Theological Flavors

In the previous post, I described the Lord’s Supper as soul food and spiritual drink for God’s people. This means the sacrament is much more than a symbolic rite; it’s a spiritual participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). But this raises more questions. In what way is Christ present in the sacrament? By what means is the bread His body and the wine His blood? And how should we understand the sacramental union—the connection of the signs to the reality behind them?

Christians holding to a real presence have reached different conclusions on this matter. These differences have led to historical divisions in the Church of Jesus Christ. This post considers the “theological flavors” of this reality. These are Roman Catholic transubstantiation, Lutheran consubstantiation, and Reformed spiritual real presence. In surveying these views, a case will be made for preserving the mystery of sacramental union, something the Reformed flavor does best.

Transubstantiation: The Roman Catholic Dogma

Roman Catholics teach the miracle of transubstantiation (lit. “across [or over] the substance”) in which the signs become the reality.[1] In Christ’s words of institution, Roman Catholics believe “this” and “is” (“this is my body, this is my blood”) prove some sort of metaphysical transformation. What was once bread and wine has permanently become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.[2]

Roman Catholics claim historical support from the early church.[3] Yet, the first mature formulation dates to the ninth century writings of Paschasius Radbertus.[4] His view, however, was not accepted by everyone. It was opposed by Ratramnus in the ninth century[5] and by Berengar in the eleventh century.[6] Both defended Augustine’s spiritual view from the fourth century.[7] Even so, transubstantiation won the day and became a Roman Catholic dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).[8]

Many Protestants have criticized the Roman Catholic dogma as unbiblical and idolatrous. This chapter takes a different approach for the sake of ongoing dialogue. I’ll begin with some positive statements. Roman Catholics do in fact appeal to Scripture, finding support in John 6:56: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” This is the language of union with Christ. For that reason, a view teaching a change in substance from sign (bread, wine) to reality (body, blood) could strengthen our union.[9] Roman Catholics also claim their view offers the most straightforward interpretation of Jesus’ words. While this claim is debatable, it does promote an objective understanding of the sacrament. Parishioners have little doubt they’re receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Despite these strengths, the Roman Catholic dogma has some weaknesses.[10] First, transubstantiation is at odds with Christ’s words of institution. Our Lord didn’t say, “This is becoming my body”; He said, “This is.

Second, their view doesn’t adequately explain the ongoing sensory qualities of the bread and wine. If the signs become the reality, then why do they continue to resemble the signs? Why do the bread and wine still look, smell, and taste like bread and wine? Roman Catholics have sought to answer this question by locating the “substance” of Christ’s body and blood under the “species” of bread and wine.[11] By distinguishing between essential nature and outward characteristics, their theologians could defend the change in substance without requiring a change in how we experience the substance.[12]

Yet, there are some problems with this concept. References to the Lord Supper that follow the Last Supper accounts continue to use words describing earthly food and drink. Paul says, “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16b-17, emphasis added). Why would Paul call it “bread” when it’s allegedly no longer bread, but Christ’s transubstantiated body? This would contradict the plain meaning of the apostle’s words.[13] Moreover, the concept of transubstantiation results in the spiritual overwhelming the physical. Continuing to exhibit their physical qualities, the bread and wine turn into a sensory mirage. The signs become incidental at best, irrelevant at worst. This compromises the mystery.

Third and most serious, transubstantiation leads to the worship of the transformed signs. If the bread and wine are transformed, what should happen to the leftovers? They can’t be thrown out. They must be consumed, for they’re no longer bread and wine but the body and blood of Christ. And if not consumed, then what? Then they must be worshiped. The adoration of the Eucharist takes transubstantiation to its logical conclusion.[14] Yet it also creates a more serious problem: It gives the appearance of worshiping created things instead of the creator. Even if we concede the logical consistency, Christ gave no instruction to worship Him under the guise of edibles. This overwhelms the mystery.

Consubstantiation: The Lutheran Claim

Lutherans, on the other hand, teach the doctrine of consubstantiation (lit. “with the substance”).[15] Several early church fathers (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr) affirmed a local presence of Christ in the sacrament.[16] Yet Martin Luther was the first to articulate consubstantiation. This view maintains the distinction between sign and reality better than transubstantiation. The bread and the wine continue to be sensory objects with the added presence of Christ “in, with, and under”.[17]

Consubstantiation still has some weaknesses. Like transubstantiation, the first involves the words of institution. The Lutheran view teaches that Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and wine. Yet, our Lord didn’t say, “This accompanies my body”; He declared, “This is.[18]

This view is also burdened by a more serious problem: the omnipresence of Christ’s human body. Lutherans believe that our Lord is present both in his deity and in his humanity during every Supper, everywhere at the same time.[19] But in their desire to be objective, they created an unnecessary dilemma concerning the two natures of Christ. Jesus took on human nature when He was conceived in the womb of the virgin (Lk. 1:35). He experienced everything we experience, except for sin (Mt. 4:2; Jn. 19:28; Heb. 4:15). Yet His human nature isn’t omnipresent; it’s fixed in a place. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He left one place and entered into another (Luke 12:51). So Jesus in His humanity can’t be present everywhere, or for our purposes, at every Lord’s Table. If He was, then it would compromise His humanity.

