Reformed theologians denote the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper by the term consubstantiation.
It is not exactly a Lutheran term, although it is accepted by the Lutherans as substantially a correct representation of their view. By the term we mean that the Lutherans teach in distinction from the “saeramentarians”, as they call the Reformed, and in distinction too from the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ is really and substantially present in, with, and under the signs of the bread and wine on the table of the Lord.
It is a well-known fact that at the time of the Reformation a schism arose between the Reformed and the Lutherans about the question of the Lord’s Supper. Although the reformers agreed on all the great doctrines taught in the Scriptures, they could not agree on this point. And although several attempts were made to effect a reconciliation, they all failed. And that the controversy was rather sharp and bitter, at least on the part of the Lutherans, may be discerned from the very language of the Formula of Concord, a Lutheran confession adopted in the year 1576. For there we read in the introduction to the article on the Lord’s Supper:
“For a solid explanation of this controversy it is first to be understood that there are two sorts of sacramentarians. For some are exceedingly gross sacramentarians; these in perspicuous and plain words openly profess that which they think in their heart, to wit: that in the Lord’s Supper there is nothing more present than bread and wine, which alone are there distributed and received with the mouth. But others are astute and crafty, and thereby the most harmful of all the sacramentarians; these, when talking of the Lord’s Supper, make in part an exceedingly high, sounding use of our mode of speaking, declaring that they too believe in a true presence of the true, substantial, and living body and blood of Christ in the holy supper, which presence and manducation, nevertheless, they say, to be spiritual, such as takes place by faith. And yet these latter sacramentarians, under these high sounding phrases, hide and hold fast the same gross opinion which the former have, to wit: that, besides the bread and wine, there is nothing more present or taken with the mouth in the Lord’s Supper. For the term () signifies nothing more to them than the Spirit of Christ or the virtue of the absent body of Christ and His merit which is present; but they think that the body of Christ itself is in no way whatever present, but is contained above in the highest heaven, and they affirm that it behooves us by the meditations of faith to rise on high and ascend into heaven, and that this body and blood of Christ are to be sought there, and in no wise in union with the bread and wine of the holy supper.”
It is not easy to understand clearly just exactly what is the meaning of the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation. Do they teach that the literal and natural flesh and blood of Christ are masticated by the teeth and swallowed by the mouth together with the signs of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper? Some of their statements do indeed leave the impression that this is their view. But in other parts of the Lutheran confessions it is emphasized that this eating and drinking is after all some spiritual and supernatural process.
It is well known that the Lutherans base their view especially on a literal interpretation of the words spoken by the Savior at the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the night in which He was betrayed, especially the words as taken from: “Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood.” Luther insisted that these words must be taken literally. And the same is emphasized in all the Lutheran confessions. Thus, for instance, in the Formula of Concord, under the article De Coena Domini, we read: “We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are not to be otherwise received than as the words themselves literally sound, so that the bread does not signify the absent body of Christ and the wine the absent blood of Christ, but that on account of the sacramental union the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ.”
In the Saxon Visitation Articles we read in the chapter under the heading De Coena Sacra, Article 1: “That the words of Christ, ‘Take and eat, this is my body, Drink, this is my blood,’ are to be understood in the simple and literal sense as they sound.”
Proceeding from the literal interpretation of the words of Jesus at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Lutherans teach the following:
1. That the body and blood of Christ is really and substantially present in the signs of the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper. This is plain from the Augsburg Confession, Art. 10: “Of the supper of the Lord they teach that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine and are there communicated to those that eat in the Lord’s Supper and received. And they disapprove to those that teach otherwise. Wherefore also the opposite doctrine is rejected.” Again, in the Formula of Concord we read: “We believe, teach, and confess that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and that they are truly distributed and taken together with the bread and wine.” And in the same Formula of Concord the errors of the sacramentarians are rejected, who teach: “That the body of Christ in the holy supper is not received by the mouth together with the bread, but that only bread and wine are received by the mouth, while the body of Christ is taken only spiritually, to wit, by faith.” And again we read: “That the true and natural body of Christ which hung on the cross, and the true and natural blood, which flowed from the side of Christ, are exhibited and received.” And once more in the same confession it is stated: “That the body and blood of Christ are received in the supper, not only spiritually, which might be done out of the supper; but by the mouth, with the bread and wine; yet in an inscrutable and supernatural manner; and this for a pledge and ascertainment of the resurrection of our bodies from the dead.”
