"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
Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?
1 Corinthians 10:16-18
In this post I wish to develop further Cranmer’s argument about how the Holy Communion, whereby the eating of the bread and wine is a figure of our “spiritual” eating of the flesh and blood of Christ, into a double figure. What I mean is this. The eating of the bread and wine figuratively corresponds to the spiritual eating of the flesh and blood of Christ, however, the spiritual eating of the flesh and blood of Christ itself is a figure of another event or action: that of being incorporate into the fellowship (read: body) of Christ and being cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross or by “his blood”. Thus by precisely participating in the feast of bread and wine, one “shares” the Lord’s table, eats in the presence of Christ, in his fellowship and communion, and in the process is welcomed, cleansed, and forgiven of his sins and grows in union with Christ.
By this double figure explanation, I would argue that the focus on “spiritually eating the flesh and blood of Christ” isn’t just a mental version of the bodily eating of Christ’s flesh and blood, as if we were mentally imagining eating Christ’s flesh. Rather the “spiritual eating” of Christ’s flesh it itself a figure for drawing in closer union with Christ and his Church and receiving and applying the benefits of forgiveness of sins from the Cross.
Is there any point to Eating Christ’s Flesh, Mentally or Otherwise?
In order for me to make my argument I will first show that there isn’t any point to eating Christ’s flesh or blood mentally or otherwise.
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!
What this example demonstrates is that there is nothing redemptive or sanctifying about eating the Christ’s body or blood in itself, whether we are referring to the physical body or some sort of “spiritual” body somehow made present with the elements. They simply do not by communicate Christ’s life and grace by their sheer presence or simply by being consumed. 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 as well as its applicability to the Holy Communion, the fundamental point still remains: the flesh by itself truly does not profit anything. This point doesn’t merely apply to those who believe in a physical or oral eating of Christ’s body and blood. It also applies to the low church Protestant who has a “mental” version of eating some “spiritual” body and blood of Christ. In place of a physical consumption of the flesh and blood of Christ, the low church Protestant mentally psychs himself or imagine himself somehow eating some sort of mental version of Christ’s body and blood.
Both versions, the physical eating of Christ’s flesh and blood as well as the mental imaginative eating of Christ’s flesh and blood in the mind, are simply confused. Eating Christ’s flesh and blood by itself does nothing, and it is nothing more than superstitious voodoo thinking that just by eating flesh and blood one can be sanctified or forgiven or made incorporate into Christ’s fellowship.
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 bread and cup 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.
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 by the whole Eucharistic action, from blessing, thanksgiving, remembrance, to eating, 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,
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. 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. However, the promise of the “Body” and “Blood” of Christ, as suggested from the start, itself is a figure for other concrete real benefits such as fellowship in Christ’s body, the Church, as well as the cleansing or remission of sins. What we have established here is that the promise effects the benefits of the “Body and Blood”, whatever those means, by performance or obeying the institution. Before we can look at those benefits we need to consider another form of consecrationism first.
Calvinism and a Different Form of Consecrationism
If Lutheran scholasticism and Romanists have 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 or when the Body of Christ is “spiritually present” with the bread.
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 or lifting one’s mind to heaven to where Christ’s body “truly” is and eating his flesh “there”.
The problem with this understanding is that it is simply the a “mental” or imaginative version of the physical eating. There is still the idea that somehow the flesh and blood of Christ, understood literally, is significant. The only difference for the Calvinist is that the body and blood of Christ is “up there” and in your mind’s eye you “lift up” your minds to the heavens to eat Christ’s body “up there”. In place of the physical eating the Calvinist merely have a mental/imaginative eating of the very same physical act. The physical eating of the bread and wine, as it were, are like mental jogs to help you imagine this mental imaginative eating of Christ’s flesh.
The Anglican Tradition: Eating the Flesh and Drinking the Blood as Figures
Cranmer and the Anglican Book of Homilies shows us the way forward. Although their emphasis on “spiritual eating” does look a lot like the Calvinist “mental version” of physical eating, there is already the thread of “double figure” developed where the spiritual eating of the flesh of Christ is not merely a mental or imaginative version of feasting on Christ’s body in heaven, but it is itself a figure of being incorporate or participating in Christ’s fellowship.
