The Case for the Spiritual Presence View of the Lord’s Supper

My goal is to provide a brief case for the “spiritual presence” view of the Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist or Communion. My own evangelical context seems to downplay the Supper and usually emphasize a memorial view (that the bread and wine are merely symbolic as a sign and seal), while the context of one of my significant theological interests (Roman Catholicism) is on the opposite side.

The spiritual presence view is generally associated with Calvin. The following quote serves as a summary of his view: “Our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ in the same way that bread and wine keep and sustain physical life. For the analogy of the sign applies only if souls find their nourishment in Christ—which cannot happen unless Christ truly grows into one with us, and refreshes us by the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood.” (Institutes, 4.17.10). Put simply, in the same way that the bread and wine nourish someone physically, the believer is nourished in a unique, spiritual, and real way.

Both Scripture and systematic theology provide useful arguments for this position, and I think the strongest case comes from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10–11.

First, in 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul asks, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (ESV). The verses that follow answer the objection that Paul anticipates from 8:4­–6, which is someone responding that “you just said idols weren’t real or significant, so are you now saying that they are real or spiritually powerful?” The answer is no—eating the food offered to idols makes you participants with demons. And you can’t have fellowship with both God and demons. Paul got to this response by using the Lord’s Supper as an analogy. He states that “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (10:20). “Participation” (10:16) and “participants” (10:20) are tied to same word family. If eating the idol-food means you are in spiritual participation with demons, eating the Supper means you are spiritually participating with Christ. God is spirit; demons are spiritual creatures. The demons analogy implies that Paul doesn’t envision a merely symbolic participation. The contrast is demonic fellowship and Supper-Spirit fellowship.

This section also introduces the centrality of the doctrine of union with Christ to this conversation. 10:17 (“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”) coming after the previous verse only makes sense if the Supper uniting us to one another happens because we are spiritually united to Christ, the Head of the church. Individual spiritual unity with Christ means we have objective fellowship and connection to one another. This fellowship in Christ, shared by all believers partaking in the Lord’s Supper, establishes our unity as his body, a theme on which Paul expounds in chapter 11.

In the second half of chapter 11 he returns to this subject and rebukes the Corinthians for their improper Eucharistic practices. In this chapter we see three other purposes of the Supper: remembrance of the gospel (11:24–25), proclamation of the gospel (11:26), and demonstration of the body’s unity (11:27–34). In 11:24 Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “This is my body”—one must do something or seek to understand “is,” even if that statement in its New Testament context can lend itself to various interpretations. In 11:27 Paul states that anyone who partakes “in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” This verse brings a definite seriousness to the sacrament, at the very least saying that one who acts that way is mocking Christ and sinning by disregarding the Cross. It’s a type of rejection that is like crucifying Jesus (if that language seems extreme, consider that in Hebrews 6:6 the author states that those who have “fallen away” are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt”).

Union with Christ brings us to another passage that frequently arises in a discussion on this subject, John 6. How can it not? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:53–54). But contrary to the Roman Catholic interpretation, these verses are better interpreted as referring to spiritual union with Christ, given the parallelism with 6:40, where Jesus says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” He had previously said that he is the “the bread of life” and that whoever comes to him “shall not hunger” and whoever believes in him “shall never thirst” (6:35).

Therefore, as D.A. Carson writes in his incredible commentary on the Gospel of John, 6:54 is “the metaphorical way of referring to [6:40]” (Carson, p. 297). This invitation to life in him, and union with God through him, underlies the whole passage, even the verses that are often interpreted in a more Eucharistic manner. Carson writes, “The language of vv. 53-54 is so completely unqualified that if its primary reference is to the eucharist we must conclude that the one thing necessary to eternal life is participation at the Lord’s table. This interpretation of course actually contradicts the earlier parts of the discourse, not least v. 40” (297).

John 6 is an invitation into life in Christ and occurs before the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper that occurs just prior to the Crucifixion. The Lord’s Supper does depict our union with Christ and strengthen us in faith, but the passage here is about the broader doctrine of union with Christ—and the Lord’s Supper is just one expression and aspect of this union. Otherwise, Jesus is saying those listening must wait on the Eucharist in the local church to take part in the invitation. But again, just because this passage isn’t specifically about the Lord’s Supper doesn’t mean that the sacrament is merely symbolic. A mere memorialism is a minority position among Protestants, and the Reformers were not trying to move away from the historic emphasis on the Eucharist. In fact, many Reformers felt that they were trying to recover a healthy practice of regularly taking both elements (since, for example, some Roman Catholic clergy did not want to “risk” spilling Christ’s blood). If I recall correctly, Calvin and others were big supporters of partaking of the elements at least weekly.

If the spiritual presence view seems odd compared to a symbolic view, we must also remember that we live in an age that rejects both traditional institutions and the material body. These are misguided intuitions and trajectories; we are physical people, and God nourishes us as we spiritually partake of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The meal is a mystery: “It is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare” (Institutes, 4.17.31–32). The Spirit’s mysterious work in strengthening us as we partake of Christ through faith fits with the general way we understand sanctification. The meal calls us into deeper participation in God through our union with Christ.

There are more arguments in favor of this Reformed position, but in conclusion for this post I want to provide this third quote from Calvin, as I think Christians can derive much joy from reflecting on the refreshing and nourishing aspects of the Lord’s Supper: “When bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden” (Institutes, 4.17.3).

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