consecration” of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood, but only when the Word is obeyed and enacted (bread blessed by thanksgiving, taken and eaten), is the promise “This is my Body which is given for you” effected for us.

The account of the Eucharist presented here is an unashamedly non-consecrationist account. The communication or “communion” with the Body and Blood of Christ through the bread and wine is not mediated via a “consecration” of the bread and wine, whether that consecration occurs through a recitation of the Words of the Institution or an Eastern Orthodox epiclesis. Rather the Words of Institution’s efficacy does not consists in its recitation but in its obedience and performance. Only when the entire institution and command is obeyed is the promise effected. This of course is an unashamedly Protestant account of the sacrament, whereby the sacraments are “rites which have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added” (Melanchthon’s Apology), and in the words of Luther in his small catechism on the Ten Commandments, God “promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments”. Thus, the promise and grace of Christ’s body and blood being given and shed for us for our salvation is administered to all that keep the commands of the Words of the Institution, that is, obey it.

Receptionism and Oral Eating

It is however important that we nuance our account by considering another theory which is very close to it but not quite. Receptionism is a common theory amongst the Lutherans that identifies the “moment of consecration” with the eating of the bread and wine. Thus in a certain sense, only when the bread and wine reaches your mouth does it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. However, this present account does not have any “moment of consecration” at all. It isn’t that the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood when it reaches your mouth, rather, it simply states that when the bread and wine is eaten, the Body and Blood is truly, really and substantially given or communicated to us.

The emphasis is more upon the event rather than the being of the bread, it is the action performed upon the bread and wine rather than itself outside of the action which we are interested in. Thus, there is no “moment of consecration” or the bread becoming the Body or some moment whereby the bread and wine is the Body and Blood of Christ. The bread and wine, as I’ve pointed out before, is the means whereby the Body and Blood is given, presented, distributed, administered and communicated, but at no moment of time does the Body and Blood of Christ ever simply “sit” in the bread and wine or is merely ‘present’. The bread and the wine is the means of communicating the reality, not the reality in itself, the Bread is the Body which is given, not simply present. In sum, there is a series of commands which Christ impose upon the bread, when those commands are obeyed and the action fulfilled, we are certain that the promise annexed to the commands are fulfilled and administered to us. Therefore, after we have eaten and drunk the bread and the wine, according to Christ’s command, we maybe truly certain that through the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ has been given to us, according to Christ’s promise.

Here is a test scenario to distinguish between receptionism and our account. Suppose after the bread and the wine is eaten by a person, the person becomes sick in his stomach and regurgitates the bread out. Is the bread the Body of Christ? According to the receptionist account, the answer has to be yes because the bread has been “consecrated” when the bread was eaten, and thus the Body is present in the bread and the regurgitated bread is the Body of Christ. But according to our present account, the answer is simply no. There is no “moment of consecration” whereby the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our present account says that after the commands of the Institution has been obeyed, that is, the bread blessed, taken and eaten, the promise of Christ concerning the giving of his body is effected and it given to us through the bread. Thus, even if one later regurgitates the bread out, the point is that the Body and Blood has already been communicated and given to us through the bread, it is a fact which comes into effect when the command was obeyed and the bread eaten. Whatever happens to the bread after the consumption is simply a matter of irrelevance, itself merely being the means of communicating Christ’s body and blood, not the thing in itself.

In a paradoxical sense, this account therefore posits the possibility that there might actually be no “oral eating”, that is, the Body and Blood of Christ is never eaten with our physical mouths. Rather, our physical mouths eat the bread and wine, and according to the institution, the promise of Christ concerning the giving and communication of the Body and Blood of Christ is effected and administered to us. But if the bread is simply the means of communicating and giving the Body and never the body itself, therefore there is simply no oral eating of the Body and Blood of Christ. As the Augsburg Confession puts it about the Eucharist,

Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise.

Notice that it is the “Supper of the Lord”, the event and action itself, whereby the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present and distributed to those who eat of it, not the bread and wine itself.

Calvinism and a Different Form of Consecrationism

If Lutheran scholasticism erred in attempting to tie a “moment of consecration” to some act, whether that be of reciting the Words of the Institution or the moment of eating, Calvinism’s error, oddly enough, is that they are still working within the same “moment of consecration” framework except that they give different answers as to the act and moment whereby the bread is “really” the Body of Christ.

According to some Calvinist accounts, the bread and wine communicates the Body and Blood through the faith of the receiver. Thus, the “moment of consecration” and the “act of consecration” is the reception of the bread and wine and the mental act of believing or faith. Thus, the impious unbeliever who simply eats the bread without faith does not receive the Body of Christ at all, the promise is not true for him. Rather, he simply eats bread and receives nothing more beyond that.

However, this conception fundamentally short-circuits the process of how grace is communicated to faith and leads into an infinite self-referential loop. The promise of Christ must be true anterior to faith. The confidence of faith is fundamentally contingent upon the truth of the promise which necessarily goes before faith. But by making the truth of Christ’s promise dependent upon the faith of the receivers, we are trapped into an infinite self-referential loop. If asked, why do you believe that this bread is truly the Body of Christ given to you? You answer, because I believe it! Therefore you believe something because you believe it. This line of thinking has lead to excessively introspection concerning one’s internal state or whether one has faith or not before one receives the promise because the promise is not grounded and effected objectively independently of your sinful weak faith but dependent upon it.

