A Few Thoughts on Bodily Presence

One of the big difficulties when it comes to disagreements between Lutherans and Reformed is that we don’t always agree on what our disagreements are. Take the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This is a generalization, but the view I hear most often from the Reformed perspective is that the Lutheran and Reformed views are actually pretty similar. We all agree that Christ is present in the Supper, we just disagree on how he is present–the mode in which Christ is there. Lutherans say he is present bodily, Reformed say he is not, but they do affirm that he is present spiritually (though exactly what “spiritually” means seems to differ fairly significantly from one person to the next.)

Lutherans, in contrast, tend to see that same gulf as being much wider–that these two views aren’t really that similar at all. That’s why we give our own doctrine a title that no doubt seems rather pretentious to other traditions: the Real Presence. Even the very name implies that in the Lutheran view, the Reformed don’t really┬áthink Christ is present in the Supper–that mere spiritual presence is some kind of fake presence.

In a way, this divergence shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Calvin tended to be a particularly abstract thinker, whereas Luther was generally more concrete–and the traditions they left behind seem to follow the same pattern much of the time. Neither one of those ways of thinking is necessarily better than the other (I tend more towards abstraction myself,) but they each have different strengths and weaknesses in different circumstances.

In the case of the Supper, the Reformed view (again, this is a generalization, but it is what I hear most often) begins with the abstract concept of “presence.” From there, it tries to determine the most sensible way of understanding that abstract concept. It considers the finite nature of bodies, the infinite nature of God, and so forth before concluding that a spiritual mode of presence is just more sensible than a bodily mode given the abstract concepts involved. So when they come to Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” they conclude that he’s speaking figuratively. And when Lutherans maintain a belief in bodily presence, its seen as a less sensible view, but it nevertheless fits within most of the same abstract structures.

Lutherans, however, don’t start with presence in any abstract sense. Rather, when we use the word presence, it’s usually just short-hand for Jesus’ words, “This is my body.” Those words were the famous beginning and ending of Luther’s conversation with Zwingli on the subject. Before any abstractions are brought to the table at all, everything begins with those simple words of Christ: “This is my body.” Anything else we offer is merely an attempt to describe that. So when Lutherans hear the Reformed say “Christ is present, but he’s not bodily present” what we hear is essentially, “This is my body, but it’s not bodily my body.” That, of course, is nonsense–if its not bodily his body, it’s not his body–which is why we affirm our doctrine using the term “Real” Presence in implied contrast to unreal presences.

So is it all just a matter of miscommunication? Am I suggesting some postmodern “it depends on your point-of-view” solution? Not at all. As a matter of fact, it all goes back to what I said about abstract & concrete thinking each having different strengths in different circumstances.

When you’re confronted with the mysteries of God–subjects in which the infinite encounters the finite in ways that you already know are beyond human comprehension–the last thing you want to do is let your philosophy dictate what Scripture is and is not allowed to say. When, for example, Scripture tells us that 1) Jesus Christ is God and 2) Jesus Christ is man, we don’t start figuring out what those statements “really” mean by forcing them into our own metaphysical standards of what’s possible or sensible when it comes to God becoming incarnate. We don’t try to make him some kind of part god/part human hybrid (Eutychianism). We don’t try to make him two distinct beings–one god and one man–each occupying the same space (Nestorianism). We simply accept that he is God in every sense of the word and that he is also man in every sense of the word. How does that work? We don’t really know. We can describe it–as we do in the creeds–but not really define it in terms of our own categories. And if we feel like speculating about the metaphysical mechanics, we always need to do so in a way that respects both of the two concrete realities we are presented with: Christ’s full divinity and Christ’s full humanity.

We should be taking the same approach to the Supper. The very word “sacrament” means mystery. When Christ tells us that this bread is his body, given for us for the forgiveness of sins, what business do we have trying to define the mechanics of that reality–especially determining what is and is not possible for God? The Lutheran view is a simple and concrete approach that’s analogous to the orthodox position on the two natures of Christ. Scripture tells us that it’s bread and wine. Scripture tells us that it’s Christ’s body and blood. Ergo, it is really and truly both. We have no need to try to define these two realities in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics the way Rome did–much less demand adherence to such a system. And if that leaves us unable to answer the question of “how can this be?” beyond pointing to the power of God’s promises, so be it. We don’t really need to answer it. But even in the midst of that ignorance, we nevertheless know that theologians err when they try to interpret those two realities in a way that effectively denies either truth, and we’re quite right to defend those truths against error.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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