Last Supper by 
Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret

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Copyright © March 13, 2012 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:26, 27.

Communion is one of several doctrinal teachings wherein the Reformers most conspicuously set themselves apart from the Roman Catholic Church following the Reformation. The other most important doctrines were infant baptism (which all the Reformers adamantly adhered to, but which was utterly opposed by the quasi-Reformed Anabaptists), and the chief doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law (which all the Reformers believed).

I intended this to be an extremely small article; one that merely presents the various ideas of the Reformers regarding this important subject. I have no intention here of condoning or of condemning any of these views, even though I will go so far as to say I believe John Calvin was closest to the truth. I do not believe that any one of these ideas, including the Roman Catholic one, should become a reason for separation amongst those, who in every other respect are god-fearing people desirous of walking in faith towards God.

In reality, there are four historical opinions as to what the Communion actually represents. The first is the Catholic view, which developed in late post-apostolic Christian circles, and was formalized during the medieval era. This has been, historically, the view of most of the Christian Church, and we can admit to that without having to agree that it is correct. This view is historically known as Trans-substantiation. Trans-substantiation is the teaching that the bread and wine of the Communion literally and physically become the body and blood of Christ every time we partake of it. Some modern Roman Catholics hem and haw on this interpretation of their doctrine, but they cannot refute this claim successfully on a historical reading of their own theologians. We don’t have time to go into a study of the details, but I would challenge everyone interested to simply study the authorities of the Roman Church, both ancient and modern. All you need is a computer, Google, and a little extra time.

All three Reformed doctrines are reactions to a greater or lesser degree to the Roman doctrine of Trans-substantiation. They are presented by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, and all of them hold substantial weight, despite their differences one from another. Before you excuse these ideas as useless ramblings about matters that merely divide the Church, remember that these matters meant enough to brethren before our times that many of them gave their lives to the flames rather than recant them. They must have seen some significance in this debate that many of us today pass over as inconsequential. These things were of great consequence for them and we owe it to them to at least try to understand why they were so adamant.

In studying the Church we must be reminded that all down through the history of the Roman Catholicism, there existed a multitude of reformers who challenged the hierarchy, and sincerely sought to bring the Church back to its New Testament roots. (Some were even popes!) Still, almost none of those reformers believed in completely separating themselves from the mother Church. One of the greatest of these was a man by the name of Jacques Lefevre in France just prior to the Reformation in Germany. Like Martin Luther he arrived at a conviction of justification by faith from Romans 1:17. These two men were in the same time frame, yet neither substantially influenced the other’s doctrine. This was the work of God in that generation. While Lefevre never dissociated himself from the Catholic “mother” church, Luther eventually broke away. German Lutherans were the first group to which the term Protestant was applied.

Besides the major shift presented by Protestant Luther in the doctrine of justification by faith, there were also other theological challenges put up against Romanism, not the least of which was Luther’s teachings on the nature of the Communion. Luther’s theology never changed overwhelmingly from that of Rome, but it was shifted just enough for him to justify his break with the “mother” Church. His argument was based upon ecclesiastical (Church membership) matters, not soteriological (salvational) ones. Luther’s problem had to do with membership in the Church. Since the Church of Rome viewed him as a heretic and had excommunicated him, he had to show reason why he believed that, despite their denunciations, he was still a Christian.

Romanism taught that membership in the Church was universal and visible, and that all who would not abide by the teachings of the visible Church embodied in Rome and submitted to the popes were, in essence, heretics and not Christians. Of course, this perfectly described Luther and his followers. To combat this challenge, Luther proclaimed a doctrine of a universal and invisible Church, representing all believers, living and dead, and headed up by Christ. The invisible Church is the body of Christ, in Lutheran theology, and the Communion is a participation in the literal, though spiritually realized, body and blood of Christ. This is the Lutheran doctrine of Con-substantiation. Under Romanism, the believer partakes of substances that literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ. Under Luther, the believer partakes of substances that literally conform him into the body of Christ. I may be misinterpreting this as a layman, but I think I am very close to the truth of these distinctions. If I am wrong I plead ignorance as any good formerly Norwegian Lutheran descendant would (which I am). We were never taught much in catechism! (I never actually went through confirmation either. Tsk, tsk!)