To prevent this therefore we must insist upon a manduncatio impiorum or the eating of Body and Blood by the impious or disbelieving. The promise of Christ is true and the Body and Blood of Christ truly given, administered, presented and distributed to all who receive it, independently of and anterior to their faith. The truth of this substantial and real giving is the ground for faith and does not have as it’s condition faith, it is the premise and not the conclusion of faith. Therefore when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated according to Christ’s institution, that is, taken, blessed with thanksgiving, given and eaten, Christ’s promise is true for us, the Body and Blood of Christ is truly, really and substantially given to us, independently of whether we have faith. Yet faith grasps this truth of Christ’s promise which is sure and not a lie, and believes this truth, that indeed Christ’s promise is good (that is, beneficial, salvic, etc) for those who obey the institution and believe and rejoice at the gift.

I think Calvin once mentions that although the Body and Christ is truly given through the bread, yet the unbelieving receiver “repels” the Body by his unbelief and therefore receives nothing but the bread. The error of this is quite clear, our unbelief cannot annul the promise of Christ, the Body and Blood of Christ is truly given to the unbelieving receiver. To use the analogy of Christ’s parable of the sower, the seed, being the Word, is scattered across different types of soil which represents how they receive it. The seed or the Word and promise is truly given to the different types of grounds, however, simply because the ground is bad doesn’t mean that the seed bounces off the ground and hops back into the sower’s hand. The seed or promises remains on the ground, even if unbelief prevents it from taking root and growing a new plant life. Therefore likewise, the promise of Christ’s giving his body and blood to those who obey the command of the institution remains true whether or not we believe. But unbelief refuses to profit from the given Body and Blood by the promise, thus it does not communicate Christ’s everlasting life and forgiveness of sins but instead merely judgement, just as if the given seed remains a mere seed and never growing into a nourishing plant life. But faith draws life from the given Body and Blood of Christ truly given to us and draws holiness of Christ’s life and his remission of sins, analogous to the seed which falls upon the fertile soil and grows into a bountiful harvest.

Therefore the benefits of the sacrament is not bound to the moment of reception, as if if you “missed” your window of belief during the reception through faithlessness, you have received nothing but bread and wine and not the Body and Blood of Christ and have to wait for the next round. Rather, the promise is truly given and communicated to you anterior to your belief. Based upon the truth of Christ’s promise, which cannot be annulled by disbelief, we may benefit from the sacrament not merely at the “moment of reception” but any time later, as often as we remember and believe the Words of the Institution and its sure promise and draw strength from the truth of this great gift surely “vouchsafed” to us by God. Therefore the promised Body and Blood of Christ is truly, really and substantially given and distributed to us, and all who receive the bread and wine do truly possess it, and upon this Body and Blood of Christ given to us, we lay our faith and trust and call this event to mind as often as we shall be in need of the assurance of the sacrament.

Conclusion: The Analogy to Baptism

The preceding paragraph suggests an interesting analogy to baptism. Notice that the promise of baptism is not dependent upon the faith of the believer but is true by virtue of the institution of Christ. People are truly baptised independently of whether at the “moment of baptism” they have faith or truly believe. However, though the baptismal promises are but communicated once in our baptism, but we may draw upon its benefits as often as we recall our baptism and believe the Word of Christ and his promises and commands which he has annexed to baptism. We simply do not re-baptise those who were disbelieving or of weak faith during their baptismal event, rather we simply ask them to now cast their faith and belief upon that the promise of Christ concretely administered at their baptism, which promise is true regardless of their faith.

Therefore a like analogy applies to the Lord’s Supper. The promised body and blood of Christ is truly given to those who orally receive the bread and wine, this is sure independently of faith. Those who do not believe at the “moment of reception” do not need to go receive again, as if they had missed their window of reception and has got nothing but bread and wine. Rather, we simply tell them that they have truly received the body and blood of Christ and unbelief does not annul the promise of Christ but to now cast their faith upon it.

To end of, I would like to call our attention to the point which I’ve raised in the beginning: the emphasis upon the Word as the fundamental true agent of our salvation.

Rather than focusing upon superstitious disputes about moments of consecration concerning the status of the bread and wine itself as being the body of Christ, or in subjective introspections about whether we have enough faith to make true the bread as the body of Christ, we turn to the Word itself which alone makes true and efficaciously communicates the promise of Christ. Focusing upon the Word itself as the proper object of faith and the proper efficacious agent of communicating Christ’s grace to us, that is, the commands of the institution and its sure and true promise, we are confident that when the command is obeyed, the promise is truly fulfilled and given to us, and upon this sure promise and Word, is where we cast our faith. As Luther puts it in his Small Catechism,

How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?

It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words which stand here, namely: Givenand shed for youfor the remission of sins. Which words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the Sacrament; and he that believes these words has what they say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

One comment on “Can we Truly Eat the Body of Christ without a Real Presence?

  1. Pingback: Some Random Thoughts on Love Feasts, the Eucharist and Consecrationism | The Rationality of Faith

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This entry was posted on September 15, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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