Heidelberg 75: The Supper Is More Than A Memory (2)

Open Quote 5 lines75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ (Heidelberg Catechism)

In part 1 we considered one of the reasons that Christians have been frequently tempted to reduce the Lord’s Supper to merely a memorial. To be sure, all Christians confess a memorial aspect to the Supper. Our Lord did say, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). In the Heidelberg Catechism, as in the Belgic Confession, however, the Reformed Churches confess that the Supper, though a memorial, is more than that. It is also a supper, a meal. We are being fed. By what or by whom? Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10 is that the Supper is sacred, it is holy, it is a blessing for believers (and places unbelievers in jeopardy) because in it we are being fed, through the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, with the true body and blood of Christ.

Rome, of course, misses this by turning the Supper into a propitiatory (turning away wrath) memorial sacrifice. It is not that. It is a memorial of the once-for-all sacrifice that Christ made for us. When Jesus said, “It is finished” that was not a signal to begin offering memorial sacrifices. One of the great points of the book of Hebrews, written to Jewish Christians who were tempted to go back to the old covenant system of sacrifices and ceremonies, is that they all pointed to Christ. All the ceremonies and sacrifices are finished. In reaction to the Gnostics and other radical dualists, Rome over-stated the continuity between Christ and Moses.

In reaction, however, to Rome, Zwingli and many Reformed Christians influenced by his conception of the Supper, especially since the 19th century, have lost something of the mystery of the Supper. Many American evangelicals and Reformed Christians with whom I have spoken about the Supper think of it solely in funereal terms. It is an opportunity to grieve over their sins, to grieve over the reality that our sins sent Christ to the cross, and it is a time for repentance. I am confident that this is the principle reason why many Christians instinctively oppose more frequent communion. To be sure, they are also concerned that the Supper should be distinct from the Roman Mass but the most frequent objection I have heard and read for more than 25 years to more frequent communion (e.g., Calvin’s goal of weekly communion) is that were the Supper to be received weekly it would lose its significance. On the face of it, this objection is incoherent. Consider the argument structurally. “If we do x too often it will become rote and less significant.” Substitute “eat” for x. “If we eat too often….” or “If we breathe too often…” or “if we talk with friends too often…” or “if we hear sermons too often…” or “if we see baptisms too often…” It is difficult to find a relevant substitute in which this argument make sense. Thus, I understand this objection to be code for another, usually unstated objection. When Calvin calls us to observe the Supper weekly many evangelicals and Reformed folk hear him calling them to attend a funeral weekly. To quote Strother Martin, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” When Calvin called us to weekly communion he understood that it does involve a reckoning with our sins and with Christ’s death but the Supper is not law but gospel. It is not a funeral but a feast. When he wrote his Short Treatise (1541) he made clear his differences with both Zwingli and Luther. Arguably (following Tom Davis), Calvin continued to grow in his understanding of the Supper even after 1541. The Supper is a means of grace wherein the Holy Spirit lifts up believers to commune with Christ and to be fed by his true (“proper and natural” Belgic Confession art. 35) body and blood.

To eat the body of Christ spiritually is nothing else than to trust in spirit and heart upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ, that is, to be sure with unshaken faith that God is going to give us pardon for our sins and the joy of everlasting blessedness on account of His Son, who was made wholly ours, was offered for us, and reconciled the divine righteousness to us. For what can He refuse who gave His only begotten Son? (Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, ed. William John Hinke, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1922), 252.)

As he continued to explain, Zwingli used the adjective “spiritual” and the adverb “spiritually” repeatedly. What did he mean by them? It seems clear from context, from his usage, from the nature and logical flow of his explanation, that when Zwingli said “spiritually” he meant “figuratively” and also “psychologically.” Much of Zwingli’s later language about the Supper (he died in October 1531) was psychological, referring to the subjective, affective consequences of the Supper. In contrast, by 1541 Calvin had already made a clear break with Zwingli by focusing on the objective (apart from our subjective experience) gospel promises and the mysterious way in which Christ feeds us with his body and blood. In the Short and Clear Exposition Zwingli made it clear to what he was opposed: “our opponents contending that the sacraments give faith, and bring to us the natural body of Christ, causing it to be eaten in real presence” (Zwingli, ibid.,, 254).

Contrast what arguably Zwingli’s “highest” language regarding the Supper from his Short and Clear Exposition of the Christian Faith (1531) with the language of the Belgic Confession:

In the meantime we err not, when we say, that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body, and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same, is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith.

Next time: The exalted view of the Supper in Calvin, the Belgic, and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. A resounding bingo on funerals. The Dutch Reformed in these parts seem heavily influenced by pietism where the Supper takes a whole week to prepare for, which seems to be a dive inward and a sustained focus on self, etc. Who would want that every week (or ever, for that matter)? I’ve yet to hear any good argument against frequency. If the Supper really does what we confess it does, how does it make any sense to say, “But we’ll only partake of that and exercise the opportunity one (or fewer) out of the four times we meet”?

    One other objection I’ve heard from those who oppose frequency is that frequenters make too much out of the Supper, i.e. prone to something quasi-Roman. This is curious, since infrequenters are also often the ones to invoke this “frequency loses its significance” argument. But routine and regularity are actually good ways to keep this tendency at bay, while infrequency only seems to exacerbate an over-realization.

  2. “Funeral” is not inherent in the “memorial Zwinglian” view. If it were, then I doubt that Scott Clark would claim to be “also” memorialist. And then the example from Dutch Reformed practice shows that the “funeral” praxis is not something unique or even more true of “Zwinglians”.

    But you could accuse “the influence of Zwinglian pietism” for all that is now wrong in the Reformed churches. Wouldn’t that be something like us Zwinglians explaining that what goes wrong in our traditions is the fault of the “influence” of Reformed sacramentalism.

    The baptists, the Plymouth Brethren, the Mennonites I know tend to have a big focus on “until the Lord comes”. That adventist emphasis keeps their Lord’s Supper from being “funerals”. Their hope is not in their own individual deaths, but on the assembly (the gathering of Christ’s body) when the Lord comes back to earth.

    All that being said, I must say that the greater fault I see in “once a month” baptist times of communion is a LACK OF sober reflection on the meaning, the justice and the effective of Christ’s death. More reverence and more “Word” is needed. Buy I agree that this does not mean more “funeral”…

  3. I have an email from the Heidelblog as follows: “R. Scott Clark commented on Heidelberg 75: The Supper Is More Than A Memory (3).

    in response to John Rokos:

    Did Zwingli restrict the meaning of “Memorial” to just meaning a Memorial of His Death? Whereas Cornelius was still alive on earth when His prayers came up as a memorial before God. The Memorial meal is a memorial not only of His Death, but also of His Resurrection, His continued presence, and of His disciples […]

    http://heidelblog.net/2015/05/heidelberg-75-the-supper-is-more-than-a-memory-2/” …

    But neither my original comment not Dr Clark’s reply are anywhere to be seen above. What’s happened?

    • I do think, however, that Thomas A-Kempis’s point, that the believer does not receive the body and blood in any more real nor in any less real a sense in the Sacrament than he does in his everyday Christian life, needs to be explored.

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