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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Hezekiah Harvey

From the book, The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances, 1879

This ordinance, which commemorates the dying love of Christ, has been for ages the centre of fierce theological conflict. In the Roman Church many a martyr perished for his temerity in opposing the papal dogma, and among the Reformers it proved the chief occasion of division and strife. These controversies relate chiefly to the question how, or in what manner, Christ is present in the Supper; in respect to which the Christian world is divided by four different theories.


Many of the Fathers used language which implied a supernatural presence of Christ in the Supper, but none of them conceived of an actual change of the bread and wine into his flesh and blood. This was first taught, in formulated statement, by Paschasius Radbert, in the ninth century, who held that after the words of consecration are uttered there remains only the appearance of bread and wine: the actual substance is the body and blood of Christ.

After three centuries of conflict this was proclaimed a dogma in the Roman Catholic Church by the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215, and in the sixteenth century it was reaffirmed with more ample statement and higher solemnity by the Council of Trent.

The doctrine, as thus stated, involves the following points:

1. That when the words of consecration are uttered by the priest, the bread and wine are instantly changed into the real body and real blood of Christ just as they actually existed on the cross. The properties of bread and wine, indeed, remain, such as color, form, and taste, but the substance is wholly changed.

2. That, as the body and spirit of Christ cannot be separated, it follows that not the body and blood only, but also the soul and divinity, the whole Christ is contained in the elements thus changed, and is contained in each separate particle of them.

3. That the Lord's Supper, or mass, is a true and proper sacrifice to God, the priest therein offering the real body, soul, and divinity—the whole Christ as he was offered up on the cross; it is, therefore, a real propitiation for sin and a means of securing God's favor.

4. That the elements, having thus become the true and real Christ, are to be worshipped and adored with the adoration and worship offered to God.

5. That, as the whole Christ is in each separate particle of the elements, the communicant receives in the bread or wafer, not the body only, but also the blood, of the Lord; and, as in the universal administration of the cup there is special danger of spilling the blood, the cup is to be withheld from the laity and given only to the clergy.

This miracle, which at the word of a mere man trans-mutes a wafer into God and makes the eucharist a perpetual repetition of the sacrifice of the cross, is affirmed chiefly from two passages.

1. The words of Christ (John 6:53): "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you." In this, however, a reference to the Lord's Supper is plainly inadmissible. For when Christ spoke these words, that ordinance had not been instituted. If they relate to it, the Old Testament saints and all who have died without the Supper have perished. The with-holding of the ordinance from infants would be, in this case, fatal to their salvation. This literal interpretation of the passage, moreover, is condemned by Christ in verse 63: "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." Whatever; therefore, be the meaning of these words, plainly they do not relate to the Supper.

2. The words used by Christ at the institution of the sacrament: "This is my body," "This is my blood." It is affirmed that these words are to be literally construed, and that with such construction they necessarily teach that the sacred elements are the true body and blood of Christ. But we deny the necessity of a literal construction. For the verb “to be” in all languages has a common meaning to signify, to represent, and in the New Testament; this usage is frequent. Thus it is said: "I am the door;" "That rock was Christ;" "The seven candlesticks are the seven churches." In these passages, and in many others, the verb clearly means to signify or represent; and if in these, why not also in the words relating to the Supper? Indeed, the most imperative reasons require this interpretation. For,

(1) Christ, when he uttered these words, was sitting at the table with his disciples in his own proper body, and it is impossible that they could have understood him literally.

(2) The bread, after the words of consecration, and at the time of eating, is still called bread, I Cor. 10:17: "We are all partakers of that one bread;" 11:26, 27: "As often as ye eat this bread,"—thus clearly showing that no such change had occurred.

(3) The literal construction is opposed to the plain testimony of the senses, which perceive in the elements only bread and wine; and if we reject the testimony of the senses, the foundation of all knowledge is destroyed, not on this subject alone, but on all subjects.

