Question: Describe/summarize briefly the main views of the Eucharist (aka Mass, Lord ’s Supper, Communion). Defend why a particular interpretation explains best what Jesus meant when he said: “this is my body.” Is this an issue that churches should “split” over?
A sacrament is an act or visible sign by which God offers his promise of grace (McGrath, 415). Jesus instituted, or ordained, two sacraments for the church. One is baptism and the other is the Eucharist. The Eucharist also is known as Mass, Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. For the purpose of continuity this sacrament will be referred to as the Eucharist.
Throughout church history there have been many interpretations or views of the Eucharist. The primary difference centers on what Jesus meant when he said “this is my body” (Matt. 26.26). The debate is over the nature of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (415). The three major views are: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and memorialism or transignification.
The Roman Catholic Church holds the transubstantiation view. This view represents the consolidation and development of the views of Paschasius Radbertus that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ after their consecration (417). This theory states that although the physical appearance, or species, is unchanged while the substance, or essential nature, changes into the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the moment of consecration (471). This change in substance is the miraculous transformation into the actual body and blood of Christ.
This approach was criticized by the German Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Luther’s view was referred to as consubstantiation. This view holds that the no change or transformation is necessary since there is a simultaneous presence of the both the bread and the body of Christ at the same time (419). Luther held that Christ was really present at the Eucharist and that transubstantiation was an absurd attempt to rationalize how he was present (420).
Whereas these first two views differed on how the real presence of Christ occurs in the Eucharist, the third view focused on the symbolic meaning of “this is my body” (420). Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant reformer, developed the theory of transignification (420). Transubstantiation and consubstantiation represented a real sacrifice of the body but transignification (or “the Remembrance”) is a memorial to the sufferings and sacrifice of Christ. Zwingli denied a literal interpretation of “this is my body” which turned the real presence issue into a real absence. He taught that Matthew 26 is to be taken metaphorically or figuratively in such a way that the “this” represents the body that Christ would offer up as a sacrifice (420). Therefore, Christ is teaching his followers to take the bread and wine as a way to remember and memorialize Jesus’ sacrificial death for believers. For Zwingli there was no need to explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist because there was no real presence represented.
The “Remembrance” or transignification view is the best view of what Jesus meant by “this is my body” (Matt. 26.6). Jesus, who was literally present, took bread and instructed the disciples to partake of it as a remembrance of his bodily sacrifice for them (Luke 22.19). Paul teaches that each time believers partake of the bread and the wine they, through an act of remembrance, are proclaiming the Lord’s sacrificially death (1 Cor. 11.24-26). This action is a proclamation of the act of Christ on our behalf not a re-sacrifice of his literal body and blood.
Churches should not “split” over this issue because the members must be in unity on their view of the sacrament. Questions about this should be taken as an opportunity to build the spiritual maturity and fellowship of the body and should not be allowed to become a source of division.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5th Edition. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.