Martin Luther’s Personal Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper

Posted: March 17, 2011 by limabean03 in Christian Theology, Christianity, Lutheran Theologians, Reformation Theology

As many of you know I continue my studies for a Masters in Theology.  I post these mainly for accountability so that the good people of Trinity Church can know that I’m not wasting my continuing ed. budget on a vacation in the Bahamas.  The essay below is about how Martin Luther conceives of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.

How, if at all, is Christ present in the Eucharist?  The question itself was one of the most hotly contested of the Protestant Reformation.  Though the question is formally a matter of sacramental theology, the answer to the question for the Reformers often rested upon their own Christological presuppositions.  After all, how one understands the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, as well as what limits (if any!) one believes should be placed upon the physical body of Jesus, will influence how one understands the possibility of the presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine.  One could say that Christology sets the ground rules for sacramental theology.

For many of the Reformed, the Christology that sets the ground rules for their sacramental theology has come to be known as the extra-Calvinisticum. Oberman defines the extra-Calvinisticum as the theological conviction “that the immutable God became man without diminution or loss as regards any of his attributes” joined with the conviction that the “existence of the second person of the Trinity et extra cernem.” [1] To put it more simply, the extra holds to the ubiquity of the divine Word and the local presence of the physical body of Jesus contained in heaven, while emphasizing the unity of the two in the person of Christ.[2] The doctrine lends itself to a real, albeit spiritual, presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to memorialism.  Because of Christ’s physical presence in heaven, the doctrine prohibits a carnal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to transubstantiation.  It is typically supposed that because the doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum prohibits a true, carnal presence it must then also oppose Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation.  This paper will argue that this is not necessarily so.  Using Luther’s writings from 1520 up until the eve of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, I will argue that the highly nuanced Christology underpinning Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation is thoroughly consistent with the extra-Calvinisticum.  It will be shown that Luther believes that the humanity of Christ is locally present at the right hand of God and that the divinity of Christ maintains a ubiquitous or extra presence in the world.  Furthermore it will be shown that by virtue of the union between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, Christ can really and truly be said to be present in the Lord’s Supper.  This will serve to benefit a larger project of historical theology, tracing the development and significance of the extra-Calvinisticum in Christian thought and practice.

To understand Luther’s Christology one must enter the world of the Eucharistic controversy of the 1520’s.  Luther credits his adversaries for prompting the work that historians widely regard as responsible for initiating a Protestant discourse on sacramental theology.   “Whether I wish it or not,” he writes, “I am compelled to become more learned every day, with so many and such able masters eagerly driving me on and making me work.”[3] The work that Luther refers to here is his famous The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It was The Babylonian Captivity that prompted Erasmus to declare the breach with Rome and Wittenberg “irreparable.”  It prompted Henry VIII of England to write his clumsy, yet nevertheless famous 78 quarto page work denouncing Luther and defending Roman positions on the sacraments.[4] Within a year of Luther’s publication Karlstadt had begun massive reforms concerning the Lord’s Supper.[5] Likewise in the same year Zwingli renounced his own pension.[6] Because of the explosive effect Luther’s work had on Europe, especially in regards to the subject matter, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is the best place to begin an exploration of the Christological presuppositions introduced to the Eucharistic discourse of the 1520’s.

Luther had promised an exposition of his sacramental theology to Spalatin on Dec 19th, 1519, however he also noted that such an exposition would not be forthcoming until he had been convinced from Scripture which sacraments were true sacraments and which were inventions of the papacy.[7] A little over half a year later, Luther had apparently come to much clarity on the subject and published his full frontal assault on the sacramental system of Rome.  The following is not a summary of the Babylonian Captivity, but rather a summary of those features which help us gain a better picture of Luther’s Christology as exhibited in the Lord’s Supper.

Luther introduces the subject of interest via the Cardinal of Cambrai, who he remembers to have argued “that to hold that real bread and real wine, and not merely their accidents, are present on the altar, would be much more probable and require fewer superfluous miracles- if only the church had not decreed otherwise.”[8] The thought obviously stuck with Luther, who having begun the breach with Roman doctrine a few years before now recalled the Cardinal’s words to help formulate his own objections against transubstantiation.  Luther’s objection to transubstantiation is threefold.  First, he considers it textually unnecessary.  Second, he considers it unreasonable.  Third, he considers it incompatible with orthodox Christology.  Each objection will be briefly examined.