Moreover, if Christ’s body is everywhere, He can’t represent His people. First Corinthians 15:20-23 describes Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits (i.e., first yield) of many resurrections. This means His glorified body guarantees our future glorified bodies (Phil. 3:21). But if Christ is the first fruits and his glorified body is omnipresent, then our future glorified bodies would also be omnipresent. This would compromise our humanity. Since He had to be made like us in every way to serve as our high priest (Heb. 2:17), His humanity and ours are inseparably linked. Therefore, consubstantiation adds an unfortunate wrinkle to the mystery.

Due to the local presence of Christ in the sacrament, Lutherans also teach that the real presence is received by believers and unbelievers alike.[20] This claim will be challenged in the next section as we consider the Reformed alternative.

Spiritual Real Presence: The Reformed Alternative

We’ve seen how the Roman Catholic and Lutheran views fall short of preserving the mystery of the sacramental union. So what’s the alternative? The answer comes from the other branch of the Reformation. The Reformed view differs from the other views by emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the mystery. This is why it’s is called the spiritual real presence view.

The Reformed view had early proponents in Augustine, Ratramnus, and Berengar. It’s best-known advocate was John Calvin,[21] whose view was encapsulated in the Reformed and Presbyterian standards.[22]

First, the Reformed view needs to be understood through the concept of covenant.[23] Elsewhere, I’ve defined a covenant as a “legal relationship”.[24] In the Bible, when God entered into covenant with his people, He often reminded them of His saving deeds. Yet biblical covenants aren’t only symbolic acts of remembrance. There’s a close relationship between the sign and the covenant it represents. God called circumcision “my covenant” (Gen. 17:10), while Jesus termed the cup “the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20).[25] There’s also a close connection between the sign used and the reality given. When Jesus declared, “This is the new covenant in my blood”, he was neither transforming the wine into his blood nor situating himself in, with and under it. Instead, he was connecting his death and its benefits to the wine and its partakers.

This touches on the mystery of the sacramental union. Here, it’s important to discuss the role of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s humanity is found in heaven and we are bound to the earth. Yet, the Spirit connects heaven and earth, bringing Jesus to us and us to Him (Jn. 14:26; 16:13-14). This is what it means to be in union with, or simply, in Christ. In Christ, we are made into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), experience no condemnation (Rom. 8:1), receive forgiveness (Eph. 1:7), and acquire every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3). But 1 John 4:13 reveals the mediator of our union with Christ: “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

The Spirit mediates union with Christ through word and sacrament. God’s people are commended when the word abides in them (1 Jn. 2:14). In baptism, Christians “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27) and are baptized into one body through one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is described as a participation (or fellowship, koinonia) with the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Jesus declared, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:56). While feeding can mean believing, it can also describe partaking of the sacrament. Thus, the Spirit uses the Supper to deepen our union with Christ.

While both the Roman Catholics and Lutherans value union with Christ, they require that Christ descends to us. The Reformed believe the opposite: Rather than Christ coming down, the Spirit raises us up to Christ and seats us in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6; Col 3:1).[26] Ours is a fellowship with the incarnate Christ. His humanity is circumscribed to a place, available by the Spirit, and received by faith.

This is why the Reformed disagree with the Lutherans about the objective reception of the Lord’s Supper. If the Spirit mediates union with Christ through the sacrament, then only believers can receive the reality. Unbelievers would receive the signs without any spiritual advantage to their souls.[27]

Most importantly, the spiritual real presence view preserves the mystery of the sacramental union. John Calvin affirmed this in the most eloquent words:

"Now if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [Jn. 6:53 ff.]. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me to take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.”[28]

The spiritual real presence view upholds the sacramental mystery without replacing the earthly signs or compromising the heavenly reality. In this way, the integrity of the sacrament union is maintained, and partakers can be assured they are receiving Christ in the Supper.

Ken Golden is the organizing pastor at Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Davenport, Iowa. He is also the author of Entering God's Rest: The Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation--And What It Means for You and Presbytopia: What It Means to Be Presbyterian.

