Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I am Lutheran, Part 2C: A meaningful communion

Lutheranism has a more meaningful understanding of the nature and purpose of the Lord's Supper.  In the Baptist view, the purpose is remembrance and nature is purely intellectual.  What more is there? 

Let's go to the source for what Lutheran's believe, teach, and practice:  The Augsburg Confession of faith.  This is the original protestant "declaration of independence" and the concise doctrinal statement of Lutheranism.  All it has to say about the Lord's supper is this:

"Our churches teach that the body and blood of Christ are truly present and distributed to those who eat the Lord's Supper.  They reject those who teach otherwise."

A much fuller explanation is later given by Luther in his large catechism.  What I hope to do here is not give a full defense of the Lutheran position but simply a clear statement of it.  I don't claim this is the only view warranted by scripture and that you must accept this view to belong to Jesus.  However, at the core of the Lutheran teaching is a simple insistence on believing the words that Jesus spoke when he said, "This IS my body" and "This IS my blood."  If he wanted to say "represents" instead of is, he could have just said it.  IS is IS.  In fundagelical parlance:  "Jesus said it, we believe it, that settles it."  To say that Jesus really meant "represents," but somehow only said "is" practically accuses him of linguistic incompetence.

Now the obvious question this raises is how that can be possible.  How can bread be anyone's flesh?  Does Jesus perhaps mean this in a spiritual sense?  A philosophical or metaphorical one?  Many views take that approach.  Lutherans generally don't try to answer that question, yet we can articulate our view a little more specifically.

Let me begin with a chart I received from our Pastor.

Bread | Wine
Body  | Blood

In the evangelical (baptist) view, what we receive in the Lord's supper is only the top portion.  In the Catholic view, what we receive in the Lord's supper is only the bottom portion.  In the Lutheran view, we receive the whole chart.  Before I explain how that works, I want to make sure we have clearly differentiated the four main western views here:  Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic.  

Baptist believe that the bread and wine are precisely that and nothing else.  We receive nothing other than plain simple food in the Lord's supper, and we observe the ritual as a means of remembering.  The Reformed (including Anglicans and Presbyterians) believe that Jesus is spiritually present through the elements, that is, the Holy Spirit unites himself to them to nourish us in faith.  However, Christ is only present in this way to the believer.  Unbelievers present receive only food, and through the ceremony believers "feed on Christ in their hearts through faith."  The reason for this is because Christ is seated at the right hand of the father, so therefore he couldn't possibly be anywhere else at the same time.  Our hearts ascend to heaven to commune with him there.  This is the defining difference between the Reformed and Lutheran view:  We would say that Christ is objectively present, so that both believers and un-believers receive when the partake, to salvation and damnation respectively, and in the Lord's Supper, Christ comes down to meet with us.  Reformed say that Christ is present subjectively, so that it is pretty much a safe meal for anyone to eat.  Catholics believe the bread and wine become body and blood actually, while retaining the outward forms of bread and wine, or "accidents."  They would say that while to the empirical senses it appears you consume bread and wine, in reality you consume Christ and not bread and wine at all.  This is actually the closest to the Lutheran view.  The main difference:  We believe you receive BOTH bread, wine, AND body and blood.  One does not displace the other, but they are intrinsically united as one to nourish the believer in grace.

You see, the Lutheran view is rooted in the theology of the incarnation.  As all Christians profess what is called the "hypostatic union," or that Jesus Christ was 100 percent man AND 100 percent God, and not 50/50, so we believe God chooses to give to us the infinite (himself) through the finite (physical means).  The salvation of our souls was provided through a real flesh and blood man who hung on a cross and actually died, and this salvation is brought to us through the simple, ordinary means of grace, the water and the word, the bread and the wine.  

The rational mind screams:  How an this be?  It doesn't make sense!  Well, it makes about as much sense as a holy, omnipotent God becoming frail and finite to redeem his enemies.  Perhaps in a future post I will address and respond to common objections to this understanding of the nature of communion with God.


  1. Growing up in the SBC, the alter would have the words "Do This Remembrance of Me" were carved into the "alter". This sums up the Baptist view of the Lord's Supper. There is no discussion of what St. Paul wrote about in his fist letter to the church in Corinth. There is no discussion of that "is" is. In addition, there is no understanding how the Church as historic practiced Holy Communion and what it meant.

    Another thing I found odd is that Baptist are willing to substitute grape juice for wine but they are insistent that only full immersion baptism is correct, even though it doesn't do anything in their theology.

    1. The Calvary Chapel I was raised in had the same inscription. In hindsight, if they really held to what they said they believed, then they would have no reason to rail against any of the sacramental traditions because their "misconceptions" would be utterly harmless.

      On the other hand, to say "is" truly means "represents" is practically to accuse Jesus of linguistic dyslexia. And as far as the historic church, Baptist are practically restorationists in denial. "The whole church was wrong until we came along and recovered/got it right."

      There are good people in that camp, but I'm certainly glad to be under another tent now. I think that their domination of the American Evangelical scene is coming to a close.

  2. I would be interested in hearing how your first year in a liturgical church should the season on Lent and Holy Week went for you? How was this difficult and beneficial for you? How does this compare to your prior experiences, both good and bad?

    1. Good questions. Things have still not quite settled down, but I'll do a post on that as soon as I have enough time to thoroughly reflect on them.