Heidelberg 75: The Supper Is More Than A Memory (1)

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 the 9th century Paschasius Radbertus (c.790–c.860), a Benedictine monk, wrote perhaps the fist monograph on the Lord’s Supper, On The Body and Blood of the Lord (De corpore et sanguine Domini; 831–33; rev. 844) where he first proposed that the substance of the bread and the wine miraculously becomes the true (i.e., the literal) body and blood of Christ. This claim engendered a heated debate. Ratramnus (d. c. 868) replied, in a work of the same title, by arguing that the bread and wine are only figuratively the body and blood but the “true” (i.e., the literal) body and blood of Christ are seated at the right hand of the Father and that believers are fed by them, by the operation of the Spirit, by faith.

Radbertus did not use the term “transubstantiation” but arguably he was the first to make this argument or something quite like it. In this way the 9th century was a turning point in the history and doctrine of the W. church. Nevertheless, as I’ve noted many times in this space, both Radbertus and Ratramnus agreed that there were only two sacraments, holy baptism and holy communion. The sacramental system that we know in the Roman communion was a 13th century development that was only ratified in the 16th century. When the Protestants rejected the Roman sacramental system, they were not rejecting ancient Christian practice but novelty. The great problem with Radbertus’ understanding of the Lord’s Supper was, according to Ratramnus, he conflated the thing signified (res significata) with its sign and seal (sacrament). In this way, though attempting to strengthen our understanding of the sacrament, Radbertus unintentionally destroyed the sacrament logically. If the sign becomes the thing, then it is no longer a sign and it is of the essence of a sacrament to be a sign and not the thing signified. Radbertus also criticized Ratramnus’ abuse of the distinction between substance and accidents. Radbertus wanted us to think that the substance of the supper was transformed into something else, namely, into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. He also wanted us to think that this was so even though the appearance of the bread and wine remained (the accidents).

This was, in effect, a Gnostic argument. It said, in effect, that our sense experience of the bread and wine was a lie, that those the elements only seemed to remain, after consecration, bread and wine. Here we also see the enchantment of the physical world. Christian theology was turning toward magic in place of providence. The ordinary, the secular (as distinct from the sacred) was deemed unclean and insufficient for divine purposes. This trend would only intensify through the 13th century and would only be stopped and reversed by the Reformation. The Reformed argued that creation was intrinsically good, if fallen, that grace does not perfect nature (contra Thomas) but rather restores fallen human nature in regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. The secular, they argued (following Luther), is not intrinsically evil or inferior. Instead, following Luther, they taught a doctrine of vocation and the priesthood of every believer. It is not just monks and priests who have a vocation in this world. Every Christian has a vocation (a calling) from God to love God and neighbor to rest on Christ’s good works for us and imputed to us, through faith alone (sola fide), by grace alone (sola gratia), and to give our good works to our neighbor (who needs them) for God’s glory alone (soli Deo gloria). The Reformation saved the common, the natural, and the goodness of creation despite the fall from a baptized version of Gnostic dualism. Tragically, a variety of ways, this dualism has remerged and, since the 19th century, become so influential among evangelicals that the classical Reformed view seems virtually unknown in our day.

It is against this background, however, that we must interpret the catechism’s language about the Lord’s Supper or holy communion. Holy is distinct from common. It is set apart. It is not that a common meal is unclean but rather the difference is between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Something happens in holy communion that does not happen in an ordinary, secular meal. Communion is sacred. Promises are attached to it that are not attached to “our daily bread” (for which we nevertheless rightly give thanks). In our daily bread the Lord has not promised to feed us on his true, “proper and natural” (Belgic Confession art. 35) body and blood but he has so promised to do so through the Holy Supper.

We have no promise in Scripture that the bread and wine become anything more than bread and wine. There is no clear teaching in the church, prior to the 9th century, that, in communion, the bread and wine become anything other than bread and wine. Even then, Radbertus’ revolutionary doctrine was hotly and effectively contested by Ratramnus. We certainly find no biblical teaching or even any ancient Christian teaching to support the idea that ministers are priests and what they offer is memorial, propitiatory sacrifice of our Lord’s body and blood (Trent). We rightly reject this as blasphemous assault on the finished work of Christ and a desecration of the Holy Supper.

Against Rome and against the Zwinglians we say that the Supper is more than a memory. It is a sacred meal, a holy communion in which, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, our Lord feeds believers on nothing less than the true body and blood of Christ.

Next time: Why Memories Are Not Enough.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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