As a reaction to both of these attempts at self-justifying theology, Ulrich Zwingli, the German speaking theologian of Switzerland, taught that the Communion was a memorial service in celebration of the death of Christ on the behalf of believers. This is the prevailing view of most American fundamentalist Churches. It does away with all the mystical mumbo-jumbo in one fell swoop, reminding us that, Yes! We are saved by faith alone, and that, not even based upon our relationship to a Church, either in this life or the next. We remember with great humility and affection, every time we partake of the elements, that Jesus died for us, and not we for ourselves. God’s grace is sufficient to save us alone; not our reliance on the Church, here there, or anywhere. I am not saved because I profess belief in the saving efficacy of the Church, the mystical body of Christ. I am saved because I realize that I am a sinner redeemed entirely by the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Certainly, in this, Zwingli brought our understanding of the true nature of the Communion back to its original ground: That Christ died for sinners, of whom I am chief. There is no way to minimize the value of what Zwingli recognized as the foundational substance for a proper interpretation of the Communion. This point, as opposed to both Roman and Lutheran doctrine, brings us closest to New Testament sentiment, if not its theology.

Still, there remains a problem not quite addressed by Zwingli. His answer was one based solely on soteriology – on salvation theology. It pushes the very valuable conclusions of both Roman and Lutheran thought regarding the sociology of the Church under the table, hoping they will go away. It fails to recognize that the Communion is a communion; a fellowship of likeminded believers who have a common purpose. This idea is latent in both the Roman and the Lutheran approach. Zwinglianism opened the door to a sort of individualism before the cross that no longer demanded believers to depend upon one another as intimate parts of the same body of Christ. This is the greatest failure of modern Christianity: its resort to Zwingli. We fail to understand ourselves as a community of believers and instead we exalt our individuality as if we really had no need for the rest of the community of the faithful.

John Calvin comes closest to challenging the errors of all three of these camps. Certainly, even Calvin had his failures, but here I think he may have understood some things that others were missing. In the Communion, at least as far as my understanding of Calvin goes (having read only parts of Institutes), we experience a literal and actual fellowship with Christ, Who is the Head of the Church, and with His body, the believers in Christ. We participate together, not merely in a memorial celebration pointing back to our own salvation. We also engage in a ritualized form of community with the whole body of believers, particularly with those alive and a part of the Christian community we are joined to in faithful commitment right now. In Communion, we literally and actually partake as a community in the fellowship of Christ as our head. The “we” in that sentence is the most important part. A Christian life apart from the fellowship of other believers is something totally foreign to New Testament theology.

(On the subject of ritual do not stumble either. The Old Testament was filled with rituals, and Jesus minimized them to a few things which all but the most stubborn have refused to acknowledge: baptism and communion, and possibly foot-washing and some others depending on your denominational considerations.)

Up to this point I have bored you with nothing more important than a history lesson with some theology thrown in for spice. Before closing this discussion I think it is imperative to go back to the New Testament and see what Paul says about the real nature of the Communion. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 the following:

Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.

Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.

This passage very clearly sets forth two very distinct, yet inter-related concepts. First, it is clear that Paul does view the Communion as a memorial service, (verses 25, 26) as Zwingli pointed out. The Communion is an opportunity for us to examine our lives individually, since we all stand or fall in the Judgment of God based upon our own lives.

Still, and even more prominently, Paul makes clear that this is a holy ritual instituted by Christ for the very purpose of fellowship in His sufferings and accomplishments on our behalf. If we neglect the fellowship and serve our individual selfish goals, we stand ready under the judgment of God despite our individual determinations to serve God. Unwittingly, many of the Corinthians, and probably many in our own day, have suffered weakness, sickness, and even premature death because they (and we) failed to discern the importance of the Lord’s body, His Beloved Church, in this memorial. We are admonished by Paul to wait on one another. In other places he tells us to consider others ahead of ourselves.

The point is clear from 1 Cor 11 that Communion is not about what kind of Church you are a part of; not a mystical, or spiritual apotheosis of our theology, nor even a mere memorial service like a funeral conducted for Christ in perpetuity. It is, instead, a recognition that what Jesus did for one (individual) He did for all. His death and resurrection united us all as one glorious body of believers dedicated to Him as our Head, and to all other believers just as intimately as we are to Him. When we fail to realize the wonder, the glory of our unity in Christ as His body, we fail to realize Him.

There is a reason why the celebration of the bread and cup has come to be called Communion. We are One in the Spirit of God. One Bread. One Body. One Flesh! When one member suffers we all suffer together. Only by a proper understanding of the nature of the Communion “ritual” instituted by our Lord Himself do we have any real grasp on what God is doing in His Church. When one member suffers, or rejoices, all members rejoice together, for in reality, we are One in Christ. Our Communion around the bread and cup is proof.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


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