Luther’s views on the Lord’s Supper are philosophically robust.  This should not lead the reader to think that his position is, however, principally driven by philosophy.  Luther’s concerns appear to be, at least initially, driven primarily by a commitment to maintain the simple, literal implications of the text.  Though this view would become considerably sharpened by the time of the Marburg Colloquy, the foundations of Luther’s mature thoughts are being laid here in The Babylonian Captivity. Luther writes:

 

But there are good grounds for my view, and this above all- no violence is done to the word of God…They (the words of institution) are to be retained in their simplest meaning as far as possible.  Unless the context manifestly compels it, they are not to be understood apart from their grammatical and proper sense, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of all the Scriptures.[9]

 

Thus Luther concludes that the “Evangelists plainly write that Christ took bread;” therefore, “we have to think of real bread and real wine, just as we do of a real cup.”[10] The Evangelists nowhere say that the bread and wine are transubstantiated.  “It is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words” writes Luther, “to understand ‘bread’ to mean ‘the form of accidents of bread,’ and ‘wine’ to mean ‘the form or accidents of wine.”[11] Whatever occurs then, the materiality of the bread and wine must be preserved since Scripture indicates that this is the case.  Thus Luther develops his critique of transubstantiation out of a desire to maintain a simple reading of Scripture that suggests the materiality of the bread and wine must be preserved.  Rather, as shall be seen shortly, his critique also flows from a desire to apply the doctrine of the Incarnation consistently to the sacramental elements.

Though the bread and wine must be present, for Luther bread and wine are not all that is present.  “For my part,” he writes, “I will take my reason captive to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:5), and clinging simply to his words, firmly believe not only that the Body of Christ is in the bread, but that the bread is in the Body of Christ.”[12] The words that Luther here refers to are the words of institution: “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my body.”  For Luther, an appeal to the simple words of Scripture dictates that one must affirm that bread is present as well as the body of Christ. It is a literalist consideration of the text that dictates the presence of both the substances of bread and body which sets the ground rules for Luther’s philosophical and theological discourse.

Luther argues that transubstantiation is built upon “an unfortunate superstructure upon an unfortunate foundation.”[13] The unfortunate foundation is Aristotelian metaphysics, for which Luther has an obvious distaste, calling the philosopher a “monster”[14] and at one point dismissively referring to the Thomists as an “Aristotelian church.”[15] The problem for Luther is that an “Aristotelian Church” is not founded upon Scripture or even the resources of the Christian church.  That the church would have pagan foundations for one of its most important doctrines is baffling to Luther.  “What shall we say,” he exclaims, “when Aristotle and the doctrines of men are made to be the arbiters of such lofty and divine matters?”[16] If Aristotle himself is the “unfortunate foundation,” the “unfortunate superstructure” is the Thomistic application of Aristotle.

Aristotle held that a subject and its accidents are inseparable; neither can exist apart from the other.  In transubstantiation, however, the subject of the accidents is separated and replaced by the substance of the Body of Christ.  This presents none too few philosophical hurdles as Luther is well aware.  Aside from those philosophical difficulties commonly associated with Aristotle, such as distinguishing between a proper substance and proper accident, the contradictory nature of subject and accident in transubstantiation poses new hurdles of its own.  For example, “If a ‘transubstantiation’ must be assumed in order that Christ’s body may not be identified with the bread, why not also a ‘transaccidentation,’ in order that the body of Christ may not be identified with the accidents?”[17] The point Luther is making is that if the subject and accident must agree, then for a true transubstantiation to take place in the host the accidents must also be changed because they must not be contradictory with the substance.  Thus a “transaccidentation” is in order if Aristotle is to be followed consistently.

This is more than mere philosophical gamesmanship, but has real consequences when one considers the nature of the Incarnation.  If God cares so little of material bread and wine that he would annihilate it in transubstantiation, why then would he not do the same in the Incarnation?

 

Christ is believed to have been born from the inviolate womb of his mother.  Let them say here too that the flesh of the Virgin was meanwhile annihilated, or as they would more aptly say, transubstantiated, so that Christ, after being enfolded in its accidents, finally came forth through the accidents!  The same thing will have to be said of the shut door (John 20.19, 26) and of the closed mouth of the sepulchre, through which he went in and out without disturbing them.[18]

 

Luther’s critique of transubstantiation is a blatant accusation of Docetism.  If the only manner by which God could dwell in the bread is to annihilate the substance of bread and replace it with his divinity, why then does this logic not follow in the Incarnation?  In the above quote Luther notes that the flesh of the virgin would be “annihilated” or “transubstantiated” into the divinity, only enfolding the Son in the accidents of humanity.  Thus Christ would necessarily not be fully human but only appear to be human.  Very early on then, one can see Luther wanting to use the Incarnation as a template for Christ’s presence in the sacramental elements.  This necessitates Luther clearly distinguish and preserve not only the integrity of the human and divine natures in Christ, but also the substance of the sacramental elements.  This will become even more important later on.