Here is the Book of Homilies on this point:
…in the Supper of the Lord there is no vain ceremony, no bare sign, no untrue figure of a thing absent, but, as the Scripture saith, the table of the Lord, the bread and cup of the Lord, the memory of Christ, the annunciation of his death, yea, the communion of the body and blood of the Lord in a marvellous incorporation, which by the operation of the Holy Ghost, the very bond of our conjunction with Christ, is through faith wrought in the souls of the faithful, whereby not only their souls live to eternal life, but they surely trust to win to their bodies a resurrection to immortality. The true understanding of this fruition and union, which is betwixt the body and the head, betwixt the true believers and Christ…
Two Books of Homilies: AN HOMILY OF THE WORTHY RECEIVING AND REVERENT a ESTEEMING OF THE SACRAMENT OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
The same point is argued by Cranmer in his Defence:
…this spiritual meat of Christ’s body and blood, is not received in the mouth, and digested in the stomach, (as corporal meats and drinks commonly be,) but it is received with a pure heart, and a sincere faith. And the true eating and drinking of the said body and blood of Christ, is with a constant and a lively faith to believe that Christ gave his body, and shed his blood upon the cross for us, and that he doth so join and incorporate himself to us, that he is our head, and we his members, and flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones, having him dwelling in us, and we in him. And herein standeth the whole effect and strength of this sacrament. And this faith God worketh inwardly in our hearts by his holy Spirit, and confirmeth the same outwardly to our ears by hearing of his word, and to our other senses, by eating and drinking of the sacramental bread and wine in his holy supper.
(italics and bold mine)
Thus to spiritually eat the flesh and blood of Christ is not to mentally imagine oneself chomping on Christ’s body in heaven, it just is to believe that by Christ’s sacrifice we have fellowship with Christ and are made incorporate with him and are participants in his life.
A parallel point could be made with the wine/blood as well. Just as by eating the bread we have communion with the Body of Christ, which is itself a figure for the fellowship of Christians with Christ, by drinking the cup we figuratively “drink the blood of Christ”, which is simply itself a figure for receiving the remissions of sins by the death of Christ. The Homilies again on the celestial feast and banquet:
And, to be brief, thus much more the faithful see, and hear , and know, the favourable mercies of God sealed, the satisfaction by Christ towards us confirmed, the remission of sin stablished. Here they may feel wrought the tranquility of conscience, the increase of faith, the strengthening of hope, the large spreading abroad of brotherly kindness, with many other sundry graces of God; the taste whereof they cannot attain unto who be drowned in the deep dirty lake of blindness and ignorance. From the which, O beloved, wash yourselves with the living waters of God’s word, whence you may perceive and know both the spiritual food of this costly Supper and the happy trustings and effects that the same doth bring with it.
Now it followeth to have with this knowledge a sure and constant faith, not only that the death of Christ is available for the redemption of all the world, for the remission of sins, and reconciliation with God the Father, but also that he hath made upon his cross a full and sufficient sacrifice for thee, a perfect cleansing of thy sins; so that thou acknowledgest no other Saviour, Redeemer, Mediator, Advocate, Intercessor, but Christ only, and that thou mayest say with the Apostle, [Gal. 2:20] that he loved thee and gave himself for thee. For this is to stick fast to Christ’s promise made in his institution, to make Christ thine own, and to applicate his merits unto thyself.
Again, the drink the wine is a figure for drinking the blood, while the drinking of the blood is itself a figure for receiving the benefits of the “full and sufficient sacrifice” of Christ for us, merits and the remissions of sin.
Conclusion: Receiving the Benefits from the Eucharistic Actions
Our discussion on the Eucharist points to the irrelevance or low view of the objects or elements of the Eucharist itself. The relationship between the bread and wine to the physical body and blood of Christ, substantially, really, spiritually, symbolically, or whatever, is more or less irrelevant. Even a “mental” imaginative eating of Christ’s body and blood in heaven is missing the point.
Rather, we draw a straight line from the Eucharistic actions to the reception of the benefits of Christ’s acts and life, unto us. The bread and wine are not windows, portals, images or even figures of the physical body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine do not become spiritually translucent Gnostic bread to the “real” physical body of Christ, whether it is located in heaven (Calvinist) or present on earth (Lutheran/Romanists). It is precisely by eating the thoroughly solid, substantial, and real bread and wine, with thanksgiving and in faith and remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection, whereby the benefits of those events are communicated to us, in accordance to the promise and institution of Christ. It is only in the sense of receiving the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection, that is, incorporation into the “body” of fellowship of Christ and the reception of the remissions of sins, whereby we can properly speak of spiritually “eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood”.