2. This real and substantial presence of the body and blood of Christ in the signs of the Lord’s Supper, however, must not be explained from any words of consecration spoken by man, but rather from the omnipotence of Christ, who sitteth at the right hand of God, by the union of the two natures in Christ. For thus we read in the Formula of Concord in Article 5 under the chapter on the Supper of the Lord: “Now the foundations on which we rest in this controversy with the sacramentarians are the following, which, moreover, Dr. Luther has laid in his larger confession concerning the Supper of the Lord:
“The first foundation is an article of our Christian faith, to wit: Jesus Christ is true, essential, natural, perfect God and man in unity of person, inseparable and undivided.
“Secondly: that the right hand of God is everywhere, and that Christ in respect of His humility, is truly and in very deed seated thereat, and therefore as present governs, and has in his hand and under his feet, as the Scripture saith (), all things which are in heaven and on earth. At this right hand of God no other man, nor even any angel, but the Son of Mary alone is seated, whence also he is able to effect those things which we have said.
“Thirdly: that the Word of God is not false or deceiving.
“Fourthly: that God knows and has in his power various modes in which he can be anywhere, and is not confined to that single one which philosophers are wont to call local or circumscribed.”
The Lutherans teach, as is well-known, the ubiquity of the human nature of Christ. Christ is not confined to heaven, but is everywhere according to the human nature after His ascension. By this they do not mean the same as divine omnipresence or immensity. But they signify that Christ, not only by His Spirit and grace, but according to His human nature is not confined locally to heaven, but is able to be present wherever He wants to be. And therefore it is possible for Him to be present in and under and with the signs of the bread and wine on the Lord’s table. And they express this again in the Formula of Concord, in the rejection of errors. They reject the errors of those who teach: “That Christ’s body is so confined in heaven that it can in no mode whatever be likewise at one and the same time in many places, or in all places where the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.” Or again, they reject the errors of those who teach: “That Christ could neither promise nor impart the substantial presence of his body and blood, inasmuch as the essential property of the human nature itself which he had assumed could by no means bear or admit of this.” Hence, they do not deny that the body of Christ is local, but rather maintain that it is local in a different sense from that in which our present bodies are local,; so that Christ can be everywhere, both in heaven and on earth according to His human nature.
3. The Lutherans emphasize that the body and blood of Christ are received not by faith only, but also by the mouth, so that together with the signs of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper they also eat literally the body and blood of Christ. Again we quote from the Formula of Concord: “We believe, teach, and confess that the body and blood of Christ are taken with the bread and wine, not only spiritually through faith, but also by the mouth, nevertheless not capernaitically, but after spiritual and heavenly manner, by reason of the sacramental union.”
4. Finally, the Lutherans teach that not only believers, but also unbelievers receive, eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. And once more we quote from the Formula of Concord: “We believe, teach, and confess that not only true believers in Christ and such as worthily approach the supper of the Lord, but also the unworthy and unbelieving receive the true body and blood of Christ; in such wise, nevertheless, that they derive thence neither consolation nor life, but rather so as that receiving turns to their judgment and condemnation, unless they be converted and repent ().
“For although they repel from them Christ as a Savior, nevertheless they are compelled, though extremely unwilling, to admit him as a stern judge. And he no less present exercises his judgment over these impenitent guests than as present he works consolation and life in the hearts of true believers and worthy guests.”