For now, Luther settles on a theory of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper that he believes honors the simple meaning of the text and also remains consistent with the logic of the Incarnation.  This position is termed consubstantiation because the substances of bread and wine share union with the person of Christ.  Thus for Luther the logic of the Incarnation is consistent with the logic of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.  He writes:

 

It is not necessary for the human nature to be transubstantiated and the divine nature contained under the accidents of the human nature.  Both natures are simply there in their entirety, and it is truly said: “This man is God; this God is man.”…In like manner, it is not necessary in the sacrament that the bread and wine be transubstantiated and that Christ be contained under their accidents in order that the real body and real blood remains present.  But both remain there at the same time, and it is truly said: “This bread is my body; this wine is my blood” and vice versa.[19]

 

In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther puts forward a fairly simple, straightforward understanding of consubstantiation.  As it will be shown, however, Luther’s understanding would remain neither simple nor straightforward.  Over the next decade, Luther would construct a highly nuanced and complex understanding of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  A major influence compelling Luther to refine his Eucharistic theology was the objections leveled at his theology by fellow protestants.  These objections came from Wittenberg through Karlstadt, but more strongly from Zwingli in Zurich.  These men and their critique of Luther will be given brief treatment as a means for understanding how Luther’s views were refined against his critics over the period of this very important decade.

Luther’s critique of the sacramental system of the papacy struck a popular chord prompting the laity in Wittenberg to demand the reform of the mass among other things.  It appears as if Karlstadt leveraged the rising tide of public outrage to advance his own reformation agenda.  On Christmas Day 1521, Karlstadt celebrated the Lord’s Supper in plain clothes and communicated the laity in both kinds. On January 24th 1522, new ordinances were drawn up regulating the reform of the liturgy.[20] The reform of the liturgy caused Wittenberg to run afoul of imperial law and raise the ire of the emperor.  Alarmed by the unraveling situation in Wittenberg, Luther left his sanctuary in the Wartburg and returned to tend to matters in Wittenberg personally.[21] All changes in worship decreed by law were repealed and Karlstadt was forbidden from preaching in Wittenberg.

If any tether was keeping Karlstadt from fully pursuing his own reform agenda that cord was cut once he was banished from Wittenberg.  In 1524, after two years of silence Karlstadt published five treatises on the Eucharist that essentially abolished any material or spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in favor of a memorialistic position.  At the words of institution, Karlstadt argued that when Christ says “This is my body,” he was pointing to himself and not the bread.[22] Karlstadt’s treatises on the Eucharist were published in Basel and soon they were being associated with Zwingli in Zurich.  Karlstadt’s Eucharistic views were sufficiently close to Zwingli’s for the Swiss to begin asking Zwingli for clarification in how they should view the mater.[23] Zwingli’s response was “The Letter to Matthew Alber,” though written in November of 1524 was not published until March of 1525.  The historical significance of this letter is not only that is Zwingli’s first attempt to fully disclose his own Eucharistic theology, but also that this letter is regarded as the shot across the bow that began the Eucharistic controversy with the Lutherans.  Thus Luther should be seen principally as responding to Zwingli’s sacramental theology and therefore his Christology as well.  The following is not intended to be a thorough treatment of Zwingli’s Eucharistic theology.  Rather is a brief summary in order to see what ideas to which Luther was principally responding.

Zwingli shared Luther’s commitment to the simple meaning of the text.  He writes: “I think the hinge of the matter is to be found in a very short syllable, namely, in the word ‘is’, the meaning of which is not always given by ‘is’ but sometimes by ‘signifies.”[24] With this simple shift from “is” to “signifies,” Zwingli too makes the decisive shift away from any corporeal presence in his Eucharistic theology.

 

Now take up Christ’s words in Matthew 26:26, ‘Jesus took bread, etc., saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body (Lk 22.19) ‘which is given for you.’  Put ‘signifies’ for ‘is’ here and you have ‘Take, eat; this signifies my body which is given for you.’  Then the meaning will certainly be, ‘Take, eat, for this which I bid you do will signify to you or remind you of my body which presently is to be given for you.’  For he adds immediately (Lk 22:10), “This do in remembrance of me.”[25]

 

Zwingli’s exegesis of the institution of the Lord’s Supper frees him from maintaining any real presence, corporeal or spiritual in the sacramental elements.  It is not until his Subsidiary Essay on the Eucharist (1525) that Zwingli begins to spell out the Christological implications of his Eucharistic theology.  In this essay Zwingli begins to distinguish the humanity and divinity of Christ in such a way as to preclude Christ’s “real” presence in the sacramental elements.  He begins by locating the humanity of Christ at a specific point, namely the right hand of the Father.  He writes “They (the disciples) know that flesh (of Christ) sits at the right hand of the Father and moves not thence until it comes back for the final reckoning with the whole world.[26] Christ’s local presence at the right hand of the Father precludes a real, corporeal presence in the sacramental elements.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, for the humanity of Christ to be present in the elements would mean that the human nature of Christ must be somewhat ubiquitous.  For Zwingli, this is a confusion of properties common to the human nature of Christ.  “For even in Christ,” he writes, “in whom there are two natures; divine substance is not human substance nor is human substance divine substance.”[27] Second, to say that Christ or his divinity is present in the bread is to confuse the natures of the elements and the human and divine natures of Christ respectively.  He writes “When he (God) made the dust of the earth a man, was it at once dust and human?  See how shameless is the opinion of those who say that bread and bodily flesh are eaten together, nay, maintain that the bread is both these things at once.”[28] Bread then must remain “nothing but bread.”[29] The human nature of Christ must remain fully human and distinct from the divinity.  To confuse the properties of Christ’s humanity with the divinity by claiming a ubiquitous presence or to confuse the nature of bread and body is for Zwingli nothing short of a great “abomination.”[30]

