“Again, I’m not making like any grand statements. I’m just saying that some of this stuff I didn’t know. I didn’t know that for the first 1500 years of church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ. And it wasn’t til 500 years ago that someone popularized the thought that it’s just a symbol and nothing more. I didn’t know that.
…It was at that same time that, for the first time, someone put a pulpit in the front of the gathering. Because before that there was always the body and blood of Christ that was central to their gatherings.”
What Chan Does Not Know
I did not know that either and after teaching church history since 1995, I still do not know it. That is because what Chan thinks that he has learned is not true.
We have a reasonably good idea of what the early second-century church did during worship but we do not know anything about the furnishings of their gatherings. Chan’s statement about the pulpit is simply historical nonsense. Church architecture developed during the Middle Ages and the cruciform buildings with a central altar, which Chan is invoking here, were medieval developments.
When Chan says “literal body and blood” he seems to be implying that the ancient and medieval church taught transubstantiation until the Reformation. This is not true. Transubstantiation is a ninth century doctrine and it was hotly contested then. It did not become Roman dogma until the late 13th century.
The Reformation marked a recovery of the centrality of preaching in Christian worship but it was a recovery. For that we have nothing of which to be ashamed. Paul did not even baptize everywhere he went but he did preach everywhere he went.
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:14–17; ESV).
It is reasonable to think (as I do) that the early church observed holy communion every week but we do not know exactly how it was administered. We do not even know that there was a table involved. Church buildings did not become widespread until after the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century. We know with certainty that there was a vital preaching ministry in the ancient church that was gradually marginalized in favor of the drama of the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ.
Exactly where the pulpit is situated is adiaphora (morally indifferent) but, when we could, the Reformed churches placed the pulpit at the center of the church because the Word of God is central to public worship. In many of the churches the Reformers inherited, the pulpits were actually located to the side. Chan seems to be reading the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments into the Reformation.
As to doctrine of the Supper itself, there was some debate during the Reformation about what the view was (or better, views were) regarding the Supper in the early church. According to Pierre Fraenkel’s Testimonia Patrum: The Function of the Patristic Argument in the Theology of Philip Melanchthon (1961), Luther commissioned Melanchthon to justify his doctrine of the Supper from the Fathers. Philip complied but when he read Johannes Oecolampadius’ survey of the fathers, demonstrating that there were fathers who held to a symbolic view, he changed his position.
In fact, the passages to which the Romanists appeal, in Irenaeus (c. 170) for example, to justify their claims do not work at all. He knew nothing about transubstantiation. He knew nothing about a Eucharistic sacrifice.
The villain in this part of Chan’s (new?) narrative and enthusiasm is Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531). I wish I could report that Chan is completely wrong here too, but I may not. For Zwingli, even in his very last treatises on the Supper, communion was at most an intense psychological-emotional memorial experience. In Zwingli’s view, there was no sense in which the Supper is a meal in which Christ feeds us with himself. It is true that most American evangelicals are functional Zwinglians. It is true that many American Presbyterians became Zwinglians in the 19th century. It is also true, however, that there is an alternative.
John Calvin (1509–1564) and Theodore Beza (1519–1605) did not follow Zwingli. Indeed, his successor as the chief preacher in Zürich, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) moved away from Zwingli so that in 1549, 18 years after Zwingli’s death, he was able to sign the Zürich Agreement (Consensus Tigurinus) with Calvin, even though Calvin had to make concessions to do it and even though it would permanently rupture Calvin’s relations with the Lutherans.
Calvin taught that, in the Supper, believers are fed by the body and blood of Christ through faith, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. Beza taught a variation of this view (see Jill Raitt’s work on Beza’s view of the Supper). All Christians have always remembered the active, obedient suffering of our Lord. For the Calvinists, however, there is much more happening in the Supper than merely remembering.