(4) It necessitates also the monstrous consequences that man has power to transmute bread and wine into God—a supposition not less impious than absurd; that the sacred elements or host, being thus the divine Christ, ought to be worshipped and adored, which is idolatry; and that the priest in every celebration of the mass offers a true and real sacrifice to God, whereas the Scriptures, in language emphatic and unmistakable, represent the one offering of Christ on the cross as complete and final.

Finally, the withholding of the cup from the laity is opposed to the apostolic example and the uniform practice of the early churches; for the whole church, and not the clergy only, are represented as partaking of the wine. The apostles (1 Cor. 10, 11) never separated the elements as if the bread were common, but the wine appropriated to the clergy.

It is evident, therefore, that the dogma of transubstantiation has no basis either in Scripture or reason, and can be accepted only by those who place the so-called author

of the church above both.


At the Reformation, Luther denied transubstantiation, bat insisted on the real and corporeal presence of Christ in the Supper. He taught that "in, with, and under the consecrated bread and wine the true and essential body and blood of Christ are imparted to the communicant, and are received by him, though in a manner inexplicable by us and altogether mysterious."

Zwingle, the Swiss Reformer, on the other hand, asserted that the sacred elements simply represent as symbols the body and blood of Christ. The struggle between the German and the Swiss theologians on this point was long and bitter, during which the moral power of the Reformation was seriously weakened.

The Lutheran doctrine, as finally evolved, may be thus stated:

1. The bread and wine remain bread and wine after the words of consecration, but the real body and blood of Christ are mystically united with them; so that the communicant receives, in a corporeal sense, the actual body and blood of Christ in, under, and with the elements.

2. As a logical sequence, Christ's glorified body either is ubiquitous by the communication of divine omnipresence to it, or is, by divine power, especially present at each celebration of the sacrament; the former was Luther's view, the latter is the more common view of the Lutheran Church.

3. In partaking, the worthy and the unworthy alike receive the real body and blood of Christ, but with opposite effect. The worthy receive them unto salvation, the unworthy to condemnation.


Calvin proposed a middle ground between the Lutheran and Zwinglian positions, hoping thus to reconcile the opposing parties. He denied the presence of Christ in the Supper in any corporeal sense, but insisted that he is dynamically present—that is, as the sun is in heaven, but its light and heat are on earth, so the glorified body of Christ is in heaven, but special divine influences radiate from it upon the believing soul while partaking of the sacrament.

His words are:

"Our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ, just as our bodily life is nourished by bread and wine. The analogy of the signs would not hold unless our souls find their sustenance in Christ, which cannot be the case if Christ does not actually coalesce into one with us and support us through his flesh and blood. And although it seems incredible that, the places being so distant, the flesh of Christ should penetrate to us so as to be our food, let us remember how much the secret power of the Spirit transcends our senses, and how foolish it is to measure his immensity by our standard."

And in his treatise on the Lord's Supper he adds: "We all, then, confess with one mouth that, on receiving the sacrament in faith according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ." His teaching plainly is that the believer, in partaking of the Supper, partakes, in a true and real sense, of the human nature of Christ.

Now, it is evident that the real presence in the Supper, whether conceived as corporeal or spiritual, must ultimately rest on a literal interpretation of the words of institution, the objections to which I have already stated. Here Luther and Calvin were less consistent than the Roman Catholics; for while the former accepts and the latter denies the literal construction, both, by labored refinements, explain away the simple, natural sense, and exhibit the vagueness and incoherence necessarily consequent on a forced construction of plain language.

For when Christ says, "This is my body," he either means literally that it is his body, or figuratively that it represents his body; there is, and can be, no intermediate sense. If the body and blood of Christ are in any sense in the elements, they are there corporeally, because only thus do flesh and blood exist; and the bread and wine, therefore, which the senses perceive, must, on this hypothesis, be transmuted, as the Roman Catholic affirms, into the body and blood of Christ. If the literal construction be adopted, all attempts to evade transubstantiation are a violation of the plain laws of language.