Luther’s initial response to Zwinglian Eucharistic theology came informally through three sermons preached by Luther to prepare his congregation for Easter Sunday.  It is clear that Luther’s overarching concern is to defend the “real” presence of Christ in the Eucharist against the “fanatics,” who he claims would “suck the egg dry and leave us the shell, that is, remove the body and blood of Christ from the bread and wine, so that it remains no more than mere bread, such as the baker bakes.”[31] The reader here can fall into much danger as it is not exactly clear what Luther means by the “body and blood of Christ.”  Indeed it may not have even been clear to Luther at this point.  Unfortunately for both the reader and Luther the issue becomes less clear in these sermons rather than more so.

The critique from the Swiss that Luther seems most aware of is that of ubiquity.  As has been seen, Zwingli argued against the ubiquitous presence of Christ’s flesh. Luther understands the Swiss critique against ubiquity to be illogical considering that Christ, according to his human nature, is locally present in heaven therefore he could not be present in the elements.  It is telling that Luther’s response is a comparison with the Incarnation, setting up the Christological debate that would unfold between the two.  He writes “I might say equally well that it is not reasonable that God should descend from heaven and enter the womb.”[32] That is, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is no more unreasonable than the miracle of the incarnation.  Furthermore, the union wrought between the divine and human natures of Christ in the Incarnation makes a ubiquitous Christ not only logical but necessary.  Using a metaphor of the soul and the body, Luther illustrates how he conceives the mechanics of ubiquity might possibly work.

 

Behold the soul, which is a single creature, and yet at the same time is present throughout the body, even in the smallest toe, so that when I prick the smallest member of the body with a needle, affect the entire soul, and the whole man quivers.  Now, if one soul can be present at one time in all the members- though I am unable to explain how that happens- should Christ not be capable of being present at one time in all places in the sacrament?[33]

 

Using a different example this time, Luther uses the preaching of the Gospel as an example of the ubiquity of Christ.  When the Gospel is preached, Christ is brought into the heart “so that you may form him within yourself.”[34] Where Luther goes next is quite revealing.  One must remember that the Zwinglian critique of ubiquity is that Christ is locally present at the right hand of the Father in heaven and preserving the integrity of his human nature precludes him from being present in the elements.  Luther believed that when the Gospel is preached, Christ is formed in the heart.  But what does this mean that you have in the heart?  “You must answer that you have the true Christ, not that he sits in there, as one sits on a chair, but as he is at the right hand of the Father…your heart truly feels his presence, and through the experience of faith you know for certainty that he is there.”[35] More than that, just as Christ is present with the faithful on earth so too are the faithful present with Christ in heaven.  “Your heart is in heaven,” he writes, “not in an apparition or a dream, but truly.  For where he is, there you are also.  So he dwells and sits in your heart, yet he does not fall from the right hand of God.”[36]

How Luther believes Christ to be present in the elements is quite important.  First, Christ is present in the elements in the same way he is present with the faithful who hear and receive the preaching of the Gospel.  Likewise, Christ is present in the elements in the same way that the faithful are present with Christ in heaven.  Whatever Luther here means by “present,” it would be a misunderstanding to apply the crass materialism of transubstantiation to Luther’s maturing view of consubstantiation, as the following paragraphs will make clear.

Luther’s first official response to the Swiss position can be found in That These Words of Christ, “This is my Body,” ETC., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, published in 1527.  For the purposes of Luther’s underlying Christological presuppositions, two things are to be identified.  First, Luther goes to great lengths to define the “right hand of God,” as a metaphor for God’s power, against the Zwinglian position which defined it as a physical location.  Second, Luther quite clearly argues that Christ is present “at the right hand of God,” though by this he means Christ is present in the saving power of God.

The Zwinglians had defined the “right hand of God” as a circumscribed location in heaven.  As Luther and Zwinlgi both had a commitment to the plain meaning of Scripture, addressing the “right hand of God” was crucial to defending Luther’s position and as we shall see, crucial in developing his overall Christological presuppositions in the Lord’s Supper.  Luther begins his discussion on the meaning of the “right hand of God” by dismissing Zwingli’s position as a simplistic reading of the text based upon a childish view of heaven.  “I suppose,” he writes, “they will dream up for us, as one does for the children, an imaginary heaven in which a golden throne stands, and Christ sits beside the Father in a cowl and a golden crown.”[37] It is this overly simplistic view of heaven, argues Luther, which is the primary stumbling block for the Swiss in believing in Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper.[38]