Related Links

Entering God's Rest by Ken Golden [ Paperback | eBook ]

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

Feeding on Christ in the Lord's Supper, according to Calvin and the Westminster Confession by Wayne Spear [ Audio Disc | Download ]

Communing with Christ in His Supper by C.J. Williams [ Audio Disc | Download ]

The Puritans on the Lord's Supper by Joel Beeke

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
  6. Right Reception of the Lord's Supper
  7. Hindrances and Benefits of the Lord's Supper


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church with Modifications from the Editio Typica, 1375 (New York: Image, Doubleday, 1995), 384: “It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in the sacrament.”

[2] The Eastern Orthodox tradition sometimes uses the word transubstantiation, but seeks to preserve the mystery by avoiding discussion of the mechanics. See Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (repr.; London: Penguin, 1993), 283: “But while Orthodoxy has always insisted on the realityof the change, it has never attempted to explain the manner of the change.”

[3] Catholic Catechism, 384-386 quotes John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Cyril of Jerusalem as early proponents. But see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.; ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 4:550-51: “From the beginning in the Christian church, it was established truth that the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ, but the manner in which the union of the two was conceived is not clear and therefore open to various interpretations. This is true of Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, and many other writers.”

[4] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (8 vols.; 3d ed. rev.; repr.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 4:547.

[5] Schaff, History, 4:549-550.

[6] Schaff, History, 4:564-567.

[7] Schaff, History, 3:498-99.

[8] Schaff, History, 4:568.

[9] Catholic Catechism, 1391, 389.

[10] Note: This chapter will focus on transubstantiation and leave the subject of Eucharistic sacrifice to other writers. See Catechism 1367-71; Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:571-74.

[11] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, session XIII, chapter III in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols., (repr.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 3:129-30.

[12] Keith Mathison, Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 240.

[13] I’m indebted to David VanDrunen for this insight.

[14] Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the necessity of this conclusion. This tradition reserves the sacrament for the sick, rather than setting it apart for adoration. See Ware, Orthodox Church, 285.

[15] Though Lutherans themselves do not use the term, their position affirms the true and substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood together with the bread and wine.

[16] Schaff. History, 2:241-42.

[17] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), 323: “We confess that we receive the very body and blood of Christ—in, with, and under the bread and wine—in our hands and in our mouths.”

[18] Regarding the words of institution, Lutherans believe “this is” means “this is” rather than “this accompanies”. However, they recognize that the bread and wine contain the body and blood. According to Rev Christopher Neuendorf of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, “They are the vehicle through which Jesus’ body and blood are shared out among His people.”

[19] Martin Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics” in Luther’s Works, American Edition (vols. 1–30; ed. Jaroslav Pelikan [St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–76]; vols. 31–55; ed. Helmut Lehmann [Philadelphia/Minneapolis: Muhlenberg/Fortress, 1957–86]; vols. 56–82; ed. Christopher Boyd Brown and Benjamin T. G. Mayes [St. Louis: Concordia, 2009–]), 36:342: “We believe that Christ, according to his human nature, is put over all creatures [Eph. 1:22] and fills all things, as Paul says in Eph. 4 [:10]. Not only according to his divine nature, but also according to his human nature, he is lord over all things, has all things in his hand, and is present everywhere.”

[20] Formula of Concord, Article VII in Schaff, Creeds, 2:140.

[21] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 vols.; ed. John T. McNeil; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press; London: S.C.M. Press, 1960), 2:1359-61 in which he referred to the sacrament as “a spiritual feast” and a “great mystery”.

[22] Heidelberg Catechism (HC) Q 76, WCF 29.7. Note: this shouldn’t be confused with the view of Ulrich Zwingli, an earlier Reformed theologian who debated Luther on the sacrament. Zwingli held a symbolic view of the Supper, emphasizing our remembrance while minimizing the real presence. See Schaff, History, 7:676-78.

[23] WCF 27.1.

[24] Ken Golden, Presbytopia: What it means to be Presbyterian (repr.; Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2017), 122.

[25] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 782: “Clearly, these covenantal actions are not merely illustrations. Yet they are also not a magical transformation of earthly substances into divine substances. Rather they are performative actions that do what they say. In and through the act of consecrating bread and wine as his body and blood, Jesus hands himself over to death as the sacrifice for the sins of those who eat and drink in faith.”

[26] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove., IL: IVP, 1997, 203.

[27] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence and the Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper (ed. Linden J. DeBie, Mercersburg Theology Series, vol. 1, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 49.

[28] Calvin, Institutes, 2:1403-4.