There have been different ways of speaking about communion. In the 9th century, Radbertus argued for what became the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ratramnus, his opponent, argued that “this is my body” (Luke 22:19) was figurative language. By figurative he did not mean to say that the Supper is a mere memorial but he was trying preserve the Supper. If the elements of communion become the literal body and blood, as Radbertus argued, then we lose the sacrament. The sign has become the thing. We also, paradoxically, lose what we hoped to receive: Christ. Since, if Christ is received through faith only (as Ratramnus argued), and if the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ, then we do not need faith to receive Christ. Remember, it was Augustine and not Zwingli who said, “Why make ready teeth and stomach? Believe and you have already eaten.” It was Augustine (Tractate, 25).
In the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, the Lutherans settled on the prepositions “in,” “with,” and “under” to describe their view. Generally one finds Lutherans talking about the “real presence” and Calvinists talking about the “true presence.” To my knowledge Calvin used the expression “real presence” once in his body of work. The Reformed confessions use the adjective true. It is the Romanists who confessed, in the Council of Trent (1562), and again in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), that at consecration the elements of bread and wine are transformed (transubstantiated) into the literal body and blood of Christ.
The Reformed theologians and churches did not develop their view of the Supper de novo. They sought to appropriate pre-Reformation understandings of worship and communion. Unlike Chan, Calvin and Oecolampadius (who was in the Zürich orbit), Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Martin Bucer were all students of the pre-Reformation church.
Chan’s new enthusiasm is not new. His outburst is the sort of thing that too often happens when American evangelicals discover there was a church before the 19th century. They assume too many things. They do not read the sources or if they do they do not read them in context. I have been reading and teaching Patristic church history and theology for a couple of decades and I am learning continuously about the background and context the many contexts in which the ancient church developed and grew. I have also learned to read critically the secondary literature on Patristics. To read critically does not mean “negatively.” It is the opposite of naively. People tell stories about the ancient church in their own context. Most of us have a lot invested in how the story of the ancient church is told and so it can be difficult to disentangle ourselves from the history. Further, some approaches make it a golden age. Others are flatly anachronistic, reading the present into the past.
Some evangelical traditions more or less ignore church history. They are perhaps the most vulnerable to anachronistic stories about the ancient church. Chan’s rhetoric about who held to a “literal” view of the supper and when suggests that he belongs to that group of evangelicals who have not seriously engaged with the past but who have a platform by which to spread their new, not well informed, enthusiasm. The good news is that another evangelical is reaching out and touching, to borrow the language of an old AT&T commercial, Ireneaus et al. We should all do that but we should do it well, carefully, contextually and not naively—taking as gospel truth whatever we just read in a secondary (or tertiary) textbook.
“The Proper And Natural Body And Blood”
There is an alternative to transubstantiation, “in, with, and under,” and mere memorialism. In Belgic Confession (1561) art. 35 the Reformed Churches confess:
Now it is certain that Jesus Christ did not prescribe his sacraments for us in vain, since he works in us all he represents by these holy signs, although the manner in which he does it goes beyond our understanding and is incomprehensible to us, just as the operation of God’s Spirit is hidden and incomprehensible.
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.1
In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven—but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.
We are not Zwinglians. We confess what some would call a “high Calvinist” view of holy communion. In our debate with the Lutherans, as distinct from the debate between Zürich and Wittenberg, we always agreed with them that we are fed by the body and blood of Christ. The phrase, “Proper and natural body” is quite clear. It is also quite forceful. Indeed, it is remarkable. We confess that “proper” means “that which belongs to something.” In other words, we confess that the Holy Spirit feeds us what Christ’s actual body. How that can be is a mystery that we do not seek to explain. To borrow a phrase, it is better to adore than explore at this point. Nether need we explain how God can be one in three persons or how Christ is one person with two natures. For that matter, we cannot explain how God is just and yet providentially sovereign over all things. No one else can explain them either, however, so we are in good company.
There are alternatives to the reigning Evangelical Zwinglianism, against which Chan seems to be reacting, and Rome, toward which he seems to be headed. I doubt that Chan reads the Heidelblog but if he does or, as seems more likely, if you, gentle reader, are experiencing a similar sort of reaction, please consider Geneva before you swim the Tiber. There is an alternative. It is in the Belgic Confession. It is in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), in 75–80. There is an alternative in Calvin’s marvelous Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.
1. The Latin text, commissioned by the Synod of Dort, capitalizes the S in Spirit and I have followed it here.