Rather than the right hand of God being a location, where Christ is spatially confined, Luther argues that the “Scriptures teach us…that the right hand of God is not a specific place in which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere.”[39] He writes:

 

For if it (right hand of God) were to be some specific place, it would have to be there in a circumscribed and determinate manner, as everything which is at one place must be at that place determinately and measurably…but the power of God cannot be so determined and measured, for it is uncircumscribed and immeasurable, beyond and above all that this or may be.[40]

 

It can be seen then that first and foremost it is the “right hand of God,” or the power of God which is ubiquitous.  He is not present in all creatures in such a way as to confuse a creature/ creator distinction, which was a great fear of Zwingli.  Because God’s power is at work in all of creation, Luther can boldly say that Christ who is located in the power of God can be found in all of creation.

The difficulty arises, however, when Luther wants to distinguish the human nature of Christ.  If the right hand of God is simply a metaphor for the power of God, and the power of God is ubiquitous, then Christ in both his humanity and divinity therefore must be ubiquitous.  Furthermore, just as God’s power is present in everything, so too then must the Body of Christ be present in everything.  Unfortunately, Luther offers little clarification in the remainder of the 1527 treatise as to how this is possible.

Zwingli’s response to Luther in the Friendly Exegesis of 1527 has many objections to Luther’s consubstantiation; however, for the purposes of this paper, only one will be identified.  Zwingli’s main Christological concern was that Luther had so confused the properties of the human and divine natures in Christ that the glory of God had been diminished and the humanity of Christ had been made into a hybrid.  “And do you, Luther, attribute all things to it (the humanity), infinity, power and what not?”[41] Thus concerning Christology, Zwingli spends much of the Friendly Exegesis correctly distinguishing between the two natures in Christ.  He writes:  “Here again it is made manifest that we have put our trust in Christ, not because he put on human nature, but because he is the only true God.  Hence…let us be careful to attribute to each nature, according to the rule of faith, what belongs to it.”[42] While Zwingli is careful to distinguish what is proper to the two natures, his focus on this distinction comes at the cost of emphasizing the unity.  In the following section it will be shown that Luther distinguishes the natures every bit as much as Zwingli.  It is, however, by virtue of Luther’s conception of what he calls the “personal union” that Christ shares with the human and divine natures that he is able to maintain a distinction while emphasizing the union in a manner that Zwingli ultimate fails to accomplish.

Luther’s emphasis on the union of the two natures caused the Swiss to call him a Monophysite.  “They raise a hue and cry against us, saying that we mingle the two natures into one essence.”[43] But Luther’s position was far more complex than the Swiss had understood.  Luther begins his Christological discussion in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528) with a simple assertion of the personal union that the divinity and humanity share in Christ.  “Since the divinity and humanity are one person in Christ,” Luther writes, “the Scriptures ascribe to the divinity, because of this personal union, all that happens to the humanity, and vice versa.”[44] Thus you could say as Luther does that the Son of God dies on the cross or that Christ is present everywhere.  He writes:

 

Indeed you must say that the person (pointing to Christ) suffers, and dies.  But this person is truly God, and therefore it is correct to say:  the Son of God suffers.  Although, so to speak, the one part (namely, the divinity) does not suffer, nevertheless the person, who is God, suffers in the other part (namely, the humanity.[45]

 

Zwingli’s mistake was in assuming that Luther did not clearly distinguish the properties of Christ’s humanity and his divinity.  But as can be seen above, Luther is not willing to attribute to the humanity that which is common to the divinity, nor is he willing to attribute to the divinity that which is common to the humanity.  The divinity does not suffer, but the person of Christ, who is God by virtue of the personal union, does suffer.  Thus “we should ascribe to the whole person whatever pertains to one part of the person, because both parts constitute one person.”[46] Nevertheless, certain properties common to the humanity and the divinity respectively are to be distinguished.

Keeping then in mind that Luther does distinguish the properties of the humanity and divinity, one can begin to more fruitfully engage how Luther believes Christ to be present in the Lord’s Supper.  Luther maintains that the body of Christ has a threefold existence.  These three modes of being are principally concerned with Christ’s presence.  First, Christ can be present in a “circumscribed corporeal” mode.  This is “when he occupied and yielded space according to his size.”[47] Secondly, Christ can be present in an uncircumscribed, spiritual way.  Here he neither “occupies nor yields space but passes through everything created as he wills.”[48] He is “present in and with created things in such a way that they do not feel, touch, measure, or circumscribe him.”[49] Luther explicitly links this second mode of presence with the Lord’s Supper.  Finally, the third mode of presence is “the divine, heavenly mode.”[50] This is when Christ is “present in all created things…where they cannot measure or circumscribe him but where they are present to him so that he measures and circumscribes them.”[51]

Luther’s use of language in the three modes of Christ’s presence is subtle, yet nevertheless quite revealing.  The first mode of presence Luther identifies with a corporeal presence.  This mode is where Christ is most humanly, tangibly, concretely and materially present.  In terms of a distinguishing between the properties of humanity and divinity, here the emphasis is most undoubtedly upon the humanity.  The corporeal, circumscribed presence is not the presence that Luther attributes to Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Rather, Luther says that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper according to the spiritual, uncircumscribed mode where by virtue of the language chosen Luther begins to shift the focus away from the material in regards to the presence.