The bread and wine are symbols divinely appointed to represent the body and blood of Christ, through which symbols the sacrifice of Christ is vividly presented to the mind, and by partaking of which the believer expresses, in an outward and significant act, his faith in that sacrifice.

The Supper is thus at once a symbol, setting forth this central, vital fact more distinctly than is possible in language, and a significant act, declaring the partaker's personal reliance on this fact as the ground of his salvation. Christ is present in the ordinance, as, according to his promise, he is always present in his truth; but, as truth finds its clearest and strongest expression in the symbol, he is present in the Supper in a more marked manner than in the word; for as, in the Supper, the believing soul more clearly apprehends Christ and more fully yields itself to him, so in it Christ more clearly manifests himself to the soul and more fully communicates to it of the fulness of his life.

No logical standpoint can be found between transubstantiation and this symbolic view. For, as we have seen, when Christ said, "This is my body," he either affirmed a literal, physical fact, as the Romanist claims, or he affirmed a symbolic fact: "This represents my body." Any other than the symbolic interpretation involves not only an unnatural construction of the words, but also an element of mystery, if not of superstition, most injurious in its tendency.

If, then, we regard the Lord's Supper as symbolic, what is its significance?

1. It symbolizes the death of Christ. The bread broken and the wine poured forth represent the body and blood of Christ as offered up an atonement for sin. It is a vivid symbolization of the atoning sacrifice offered on the cross. "For, as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come."

2. It is a personal profession. The partaker declares by eating of that bread and drinking of that cup his personal reliance on Christ's sacrifice as the only ground of his acceptance with God, and the only means of spiritual, eternal life. As the Hebrew, in partaking of the sacrifices offered on the altar, professed his faith in the truths those sacrifices symbolized, so the Christian, in partaking of the consecrated bread and wine, professes his faith in the truths symbolized by that sacrament.

In this sense (as the apostle clearly shows, 1 Cor. 10:14-22) "the cup of blessing which we bless " is "the communion of the blood of Christ," and "the bread which we break" is "the communion of the body of Christ;" for it is the personal avowal by the partaker of reliance on him whose body was broken and blood shed for sin.

3. It is an act of grateful commemoration—a service done in remembrance of Christ's compassion in suffering and dying for us. He said: "This do in remembrance of me." As we look on the face of a departed friend which art has preserved, and handle afresh the tokens of affection he left behind, and recall in memory his words and acts of love, till it seems almost as if the dead were present and the familiar voice were sounding in the ear, so in the Supper the Saviour is " set forth evidently crucified among us;" and as we look on the symbols of his dying love we gratefully adore him as dying for us.

4.  It is a symbol of church-fellowship. When a man eats of that "one bread" and drinks of that "one cup," he in this act professes himself a member of that "one body "in hearty, holy sympathy with its doctrines and life, and freely and fully subjecting himself to its watch-care and government (1 Cor. 10: 17). Hence, in 1 Cor. 5:11, the church is forbidden to eat (in the Lord's Supper, as the context clearly shows) with immoral persons, thus distinctly making the ordinance a symbol of church-fellowship.

5.  The Supper is prophetic: it is a type of the marriage-supper of the Lamb in heaven. Jesus said, when instituting it: "I will not drink hereafter of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom " (Matt. 26:29). His eye glanced down the ages of sorrow and oppression and blood through which his church should pass to the day of final triumph, when all his disciples, of every age and clime and people, shall gather in one body before his throne, exulting in his presence, to be forever with their Lord.

As we now gather at the table, therefore, not only do we look backward to the agony of his cross and the crown of thorns he once wore, but also forward to his throne of triumph and the "many crowns" which shall deck his brow there. And as we have fellowship with his sufferings and death here, we exultingly hope that we shall there be sharers of his blessedness and life.

Such is the import of the Lord's Supper. It is a striking and beautiful symbol of Christ's death for the soul, and is a solemn, personal profession, by the soul, of faith in his death as the ground of salvation. And through all the ages "till he comes "this ordinance is the Heaven-appointed symbol to express before men that divine fact and that high profession.