And in the Saxon Visitation Articles we read: “That the body and blood of Christ are received orally, not only by the worthy, but also by the unworthy, who approach them without repentance and true faith; though with different effect. By the worthy, they are received for salvation; by the unworthy, for judgment.”
This, then, is the Lutheran doctrine concerning the Lord’s Supper. We have intentionally quoted rather extensively from the official confessions in order to avoid misrepresenting their view.
Now as to the final scriptural basis of this whole conception, namely, the literal interpretation of the words of the Lord spoken at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, we claim that it is quite impossible to take these words literally for the simple reason that at the moment of the institution of the Lord’s Supper the Lord was still present in His natural body and blood. His body was not yet broken, and His blood was not yet shed. It follows that the Lord cannot have meant to say that the bread which at the time He held in His hand was identical with His body and that the wine in the cup which at the time He offered to His disciples was identical with His blood. Hence, the figurative interpretation: “This signifies my body and blood,” not only gives good sense, but is the only possible interpretation.
Besides, the natural flesh and blood of Christ are no more. In the Saxon Visitation Articles it is stated: “That the true and natural body of Christ which hung on the cross, and the true and natural blood, which flowed from the side of Christ, are exhibited and received.” But this is impossible. The natural body and blood of Christ as He received them from the virgin Mary exist no more in that form and cannot be received and exhibited. His body was broken and His blood was shed, and he received an altogether different, a spiritual and heavenly body. And this spiritual and heavenly body belongs to heaven and is locally in heaven. And when Christ at the institution of the Lord’s Supper offers His flesh and blood to eat and to drink, it can only be understood in the figurative sense of the word, in the sense, namely, that we partake of the sacrifice once offered on the cross. And this we do by faith only.
Moreover, that the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of Christ is an act of faith alone is evident from John 6, a chapter that is often referred to as indirectly having reference to the supper of the Lord. For from this chapter it is evident that eating the flesh of Christ is equivalent to believing. This is evident from: “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” And again, in verse 51: “I am the living bread which came from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” But in verse 40 Jesus had said: “And this is the will of him that sent me, that everyone which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” And once more, in verses 53-58 we read: “Then said Jesus unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.
This is the bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.” And again, in verse 47: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.” It is very evident, therefore, that eating the bread of life and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ are identical. It is therefore not by literal manducation, but by faith alone that we can eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ. And the Lord Himself in opposition to the sense put upon His words by the people of Capernaum said: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” It is plain from these words that the literal eating of the flesh of Christ and the literal drinking of His blood have no significance whatsoever.
Besides, it is a well-known fact that in Scripture the word is must frequently be understood in the figurative sense. Thus in the sentence, “The seven ears are the seven years,” the sense evidently is: “The seven ears signify the seven years.” And the same is true of such propositions as: “I am the living bread; the seven candlesticks are the seven churches; the field is the world.” And therefore it is certainly thoroughly scriptural to interpret the words of Christ, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” in the same figurative sense.
The conception of the Lutheran Church concerning the Lord’s Supper constitutes a curious mixture of the physical and the spiritual. For after all, natural eating and drinking is a purely physical act. Yet, by this physical act, according to the Lutherans, we are supposed to eat and to drink the real and substantial body and blood of Christ. Yet at the same time they reject the idea that we can literally manducate the body of Christ and swallow His blood by that physical act, but insist upon it, that in the Lord’s Supper we perform a spiritual and supernatural act of eating and drinking. Again, according to them unbelievers and unworthy receive the body and blood of Christ as well as believers and worthy; and it is certainly difficult to see how unbelievers and unworthy can perform a supernatural and heavenly act, even apart from the fact that the literal eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood could possibly be to the condemnation of the partakers. And therefore we must reject the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper as unscriptural and impossible. And, as we remarked in connection with the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation, also the Lutheran conception of the Lord’s Supper is exposed to the error that grace is in things. And the living Christ and all His grace can be received only spiritually and by a living faith.