If Luther shifts the focus away from the material in regards to Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, one must ask, what then of the humanity?  And how exactly is Christ said to be present in the Supper?  In regards to the humanity, Luther writes “God can very easily keep Christ’s body in heaven in one particular way.”[52] Because Luther here uses heaven, rather than the “right hand of God,” one can infer that he means Christ is corporeally circumscribed in heaven.  However this does not rule out Christ being present in a different mode simultaneously.  “God can very easily keep Christ’s body in heaven in one particular way,” he writes, “and in another way in the bread.  If there are two different modes of presence in the two instances, no contradiction is involved.”[53]

Luther demonstrates how these two can be occurring simultaneously, without contradiction, through a metaphor employed earlier in the treatise.  Luther pictures a crystal with a bubble in the center of the stone.  The bubble is “corporeal” and “circumscribed.”  That is, the bubble is tangible and concrete and takes up space within the crystal.  This is a metaphor for the first mode of Christ’s presence.  And though the bubble is corporeal and circumscribed, it nevertheless “shines as if it were at every side of the stone, for whichever way the stone is turned the bubble can be seen as if it were at the very front of the stone, through it is really in the center of it.”[54] This is the second, or spiritual and uncircumscribed mode of Christ’s presence.  The bubble can no longer be said to be tangibly, concretely present yet it is nevertheless set forth at all parts in the stone.  So there is a local presence, but also an extended spiritual presence.  And yet the local presence (Christ in his humanity) and his spiritual presence (Christ in his divinity) both belong to the same person.  In the metaphor it is one crystal, even if the features can be distinguished.  Thus, without confusing the properties common to the two natures Luther can set forth a ubiquitous Christ while maintaining a circumscribed humanity.

 

If Christ also sat at one place in the center of the universe, like the bubble or spark in a crystal, and if a certain point in the universe were indicated to me, as the bread and wine are set forth to me by the Word, should I not be able to say, “See, there is the body of Christ actually in the bread,” just as I say, when a certain side of the crystal is placed before my eyes, See, there is the spark in the very front of the crystal?[55]

 

Luther clarifies this position in regards to the Lord’s Supper later in the treatise where he distinguishes between a union of natures, a union of persons, and a sacramental union.  The discussion is introduced by way of the Law of Predication, which holds that “two diverse substances cannot be one substance,” i.e., “an ass cannot be an ox, a man cannot be a stone, or a piece of wood.”[56] It is the Law of Predication, which Luther believes forced the Scholastics to hold that the substance of bread was annihilated by the Body of Christ.  Likewise, Luther sees this also explicit in Wycliffe’s rejection of transubstantiation, holding that the bread is not annihilated, thus the body cannot be present by virtue of the same law.[57] Luther sets aside the Law of Predication for his own position, claiming that “the bread remains; on the other hand…the body of Christ is present.  So against all reason and hairsplitting logic I hold that two diverse substances may well be, in reality and in name, one substance.”[58] But what does Luther mean here?

“Two diverse substances” could be united by a “substantial union of natures,” however to do so would cause the natures, in this case the divinity and the humanity to lose their distinctive qualities.  If either of the natures were to lose their distinctive qualities, Luther believes that the nature would be so altered that it would “vanish” or be “annihilated.”[59] Thus according to Luther there is no substantial union of natures.  Luther here seems to hold to the Law of Predication in regards to the two natures.  However he gets around the Law of Predication by speaking not of a substantial union of natures but of a substantial union of persons.  He writes:

 

I point to the man Christ and say, ‘This is God’s Son,’ or, ‘This man is God’s Son.’…Who brings it about here that two such diverse natures become one substance, and that one may be referred to as the other?  Without doubt it is not the substantial union of natures- for there are two distinct natures and substances- but the union of persons (emphasis mine).[60]

 

It has already been shown that at times, only one nature can truly be said to be present.  Such is the case in the suffering of Christ, where Luther identifies that properly speaking, Christ only suffers according to his humanity.  And though God is not properly present in the suffering of Christ he is nevertheless by virtue of the personal union present in the suffering and suffers himself.  Again, God does not suffer properly, according to his attributes but only according to the personal union he has with humanity through Christ.  This is a suffering according to person, not nature.  Thus Luther’s conception of a personal union is able to distinguish the natures as Zwingli did while at the same time emphasizing the union that Zwingli failed at.

It is with the language of a personal union in mind that Luther then goes to build his theology of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  The union that the two natures share in the personal union in Christ is distinguished by a new union, which Luther calls a “sacramental union.”  Luther makes clear that this union is neither a union of natures, nor a union of persons.[61] It is a sacramental union, because Christ is “given to us in the sacrament.”[62] And though Luther distinguishes between the personal union and the sacramental union, there is a sense in which Luther is using the logic of the personal union as a template for the sacramental union.

A reminder of how the personal union functions will be of some use.  On the suffering of God, Luther writes:  “Although, so to speak, the one part (namely, the divinity) does not suffer, nevertheless the person, who is God, suffers in the other part” (namely, the humanity).[63] By virtue of the personal union, an activity not common to one property (suffering not common to divinity) becomes common in the person who shares two natures.  Likewise in the sacramental union, an activity not common to one property (being physically eaten is not common to the flesh of Christ) becomes common by virtue of a sacramental union.  It cannot be properly said that the flesh of Christ is chewed, tasted, and consumed in a way that is consistent with any other material body, as Luther makes clear in the quote below.

 

“He who takes hold of this bread, takes hold of Christ’s body: and he who eats this bread, eats Christ’s body; he who crushes the bread with the teeth or tongue, crushes with teeth or tongue the body of Christ.”  And yet it remains absolutely true that no one sees or grasps or eats or chews Christ’s body in the way he visibly sees and chews any other flesh. What one does to the bread is rightly and properly attributed to the body of Christ by virtue of the sacramental union.[64]

 

Using Luther’s language of the personal union and applying it to the sacramental union one could say that the humanity of Christ is not properly crushed, tasted, or eaten. Nevertheless the sacrament, which is in union with Christ, is crushed, tasted and eaten.  By virtue of the sacramental union, whereby the elements share a union with the person of Christ, what is said of the one can be said of the other.  Thus if the sacrament is crushed, tasted, and eaten, so too is Christ not by nature but personally crushed, tasted and eaten by virtue of the sacramental union.

As is his custom, Luther concludes a difficult section with a simple analogy for the common people.  The sacramental union is according to Luther, a union that operates in much the same way as the union between a purse and money or wine and a bottle.  He writes:

 

In this manner, I lay my hand on a cask and say, “This is Rhine wine; this is Italian wine; this is red wine.”  Again I take a glass and say, “This is water; this is beer, this is ointment.”  In all these expressions you see that the word “this” refers to the container, and yet because the liquid in the container in some degree are one, it applies also and indeed principally to the liquid.[65]

 

One holds “red wine,” but properly one holds only the glass.  Nevertheless I can say that I hold red wine, even if properly speaking, I only hold the glass. What applies to the one applies to the other since “in some degree” the wine and the container are one.

Luther then is able to distinguish the two natures in such a way as to hold to a local, circumscribed Christ common to the humanity while also admitting to an extra, ubiquitous, spiritual presence by virtue of the divinity.  However by virtue of a personal union, Luther can hold that the humanity of Christ is present in all things, not by nature but by virtue of the personal union.  Likewise, this Christ is present in the sacraments not by nature but by virtue of the sacramental union between the elements and Christ in both natures.  Christ is with the faithful not by nature, yet nevertheless personally in the sacrament.  The manner by which this is accomplished is thoroughly consistent with the extra-Calvinisticum, even if the two reformers expressed their ultimate sacramental theology in diverse ways.

 

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

When works or treatises shift in the same volume I have indicated this shift in the footnotes.  All footnotes following this indication refer to the last work cited in the volume unless otherwise indicated.

John Calvin:

Institutes on the Christian Religion. Ed. J.T. Mcneill (Westminster John Knox Press, 1980)

 

Martin Luther:

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church in Luther’s Works American Edition vol XXXVI edt. by Abdel Wentz, Gen edt. Helmut Lehman (Muhlenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959)

 

The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ- Against the Fanatics in  Luther’s Works, American Edition vol XXXVI . edt. by A.R. Wentz and H.T. Lehman (Mulenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959)

 

That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics in  Luther’s Works, American Edition vol XXXVII . edt. by A.R. Wentz and H.T. Lehman (Mulenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959)

 

Martin Luther Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper in  Luther’s Works, American Edition vol XXXVII . edt. by A.R. Wentz and H.T. Lehman (Mulenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959)

 

Huldrych Zwingli:

 

A Letter to Matthew Alber in Zwingli’s Writtings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984)

 

A Subsidiary Essay on the Eucharst in Zwingli’s Writtings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984)

 

Friendly Exegesis, that is, Exposition to the Matter of the Eucharist to Martin Luther in Zwingli’s Writings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984)

 

Secondary Sources:

Lindberg, C. The European Reformations 2nd Ed. (Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)

McGrath, Alister E. Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Blackwells: Oxford 1990)

 

McGrath, A. Reformation Thought: an introduction (Oxford U.K.: Blackwell Publishing 1999)

Oberman, H. The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Beil and late medieval nominalism (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids 2000)

 

Oberman, H.  Forerunners of the Reformation: the Shape of Late Medieval Thought (James Clark & Co.: Cambridge 2002)

 

Pipkin, H.W. “An Introduction to the Letter to Matthew Alber” in Zwingli’s Writtings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984)

 

Stephens, W.P. The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Clarendon Press: Oxford 2001)

 


[1] Oberman, H. The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Beil and late medieval nominalism (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids 2000) pg 265

[2] Perhaps the best illustration of this concept in Calvin’s Christology can be found in the Institutes: “They thrust upon us as something absurd the fact that if the Word of God became flesh, then he was confined within the narrow prison of an earthly body.  This is mere impudence!  For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein.  Here is something marvelous:  the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning! (Inst II.13.4 Emphasis mine).

[3] Martin Luther.  The Babylonian Captivity of the Church in Luther’s Works American Edition vol XXXVI edt. by Abdel Wentz, Gen edt. Helmut Lehman (Muhlenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959) pg 11

[4] Ibid pg 9

[5] Lindberg, C. The European Reformations 2nd Ed. (Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)

[6] Stephens, W.P. The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Clarendon Press: Oxford 2001) pg 30

[7] Luther’s Works XXXVI pg 28

[8] Luther’s Works XXXVI pg 29

[9] LW vol XXXVI pg 30

[10] LW vol XXXVI pg 31

[11] LW vol XXXVI pg 31

[12] LW vol XXXVI pg 34

[13] LW vol XXXVI pg 29

[14] LW vol XXXVI pg 33

[15] LW vol XXXVI pg 29

[16] LW vol XXXVI pg 33

[17] LW vol XXXVI pg 33

[18] LW vol XXXVI pg 32

[19] LW vol XXXVI pg 35

[20]Lindberg, C.  The European Reformations 2nd edt. (Chicester U.K.:  Wiley-Blackwell 2010) pg  100

[21] Lindber pg 100

[22] McGrath, A. Reformation Though: an introduction (Oxford U.K.: Blackwell Publishing 1999) pg 179

[23] Pipkin, H.W. “An Introduction to the Letter to Matthew Alber” in Zwingli’s Writtings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984) pg 129

[24] Zwingli,’s writings vol II pg 138

[25] Zwingli’s writings vol II pg 139

[26] Zwingli, A Subsidiary Essay on the Eucharst in Zwingli’s Writtings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984) pg 197

[27] Zwingli Friendly Exegesis, that is, Exposition to the Matter of the Eucharist to Martin Luther in Zwingli’s Writings vol II, edt. by D. Hadidian, trans. by H.W. Pipkin (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1984) pg 221

[28] Zwingli’s writings vol II pg 221

[29] Zwingli Letter to Matthew Alber vol II pg 137

[30] ibid

[31] Martin Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ- Against the Fanatics in  Luther’s Works, American Edition vol XXXVI . edt. by A.R. Wentz and H.T. Lehman (Mulenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959) pg 336

[32] LW XXXVI pg 338

[33] LW XXXVI pg 339

[34] LW XXXVI pg 340

[35] LW XXXVI pg 340

[36] LW XXXVI pg 340

[37] Martin Luther, That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics in  Luther’s Works, American Edition vol XXXVII . edt. by A.R. Wentz and H.T. Lehman (Mulenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959) pg 55

[38] ibid

[39] LW vol XXXVII pg 57

[40] LW vol XXXVII pg 57

[41] Zwingli’s writings vol II pg 322

[42] Zwingli’s Writings vol II pg 330

[43]Martin Luther Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper in  Luther’s Works, American Edition vol XXXVII . edt. by A.R. Wentz and H.T. Lehman (Mulenberg Press: Philadelphia 1959) pg 212.

[44] LW XXXVII pg 210

[45] LW XXXVII pg 210

[46] LW XXXVII pg 211

[47] LWXXXVII pg 222

[48] LWXXXVII pg 222

[49] LWXXXVII pg 223

[50] LW vol XXXVII pg 223

[51] LW vol XXXVII pg 223

[52] LW vol XXXVII pg 276

[53] LW vol XXXVII pg 276

[54] LW vol XXXVII pg 224

[55] LW Vol XXXVII pg 224

[56] LW vol XXXVII pg 295

[57] ibid

[58] LW Vol XXXVII pg 296

[59] LW Vol XXXVII pg 297

[60] LW vol XXXVII pg 297

[61] LW vol XXXVII pg 300

[62] ibid

[63] LW vol XXXVII pg 210

[64] LW vol XXXVII pg 300

[65] LW XXXVII pg 302


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Comments
  1. Steve says:

    I think I could make a good case for some con. ed. in the Bahamas. I know just the place in the Abacos where we could work on applied theology.

  2. Craig Nessan says:

    Very well articulated and documented interpretation of Luther on the three modes f Christ’s presence. Thanks!

  3. Craig Nessan says:

    Very well articulated and documented interpretation of Luther on the three modes of Christ’s presence. Thanks!

  4. aussiebrekky says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I never realized how close the two reformers were.

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